Questionable Motives

June 13, 2012

Why are blasphemy laws an abortion of reason?

Because you have to abort any reason to be concerned about what is true in favour of showing greater concern for what is believed to be true.  Therein lies the definition of legal blasphemy: the offence of speaking sacrilegiously about god or sacred things; sacrilege meaning the violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred; sacred meaning anything regarded with great respect and reverence; reverence meaning to regard or treat with deep respect. Blasphemy laws enforce (with the misuse of secular law) only what is regarded to be worthy of respect, namely, some belief claim. Whether or not the claim is true doesn’t matter, you see, so whatever reasons are brought forward also don’t matter. This is the rejection of reason, raising the question How do we know if some belief claim is worth respecting? Blasphemy laws circumvent the answer to this question as irrelevant.

But surely I jest! People are far too reasonable to go along with this absurdity, you must be thinking; the laws are intended to promote toleration and mutual respect for the belief of others, right?

Wrong.

The catholic church is a fairly large religious organization claiming over  a billion members globally. Surely it wouldn’t stoop to standing idly by while some bishop undertook this kind of legal abuse. But, right on cue, the mass producer and protector of pedophiles has shown that it too doesn’t care about what’s true (is anyone surprised… anyone?); it doesn’t mind that its agents use these laws to attack reason that stands contrary to whatever earns them cash and uses the secular branch of the judiciary to do this dirty work for it… to bludgeon what’s true into irrelevancy if it interferes with catholic aims and catholic beliefs and gaining money.

From the Friendly Atheist:

 

Indian TV channel (TV-9)asked the President of the Indian Rationalist Society to visit the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai to offer his opinion on a supposed miracle. The President, Sanal Edamaruku, is like the Indian version of James Randi or Penn Jillette. He is well known in the country and has been debunking miracles for over 30 years.

The miracle in question involved the dripping of water from the feet of a statue of the crucifixion, a miracle that that seems to crop up all around the world… at least when pieces of toast with Jesus on them are in short supply.

Edamuruku was quickly able to pin the cause on a leaking drainage system, with water being drawn up through the nail holes in the statue’s feet by capillary action. Needless to say, the locals and the church were not happy.

Edamaruku accused the church of exploiting people for money, a tactic that did not go down well. Edamaruku later participated in a heated debate with the pastor of the church, Father Augustine Palett, on national TV. Father Palett had little time for actual debate and instead spent his time threatening action, by way of a blasphemy complaint, if Edamaruku refused to apologize. Edamaruku welcomed this, as it would be a chance to present his evidence in court with the priests and bishops on the witness stand. Of course, no apology was forthcoming and Palett has since made good on his threat.

Following the TV appearance, a group called The Association of Concerned Catholics (Think Bill Donohue, but Indian) lodged a complaint against him with the Mumbai police. They have now arrested him, charging him with “hurting the religious sentiments of a particular community.” This is a section in India’s penal code intended to prevent hate speech and should be used against deeply sectarian groups or individuals. The complaints against Edamaruku, however, are a grave misuse of these laws.

Edamaruku had applied for “anticipatory bail,” which would have meant he could have avoided jail during any trial. Bizarrely, this was rejected on the grounds that the judge thought jail would be the safest place for him.

Any democratic country with secular law cannot justify this poisonous intrusion of theocracy into its legal system. It’s an embarrassment to anyone who can think straight. Blasphemy laws must be removed if that country’s government doesn’t wish to advocate for the aborting of reason from its judicial system.

June 16, 2011

What’s the harm?

Filed under: Critical Reasoning,faith-based beliefs,Skepticim,woo — tildeb @ 1:33 pm

This is probably the most oft repeated question in response to criticisms of faith-based beliefs like religion, complimentary and alternative ‘medicine’, anti-vaccination position, various superstitions and pseudosciences, conspiracy theories, anti-anthropomorphic global warming, evolution denialism, astrology, and so on. An answer with specific causal harm would be very helpful, wouldn’t it?

To the rescue of the reasonable, rational, and critical thinkers comes this wonderful website What’s the Harm? It’s sub-header today reads 368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages . That grabbed my attention so I delved a little deeper to find out what the site was all about:

Not all information is created equal. Some of it is correct. Some of it is incorrect. Some of it is carefully balanced. Some of it is heavily biased. Some of it is just plain crazy.

