Questionable Motives

October 14, 2011

Can we know what’s true in reality?

I keep coming across this notion that all truth is relative, so that scientific findings accomplished by man should be understood to be less reliable that the certainties that can be assumed deduced from faith-based beliefs.

I admit, this argument drives me nuts. The latest was from reader Daniel who argues that Truth is a being with whom we can have a personal relationship, and that atheists lose effectiveness in theistic discussions when they fail to appreciate this special relationship the faithful have with their ‘truths’ cum manifestations of various gods. One responder wrote:

In a life filled with people whose individual realities depend on their personal perceptions instead of the true unprejudiced reality, our belief systems…our truths, if you will, are definitely biased. Everyone’s reference points are based on their perceptions of their experiences. Even our perceptions of the truths […] are subject to unreliability because we are who we are and our eschewed views. Only one who has the life of God in him can hope to taste of truth and only as we constantly examine ourselves and stay in fellowship with Him can we hope to interpret that truth correctly.

So I responded:

I think Feynman’s quote here is apt when it comes to trusting beliefs and perspectives:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

How do we not fool ourselves? Respecting the method of science – by using what is known as methodological naturalism – is an excellent starting point. The products of this method speak for themselves: so far, they work for everyone everywhere all the time. How is that ‘relative’ just because it always maintains room for doubt?

This notion – that what is true is somehow relative to one’s subjective experience and beliefs – is probably one of the most common yet odious opinions bandied about as if it were widely accepted as correct. It’s not. It’s an epistemological placebo for the intellectually lazy.

Yes, Virginia, there is a reality, and we can actually know something about it if we choose to make the honest effort. Pretending that our subjective faculties prohibits this discovering of reality is the worst kind of apologetics because it assumes we cannot know without certainty… and confuses anything less than certain with something less than what’s true in reality. This little shell game of substituted word meanings tries to make anything less-than-certain equivalent – and that’s where it veers off the twin paths of reason and reality and inserts the term ‘relative’ as if that were appropriate answer to this warped thinking. It’s not. It’s dishonest.

The physical laws of nature are not relative just because someone is so intellectually impoverished that they can only appreciate probabilities of P=1 to equate with what’s true and knowably so. It does not bolster this misunderstanding to pretend that all other and lesser probabilities are equivalently ‘relatively true’. That’s absurd and demonstrably so. To assume that anything less than certain means it is equivalent to something unknown is ridiculous by all practical measurements unless someone is honestly and equally surprised each and every morning that the sun rises. Such a person isn’t intellectually lazy but brain-damaged. Even so, few people are actually so dull and unimaginative that patterns in nature are either unrecognizable or equally untrustworthy.

To call anything less than certain ‘relative’ is a gross distortion of how much we can know and trust about that knowledge of reality we have gained. Relativism is an intentional and misleading excuse to try to make equivalent faith and fact, as if Ergo Jesus is a legitimate answer in place of I don’t know because I have some element of uncertainty. Relativism argued on the basis of this subjectivity is just broken thinking petrified into ignorance by a lack of intellectual honesty.

Any thoughts?

June 8, 2011

Is it true? How do we know?

Filed under: Atheism,authority,belief,methodological naturalism,Science — tildeb @ 10:36 am

These two simple questions sit atop the watershed dividing the claims of theists from the criticisms of atheists.

If the first question is to have any merit and respect independent of who attempts to answer it, then the second question matters a very great deal. It is here in the epistemology of informing an answer where one faces a stark choice: one can either accept that belief based on some self-proclaimed authority is somehow sufficient or it is not.

If it is sufficient, then the first question Is it true doesn’t matter; what matters is adhering to the belief, in the case of theism by submitting to authority. This is the epistemological basis of theism: faith-based belief, and it is this same engine that drives belief in all woo.

If it is not sufficient, then what is true must be revealed some other way, not by authority but by a trustworthy method where the consistency and reliability of the results are the measurement. This is the basis of good science:  methodological naturalism (MN), with four centuries of spectacular results.

The two positions cannot be accommodated because the epistemologies are in direct conflict. And this is revealed very clearly when claims of what’s true in nature based on religious authority conflicts with the findings from MN. One of them must yield, but which one?

In considering this choice – because it really is a choice to be made – I ask why should we pay any attention at all to the religious authority if we know ahead of time that its methodology does not value what IS true but merely BELIEVED to be true?

Many argue that pointing out this conflict is rude and that it detracts from slowly and carefully separating individuals from their fantastical beliefs, that it is counter-productive to challenge believers in such an uncompromising way. My response is that reality (what’s true) is a pretty harsh place to begin with and the sooner we come to terms with that fact, the better off we’ll be coping with what IS real (like rapid climate change due to human activities that increases global warming) rather than diverted by those who insist that reality is determined by what is BELIEVED to be true (global warming is all a hoax). In addition, I think that if one honestly cares about what’s true (Are we really screwing up our own climate?), then pointing this out is a very powerful tool of deconversion (See this week’s series on TVO about energy, power, and ecology – and the key question raised at the 27 minute mark by Robin Batterham about what it may take to get angry enough to actually force energy policy change).

