Archive for August, 2009

NOMA and cognitive dissonance

23 August 2009 Comments off

Charles Darwin is demonised by many religious people for his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, and for contributing to the discovery that all life on earth is essentially a huge family tree and subject to natural selection — concepts that have stood the test of time and been confirmed with DNA analysis. Theists who consider it their “duty” to conduct ad hominem attacks on those who threaten their fragile worldview are often unaware that this knowledge created a dilemma for Darwin himself, particularly as even while on his historic journey on the Beagle (1831-1836) he was a religious man studying to become a church minister who saw adaptation of the species as proof of God’s design. But to him the truth was more important than wishful thinking.

My suspicion is that those who vilify Darwin not only have never read a single word he wrote, nor understand the magnitude and relevance of what that work has given us, but assume that it was his life’s ambition to be an iconoclast. While in a sane world such patently ignorant people would not rise to the surface and require scraping off, our world is one of vox populi, inadequate or ideologically-manipulated education, idealised and politically-aligned news and media, and what much of the service industry call “80/20 people”: 20% of people cause you 80% of the grief. The vocal minority.

The late biologist, historian and science populariser, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) which referred to his philosophy on science and religion, developed during his many dealings with Young Earth Creationists of which he says:

Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history — a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

Young Earth Creationism is clearly the lunatic fringe by anyone’s rational measure, but there are other forms of Creationism that can’t be dismissed as easily, so tend to fall into the same category as whether there is a god(s).

Gould’s view was that religion and science are two realms that are logical and ethically unable to comment on one another, in the same way that a food chemist is unqualified to comment on matters of architecture. It seems to be a form of cognitive dissonance, separating faith from the world around us in a positive context. The inference being that it’s possible to believe in a god and be a scientist, and never have the two concepts collide in your own head.

I have a good friend who is a PhD scientist and a devout Wiccan: cognitive dissonance and NOMA allow both of those things to exist in her head without clashing. Of course I hope she understands what I’m trying to convey here, and doesn’t take offence! :)

Picking apart Pascal’s Wager – Part 2

19 August 2009 Comments off

This article is continued from Part 1.

As agnosticism is the only intellectually honest, logical and justifiable position — regardless of whether you are a theist or atheist — there then often comes the argument that surely you should believe “just in case” there is a god. Enter Blaise Pascal‘s famous wager, considered by many to be a breakthrough in probability theory and apologetics in its time:

  1. If there is a god and you do believe, then you’ll go to heaven.
  2. If there isn’t a god and you do believe, then it has cost you nothing.
  3. If there isn’t a god and you don’t believe, then it has cost you nothing.
  4. If there is a god and you don’t believe, then you will go to hell.

Therefore, the logical conclusion is: You should believe… just in case. The implication is that at worst you will have wasted time and effort, but at best you’ve gained a place in heaven. As if an omniscient god wouldn’t know that you’re merely playing the numbers? In reality, points 2 and 3 above mean that you have wasted time, effort and potentially yours and other lives.

Unfortunately the Wikipedia entry for Pascal’s Wager has been edited by one or more of “the faithful,” diminishing its usefulness in providing a contrast. The fundamental argument against Pascal’s Wager is as follows (using just monotheism as an example):

  1. If you believe in one god, which out of an apparently infinite number will you choose from?
  2. Most gods declare they will punish you for eternity if you do not accept just them.
  3. If there is only one god and many imposters, how can you be certain to choose the correct one?
  4. Due to the near infinite number, you have almost no chance of choosing the “One True God.”
  5. The holy book of each god is full of lists of those who will never go to heaven — murderers, adulterers, covetors, the greedy, gluttonous, those who walk further than a number of paces on the sabbath, and any number of other mental and physical acts. Trust me when I say that you are on that list.

Therefore, the probability of you going to heaven, allowing for the possibility that it exists at all, is so infinitesimally small that it doesn’t matter whether you are religious or not (unless you’re the kind of person who thinks a 1:14,000,000 chance of winning the lottery jackpot means that at least 4 people out of a population of 61,000,000 must win it each week).

One criticism of Pascal’s Wager is the assumptions that it makes:

  • God will ignore (or is somehow unaware of) the fact that people are praying just to avoid hell.
  • Hell is a place of eternal misery, like Dante‘s medieval Inferno.
  • Heaven is a place of eternal pleasure.
  • Belief has no cost to the believer.
  • A loving god will damn you to hell if you don’t believe in him.
  • Sincere belief is a conscious act that can be changed at will.
  • God is the Judeo-Christian Abrahamic god.
  • God is loving, forgiving, and takes things seriously, rather than mischievous, cruel or ironic.
  • There is only One True God, not many gods. Monotheism excludes much older pantheistic and polytheistic traditions.