It is vital in the midst of this deluge that each of us be able to sort through all of this, keeping the useful information and discarding the rest. This requires the skill of critical thinking. Unfortunately, this is a skill that is often neglected in schools.

This site is designed to make a point about the danger of not thinking critically. Namely that you can easily be injured or killed by neglecting this important skill. We have collected the stories of over 670,000 people who have been injured or killed as a result of someone not thinking critically.

We do this not to make light of their plight. Quite the opposite. We want to honor their memory and learn from their stories.

We also wish to call attention to the types of misinformation which have caused this sort of harm. On the topics page you will see a number of popular topics that that are being promoted via misinformation. Many of them have no basis in truth at all. A few are based in reality, but veer off into troublesome areas. We all need to think more critically about these topics, and take great care when we encounter them.

Many proponents of these things will claim they are harmless. We aim to show that they are decidedly not.

Isn’t that music to the sceptical ear? Yes, but one must remember that these are real people whose stories can mean something if we just pay attention and learn from them.

For example, take the case of Debra Harrison from Wichita, Kansas. She was the founder of Consegrity, a form of energy medicine and faith healing. She rejected medical treatment for herself or her family and died of undiagnosed diabetes.

How about 1100 patients in Montreal who found out the acupuncture needles used on them weren’t properly sterilized and had to get HIV and hepatitis testing?

Or have you ever been warned the all too common result of tinnitus from ear candles?

Informed consent is a key ingredient to granting knowledgeable permission. Our ability to do so in the face of the onslaught of woo brought to us by various public figures such as Dr Oz and Deepak Chopra means we need to do a little more mental work, use a little more critical thinking, exercise a little more our scepticism even when we would prefer to simply believe. Such a site as What’s the Harm makes that job just a little bit easier. I noticed some of the links are broken and suggest that even these stories may also be in need of some scepticism if the evidence for their veracity is lacking. After all, we must be fair and remember the old adage is just as applicable today: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

(h/t to Steven Novella over at  NeuroLogica Blog)

November 5, 2010

How should we write about gnu atheists?

Filed under: accommodation,Bias,New Atheists,Religion,Skepticim — tildeb @ 11:38 pm

Well, there are the standard canards. One of my favourites and perhaps the most common is the one that puts forth the proposition that non belief is another kind of religious belief, albeit of the fundamentalist and dogmatic kind. And those who believe in it are the militant, strident, and arrogant atheists who dare not only to question the god hypothesis but who reach a conclusion of non belief as the evidence now stands. It seems to be a nice way to balance the whack jobs on both sides while appearing reasonable. Of course, it’s no such thing: it is the religious equivalent of racial apartheid: separate but equal. That’s what accommodation is all about.

So what are the rules to denigrate atheists successfully? Is there some kind of accommodation-friendly argumentative path to follow that would allow otherwise reasonable people to pretend that the god hypothesis is really a problem for atheists rather than the faithful, an approach that seems reasonable enough to fool the majority of people who would prefer to dismiss atheists without having to really think about the issues and questions they raise?

From Salty Current comes this satisfying guide to all those who wish to write and complain about the New Atheists. I have extracted a few paragraphs as a teaser but the short guide is a fast an enjoyable read.

Gnu atheists should be presented as uncivil, strident, aggressive, arrogant proselytizers and rigid fundamentalists. Don’t worry about finding concrete examples to support these generalizations. If you absolutely must quote from a gnu, keep it short and divorced from the complex background and context which would only confuse the reader. You’re firmly within the consensus, so you’re on solid ground. At the same time, whenever possible – as when discussing large-scale surveys showing declining rates of belief – present nonbelievers as merely having “doubts” about God. This is perfectly consistent.

Similarly, gnu atheism shouldn’t be presented as an intellectual position. Repeatedly emphasize their hostility to organized religion as the source of their disbelief. It helps if you acknowledge that there are some legitimate reasons for this hostility – shows you to be fair and balanced while leaving aside those pesky ontological matters.

You’re also safe presenting gnu atheists as cold, hyper-rational, solitary automatons who lack an appreciation of beauty or sense of wonder. Pay no attention to those who are artists, writers, or musicians, or to any of their works describing the wonder of scientific understanding and the sense of cosmic connectedness that follows from this deeper empirical knowledge. Leave aside the enormous spectrum of atheist writing on any number of ethical issues. And no need to discuss gnu atheists as people with families, friends, and communities. There’s nothing dishonest about this. You’re writing about that one dimension that is the guiding focus of their lives: rejecting religion.

