Ophelia Benson’s Medicine

There’s some serious hypocrisy flying around some quarters of the Free Thought Blogs. Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers and others are fighters for social justice, the feminist cause and the battle against sexual abuse and rape, which can only be applauded, and would be, were it not for their methods.

Michael Nugent has posted another clarification of his position on these matters. He has become the target for their rhetoric and misrepresentation, because he has objected to their rhetoric and misrepresentation when it has been directed at others, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer. It seems ‘any critic of mine is a friend of my enemies and therefore an enemy of mine’.

[UPDATE - while writing this I see that Nugent has another post up covering the fact that Myers has not responded to Nugent's call for an apology, after Myers said Nugent defends rapists.]

I’ve covered some of this before, specifically about how Dawkins is being misrepresented, and on the hypocrisy of Myers complaining about the ill-considered rhetoric of Dawkins and yet engaging in similar ill-consideration himself that resulted in misrepresentations of Dawkins. There I also pointed to Michael Nugent’s response to it all as one of the only sane assessments on the matter. And it’s as a result of Nugent’s criticisms there that Ophelia Benson continued her attack on Nugent, and had Adam Lee jumping in with both feet – firmly in his mouth. And Nugent responds again, with restraint and calm reason.

And it goes around some more, and Nugent finds he has to make yet another clarification of the misrepresentations of him.

You’ll notice that Nugent’s posts are very specific in addressing his attackers, very calm and considered, and necessarily spell out, repeatedly, in great detail, where they are going wrong. Some comments on his posts have suggested he give up and ignore the attacks, rather than give them air time. There’s always the danger that he’ll suffer the TL;DR short attention span response. But others, I think rightly, are supportive of Nugent’s efforts as being worth the trouble. The smears and misrepresentations should be documented in this manner, for the record.

The hypocrisy of Benson, Myers and others of the #FTBullies extends to their unwillingness to criticise the many viscous followers they have on their blogs. There are some clearly false accusations flying around about Dawkins and Harris, and latterly Nugent, such as calling them misogynists, or even supporters of rapists. In Nugent’s case Myers seems to have been pretty clear that he considers Nuget a defender of rapists that comment on Nugent’s blog, and holds Nugent responsible for that in some way; were it true in any case – and Myers offers no evidence of this claim.

Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen Myers or Benson comment on their own blogs with something like, “OK guys, I’m criticising Dawkins and Harris for careless or even harmful rhetoric. Let’s not get into that ourselves.” Instead, they continue with the misrepresentations, and allow the more extreme of their followers to jump to the nastier conclusions on their behalf [UPDATE: except in the latest Twitter outburst Myers is responsible for all his own work].

I thought it might be helpful to Myers, Benson and Lee and others engaged in these campaigns against Dawkins, Harris and Nugent, if I quoted from a book a read some time ago. It was aimed at the sloppy thinking and failure to search for the truth, in favour of one’s emotive commitments, and directed generally against the religious, New Agers and post-modern relativists and other pedallers of flim-flam [h/t Pinker]. I’ve inserted and emphasised where I think Benson and co. might not get the message from the original.

Confusion and obfuscation are arguably the best way to go. Obfuscation is legal, it’s easy, there’s always an abundant supply and it often does the trick. The more unclear it is exactly what one is arguing, the more trouble one’s opponents will have in refuting one’s claims.

And this is why Nugent’s posts are increasingly detailed in refuting the charges from Myers et al.

Asking unanswerable questions is an inconclusive but useful tactic. … The fact that no one can answer such questions is taken by the pure of heart and limpid of mind to entail divine [self-appointed] explanation. The fact that such explanation allows the questions to be asked all over again seems not to trouble the divinely [self-appointedly] inclined.

In fact, the contortions are a giveaway not only that the explanation is not the right one, but that something is badly wrong with the method of generating the explanation, that things are back to front [mirroring the Vatican?], that the enquirer has started, not with a desire to produce an explanation, but with the desire to produce a particular explanation, or a particular kind of explanation.

What should trump what? Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not, what is admissible and what isn’t?

The truth is important to us, but so are our needs and desires and hopes and fears. Without them we wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. Without them, we think, we would merely be something like an adding machine. An adding machine can get at the truth, given the right input, but it doesn’t care. We want the truth but we also want to care – wanting the truth is indeed inseparable from caring. We want it, we care about it, it matters, and so do various other things we want and care about, some of which are threatened by the truth. … But we have to choose. … If we’ve never bothered to decide that truth matters, and that it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes – that, in short, wishful thinking [that everyone should agree with our gross characterisations] is bad thinking – then we are likely to be far less aware of the tension. We simply allow ourselves, without much worry or reflection, to assume that the way humans want the world to be is the way the world is [populated by privileged old white male misogynists, as we see it], more or less by definition – and endemic confusion and muddle [and the need for endless clarification] is the result.

Religion and related modes of thinking such as New Age, Wicca, paganism, the vaguely named ‘spirituality’, [and the social justice wars?] are where this outcome is most obvious. Public discourse features talk of [god stuff, or charges of rape] … without apparently stopping to notice that there may be reasons to prefer true beliefs rather than false ones.

What reasons? There are many. One is truth is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. It is intimately related to concepts such as consistency, thoroughness, universal applicability, and the like. If one decides that truth doesn’t matter in one area what is to prevent one deciding it doesn’t matter in any, in all?

Our internal private thoughts might not matter at all. … But how we influence each other, how we teach – by writing, by journalism, by talking on the radio, on platforms, in churches, in mosques, in classrooms, [how we use blogs to espouse rape claims rather than official channels] – it does matter. If we are going to influence people, it’s important we get it right.

If we minimize true facts that we dislike too often, we may lose sight of the fact that it is our reaction and degree of attention that is subject to our wills, and start to think that the facts themselves are subject to our wills. But on the whole they’re not.

But then this …

There are fields where indifference to truth is no handicap – advertising, PR, …, lobbying, marketing, In fact there are whole large, well paid, high status areas of the economy where truth-scepticism, wishful thinking, fantasy, suspension of disbelief, deletion of the boundary between dreams and reality, are not only not a handicap, but essential to the enterprise. … We need our dreams and stories, our imaginaries. They are good for us. We need the cognitive rest from confronting reality all day, we need to be able to imagine alternatives, we need the pleasure of fantasy. But we also need to hang on to our awareness of the difference between dreams and reality.

No! Some of these, advertising, PR, lobbying, marketing – and blogging unsubstantiated rape claims and naming as perpetrators people who have had no recourse to justice – are precisely the areas where we are seeing no handicap to the perpetrators of lies, but where the wider social handicap is far greater.

There is a profound irony in the situation [super fucking irony in this case] – in postmodernist epistemic relativism. It is thought to be, and often touted as, emancipatory. It is supposed to set us all free: free from all those coercive repressive restrictive hegemonic totalizing old ideas. From white male western reason and science, from the requirement to heed the boundary between science and pseudo science, from the need to offer genuine evidence for our versions of history, from scholars who point out we have our facts wrong. … Take away reasoned argument and the requirement for reference to evidence – by discrediting them via deconstruction and rhetoric, via scare quotes and mocking capital letters, and what can be left other than force of one kind or another? … This is emancipatory? Not in our view. It is not emancipatory because it helps emotive rhetoric to prevail over reason and evidence, which means it helps falsehood prevail over truth.

The book? “Why Truth Matters” – Ophelia Benson, Jeremy Stangroom.

Super fucking irony.

John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.

“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”

In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, for as long as they lack evidence, but open minded enough to consider evidence when presented? Is that so bad? In what way is the atheism of Dawkins different from the atheism of Gray? Does Gray hold to some greater open mindedness to the possibility of some intelligent entity creator than does Dawkins when he expresses his views?

When Gray quotes Dawkins from The Selfish Gene wondering if visiting aliens might wonder if humans are intelligent enough to notice Evolution at work, Gray seems to get the idea that Dawkins is some kind of supremacist.

“There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do.”

One has to wonder by what means Gray thinks some alternative, ‘less’ intelligent, aliens might have got here to do the observing. I would expect, as a first approximation, that any aliens clever enouch to reach us across the vastness of open space have figured out some pretty damned clever technology for doing so.

So, yes, there is a sense in which cleverness is superior – superior to dumbness. Perhaps Gray thinks we should promote philosophy professors based on lack of cleverness, stupidity. Perhaps they did at the London School of Economics and Political Science when Gray was there. Thay might explain some things.

“The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed — but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.”

This really is grossly sloppy research by some dumb ass philosopher. Of course evolutionary theory is fallible in many respects, as are all theories in science. And yes it’s the best we have yet. But if Gray would like to offer some hint at were it is so wrong that there is much chance of its basic principles being overthrown by some future theory he’s welcome to illustrate them.

And yes, there can be much doubt that “Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist” in any crude and derogatory sense that this statement from Gray implies. Is Dawkins an evangelist for evolution over crack-pot creationism? Sure he is. No doubt Gray has lauded the benefits of philosophy in his time. Pity he doesn’t practice in this piece some of the critical thinking philosophy is supposed to encourage.

“Among these traits, it is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, …”

Incongruous, because Darwin and Dawkins have some personality differences? Incongruous because Dawkins has the wealth of genetics to back up his perspective on the reliability of evolution that Darwin didn’t? Well, what would you expect? Of course they were different in many ways, and it’s plain stupid to try to turn the emulative admiration Dawkins has for Darwin into supposing Dawkins imagines himself to actually be the Darwin of his day. Of course Darwin was more hesitant and perplexed by the ideas he was formulating while now Dawkins is more confident that Darwin was on the right track.

“… Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional.”

And Gray’s dishonest scuralous implication is that Dawkins doesn’t understand that – when Dawkins expresses that opinion regularly. You only have to listen to Dawkins rather than just cherry picking what you like, or what you heard someone else report, in order to see the misrepresentation going on here.

“If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world.”

Is it any wonder so many of us dispair at the state of philosophy when philosophers like Gray come out with such bullshit. The fact of the matter is that science is not the unquestioned view of the world, but the view questioned by scientists all the time. That’s what it is to do science – to question one’s views of the world. When one then comes up with some pretty good answers that doesn’t turn you suddenly into some absolutist for science dogma, though that’s how science is often presented when one wants to attack a sientist.

I think Gray is mistaking the view of science that Dawkins and others have by comparing it to their view of ‘other ways of knowing’, which turn out to be unreliable flim flam. Maybe it’s the utter inadequacy of religion and philosophy to tell us anything useful about the world, such that when Dawkins points that out Gray sees him claiming instead that science is perfect: “Oh, our philosophy and theology is hopeless is it? And I suppose you think your science is perfect!”

“The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind — his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.”

