Tag Archives: Religion

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.

The Dangers of Praxis – Acting ‘As If’

Richard Wiseman has put up a post on a youtube video on The Power of Acting ‘As If’ (the video is here).

This seems to be the basis upon which various forms of Rationalism succeed in being so convincing to their proponents. By acting ‘as if’ what you think is true is actually true, you can start to behave is if it is actually true. Even if there is no basis in reality, other than the reality that is one’s own imagination.

Praxis – the religious behaviour of performing rituals and acting as if your spiritual beliefs are actually representing a reality. It can make the beliefs seem even more true; so much so that to the proponent they ‘become’ true.

Though Richard presents some positive uses of praxis, as a means of overcoming procrastination, for example, it seems to be a dangerous tool if used indiscriminately. It seems to lie behind the success of political propaganda and prejudice. Act as if other people are different, and to you their difference becomes real. And if the supposed differences are a threat to you, then those other people become the embodiment of a real threat. In the 1930’s how did a nation come to believe that a particular religious sect, the Jews, where the embodiment of evil and the cause of the nation’s problems? How do similar beliefs sustain themselves across populations today? To what extent does acting out a belief make it seem true, even if the evidence is counter to it?

We can see the benefit to the individual in using ‘as if’ to overcome procrastination. This seems to be a benign method of changing one reality into another: he who was once a procrastinator overcomes that fault (assuming he considered it a fault) and changes, in time, into a different person in this respect.

We can see a benefit to humans generally if they act ‘as if’ we are all part of the one human race, if we all owe each other love and kindness. We can see the benefit of acting ‘as if’ our love and empathy is more powerful than our fear and hatred of others. But there is a danger in being naive about this. We have to be on our guard. We are not naturally wholly loving and empathetic. We each have other animal instincts within us; and some of us have stronger detrimental selfish intuitions than do others. We have to guard against some of our own animal instincts, and we have to avoid being too naive in seeing only good in others as we act ‘as if’ we are all good.

The effectiveness is true in the less benign cases, in that the person does indeed change into another: the unbeliever can become a true believer. The person changes. But the reality of what they come to believe does not. We can make our personalities, change because they are fluid. There is a wide range of social behaviour that human animals are capable of. But we cannot change the laws of nature we discover, into ones we would prefer. Our false beliefs in reality come unstuck by evidence, or the lack of it: eugenics, geocentrism, astrology. Whatever our social group of culture comes to believe is not in itself an indication of the reality underlying that belief. Empirical evidence is what really determines what is real – at lasts as far as humans are capable of doing empiricism well.

Even whole societies may change, from a capitalist to a communist state, for example. But it is still the people that have changed their beliefs and their personalities. The realities that underlie their existence does not change. The communist ideal sounded like a good idea, but it required ideal citizens to pull it off. But the citizens could not escape their stronger natural behaviour – they could only change so far.

This praxis can be oppressive and self-affirming. Take Turkey, for example. Despite its otherwise democratic capitalist changes over the last few decades, there are subsumed beneath the surface extreme Islamic forces. Listen here. Though some supporters of AKP stress the pragmatism (but then Islam has never been opposed to commerce), other voices express the concerns about the direction Turkey is taking. They tell us about how the oppressive nature of Islam forces people to act ‘as if’ they are more Islamic than they are – closing store shutters ‘as if’ the owner is attending to his prayers, whether he is or not, or the attack on individuals who break rules of Ramadan, or the increased wearing of the head scarf by women, whether they want to or not. Praxis can hide true beliefs and can oppress.

Note that religious praxis can have subtle political effects. Read this from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Where are the comments on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey? Ignored? Well, an international faith foundation can hardly be expected to be too critical of faith can it. In practising his faith Blair is blind to the problems of faith: Is Faith Rational.

