Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

No More -isms

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

I am often challenged about why I reject various beliefs, such as liberalism, theism, libertarianism, or feminism. My thoughts on this are, that if you identify with a particular doctrine with is described with a word ending in -ism then you are probably being needlessly dogmatic. But then I remembered that I often identify with two (and maybe more) of those myself: atheism and skepticism.

So why would I ridicule one person’s belief (like the belief in libertarianism or feminism) while I give myself a free pass to pursue beliefs of my own? Well, maybe I’m just a hypocrite – that’s certainly possible – but I would like to use a slightly more generous interpretation of the situation and say that my beliefs are more a lack of a commitment to a particular idea than a close allegiance to one.

So atheism isn’t really a dogma of any kind, in fact it’s the antithesis of that, because it specifically precludes acceptance of any dogmatic, religious belief. I do agree that skepticism is in a slightly more debatable category. It could be seen as a belief system in some ways – in fact one meaning of the word refers to a specific philosophical system. But that’s not the meaning I’m using here. In this context skepticism refers to the preference for treating new truth claims with a level of suspicion until good, objective evidence for them is demonstrated.

So I think I can defend my -isms fairly well, but what objection to I have to the others? Well, the main one is that they are just unnecessary. Not only do they provide no positive benefit, but undue adherence to them is potentially dangerous. People who take their beliefs too seriously might follow the belief’s dictates instead of looking at the facts of specific incidents in the real world.

For example, there might be a need to decide whether a new industry – let’s choose self-driving cars as an example – should be regulated to ensure safety standards. A libertarian (that is, someone who follows libertarianism) might be tempted to say that more regulation is always bad and that the market should decide.

But not only do we see numerous examples of market failures (in fact the phrase “market failure” has become a common one in these sorts of discussions) but it can be shown through pure logic that markets often don’t work.

That’s not to say that markets don’t work quite well in some situations, but they certainly cannot be relied on in every possible place they might be used. But a true follower of libertarianism will think they do work everywhere, or at least will think they work in a far wider range of situations than a careful examination of the facts would support.

So there’s really no need for libertarianism at all, because anyone looking at the facts and at the outcomes required in a particular situation could just use common sense, and logic, and examination of the consequences in the real world to see whether a market or a regulation is a better choice.

So let’s look at another -ism now, let’s really jump out of the frying pan and into the fire and look at feminism. Is feminism necessary? Well, as you could probably guess from the general tone of this post, I don’t think so.

I know many people claim feminism is just wanting equality for women, but of course that is often not true, just like libertarianism isn’t usually simply about the fair and appropriate use of markets. Feminism in many cases goes far beyond that and demands special privileges for women, equality where it already exists, and is generally biased towards a female-centric worldview.

I’m not saying that there have been no good outcomes from feminism, but I am saying that the usual realisation of it can easily produce many bad outcomes too. There are many situations where females are now enjoying benefits because the bias is now in the opposite direction to what many feminists imagine. For example girls seem to be getting more benefit from our education system, women enrol in universities at a greater rate than men, women live longer lives, and they get less punishment under the law, etc. Hell, maybe I should be a masculinist!

And the issues where feminism might be useful – such as equal pay, equal participation in society, etc – don’t require feminism, they just require fairness. And most people have an inherent sense of fairness. I want women to have equal rights, but I am certainly not a feminist!

I see the down-side of -isms all the time. I see people react to an event which is actually quite nuanced in simple-minded, thoughtless ways, simply because of a knee-jerk reaction they have caused by their favourite -ism.

Note that I have picked on that particular suffix because it is catchy, but other worldviews which end in a different suffix, like Christianity, should also be included in my argument for completeness.

I know they are not doing this deliberately – and that’s what makes the whole phenomenon even more scary and dangerous – but the sort of thought that is going on is like this: there’s an event I want to comment on; I am a (insert your favourite -ism here) so I should think this; I will write some tedious, biased crap on the appropriate discussion forum.