The irony leaps out from the pages of the New Republic! Just as many cautious tentative Victorian scientists were misunderstood for claiming certainty, so here we have Gray misunderstanding Dawkins. How can a professional philosopher make such glaring errors of thought? Read Dawkins, Mr Gray. Or just play a few of his short video clips on YouTube. You’ll see he prefaces and loads much of what he says with contingency. Again, you are perhaps mistaking his derision of ‘other ways of knowing’ for some claim that scence is perfrect. See the distinction?

Or, perhaps read someone with a better appreciation of Dawkins having actually met the man. This is Andrew Anthony, “There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.” – My emphasis, my way of spelling out Gray’s error.

Gray covers the period of Dawkins growing up in what was the dying stages of Britain’s colonial Africa, and his days at school. Gray picks up on how Dawkins can’t remember having any empathetic feelings for a bullied boy at school. And Gray leaps on this and extrapolates to how Dawkins bullies the religious now.

Except Gray, as with many critics of Dawkins, totally scews it up. He gets it dead wrong. Dawkins does not bully the religious by any stretch of the imagination – except if you stretch your imagination so far you event your own caricature of Dawkins that is nothing like the man.

When you see Dawkins rail against the most obnoxious of theists that are persecuting homosexuals, promoting creationism, opposing democracy, abusing children, then if this is your sole point of reference it’s easy to see how you can get it so wrong. But Gray is supposed to be a sharp thinker, a philosopher. Where’s his research?

Perhaps Gray could learn something from that one article and its comments. But there’s plenty more. You only have to actually listen to Dawkins, or not read his works looking for your own version of what you think he says. Or simply Google for the actual opinions of Dawkins. Read his website. I’m afraid Gray has perhaps done too little research into the man whose biography he is critiquing, or perhaps has a predetermined agenda and is taking this opportunity to air it. It’s not difficult to find nearly every piece by Dawkins is the antithesis of the caricature Gray is presenting.

“Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known.”

More failed research.

So what did turn Dawkins into an anti-religious missionary, as opposed to an ‘old atheist’? Well, 9/11 played a big part in that, as we can see here in a copy of a piece from the Guardian. And from there we have The God delusion. But long before that he was objecting to the Creationist opposition to evolution. And, of course, he was charged with the job promoting science, when from 1995 to 2008 Richard Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. It doesn’t take much research to have a fair stab at “how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar” – something Gray seems totally incapable of trying.

“From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself.”

Then, Mr Gray, you clearly haven’t read very much of what he writes. Or you’ve been mallisciously selective.

“At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.”

This is just plain dumb. I mean really dumb. Being ‘evangelicaal’ is merely to express a keenness for something one believes in, to the point of thinking it worth promoting actively, stridently if you will. But hold on …

“In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been reared…”

If his ‘evangelical’ nature is grounded in his Christianity, and yet his Christianity was ‘milk-and-water Anglicanism’, Gray’s appraisal doesn’t really add up. You are contradicting yourself, Mr Gray. Unforgivable for a philosopher endowed with the critical thinking philosophy offers, surely.

The real difference between being an outspoken atheist and an evangelical Christian, is that the latter has no grounds in evidence upon which to base his case, while the former, being claims no more that a failure to be convinced of Christianity or other religions in the light of no positive evidence to support them. So, the stridency of Dawkins to me seems more like that of the mystified Brian in Python’s Life of Brian, addressing the throng of people who mistake him for a messiah:

Brian, “Please, please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say. Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals. You’re all different. You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”

And when Brian says, “You’re all different” and one of the crowd comically responds “I’m not”, I can’t help but think of the comic hapless Gray uttering a futile self-contradiction.

A couple of other ironies here. The crowd in this scene are the religious, looking to Brian. Of course Dawkins is not looked to as the messiah by the religious (though often mistaken for the anti-Christ) or by atheists. The stridency of Dawkins is that of Brian telling the religious to think for themselves instead of following holy preachers and silly books. The other irony is that this is also how many religious people, and some atheists, like PZ Myers and crew, see those of us who are atheists that defend Dawkins against these stupid attacks. We don’t follow Dawkins in the sense they imply; but as with any good thinker it’s worth taking note of what they say. And it’s worth pointing out when they are misrepresented – and Gray isn’t on novel ground here; he merely echoes the same tripe that we get from others.

“Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness.”

Gray goes on to agree with Dawkins that some Christians, as Dawkins says, believe in original sin. But Gray here is lamenting the fact that Dawkins observes this in Christianity as if gray thinks Dawkins believes it himself.

Gray tries to put Dawkins right – but about something for which Dawkins was never wrong, because Dawkins never professed it:

“Even so, it [original sin] is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact.”

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologists. Does Gray really think this is the inate nastiness of life that Dawkins is railing against? What a straw man to pull out of one’s ass. Dawkins is arguing against the original sin of Christianity, not the varied and sometimes unpleasant behavioural tendencies of humans.

“As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.”

And neither would Dawkins. But that perspective on innate biologically determined human tendencies isn’t original sin, is it. The Gray analogy is that both Christians and atheists agree humans sometimes do bad things to each other; but it’s their explanations that are so different that makes the criticism of Original Sin justified, while still allowing us atheists to think there are other reasons for our occasional nastiness. Nothing that Gray has said on this amounts to any valid criticism of Dawkins at all, though Gray is passing it of as if it is.

“Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally.”

Yet more utter bollocks. In the week in which the current and maybe most liberal of recent Popes professes belief in actual angels it is totally ridiculous of sophisticated theologians and accommodationist atheists like Gray to play this game of pretending that hardly any of the religious believe the literal interpretation of biblical bollocks. Many do. And many will skirt around the subject to duplicitous degrees to avoid owning it.

“Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture.”

This is yet more nonsense. Of course Dawkins criticises the literalist. And the allegorists too. And all shades in between. Maybe the reason you see Dawkins objecting to Biblical Literalism so often is that he’s arguing with Biblical Literalists of varying degrees. Even in debate with the previous Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, he tried to pin him down on issues like the resurrection, it is typical of Williams to skirt around it, but you can bet plenty of Christians believe it is literally true. Instead of addressing that duplicity Gray picks on what is most likely the least popular literal interpretation of the bible, the six days of genesis. But still, the Pope believes in Adam and Eve. Of course Dawkins is leteralist when addressing literalists.

Gray points us to Augustine and Philo of Alexandria as non-literalists. But their theological interpretations of their beliefs are not universal. So, did Augustine think the resurrection didn’t really happen? Does Augustine believe there is no actual literal God? This sophisticated theology that tries to explain away religious nonsense doesn’t mean that there are no literalists in other respects that Dawkins cannot address.

Has Gray never heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy? Surely he has. So why is he playing that hand here?

“In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.”

Hold on. If Christians are not the literalists that Gray says Dawkins is mistaking them for, then how can he be mimicking a ‘factual’ literalist Christianity? Gray doesn’t make sense. He’s losing sight of his own arguments in his commitment to having a go at Dawkins.

Gray moves on to Dawkins and memes.

“There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor.”

And that use of meme as metaphor is pretty much where Dawkins leaves it too. But it’s a word where the spread of morphology through genes is an analogue for the spread of behaviours through ideas as memes. It’s a fair metaphor. It doesn’t have to be an established scientific theory to be useful. Come on, Mr Gray, you’re a philosopher, a member of a discipline renowned for making up bollocks and presenting it as theory.

“The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value.”

No it isn’t at odds. It’s just multiple perspectives. And it need not have evolutionary value if it’s a spandrel. The propensity to see agency were there is none may indeed have had some benefit – better safe than sorry. But it’s quite feasible that an evolved behaviour can morph under social thinking into some unhelpful monstrosity. I guess Gray doesn’t have any evolutionary explanation for tight jeans, pipe smoking, Boy Scouts or any other human concoction. But there they are.

“But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning.”

Not so. The human mind as a behavioural process of a physical brain is still subject to cause and effect of the natural world. My brain is caused to find religious belief an error of thinking, by my brain’s caused modelling of the thinking process under empiricism. That effect in turn causes my brain to engage in critical thinking in order to try to persuade believers they are wrong. If my verbal behaviour, as received by a believing brain causes that believing brain to adopt a different perspective then that believing brain may become a non-believing brain. All that is a natural process of mechanistic human brains. And that my brain uses the meme metaphor for religion and sees it as an error does not make any of that inconsistent. Many philosophers simply can’t dig deep enough into determinism and physicalism to follow where they lead.

“To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on.”

Correct. We are caused to think we are in charge of ourselves. Free will is an illusion.

“If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. “

Because we have brains that are somewhat isolated from our environment but ultimately caused by it to be what we are. The term ‘decide’ relates to the logical process of decision. A computer makes decisions. It is programmed to do so. But with non-deterministic (to us and it) inputs it’s decisions can lead to unexpected novel outcomes. So decision making is really another perspective on causal systems. The decision making of a computer does consists at its most basic as an interaction of electrons and ions in electronic devices. That of a brain consists of the interaction of neurons.

“The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science.”

Mostly, that’s true. The dualist free will of the soul or mind is illusory, under naturalism. There’s no evidence of any spooky stuff that can bypass the causal nature of the matter of the brain.

“Science may give us the unvarnished truth — or some of it — about our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals.”

I disagree. Rationality is a label we give to the mechanistic processing of data that goes on in a human mind – the decision making. It is basically causal elements interacting.

“Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it.”

Sloppy writing from a philosopher again. Religion is not an illusion. Religion is an actual human social behavioural phenomenon that includes an aspect of those brains believing things to be true for which there is no evidence. Science does dispel it, sufficiently, because of the lack of evidence for it. Typical: a philosopher allows his mind to coalesce science’s lack of supporting evidence for religious claims into his understanding of logical disproof of religious belief.

“On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores.”

First sentence is right, in that science might show that religion cannot be eradicated, by natural evolutionary means. Then again it might not show that at all. It might show, had we access to similar minds to ours but evolved independently, that indeed it is possible to not have religious belief. And it might be possible to show (I would expect it is possible) that religous belief could be eradicated from brains by artificial means.

The second sentence is Gray talking out of his ass again. Of course Dawkins has considered this.

“For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible.”

Dawkins does address this sometimes, but as far as I can tell gives little significance to it. He’s not specifically a philosopher of science, so perhaps it doesn’t get his dander up the way many problems of religion do – i.e. evolution denialism.

“There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.”

The problem is that some of these philosophical details are no more than hair splitting in the absence of any evidence to favour any of them specifically. Rather, each and all of them can lead to material naturalism and physicalism. There’s simply no reason to keep re-hashing this stuff, though I appreciate that philosophers earn their money by doing just that.

“It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation.”

I’m losing count of the misrepresentation in this awful piece by Gray. Let’s get it straight.

Science is the broader label for a group of human activities that adopt the very same faculties that all humans have: reason and evidence, observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it. This is empiricism. A simpler definition of empiricism allows only the sensory experience, but that alone is not what differentiates human brains from other brains. It’s our wider empiricism: observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it.