While it is true that if they are lucky enough (lucky for the rest of us that is) many religious people can become better people, toward themselves and others by believing in something for which there is no evidential support whatsoever, it is also true that many can end up interpreting their belief system in all sorts of unhealthy ways (unhealthy for them, perhaps, but certainly unhealthy for the rest of us). Praxis, acting ‘as if’, has its dangers. It’s a consensual change to one’s mental outlook; and it need not reflect any known reality but the reality it constructs for itself.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. When we act ‘as if’ we belong to a well meaning loving democratic nation we should acknowledge that it is a struggle to maintain that outlook. Once we are locked in it does become easier. But as we look around the world we see many examples where seething fear and hatred is just below the superficial surface. Some nations are struggling to act ‘as if’ they are democratic. We in many Western states may feel we are doing better – we’ve had longer to act ‘as if’ we are democracies. But there are many natural human animal forces within us that could easily come out in different circumstances. We are evolved humans. The few hundred years that Western Europe has eased itself into democracy is too short a time for evolutionary changes to have made us naturally totally ‘good’ people.

It would be foolish to take our current expressed nature for granted. While we can blame influencing systems like Islam for the state of affairs in many nations at the moment, they are dealing with a religious system that is no more brutal than other religions have been from time to time. It seems that the loving nature of Christianity has something going for it – even if the figure upon which it was based is either merely mortal or almost entirely fictional. As a system it is sort of going in the right direction, away from the viscous god of the Old Testament and of Islam. But Christianity, particularly in Roman Catholicism and some other churches, still has its fair share of hell and damnation.

The religious right in the USA are still a reprehensible force for the discrimination and persecution of those that don’t see things their Godly way. And that’s in what could have been the worlds first true fully democratic republic – the intentions of the founding fathers are about as humanistic as we’ve ever seen. As it is religion and capitalist greed and military power have a far greater role than one might wish.

There’s a lot of acting ‘as if’ going n in the USA that isn’t quite in tune with reality. And in other nations too – including here in the UK. It’s tough changing our cultural habits when we have these damned evolved innate biological devils on our shoulders.

Evolutionary biology tells us how we are. It caused both the good stuff in us and the bad. It’s no use wishing evolution were not true, or acting ‘as if’ it were not true, or ‘as if’ it’s responsible only for the ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff, or acting ‘as if’ some imagined God is the source of our goodness.


Update: From WEIT: Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations”. Interesting post that includes some good sources.

What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)

This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.

1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices'; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.

2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. That near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), that it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.

3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.

4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.

5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.

There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then exists as something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.

In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.

What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?

Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…

Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.

What happened to me demands explanation.

There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.

Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.

Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism.

The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.

But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.

No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.

When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…

The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.

… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …

Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.

No fucking kidding!

I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.

Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.

I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.


Update: Sam Harris has chipped in:  This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is a silly rendition of a fairy tale. But let’s go with the fantasy. The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any hisorical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the ressurection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, gobblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.


Just to throw a spanner into the mix, note the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence and by making up crap, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes embarrassingly ridiculous, FFS!

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown.

It’s True! – Harry Redknapp

I posted on the nonsense that is the It’s True! claim, which theists are apt to use directly themselves, or which is the basis of the supposed truth of their religious books – that the books contain words proclaiming the truth of the books. LOL!

Well, of course religion isn’t the only source of this stunning[ly useless] argument. It turns out that it’s a favourite defence of the guilty in a court of law, and no doubt some innocent people too, when they become desperate.

Harry Redknapp used this very move in court yesterday. The story so far, from the Guardian piece

Redknapp and the former Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric, who both deny two counts of cheating the public revenue, have told the court that the $145,000 paid in May 2002 and a further payment of $150,000 in May 2004, were paid by Mandaric as “seed money” for investments to be made on Redknapp’s behalf.

Here, from the BBC

Under cross examination on Thursday, Mr Redknapp said he lied to reporter Rob Beasley about the source of payments to the account because he did not want negative stories ahead of a cup final.

The Tottenham boss said: “I have to tell police the truth, not Mr Beasley – he’s a News of the World reporter.”

So, he lied to the reporter, but he didn’t lie to the police and he didn’t lie in court, honest. It’s true!

Remember, Hitler put his signature to the Munich Agreement, of which Chamerlain said on arriving home to England, “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine…“. Churchill didn’t buy it, “We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat… you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi régime.

Of course, Hitler subsequently, metaphorically, wiped his own arse with his copy, and flushed.

All gullible people please take serious note! Liars will not only lie, they tell you they are telling the truth when they are not! It’s part of what they do. It’s what it is to be a liar! When someone says, “It’s true!“, without further justification, then you not only don’t have to believe them, I really recommend you ignore their proclamations and seek evidence of the truth.

