Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

REPOST: Epistemology

September 15, 2010

Orac at Respectful Insolence had a great post a month or so ago which really nailed some basic problems with accepting pseudoscience. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Of course, even within New Age, skepticism seems to be without a basis. After all, if you accept astrology and fairies, really, on what possible basis can you reject channeling the dead?… Unfortunately, this is a completely predictable result. When one leaves science, rationality, and reason behind, there is no reliable way to differentiate one woo from another, one pseudoscience from another, one faith-based belief from another. When anything goes, nothing goes, and nothing can be included or excluded based on evidence. Everything is fair game.

This is something that inevitably comes up pretty much every time I try to talk to one of these believer people. It just seems obvious to them that their own beliefs – say, that homeopathy works – are somehow beyond testing and experimentation, or that there’s a massive conspiracy to cover up all the successful tests, or some other lame excuse. But when others use the exact same arguments to support beliefs which are even crazier – like that reptilian aliens have infiltrated human society up to the highest levels of government – somehow to them it is just as obvious that they are suddenly the crazy ones. But that’s hypocritical since they’ve already abandoned the idea of ruling out beliefs altogether in order to support their own.

It reminds me a lot of how some fundamentalist Christians will say that it’s crazy for Muslims to believe that Mohammed flew up into the sky on a horse, but it’s perfectly reasonable for them to assume that Jesus rose from the dead, hung out for 40 days, and then flew up into the sky without a horse. Or you can reverse that if you like, it’s all the same absurd double standard.

And whenever I talk to these people, I always think that if I can only show them how they can rule out pseudoscientific ideas which are just a little bit too crazy for them, they will have some “A-ha!” moment and realize how skeptics come to reject their ideas and the attempted justifications. And that they in fact use the pretty much the same methodology we are using when they dismiss ideas that seem too crazy, even to them. But that rarely happens.

People who are into woo generally just don’t like the idea of having some kind of epistemological foundation for belief, and they like even less that it is science that has proven to get us closer to the truth than any other proposed foundation so far. It would be pretty amazing if we as a civilization had reduced disease, extended life expectancy and increased quality of life by proposing that ideas be tested on the basis of whoever simply says “That’s what I believe,” but strangely enough that didn’t happen. And it probably won’t work in the future, either.

How to distinguishing between Is and Ought when arguing with irrational people

August 1, 2010

One of the awesome philosophical concepts David Hume articulated was the Is-Ought Distinction (or the Is-Ought Problem). It’s very similar to the naturalistic fallacy and it tries to deal with how we can derive how individuals and societies ought to act from objective, verifiable facts. Can we proceed directly from what is to what ought to be? Hume didn’t think so.

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)

Now in this context, Hume is criticizing those who try to derive the ‘ought’ from what someone believes is the ‘is’ of God. So the position he’s taking down is something like this: “Since God is X, we ought to do things that comply with X-ness.” Let’s say that’s the position of moral philosopher A. Then moral philosopher B comes around and says that A is wrong about what God is. B has a different idea of God with different focuses on different aspects of a God. And the moral/ethical philosophical discussion is framed around the question of What God is.

So Hume sees this and sees a badly neglected gap. Even if A or B are right about what God is, neither of them have justified that that observation leads to anything morally good. Why should a quality of a deity be something we want to emulate? How do we even know if that is good or not? Nobody seemed to be discussing that. Put this way, it’s very similar to the Euthyphro Dilemma:

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
Euthyphro, Plato

Now you can extend the Is-Ought Problem beyond just the Is of God (which is kind of a waste of time for nonbelievers like me) when people try to derive policy from history or observations of nature. The problem becomes less of one in these instances because, unlike God, nature and history are about empirical facts which can be verified or falsified. You still have the gap between what Is and what Ought to be (a problem completely lost on some creationists), but at least the Is can be checked independently of subjective theistic assumptions about the supernatural.

Now you have someone like Glennifer Beck saying that because Congress printed official, government-approved Bibles in the early period of American history (that’s the Is part), we therefore ought to not worry so much about that silly old separation of church and state thing anymore.