On empiricism as an inclusive term for reason and experience: brain neurons and sensory and motor neurons have much in common. The empirical nature of the peripheral neurons isn’t that different from brain neurons. Brain neurons engage in empirical interaction with other brain neurons. There is no magical ‘thinking stuff’ beyond this that we are aware of. Physicalism rules, by default, for lack of evidence for anything else. Get over it.

This is what all humans do. Science is no more than making the effort to do that better, more reliably. The thing is, empiricism is all we have. It IS the only way of knowing, that we know of. There are no other ways of knowing. Science uses the usual human processes and adds method and rigour. That’s the distinction. So, within our one way of knowing, science is the best of it, when it comes to finding out how the world works. The imagination of fantasy may be very enjoyable – and may even be used in science to inspire ideas: many science fiction ideas become scientific goals. But when fantasy is used to proclaim a reality, without any supporting evidence, as in religion, and often in philosophy, then yes, science is much better.

I appreciate Gray has latched onto this Scientism trope. But it really is a poor show for a philosopher not to do the work to find out how humans acquire knowledge.

“If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance).”

Wrong again. Dawkins criticises various ideologies that include a rejection of gods, such as the communist based ideologies of Stalin, Mao and others. Where does Gray get the idea that Dawkins thinks all atheists have liberal values? Is is when Dawkins mentions the liberal values of atheists in the liberal atheist sub-group? Such a misrepresentation would be like accusing the Pope of thinking all Christians are Roman Catholics when he addresses Roman Catholic Christians as Christians. This is just plain stupid from Gray.

“But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood.”

Yes, we know that already. Dawkins also criticises accommodationist atheists that make excuses for religions.

“One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure.”

Try asking Dawkins, Mr Gray.

“”I am not a good observer,” he [Dawkins] writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings—himself and others.”

I disagree. He may sometimes miss the stupidity with which his plain speaking can be misunderstood and misrepresented. It may well baffle him how a philosopher such as Gray can miss so much too. But then he might figure, well, he is a philosopher.

“To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situation—but somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.”

Has it occurred to you, Mr Gray, that his dismay was really about the way in which one religiously motivated atrocity was going to be compounded by the religiosity of the Bush-Blair righteousness? What do the religious have to say on the matter than, say, someone from the British Humanists Association might not – other than colouring the whole campaign with religious platitudes of well meaning.

“In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.”

Then, Mr Gray, you really are ignorant of pretty much all of the work and public appearances of Dawkins. And that is an awful position for a philosopher, commenting on an autobiography, of someone you know so little about, and have met only once and not at all intimately enough to extract any useful information from the meeting.

It’s ironic you wonder if Dawkins is aware of how comic he appears to be, when here you are, Mr Gray, making a total buffoon of yourself demonstrating utter ignorance, of Dawkins, of science, and even of aspects of the philosophy material naturalism and empiricism as it plays out in science.

It’s a bit rich when a philosopher starts complaining about how some scientist doesn’t get some philosophical angles when the philosopher has a completely skewed view of what the scientist actually thinks and expresses, about science or philosophy.

It’s Tough Being a Secular Democratic Liberal Muslim

In response to a tweet by Maajid Nawaz.

Maajid Nawaz,

I wish you well, I really do, so I hope you’ll consider this criticism.

On your specific points:

1) Islam is a religious ideology with political requirements built in. How could it not be. Any religion that contains social commentary, prescriptions and proscriptions is inherently political.

2) Sharia is a law or a guide depending on how those implementing it and/or enforcing it use it.

3) Ummah is a political bloc if those building it say it is.

4) Caliphate does mean theocracy if those building it use the Caliphate as part of government – i.e. if religion is the state religion or the religious leaders have powers that control the state, and if the religious leaders determine what religion the politicians must belong to. You know this is standard stuff in Islam, regarding what posts that can be held, what taxes are imposed on non-Muslims. Have I misunderstood? Have many Muslims misunderstood too?

Your secular democratic liberal efforts are to be greatly admired, given your unfortunate history. But if you insist on going down this “Islamism isn’t Islam” route you’ll be making a rod for your own back. While it may pander to moderate and near moderate Muslims, and even dissuade some Islamists from following that path, I feel using tactics like this may well backfire.

Religions have many varieties of sects within them, and the specific intent of the originators is so lost in history and interpretation by those that follow their lead that there is no clear definitive Islam, or Christianity or any other religion. There is no true Islam, and nobody has the authority to declare one. It’s for every religious person to declare what their religion means to them.

If you say you are a Muslim and your holy book is the Quran, I accept your word. If less secular Muslims claim they are Muslims too, I accept their word. If ISIS followers are brandishing the Quran, quoting it, praying based on its teachings, believing in Allah, then they are Muslims, and evidentially so, and I accept their word that they are, even if I like their Islam far less than yours.

In your response to a tweet you said, “your words assume there’s a ‘true’ interpretation of Islam. There’s no ‘true’ interpretation of any religion”. Well, precisely. So are there several Islams, or one? Several true ones or one true one? And who decides which is the true one, or the true many?

I support your efforts to distance moderate democratic secular Islam from ISIS and other extremist ‘Islamist’ versions of Islam, but they are all versions of Islam. Obama and Cameron may be taking your lead in this narrative, but it is a dishonest one – dishonest to reason and evidence. ISIS may not be YOUR Islam, but it is THEIR Islam. Saying that ISIS are not Islamic, or that they are not following the REAL Islam, is just playing the usual takfir word games – you are playing the ISIS game, albeit from a secular democratic liberal perspective.

I read your book, Radical, and I sympathise with your early experiences that took you on your journey, and I deeply respect the role you are trying to play for us all now. I feel you are very sincere. But when you say in your book that you must use the tactics that you learned in Hizb ut-Tahrir I think you need to be careful of the extent to which you use duplicitous language when doing that. Firing up political interest and activism is a great cause, so it would be a shame to sully it with slippery language.

I’m a secular atheist and I’d happily disagree with you about your religious beliefs. But here I accept, respect and support your right to hold your Islamic beliefs. And yet I think you are making a mistake playing this game of rejecting what others claim their beliefs to be, over who gets to name it. It’s fine to say “Their Islam is not my Islam”, and “I want a reformed secular democratic liberal Islam”. I think that’s an impossible ask without a serious reform of Islam, to the point of being little more than deism.

I find it hard to imagine a ‘true’ Islam that abandons constraints on apostasy, for example, though I’d welcome such an Islam as a step in the right direction. But I think the real problem here, for you and other moderate Muslims, is this business of the inerrancy of the Quran. It contains some verses that like the Old Testament Bible are hardly suitable for modern times; but, it’s the inerrant word of God. That leaves it for anyone to interpret it in either traditional terms or modern terms, and to interpret it as they please. This is a problem for all religions. It’s not as if the ultimate authority of the Roman Catholic Church has a history of only decent and good pontifications to its name; but lacking a central authority Islam is open to all comers and all interpretations. Reforming Islam is a mammoth task while this inerrancy claim persists. And yet if you drop it the Quran loses any power it has. That’s quite a challenge for you.

So, I don’t think you have a case for claiming that ISIS and Islamists generally are not Islamic. Your statements in your tweet feel very much like a fatwa: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2014/09/17/fatwa/ (In this episode I think the person of Mo is played by Maajid Nawaz).

A tweet reply by you on Twitter: “right, so instead of guiding 1.5 billion Muslims to secularism gradually, we’re expecting them all just to apostatise”

That would be nice. I do appreciate what you are trying to do, and the difficulty you face. But I can see right through this abuse of words. Should I be so disrespectful to human intelligence to think that Islamist Muslims don’t see it too? Does the takfir game ever work out? Are you not simply begging to be accused of haram practice of making a false accusation? You’re the Muslim, so I’m asking you. Should I not ask followers of ISIS too? Can you not see the futility of this particular move?

Best wishes, and I hope you can see your way to taking a clearer route, though it may be a harder one.

Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

There’s a Youtube video put out by the RI that sees Professor Nicholas Humphrey contemplating the nature of human consciousness.

Here’s the video: The Magic of Consciousness.

Some commenters seem to have trouble understanding how consciousness, and the mind, can be explained by physical processes when the subjective experience is screaming at them that the mind and consciousness are not physical at all. This incredulity extends so far that Deepak Chopra adds his twopenneth; and I suspect that it’s this incredulity, along with his interest in mysticism generally, that has driven his ideas that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. So, maybe Feng Shui works because setting your grand piano facing south makes it a happy conscious piano? Are piano keys always happy to be the keys of a piano? These are the things you have to think about if Deepak Chopra is to be taken seriously.

I’ll wait for Deepak Chopra to do some science that actually demonstrates this thing consciousness that does not amount to mere subjective perception of one’s own consciousness and the subsequent presumption that others have minds too. Because our own personal experience is all that we have to indicate that consciousness is a phenomenon at all.

If you watch the video you’ll see that Nicholas uses the example of the impossible triangle optical illusion. He refers to the 3-D model of the 2-D impossible triangle, as explained and displayed in this source:

Perceptual Illusions and Brain Models (2 pages).

Gregory: “There are purely optical illusions, where light from the object to the eye is bent by reflection (mirrors) or by refraction (the bent-stick-in-water effect, and mirages).”

But some optical illusions are actually mental illusions, illusions of mental perception. Gregory: “The Poggendorff illusion figure (1860). The straight line crossing the rectangle appears displaced.” The optical properties of the figure do not change as we look at the figure with a ruler along the line, to show it is continuous, or without the ruler, when our brains perceive it as displaced.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.58.30

The impossible triangle was traditionally presented as a 2-D drawing of an imagined 3-D figure. Gregory: “The impossible triangle (FIG. 9) (L. S. Penrose and R. Penrose 1958) cannot be seen as an object lying in normal three-dimensional space.” But Gregory presents us with a 3-D model that can be perceived as the impossible triangle from certain positions. We’ll get back to that perception and how it relates to the illusion of consciousness. This is the model used by Nicholas in the RI video.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.56.23

We’ll get back to the impossible triangle and its relation to the illusion of consciousness. First, consider the nature of self-awareness, and the subjective view we have of our own minds.

The brain is a self-monitoring system – as are many animals, biological subsystems, and computer systems.

Part of a typical computer’s embedded software monitors signals that represent measures of its own CPU temperature, and if the temperature approaches a value that endangers the CPU the software can fire outputs that shut down the computer. So, if a failed computer fan, or a blocked vent, prevent the cooling system working, this self-monitoring system can protect the CPU. We have mechanisms that are similar in principle but are far more complex that cause us to pull away from hot objects, or to remove clothing when overheated, or to reason about turning down the heating in the house. Computer systems that propel themselves also have to self-monitor: the vacuum cleaners enjoyed as motor vehicles by Youtube cats; or Google’s self-drive cars. Simple brained animals are some way between these computers and humans, performing very complex tasks that integrate monitoring the environment, self-monitoring their own internal states and behaviours, and modifying those states and behaviours in order to achieve some goal – such as satisfying the demands of yet other automatic sub-systems such as the hunger mechanism.