And when a more nuanced person, like myself (well OK, sometimes I take a hard line to make a particular point, but I do make an effort to see both sides of most stories) comes along and points out any deficiencies in these arguments there is rarely a reasoned rebuttal to those points, because the person makes that comment just because that’s the way things are always portrayed according to their -ism.

If I suggest we need a new regulation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change the libertarians will usually disagree, saying government regulation never works and we need less government involvement, not more. But they could admit that the market is the cause of climate change, not the solution, while still maintaining that markets are a useful tool in society overall. But if you follow libertarianism you really cannot say that.

And if I dare to suggest that females are already doing well in our education system and they really don’t need any further assistance, then the feminists will attack me with allegations of sexism and mansplaining. If they just admitted that there are situations where women are given an unfair advantage as well as other situations where the opposite is true, then they would be easier to take more seriously. But if you follow feminism almost everything looks like an attack on women and sensible discussion is difficult.

So I say abandon your -isms. That doesn’t mean to switch to another, even worse, belief system which just doesn’t happen to end in -ism, of course. So those who libertarianism shouldn’t switch to anarchy, and if you currently follow feminism, please don’t become a feminazi!


Trust Experts

January 8, 2018 5 comments

I recently listened to a podcast which discussed the trust (or lack of trust) we have in experts, and how that might have become a more significant issue in recent years. Many people interpret the election of Trump as a rejection of the “elite experts” in society, for example. Trump represents the average person – he was not a politician – but Clinton represented an experienced politician who had spent most of her life as part of the “political machine”, and she was rejected.

Experts which are usually trusted include doctors, scientists, and (dare I mention) computer professionals. In most cases people will trust what these people say. For example, the majority of people go to a doctor and trust the treatment they are recommended. But there are a significant number who don’t have such a high level of trust and prefer to be diagnosed by “Doctor Google” or be treated by a local practitioner of some form of alternative medicine which often has limited credibility (homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, etc).

In general it is best to trust the opinion of experts, and in most cases people do. But everyone has their weaknesses and there might be times when anyone would reject expert opinion or advice. So I started wondering which experts I might have trouble accepting and I think I have thought of a couple.

In fact, anyone who reads this blog should already know the areas of expertise I have the most problems with. The first is management, and the second is economics.

So am I just as bad as the person who ignores the facts presented by experts about global warming? Or am I just like the creationist who ignores the conclusions of experts in biology and evolution? Or am I just another conspiracy theorist who ignores the opinion of experts and thinks the WTC could not have been destroyed by an aircraft collision?

In some ways, yes, but there is one critical difference. Look at the example I gave in paragraph two where some people prefer to trust a homeopath instead of a conventional doctor. Is that person really rejecting expert opinion? Maybe not. Maybe they are accepting the opinion of one expert (the homeopath is presumably an expert in homeopathy) and rejecting that of a different expert (the doctor).

So this isn’t so much a rejection of expertise per se, it is more choosing which expert to accept as better.

And this gets to my three main points regarding trust in experts: first, not all experts are equal; second, not all fields of expertise are equal; and third, even the greatest expert in the most credible field can make mistakes and everyone should be treated with a certain degree of skepticism.

So accepting the expert homeopath’s opinion should be rejected based on point 2, above. That is, while it is true that homeopathy is a field of expertise, it is not one which can be taken seriously because homeopathy has been shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be ineffective.

The other points might also have occasions when they are important. For example, there is a geologist (who is presumably an expert) who thinks the Earth is only 6000 years old even though he knows all the evidence shows it isn’t. His opinion is clearly warped by religious faith so, even though he is an expert, he does not have the same status as experts with no bias. And there have been many occasions where the greatest experts failed to assimilate new evidence and rejected new theories which later turned out to be true, so no expert is infallible.

But the main point of this post is to discuss point 2, the fact that some areas of expertise have less validity than others making rejecting opinions of experts in that area more reasonable.