A secularist who doesn’t know his history might be tempted to argue along similar lines as Hume above; i.e. that just because it was the case that the government approved official Bibles for use in schools, it does not follow that we ought to revive that practice. But someone who made that argument would be missing a much better point, which is that even the initial Is claim of Beck’s argument is just factually wrong.

That’s part of a video series by Chris Rodda, who’s a Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. She’s been going after the factual errors and misrepresentations made on the nature of secularism and America by people like David Barton and Beck. They’re very effective in how they just deal with the actual history without getting caught up in how to solve Hume’s Is-Ought Problem.

See, someone can say that we ought to have, say a public education system that hands out Bibles and whatnot, and then I can say why I think that’s a bad idea. But then we’re just arguing for subjective positions on an Ought issue. But when Beck claims that we ought to imitate history and then proceeds to misrepresent it, Rodda’s corrections of those misrepresentations cut the argument down to nothing. Here’s her unfortunately HuffPo-y RSS feed, and here’s some other of her great counterpoints to pseudohistory:

Our Constitution is not based on the book of Deuteronomy

And the newest one just out today about Barton’s claims of Founders who went to “seminaries.”

Paley’s Watchmaker

March 27, 2010

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
–William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

That’s how this teleological argument for the existence of God was most famously articulated. It’s also known as the argument from design. Like Pascal’s Wager, it’s one of those bits of theology that’s often repeated ad nauseum by laypersons, and usually ones who’ve never read the original citation above. And also like Pascal’s Wager, there are so many problems with it that it’s difficult to know where exactly to begin.

Paley wants to equate the natural world with the hypothetical watch left in the forest. He doesn’t draw the connection between the two. He just asserts that the two are similar in that they were both clearly designed. But whether or not they’re similar and therefore designed is exactly the question Paley’s trying to answer. So just claiming that they are is circular reasoning.

Furthermore, if the watch and the natural world were so similar then we wouldn’t even notice the watch in the first place. It wouldn’t stick out amongst the backdrop of the rest of the landscape which “might as well have been there forever.” If Paley’s assertion held water, we’d just be walking along and take no more notice of the watch than we do of a blade of grass or a bird because they would both have “every manifestation of design.”

But we do notice the watch. We can look at something which is obviously designed and know that it’s designed because we have at least some prior knowledge of watch design. Frankly, I know next to nothing about that subject, but I can at least look at a watch and recognize it as something we humans have made for a very long time. Even just going by the blog post so far we can know they’ve been manufactured for at least a few hundred years already.

You don’t even need Darwin and evolution to refute the watchmaker argument on these grounds. All that needs to be pointed out is something like this:

“A tree bestows order and organisation on that tree which springs from it, without knowing the order; an animal in the same manner on its offspring; a bird on its nest; and instances of this kind are even more frequent in the world than those of order, which arise from reason and contrivance. To say, that all this order in animals and vegetables proceeds ultimately from design, is begging the question; nor can that great point be ascertained otherwise than by proving, a priori, both that order is, from its nature, inseparably attached to thought; and that it can never of itself, or from original unknown principles, belong to matter.”
-David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1776)

So in crasser terms, there’s really no reason to even accept Paley’s assertion that every manifestation of design we rightfully notice in the watch also exists in the natural world. And even putting aside the self-refuting nature of his argument, the hypothetical watch he’s talking about didn’t really have a single watchmaker.

Sure, maybe a few centuries ago watches were designed and made one by one by a single individual in their workshop. But if the analogy to the Universe as a whole is to hold, that watchmaker would have had to have made their watch de novo. And this clearly could not be what happened.

Let’s take this a little more seriously and really think about this watchmaker who made the watch Paley discovered in the forest. At some point in his life, he decided to make watches for a living. Maybe his father taught him how, or maybe he took on an apprenticeship. But either way he learned from earlier watch designs and from others who had also made watches. A deity like the one Paley describes could not have any counterpoint to this passing on of skills unless it were watching other gods making other Universes and learning tricks of the Universe-making trade from them.