Writer Paula Kirby agrees. In her latest article, she describes exactly this process she underwent decoupling her mind from the grip of belief to respecting what is true. And she simply asked that second question and attempted to answer it honestly.

March 13, 2011

Why is suffering a fatal flaw for belief in a benevolent creator?

Most of us know of Epicurus’ succinct summation evil causes belief in a benevolent god:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The slippery term in this paradox for believers is ‘evil’. I think we can reveal the same fatal paradox without the metaphysical baggage that accompanies such a term by replacing it with the word ‘suffering’. I am certainly not the first to do so and I think it tears away the comforting veil of ignorance that infuses belief in a benevolent god when we look at how the world actually and factually operates.

Life and death on this planet has come about as we know it by the process of evolution, a system Lord Tennyson accurately describes as “red in tooth and claw.” Suffering by sentient beings is simply part and parcel of this mindless, unguided, undirected, indifferent biological mechanism. This is a problem for those who would prefer to believe in a benevolent creator. As blogger and ex Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald so eloquently describes the problem evolution creates for the believer this way:

If this is a consciously designed process (evolution by design as held by many notable people such as Francis Collins and those allied to the same notion endorsed by the rc church and many other denominations), as Christians must maintain — for, from the Christian point of view, god’s first priority is the creation of human beings and their redemption — then all the suffering is an intentional part of god’s purposes. And this is simply intolerable. It cannot stand a moment’s moral reflection, and certainly the doctrine of double effect won’t change the mind of a reasonable person on this matter, for you cannot not intend suffering if you create by means of natural selection.

From an academically and scientifically honest standpoint, evolution is fact that is fatal to the argument that a creator god is benevolent.

So what’s a believer in a benevolent creator to do? In England, an imam with the audacity to suggest evolution is compatible with islam if the Koran is interpreted just so, one must apologize and retract such a statement if one wishes to avoid being killed as an apostate. In the US, one must contend with repeated attempts by the religiously misguided to keep creationism from being inserted into the science classroom, spending untold millions  of taxpayer dollars to continue this separation intact. The latest attack against science is in Tennessee. The one is Kentucky has just died… for this session. The one is Texas is still going strong as it works its way towards approved legislation. Florida tries every year and this one is no different. Louisiana has already passed it’s anti-evolution bill as if this will magically improve the state’s dismal showing in student science knowledge. And so on, and so on, and so on, even after creationism has been soundly defeated in every federal court case brought against its insertion into the public school science curriculum. (The latest was in Dover in 2005.) Religious beliefs about a creator – no matter under what recent title it tries on for public acceptance – have no scientific credibility nor validity. This is not a preference or belief by people who would prefer this not to be so: it’s a fact… and a fact that far too many religious people seem unable and unwilling to grasp. When such facts are contrary to what is believed to be true by those who respect faith-based beliefs, then obviously the facts must be wrong! There’s nothing like a legislative act to set the facts on the path to redemption.

Good grief.

The world, however – and  no matter where we look at it – continues to offer up the brutal fact that creationism is not only a fairytale but that its supposed benevolence is identical in all meaningful ways to that of a delusion. For example, the latest and devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and China and  Japan is accompanied by undeniable indiscriminate death and much human suffering.  Tsunamis add their additional effects. Plate tectonics and the accompanying geological and hydrological effects are just as mindless, unguided, undirected, and indifferent a physical mechanism as biological evolution is and the resulting human suffering just as obvious. The physical evidence for mindless cause and effect of these mechanisms is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for benevolence versus the suffering these mechanisms cause?

No where.

Let us now turn to the pious who feel some level of compassion and empathy for the suffering of their fellow creatures in the wake of these disasters. A.C. Grayling offers us this glimpse into the reasoning that is avoided by those who decide to offer up their prayers to some benevolent creator for these distant folk suffering from calamity. Following the same reasoning of Epicurus’s paradox, he wonders about why anyone would show fealty to such an obvious metaphysical monster some think of as a benevolent creator:

For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.

Indeed it is.

This desire by the pious to believe in a literal Santa Claus-ian benevolent creator is not just foolishly childish and comforting as only a delusion can be; it is a faith-based belief that incessantly gives god-sanctioned motivation to those who directly attack both evidence-based fact as apostasy and intellectually honest reason as some kind of evil plot to undermine god. That some continue to insist that we can accommodate religion and science – allow respect for what some believe is true as well for what IS true – is foolhardy as well as intentionally dishonest. It is foolhardy because it interferes with folk who think there is a legitimate choice to be made between accepting what is factually true and faith-based beliefs as some kind of equivalent source for knowledge in spite of no evidence for this to be the case (and much evidence in stark contrast to this case), and dishonest because for these same folk it reduces  what is true to be conditional on some collection of faith-based beliefs they have chosen to accept as true first. Yet faith-based beliefs add nothing honest to our understanding of the world nor any true appreciation for the dependent role we suffer for our lives on it and much disinformation and misrepresentation of how the world actually is and how it actually works and how we actually cause effects in it.