The big problem is trying to establish which areas are trustworthy and which aren’t How would we know? Should we ask an expert? That sort of just gets back to the same problem we had at the start!

I think there are various, fairly unbiased, ways we can evaluate different areas of expertise. These include their philosophical framework (are they based on empiricism, logic, faith, etc), has scientific research on the subject shown it to be viable, and a general evaluation of its practical contribution to society.

So with homeopathy I would say its background is highly questionable. There has been little positive empirical research, there is almost no logic in it, and the whole proposed mechanism for its action is nonsense. And research on homeopathy shows almost no positive results above placebo level which is exactly what we would expect if it was fake. Finally, using homeopathy has some significant negative consequences, including people wasting their money on remedies which don’t work, and using homeopathic remedies instead of real ones which leads to worse health outcomes.

Because of this, I think it is clear that a homeopath, no matter how expert he or she is on the subject, should not be taken seriously because the subject itself lacks any credibility.

But how does this apply to my two areas of skepticism: management and economics?

Well, I would say neither of those are totally based on a firm philosophical basis. I do have to say that some forms of economics, especially behavioural economics which uses a lot of psychology, do have a quite high degree of credibility, but economics in general not so much. And I’m fairly sure there has been a certain amount of empirical research applied to management practices but in general they seem to be uniformly corrupt, both morally and intellectually.

So I think I have some rationale in being doubtful about the opinions of many economists and managers. Sure, they are experts in their respective fields but those fields have limited credibility. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are always wrong and can safely be ignored, but it does mean that the default position should be neutral or even negative rather than being positive as it would be with other experts.

If a doctor recommends a certain treatment I would normally accept that unless I have good reason not to. I might have already tried it without success, or I might think it is bogus in some way for example (some doctors recommend alternative medicine which has poor scientific support).

But it a manager recommends a particular action I would be very doubtful from the beginning. In fact, I would begin with the assumption that it is a bad idea. Of course, I should also try to look at the idea fairly and accept it if it turns out to be the exception to the rule.

In an ideal world we would all have enough time and expertise to research all the knowledge we needed for ourselves, but that is totally impractical, so we do need to trust experts to some extent. And that trust should be moderated by some doubt. And that doubt should be apportioned according to the validity of the field of knowledge under consideration.

Everyone’s estimation of this validity will vary but there should be certain areas which are always out in front and some lagging far behind. Here’s an example of some fields of knowledge rated from highest to lowest: maths, physics, chemistry, biology, climate science, medicine, psychology, general social science, philosophy, economics, business, management, politics, marketing, alternative medicine, mysticism, religion.

Note that I’m not saying the stuff near the end of my list is less valuable or less interesting, just that it is less trustworthy.

In summary: you can trust experts, but trust some a lot more than others!

Child or Picasso?

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I love thought experiments, and I’m in pretty good company because so did people like Einstein! If you don’t know, a thought experiment is a way to test an idea by applying logic to it through pure thought. It often leads to new ideas (as it did for Einstein in developing the General Theory of Relativity) which might then be tested with experiments in the real world.

So General Relativity is an example of where a thought experiment was used in physics, but they can also be used in other areas, such as philosophy. In previous posts I have talked about the famous “trolley experiments” (originally in “More Morality” from 2007-11-27, and “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16) which are probably the most well known thought experiments in the area of ethics, and I have a few more in that area I want to discuss in this post.

This is interesting stuff but you have to go from one point to the next honestly. So let’s go through some of these experiments. Here goes…

Philosopher, Peter Singer, likes to challenge his students with the following question: “I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.”

Unanimously, the students say they are morally obliged to rescue the child. He then asks, “assuming you could still perform the rescue, would the distance to the pond, or the nationality of the child matter?” The vast majority say no, they are still obliged to act to rescue the child. He then points out that a similar “rescue” could be achieved with very little effort in time or money by donating to a charity, like Oxfam, who are concerned with saving many lives every day.