This watch which is made by a watchmaker is just one part of a long history of people who worked on devices meant to keep track of time. In earlier times, there was no second hand on a typical clock. Earlier than that, there was no minute hand. And even earlier still, no mechanics at all were used because all we had were sticks in the mud which then cast a shadow.

Watches, in other words, are the result of a gradual process where efficient parts are selected for and clumsy, inaccurate, and wasteful parts are selected against. And if you go back far enough in time, you get a point of origin which is perfectly explained by natural phenomenon.

So even if you give Paley a pass on the self-refuting part of his argument, it still fails again when it points directly to an unguided evolutionary explanation of the natural world and all its complexities and directly away from supernatural design.

Pascal’s Wager

March 16, 2010

There is no news in this post. I just thought I would bulk up the counter-apologetics here since I maybe haven’t been doing my share lately as a member of the atheist blogroll. And a good way to do that would be to start with something pretty simple and then work my way through to more complicated shit later. So if you’re looking for the usual making fun of the news thing or something you don’t already know about Pascal’s Wager, then it’s probably best to skip this one.

Blaise Pascal was a religious apologist, mathematician, and philosopher in 17th century France. The way that he wrote it out, at least as I read it, his famous wager is more of a pep talk for people who are already Christians and might be starting to doubt. He didn’t mean for it to be an actual reason to believe for someone who’s starting from a position of doubt. You have to already be a believer in a specific religion for it to have an effect.

Here is how the guy himself put it:

Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you—will quiet your proudly critical intellect…

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

There’s a very good reason why this doesn’t work for convincing skeptics, but it does for wavering believers. The believers don’t consider any of the world’s other religions and their promises of similar certainties of gain and risks of nothingness. So it’s necessary for this to work to already have a bias towards one faith over all others.

It’s actually even worse than Dawkins here makes it seem. If you’re just conducting a theological cost/benefit analysis, then other some other religions promise even greater potential harm for unbelief and greater rewards for devotion than Pascal’s own Catholicism.

So for example if you’re worried about going to the Pascal’s Catholic hell and the threat of it is enough to convince you to believe, then you should be even more influenced by the threat of Islamic hell:

“Verily Allah has cursed the Unbelievers and prepared for them a Blazing Fire,- To dwell therein for ever: no protector will they find, nor helper.”
Qu’ran, 33:64-5

So we’ll get blazing fire,

“Those who reject our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”
Qu’ran, 4:56

BUT we get to exchange our skins so we don’t get roasted over and over and over again forever,

“Nay they deny the hour (of the judgment to come): but We have prepared a blazing fire for such as deny the hour: When it sees them from a place fAr off, they will hear its fury and its ranging sigh. And when they are cast, bound together into a constricted place therein, they will pLead for destruction there and then! This day plead not for a single destruction: plead for destruction oft-repeated!”
Qu’ran, 25:11-14

“With Us are Fetters (to bind them), and a Fire (to burn them)”
Qu’ran, 73:12

binding chains and binding yokes,

“The Companions of the Left Hand,- what will be the Companions of the Left Hand? (They will be) in the midst of a Fierce Blast of Fire and in Boiling Water”
Qu’ran, 56:41-2

boiling water,

“Hell!- they will burn therein, – an evil bed (indeed, to lie on)!- Yea, such! – then shall they taste it,- a boiling fluid, and a fluid dark, murky, intensely cold!- And other Penalties of a similar kind, to match them!”
Qu’ran, 38:56-8

dark boiling liquid,

“But those who deny (their Lord),- for them will be cut out a garment of Fire: over their heads will be poured out boiling water. With it will be scalded what is within their bodies, as well as (their) skins. In addition there will be maces of iron (to punish) them. Every time they wish to get away therefrom, from anguish, they will be forced back therein, and (it will be said), ‘Taste ye the Penalty of Burning!'”
Qu’ran, 22:19-22

iron maces,

“The while they enter the Blazing Fire, the while they are given, to drink, of a boiling hot spring, No food will there be for them but a bitter Dhari’ which will neither nourish nor satisfy hunger.”
Qu’ran, 88:4-7

painful food and boiling water,

Narrated An-Nu’man:
I heard the Prophet saying, “The person who will have the least punishment from amongst the Hell Fire people on the Day of Resurrection, will be a man under whose arch of the feet a smoldering ember will be placed so that his brain will boil because of it.”
Sahih Bukhari 8:76:566

