Questionable Motives

December 2, 2009

What constitutes reasoning?

Feelings, intuition, and insight are part of our evolutionary endowment–functions of the brain that helped our ancestors survive. They are problematic only when we rely too much on them. Demagogues like Hitler manipulate people through emotional appeals. Intuition can mislead when, for instance, it tells us that just as watches and skyscrapers are the product of intelligent design, the origin of the species might follow the same pattern. For every insight that inspires a work of genius, there are others that are simply mistaken. When experienced as revelations, faulty insights can be the seed from which dogmatic religions grow.

This is where critical thinking is essential. We shouldn’t ignore emotions, intuitions and insights, but we should evaluate them critically when possible. The problem with the faithful is not that they make use of the non-logical powers of the brain, but that they fail to filter them through critical thinking.

From an article at New Humanism here.

December 1, 2009

The Mind of God… mirrors our own. What a surprise – not

God may have created man in his image, but it seems we return the favour. Believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues.

“Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs,” writes a team led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers started by asking volunteers who said they believe in God to give their own views on controversial topics, such as abortion and the death penalty. They also asked what the volunteers thought were the views of God, average Americans and public figures such as Bill Gates. Volunteers’ own beliefs corresponded most strongly with those they attributed to God.

From this article.

November 21, 2009

Evidence for human evolution

Filed under: Biology,Evolution,Genetics,Human Development,Medicine,Science — tildeb @ 2:37 pm

It’s a snapshot of human evolution in progress. A genetic mutation protecting against kuru – a brain disease passed on by eating human brains – only emerged and spread in the last 200 years.

The mutation first arose about 200 years ago by accident in a single individual, who then passed it down to his or her descendants. “When the kuru epidemic peaked about 100 years back, there were maybe a couple of families who found that they and their children survived while all their neighbours were dying, and so on to today’s generation, who still carry the gene,” says Mead. “So it was a very sudden genetic change under intense selection pressure from the disease,” he says.

None of the 152 victims of kuru had the protective gene, suggesting that it provides almost complete resistance to the disease. But it’s not yet known whether the variant protects against other prion diseases. Mead said that experiments are already under way in mice deliberately given the new mutation, to see if they are protected against both kuru and vCJD.

Complete article here.

November 3, 2009

The Skeptic’s Toolkit

  • Skepticim2Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

From Carl Sagan’s The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

November 2, 2009

Morality: No god required

godThe simple fact is that humans are social animals and our chances of survival are greatly enhanced when we abide by certain basic social norms. That is more than enough reason for a basic understanding and acceptance of those norms to be hardwired into us. We do not need God in order to be moral. In fact, our innate moral instincts tell us that many of the acts and commands attributed to God are themselves morally repugnant.

Straightforward article here by Paula Kirby. Also an excellent link within the article proper to a talk by Herbert Gintis about morality across cultures (or go here for the video).

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