Archive for March, 2012


[via TPM]

At moments like this, I remember why I voted for President Obama. The attrition of his many major and minor disappointing actions since taking office can tend to overshadow something important:

The simple fact that he was elected matters.

A lot.

[Note: This post, specifically the cat analogy, borrows heavily from ideas I first heard expressed on the highly recommended Atheist Experience TV show. I suggest you ucheck them out, and I thank them for presenting the argument.]

 

“Why should I believe you?”

My wife and I don’t have kids, but if we ever do, that will definitely be a question they’ll be raised learning to ask.

From Power Balance bracelets (astonishingly still being sold on the internet) to miracle diets, from reiki to homeopathy, from chupacabras to sinister reptilians, from phony 2011 apocalyptic prophesies to phony 2012 apocalyptic prophesies, the informational landscape in which we live is riddled with falsehoods, and heavily populated by hucksters and charlatans who would have us believe the stories they’re peddling in order to further their own agendas – usually to our detriment – that a skeptical approach is merited.

Skepticism is important for many reasons. One of the most important is that we prevent ourselves from baselessly believing untrue things, especially in cases where accepting false or unsupported beliefs may bring undue harm or ill consequences upon ourselves. But even in cases where believing things for no good reason may not seem to invite any immediate or apparent harm – say, for example, accepting that there is a loving god which created this universe and all living things in it – the same degree of skepticism should be applied. We act, after all, based upon our beliefs. And the further our beliefs become detached from foundations in reality, the more difficult it will become for us to make decisions which are beneficial in the real world.

But not all claims are equal.

Consider two assertions I might make to you:

1) I tell you my bicycle is parked outside.

2) I tell you my Lamborghini is parked outside.

Unless you happen to believe for some reason that I’m ridiculously wealthy (if only it were true) you almost certainly won’t believe my second assertion. You will, however, believe the first easily enough, and rightfully so. The vast majority of people can (and many do) buy bicycles, meaning that the likelihood of my owning one is fairly high, and further that the unlikelihood of me lying about owning one (when it’s nothing special) is even higher. Why in the world would anyone lie about owning a bike?

These thresholds of believability are something we all are familiar with and experience in our daily lives, especially in the internet age when viral rumors run rampant and the pace of creating false stories and claims exceeds the pace of debunking those falsehoods by what seems to be an ever-increasing margin. We have all kinds of expressions, usually involving odor (“that story doesn’t pass the smell test”) that display in our vernacular language our keen awareness of the many varying levels of plausibility when it comes to the stories people tell us.

Yet, when it comes to religious assertions, hands off! Thou shalt not disrespect the claims of another, so long as they qualify them with words such as “sacred”, “spiritual”, “holy”, “religious”, “god”, or any number of phrases which serve as dogmatic antibodies to critical scrutiny. How often we all have heard it asserted that questioning another’s religious assertions is “disrespectful” or “inappropriate”.

But to those believers who would seek to assert their religious claims under the protection of such well-established social mores, it’s important that you understand that skeptics and atheists have no sacred cows. No claims are exempt from inquiry and investigation.

So when you assert, “God exists”, you may find it offensive when atheists and skeptics ask you, rhetorically, “Do you believe in bigfoot?” “Do you believe in leprechauns?” “Do you believe in alien abductions?” To many of you this may feel like a deliberately disrespectful affront to the sanctity of your religion. But it’s important that you understand this is not hyperbole or exaggeration on the part of the questioner. Skeptics do not recognize the sanctity of any claims which have not been shown to be built upon a reasonable and demonstrable foundation of evidence.

And please, if you will, consider how your claims sound to us.

Your claim is one of the existence of God. Let’s consider an analogy based on the existence of a pet. And return to the concept of varying thresholds of believability.

Like the bicycle example above, if I assert to you that “I have a pet cat”, you are more than likely to believe me. Having a cat is so commonplace, and nothing special. Why would I lie about that? And let’s say additionally that I’m your co-worker of several years, so that you feel you know me fairly well and have little reason to doubt or distrust me. Then you’ll be even more inclined to believe that a cat truly is living in my home.

So one Saturday evening I have a party and you have your first opportunity to visit my place – very much looking forward to meeting the cat I always talk so much about. But upon arriving and walking around a bit, you begin to notice first that there isn’t a cat wandering around, and then – as you move from room to room – that there isn’t a litter box in the bathroom, and there aren’t food and water dishes in the kitchen. There are no scratches on the sofa, and no signs of any cat toys, cat nip, or any cat-related anything to be found.