BUT if you’re LUCKY you’ll only be scorched from the arch of your foot to your head,

Narrated Abu Wail:
Somebody said to Usama, “Will you go to so-and-so (i.e. ‘Uthman) and talk to him (i.e. advise him regarding ruling the country)?” He said, “You see that I don’t talk to him. Really I talk to (advise) him secretly without opening a gate (of affliction), for neither do I want to be the first to open it (i.e. rebellion), nor will I say to a man who is my ruler that he is the best of all the people after I have heard something from Allah s Apostle .” They said, What have you heard him saying? He said, “I have heard him saying, “A man will be brought on the Day of Resurrection and thrown in the (Hell) Fire, so that his intestines will come out, and he will go around like a donkey goes around a millstone. The people of (Hell) Fire will gather around him and say: O so-and-so! What is wrong with you? Didn’t you use to order us to do good deeds and forbid us to do bad deeds? He will reply: Yes, I used to order you to do good deeds, but I did not do them myself, and I used to forbid you to do bad deeds, yet I used to do them myself.”
Sahih Bukhari 4:54:489

and oh yeah, some of us end up getting eviscerated. I’ll be a little more merciful here and spare the reader from having to look at a picture of that.

Dante seems like a total pussy by comparison. And pretty much all the Bible tells us about Hell is that it’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire is never quenched. So if your motivating factor in deciding on a religion is to avoid the worst possible pain, it’s much better to believe in Islam and possibly avoid the worst kind of hell even if you’re wrong. And if Christianity is true, you still end up taking less of a risk of going to Christian hell rather than the Islamic one.

The other side of this bet-hedging is to believe in a religion that promises the best afterlife for believers. A desirable heaven is the carrot to a painful hell’s stick. And one of the best afterlifes you can get is in Mormon theology.

The Church of Latter-Day Saints believe in something called Degrees of glory. You’ve basically got four possibilities for what happens after you die: Outer Darkness, the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Telestial Kingdom.

Outer Darkness sounds a lot like Billy Graham’s concept of hell – one where you just die and are separated from God instead of the fiery one preached about during the Middle Ages and by people like the Westboro Baptist Church today. That’s for people with no degree of glory at all. The worst possible punishment for Mormons turns out to be… nothing. Even non-Christians can have some degree of glory and get one of the other three kingdoms.

The next step up from the Outer Darkness is the Telestial Kingdom (the terminology here really sounds like it’s for LARPers, doesn’t it? Not that I’d know anything about that, of course). Nonbelievers and heathens and “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie,” according to Doctrine and Covenants, 76:103.  However, those of us in the Telestial Kingdom – and let’s face it, if you’re reading this it applies to you – will have to go to hell for 1000 years during the millennial reign of Christ prophesied in Revelation 20:1-6.

But on an eternal time scale, a thousand years in hell isn’t really that bad when you get an immortal physical body afterwards, along with all your other friends and without all those holier-than-thou assholes fucking up your kingdom. Not too bad for the lowest of the kingdoms, really.

The next kingdom up is the Terrestrial Kingdom, and you can get there by becoming a Mormon posthumously (D&C, 76:74) or by being a  Christian who is not “valiant” enough (D&C, 76:9). Basically these are half-assed Christians whose only inconvenience is in knowing that there’s a slightly better kingdom out there somewhere.

That brings us to the Celestial Kingdom, which is the SHIT. This is the best of the best heavens, and you even get your very own seer stone. The downside is that in order to get there you need to have either followed all of the LDS church’s rules throughout your first life or have died before turning 8 years old. So this is pretty much out for those of you who might still be reading this.