Another way to pick apart Pascal’s Wager is to ask the reader to conduct a thought exercise and consider that God is an imposter that they follow, and that Ugg (a name I pulled out of my head) — who only requires that you don’t worship anyone else — is really the One True God. This exercise is sometimes called Reversing the Wager:

  1. If you don’t believe in God and Ugg does exist, then you’ll go to heaven.
  2. If you don’t believe in God and Ugg doesn’t exist, then you have lived a good life.
  3. If you do believe in God and Ugg doesn’t exist, then you have lived under unnecessary restrictions, and wasted the time, effort and lives of yourself and others.
  4. If you do believe in God and Ugg does exist, then you’ll go to hell.

This shows that atheists will come out the best (heaven or a good life) and theists are toast (hell or wasted life). If you’re a Gnostic Theist, then this argument will go sailing over your head and you’ll snort derisively in your knowledge that God would never let that happen, but if you are able to think clearly or at least entertain other points of view, then you’ll see the point. It’s just a thought exercise, of course.

Last of all, there is the Agnostic Atheist Wager that is a simple and effective refutation of Pascal’s Wager that is, perhaps surprisingly, compatible with the message of Jesus, and states:

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe, when there is a significant lack of evidence of any one god’s existence.

Many religious texts state that by our actions we will be judged and, surely, it’s more beneficial to humanity and the Earth as a whole to act well rather than ensure that we speak the right words or bow to the right statue.

The more you learn of religions throughout human history — even if you just limit yourself to Abrahamic monotheism in all its forms — the more you realise that it is a wilful and conscious act to ignore all the other religions and gods in favour of just one. The religion chosen is usually the one in which your parents raised you or from the culture in which you grew up, probably based upon our tribal instincts, need to fit in, and from the assumption that our experience (or family, team, or nation) is the only or best one possible.

How can an accident of your location (or time in history, considering the spread of the “good news” around the world) of birth be the ultimate determining factor in whether a kind, loving god makes you spend an eternity in hell or heaven? Modern apologetics that glosses over that by saying that “those who haven’t heard it yet go to heaven” is dodging the real issue, and those who say it know it.

It’s all very complicated and requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance to adhere to one faith and exist with the natural world — and that applies even for members of religions that are mature or adaptable enough to accommodate scientific advancement (often called God of the Gaps). I’m hesitant to use Occam’s Razor

When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.

…as a kind of coup de grâce to this article, as I have seen it used successfully by both sides of this argument, and I’m not sure that it isn’t a non-sequitur in this context as neither science nor those without belief purport to have the answer to the origins of the universe (or even to have the answer to the origins of life, though there are a number of interesting scientific theories).

Rather, science seeks to find out as much as possible about as much as possible, and religions throughout human history have seen knowledge as a direct challenge to the unknowability of their gods (or worse). It is not the intent or goal of science to do away with religion; its goal is to gather knowledge. If that somehow challenges your faith or religion, then that is your problem and you must address it somehow — but not by attacking those merely trying to learn and discover the exciting mysteries of the universe.

Picking apart Pascal’s Wager – Part 1

16 August 2009 Comments off

Last night I was chatting with a friend about religious belief, absence of belief, the differences between agnosticism, atheism, gnosticism and theism, and helping him determine his state of belief, along the lines of:

  • Gnostic Theism: “I know that there definitely is a god(s).”
  • Agnostic Theism: “I don’t know for certain, but ‘all this’ must have been created by someone or something.”
  • Agnostic Atheism: “I don’t know for certain, but attributing a supernatural force to its origin is poor logic.”
  • Gnostic Atheism: “I know that there definitely is no god(s).”

Looking at those four terms for a moment:

  • Theism is the belief in at least one god. In Western society it nearly always refers to the god of Christianity and nearly all Western religious arguments are about this god, unless otherwise stipulated.
  • Atheism prefixes the Greek a- (without) to theism, and means simply “without belief in at least one god.” It does not mean disbelief or refusal to believe; it is a position of neutrality: absence of belief. To place it in context: a baby is atheist until it is introduced to supernatural concepts at a later age; animals are atheist.
  • Gnostic is from the Greek word gnosis and refers to knowledge about spiritual matters, and in this case absolute conviction. It generally discounts evidence and logical argument as it is not a position based on rational deduction and analysis, and usually has the Argument from Incredulity/Ignorance at its core.
  • Agnostic was a term coined by Thomas Huxley to complement the term gnostic with the Greek a- (without) prefix, making it mean in this context “without absolute conviction.” It’s an intellectually honest position that recognises that there is insufficient evidence or knowledge to make a definitive conclusion for or against the existence of god(s).