Your doubt builds, and appropriately so. My simple assertion (“I have a cat”) has become less believable as your scrutiny of my claim has raised your suspicions. After a while you just have to ask me: “So, where is this cat of yours?” But I just smile and say she’s not around right now. Time passes, still no cat, you raise the stakes: “So I’m sorry, but it kind of seems like you don’t really have a cat here…” But now I just laugh. “Oh, of course I have a cat, it’s just away from the home right now, and it won’t be back until after the party…”

At a certain point, when none of the evidence you should expect to have seen if I truly owned a cat has been anywhere in sight – especially the cat itself – you will find yourself in a position in which, even if you trust me and don’t believe I’m a liar, you really are left with no other choice but believing I don’t really have a cat. My once simple “cat” assertion has now moved closer to “Lamborghini” territory. Until, at least, I can show you some verifiable evidence that I actually do have a cat.

Or in other words, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

And in this story, the only claim I’m making is that I have a pet cat.

So how do you think it sounds to people who don’t already subscribe to your God-concept when you claim that God not only exists, but has extraordinary powers and does things which go against everything we know of how the natural world works?

Is it really so unreasonable for us to ask you to show us the litter box? To show us the food and water dishes or the scratches on the sofa? And above all, to show us the damn cat?

I hope you understand this: Atheists don’t choose not to believe in gods. We can’t believe in gods. There simply is no reason to believe the entirely unconvincing claims that any gods exist when nobody on the planet can demonstrate a single shred of evidence that those claims are true. Under such conditions, “choosing” to believe in God is akin to “choosing” to believe we can fly by flapping our arms. It flies in the face of everything we know as evident reality.

I can’t do it. Nor would I ever want to, without good reason.

“You had to be there.”

We’ve all heard it before.

We’ve all said it, and we all know the feeling. We want so badly to communicate exactly how it felt to experience a particular moment – a funny joke, a transportative live music experience, the electricity of the crowd at the game winning score – yet we can see on our listeners’ faces that our accounts of these stories are falling short. They’re unable to put themselves in our shoes and directly feel the states we’re trying to convey.

So we say, “Well, I guess you just had to be there.” But we’re left with that residual feeling… if only there were some way we could make them feel what we felt at that time, then they’d get it.

The problem is, we can’t do that. Subjective experiences by definition are limited to the subject who experiences them. Each human mind is an island unto itself; we cannot inhabit the minds of others, get into their heads and truly know what it’s like to feel what they feel, experience what they experience, think how they think.

Not that we human beings don’t have an amazing and beautiful capacity to approximate that sensation to what generally strikes us as a convincing degree. A shared concert experience, a shared tragedy, in all sorts of situations our great capacity for empathy enables us to understand that at that particular time, we all went through the same thing, or at least something so very similar that we confidently say, “I know how that feels. I’ve been through that.”

And of course through millennia of human culture and civilization we’ve established wonderfully refined methods to communicate, in both concrete and abstract ways, the richness of human experience. Poetry, music, literature, art, allegory, metaphor, humor, these are among the many devices that allow us to articulate our experiences with such power and beauty that we just know – or at least feel that we know – that we have had a common experience of the same condition.

These empathetic resonances touch our lives every day. And this experience – the experience of feeling that we have shared or at least understood the experiences of others – is real to us. And this makes it all too easy to accept the experiences of others as true. But in fact, it even actually goes beyond that.

It makes it difficult to accept the experiences of others as false.

To question another’s assertion of personal experience as truth is often seen as, at best, insinuating that they may be confused, or perhaps not too bright, but at worst, accusing them of being an outright liar. And so it becomes socially inappropriate to express vocal disbelief in the personal experience claims people make.

But there’s a problem with this. Two problems, actually.

The first is that there isn’t just a single delineating line between believable and unbelievable claims. It’s a many layered threshold; it’s a wide spectrum. It is possible that people could lie when they say, “I’m hungry.” But such a lie would be so rare – not to mention pointless – that we generally would never have reason to doubt that claim. A claim such as, “I see dead people”, on the other hand, appropriately raises the red flag of skepticism. The extraordinary nature of the claim rightfully brings upon itself increased doubt, increased skepticism, and increased disbelief. Hunger is not only a universal experience for us humans, it also has countlessly abundant evident examples in the natural world. The natural world does not, however, provide us with examples of ghosts, and further, only a certain percentage of people claim to have personally experienced them.

