Quote of the Week

Posted by on July 31st, 2007

“My German engineer, I think is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable – I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t.”

Bertrand Russell, on Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a letter, 1911

Believe the Lie! (of Media Bias)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 25th, 2007

A thought that occurred to me when I was reading the Fox News website: people choose media outlets that agree with their own biases and media becomes biased to suit their readers in a self reinforcing cycle. I happened to be reading a global warming story that cast doubt on the human cause of global warming. This story allows people there is nothing wrong with their lives: that status quo is just fine. (And this gives me another opportunity to harp on about confirmation bias.)

It is all very well for me to criticize a news outlet that disagrees with me, but I think the “tell them what they want to hear” principle is universal in today’s media. You may have noticed I quote the BBC frequently, but I do try to question what I see and hear. The BBC has come under fire for “pandering to politically motivated celebrities and trendy causes” and being biased against Israel. We need to be on our guard against comfortable bias and find arguments that test our beliefs. Other concerns are the consolidation of media and advertising sponsorship interference. See the case of the journalists that blew the whistle on Monsanto after their employer tried to bribe them to alter or drop the story.

One problem with society is people are trained to accept information and store it away as fact for later retrieval. Much of education is indoctrination according to Chomsky. We need to focus more on critical thinking skills and less on “facts” and exams.

I recommend the documentary Control Room which examines Al Jazeera and its sharp contrast with Fox News. I am off to splutter and roll my eyes at the Mail on Sunday now.

Anti Citizen One

Legalise All Drugs?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 24th, 2007

I heard an interesting debate in the ol’ radio (Law in Action) about legalising all drugs. Both arguments are strong in my opinion.

To Maintain Prohibition (aka War on Drugs):
Harmful drug use will rise, increasing the burden on social services (ok, this is the big one)

To Legalize (but have some regulation presumably):
Drugs are fun (allegedly) and many users don’t have problems.
We can monitor the users for ill effects through the official channels of drug supply.
Law enforcement focused on more harmful crime (users will not clog the courts, police time and prisons)
Less crime (since drugs would be affordable, crime to feed drug habits would be unnecessary. Also organised crime would be reduced since there is no need to import and distribute drugs illegally.)
Quality of drugs will be regulated and reducing risks for users.
Some people currently self medicate for legitimate illnesses – they could do so legally.
“Narco” states could be stabilized because illegal drug production would be replaced by regulated production.

Observations:
It is inconsistent that alcohol (and tobacco smoking) are legal and drugs are illegal. Many people die due to alcohol, so harmfulness is not the deciding issue?
Many people use recreational drugs (approximately 10% of the UK population in the last year), so banning is criminalizing a common behavior. If enough people do any activity, we should question laws that ban that activity.
Some drugs are linked with mental illness.
Most arguments on both sides have little evidence to support them.

Tricky one.

Anti Citizen One

Religion in B5 Part 7 – The Centauri

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 24th, 2007

Continuing my series on the depiction of religion in the TV show Babylon 5:

The Centauri have a pantheon of about 70 Gods. At least some are dedicated to a particular object or activity (underworld, luck, fertility, etc). “In a world where every day is a struggle for survival, you need all the gods you can get.” The religion is “rather Bacchanallian”. Some of the Gods are emperors what were elevated to Godhood by circumstances or their followers.

“They believe in a variety of afterlives; the god you worship, of the Centauri pantheon, holds dominion over a given “heaven” or afterworld. If you appease the god sufficiently during life, it will accept you into that afterworld, in preparation for the day when all heavens are united; if not, you will have to be reborn and choose another until one accepts you. jms”

One of their religious festivals is ‘from a time in our world’s history when two dominant species were fighting for supremacy: our people, and a species we called “Xon”. At year’s end, we count how many of our people survived, and celebrate our good fortune!’ Centauri funerals are also treated as a celebration. This is a very life affirming and contrasts the emphasis of remembrance used by Earth religion (e.g. Christianity). On the other hand, Centauri weddings are sombre and filled with mutual recrimination.