Which of Harry’s truths is a lie? Because they are inconsistent. He claims he lied to the press. But if he admits to lying there, can he be trusted now?

Well, perhaps this is convincing, from the Metro newspaper…

Harry Redknapp - Not a liar
It’s true!

The Spurs football manager was even reduced to shouting from the witness box at prosecutor John Black QC.

“You think I put my hand on the Bible and told lies?” he exclaimed. “That’s an insult, Mr Black, that’s an insult.”

No Harry, it’s his job. The whole point of this hand on the Bible bollocks (funny how religion is in on the lies again) is that it doesn’t work, except when told to the gullible. If you are innocent of the charges Harry, the Bible won’t help, and if you’re guilty, the hand on the Bible isn’t working.

“Everything I have told you is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God…”

“I am not a liar.”

Well, that’s that then. Case dismissed? FFS!


Post Script…

Harry is currently manager of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, who denied my beloved Manchester City a place in the Champions League three years ago, though we turned the tables last year. They are now one of the serious contenders to our title hopes this year.

But, Harry is a great football manager, and Spurs are a great club that I actually like. I have no idea whether he’s guilty or not – that isn’t the subject of this post. So this post is in no way biased. Honest! It’s True, I tell you, it’s true!

It’s True!

Great Jesus & Mo cartoon again.

The best bit, and the most crucial bit that applies to all religious books is number 1:

1. This is true

This is the one and only necessary assumption in any religion to make it worthy of the name. It must declare its own truth. Of course (snigger :) (more smugness to come) we all know this is pure bollocks don’t we.

I get regular visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are really nice people (at least to ones who visit me are). I think they like me and return often for the following reasons:

(a) I don’t slam the door in their faces;
(b) they haven’t converted me yet, so I suspect, like a lottery rollover, my cache goes up with each rejection;
(c) the religious are masochists (why else invent sin and then admit to bing up to the neck in it).

Anyway, I keep two things handy for when they call.

The first is a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. They always quote from it incorrectly and it’s an easy book to show them they’ve been misled. They do go through some other topics, such as DNA, irreducible complexity, but I usually wing it once we get past Darwin, because it would take too long to go through any book to convince them (“Let’s start with basic chemistry…”). I know, it’s wrong of me, but I argue from authority of knowing just a bit more about this stuff than they do. As much as I can make points against Behe’s arguments generally, if they brought him along as a guest doorstepper I might be screwed on the biology, because I’m not a biologist.

But I digress, again. The second, and most important thing I keep nearby is a piece of paper, oh and a pen – so that’s three things I keep near by, but you know what I mean.

And on that piece of paper I write words to this effect:

This paper contains the word of God as revealed to Ron Murphy. If you’re here while he’s writing this you too must bear witness to this miracle. Now, as your God I command you to ignore the Bible, Koran, gold tablets and any other bollocks you may have come across telling absolute crap about me. I can swear by the way. I am God after all. Though the atheists got it wrong, they got it wrong for the right reasons – they don’t believe any old crap in a document claiming to be the revealed truth. What sort of fucking argument is that?! Anyway, on this occasion it happens to be the truth. However, I’ll forgive you not believing it if you throw it in the bin. On one condition: you throw your crappy book in the bin too and start thinking for yourself.

No, I don’t really write all that, I just feel as though I want to. A sentence or two is usually enough to make the point.

But, miracle of miracles, their faith survives even this cutting blow. What the fuck can I do?

I thought perhaps I should show them the fabulous Morwenna Banks, from that brilliant series Absolutely.

This for me says everything about religious imaginative invention. It encapsulates millenia of theology as Little Girl rationalises uncertainties and contradictions in what pops into her head.

And her punch line:

It’s true! I know because I do!

And Little Girl here provides us with the best accommodationism I’ve ever come across: Genesis plus Evolution! It’s true!

 


And this is what you get when It’s true! is put into practice. Enjoy!

Jesus and the Batman Gospels

What is it with Christians and the gospels? Don’t they get that they are fiction wrapped around a myth? One argument often used to support the case for the gospels being a representation of historically truthful events is their claimed consistency. How could these independent writers all tell what is basically the same story? It must be based on truth, right? Well, no.