Which brings us to the second problem, which is that some things are demonstrably true when scrutinized using logic, reason and the scientific method (inasmuch, that is, that anything can be said to be “true”, which, in science, is never said with 100% certainty). Hunger is not only universal as an experience, it’s universal as a biological reality which can be measured, tested and validated. However, there is no reliable scientific demonstration that ghosts exist at all, let alone that even if they did the type of equipment that “ghost hunter” types use in their pseudoscientific pursuit of spirits would be the right kinds of tools for the job. There simply are no evident, naturalistic signs of the existence of ghosts.

Or gods. And here we get to the point.

“I know God is real because I experience him every day.” “I know Jesus is the Savior because I accepted Him into my heart.” “I know Mohammed is the one true prophet because I feel Allah’s presence at all times.”

We’ve all heard it before.

Chances are, if you’re a believer, you’ve probably said it, too, and may well say it many more times again. It is one of, if not the most common appeal that believers make in efforts to convince others of the truth of their beliefs. And the reason for that, as mentioned above, is that it’s a powerful appeal.

Our sense of empathy is strong, as is our reluctance to question the validity of the personal experience of others. Appealing to this empathy and respect for boundaries not only creates the appearance that “there’s really something to it” when it comes to religious beliefs, it also corners the skeptics into being the bad guys if they dare question the factuality of those assertions.

How dare we disrespect others’ beliefs!

Here’s how: Because they have no place in the discussion of what is actually true. Because the things we can recognize and demonstrate as being true are, by definition, not subjective, but objective and demonstrable under the scrutiny of multiple observers.

Not only that, but there is plenty of evidence that what actually can be demonstrated about personal religious experience claims is that they are, practically without fail, limited to the cultural parameters in which the subject was raised. When a farm boy from Nebraska “sees God”, we can be quite certain that that god will not be a Hindu god such asVishnu or Shiva. The personal experiences of “God”, or “Allah”, or “Vishnu”, or whatever that people have are, almost without fail, confined to the strict limitations of their culturally familiar religions. So objectively speaking, is it more reasonable to assume that most Americans who claim to be experiencing Jesus are actually experiencing Jesus, or that they believe they’re experiencing Jesus because they’ve grown up in a majority Christian nation, raised by Christian families?

Furthermore, if we start from the default position of atheism (as we all are born atheists, and are only taught religion later in life), which personal experience claims are we to believe? People of different religions assert that their own is the only true one. But given that we cannot access any other individual’s personal experiences, how should we determine whether the Christian’s “only true religion” (or for that matter, which of the hundreds of Christian denominations), or the Muslim’s “only true religion”, and so on, is actually the right one? If the argument is limited to the subjective personal experience, then it can never be demonstrated as true to an outside observer.

And so all such religious truth claims, all of which conflict with each other, are equal in the eyes of the neutral observer. And, given that there’s no evidence for their veracity to be found in the natural world, they’re all equally unlikely, equally implausible, equally unbelievable.

And that’s why, when believers ask me (as one did recently) questions like, “Doesn’t personal experience matter? Doesn’t it count for anything?” My answer is:

No.

Not when it comes to demonstrating the truth of your claims. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.

 

A: So, do you have any religious beliefs?

B: No, I don’t believe in religion. But I am spiritual, you know?

A: Spiritual?

B: Yeah, you know, I just think we’re all connected by this… energy. There’s a oneness to the universe that flows through everything. It’s kind of like a quantum energy that’s a part of all of us and connects us with everyone else and everything else in the universe, you know? …”

I’m an anti-theist. I stand in opposition to faith-based belief (which is to say belief for no good reason) which perpetuates ignorance, impedes societal progress and, in large part, inflicts considerable harm on our world.

That said, I must admit that I have a greater measure of respect for those with sincere religious convictions (problematic as they may be, and the charlatanism of grifting faith healers and pedophile priests notwithstanding) than I do for those who describe themselves as “spiritual”.

Oh man, do I ever hate that word. “Spiritual”.

To me, it seems there are two kinds of “spiritual” people:

1) Atheists who are too chickenshit to either admit it to themselves, or face living with the social stigma of being branded (gasp!) an atheist, and;

2) People who just really don’t know what the hell they believe at all.

I was there (in that quasi-“spiritual” twilight zone) or pretty close to it, for a longer time than I’d care to admit. (I haven’t yet written part two of “Why I’m an Atheist”, but when I do, I’ll be delving into my semi-woo years). Certain vague, undefined notions, of a “beyond”, an “other side”, some almost Platonic otherworld – all these muddles ideas kept a loose grip on my imagination for years after I’d abandoned the church and the few tiny shreds of Christian faith I’d ever had.