Yet few of the students do this. Why not?

Now imagine a burning building with a child trapped inside. You can rescue the child relatively easily, and almost everyone says they would. But there is also an extremely valuable Picasso painting in the house which you will get a $1 million reward for. If you remove it from the fire you won’t have time to rescue the child as well. What should you do? Almost everyone would value the child’s life more and rescue her instead of the painting.

But what could you do with that $1 million? You could save hundreds of lives by donating it to charities, such as the one which provides mosquito nets in Africa. Still, most people would save the child instead. Also note that, if you did do the “logical” thing and saved the painting in order to help thousands of people later, you would probably be charged with a crime for not making a reasonable effort to save the child, as well as suffering the contempt of your friends and family!

But now imagine the building had two rooms. The first room contains the child and the painting, and the second has 5 children. If you grab the painting from the first room and ignore the single child, you can use the painting to prop open the door to the second room and rescue 5. Do you grab the painting then? If you do, what is the difference between doing that and taking it for the monetary value which could be used to save far more than just 5 lives later?

Finally, consider the burning building again. Behind the painting is a lever which releases the 5 children in the room next door. Do you ignore the single child, remove the painting, and activate the lever? Most people would. What about if the lever, through a complex mechanism, activated a food distribution system in Africa and immediately saved a thousand lives? You might still use it. And if the mechanism had a delay of 6 months before the lives were saved? Well maybe and maybe not. And is that any different than distributing the funds from the reward for the painting? In the final analysis, no, but most people treat it as if it is.

It should be clear by now that people’s ethical choices do not depend on a logical treatment of the facts involved in a particular situation. Not only do most people ignore the possibility of making a much more significant contribution later rather than a lesser one immediately, but they also treat the directness of their action as a major factor, rather than the final outcome.

Consequentialism is a philosophical doctrine which states that the best course of action should be judged by its final consequences. Superficially this seems to make sense, but no one can follow this in the real world. And if they tried they would very likely be condemned by others. Not only that, but trying to analyse the options available in a situation like those mentioned above would probably result in a paralysis of uncertainty to many people.

Maybe it’s just as well we act on immediate instincts rather than a careful analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. No philosophical system, including consequentialism, can really answer these questions. And although the answers are usually not obvious there is a significant amount of agreement in what people would do.

Decisions like this are a complex combination of logic, emotion, and social conditioning. And that’s OK, because the end result is usually fairly reasonable even though they make no sense. General Relativity thought experiments are so much easier!


Facts, Logic, Morality

September 18, 2017 2 comments

I recently spent some time with a colleague discussing how to deal with a fundamentalist Christian’s irrational ideas that he had recently become aware of. I have to say that this fundy keeps his crazy ideas pretty much to himself and is otherwise a perfectly pleasant and reasonable person, so there was no real need to try to “convert” him, but sometimes the need to try arises – such as in a debate situation – so I thought I might describe my technique here.

I have had varying degrees of success with this in the past, from complete rejection (because some people are never going to change their views) to moderate success (for example, a person admitting to changing his opinions, or one who was on the road to enlightenment: that is, believing the same thing as me, and I am fully aware of how arrogant that sounds).

But where I have had some successes it has never been using just one technique. In addition, it is never easy to tell which method of persuasion is likely to be effective for a particular individual, so I have created a three step process which formalises by debating technique…

Step 1. Use facts.

My first instinct when debating controversial issues is to use facts. In general the issues I support can be easily supported with good evidence. But most people who believe in irrational ideas didn’t get to that point by following the facts, because there never are many supporting them. So it often follows that they can’t be moved by using facts either.

In addition there are always facts on both sides. Sometimes the “facts” on one side are barely facts at all (hence the quotes) but many people will believe an extremely doubtful or weak fact if it supports what they want to believe, even if there are a hundred which are much more certain against them.

Step 2. Use logic.