To get back to the point of all this Mormon stuff; if you’re using Pascal’s Wager in terms of analyzing potential benefits in a particular religion, this is clearly the way to go especially considering the information conveyed in the video above. You get to be a deity. Is a better pick up line even possible?

So if you’re a risk-taking, glass-half-full type, you’ll hear Pascal’s Wager and convert to the LDS church. If you’re a risk-averse, glass-half-empty type, you’ll hear Pascal’s Wager and convert to Islam. I could go on and on pointing out how different religions can exploit various hopes and fears of different types of people, but for now it’s enough to leave it here where it’s clear that Pascal’s Wager can be used to proselytize for pretty much all religions, most of which are completely contradictory.

You can't go to both.

Up to this point, I hope I’ve established two things. One is that Pascal’s Wager isn’t a way to know anything. It’s only a way to reassure those who already believe. And secondly, when modern apologists and laypersons unsuccessfully misuse Pascal’s Wager in attempts to convince skeptics, they are using an inherent bias in that their particular religion is correct even though the same approach can be used just as easily to persuade skeptics to adhere to completely different religions.

Now after being faced with all this, someone advocating Pascal’s Wager can take a step back and claim that it applies to belief in a deistic god. That way they can use the wager as a wedge strategy and later take baby steps to their own belief system, much like the strategy used by some creationists who want their bullshit to count as science.

When I was a kid, maybe around 9 years old, I had thought of this. Obviously it wasn’t in the same terms I’m using now. I thought I had invented it and that I was some kind of genius. I would sneak by The System and be able to pass for a believer just by my own say-so! But then a few minutes later I had an experience similar to one I later read about described by Bertrand Russell:

“I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco, and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when I suddenly threw it up in the air and exclaimed: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!””

But later, Russell had this to say about the same argument – which is one I hope to have time to deal with at some point in the future:

“The [ontological] argument [for the existence of God] does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”

That’s kind of what I felt like. Pretending to believe seemed like too easy of a fix. Even as a kid, I was already a crotchety old man thinking that if something seems too good to be true it probably is.

Pascal’s Wager doesn’t even make sense when dealing with a nondescript deity because a god by definition would know the difference between professing to believe something and actually believing it. Even as a dumb little kid I could tell the difference. It just all seemed too easy. Even if I could fool every Buddhist monk or Christian preacher or whatever else, I would still be able to tell that I was lying about my belief. And since a god is supposed to be much more intelligent than a human, it would immediately see through my plan and probably punish me for my heresy even more severely than the typical honest doubter.

I’m going to have to leave it there for now because this has already gone on way longer than I expected. Maybe I’ll have to do a part ii of this later on.

Prince Charles is being a douchebag again

February 22, 2010

Prince Charles on the Enlightenment:

“It might be time to think again and review it and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world. It must be apparent to people deep down that we have to do something about it.
We cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment still apply now.”

Do you see what he did there? He just went from needing to re-think Enlightenment ideas straight to Enlightenment ideas not working and that we can’t go on with it because WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE. Usually people need to make a case to go from a premise to a conclusion like that, but I guess when you don’t have to work for a living like everyone else you might feel entitled to just draw conclusions out of nowhere.

But since Charlie has a problem with the Enlightenment because it’s outdated, he must have a much newer framework with which to see the world and solve all our problems. Haha! Just kidding. It’s just more of the same old ancient theology he’s been spouting for years:

“I believe it is of crucial importance to work with, in harmony with nature, to rediscover how it is necessary to work with the grain of nature, as it is necessary to work with the grain of our humanity,” he said. “What is the point of all this clever technology if at the end of the day we lose our souls, and the soul of nature of which we are a part?”

I’m not sure what exactly he means by our souls or the “soul of nature” and how they are being lost, but to answer his question the point of a lot of this clever technology is to reduce the amount of preventable suffering. Take GM crops for instance – which Charles is also against. The point of that would be to provide cheap food for areas lacking an agricultural infrastructure. Feeding hungry people, in other words. That’s the point. Apparently that’s not high-minded enough for this clown.