I visited the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art yesterday, on Broadway, New York. That is, Suite 401, 549 Broadway, a nondescript entrance between two stores (as opposed to the more glamorous ‘appearing on Broadway’). This isn’t a big show; and to call it a museum is stretching it a bit. Still, comic life is an exaggeration of real life – as are the Christian gospels.

I found that one of the notes accompanying some of the Batman strips struck a chord with me, and prompted me to make this comparison. It’s a presentation of Batman in a way I’m familiar with hearing from Christians, regarding the Christian gospels. I thought it worth quoting here. When you read it, try replacing references to Batman with Jesus, and the various Batman artists with the Christian gospel authors.

Batman is the most protean of the great comic book characters: From Bob Kane’s original cartoon icon, to Dick Sprang’s broad-chested guardian of Gotham, comfortable as parade marshal; from Neal Adams’ cloaked figure in the shadows of the night, to Frank Miller’s aged and cranky crusader; each talented artist has brought a very personal vision to this hero.

And the impossible thing, they all feel right … definitive … even with all their inherent contradictions. Unlike lesser legends, which need to follow model sheets from generation to generation, Batman gives his chroniclers the power to transcend them, and in so many cases, do the most important work of their careers. No other hero would give us the ability to simultaneously showcase so many of the legendary talents of the comics field; and no other would be the character to greater acclaim than any other.

Walk along MoCCA’a walls, and stroll the streets of Gotham in daylight and darkness, enjoying the protection of the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight … the one and only Batman.

- Paul Levitz is a comic book fan (The Comic Reader), writer (Legion of Super-Heroes), editor (Batman), Executive President & Publisher (DC Comics, 2002-2010), and historian (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth Making)

Of course there have been other contributors to the Batman story; but then there are other Christian gospels too.

Many ‘sophisticated’ and ‘liberal’ theologians like to emphasise the ‘story’ of Jesus, as an allegory, a story that represents life to them, but not necessarily literal. That is until you witness them talk among themselves, or to more literal believers, when it’s pretty damned hard to interpret their stories as anything but literal. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction seems to be a convenience that allows them to switch modes, being sophisticated in the company of rational atheists, and yet literal to literalist believers.

The evolution of the Batman myth, as represented by the various artists that have imposed their belief in Batman on the story, echoes that of Jesus as presented in the gospels. There’s no more reason to suppose there’s any more truth in the gospels than there is in the Batman stories. The Batman stories have varied over time, but maintain a consistency; but that doesn’t make them any more true.

Okay, I’ll allow some particular truths to the Christian gospels: they may contain mentions of real place names, and real people. Gotham City isn’t real, after all. But let’s not pretend that having a story contain real locations means it’s not fiction. While in NYC I also saw Mission Impossible, with real locations.

McGrath on Science and Religion

The Alister McGrath piece was brought to my attention by the Jerry Coyne blog post. As usual with pieces like McGrath’s there’s so much to go at that a simple comment on another blog that’s critical of it isn’t enough. Nearly every paragraph is hopelessly vague, when not outright wrong. The religious bullshit language isn’t as heavy from McGrath as from some other theologians, but it’s bad enough.

On with my rant then…

“Why talk of Christmas when any idea of God is misguided?” – Christmas and God are only related by the name given to a festival by one particular religion. As an atheist I’m quite comfortable with Christmas – even with the mythical stories about Jesus, just as I am with the ones about Santa. Christmas fairy tales.

“Science, we are confidently told, has buried God. But has it?” – If there was no God to bury, then this misses the point. What it specifically hasn’t buried is belief in God. Quite different issues. What it has buried is the intellectual case for belief in God (in terms of most religions, though it does not refute the many god hypotheses).

McGrath turns to what he thinks are questions for religion rather than science…

“Where did everything come from?” – Still a science question.

“What’s it all about?” – A very vague question that summarises our inquisitiveness and our desire to find our place in the universe. Still basically a science question, though put within some human emotional context.

“What’s the point of life?” – Whatever we make it, apparently. Other than that there’s no indication from anything we know that there need be any ‘cosmic’ point.