When step 1 fails it is often useful to try a process of logic. A complex idea can be broken down into a series of steps which logically follow and are difficult to deny. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any facts involved in this because logic usually transcends facts.

Step 3. Use morality.

If both facts and logic fail a good backup strategy, depending on the actual subject under discussion, is to use a moral or ethical argument. While morals vary from one person to another to some extent, there are common concepts shared by most people, including fairness, non-violence, and freedom.

So now I should give an example. Obviously I’m not going into details because half my readers won’t have even got this far and are unlikely to want to read 20 pages on the subject, but I will use a very condensed version of how I would handle the issue. So here’s an imaginary debate between me and a fundamentalist Christian…

Fundy: The Bible says that God created humans, so evolution cannot be true, and following events described there it makes it obvious the world is only 6000 years old. The Bible also says that it is the inerrant word of God and that the devil is always trying to find ways to deceive us with false truths. Without the Bible to guide us we will have no moral compass and there will be increased violence and evil around the world.

Me: You say that evolution cannot be true yet almost every expert in the world has concluded it is. Also there are many lines of evidence which anyone can understand which show evolution is an accurate theory to describe the variety of life on Earth. The age of the world cannot possibly be that short and I can show you evidence from geology, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and many other areas of science to show it is almost 14 billion years. The time light has spent travelling from distance galaxies shows this, for example. Let’s get these fact-based claims out of the way before we move on to the other stuff.

Fundy: But the Bible has been shown to be accurate, so how can it be wrong? Also there are many scientists who don’t believe in evolution or an old Earth. Here is a list of URLs for you to look at. Not following the Bible leads to you rejecting God’s offer of salvation and you just don’t want to admit his authority.

Me: The Bible is full of errors if you are prepared to accept scientific and historical evidence. For example, there is no evidence at all of major stories like Genesis, the Flood, Exodus, etc. These so-called scientists you cite are not publishing in scientific journals so I would say they are not practicing scientists. In fact most of them work at Answers in Genesis. If they are only looking in one place they will never be able to look at all the evidence. Let’s keep to facts and forget about God’s salvation for now.

Fundy: You have your facts and I have mine. Many serious researchers are religious and you cannot reject their research so easily. Also science changes all the time. Who can tell when a new theory might come along and contradict the Big Bang or evolution? You say yourself that science can never prove anything with 100% certainty, so why are you so sure that science is right and religion is wrong?

Me: Instead of just offering an opinion on who is doing science and who isn’t, we should look at a standard which is widely accepted. People who are engaged in science publish in reputable journals. Anyone who isn’t doing that isn’t really doing science. They might still be right, but based on past experience the scientific consensus is far more reliable than anything else. And you are right, we can never be 100% certain of anything, but it is still reasonable to accept a theory which is 99% likely to be at least a good approximation to the truth (like evolution), instead of one we can be 99% certain is wrong (like creation).

Fundy: You may say that but because you have no moral basis for your views they are really arbitrary. Without God to guide you and tell right from wrong, how can your views be taken seriously?

Me: Well this gets back to an old question in philosophy regarding the goodness of god. But first, let me say that using a god who probably doesn’t even exist as the basis of your morality seems worse than admitting that we really don’t even have a basis. And even if we pretend that your god does exist, how do we know he is good? Is it because he says so? And if your god is good, is he good because he’s god, or is he god because he’s good? In other words if we know he’s good then there must be some external criterion to judge that against, in which case why do we need a god anyway? And if whatever he does is good because he’s god then that seems a dangerous view to take because any dictator could make that claim.

Fundy: Wait, what? We know God is good because that’s one of the reasons we know he’s the one true God. Can you not see the logic in this?

Me: All I can see is a circular argument: God is good because he’s God. How do we know he’s God? Because he’s good. How do we know he’s good? Because he’s God.

Fundy: You know, that is a ridiculous simplification of a position that theologians have been debating for centuries. Do you really believe you have the answer to such a deep and meaningful problem?