In monitoring itself the brain cannot detect or ‘feel’ the individual neurons clicking away, or the rush of neurochemicals at synapses. It has a different higher level model of itself, that probably, for reasons of evolutionary efficiency, has no need for the fine detail of individual neuronal activity. The result is that the brain has evolved and developed to create a model of itself, which it perceives as the mind. And because it cannot detect the physical detail of its neurons it feels, to itself, as if it is just a free floating mind – it has created its own illusion of being a separate mind, free of its own physical material. The brain responds to chemical activity induced by bodily and other brain functions as emotions. Millennia of philosophy and theology that didn’t understand the neuronal nature of the brain have run with this mind model as if the mind is a real but immaterial entity.

Nicholas refers to the problem of appreciating what pain is, in physical terms. In the illusion of being a detached mind the brain perceives pain as signals. Pain signals are distinguished from non-pain signals by their frequency and not their amplitude. That the brain translates this into a subjective measure that we (or I, where ‘I’ IS the brain as a collective system) experience is no more than the brain’s self-aware ‘mind’ model of the pain stimulus.

So, that’s my basis for tying the ‘mind’ as an illusion to the physical brain that fits with everything in science that demonstrates that physical naturalism works and is therefore a reasonable model of the universe as a whole, and a reasonable model for our consciousness as a brain process.

There appears to remain the issue of this distinction, between the actual world that we perceive and our perception of it, the difference between pain neuronal signals and the perception of pain that doesn’t carry any of the detail of the pain signals – the ‘qualia’ of pain. Personally I don’t see a problem with this. The neurons process action potentials, but the whole brain decodes this as pain sensations. They are different modes, different levels of data.

What’s the alternative? What evidence is there, any scientific evidence, or anything at all other than a subjective feeling, that the mind exists as some immaterial entity, or that consciousness is not an illusion? I don’t think there is any. If you examine claims made by dualists like Chopra, and the naysayers of physicalism that have nothing but uncomfortable incredulity to go by, then you’ll find that they are referring to yet more mental gymnastics that can be incorporated into the same illusory mind model.

So, how does the impossible triangle fit in? The thing is, the impossible triangle of this video is external to the brain. We can change perspective to reveal the error of our perception. The triangle doesn’t change physically – so the ‘optical’ illusion is in the brain, as a mental perceptual illusion. When we change perspective our ‘optically stimulated’ mental illusion is broken. We cannot do this with the brain’s illusion of consciousness and mind. We are stuck with the introspective subjective perspective, of perceiving a mind at work. We cannot change our perspective to reveal the mental illusion that we think is the free mind and its conscious experience. Instead, we use science and reason to figure out that it’s an illusion.

Brain in a Vat

Coel has put up a post on one of philosophy’s favourite topics: Brain in a vat (BIV). I’ll try to get to other sources, such as the Massimo Pigliucci post Coel refers to, but for now I’ll respond to Coel’s post only.

So, “[the BIV problem] supposes that we are a brain kept alive in a vat, being fed with a stream of inputs generated by an Evil Genius. Everything that we experience as sense data is not real, but is artificially simulated and fed to us.”

First, a quick comment on the Tatsuya Ishida cartoon. There should have been one brain in a vat, and both speech bubbles should have come from the same brain: one taking the part of the brain that is supposed to be the main character, and the other is the internal auditory perception of what the brain presumes to be the other character. Of course it could be that two brains in vats are being manipulated in conversation, but that then seems too much like an actual conversation between brains, and sort of misses the main point of BIV: all perceptions, whether thoughts of the lone BIV, or stimulated auditory perceptions that convince the BIV that it has heard another speak (and visually aware of the other, etc.). But that’s just nit picking.

Back to the problem. How can you tell if you are a BIV?

You can’t. Or rather I should say that so far we don’t know if you could tell or not. The significant point is that we can’t positively know we could tell the difference, between being a real brain in a human body, situated in the physical world we perceive, or being a BIV being stimulated to so perceive the world.

Coel’s parsimony point is right, but I disagree with his use of it. Parsimony is merely a pragmatic tool in an epistemically uncertain world. It assures us of nothing. The proper use of parsimony is that if there are two explanations (or theories) that fit the same evidence then we might as well use the simplest. Since both theories fit the evidence then by definition we can’t tell which is correct, and at that point it doesn’t actually matter.

Example: Theories X and Y fit evidence A, B, C. X is simpler than Y, so use X.

New evidence D also supports X and Y, so continue to use X.

Then, new evidence E comes along that supports Y, but not X. All of a sudden Y is looking interesting. E might be so convincing that it clearly falsifies X and supports Y. Then Y is the theory to use.

Later, evidence F, G might come along, some of which shows that the experiments that affirmed E were faulty, and F and G also support X and not Y. X is back on the front foot.

That’s how it works. In the case of the BIV problem we have zero evidence either way. We have no evidence supporting BIV, and not supporting the falsity of BIV. We cannot resolve it with any evidence we have.

So, what should we do?

Well, think about the consequences of perceiving the real world and being a BIV perceiving a stimulated fictional world.

What if we really are brains in vats? Or, following my criticism of the cartoon above, what if I really am a BIV, and you and everyone else I perceive are stimulated fictions? What can I do about it?

Bear in mind that I can’t even be sure I’m an actually brain in an actual vat either. I might be merely a computer simulation: of a BIV being stimulated to perceive a real world.

This scenario is so fucked up compared to my perception of a real world that there really isn’t much I can do about it. I might want to get all revolutionary on the Evil Genius’s ass; but really, if he’s controlling my brain (or simulating the control of a brain) then he’s controlling my revolutionary thoughts too. He’s actually making my brain wonder if it’s a BIV! The cruel bastard!

In the end I’m left with the correct use of parsimony. It seems like I’m perceiving a real physical world containing other real physical people, so why not simply use that as a working conclusion? Work in progress. Just like all the rest of science.

Note that this has nothing at all to do with thinking about a finite subset of infinite possibilities, or any of that crap.

“Any statement not supported by evidence is most likely to be wrong and thus should be discarded.”

No! This is not how it is. Any statement not supported by evidence is NOT most likely to be wrong! We simply can’t say if its true or false at all. We can’t say anything much about it at all, except that if we don’t have evidence to support it then it’s indistinguishable from a statement that is false, and as such is as useless as a statement that is false. Using terms like ‘most likely’ is totally inappropriate.

Take the statement, “Praying to Jesus gets results, sometimes.” Well, people pray often, and most times they get no result. Sometimes people pray and get the result they pray for. This is true for many sports competitions, since many people seem to pray to Jesus for victory in sports. But since someone wins and someone loses (barring the anathema of US sports – a draw) the actual result is indistinguishable from coincidence. Prayer, as a determiner of sports results might actually work. Maybe Jesus really does dish out results according to prayer and some other very complicated cosmic data he uses. But to us the use of prayer is indistinguishable from useless. [Note, that's not to say there are not other psychological consequences of prayer.]

“Regardless of whether the “world” is real or simulated, the standard scientific “real-world model” gives the greatest parsimony and predictive power in describing that world.”

Not so. The BIV, if that is the state of affairs, only ‘thinks’ the real-world model gives predictive power at all. The actual laws of the universe that the Evil Genius inhabits might be quite different from the one that the BIV thinks it inhabits, with very different laws. Of course the BIV can’t imagine what those laws might be, because the BIV is only aware of the ones it is programmed to perceive. All the ‘predictions’ the BIV thought it observed never happened. Have you ever noticed in a dream how natural and obvious some of that weird shit appears to be, how convincing it is, when in the dream? Well, why should that not be the case for the BIV? If you are a BIV then you haven’t ‘woken up’ yet to observe how false all your perceptions are; you are still in the ‘dream’ believing you can make predictions.

“Any departure from that standard model would result in a worse account (one that is less parsimonious and less predictive about that stream of experiences). That’s because science’s models do work very well about our world and are the best that we have.”

Not they don’t, if you are a BIV! They only appear to work very well.

“One might object that in a “brain in vat” scenario the Evil Genius could feed us any stream of experience he liked, with no rhyme or reason to it, no regularities and no predictability. That is indeed possible, but then the stream of experiences could only be described essentially as a streamed video tape, which is the most information-hungry type of model and one that would be totally useless at predicting anything.”

It doesn’t matter how information hungry the theory is from the perspective of the brain, real or BIV. This has nothing to do with it at all. The computer simulation of rolls of a dice are more information hungry than rolling an actual device since computer simulations are built on information hungry computers. But that doesn’t mean we should make a statement, “All simulations of dice in computers are actually real dice, since simulating a dice is more information-hungry, and by the rule of parsimony we should not believe that computers are ever simulating dice.”

“In contrast the “real world” model is very compact in that all one needs are the basic laws of physics and all else follows from that. This model has a vast amount of predictive power, as we know from the fact that engineering works, and planes we build fly, and predictions we make for solar eclipses come true.”

No! You, the BIV, only THINK planes fly, if indeed you are a BIV.

“The brain-in-vat model has no capacity to make any predictions at all about the stream of experiences, unless we make all sorts of assumptions about the Evil Genius and why he is feeding us the stream of experiences.”

Well, where in the BIV notion does it require us to be able to say anything at all about the Evil Genius? If I am a BIV then any assumptions I might presume to make are untestable bollocks.

But, the BIV model does make predictions. It predicts that the brain so programmed can make predictions. It can make predictions about its imaginary world, and it can make predictions about being a brain in a vat. They simply aren’t testable predictions.

“Yet, ex hypothesis, we can never have any information about the Evil Genius or his doings.”

Exactly. Including never having the information to know that you are not a BIV.

“The only way of regaining any degree of parsimony or predictive power…”

No, no, no! If you are a BIV you get only the predictive power that the system controlling you, or simulating you, gives you; which, if you are a BIV, is this very prediction that you are or could be a BIV. And it may all be fake. As a BIV you don’t get any say in anything! You don’t get to know anything. The very fact that you are wondering if you’re a BIV is a consequence of being that very BIV, but only because the stimulations or simulations produced by the Evil Genius allow it. That you are predicting the consequences of being a BIV is predicted by being a BIV, if you are a BIV.

Even if the Evil Genius attached some physical eyes onto the brain and allowed you to see him waving at you from outside the vat, you would have not way of knowing which of the following just occurred:

1) You are a BIV and just saw the actual Evil Genius.

2) You are a BIV hallucinating.

3) You are a real embodied brain in a real physical world hallucinating.

This is just like revelations from God that some religious people report, or when some ‘crazy’ person hears the voice of Jesus and neurologists see his auditory cortex buzzing away as if hearing real voices. Religious personal revelations might be real or they might be imagined. These are indistinguishable events. We reject them only because they don’t seem convincing to us most of the time, and because there is not convincing evidence. Though remember, to many religious people, belief is the parsimonious result.