“Its [science's] interim reports are always important and interesting, but they are also provisional.” – Yes. But then all our reports are provisional. Simply inventing religious stories and sticking to them (as much as that is the case, since even religions change) doesn’t give them any more lasting credability or make them any less provisional; and since religious stories are pure invention they don’t even warrant the adjective ‘provisional’.

“Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.” – Well, not really. They ridicule them because their God cannot be evidenced. There are no observations. The objection to ‘proofs’ of God are only raised in response to claims for proof, not because there was ever any credibility to the proofs of God’s existence.

“Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence.” – Again, the mistaken presumption that (logical) ‘proof’ is significant.

“We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics.” – So, with no proof on hand, and no evidence, what has religion got going for it? Why believe?

“Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith).” – Oh yes it is (about refusing to think). The point here is that many different ‘theories’ or explanations can fit the same data. The problem with religion is that it is pure fantasy invented precisely to explain as much as possible, but without any requirement that it account for anomolies. Declare that prayer works, but ignore cases that don’t fit this hypothesis and proclaim the success of prayer when any instance happens to fit.

“For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part.” – And how exactly does that discovery proceed? What methodologies does it use, other than the employment of ‘feel good’ imaginative assertions.

“You judge the power of a torch, she remarked, by its ability to illuminate the world’s shadows.” – Well, taking the metaphor literally, you can do that by measuring the incident and reflective light, measuring the frequency distribution of the light source (sodium street light, for example, doesn’t illuminate too well). And, you’re illuminating what’s in shadow (that which was not illuminated), not the shadow itself. This metaphor is a prime example of the vague and incoherent nature of religious language. Most religious language puts into shadow that which would otherwise be illuminated. The shadow of mystery is highly prized ignorance, in religion.

“If Christ is indeed the ‘light of the world'” – But he isn’t. There’s no reason to think he fits this metaphor. As a humanist he perhaps contributed to some enlightenment. If indeed any of his words were in fact his – which isn’t at all clear. His actual words, instead, remain in the shadow of history and evolving religious doctrine. Religious invention is bright in its imaginitave power, but casts a shadow over historical truth.

“So how does the Christian faith light up the shadowlands of life? … This does not detract from the wonder of the universe; if anything, it adds to its beauty and grandeur.” – Yes, as any fantasy story does. That’s the point of imaginative fiction, novels, the movies. They extend our imaginative experience beyond our real experience. But it’s still finction.

“…science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean.” – Science is also used to put them back together again, which then allows all humans, not just the religious, to impart meaning in the human context. Religion is really superfluous here; or, at best, just one more fantasy interpretation of our experienced life.

“If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning.” – Again, religion is not the only way of imparting human contextual meaning; and for many of us it’s not only far from the best, it’s one of the worst.

“…religion [helps us] to see, however dimly, the ‘big picture’ of which they are part.” – But only in the way that Star Wars helps us to see another possible big picture of human potential. Fantasy.

“God, according to the Christian tradition, is the heart’s true desire, the goal of our longings, and the fulfiller of our deepest aspirations.” – My emphasis. It’s odd, that for one who is supposed to be ineffable, most religious people are quite content to tell us what God is. This statement is just plain old religious language abuse.

“Some see life as a random and meaningless process of meandering, in which we search endlessly for a purpose that eludes us, if it exists at all.” – Who do? Christians? It was, after all, part of the paragraph telling us what Christians think. But I guess he really intended this second statement to mean atheists? I’m not sure who it really applies to, if anyone. As an atheist I’m not assuming there is a purpose, so I’m not particularly looking for one, endlessly or otherwise. I might choose (in as much as I can) to give my life a purpose, or maybe many purposes that come and go as the feelin suits me. At one point I had the purpose of raising a family: job done. At another time I had the purpose of achieving specific educational goals: job done. I have other purposes now. Should some natural disaster strike my neighborhood, no doubt I’ll have a temporary change of purpose which might be, basically, staying alive. Of course the religious don’t like to be too specific, because that allows them to be pinned down. Far batter the vague wishy-washy ‘purpose’, as in ‘the meaning of life and everything’.