Me: Well, yes. I think it really is that simple. The only reason it becomes complex is because many people want to reach a conclusion that supports the existence of a god. If they just followed the evidence they would see that it’s really quite simple: that there is no good reason to believe a god exists.

Fundy: The Bible talks about people like you who use false logic to try to lead believers away from the truth. You do realise that you are risking eternal damnation for your excessive pride and inability to accept the authority of God, don’t you?

Me: I know that according to the narrative of the New Testament your god prefers to inflict people who refuse to accept his dominance with eternal torture. This is the same god who is advertised as being the “God of love” and who has a prophet (Jesus) who preaches understanding and acceptance. This seems somewhat contradictory to me.

Fundy: God gives you the choice of believing in him or not. If you don’t accept his offer you deserve all you get. He sacrificed his son so that you could have this hope of salvation, yet you refuse to take it.

Me: It’s not a choice I make. I simply cannot believe your god exists. Should I pretend to believe when I really don’t? Would God not know that I’m not being honest with him? And if your god wants me to believe in him why doesn’t he make his presence more obvious? Why do I have to rely on faith which I cannot force myself to do that?

Fundy: His presence is obvious to most of us. Why do you think that most people in the world are Christians?

Me: Actually, they’re not. Only a third of the population identify as Christians and even then that is purely a matter of their societal norms. You are a Christian because that is the history of the country you were born in. If you were born in India you would almost certainly be a Hindu. If you were born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. It seems that the god you follow depends on your culture, not on which (if any) god really exists.

Fundy: Well you seem to have convinced yourself that these false beliefs are true. I have tried to show you the truth but your pride prevents you from accepting it. Don’t complain when you end up in Hell.

Me: Am I a bad person? Have I been guilty of any terrible crimes? I donate to charities, I am a productive member of my society, I don’t harm any other people. Why do I deserve eternal damnation from this “loving God” of yours?

Fundy: God is just, and he is only doing what you deserve. It is not for me or you to judge whether he is right or wrong – he is God and can do whatever he likes.

Me: So a person who spends his whole life torturing, killing, etc and then accepts Jesus as his saviour shortly before dying goes to heaven, but a person who spends his life doing good, but cannot accept the teaching of your religion because there is no evidence, suffers forever. If that is how your god works then, even if he did exist, I would not accept him.

Fundy: And there’s the proof that you are evil.

Me: OK, let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

As you can see, in the fictitious example above (but one based on real experience) the fundy isn’t converted on the spot, but I would hope that amongst the points I made: that the evidence is against him, that logic is against him, and that an understanding of basic fairness and morality is against him; there might be something to make him a little bit less certain than he was.

Or, maybe, he might exhibit the backfire effect and just “double-down” on his beliefs because they are shown to be probably untrue. But the three pronged attack makes that less likely because I have found that the final argument (the unfairness of God’s punishment) often gets through to people when the more rational points don’t.

Whatever the end effect is, debating this way is fun, and any progress – no matter how small – is OK with me.


Don’t Take it Seriously

September 12, 2017 2 comments

They say that people who cannot laugh at themselves leave the job for someone else. I think there is a lot of truth in that idea because too many people take themselves, and their beliefs, far too seriously, and they don’t usually look good as a result.

In the end, most everyday issues which people get upset and very serious about are really unbelievably trivial. As an amateur astronomer and science enthusiast I know enough about the universe as a whole (or maybe even the multiverse) to know that practically everything that people take so seriously is nothing more than the tiniest, most frivolous absurdity when you look at the big picture.

To provide examples I would like to pick on some of my usual targets: managers and other bureaucrats, and religious people.

Recently I commented that a good test for Muslims who would like to move to New Zealand to live would be to have them prove that they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage. That was deliberately provocative, because eating pork is haram (forbidden) by the Quran, except in extreme circumstances such as starvation.