Fate

Occasionally, Centauri have precognitive abilities and often manifested as a premonition of their own death. They do not appear to preclude free will – some are aware that choices will let them alter the future (e.g. suicide would prevent the vision becoming reality) but it still has weight as a likely outcome.

Londo: I need to see what is before me, if I should escape it or embrace it, if there is any longer a choice.
Morella: There is always choice. We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves with a decision we have already made. Now, if you understand that, there is hope! If not…

This is saying a belief in determinism is a self fulfilling prophesy (and a return of my favourite: confirmational bias). Without giving the ending away, Londo meets his fate because of his refusal to choose another path in life.

Rise to Godhood

Emperor Cartagia was an insane leader of the Centauri and perhaps modeled after the Roman Emperor Nero. He makes a Faustian pact to elevate himself to Godhood.

Londo: Emperor Cartagia is insane! He has made a deal with these “Shadows”, allowing them a base here, in the belief that they will grant him godhood, like the emperors of old! He wants to be immortal, to be worshiped. And he does not care who pays the price for his deification!
Vir: Does anyone else know about this?
Londo: Vir! When you are mad, you say these things the same way that you and I talk about the weather!

What price is worth paying for immortality and unlimited power? Or how much would you pay not to have it?

To be continued…

Anti Citizen One

The Method of William James

Posted by on July 20th, 2007

Some of our recent discussions on theism/atheism have met with immovable doctrinal objects quite possibly as a result of our adherence to a framework that doesn’t permit compromise. For example (although I cannot remember the author) it has been said that a framework of thought that is based solely upon materialism will necessarily reject any attempts towards transcendentalism, and explanations that may tend to the latter are rejected with exclusive preference for materialist explanations.

Two questions arose recently of some importance. The first was a challenge to present a religious idea that was immune to criticism. The second was what is RD and the atheist materialist allowed to criticise about religion when the defenders of religion keep moving the boundaries (so to speak).

An answer to these perhaps come in the form of William James, and his series of lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience.  James was a pioneering psychologist and his work on religion, now over a hundred years old is still a recommended text. Although not immune from criticism James’ work garners support from both traditional defenders of science and religion, and represents an interesting mid-point.

I want to present a very brief overview of his work and then  answer those two questions about religious ideas and what can critics of religion criticize?

William James in brief.

James took a psychological approach to his subject, which was religious experience. He thought it prudent from a scientific perspective to work with accounts of individual experiences and to ignore religious institutions. He thought it unscientific to argue from his accounts of religious experience towards drawing conclusions in support of, or against the supernatural. The religious ‘idea’, he proposed, was less important than the effect it had on peoples lives. And from the perspective of empirical science he believed it was impossible to answer, or even to formulate the question ‘does God exist’, so he said we must leave that to the theologians and philosophers (pre-empting Wittgenstein). However from the perspective of empirical science he said it was possible to enquire and investigate the effects such ideas and experiences had upon peoples lives. Thus was coined the phrase fruits not roots, to describe the focus of his studies.

He talks about the different personality types engaged in religion. Two in particular interest him, ‘the healthy minded soul’ and ‘the sick soul’. The former is positive bordering manic, the latter is negative bordering depressed. The former may find religious expression in ideas of self-negation and humility, the latter may find religious expression in religious ideas of salvation and reward. James comments that the manic and depressed cover a wider range of human emotions than the ‘healthy’ does, so a religion is more complete when it engages these varieties.

In talking about religious experience James says it elicits various responses including: unification of the self, sense of a higher controlling power, loss of mundane worries, sense of the world having objectively changed, and the knowledge of truths previously unknown.  He also talks about ineffability and certitude and countless other elements of religious experiences, or peak-experiences, that go beyond the remit of a brief outline.

He describes the positive side of religious experience as a process of moving from ‘tenseness, self-responsibilty and worry’ towards ‘equanimity, receptivity and peace.’