And this is how we deal with the BIV.

Imagine I am a BIV. I am stimulated to perceive a physical world. That fake physical world model results in me learning some physics (maybe fake physics) and evolution (maybe fake evolution) and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

Or, imagine I’m a real human in a physical world. That physical world results in me learning some physics and evolution and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

These are truly indistinguishable. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this debate. But note that one is a subset of the other. The simpler one, the latter, seems to work in just the same way as the former, except that the former has some features (me being a BIV) that I can’t actually observe or test. So, according to the principle (i.e. suggestion, recommendation) of parsimony I might as well go along with the latter.

Note that this is almost an arbitrary choice; but not quite. I could live my life as if I’m a BIV. Suppose I did so in one of two ways:

1) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I keep it to myself. I never tell anyone. I even try to fool myself that I don’t believe it. Other than a few personal psychotic moments how would this be different from believing I’m a real person in a real world?

2) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I try to tell everyone? But hold on, why would I? Since I’m a BIV what good would it do telling my imaginary fellow humans that don’t actually exist except as figments of my BIV? But suppose I did, and those very same figments of my BIV locked me up in an asylum. Well, it’s only an imaginary asylum.

The problem with the BIV perspective is not that it’s not real, but that it’s fucked up to think it is real. It just seems to add a layer of complexity that is unevidenced and unnecessary. I might as well go along with the apparent reality I perceive, whether it’s a real reality or a stimulated one or a simulated one.

Note that this is also how I see religion: an unevidenced and unnecessary level of complexity added to our experienced life; pretending we are God’s brains in his vat of a universe. So fucked up that it’s no wonder we get the craziness. But note also that it could all be true – all of it! Islam AND Christianity – all true but we poor brains in God’s vat simply don’t get the big picture; and William Lane Craig is right that all the dead children have been done a great favour. Religion is as exactly as fucked up as imagining we’re brains in vats. Once you start adding imaginary stuff on top of evidenced stuff, anything goes.

“The in-a-vat wrapper to the real-world model is along the same lines, a vast and needless complication that doesn’t in any way improve the model’s fit to evidence. We could just as well imagine any number of other parallel meta-realities that make no difference to what we experience.”

That’s right. That’s all it boils down to. A rather arbitrary choice, made because it makes life simpler, even if only apparently so.

“Since there are an infinite number of such possibilities the chances of any random one of them being actually true is infinitesimal.”

This is totally irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter if there were only two possibilities: 1) real world, as we actually perceive it; 2) BIV, stimulated to perceive the world as we actually perceive it.

“Thus, by the adoption of the usual scientific method, invoking Occam’s razor and principles of parsimony and the need for predictive power, we can reject brain-in-a-vat scenarios.”

No. Only the principle of parsimony is necessary. Predictive power is of no use, since a BIV makes the same predictions. We cannot reject the BIV with any conviction. Instead we simply choose to reject it because that’s easier. There is no other convincing reason.

“That, of course, does not mean that they can be absolutely ruled out, any more than we can rule out any other hypothesis designed to leave no discernible trace at all on our experience of the world (apophatic theologians are particularly good at inventing these), …”

Agreed.

“… but the chances of any such suggestion being true is too low to merit taking it seriously.”

No. It’s nothing to do with chance, probability, possibilities, or anything else. It’s simply taking the simpler option that doesn’t require that we sustain belief in things (Evil Genius, vat, disembodied stimulated brain) that we cannot test.

Coel refers to Descartes and his Cartesian Doubt, whereby Descartes digs deep into a reasoned sceptical investigation to figure out what lies at the bottom when all our uncertainties are stripped away. His working conclusion is cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. From there Descartes cocks it all up, because he already believes in God and he just can’t drum up enough doubt about that.

But his Cogito is about the only place I can see we can start from. Coming up from there I can’t see any difference between our perceived reality and solipsism, or a BIV. That’s the only starting position I have, and that’s were I take it from here: Contingency of Knowledge.

Dawkins v Myers: The Slurs Continue

Rape is bad. In similar circumstances the a similar event might be worse for some victims than others. And depending on how it affects the victim what looks superficially like a worse rape, such as by a stranger at knife point, than another rape, such as by a friend on a date, may in fact not be what we expect. One victim might find the date rape far more traumatic than the attack by a stranger, because perhaps the failure of trust between them and the trusted friend might completely fuck up the victim’s capacity to trust and interact with people generally. The victim of a stranger rape might be able to put that into a box, a dreadful box not to be opened again, so that they can get on with their lives.

Dawkins makes a point that there are degrees of hurt, and points out that comparing them does not diminish them. This is complex stuff and one might expect that someone like Dawkins gets that. I’m sure he does, and that his recent Twitter set was simply a poorly made point. [See links in the Michael Nugent post for details - link to Nugent towards the end]

It’s not as if Dawkins was actually making much of a point about rape itself, but was using it to make a more general logical point:

X is bad. Y is worse. This is not an endorsement of X.

We can see why he used rape in one example, and paedophilia in another: he’s received criticism for his comments on these issues and thinks that some of the commenters missed this logical point, by concluding that saying Y was worse amounted to endorsing X. And some commenters really did do that. Fucking moronic.

But additionally PZ Myers on his blog took strips off Dawkins. And his commenters jumped on board. Some simply saw it as a crass use of rape to make the logical point, but many already had the knives thoroughly into the back of Dawkins and were in no mood to let him off with further explanation. Many who have made their minds up about Dawkins denied all possibility of even the slightest generous reading of his Tweets or his follow up explanations.

Well, the next phase in this pile of crap going on among sects of atheists has taken us in another direction. Robin Williams died today and got lots of public sympathy. But an unknown teenager is killed by the cops of Ferguson and receives far less sympathy.

PZ Myers used the death of Williams to make a point. And PZ is getting some push back for pointing out this discrepancy in public attention. The post by PZ does itself seem a bit over the top; almost conspiratorial in its rhetoric. Was there no better way of making the point? Well, maybe. But some will not leave it at that.

On that post by PZ a number of commenters weren’t at all happy.

“Disappointing, that’s quite a cheap shot.”

“Cheap shot is a perfect word for this piece.”

“[starts with a comment on Williams...] Meanwhile, yes, this piece appears to be entirely cynical. A well-liked famous person dies, but of course this is the perfect segue into racial politics!”

PZ comes back, “You are sad that Williams is dead? Good. I think it’s terrible that he suffered from depression and died. I am not saying that he was a bad person or that his death is not cause for grief. But what I’m seeing, what prompts your whining about cynicism, is that the media have lost all sense of proportion — that the death of a popular entertainer is bigger news than our loss of freedom and our slow steady drift into a police state.”

Paraphrase: Williams’s death is bad. But wider racist social injustice and decline into a police state is worse and deserves greater public attention. This is not an endorsement of being dismissive of Williams’s suffering. X is bad. Y is worse. This is not an endorsement of X.

Well, as was pointed out to Dawkins and his crass point making episode: did he really need to point this out in such a callous way, as if we didn’t know that already? Don’t we know already that police in some states are highly likely to pick on black teens and occasionally kill them? This is bad. Really bad. There are many issues in the US that deserve far more publicity than they do, and celebrities get a lot more than they need, deserve, and often more than they bargained for or want. But should PZ have used the death of Williams to make this point?

Personally I think his point is fair enough. But I’m more interested in what others think, particularly commenters that inhabit atheist blogs.

But I’d like to address one specific aspect of the point PZ is making: did he have to use the convenient and timely death of Williams to make a political point? Wasn’t this precisely what Myers was making a fuss about in the first place? Isn’t this hypocritical of Myers to tell us how politicians are using the death of Williams to deflect attention form other matters, while he uses it to direct attention to those matters?

PZ, like Dawkins, doesn’t help his case with suspect rhetoric, when he sees it this way: “thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people”

What the fuck? One could say that the disproportionate attention paid to Williams is down to the celebrity angle rather than a white supremacist police state racist angle. What difference would one suppose there would be if some famous and loved black celebrity died while at the same time the police somewhere killed some unknown poor white guy?

But really, the PZ post, like the Tweets from Dawkins, deserve little more than a face palm. Not everyone sees it that way.

Elsewhere PZ gets even more stick. On Jerry Coyne’s post comparing the lovely tribute to Williams from Stephen Fry with the post by PZ …

“Wow, I knew Myers could be a you-know-what, but this is terrible. How can someone post something like this? There’s something very cold and mean about that guy. I don’t understand it.”

“I hate to say this but, based on this obscene commentary and his anti-Israel fulminations, Prof. Myers is turning into a schmuck of the first order.”

“Great letter from Fry. And PZ really should be ashamed. As if Williams chose this moment for the purpose to serve government interests. Really, really awful.”

You’ll notice how in this last one the comment by PZ about the convenience of the death of Williams for politicians has been totally misunderstood. PZ wasn’t suggesting in the slightest that Williams made the choice but that the convenience, however coincidental, fell in favour of politicians. If you can’t connect the dots here one wonders how visitors to Coyne’s blog grasp the undirected aspects of evolution.

Perhaps the critics of PZ, on his site and on Jerry’s, could learn from Dawkins:

X is bad. Y is worse. This is not an endorsement of X.

The death of Williams is bad and the public response may be deserved, but it is a worse state of public interest and of political diversion that the Ferguson killer cop issue has received less publicity. Pointing out the latter about the Ferguson case is not an endorsement of less publicity and less expression of feelings for Williams. What PZ said takes nothing away from the sentiments expressed by Fry.

It seems the divisiveness continues. And the exaggeration of the polarization stands out a mile with all the stupid comments.

It was enough to say that Dawkins made a misjudgement in each of his Tweets, and to leave it at that. He wasn’t endorsing rape of any kind and wasn’t enabling rapists. To suggest that was just plain stupid when you follow everything else the man says. And some of the comments on Jerry’s post about PZ are just as bad and just as stupid. It wasn’t enough to say simply that they thought PZ was a little too cynical in his expression of his point?

The only sane comment on the Dawkins stuff comes from Michael Nugent. His main point that’s worth taking away from this is not that Dawkins made mistakes, though Nugent thought he had, but that comment on Dawkins from people that should know better have escalated the whole thing into a personal slurfest. It is astonishing how what should be a straight forward criticism about a point of disagreement can turn into a wild dogmatic hatred. There really are extremes of rhetoric and irrationality at work that would put some of the dumbest theists in a good light.

Nugent has defended Myers before too, as he points out. Perhaps it will require the sanity of Nugent to point out the stupidity raging on this little post by Myers.

I can’t figure out why the likes of PZ takes shots of Dawkins for crass language when PZ himself has a pretty sharp tongue. But there you go, nobody’s perfect. You’d think atheists would know that from engaging with theists.

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism.