October 15, 2010

Why does a ‘miracle’ look just like human ingenuity?

So here’s the thread of the religious thief making the rounds these days after the 33 Chilean miners were rescued:

Once feared dead, 33 trapped Chilean miners began to emerge Tuesday night after more than two months underground. Among the necessities that sustained them 2000 feet down were food, vitamins, supplemental air and, according to many reports, their faith. (Elizabeth Tenety, The Washington Post)

Prayers and well wishes from around the world reached the miners. Pope Benedict prayed for them after a mass in August, and the Vatican sent blessed rosaries “as a sign of the Pope’s closeness with them.” Priests and ministers visited the site in the predominantly Catholic country. The Baptist Press reported that two miners “accepted Christ” during their ordeal. The Seventh-day Adventists sent mini-bibles down to the crew, highlighting Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit … and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps.”

So let’s see: how exactly did any religious knowledge help in this rescue? Other than perhaps raise flagging hopes with the absurd notion that some supernatural deity would intervene on their behalf, the miners were able to survive because of human preparedness that stocked a safe area with food and water, which allowed them to survive long enough for other humans to dedicate the necessary resources to solving the engineering problem of gaining access to a small area 2000 feet lower than the surface through layers of different kinds of rock to resupply them with food and water while a larger transit tube was built for their eventual removal. And it all worked.

So should we praise god for human ingenuity?

The truth of the matter is that we have no evidence that any god played any part in the success of the rescue mission. But rest assured that we will now we get to sit back and watch various religions try to steal the credit due solely to the hard work and dedication and tremendous effort of people like the engineer who led the Chilean rescue efforts Andres Sougarett and the international aid and expertise of other mining engineers who are the only ones who made manifest this successful conclusion. God didn’t transport these miners to the surface: Andres Sougarett and his team did. To say otherwise steals directly from their proper due

But that’s what fuels religious belief: thievery of favourable natural processes, thievery of favourable human endeavors, thievery of favourable and beneficial outcomes. It’s all owed to god, we are told, and is our just reward for believing in magic and invisible superpowers and specific kinds of superstition.

And where is this same argument – this same justification for evidence of god’s favour – when the natural processes are brutal and indifferent to the human suffering it causes? Where is god when human endeavors are disastrous? Where is god when bad luck and unfortunate timing yields pain and death? Oh… well… umm… we can’t allow god to be mature enough to accept both ends of the responsibility spectrum, you see… bad for the image, don’t you know. No, we must allocate to god only success and benevolence to match up with our claim that god is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere at all times, and – of course – benevolent. And any evidence against this template is simply dismissed because, well, you know… it’s god. (Now imagine how well we would serve ourselves if we practiced that same delusional and apologetic thinking on behalf of British Petroleum or President Obama or Prime Minister Netanyahu or Osama bin Laden.)

Let’s take a moment and appreciate just how neolithic is the human urge to grant power to superstition and divine agency when faced with adversity and helplessness:

The ninth man to emerge from the mine was Mario Gomez, a 63-year old who, CNN reported, “became the group’s spiritual leader and requested a crucifix and statuettes of saints so the men could construct a shrine.”

A shrine. Yes, that’s the ticket home.

Although it may be of psychological benefit to pretend that our actions curry favour from deities when we can do nothing else but sit back and wait, what rescued these miners was in no way supernatural; it was man-made, designed and empowered by a method of thinking that yields practical and consistent results. It enables knowledge to be gained and built upon, and then successfully implemented, and we should not for a single moment give thanks to Ooogity Boogity, nor pretend that religious belief has any right to ‘celebrate’ this human achievement in its own name rather than humanity’s. We should celebrate this shining example of human ingenuity – not religious hocus pocus – which again proves to ourselves that this method of thinking rationally – what is called methodological naturalism – has the potential to save lives when we use our ingenuity wisely. And the wisest way is to first get over the infantile belief that supernatural interventionist benevolent deities will act on our behalf if we pay proper homage to them. That kind of thinking stops ingenuity dead in its tracks and returns us to the wishful thinking that accompanies the shivering and hopeless cave-dwellers we once were, that these miners were without any means of escape. We have moved on, and we all have access to this escape tube built by man’s method of gaining natural knowledge. It’s high time more of us escaped our self-imposed caves and altering the associated thinking we carry with us from that distant and ignorant past. We move out of the cave when we abandon our willingness to accept ignorance. It’s time to leave the shrines behind in the caves where they belong.

Let’s grow up enough to start to trust ourselves and our abilities. It is time to stand up to those among us who wish to steal our achievements in the name of their religion. Each of us needs to choose either to stay in the comfort of the cave with our beads and bone rattles, our magical chants and body paints and funny hats, or choose to drop the pretense of what we merely believe may be true for what is probably true, likely, accurate, and correct in order to explore what lies beyond our beliefs. We don’t need any imaginary hand-holding by our invisible Sky Daddy to undertake this scary but thrilling ascent. We really are brave and capable enough to go it alone. And the rewards are worth it.

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