Revisiting the two questions through James

First of all presenting religious ideas. As mentioned James favours ‘fruits not roots‘ and considers theological speculations as belonging to a language game that science is not involved nor should be interested in. Unless solid claims are made that overstep. James rejects the model that religion is born out of a religious idea. And proposes instead that a religious experience presupposes the development of an explanatory theology. He acknowledges that some may critisize this postulation of the existence of ‘religious experiences’ as pressupposing spiritual realities, but he defends this claim by stating that this is the description that is given to the experience by its participants. This he points out is the fundamental difference in interpretation between someone who has a religious experience and someone who observes/comments upon it. The observer and commentator is always externally situated and operating from a framework, the experiencer usually is not.

It is also the case that beliefs and religions continue, not because some intellectual conclusoin has been reached about their validity, but because people benefit from them. One could say that beliefs do not work because they are true, but that they are true because they work.”

So what room is there for a critical analysis of religious experience, such as RD would attempt to provide? Again James would point to fruits, but he accepts the question, what if the beliefs cease to work? His explanation comes only through commentating on history, again he reminds us that we ought not engage in theological speculation as to why religious beliefs change, but instead should acknowledge that human cultural impulses are subject to evolutionary change. Thus the gods of the past (once palatable to Grecians and Romans) lose their vitality to modern day humans because we no longer see the appeal in blood-thirsty deities, or such sort.

I am (for once) going to point out an element of RD that is worthy of praise. I often criticize him for his amplification of the negatives and his negating of the positives. In other words for engaging in data selection that confirms his bias. Now although I still assert this criticism and would wish for his critique to engage in an affirmation of positives, I will credit him for getting 50% of the approach correct.  I’ll let James speak on this one.

It always leads to a better understanding of a thing’s significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions, its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere. Not that we may thereby swamp the thing in the wholesale condemnation which we pass on its inferior congeners, but rather that we may by contrast ascertain the more precisely in what its merits consist, by learning at the same time to what particular dangers of corruption it may also be exposed… Insane conditions have this advantage, that they isolate special factors of the mental life, and enable us to inspect them unmasked by their more usual surroundings. They play the part in mental anatomy which the scalpel and the microscope play in the anatomy of the body.

This approach he informs us must also instruct our criticisms of deities, or beliefs held in the past, and merely compels us to reject a theological approach concerned with proving/disproving the supernatural but to look more fervently at the fruits.

To the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I frankly confess that we must be theologians. If desibeliefs can be said to constitue a theology, then the prejudices, instincts, and common sense which I chose as our guides make theological partisans of us whenever they make certain beliefs abhorrent… Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously… Once, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were desired.

Conclusion

Unfortunately such a short post can’t do justice to the complete Varieties of Religious Experience. I can recommend (other than reading the text in full) this abridged (16,000 word) summary of his lectures. Or may be able to answer some questions. One common theme that emerges from James’s work, and which has led to his influencing many thinkers across many disciplines is his pragmatic approach. This approach, applauded by many had three key principles and they should suffice as a conclusion to this post.

1) Religious experience should be the primary focus of religious study, not religious institution. Institutions are the descendents of experience.

2) Intense and even pathological experiences (religious or otherwise) should be studied as well as normative experiences, for they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind, drastically enlarging the normal processes.

3) In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain “over-beliefs” in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.

The Truth is Out There

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 19th, 2007

“Fifty percent of the population holds some form of paranormal belief. Parapsychology research is booming and there are UK university departments studying phenomena such as psychics, séances, and telepathy.” BBC Radio 4 – its only 11 minutes!

Topics discussed: Lab testing of ESP, personality links with superstition, false memories, alien abduction, reliability of eye witnesses.

Why am I reminded of the unsound methods of Dr Venkman in the movie Ghostbusters? 🙂 (I am not saying all parapsychologists are like that!)

Parents who want God to save girl lose case

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 19th, 2007

“A family judge at the High Court yesterday gave the go-ahead for a seven-month-old girl, who has only one year to live, to receive a bone marrow transplant that has a 50 per cent chance of giving her a normal life, but a 10 per cent chance of killing her.