She asked me, well what do you believe in? You surely must believe in something, ‘in humanity’, for example? Her surprise was that I said that as far as I can tell I don’t believe in anything, in that religious type of ‘believing IN something’, and I don’t need to. What about life, family, your wife?

I chose to respond about my wife – one’s wife is a common subject when believers insists that surely you have ‘faith’ in in your wife’s love for you. Of course I love my wife. Along with my (adult) children she is most important to me. But I don’t ‘believe in’ her, in some all encompassing sort of way. She’s another human being. She has flaws, as do we all. It would be unfair to ‘believe’ in her in that way, and totally unnecessary. I trust her; and I’ve learned to do that with experience of not being given any reason not to. Exactly what I trust her with or about is less clear, but generally I’d say I trust her when she says she loves me; I trust her not to intentionally do anything that would hurt me in any way. But my wife and I are simply two human animals that have that type of loving bond that humans are capable of. It’s not magic. It’s not spiritual. It’s human. It’s what humans do.

I could come over all lyrical, quote lines from poems or love songs to express how deep my love is, but that seems to be rather superficial when trying to get to the bottom of this belief stuff. I need to explain it rationally. Spouting words of romantic love would express my feelings, perhaps, but wouldn’t go any way to explaining anything about belief.

Believing ‘in’ stuff always seems rather contrived; fake. I’m not disputing that people do believe like that. But I get the feeling that they’ve been busy fooling themselves into such beliefs, buying into romanticism spouted by poets, philosophers and theologians. It all seems such unnecessary nonsense. I get all the wonder and magic of living a human life, with other humans, and with other animals on this plant, and from the mysteries of the universe itself. I don’t see the need to believe ‘in’ anything.

Coincidentally Will Self has a piece in the BBC News magazine: A Point of View: Why not caring about anything is only for the young. “It is not the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself, argues Will Self.”

Well, no, believing doesn’t matter. Or, rather, not believing ‘in’ something, avoiding such an error, is what actually matters, because it allows you to believe whatever you find to be the case. I find that believing ‘in’ something gives that something an importance that cannot then be betrayed by truth, and can lead to the denial of any truth that threatens what you happen to believe ‘in’. Religions gain their coercive authority from having people submit to belief ‘in’ them.

“Dostoevsky understood that what humans are, in terms of our moral being, is crucially tied up with what – if anything – we believe.”

As a matter observation, I guess that has been right, historically; mostly, for the thinkers that think about thought about those things. But I don’t think it’s a necessity for humans. I think it’s a habit, like one’s religion, that we have tended to fall into, or grown up into. It seems so common that I suppose it might be some quirk of the brain that makes it happen; an accident of genetics and gene expression in the environment of human brain evolution.

“In the contemporary secular era, one the lineaments of which Dostoevsky could perfectly well discern when he was writing in the 1870s, there are plenty of people keen to assert that they have no beliefs at all, if by this is meant a settled conviction about such big questions as why we are here, where we are going, and whether good and evil are ultimate realities or merely functions of a given social structure during a particular era.”

Quite right. If the enlightenment has shown us anything it’s that such convictions are foolish. It’s ironic that believers are often quick to tell us how wrong we atheist science proponents are in our belief ‘in’ science. They assume we believe ‘in’ science the way they believe ‘in’ whatever it is they believe in. And they couldn’t be more wrong. Scientific scepticism is the withholding of conviction – barring over enthusiasm in one’s pet theory now and again, but we’re quick to clarify the contingency of our apparent beliefs The contingency is what we take for granted as a lesson quickly learned in the failure to make accurate predictions when we expect to be able to make them. A failed experiment is telling us something: something unexpected about the subject of the experiment, or something unexpected about how to perform the experiment.

Learning to trust science generally, as a process of discovery, as the best process we have available to us, is not a commitment to a belief ‘in’ it. And when it comes to science in specific instances it’s usually the scientist doing the science that knows full well how contingent their very positive looking results are.

“But is it really true to say we have no beliefs? After all, if we truly believed nothing it would be difficult for us to operate in a world where everyone else behaves as if they did believe in something, that something being – by and large – the efficiency and reliability of the technologies we rely on for our daily life.”

Will Self is here failing to distinguish between belief, as expressed when we say ‘belief in’, and a learned trust.

Trust is a powerful empirical tool used throughout the animal kingdom, by animals possessing brains. We can start with it, and potentially withdraw it; or we can start without it and learn when to award it. The inquisitive nature of the young is an expression of this learning process: to dive in head first with no negative expectation, and learn from one’s mistakes, or to tread cautiously and learn what can be trusted.

Now it may well be that the human brain, with greater powers of reflection, is sometimes a little too sceptical for its own good, and often a little too trusting in invisible powers for which there is no evidence. These are issues of psychology and neuroscience that we are still trying to discover in detail. But despite our history of over indulgence in belief ‘in’ things, there is no reason to suppose this is some necessity for survival, or happiness.

“When we push button A we very much expect B to happen, when we flick a light switch we anticipate the light going on. “

Well, yes. These are learned expectations. There is no reason to believe a switch will bring forth light, and any ancient would be rightly mystified if it had. From an early age my children grew up with VHS video recorders which they could use to record and play back TV programmes. That was something I learned was possible only later in life, since I grew up with only two, then four TV channels and no means of recording. My childrens children will think it quite natural to walk down the street seemingly talking to themselves when in fact they are in intimate live conversation with someone on the other side of the world. How would that not be sorcery to people of earlier times. But these are not beliefs ‘in’ anything.

“they depend upon beliefs that we hold on trust”

Yes, in trust, not belief ‘in’. They are commitments of quite different kinds.

“This reliance on essentially occult beliefs for the smooth running of the physical aspects of our lives has engendered a further strange belief in us, a belief about our beliefs concerning those big, metaphysical questions.”

For some that don’t get the opportunity through circumstances to enlighten themselves that may be fair enough; but for anyone at all educated this amounts to wilful ignorance. I don’t know many details of physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, and when I try to express my opinions on these subject I no doubt make mistakes, or run out explanatory steam. But I know enough to know that there will be answers there, if in fact I know that someone somewhere has taken the effort to make the appropriate discoveries. It seems to me that failing to grasp the rudiments of how things work is a failure of inquisitiveness not unrelated to the closing down of inquiry we see in many systems that require a belief ‘in’ them.

We can even go so far as to make reasonably educated estimates about as yet incomplete knowledge; not because we know that these things ‘will’ be discovered, but from a trust born of previously successful extrapolations. And tempered by previous failures too. So, as just one example, I see no principled barrier to humans discovering the nature of consciousness, as a function of a biological brain, to the extent that one day we will be able to enhance our own consciousness, encapsulate it in substrates other than evolved brains, and will be able to generate it afresh. There really is no known principle that persuades me this will not be possible. There is, however, a lot of belief ‘in’ stuff going on in some human brains that prevents them entertaining this possibility. Their belief ‘in’ some unsubstantiated specialness of human kind, often divinely created and so outside the creative reach of man himself, prevents them seeing the possibility. Believing ‘in’ things seems such a hindrance to the imagination – another irony given the flights of fancy believers often engage in without any need for evidence to support their beliefs.

“This abrupt curtailment of the Western metaphysical project has left us at the bottom of our metaphorical gardens, in our figurative garden sheds, and depending for our belief system on a series of makeshift structures we’ve knocked up ourselves.”

That’s right. We’ve invented some holy shit. And look at the price we are paying for that right now. The most profoundly religious places on earth are often the most abysmal. Of course the dogmas of religious belief are no worse than those of atheistic beliefs ‘in’ something or other – as religious believers will be only to pleased to remind us by bringing up Stalin and other wackos. But sceptical scientific atheism isn’t made of the same stuff: it’s the lack of unconditional belief ‘in’ things. If we’re going to believe something it’s going to be conditional on the evidence that supports it; and if better evidence comes along we give up the belief somewhat easily, though sometimes reluctantly, because our beliefs are contingent.

“If called to account on the gimcrack quality of our convictions, we relapse into a sort of stoicism light: “Well,” we say, “it’s true that these beliefs aren’t altogether credible, but that doesn’t matter because at root I don’t believe in anything – I’m just trying to get by like the rest of us.” But the problem with stoicism light is that it just can’t deal with the heavy stuff.”

I agree. There’s a lot of unthinking conviction going on. And ‘sophisticated theology’ is the cheapest and showiest ornament of all. And it’s all so unnecessary. But worse, it’s always poorly thought out. Supposedly sophisticated, it’s nothing but a sham.

“The problem with our contemporary secular beliefs is that they’re either makeshift, or entered into unconsciously, simply as a necessary operating system for our busy and digitised lives. The great believers in the wonder of the universe, as revealed to us by science, seem to have considerable difficulty in either galvanising us to social solidarity, or providing us with true solace.”

As for the social solidarity I defy you to give any example of solidarity that is so inclusive of people than is science. There are no bars to membership. And as unlikely as it is to find someone that is both Muslim and Christian, there is no reason a Muslim or a Christian can’t be a scientist.

And as for solace, I think the difficulty is in the minds of those expecting solace. Cast it off. You don’t need it. Or, to put it another way, there’s a natural peace and solace in the freedom from belief ‘in’ anything in particular. It’s deeply liberating.

Life throws up crap, and often this happens when you’ve taken the greatest care in your life to avoid it; and to rub salt in, you witness the most cavalier kind swanning through life happily with the least effort. When will you get it into your heads that the chaotic nature of nature defies perfect order. Shit happens, and the best you can do is try to avoid it happening to you and your loved ones, and if you can help a few others around the world avoid it too, all the better for your empathetic biology. And if you can positively create and improve, then better still.

“I’ve yet to hear of anyone going gently into that dark night on the basis that she or he is happily anticipating their dissolution into cosmic dust.”

Then you’re not listening.

That’s not to say an individual at death’s door doesn’t long to survive. We are biological survival machines. We are programmed to stay alive if we can, and barring relief from pain and suffering the human organism is programmed not to go gently. If you doubt the power of this biological force of nature then watch the beating twitching body of a mouse your cat has toyed with. For a more traumatic example make yourself witness (it’s your duty to do so) the struggling body of the victim of a beheading at the hands of those that currently take their solace from the religion of Allah. Then decide what makes stoicism so biologically unnatural, and how reliable religion is at providing solace.

It is one of the supreme powers of self control to slip away in fully conscious peace – it goes against our biological grain. And all the more incredible when not pretending we are simply crossing over to a better eternal life of bliss. Knowing you are going, right now, and this is the end, may be a challenge to our animal survival that even a contemplative brain has difficulty with. All the more virtuous then, if virtue is something you find appealing.

“nor do I witness multitudes assembling in order that they may sing the periodic table together, or recite prime numbers in plain chant.”