Enjoy the entire guide and comments here.

(h/t to WEIT)

May 18, 2010

Dismantling creationism: how can this happen?

Over at Neurologica there is a wonderful post about a conversation between Novella and a creationist named Duane. It covers many of the standard creationist canards hostile to the science of evolution and clearly reveals how someone like Duane can pretend to respect logic and evidence and appear to be inquiring yet remain firm and steadfast in religiously inspired ignorance when those methods and the provided evidence counter some quacked-up theological beliefs. But half the fun of reading a calm and patient smack-down of hostile creationism is reading some of the comments. My favourite comment is from Weii, the tenth comment down (May 14th, 10:21 pm), who perceptively notes:

He is a typical believer who relies on his faith to answer his questions. Evidence doesn’t convince him as he will only seek evidence that confirms his belief and ignore it if it doesn’t, as we all will. A creationist that is also a scientist is an oxymoron, unless they are in a totally unrelated field. Creationists believe things and only see confirmation. Scientists make certain assumptions about the world and then test them. Someone who believes that toast always lands on the buttered side down, when faced with it landing buttered side up, will think that he buttered the wrong side.

And that is exactly what I have found as I venture through the blogosphere: those who insist that truth must be compatible with their theology have already made the decision to rank what is true to be less valuable than maintaining a religious belief, and will then bend, distort, excuse, and ignore the fruits of honest inquiry that run counter to these comforting beliefs in order to protect and promote religiously inspired ignorance. But with enough cognitive dissonance created by good reasoning about the overwhelming evidence counter to claims about special human creationism, then perhaps some will dismantle their walled religious beliefs one brick at a time and wake up one day to the beautiful dawn of an open mind and wonder “How did this happen?”

May 5, 2010

What does it mean to be ‘intellectually honest’?

Filed under: Argument,belief,Skepticim — tildeb @ 3:23 pm

It’s not often I come across an article that tackles in a straightforward and easily understood way the central theme of Questionable Motives: why should we trust any kind of belief without compelling evidence? Is there some way we can differentiate between what we can know to be true rather than simply believe what’s probably true?

From Steve Novella over at Neurologica comes this criticism of an article posted on the Huffington Post from which I have extracted the parts I think relevant to describing intellectual honesty:

One of the challenges of trying to be scientific, and an honest intellectual, is that judgment is often required in assessing a claim or topic. The problem with relying upon one’s judgment is that it is fraught, even overwhelmed, with personal bias.

That’s a fundamental recognition: that we come predisposed to be biased.

The “default mode” of human behavior (which means most people do this most of the time) is to construct an elaborate rationalization for what we already believe, and want to believe. The more intelligent we are, the more sophisticated and elaborate our rationalizations – giving more confidence in our conclusions, but not necessarily deserved.

The problem is that if we want to know something, how can we try to remove or overcome or compensate for this natural tendency to be biased so that we can better know what’s true rather than what we believe is true?

The solution to this problem is to develop a specific intellectual skill set – knowledge of the many and various ways in which we bias our thinking and the constant application of this knowledge to our own beliefs. In other words, we need to be skeptical, especially of ourselves. But not just skeptical in attitude, systematically skeptical of the process of our own thought.

But since this is necessarily self-referential (we can bias our assessment of our biases) it is also necessary to check your beliefs and thinking against other people, people with different perspectives – from different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and cultures.

This approach is intellectually honest, which must include awareness of our biases inherent in our assertions and assumptions about what we think is true, and a healthy dose of skepticism. And if we aren’t skeptical?

The opposite of this approach is to be insular, to have a self-contained belief system that feeds on itself but which is completely disconnected from logic and reality. Humans seem to have an unfortunate penchant for falling into such self-contained belief systems, cults being the ultimate expression of this tendency.

This kind knowledge based on a self-contained belief system is therefore intellectually dishonest.

How we think, then, in large part determines what we think, or to use more specific language, our epistemology in a large part determines our ontology. How we think of issues and our ability to recognize our biases when we do requires a level of skepticism to be applied in order for us to be able to better trust our knowledge. If we fail to follow an informed epistemological approach and, instead, rely on our assumptions and assertions that inform beliefs to be enough of a guide to lead us to knowledge, then we quite rightly are wide open to the legitimate criticism that our ontology – what we think we know – is suspect. Belief without skepticism, belief without a recognition of our inherent biases – is a sure sign that we are not privy to what is true by means of intellectual honesty but merely what we think is true by means of intellectual dishonesty.