He authorised the treatment even though it is opposed by the girl’s deeply religious parents, who believe God will provide a miracle cure.” The Telegraph

(This vaguely reminds me of that Babylon 5 TV episode Believers… which reminds me I should complete writing that series of posts. AC1)

News updates

Posted by on July 17th, 2007

This week the High Courts’ have ruled on two cases that we discussed on this site.

In Cardiff, the High Court ruled that killing Shambo the Bull was a breach of its owners human rights and that the Welsh Assembly acted unlawfully in issuing the order. It is expected that the Welsh Assembly will appeal against the ruling this Friday, however the appeal will be met at the taxpayers expense.

In London, the High Court ruled that Lydia Playfoot had not been unlawfully discriminated against by her school, when they refused to teach her on account of her wearing a chastity ring. The wearing of jewellery is contrary to school rules, except when necessary for ‘manifesting’ religious belief (such as a Muslim headscarf or a Sikh bracelet).

This post is just an update on the news, relevent to prior discussions. My commentary and analysis is reserved to the comments section.

Response to “Are the arguments of ‘Militant’ Atheists peurile and threadbare?” 2 of 2

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 16th, 2007

I intend to conclude with general and very subjective comments on our discussion.

This discussion generally wound me up because we hardly could agree on anything. Every clarification you provided referenced more stuff I found objectionable for one reason or another. As you said, you were “arguing from the ‘theory of evidence’” without going to the heart of the argument. This may have been a valid course, but one I found unsatisfying. I like the direct examination of ideas with a reduced reliance to outside authority. Of course these leaves some areas outside what we can discuss since they are obscure and we are hardly experts in everything! That is a sacrifice I suppose – or a balance could be found perhaps.

I found your defense of religion based on alternately claiming I am generalizing or being too specific to be rather stressful. For example, when I was talking about a religious leader (in this case it was the Pope) you first pointed out a single pope is not the papacy (saying I was picking on an individual and too specific) then many believers did not follow the party line (effectively saying I was being too general)! This happened again talking about creationists, which you dismissed as a lunatic fringe although there are (probably) at least 120 million believers in this [1][2][3]. Another example is claiming believers “don’t believe in that sort of God” but when I reference common beliefs, the defense is always “those are just extremists” or “people don’t believe in that”. Is there any scope that I (or Dawkins) can criticize religion?

The broader point (at least according to Dawkins and Nietzsche) is, for any religious belief, it is likely to be at least questionable or at most harmful. Pick any religious idea, I can probably find criticism for it. (I might regret setting you that challenge!)

We probably should talk more about the role of myths. You seem comfortable with manufacturing myths when we don’t have an rational explanation. I am coming down against this position. Strangely, this discussion has give me a new appreciation of Nietzsche (perhaps I am just getting entrenched in a dogma – I will consider this) but to re-quote him:

“The error of imaginary causes.”… “With the unknown, one is confronted with danger, discomfort, and care,—the first instinct is to abolish [wegzuschaffen] these painful states. First principle: any explanation is better than none.” “Thus one searches not only for some kind of explanation to serve as a cause, but for a selected and preferred kind of explanation—that which has most quickly and most frequently abolished the feeling of the strange, new, and hitherto unexperienced: the most habitual explanations.” “The banker immediately thinks of “business,” the Christian of “sin,” and the girl of her love.”

“Men would sooner have the void for his purpose than to be void of purpose.” Nietzsche

To just accept the first explanation that we encounter – usually a myth – is just madness. Thanks to increased travel, observational methods and research resources (e.g. The Internet) we are usually in a better position to judge than to believe the myth makers.

“There are more idols than realities in the world: that is my “evil eye” for this world; that is also my “evil ear” … For once to pose questions here with a hammer, and, perhaps, to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound which speaks of bloated entrails” Nietzsche

This is perhaps one of his many “razors“. I imagine I believe in myths myself, but I plan to identify them and at least question them (with a hammer?).

Anti Citizen One

PS If you feel inclined, conclude the discussion. Then let’s change the subject for a few weeks?
PPS Try not to mention what I would consider irrelevant topics in your conclusion – but its your writing not mine! AC1.