And that last bit about him claiming to believe we’re a part of nature really bothers me. If that’s the case (and I would agree with him on that point) then our technology would be analogous to birds building their nests and beavers building their dams. After all, they’re just doing that for the sake of their own survival, not for any “spiritual” reasons. We and all the other animals are just doing our thing as parts of nature, trying to get by.

That’s not what Charles wants though. He wants us to be distinct from the rest of nature – special, even. That way he can get away with holding the contradictory positions of glorifying nature and needing to take care of it at the same time. He’s condescending, paternalistic, and worshipful towards nature all at once. It’s a common problem with the New Agey types. And here is a great example of that, with some inbred babbling mixed in:

The Prince also made an impassioned call for houses to be built so that birds, such as swallows and swifts, could make their nests there. “It is immoral not to consider those other species that share this planet with us,” he said. “If the swallows and swifts stop coming here and nesting on the buildings that I love, then there is no point to life. Literally. It is symbolic, like the albatross. If that becomes extinct then I think we deserve nothing but reprobation.”

There’s no point to life if birds don’t nest in buildings he loves? Maybe someone should explain to him that most species (including most birds!) have gone extinct. And the vast majority of the time it has nothing at all to do with human actions either. I’m not saying we should actively encourage Charles to commit suicide over this, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of this. And if telling him happens to result in his suicide, well, that’s just the way things go. It’s “literally symbolic,” whatever that means.

Similar:

Reporter fired for believing in objective reality.

February 17, 2010

A reporter for the Atlanta Progressive News was fired recently for a surprising reason:

“At a very fundamental, core level, Springston did not share our vision for a news publication with a progressive perspective. He held on to the notion that there was an objective reality that could be reported objectively, despite the fact that that was not our editorial policy at Atlanta Progressive News.”
-APN editor Matthew Cardinale

This is a very silly way of going about being a journalist. If there really are multiple realities based on individuals’ perception, then what is the point of doing journalism anyway? If everyone’s “different realities” both exist and are equally valid, wouldn’t the faux-reality of the Atlanta Progressive News (including the editorial policy in question) be just as vacuous as the ‘parallel reality’ of a sandwich-board-wearing crazy homeless guy?

Journalists are supposed to get as close to an objective reality as possible, and to separate fact from fiction. But if there’s no way to separate the two since there’s no objective reality in the first place, then journalism has no real purpose. It’s just a matter of being noisy and opinionated and organized and has nothing to do with actual facts at all. And now some guy is losing his job over that.

Quote of the day

January 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

December 23, 2009

Deepak Chopra doesn’t even pay attention to what he’s saying

November 21, 2009

And here is proof:

Hey, if it makes you seem really profound on a superficial level but is actually just the usual postmodernist drivel, it’s probably something Chopra has said. I’m just amazed he doesn’t get called out on that kind of stuff more often. Kudos to the red shirt guy.

Stupid theme park management is stupid, even by those standards.

October 16, 2009

I think I’ve been somehow sent back in time to the 12th century, except it’s in a different possible past since this one appears to have things like working computers which erroneously report the current year as 2009. It can’t possibly be 2009, because of this:

“SPOOKED bosses at a theme park have suspended six members of staff and called in an exorcist after a late night seance on their top horror ride sparked a string of ghostly happenings.”

It’s like a Monty Python skit. OH NO YOU EVIL ONES HAVE SUMMONED SPIRITS ONTO THIS PLACE, BEGONE YE, THOU ART BANISHED WITHOUT PAY. QUICKLY, FETCH THE EXORCIST SO THAT WE MIGHT ONCE AGAIN KNOW PEACE.

Here’s some of the alleged evidence collected by those fine journalistic minds at the Sun:

“Lights started to go on and off with no explanation”

Do lights going on and off ever explain themselves? Am I missing something?