April 29, 2010

Why should feminism embrace reason and shun religion?

Because religious ideas harm women and restrict their lives on a daily basis.

There is a terrific article with rich resources by Amy Clare over at ButterfliesandWheels from which I have taken a few excerpts and indented below. I urge all readers to enjoy the well-argued and entire piece here titled Why feminism must embrace reason and shun religion.

This fact has been commented on before, and it should be well known among feminists; rather than waste space quoting verses, I will direct you to the website ‘The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible’, which contains lists of the verses relating to women in the Koran, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. More about Islam can be found at the blog of Kafir Girl, whose article ‘Swimmin’ in Women’ is an irreverent and detailed analysis of the behaviour of Islam’s prophet Mohammed towards women and girls. While there is simply not enough space to fully analyse each religion’s treatment of women, there is some information about the inconsistency of the Hindu texts in relation to women’s rights here, an analysis of misogyny and Buddhism here, and this page shows that even the non-violent Jains apparently can’t handle a little bit of menstrual blood. The only reason that on-demand abortion is not available to women worldwide is the prevalence of religious (most notably Catholic) beliefs that a fertilised egg is a human being. The rise of unwanted pregnancies and STDs including Aids in many countries can be directly blamed on religiously-funded abstinence programmes which are based on beliefs that contraception and sex before marriage are evil. Strong beliefs about the sanctity of a girl’s virginity and the wickedness of female sexual behaviour lead to predictable, sometimes appalling and horrific results, such as girls being buried alive, lashed and stoned to death. And even as women are being harmed by such religious beliefs, they are told that the originator of these ideas, God, loves them.

It is as though mainstream feminism has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to religion, but it is not alone in this. Religion has managed to carve itself a very nice niche in society whereby any questioning of religious faith is seen to be extremely bad form. Religion seems to have a monopoly on hurt feelings, entirely unfairly in my opinion. It seems to me that some feminists are afraid of a critical discussion about religious faith, because of the ever-looming label of ‘intolerant’, ‘prejudiced’, or, when it comes to any religion besides Christianity, ‘racist’.

Given all of the above, I anticipate in reaction: what business is it of yours what people believe? A person’s private religious faith is none of anyone’s business and you should tolerate it. You’ve got no right to tell people what to think! And so on. These are arguments atheists come across often. Indeed this seems to be the tack that many feminists take. It appears quite difficult to argue against, but here goes. First of all, as Sam Harris points out in his book ‘The End Of Faith’, belief almost always leads to action, therefore, beliefs are very rarely truly private. Believe that it’s going to rain, and you’ll take an umbrella out with you. Believe that a clump of cells is a sacred human life, and you will join a pro-life group and lobby the government to ban abortion; you may even be successful, in which case you will contribute to the suffering and even deaths of large numbers of women. As Harris says, “Some beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.” Indeed feminists do not tolerate every belief. We reject many commonly-held beliefs, most notably the belief that males are fundamentally different from, and superior to, females.

Also, people’s religious beliefs aren’t necessarily freely chosen. The vast majority of religious people are so because they have been brought up to be religious; it has been impressed upon them from an early age that there is a divine creator, and that he should be worshipped in the following ways, and so on. In this way, ‘telling people what to believe’ is really the preserve of religion. All atheists do, if anything, is ask people to question what they believe. If children were allowed to grow up without religious influence and then asked to evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves as adults if there is a god, then it would be a different matter entirely. But this doesn’t happen.

Even in the light of all of the above, there are some who will still insist that merely believing in a loving god – having ignored or ‘reinterpreted’ all the misogynist trappings of their faith – is harmless. I don’t agree. This belief is still based on blind faith, not on evidence, and such a mindset, while promoted by religions as a virtue, is in fact damaging to society. What is the difference between a person who simply ‘feels’ that there is a god, and a person who simply ‘feels’ that males are superior to females? Answer: nothing. Both ideas are uncontaminated by evidence. But the difference, for some feminists, seems to be that the latter view is to be fought against and the former to be tolerated and even praised.