Defending the Response

Posted by on July 15th, 2007

An interesting post. I will try (and no doubt fail) to be brief.

Belief in a ‘sort’ of deity.

I don’t think we are going to agree on this. It is inadequate from a sociological perspective to pigeonhole believers into one category. I understand this is the basis of RD’s arguments against selective data, and he suggests that one cannot choose one’s fundamentalism, therefore if you accept premise ‘a’ from the bible (which may be a nice premise) you must also accept premise ‘b’ (not so nice). His argument is false though as he is proposing an ought from an is. Believers hold a variety of belief, belonging to sub-categories of their respective language games (re: my previous post on the role of ‘incoherence’ and ‘convenience’ in moral decision making). You take the papal position on women and homosexuals, yet lets take artifical contraception as an example. Without going into detail the general picture is this:
– The Papacy has made a statement condemning artificial contraception.
– The various Bishops conferences (national synods) presented it to their diocese in altered terms. (Some of which were not as explicitly condemning).
– Some Priests (contrary to the rule) actively teach in favour of artificial contraception.
– A number of ‘licensed’ theologians argue in circumstantial favour for artifical contraception.
– Studies* suggest that a large number of practising catholics wilfully ignore or disobey the Papal policy.

By RD’s maxim these people should do one of two things.
1) Reject their hypocrisy and maintain (against their conscience) the orthodox teaching of the church. Or,
2) Leave the Church altogether.

But in practise this doesn’t seem to happen. Why? I think the key element is the primacy of the conscience. This doctrine is supported even by the Church. It effectively states: The Church preaches ‘x’, the faithful practise ‘y’, the Church cannot condone ‘y’ but does not condemn the faithful where they acted in accordance with what they considered to be the imperative of a good conscience.

* I mention stats, Andrew Greeley a Catholic sociologist with the University of Chicago has studied changing catholic attitudes extensively. A good book that I recommend (and can lend you) is “Catholic Revolution: New Wine Old Skins”(2004)this would appear to lend credence to my claim that RD engages in generalisation about what belief actually entails.

Literalism
I am not implying that 47% of Americans belong to the Lunatic fringe (though RD may be). The article states that somewhere in the region of this number hold beliefs similar to young-earth creationism. This infers an ignorance of the debate as opposed to a mass-movement. Within that 47% though are some cultural leaders who do belong to the lunatic fringe and who adhere solidly to that particular doctrine.
It is worthy to note that the American stat is not equally true in Britain or Ireland for example. And therefore when presented as ‘evidence’ should be contextually isolated. It is a pathological example and not a very good one at that.
Furthermore the headline states ‘47% of Americans hold this view’… this appears to be a mistake or a misrepresentation. To the best of my knowledge: 47% of America’s Evangelical Protestants (who make up 15% of the citizenry) are literalists, this compares unfavourably with the 11% of US Catholics who comprise a much larger proportion of society who hold the same view.
More details can be found here: American Piety in the 21st Century… a sociological review of religion, religous beliefs etc in the US.

“It is better to admit to a gap in our knowledge”
I find myself in some disagreement here. Myths have values as gap-filling explanations, especially where myths are constructed from synthetic truths, or by analagous reasoning.
I use the “where did I come from mummy” analogy again.
Answer A: The Stork left you on the doorstep.
Answer B: From Mummies tummy.

Analysis of A: Totally false explanation. Its value as a stop-gap explanation is negated by its falsity and the fact it will lead to confusion.
Analysis of B: Not untrue. The womb is in the anatomical region of the stomach and an observable character of pregnancy is the enlargement of the abdomen. To a young child whom the parents believe is incapable of fully comrehending the facts of life this is an adequate and valuable stop-gap. And when the time comes to provide a thorough explanation there is no confusion caused by the earlier answer.

The alternatives to A and B are.
Answer C: The full truth.
Answer D: A refusal to answer the question.

C is an adequate answer… But whether the full truth is understandable or appreciated by a young child, depends upon the child and its circumstances. Therefore it is not always the correct approach.