OK, that was pretty lame, but seriously – “no explanation?” They might not know with absolute certainty, but surely there are explanations. Someone could be playing a prank. Or it could be that sometimes shit just happens. How’s that for an explanation? Nothing works perfectly, including lights. And in a scary place like Thorpe Park (you can tell it’s scary because the picture in this article has a guy in a mask apparently about to attack the photographer, and they used some green tint on it), it’s not surprising that people would make more of this sort of fuss about an electrical issue than in, say, an office workplace.

That quote above is attributed to “a Thorpe park insider.” They must protect this crucial informant’s identity. I don’t blame them, really. If it’s one of those suspended workers, their drooling, knuckle-dragging bosses might lock them up in the stockades.

I wish it ended there. But it doesn’t. Oh, the stupids, it burns so very badly:

“Thorpe Park in Surrey has now called in Rev Lionel Fanthorpe, the UK’s leading authority on the unexplained, who is currently examining the ride for evidence of paranormal activity.”

The bold print here is my own emphasis. How does someone become an authority on the unexplained? Doesn’t being an authority on a subject involve being able to explain it? Rev Lionel Fanthorpe is the leading authority on absolutely nothing, in the UK or anywhere else. That’s what the quote above really means. Because if he could explain the unexplained, it WOULDN’T BE UNEXPLAINED ANYMORE. But they’re claiming he has expertise on something when they say that. What could it be?

“[Ouija boards open] a gateway to another dimension and when people who are not experienced spiritualists play with Ouija boards, mischievous entities can get through as may have happened here.”
-Rev Lionel Fanthorpe

Here’s what this “authority on the unexplained” looks like:

Oh no, my bad. That’s actually his fellow GhostBuster Bill Murray.

There is a bit of a resemblance, though:

Oh and just in case you were wondering, these people are totally not doing it for the publicity or anything like that. They are taking the feedback “very seriously.” Not seriously enough to shut the place down though. Just seriously enough so that they can get what amounts to free advertising in the Sun. Oh and here, apparently, too, but I doubt anyone reading this would or could go there if they wanted to, and I hope they don’t.

Sorcery in Saudi Arabia

September 14, 2009

There’s this article in Arab News (“The Middle East’s Leading English Language Daily”) which just absolutely reeks of doublethink and the kind of problems one gets into when accepting one form of woo over another, which I wrote about earlier this month. Here’s the lede:

Hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], something that is indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery.

Maybe that is what it is what it is indicative of. But the author here overlooks the possibility that it’s also indicative of the insanity that results from witch hunts. Those arrested for this “crime” aren’t always even guilty of breaking this insane law. It’s just an accusation which is not amenable to any kind of testing, so it becomes a rationalization for imprisoning or even killing whoever the accuser doesn’t happen to like.

And of course they overlook the possibility that the arrests are indicative of the government arresting people for having different religious beliefs from that of the majority. Even if those arrested were “guilty” of the “crime” of which they were accused, so what? The article goes on to portray the “sorcerers” almost in a realistic way – that they’re hucksters shamming the gullible, but if that were really the problem, then there would be no need to limit the law to certain religious practices. So they have to condemn these people on entirely different grounds:

People underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is.

They don’t go into detail on how exactly the editorial board of Arab News objectively identifies the varying degrees of “sin” or anything like that. It’s just a “sin.” A very serious one. SRSLY?

Here’s some context, from just before and after the above quote:

“That was four years ago. I now only seek Allah’s help,” she said… Abeer Saleh said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensensical rituals.”

If they have some kind of reason for preferring Allah-based magic over tribal mysticism-based magic, it’s not made apparent. Just that one is a “serious sin” and the other is not. And how could these people deride acting strangely and performing nonsensical rituals without collapsing from the cognitive dissonance? Here is a good example of a nonsensical ritual.

LOL WUT?

LOL WUT?

What happens is that pilgrims on their Hajj thing go to this holy city and throw stones at three pillars which somehow represent Satan. They stampeded toward the pillars, and in 2004 and then in 2006 this led to a structural collapse which killed hundreds of people. Is that acting strange? Is that a nonsensical ritual? How could it possibly not be any stranger than writing names down on a piece of paper and then putting the paper in a bottle – or eating a cracker which is supposed to be the flesh of a man-god who died 2000 years ago, for that matter?

It’s not. The only way advocates of faith-based positions can criticize other faith-based positions is by creating some completely vacuous and meaningless concept like “sin” and arbitrarily attributing it to anything they don’t happen to like.

Back to school Iranian-style

September 4, 2009

A scary article appeared in the NY Times earlier this week. The Iranian government’s reaction to the protests against the alleged election fraud are carrying over into the realm of academia, with its “Supreme Leader” making statements which seem to indicate a purge of the education system. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last weekend:

“Many of the humanities and liberal arts are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings.”

He’s right about those studies being secular. If done properly they do not automatically presume the existence of the Abrahamic deity, and they don’t presuppose Koranic infallibility. What he’s wrong about is that that is a horrible thing which “ardent defenders of Islam” must stop or co-opt.

And when he says that teaching these subjects “leads to the loss of belief in godly and Islamic knowledge,” he’s right in the sense that learning more makes one less inclined to accept religious doctrine – especially ones invented by some power-hungry sociopath 1400 years ago. But it’s not exactly clear that there is such a thing as “Islamic knowledge” in the first place. When someone who claims to be inspired by their religion makes a discovery, it’s not acknowledged and respected simply because they make that claim. It has to be tested using the same evil secular methods Khamenei is decrying here. If a purge like the one described is implemented in Iran, respectable Muslim scholars will be left with no way to demonstrate their findings to a larger audience because they will have to go out of their way to make sure certain mullahs are convinced that such findings are based on “Islamic knowledge” – whatever that means – and not the secular methodology which we know actually works.

Epistemology

September 1, 2009

Orac at Respectful Insolence had a great post a month or so ago which really nailed some basic problems with accepting pseudoscience. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Of course, even within New Age, skepticism seems to be without a basis. After all, if you accept astrology and fairies, really, on what possible basis can you reject channeling the dead?… Unfortunately, this is a completely predictable result. When one leaves science, rationality, and reason behind, there is no reliable way to differentiate one woo from another, one pseudoscience from another, one faith-based belief from another. When anything goes, nothing goes, and nothing can be included or excluded based on evidence. Everything is fair game.

This is something that inevitably comes up pretty much every time I try to talk to one of these believer people. It just seems obvious to them that their own beliefs – say, that homeopathy works – are somehow beyond testing and experimentation, or that there’s a massive conspiracy to cover up all the successful tests, or some other lame excuse. But when others use the exact same arguments to support beliefs which are even crazier – like that reptilian aliens have infiltrated human society up to the highest levels of government – somehow to them it is just as obvious that they are suddenly the crazy ones. But that’s hypocritical since they’ve already abandoned the idea of ruling out beliefs altogether in order to support their own.

It reminds me a lot of how some fundamentalist Christians will say that it’s crazy for Muslims to believe that Mohammed flew up into the sky on a horse, but it’s perfectly reasonable for them to assume that Jesus rose from the dead, hung out for 40 days, and then flew up into the sky without a horse. Or you can reverse that if you like, it’s all the same absurd double standard.

And whenever I talk to these people, I always think that if I can only show them how they can rule out pseudoscientific ideas which are just a little bit too crazy for them, they will have some “A-ha!” moment and realize how skeptics come to reject their ideas and the attempted justifications. And that they in fact use the pretty much the same methodology we are using when they dismiss ideas that seem too crazy, even to them. But that rarely happens.

People who are into woo generally just don’t like the idea of having some kind of epistemological foundation for belief, and they like even less that it is science that has proven to get us closer to the truth than any other proposed foundation so far. It would be pretty amazing if we as a civilization had reduced disease, extended life expectancy and increased quality of life by proposing that ideas be tested on the basis of whoever simply says “That’s what I believe,” but strangely enough that didn’t happen. And it probably won’t work in the future, either.