Although I never succeeded in “transcending”, I made serious attempts at transcendent meditation. Ouija board opportunities presented themselves occasionally, and I had tentative hopes for ghostly connections. I briefly dated a witch in college, and while never really persuaded by her assertions of the power of certain charms, trinkets and herbs, the depth of her conviction at least made me wonder if there was something to it.

One of my best friends swore on his life that the story he told me, in great detail, of the ghost that he’d seen, was absolutely true. Who was I to doubt him? My brother from another mother, who I’d trust to my dying day?

The closest times I ever came to “religious” or “spiritual”  experiences – and this is the most unsurprising thing in the world – happened under the influence of psychedelics. And the truth is, I highly value those experiences. The sensation that there MUST BE, no, there IS so much more to this reality than we’re able to recognize while bogged down in the mundanity of our everyday lives is not only overwhelming, but accurate.

Amost none of us take time to see the forest for the trees. Most get so wrapped up in our daily schedules, obligations, responsibilities, and last ditch attempts at squeezing in a few good moments that we never just, say, contemplate an apple, wonder how it turned out that way, marvel at how beautiful and shiny its skin is, and say, “Whoooaa…”

Of course, I don’t outright condemn the “spiritual” folks, who in large part are seeking, in Huxley’s words, to cleanse the doors of perception and reclaim the “magical” wonder of the world that so many (very much mistakenly) think that science has reduced to cold calculation.

They’re well intentioned, especially in deliberately breaking from organized religion. I’ve dabbled in “spiritual” myself, and a lot of my friends along the way have had at least one foot in that door.

But at the end of the day, “I’m spiritual” generally translates to “I haven’t really thought this all the way through yet.”

Among the “spiritual”, some believe in “energy” but have no idea how to explain what that means.

Some are interested in pursuing “alternative” medicines, riding on the assumption that “natural is better”.

Without continuing the interminate, detailed list of the many woo ways of the “spiritual”, I’ll simply say that my frustration with this crew flows from two things.

One, to be “spiritual” is to be driven by emotion without regard to reason. On this level, I can empathize. In a world where so many injustices are perpetrated, moral outrage is a reasonable response much of the time. And on a certain level, to seek the higher moral ground is commendable. But that higher ground needs to have a bedrock foundation of reason and scientific legitimacy.

As an example, yes, the health care system has been largely hijacked by the pharmaceutical companies, and yes, that’s an ominous reality. But the proper response is not to reject proven scientific medicine in favor of homeopathy, “kanpou” (traditional Chinese medicine), crystals, or whatever other non-medical remedies might be deemed to be “healthier” or “less harmful”. As a diabetic, I would have died if I’d taken this approach. I say, three cheers for recombinant DNA technology, even if it’s totally “unnatural”.

And yes, I understand that many “spiritual” people do not reject modern medicine altogether. I’m not simply trying to set up a straw man. But many reject, at least in part, not only the validity of modern medicine but also the larger validity of the scientific method as the most reliable means of understaning, explaining and predicting the world we live in.

And medicine is a clear illustration of the real harm that can be done when people embrace non-reality based beliefs.

My second big frustration is that most of the “spiritual” have taken only one half step towards – but resist fully commiting to – embracing a naturalistic, reality-based foundation of belief.

Whether it’s for fear of negative labeling, or a desire to hang on to the notion of a “magical” world, or simply the desire to feel like they’re a part of something larger, those who consider themselves “spiritual” in nearly all cases have come from religious backgrounds, taking one step away from dogma, but unwilling to completely sever the ties.

Let it go, people. Take that extra half step. The beauty and mystery of the natural world is more beautifully mystifying and captivating than any archaic, stale superstitions could possibly dream of.

And the world will be a better place when more of its human inhabitants live their lives upon a foundation of reality-based beliefs.

This is the next item to go in my Amazon cart.

Why Evolution Is True

Sam Harris’s new book, Free Will, will be out in three days. You can order a paperback here, a Kindle version ($3.99) here, read a short excerpt here, and a longer excerpt at the Amazon site. At 90 pages, it’s only $6.99.

I like it a lot (I’ve blurbed it), and if you know my own views on free will, you’ll like it too.  Sam and I have pretty much the same take on the issue, but of course Sam is deeper and writes better! I also like Oliver Sacks’ blurb: “Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000.” ‘Tis true!

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