D is undesirable for the intellectual and emotional wellbeing of the child.

Yet position D, a refusal to engage with the question is seemingly what you are proposing. You say if we do not know the answer, we should admit to the gap in our knowledge. But this is not the manner of human cognitive thinking.

My proposition is that myth making is valuable, especially when it is born out of a genuine desire to answer the question and to be accurate in so doing. If and when the myth is superceded by a factual explanation, then the myth should be relegated to the realm of analogy, not discarded as falsity.

“Why is their something rather than nothing?”
I like your answer. I am in general agreement upon most of your points. Although I would propose that my postulating meaninglessness differs from yours. The perception or illusion of meaninglessness is the starting point for existentialism, not the end point. Although I am pro-kierkegaardian in this view and you and possibly RD are pro-satre/nietzsche. Our questions are the same, the methodology differs slightly and the answers are polar opposites.

I agree it is difficult to talk about RD in the language games context without ‘putting words into his mouth’. My view is that RD represents the science language game and believes that the realm of the science language game is the physical world. I believe RD is opposed to the religion language game (concerned with the spiritual realm) overstepping the mark and joining in the science language game by talking about the physical world. But I think RD is wrong here in staking a solitary claim to the physical world. The Religion language game can  and probably must talk at times about the physical world and in so doing will occasionaly make statements that resemble the science language game. I think this is unavoidable unless the language game became solipsistic and denied the reality of anything but the mind. As you said the rules of the science language game concern the how questions. It is if you like the describer of the mechanics of the universe. It is not concerned with the why questions. However when discussing the meaninglessness of the universe (albeit as an honest attempt to resolve the question) RD seems to be crossing over language games, and entering into the ‘why’ stage.

Contextualising scripture:
I agree that by using context in an understanding of scripture it can disorientate or distance the believer from the core text. But this I think is the point, the Bible as a canon of different books, was compiled for a reason. What were those reasons? Who were the compilers? What agenda were they pursuing? Similarly the Quran, if we disengage ourselves from the claim that it is the word of Allah as dictated to Mohammed by the angel Djibreel, what we have is a holy book written in ‘real time’ therefore it must have some form of contextual relation to the time and place and events that surround it.
From the early days of Christianity, once the canon of biblical texts had been formularised, commentaries were written. These were not just homilies expounding on a theme, but were scholarly works, cross-referencing texts, contextualising evidence and so on. The commentary of St Jerome (5th Century) is still widely used and promoted as a masterpiece of scholarship.
And for most Muslims the Quran is complimented, expounded upon and clarified by the Hadith (the sayings of Mohammed).

You talk about what certainty does a book have when it is constantly conditioned by contextual arguments. All I can propose is that the compilers of the biblical canon did not intend for its use as an exclusive source of knowledge, wisdom, doctrine. It is worth noting that most of the books in the bible are written post-event. And in the case of the New Testament (such as the epistles) the books are written at a time when the early church was already in existence. To what did they refer to then?

On a pernickety note I wouldnt say God is badly defined. Just that attempts to define God are invariably bad. But that is a type 5 bias from a theist in response to a type 1 bias of an atheist.

As regards banning or burning books, I was arguing from the ridiculous. If a holy book is taken out of context, or more specifically is ‘contextualised’ in accordance with an external framework of reference, i.e. marxism, feminimism, atheism, pan-arab nationalism, anti-zionism, etc. Then a ‘dangerous’ interpretation could be read from it. And it is the inteprative framework that needs closer inspection.

“And if the leadership that caused the interpretation is religious (e.g. the Pope) then can be finally lay the blame at the door of religion?”

If the ‘dangerous’ interpretation comes from the Pope, you can lay the blame at the door of the Pope, not at the papacy. This is a fallacy that emerged with liberation theology, an institution cannot be ‘sinful’ it is only the individual, or the collective of individuals that can be ‘sinful’.
So no the fault for wrong, evil, or dangerous interpretation of a religious text does not lay at the door of the institution of religion, especially where the decisions of the institution are made by individuals.