Feminists can all perhaps agree on one thing: that the status quo in the majority (if not all) of the world’s societies is harmful in many ways towards women and girls. A large part of the harm is done by religion, both directly by influencing laws, attitudes and behaviour, and indirectly by promoting the idea that faith is a virtue and thus discouraging the questioning attitude that is so vital for debunking sexism and promoting equality. It is time for feminism to be brave and have a discussion about the real effects of religious faith on women’s place in societies worldwide, not placing the blame on a few extremists but critically examining the whole institution. Perhaps one day all feminists will end up at the same conclusion I came to many years ago: it is not just that the emperor has no clothes, it is that there is no emperor at all.

April 13, 2010

Why is denying science the same as denying freedom?

Filed under: Argument,belief,fear,Freedom,Science,Skepticim,TED,Truth — tildeb @ 8:53 am

Michael Specter explains why: because denying science is denying truth, and we need the truth to set us free.

April 7, 2010

Is there a meaningful difference between skepticism and atheism?

Filed under: Argument,Atheism,belief,Debate,Faith,Science,Skepticim — tildeb @ 9:47 am

Steve Novella thinks so and argues the matter this way:

Science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism (MN), and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position.

The agnostic position is about method not beliefs; it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith. But whenever fact-based claims step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game.

Religions are multifarious – they often contain tenets of faith (the ultimate meaning of things), claims about history and the nature of reality, a source of cultural identity, and a code of morality. Freedom of (and from) religion means that people have a right to any tenets of faith they choose, they have a right to their own moral code (within limits, of course), and they also have a right to frame their personal and group identity how they wish.

People do not, however, have a right to their own facts. So when religions make claims about history or the nature of the material world, they are within the purview of science. Religions should not dictate to science, to limit its scope or its conclusions. It is also logically invalid to claim that faith is an appropriate approach to factual claims.

Philosophical naturalism (PN) is the position the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is (to know). It is reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable. All such beliefs are by necessity arbitrary, and most people end up believing whatever is taught to them by their parents and culture. But it has to be acknowledged that some people can and do accept and practice methodological naturalism and simultaneously maintain personal articles of faith for questions outside the realm of science. There is nothing inherently inconsistent in this position.

Skepticism, according to Steve, is not atheism but agnosticism. This difference is therefore meaningful.

Skepdude thinks not and takes a similar position about the method of science based on philosophical naturalism but argues that agnosticism is not a suspension of inquiry but a refusal to come to a decision on the merits of an unjustified faith claim. The reasonable position on faith claims, he argues, is atheism – non belief rather than a perhaps/perhaps not stance. He writes in the ninth comment about Steve’s article:

The heart of the issue as I see it is this (this applies to both the god hypothesis, not religion as that is too broad, just the god hypothesis): A claim of existence is being made (X exists); X is set up in such a way as to be undetectable by science, therefore, by definition, no evidence supporting the claim has or can be presented. The million dollar question is: What position do we as skeptics take about such existence claims that are set up as to be outside of science?

Now the options, as I see them are: Accept the claim, reject the claim or put it aside and take no position on it. Now, I think anyone that claims to be a skeptic will not accept any such claims (not to be construed to mean no skeptic will believe in god, but that skepticism must not accept claims presented without evidence, individual skeptics can still believe). It is the other two options that split us: some of us, me included, think that skeptics must reject (not accept) such claims, others think that this set up puts these claims outside of the scope of skepticism, thus we can’t know, thus they take the agnostic position, in essence not taking a position. As Hitchens famously says: What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

Veon, a poster who does not have a link, enlightens us still further a few more comments down:

When someone comes up to me with a god claim, I don’t respond by bringing up the difference between PN and MN. I simply ask them, “What do you believe and why?” Is their belief based on evidence and reason or personal experiences and anecdotes?

I will bring science up, but as the best method for determining whether or not something is true, not the only method. It has the best track record of everything we’ve tried. It has a way to self correct. It can weed out accurate claims from inaccurate ones. And that’s enough. I don’t need to fall back to some distinction between PN and MN. Methodological Naturalism is enough to dispense most god claims, even the most nebulous.

For example, Steve brought up the type of god people typically fall back on when debating non-believers: the god outside of the universe. Sure, it’s an untestable claim. It’s also a meaningless one. My first response to such a claim would be, “How do you know such a god exists?”

Either it truly does exist outside the universe and the person has no basis or reason to accept the claim of existence, or at some time, it interacted with our universe in such a way to provide the person with a reason to believe in its existence. If it’s the latter case, we can test for that interaction.