Why would I want to impose such an offensive (according to some people) test? Well, I wouldn’t really, of course, because it was a rhetorical point I was trying to make, rather than a serious one, but this does show how a non-serious point can be effective. Maybe a better test would be to have them have a laugh at a cartoon featuring the prophet Mohammed. Yes, I’m only somewhat more serious about that.

But why have a test at all? Well, people who have extreme views on religion tend to be dangerous. They might be more likely to carry out terrorist acts, for example, because despite the protestations of the politically-correct left, religion is the major motivating factor for most terrorists.

And even if their serious religious “philosophy” doesn’t motivate them to wanting to blow themselves up, along with whatever other innocent people might be in range, it might still encourage them towards other regressive ideas, such as being against equality for women, wanting to punish homosexuals, or wanting to enforce their primitive social standards on others.

Naturally, I would not want anyone to think that this process would stop at Islam. Extremist Christians would also need to be vetted by a similar process. I have plenty of “offensive” cartoons featuring Jesus that they could have a little laugh at. For example: Jesus is hanging on his cross, after a while he dies and the Romans dangle him on strings from the cross like a puppet and reanimate him, people see this and think Jesus has risen from the dead, and the Romans think it’s hilarious!

And it could go beyond religion, too. For example, Apple zealots, like me, could be challenged by having to laugh at a cartoon of Jony Ive making some pretentious pronouncement about his design philosophy (I just Googled that and there are plenty out there).

Many might say that an “offensive” computer cartoon hardly rates at a similar level to an “offensive” religious one, but I disagree. If someone takes their religion more seriously than I take good design of computer technology then they are taking it too seriously, and that’s my whole point. After all, their religion isn’t actually true, so treating it with a bit less sincerity seems entirely sensible.

I know religious people who I like to gently and respectfully debate regarding their beliefs, and I expect to get the same back again. If someone wants to criticise me based on my “beliefs” (I am atheist, pro-science, liberal but anti-political correctness, pro-Apple) then that’s fine – I don’t take it too seriously, at least as long as they don’t.

When I look at the latest HST image of the universe and see thousands of galaxies in a small area of sky smaller than the Moon, and I realise there are hundreds of billions of stars (and presumably hundreds of billions of planets, and probably life, and maybe intelligent life, and just possibly some civilisations far more advanced than ours) in each one, then it’s pretty hard to take the inane assertions of any religion seriously.

It’s also hard to take any debate on what the best type of computer is seriously, it’s hard to take any pathetic rules and regulations created by bureaucrats seriously… hey, let’s just take this to the logical conclusion: you cannot take anything seriously.

So lighten up everyone. We live in a magnificent universe and our problems, thoughts, and beliefs are of no consequence at all, really. Why not just accept the obvious absurdity of human existence and not take things so seriously.


Shades of Grey

September 6, 2017 Leave a comment

When I decided to title this blog post “Shades of Grey” I first Googled the phrase to make sure I had the meaning correct. Of course, about 99% of the hits were about the movie “50 Shades of Grey” which I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised about given the power of pop culture. But, of course, I’m using it in the traditional way: to mean that many things cannot be simply seen as good or bad, or black or white, because there are always shades of grey.

So after the disappointment of discovering that I am not discussing the movie the natural question the reader might ask is: exactly what am I on about this time?

Just that too many people like to categorise every person, every organisation, every belief system as either good or bad, when they really should be assigning a shade of grey instead. So instead of calling a political movement (for example) evil, they should say something like mostly bad but with a few good characteristics too. I really believe there is nothing in this world that is wholly evil or entirely good.

But there is a corollary to this idea which is perhaps even more important. That is that two things which might seem to occupy the “darker” end of the spectrum cannot be classified as equally bad. To use the colour metaphor: they’re not both black, one might be really dark grey and the other mid-grey.

At this point I should be more specific. The one I want to use, because I have been guilty of falling into this trap myself, is to equate two sides in a conflict as being equally bad because they both have done bad things.