And what’s that got to do with the price of eggs? Do you think atheists that believe in nothing in particular cannot be stirred by the rhythms of music. Emotive religious music can be deeply moving. But then so is music by the Doors. Try Rhythms of the Brain, by Gyorgy Buzsaki if you want to know why rhythm is important – it’s nothing to do with the religious content. It’s nothing to do with believing ‘in’ something.

“By contrast, religious beliefs continue to offer many people genuine succour, and they do this, I think, as Dostoevsky realised, not because of the specific concepts they appear to enshrine – such as an afterlife or eternal judgement – but because they place the human individual in a universal context, and thereby give her life meaning.”

I can understand that, in a time of near absolute ignorance. And the irrelevance of the specific content of belief goes some way to explain the arbitrary and varied nature of it. What else could explain the success of Scientology? A trumped up religion, invented by a failed science fiction writer, and people actually believe ‘in’ that stuff? This tells us more about the gullibility of the human brain than it does about our need for succour – or it tells us it’s such a desperate need we’ll believe damned near anything other than the cold facts of life and death. It is almost as incredible that any educated intellectual falls for the religious crap, but sure enough they do. And some of them scientists too. Even biologists.

We might still be early in our journey of the discovery of this universe and beyond, but the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and evolution, and latterly the brain sciences and the discoveries of our symbiotic relationship with all life on earth, and with any other life there might be in the universe, and with the rhythms in the dust of the universe – all this, it gives life far greater meaning than any trumped up imaginary fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong. Fantasy has its places, from childhood fairy tales, to adult fictions, theatres, art. We are emotionally driven intellects, and it’s often fun to lose ourselves in our imagination. And the devotional life may have its merits in personal fulfilment – it takes all sorts, and there’s no telling what one’s brain might find satisfying. And the simplicity and beauty of non-belief-in provides an exhilarating freedom of its own kind.

So, it’s not a belief ‘in’ something, the universe, and our place in it that we need. It’s the marvel of the discovery that we collectively, accumulatively, we lumps of dynamic dust, have been able to contemplate and understand what we are, what we came from, where we might yet go, that gives life its meaning. That and a good pint or a tasty dram, a hearty meal, passionate sex, holding hands, a melody, a pleasant snooze in the afternoon. Living our small short lives and marvelling at the greater universe is plenty satisfying enough. I don’t need to pretend in an afterlife or in any cosmic shepherd to watch over me and guide me. The last thing I need is the atrocious nonsense that the big religions dream up. I don’t need to believe ‘in’ something; what a chore.

Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

He fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will.

One of the great values of good science explanations is that they can make very difficult subjects easy to understand. Sam Harris is usually crystal clear. Sadly, in spite of their claim to be the torch bearers of critical thinking, philosophers’ texts can be downright messy, obtuse, as clear as mud. Dennett’s is no exception. And it doesn’t help when he references the Nahmias et al. 2005 paper. But I’ll try to get around to that soon.

For now I want to address Dennett’s hopeless use of the sunset/free-will analogy. Dennett has used this analogy as one element of his arguments for dismissing the incompatibilism case that free will is an illusion. Here’s the analogy as expressed by Dennett.

After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. … When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

What point is he trying to make here? Well there are two obvious points:

1) On the existence of free will – The sunset exists, even though our understanding of what it does has changed; and therefore free will still exists, even though how we perceive it has changed.

2) On the illusory nature of free will – We have changed our understanding of sunsets, but we don’t call them illusions. Sunsets are real phenomena that can mislead the naive. Therefore we should not infer that free will is an illusion just because we have changed our perception of it.

The trouble is that he is equivocating on the term ‘sunset’, and is not clear in how the various elements of his analogy are related. He starts equating free will with a sunset, which is fine. But at the end he is equating the physical phenomenon that causes the human experience of a sunset with the human experience itself. He insists sunsets, the physical phenomenon, are obviously not illusory, and so free will is not illusory either. But the real problem is that we incompatibilists are not claiming that the physical phenomenon that causes the experience of a sunset is illusory, but that the experience is illusory – and similarly, the phenomenon that causes the experience of free will is real, but the experience, the perception of it, is illusory. The experience, as our brains perceive it, is that the small disk of the sun is moving down below the horizon, while we on our point on earth are stationary.

To make all this clearer here’s the analogy in full, with each element of the analogy stated separately, so we can see which are real phenomena and which are illusory.

Physical phenomenon:

Sunset: The earth rotates in front of the sun, causing the position of the sun and a spot on the surface of the earth to change position and direction with respect to each other.

Free will: Brain activity is caused, and by active feedback processes causes in turn actions by the brain, and these in turn cause actions of the body.

Mistaken perception (illusion):

Sunset: The first person POV, when at a point on the earth’s surface, is to perceive the motion of the sun across the sky and its descending below the horizon. It ‘feels’ like the sun is setting, rather than our point on the earth rotating away from the sun, in a changing direction caused by rotation.

Free will: The first person POV, from subjective feeling and introspection, is to perceive that willed decisions are made free of any physical cause in the brain. In fact the whole mind feels free of physical causation.

Cause of the illusion:

Sunset: Our senses that indicate our personal motion cannot detect the rotation motion of the earth – we cannot ‘feel’ the earth rotating. When we are stationary on the earth relative to all objects around us we feel we are actually stationary. So, we perceive the rotation of the earth in front of the distant sun as the sun moving across the sky, and it’s descending below the horizon at sunset.

Free will: Our senses that indicate our personal physical activity are not activated by the brain itself internally – we cannot ‘feel’ our thinking. When we are thinking and making decisions we cannot detect the brain activity involved, and so we feel as if our mind, our thinking, our decisions, our will, are all free of the physical brain that is actually performing these functions.

Persistence of the illusion:

Sunset: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from astronomy and other sciences, that the earth does indeed rotate in front of the sun and that the sun is not a relatively small disk or ball moving across the sky, our normal POV and the available attendent lack of appropriate motion sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we are watching the sun move.

Free will: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from all science, that the brain is the cause and location of our mental experiences, our normal subjective POV and the attendant lack of appropriate neuronal sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we have free will.

Where the illusion is experienced:

Sunset: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Visual illusions are so called because they are effects that reach our brains through the eyes, but the illusion occurs in the brain. In watching a sunset, or a rotating Necker cube as another example, the visual signals that reach the eyes are consistent with the physical phenomenon. The light reaching our eyes from the Necker cube is consistent with the one actual direction of rotation of the Necker cube; but the brain can perceive it rotating in either direction, and can perceive a change in direction when there isn’t one. When seeing the correct direction the brain is experiencing an accurate representation of the physical phenomenon. When the brain ‘sees’ the cube flip to the wrong direction it is experiencing the illusion. We could walk up to the Necker cube and get a better perspective, and so remove the illusion completely: we change our POV. Watching the sunset we cannot easily changed POV – without leaving the earth. We are pretty much stuck experiencing the illusion of sunsets. The mental illusion.

Free will: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Unlike sunsets and Necker cubes we don’t have any visual cues to aid our thinking. We have no sensory input at all. And unlike the Necker cube we can’t change our POV. We are stuck with the first person subjective and introspective POV. All we have to give us a clue that we don’t have the free will of a free floating non-physical mind is all our third person science: the total lack of any indication that there are such things as non-physical minds (or souls), and all the science that only ever shows that everything has a cause. I’m surprised philosophers put so much store in the subjective POV. I can understand why theologians do; and perhaps this common love of introspection is why they are such good bedfellows so often, and why theologians are often mistaken for philosophers (Plantinga).

What about the language? Should it change?

Sunset: When appropriate, yes. And it does. Astronomers stood on earth, or astronauts stood on the moon for that matter, will generally refer to sunsets, or earth rises, or whatever they experience, using the common terms, when they are in the first person POV. It even makes sense for Mission Control, on earth, to speak in terms of earth rise, when communicating with astronauts stood on the moon. The earth bound controllers are humans, and humans are capable of projecting their POV as appropriate, when required. But in any scientific context that involves an imaginary third person perspective of the solar system scientists will talk in terms of planetary rotations and orbits. We switch the terminology as required.

Free will: When appropriate, yes. Just as astronomers can project their imaginary POV to positions off the surface of the earth, so too scientists (and some philosophers) can shift their POV to view brains as physical objects performing functions of thinking and willing in terms of brain activity. We don’t have to be subject to the first person POV to the point that we deny that free will is an illusion. But nor do we have to abandon the first person POV whereby we succumb to the illusion of free will. Philosophers should not take the incompatibilist perspective as a denial of having the illusory experience of free will.

If the sunset or any visual illusion analogy is going to be used I can’t see how one can conclude that free will is not an illusion.

I can see that Dennett isn’t convinced. Try this:

there are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions-all there is is just neurons and glia and the like

Philosophers and theologians alike love their emotive language. We’re mad dogs now. This makes mockery of Dennett’s complaints about the language Harris uses.

But again Dennett mistakes the phenomena for the experience of the phenomena. It is an illusion that we have a free floating mind. It’s no good Dennett complaining “all there is is just neurons and glia and the like” if he’s not going to give any alternative explanation. That’s all there is inside our heads. What else does he think is the product of the experience? What (i.e. who) does he think is having the mental experience? Get used to Dan, it’s the brain: the neurons and glia and the like. He rules out non-physical dualism, and he rules out the brain. What magic is he supposing?

Here are some more instances of Harris’s move: We do not have the freedom we think we have. Who’s we?

We are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

So, when Harris says, “We do not have the freedom we think we have.” it means that the brain that perceives itself through thought suffers an illusion that it is a mind free of the brain. The brain is a delusional organ in this respect. This isn’t unreasonable. There are brain conditions where brains feel the are connected to their bodies either – they feel totally disembodied. There are not only specific neurological conditions that lead to this but quite common psychological experiences of being out-of-body. Why is so difficult to understand that a brain can feel itself disembodied from the brain?

So, this is what it feels like to be a massively connected bunch of neurons that have collected and contextualised masses of data about the world, encoded as active neuronal activity and neuron memory states. This is what it feels like for such a system to process data about itself, to ‘observe’ itself. It cannot ‘observe’ itself visually or with any other senses. This thinking business, this is what it feels like for a system with no external experience of its own internal operation to form concepts about itself. It feels like a free floating mind exists that is unconnected to the brain. That is the nature of the illusion of the mind. When that brain switches into action mode, this is what it feels like to will, and we call it free will because it feels free of the brain events that it consists of.

There’s a lot more wrong with the Dennett piece. But I wanted to address this particular perspective on the illusory nature of free will in terms of illusions. particularly since Dennett makes such a bad job of it.

Sceptic’s Guide to Friday 13th

Para-skevi-deka-tria-phobia! Fantastic!
Every time it comes along we hope that we get past it,
Without the loss or limb or life, our money on our plastic,
Para-skevi-deka-tria-phobia! Fantastic!