If its the former, and the god exists completely apart from the universe and has no interaction, how is it any different from a god that doesn’t exist? How would you distinguish a god apart from the universe from one that doesn’t exist? The invisible and the non-existent have a way of looking identical. The most reasonable conclusion to make at that point, the one which makes the fewest assumptions, the one that is based on prior plausibility, is that belief in such a god is unwarranted.

My position isn’t that these people shouldn’t hold these beliefs, or can’t hold these beliefs. It’s that no position, whatever it is, should be beyond scrutiny. Even in the instance of the “faith only” claims, you can still ask the person why they believe what they do. Do they have a reason for it? If not, why do they still believe it? Do they think that other people should believe the same thing? If so, why? What reason would they give to try to convince people to believe the same way they do? Should we behave differently based on that belief?

My point is, that even in cases where someone has a belief that is purely faith-based and separate from science and reason, that person is going to be making decisions and taking actions based on that belief. It’s not a “personal choice, and nothing else.”

March 26, 2010

Is “X-woman” really a new species?

Filed under: Discovery,Evolution,Mitochondrial Eve,Science,Skepticim — tildeb @ 5:44 pm

The discovery of the creature nicknamed “X-woman” has to rank as one of the most exciting science stories of the year so far. She — if X-woman is indeed a “she” — is known only from a little finger bone, found in a Siberian cave and dated to between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago. But according to a research team led by Johannes Krause and Svante Pääbo, of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, she may represent an entirely new human species.

At the time X-woman lived, the only hominins known in Eurasia were modern humans and Neanderthals (Homo floresiensis, the “Hobbits”, were also around in Indonesia). Yet analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the bone has suggested that X-woman belongs to neither species (the nickname, incidentally, was chosen because mitochondrial DNA is passed down the female line — there is no indication of sex just yet).

Krause and Pääbo believe that this suggests the creature belongs to a new lineage of humans, and perhaps to a new species. As Pääbo put it:

“Whatever carried this DNA out of Africa is some new creature that has not been on our radar screens. It suggests there were perhaps three different families of humans in this area about 40,000 years ago, and also the hobbits in Indonesia.”

Read the rest of this interesting article from TimesOnline here.

March 22, 2010

Why do we believe in the supernatural? A neurological explanation…

Filed under: belief,brain,Neurology,Science,Skepticim — tildeb @ 10:42 am

Have you ever heard of Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device? Neither have I. So what is it?

According to Justin Barrett, under certain conditions, humans commonly interpret two-dimensional, moving
geometric shapes as having the properties of causality and animacy. In other words, our brains – and our neurological response to visual stimuli in particular – come wired to seek and assign agency. This is HADD… a description of a complex neurological preference to detect agency.

Neuroscientist Steve Novella explains:

Psychologists and neuroscientists in recent years have demonstrated that our brains are hardwired to distinguish things in our environment that are alive from those that are not alive. But “being alive” (from a psychological point of view) is not about biology, but agency – something that can act in the world, that has its own will and can cause things to happen. Sure, this is a property of living things, but that’s not how our brain sort things out. We can perceive agency in non-living things if they are acting as if they are agents.

Bruce Hood adds to our understanding:

We imbue agents with an essence – a unique living force, even while infants. Objects are just generic things, totally interchangeable. While agents have their own unique essence. Interestingly, children can come to view a favorite toy (a stuffed animal, for example) with the properties of an agent and will treat it like a living thing. This reinforces the notion that the distinction we make is not between living and non-living so much as agent vs object.

This biological tendency we have to assign agency where none may exist helps to explain why we seem so willing to believe in all kinds of supernatural agencies. Back to Doctor Steve:

HADD detects more than movement, it can detect a pattern in otherwise unrelated events, details that defy easy explanation, or consequences that seem out of proportion to the alleged causes. When HADD is triggered we tend to see a hidden agent working behind the scenes, making events unfold the way they do, and perhaps even deliberately hiding its own tracks.

So if we are aware that we are predisposed by our neurology to assign agency where none may exist, then what can we do to safeguard our perceptions from our imaginings? Novella is quite clear with advice on how we can accomplish this willful task:

Skepticism, in many ways, is a filter on HADD. First we have to recognize that our brains are not perfect perceivers and processors of information. There are specific and myriad ways in which the human brain is biased and flawed. Science and skepticism are methods for correcting or filtering out those biases. Skeptics asks themselves – is it really true. We see many patterns, but only some of those patterns represent underlying reality. We need a process to sort out which ones are real – that is science and skepticism.

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