For example, I have heard some people say that the US was as bad as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, because of the many deaths from US air strikes in the Iraq War. Or similarly, that the US is as bad as the Taliban because they both have been guilty of causing the death of civilians in Afghanistan. Or to take it even further, that the Allies were as bad as the Nazis in World War II because of some of the more controversial actions like the bombing of Dresden.

Many people might look at these examples and scoff, saying that they see no equivalence there. That is good, but I would make two points. First, many people (especially those on the politically correct left) do see an equivalence; and second, these particular examples might not have suited your concept of morally equivalent actions but almost everyone will have something which does.

Just to make the shades of grey concept totally clear, I am not saying that the Allies were totally blameless in World War II. Many people have said that various actions (the bombing of Dresden being the most well known) might have been classified as war crimes. But while those actions were certainly far from sparkling white, they were far ahead of some Nazi’s conduct, such as the Holocaust, which were surely amongst the blackest of modern times.

An interesting contributing factor to this debate is the motivation for action. When the US is involved in a conflict it isn’t there to force people to adopt a religion, or to take over territory, or to even acquire resources. I will concede that there is an element of economic benefit in some cases, and in others getting involved in a conflict would be uncharitably seen as a political distraction, but these are lesser evils than the motivation of ISIS or most other opposing groups.

So saying that the US is as bad as ISIS because sometimes US drone strikes kill innocent civilians just like ISIS suicide bombers do, is missing the point. If the US could perform strikes against military targets with no collateral damage I think most people would say they would do that. But ISIS makes a deliberate effort to kill civilians as part of its military strategy.

Sure, either way innocent people are dead, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the two actions are equivalent. Killing innocent people accidentally from a drone strike is bad, but killing them deliberately using suicide bombers is worse according to any reasonable moral code.

If you have got this far and are still saying “well, duh” because everything I have said so far is obvious then that’s good, but I can tell you I meet a lot of people who would not accept any of the above.

Here’s a few more examples of people, or groups, or actions which tend to be seen by some groups as obviously black and white (good and bad) or as equally bad when there is one which is genuinely worse than the other…

The Israeli security forces versus groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian conflict. In this case the Israelis are far from innocent but at least there tactics are more moral than those used by the opposing forces.

Donald Trump versus Barack Obama. I cannot justify Trump’s aversion to dealing with facts, but I also find the constant demonisation of him to be tiresome. I’m sure there are some things he has done that the PC left would approve of. Maybe closing down the TPP would be a good example.

Poor people who commit welfare benefit fraud versus rich individuals and corporations who engage in tax evasion and avoidance. I don’t give either side a free pass although I think it is more morally justifiable to commit fraud to feed your family than it is to avoid paying a fair amount of tax just so that rich shareholders and directors can get even richer.

It’s just too easy to assign a good or bad, pass or fail, black or white to everything, usually based on existing political preferences, or in-group habits, rather than a genuine analysis of what is really happening. I think from now on people should assign a score instead. This will encourage a more nuanced view of the situation being evaluated.

So Allies versus Nazis: 90:10, George Bush versus Saddam Hussein 60:40. the US versus ISIS 80:20, etc. Those numbers are just first guesses and I could be persuaded to change them by a good argument. But the point is that it’s a lot easier to adjust some numbers than to change from a good versus bad situation.

So yes, it’s all about shades of grey, and there are at least 50 of them.


Don’t Fool Yourself

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently started listening to Sam Harris’ podcast, “Waking Up”. It’s an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known “militant atheist” and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast – featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne – which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they’re not. I don’t think science and religion are compatible at all, and I’ll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that’s one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren’t “real religion”. For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don’t believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy’s role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science’s role in truth-based areas and philosophy’s in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I’m fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I’m fairly sure he has doesn’t use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It’s like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t seem to work that way!

There’s one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are “real Christians” or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It’s no secret that I think that the very idea of religion’s epistemology is completely absurd and I can’t see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Clearly that doesn’t apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren’t just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman’s advice!