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

I gave our black cat a rub. It nearly scratched my eye out,
As it ran it tripped me up, I bumped my head and passed out.
When I came around at night, I reached to switch the light on,
It seems the cat had pissed on me, I lit up like New Brighton.

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

The current flowed right through my veins, boiling up my blood,
I knew that something must be wrong, I wasn’t feeling good.
I hadn’t rubbed a rabbit’s foot, I realised I should.
I’d mixed my superstitions up. I hadn’t understood.

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

I heard that cricket in the house is supposed to bring you luck.
I bowled a goolgy down the lounge, but then I cried “Oh fuck!”
I’d smashed the mirror on the wall, I’d really come unstuck.
My first attempt at superstition, I’m out for a duck!

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

Four-leaf clovers, right-hand hitches, horseshoes that were lost,
An itchy palm, clothes inside out, fingers that are crossed,
I don’t get this superstition stuff, I’ve found out to my cost.
It’s all a load of balls to me. It’s going to be tossed.

Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye,
Um-diddle-iddle-iddle Um-diddle-eye

I need a better look at life, something antithetic
To this superstition that makes me so apoplectic!
How anyone believes that crap, it really is pathetic!
Fuck that para-skevi-shit, I’m going to stay a sceptic!

Happy Friday the 13th!

Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

The question was posed here: Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

Rational: agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible; having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense; of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: the rational faculty.

Faith: confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof or evidence; belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.

Trust

Let’s get the equivocating use of the term faith as trust out of the way first, which is what the cited Buchak paper gets into with:

Buchak characterizes faith as a commitment to acting as if some claim is true without first needing to examine additional evidence that could potentially bear on the claim.

Oh, you mean like the terrorists that act in the name of some faith, before actually checking if the foundation of their faith is supported by evidence? Right.

Trust can be rational. Trust is something you learn, as when you learn to trust your spouse. You can be wrong, or, you could be right but later turn out to be wrong because your spouse was trustworthy for some time but then changed.

And we cannot fact-check everything for ourselves. Indeed part of the scientific method works because we cannot rely on our personal fact-checking all the time, because we have biases, and fallible senses, and fallible reasoning capacity. So, when experiments are carried out and reported we come to trust a particular scientific claim. Or we come not to trust it. Either way we adapt our trust according to how the claims stand up to scrutiny. We do not trust blindly and unconditionally, but carefully, with experience.

We can come to trust a source, a scientists, an establishment, which becomes an authority – but this must always be tempered by the possibility of error or fraud, and so in turn we come to trust the other scientists who check the source. Trust in sources can be lost – and sometimes is dramatically lost, when some scientists turns out to have been fraudulent in many of his published papers. This loss of trust can be inconvenient in science. It can even be catastrophic, as when the Soviet Union put their trust in Trofim Lysenko – and it would not be unreasonable to call this an example of blind faith rather than trust.

So this isn’t a universal locked-in trust. Trust can be revoked, if evidence comes to light that that suggests we should give up that trust.

We tend to trust doctors, because we know they are well trained professionals that dedicated to maintaining or improving our wellbeing. But we can lose trust in doctors when they fail us. They are fallible humans, and so even the very best intentioned of them can make mistakes. It is unfair to have unconditional faith in doctors. They should generally be trusted, but with caution befitting of your own concern for your own wellbeing. If you have a minor ailment, trust them by all means. If it’s a life and death decision, ask for a second opinion.

So, generally, “I trust my doctor”, is a pretty reasonable and rational statement. But to be more accurate it should be stated as, “I trust my doctor, to a degree, and cautiously, being ready to adapt my trust in the face of my experiences with my doctor.” This is quite rational.

What about when a religious person says something like, “I trust the Lord Jesus.” Isn’t that the same kind of trust? The use of the word trust here is misleading. It’s the faith that has brought this believer to suppose there is actually a Jesus to trust that is the issue. If Christianity were true in all its claims then it would be rational to trust Jesus, until such time that Jesus lets you down – which of course according to the fairy tale wouldn’t happen.

A similar statement to “I trust the Lord Jesus,” is “I trust in the Lord Jesus,” and when phrased like that we start to see the way in which simple rational trust in the character of a reliable person is morphing into the faith in both the character and the existence of a divine person. This is how religious rhetoric dupes people. Vagueness, equivocation, duplicity are the tools of religious rhetoric.

Religious Faith

When the question, is it rational, is asked of faith, the method by which a belief is maintained, then no, faith is not rational at all. Faith is the antithesis of rationality. Faith is what you use when you want to believe something, or are otherwise driven to hold a belief, when there is no reason or evidence to support the belief. And faith can result in belief in spite of counter evidence and reason.

When the question is asked it may be asked of faith, the system of belief, such as Christianity or Islam. So, can Christianity be rational? Can Islam be rational? Well, they can contain elements of reason, rationality, in the arguments put forward to support them, but that does not make them consequentially rational.

It is not necessarily important how the belief is first acquired. For example, it might be that someone who starts to examine a belief is persuaded by some arguments for it. When examined thoroughly the arguments may not be at all persuasive. But it would be unfair to say that someone new to the belief or someone who has not examined it well, is acting without reason, being irrational, just because they are persuaded by a poor argument.

Many Christians may be persuaded by the arguments of someone like C. S. Lewis, or William Lane Craig, or Alvin Plantinga.

The problem for someone first persuaded by these conjurors of religious apologetics arises when they become so convinced that they stop using reason and turn to faith as the final arbiter of what they believe.

Often the arguments of the apologists contain assertions that one should use faith. The trouble is that once you do resort to faith your reasoning capacity has become limited, because faith is always supposed to override, surmount, be better than reason. This is what religions rely on. This is how they lock people in, by first infecting them and then making them resistant to reason. Religions are viral, in that the persuasively rhetorical story is coughed up verbatim in order to infect others.

The basic lock-in rhetoric can be summarised by the following Simplified Bible claims, that represents how holy books work.

Simplified Bible

God exists.

This book contains the true and inerrant word of God.

God requires that you have faith in Him, and in his words as contained in this book.

When your belief is challenged by reason and evidence, this is the work of Satan tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith.

Of course the intelligent faithful would not usually be conned by such a simplistic book. All the elaborate stories of holy books are constructed so as to be persuasive, much more persuasive than this. They are appealing to believers, in that the nice stories suck them in, with all the hope and promise, but they also add threats of damnation just to make sure you prefer the warm and cosy message. Clever carrot and stick rhetoric. They have had thousands of years to hone their persuasive books.

But the logic of the above simplified holy book is not much different than this:

Liar’s Bible

This book was written by a truthful person and not a liar, honest.

Believe anything the author of this book tells you.

When your belief is challenged by someone using reason and evidence, that is the work of a liar tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith in this book and its author.

So, a liar has written a book in which he claims to be honest, and this book claims that the book is true and that the liar is honest. It also warns you of naysayers, stating in fact that the naysayers are the liars. So, another person comes along and says, “I know the guy that wrote that. He’s a liar, and has written that book to con you, to control you.” Well, your Liar’s Bible has a defence for that. All it requires of you is to believe the book, and of course believe its claims about the liar that wrote it.

Even if you are intelligent and capable of understanding reason you can still be taken in by religion, by the simple presupposition that God exists, and his requirement that you have faith in his existence, and in his word.

There is no logical reason for supposing anything exists that we cannot experience directly or test for in some way. There are simply too many things that don’t exist, that I think even a religious believer would see that it would be irrational to believe them just by presupposing them: fairies, ghosts, aliens probing you neighbour, pink elephants, flying pigs, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, Russell’s Teapot, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, perpetual motion, astrology, homeopathy, … the list is endless. It would be nonsense to start presupposing all these are true, or having faith that they are true. The natural course of events for humans is to accept on trust something that is quite ordinary, but to ask for evidence and reason to support the claims about these more extraordinary other beliefs.

This isn’t a scepticism reserved for the supernatural and spiritual. Scientists are sceptical about new scientific claims, even ones that have later shown to be correct according to the evidence. Scepticism is the default mode of thought in science. In religion scepticism is anathema, and faith is what is asked for, expected.

For a believer of some religion, or homeopathy, or astrology, their particular belief becomes untouchable because they have faith in it – and yet other examples of these unevidenced beliefs they continue to dismiss as untrue and irrational. The really gullible can indeed take on more than one such belief – so some Christians also fall for homeopathy, for example. But on the whole it seems to be no trouble at all for a believer to have faith in their belief, while denying other beliefs that are just as poorly supported by evidence and reason.

So Christians, for example, are not generally Muslims, because Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus while Muslims think he was a mortal prophet. This is usually a deal breaker, and only faith allows a believer to hold one while rejecting the other – because the reason and evidence for both Christianity and Islam is roughly equally bad.

Without the history of tradition and the equivocating vague and duplicitous religious language I don’t think holy books would be so persuasive. Of course many modern believers have had to change the way they think about their holy books – well at least that’s generally true for Christians, while Muslims are more likely to insist on the inerrancy of the Qur’an. Unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist Christian you have to accept these days that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. At best it’s a human interpretation of the revelations it is supposed to contain. Some modern theists have almost squirrelled God away out of critical reach, making their Christianity virtually atheistic Humanism – which then raises the question of what they actually have faith in, and why they continue to put such store in a book like the Bible.

What idiot presented with the Liar’s Bible would be taken in by it? You would have to presuppose it was written by an honest person, and when sceptics pointed out the potential flaw in that presupposition you would have to resort to the faith the book prescribes in order to continue to believe it.

This is the folly of faith. It is not rational but irrational. It is dangerous.

Dangerous? Really? The nice young Vicar at church on Sunday is dangerous?

Well, no, but that says more about him as a person, a normal human, rather than anything about his religion. It’s a remarkably happy state of affairs for many of us living currently that the religions are generally supported by nice people. That he relies on faith is the problem: faith, the enabler of dangerous beliefs and practices.

Not all non-believers are lucky enough to live in societies like ours in most Western democracies. There are plenty of places in the world where being among the religious ranges from minor persecution and prejudice to being life threatening. Ask the atheists in Pakistan and other countries where atheism carries a risk.

The very same faith that the nice Vicar uses is also the same type of faith that religious extremists use to explain why they do the terrible things they do. A nice Vicar might appeal to all sorts of rational explanations as to why the nasty extremist is wrong to blow up buildings and people in the name of his God, to oppress women, to kill apostates and homosexuals, to beat rape victims; but the extremist only has to appeal to his faith, his conviction that this is what his God commands, and the mild mannered Vicar is stumped. Reason and evidence don’t come into that debate, because for both of them faith trumps reason and evidence. The Vicar may appeal to reason and evidence to explain how bad terrorism is, but the extremist can ignore such an appeal to reason, because the fundamentalist can appeal to his faith, his conviction in what he believes, a conviction which is no less impressive to him than the love of Jesus is to the Vicar.

No. Religious faith is not rational. It’s pretending really hard …

UPDATE: Jesus & Mo: