April 14, 2012

The reason why 'I'm Christian unless you're gay" sets a new standard. 2 Extended Thoughts

This is my opinion, my reason, why I choose to accept the assumptions proposed by science, as opposed to any other method of understanding the world.

We the people have different methods of dealing with the world, importance, I believe, is not to be put on _which type_ of method is chosen, but rather _the consequence_ of which one we choose. My choice of method is dependent on its predictability and utility, for others it may be a sense of being taken care of or a sense of safety. No reason is better or worse, true or false, they are merely different depending on what we need and perhaps, what we are raised to/have a disposition for/through experience develops a need for.

We thus choose method depending on what we need to rely on to give us the most compelling reasons for believing in it in the first place. In turn, the most compelling reason is the one that satisfies whatever need we have to be satisfied. Circular arguments do not get more circular than this, allow me to explicate.

Choices on method are varied and great in number, one may choose Religion A, B or C, a modified version A', B' or C', an individually modified one A'', B'' or C'', various forms of pseudosciences or sciences. Even within pseudoscience and science we tend to form smaller groups, similar to the previous contention that religion subdivides to a whole range of different methods of dealing with the world.

It comes down to that Individual A and Individual B are both as compelled to believe what its community tells them. Or, are as compelled to believe the conclusions they come to themselves when reviewing the canons of their method. Even justification for the individual is of the same valence. I.e. subjective feeling about one's chosen method, I believe for psychological reasons, differs little between Individual A and Individual B.

My assertion is that science is a better method of dealing with the world because it has enormous predictive capability compared to any other method. It allows me to understand the world in a rhetoric and structure that satisfies my need for knowledge and stability. This is what is important to me personally.

Utility can be discussed endlessly, especially from a utilitarian perspective and the issue when discussed in folk tongue usually comes down to that of source. Who came up with what? Religion is the source vs Science is the source.

I can understand an argument for religion which states that people with a religion have been behind discoveries as well as atheists. However, this to me is a misconception, the purpose is not to deny religion, but what is to be discussed is not which method the individual relies on but the canons upon which the discoveries have stemmed from. A religious/atheist/XYZ person, relying on the canons of science to find information, uses science to direct the subject matter of his research.

Very few groundbreaking discoveries can be made from the bible, especially since it is not to be added to or explicitly changed -because it would not be God's word (sorry, interpretation of God's word). The same sentences are reinterpreted to fit our everchanging societies, which I think is good and well. Issues evolve however when there are clear contradictions, such as homosexuality being explicitly condemned in the bible but increasingly accepted in society. As a consequence, Individual B has a choice to modify her private belief to that of C or modify her method by changing it to B' or B'' so as to fit her private beliefs more congruently.

On the side of Science, its canons are rarely stable. In between revolutions, which change the fundamental foundations of our understanding of the world around us, we have the incremental progress within those foundations with additions, refinements and revokements. The best part is, even the lenses we use to see the structure of science through are subject to this process. Also, it matters little what one believes in science in respect to what is found in research. I may not like or believe that Theory A is false but I do not get to have an opinion unless it is backed up with value-free experiments/data (in which case it ceases to be opinion). This, to a certain extent, safeguards experiments from being entangled with what we _want_ the world to contain as opposed to what it _does_ contain. It doesn't matter that people believe or not in the theory of evolution, as of yet thousands of experiments support it, and not one has been able to falsify it. I am thus forced to accept the assumptions of evolution regardless of how I subjectively see it, unless I can think of an even more compelling account of how to explain how life evolved from single-cell organisms to the variet of flora and fauna we see around us today.

These arguments persuade me to use the methods given by science to deal with the world around me. Just as a Christian, Muslim or any other religiously affiliated person would agree upon; the world (and indeed universe) is an absolutely stunning, awe-inspiring and mesmerising environment to be allowed to be a part of.

April 13, 2012

The reason why "I'm Christian unless you're gay" sets a new standard.

Before I even start, I need to say this. I deliberately use trivial, black/white, crude groupings (religious people, atheists etc.) in this OP. I do it only because it is not the point of this piece to divide and define, it is to illuminate the difficulties and issues they pose to each of us and each other. I am fully aware of that these groups I am about to mention are far from homogenous, again, the point is to illuminate the difficulty in communication between individuals rather than anything else.

Needless to recount, atheists and religious people struggle to get along. The YouTube Chronicles (I made it up, don't search for it) of atheist/religious videos are always filled with comments from both sides arguing their basis of opinion. Atheist videos usually attract atheists and top comments are usually aimed at religious people and vice versa. So why care? Easy. It doesn't help. Why? Easy. We do not communicate with equal rhetoric. So? Complicated.. please read on.

I've come across thunderf00t (YouTube celeb advocating atheism) and his, to a large extent, opposite, Eric Hovind (YouTube celeb advocating Christianity). Recently, at the 2012 Reason Rally, they attempted to discuss what was what and immediately got stuck in rhetoric cobweb. From an outside perspective it was quite easy to see what was going on. Eric Hovind asked questions stemming from his world view (which, amongst other things, include the belief in a Christian God). The issue from thunderf00t's perspective was that, the questions posed included assumptions that did not exist in _his_ world view. Let me take you through a thought-experiment.

Forget for a moment everything you have ever heard or experienced. You are now a speck of dust floating around with no reflective-of-the-world thoughts, in fact you have no thoughts at all. About anything. In an instant, you turn into a human being. Now, as you begin to explore the world around you, you have to make assumptions. From one of my first philosophy courses, I remember my professor slowly moving one of his feet forward, tapping the ground in front of him -to make sure it would hold his weight. The point he was making was that, we make assumptions about the most minute things. We assume that the ground in front of us is stable and will carry us -and so we do not hesitate to walk with strong stride from point A to point B. Now, in thunderf00t's world view, he can concede to that 'The universe exists', because it is something we have to _assume_ and probably should because it helps us understand something about everything around us. The important point being, he cannot _know_ if the universe exists, and to a certain extent, it doesn't matter -it is an assumption we have to make regardless of if it is true or not. Let's make more assumptions, 'I exist', 'other people exist' and let me add another two assumptions; I feel and think, others feel and think. Personally, I stop adding assumptions when they have no utility; when an assumption would not gain me a wider perspective of how the world works around me. For example, it is useful to assume that I feel and think, as well as, others feel and think -because it makes social encounters just _that_ much easier. Now, another important thing with assumptions is this; I can make any assumption I like, but, it usually requires me to assume a bunch of other things. For example, the assumption "I think and feel" must be preceded by assumptions such as, physical materia exists, there exist an entity within my physical boundary that I use to be able to think and feel. Assumptions are only accepted if they can help us understand the world, for example, assuming that a spaghetti monster exists is redundant because it doesn't help me understand the world any better. Ok, enough introduction of assumptions I think, onwards to the mistake religious people make about atheists.

A religious person would say "God exists". For an atheist, the number of assumptions to be made about the world to accept this assumption are far too many. We must assume that not only does physical materia exist but also non-physical materia, we must not only assume there is an entity that can see/hear/feel etc. everything but also that this entity can decide what to and not to do with us humans -we then must assume creation, maintenance, changes etc.. These assumptions are far from all of the assumptions we have to make in order to accomodate "God exists" in our assumption-structure of the world. Add to this that, in our world view, we are already making a lot of assumptions on how to find things out about the world -assuming that mathematics can say something about the world, assume that physics can say something about the world and so on. The reason we would rather assume that Physics can tell us things about the world instead of a God, is at least binary. One, relying on Physics instead of God involves far fewer assumptions about the world, but more importantly, two; the reliance on Physics has utility in that we can test and see if an assumptions holds up or not. This is what "prediction" or "predictive power" is all about. Assuming that Physics can tell us something about the world, is strengthened by that we can use the tools taught by Physics to answer questions about the world. Why are we stuck on earth? Why does a rock fall down if I drop it instead of float or fall up? Physics teaches us the assumption that there exist something called gravity, a concept we assume to exist. Why would we rely on this information? Well, because it has predictive power; it tells us something about the world that we can use to our advantage. Assuming that gravity exists is something we do everyday -without even doing it! We don't open a window and walk straight out, because, we assume that gravity will pull us very quickly towards the ground and (depending on height) may kill us. Therefore, questions such as "do you exist?" cannot be answered; it is an assumption we make about the world that helps us live our lives, nothing more, nothing less. It is not true or false and it would not matter if it was true or false -because, _regardless_ if it is true or false, we _have to_ assume it because it is something that helps us live our lives -it has utility to assume it. However, assuming that "God exists", does not help us understand anything over and above the toolbox that the sciences provide for us. Morals exist without God, love exists without God also hate exists without God. Alright, enough about explaining what religious people often do not understand about atheists. Let me flip the table over.

Unfortunately, these mistakes in understanding people we have in front of us is far from unique to religious people. Atheists do it to a large extent as well, and, it does not help us to understand each other. An atheist usually holds the misconception that 'you' believe something that 'I' don't, and imaginary friend that will hold your hand through adulthood -and we say -prove it! Smiling smuggishly, sniggering to ourselves. Well, this is an error exactly mirroring the one religious people make about atheists. The error we make is to assume that the way in which we find out information about the world is the best way for _other world views_ to find out information _about their assumptions_. _This is not true_. We therefore make the same mistake by asking a question that cannot be answered from within a religious person's world view. I.e. in the same way that "is it true?" is an unanswerable question, so is "prove it". In conclusion, it is not fair to ask of another world view to do something that can only be done from one of those world views. It involves the assumption that one's world view is the only 'true' one, from which other's should be judged and hence make the mistake of mistaking assumptions for true or false. Bad atheist!

Apart from these philosophical-specific issues, the psychological and societal specific issues are that these types of discussions _only_ contribute to _one thing_, misunderstanding. Atheists scoffing at the ignorance of religious people and religion devaluing moral character of atheism. I have long tried to ameliorate the difficulties that arise between religious and scientific minded people (no, they are not mutually exclusive groupings). I have tried to explain the above numerous times to both camps without succeeding in building a bridge. Then I read this; I'm Christian unless you're gay. and realized something absolutely terrible (bar for a moment that that OP contains subject matter far outweighing what mine does).

When having read both that piece and the responses to it, it became abundantly clear that Dan Pearce had succeeded where so many fail. Where Richard Dawkins and other more aggressive atheists have failed. Dan Pearce succeeded in building a bridge between two vastly different world views. It is a feat in itself. Something I know from experience is such an extreme catalyst between religious and atheists, is the matter of homosexuality. I started in much more modest differences and failed miserably, why the #"¤! did Dan Pearce succeed? The reasons are many and he succeeded in combining them in such a way that fostered understanding for the two world-views, separately, but at the same time, with the same words. Dan used 'simple' rhetoric, natural, everyday language that everyone understands. He levels himself, first, lower than one thinks of oneself, secondly, he puts himself off of the continuum of where he first places Westboro Baptist Church and then Christians and atheists. He thus ingeniously pushes religious and atheists closer together on the continuum by using an extreme reference point. He abides to universal feelings like love and hate, exemplifies them both and levels you and I down to his level, the level in which we are all human. It is a lesson in humility and we are all in the same boat. We have all made ourselves feel better by beating down on others -regardless of what we have targeted with our hateful comments. He then pushes his point home with powerful conviction; everyone has a right and wrong, but really it doesn't matter because we cannot change others by hating them. He does not contend to change others by loving them, but changing ourselves by loving others. We don't have to resort to the trivial and detrimental comment-flinging, it doesn't help me, myself. Showing others love does not mean one condones a behaviour or disposition that we think is right or wrong. Showing love to someone does not promote or deny something someone is, rather, it promotes ourselves in who we are. Ultimately, he sums it up himself (please read his whole OP by the link provided above);

"Because what you’ll find, and I promise you this, is that the more you put your arm around those that you might naturally look down on, the more you will love yourself. And the more you love yourself, the less need you’ll ever have to find fault or be better than others. And the less we all find fault or have a need to be better than others, the quicker this world becomes a far better place to live."

Dan Pearce set a new standard in the rhetoric of fostering understanding for fellow human beings.

Note on bias, prediction and utility from a Critical Realist perspective.

We all live by strong biases, egocentric, in the sense that we have only a first person perspective from our own standpoint (assumption 1 & 2 and there are plenty more where those came from! Also, egocentric is used without judgemental value in this context). Naturally, we can observe and evaluate, sympathise and empathise with others but my argument does not revolve around the observer's perspective. Rather, it is about the 'data' given, that which is worked from, from the egocentric individuals' perspective. In real life (IRL for my fellow computer-geeks), we assume, interpret and justify actions of others and oneself (most oftenly) in response to situations, actions and relations. While I could turn this OP into a discussion of awareness and applied criticality to one's preceding actions in a specific situation which would affect it and account for parts of one's response-actions -it is beyond the scope of this specific piece (nevertheless very interesting). The issue is that we are not good with assumptions of others' behaviour -even folk psychology requires more than one perspective to account for a situation and these are most often generalisations beyond justification. We are subject to environmental influences in decision making, intraindividual bias both from biological limitations to attention, interpretation and retention and from previous experience, anecdotes, interindividual bias from differing norms depending on who you are interacting with and lastly a cognitive bias in which we reinterpret, change, remove and add information in retrospect to a given situation (this is, by the way, not an exhaustive list of our phallacies). Psychological research on the subject of bias is overwhelmingly in favour of our poor ability to accurately account for situations and others' part in it, let alone our own involvement in the situation (excuse the lack of references, what I have in mind is mostly eye-witness and implicit priming research).

Indeed it is a central reason as to why we are told to write dispassionately and technically when presenting our experiments. It has several important consequences; the first is that it forces one to distance oneself from one's own interpretation (if one is given) and secondly, the observer (the reader) is given a value-free account of someone's interpretation of their data. This contributes to allow the viewing of an experiment critically, without having to be bound to criticise the discourse itself for bias. An example would be selective portrayal of results, choosing to present only results supportive of one's hypothesis when there are other parts of it that would speak against or support a null hypothesis; this is a bias not controlled for by writing dispassionately, but, it becomes much clearer to the reader if this is what the author has done. It is thus a safeguard, but does not guarantee, against portraying instead of presenting and is the best way we have been able to come up with. So far.

This is to me reason alone why reliance on accounts from only a few individuals is worth very little as basis of understanding for social phenomena, in scientific discourse. It does have worth -and can have worth to others- but all too often the consequences of which are overlooked or not mapped out. For my own private empathy/sympathy register, it is fascinating to be allowed entry into an individual's world -a perspective one would not have unless one was either a member of the same group or the individual oneself. It fosters understanding for something I previously dismissed or was ignorant of. One gains a larger perspective -but(!)- only in the realm of one's own assumptions and cognising when observing social phenomena from one's individual, private/personal, view of the world. It also adds another bias to one's framework; new assumptions are made upon the limited perspective of this, one, or a few individuals -which does not necessarily account for other "similar" individuals.

Understanding social phenomena is a different thing when we are discussing the basic scientific principle of prediction (and its utility). Scientific research demands predictability and an unspoken assumption is for it to have utility, i.e. the consequences of any prediction must aim to explicate and elucidate a proposed relationship -it must hold without our intervention/involvement/observation of it. This prediction is then evaluated for its utility by how well (or not) the proposed relationship predicts a future social phenomena.

We assume there is a mechanism by which an observed action is caused but we are well aware of that, because of our biases and limitations, we may perhaps only come as close as these biases and limitations allow us. We have however still an excellent way of understanding how close we actually are to explaining 'what actually happens' because of the consequences of our prediction's implementation. If X then Y. X. Y? Y'? Y''? Z? While social phenomena are far from as simplistic as an X and Y relation, social scientists are creative in testing these predictions -sometimes they lead us down a garden path, sometimes they reveal more or less solid predictions. The point is, of all the assumptions made in this OP, being aware of one's shortcomings is a crucial way of both understanding why one's research showed the results it did (regardless if it fits or not with what one _wants_ to find), communicating a _needed_ skeptic perspective, guides one to see potential bias in others' research as well as leaves one open to (and happy for(!)) criticism from others. We cannot afford to 'believe in' our theories and hypotheses, they introduce a bias that can be veiled by scientific discourse and very concretely limits a potentially wider/better (in regard of predictability) perspective of a social phenomena.


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