My problem with the term atheism has generally been that it’s a term that defines itself as the opposite of another, or by the absence of something: without the term theism, the term atheism would not exist. An example might be the term slim (in the context of body weight) and me calling myself unslim (rather than overweight), or conversely fat using afat as its complement. Ultimately it’s just semantics, but defining oneself as the opposite of something is a topic worth addressing.

This article is continued in Part 2.

Mainstream social taboos

10 August 2009 Comments off

While reading a recent post on the always excellent Friendly Atheist blog, I was interested to see a guest blogger writing about the polyamory lifestyle. The article opens as follows:

As atheists, many of us have faced some level of negative reaction from those around us, on account of our deviation from our culture’s expected norms. I’ve found that atheists, in general, tend to support GLBT rights and other civil rights issues despite opposition by an offended religious majority. After all, atheists have no religious inhibitions that lead them to view certain deviations from the norm as anything immoral or harmful to society. Atheists know what it’s like to be demonized and hated by those who fear us for our differences. I’d like to call your attention to another group of people — a group even deeper in the “closet” than atheists — who could use your support: polyamorists.

The rest of the article can be found here: In Defense of Polyamory

Part of what interested me about this article was that I was unaware polyamory was a lifestyle movement outside religion (e.g. Muslims or Mormons) and hedonistic stereotypes (bored marriages, bohemian students or artists, etc). Another interesting point was the author’s comments about deviations from cultural and social norms, which I suspect is most likely the crux of religious and conservative problems with those who don’t fit into the God-fearing, husband & wife, missionary position, change-is-bad, tradition-is-to-be-trusted, meat & 2 veg pigeonhole.

It seems that most old law-giving religions were borne from tribal groups where certain laws and behaviours were established to keep the (relatively small) tribe fit and healthy, with transgression being met with brutal punishment as the survival of the tribe was at stake. (We still do the same thing: consider the penalty for treason in your country). Hence, non-procreative sexual activity was distrusted and, when it let to same-sex relationships, the tribe had lost two potentially viable sources of children and mates for two other people. No more children means no more tribe, and we recognise that concept today in our perfectly correct “children are our future” mindset. It doesn’t matter that the argument is a false dichotomy.

It’s not inconceivable that the tribal prohibition against same-sex relationships could have, as the law gradually became more conservative over time, been extended to include other relationships outside the “proven to work” formula (choose a mate or have one chosen, betrothal and binding, breeding and offspring; rinse and repeat). This simple linear progression has worked since Prehistory but, when enshrined in law or even cultural expectation, it doesn’t allow for what engineers call a corner case: people who don’t fit into the expected behaviours. We see this in both animals and humans, so it’s not people just “choosing to be different.”

However, what struck me the most about the article was that although I have reassessed my opinion on homosexuality — which has naturally expanded to include the LGBT umbrella — polyamory and polygamy are two concepts that I had not yet reassessed. By reassess I mean the thoughts and opinions that we all gather over time, initially as children through young adulthood and into mental and emotional maturity. Some people are constantly re-evaluating their perspective on things as they encounter them, some reach old age without adjusting many opinions formed in childhood, and I suspect the majority fall somewhere in between — perhaps leaning one way or the other based upon our liberalism and conservatism. But especially pronounced if we are religious.

As I’ve blogged about previously, I had minimal formal religious instruction (though various notable influences) until I was 17, then a few years of intensive fundagelicalism during which everything I knew about just about anything was re-forged and realigned into a specific way of thinking — a kind of mental aquaduct designed to funnel everything along a certain route to a certain outcome. When I was eventually spat out of that homogenous situation, every opinion I had was filtered through that lens and my rational self knew almost none of it could be trusted. These opinions were not mine and they had not been formed through critical analysis; they had been overlaid to match the party line. Deconstructing one’s own mind is no trivial undertaking.

So this article has got me thinking about two aspects of life that I haven’t had cause to reassess in 17 years or more. That’s not to say that I will automatically find a way to accomodate acceptance of it, as that is not the application of critical thinking. The way I have managed the deconstruction of my mind is to treat just about every contentious topic as a blank canvas — I have no opinion on many things, allowing me to consider and think about them properly before forming my own opinions.

Those opinions may turn out to be wrong, but they’re mine. From there it’s relatively straightforward and clear sailing…