“The Christian vision, enacted and proclaimed in the Christmas story, is that of a God whose tender affection for humanity led him to enter our history as one of us.” – The Christian fantasy; until supportive evidence is available.

Happy Christmas Santa; Bah Humbug Jesus

The Skeptical Teacher has a post on Santa.

In it he refers to Barbara Drescher’s post on An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

I’d agree with Barbara Drescher’s positive view on Santa, as echoed in one of the comments, where the Lahurongirl’s son realised there was no Santa, but still wanted to maintain the story for his younger sister. I’ve seen the same insight and intention from children I know – which is just spoiler avoidance. There’s the implicit assumption that their younger siblings will get to the end of the Santa ‘novel’ too, one day, so why spoil it for them now.

But Barbara seems to take the point too far. Does Richard Dawkins really not like fiction for children? This seems more like Barbara is jumping on a journalistic bandwagon picking up on a simple quote, attributed to Dawkins:

Guardian:
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/oct/27/richard-dawkins-childrens-literature]
Quotes Dawkins: “…looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”
And the author, Jean Hannah Edelstein, goes on to say, “Dawkins sounds to me not unlike the fundamentalist Christian mums who tried to get Roald Dahl’s The Witches banned from my primary school for fear that it would undermine what their kids had learned at Sunday school rather than acknowledging that sometimes, stories are just stories.”

Telegraph:
[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3255972/Harry-Potter-fails-to-cast-spell-over-Professor-Richard-Dawkins.html]
“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News. (a reporting of a reporting then)

Double Think Online
[http://americasfuture.org/conventionalfolly/2008/10/27/richard-dawkins-scourge-of-fun/]
“Looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

All sadly similar. Seems like some quote mining has been going on.

But I’m not sure what the controversy is here. Dawkins is expressing a good scientific response to the question of the effect of stories on children – i.e. he doesn’t know, and would be interested in any research to that effect. I don’t think he’s claiming there is an effect. Unlike someone like Susan Greenwood, who has been the butt of Ben Goldacre’s ire for some time for her claims, without evidence, about the effects of some modern media, such as computer games.

Much fiction for young children, such as the Santa myth, is expressed as truth, knowing full well that as older children and as adults they will grow out of it, hopefully learn something positive about the susceptibility of humans to gullibility, and, in the mean time, enjoy some magical fantasy for a while. There minds are malleable enough to learn and later unlearn, so what’s the harm? How many adults do we know that still believe in Santa to make that fiction worth worrying about?

The significant difference with religion – and this is where I see Barbara as being wrong – is that these fictions are carried on seriously into adulthood. In a religious family and social environment there is specifically, usually, no opportunity or encouragement to challenge the religious dogma, and indeed the prospect some traumatic ostracism for doing so. In fact the strength of belief instilled in children by adults, and seen by children to be genuine beliefs in adults, is what does the long term damage and causes serious disability when it comes to applying critical thinking to those beliefs.

And, it doesn’t matter that “Religion is not a barrier to science literacy”, as Barbara puts it – Francis Collins and Ben Miller show this; as long as you limit the science that we are being ‘literate’ about. If you do apply the usual requirement for evidence to everything then the only rational conclusion about the source of the universe beyond what current science shows is, we don’t know. Now, that certainly does allow, as metaphysical speculations, some passive ‘natural’ explanation, or even some active ‘agency’ explanation – though the latter then needs explaining too. But none of this speculation is sufficient to warrant the subsequent claims by any of the main religions. So, in that wider scientific sense, deeply instilled religious belief is a barrier to science.

So, if the Jesus story was to become an acknowledged myth, like Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, then that would be fine. But as yet it isn’t. The story of Jesus is a whole other industry, with a drive to capture the child’s mind (and the adult’s) as insidious as any capitalist behemoth advertising to children in order to sell the company’s wears; or, for religion, to buy the childrens souls.

The Depth of Empiricism

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Jerry Coyne posted: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

I think the problem for philosophers is two-fold.

One is their commitment to their profession.

I see this a bit like some priests who in many respects seem to accept all the intellectual criticisms of religion and faith, but can’t quite bring themselves to go the whole hog – there’s too much to give up, too much cognitive dissonance to contend with. So they fall back on faith – the only excuse left to maintain belief.

In the case of philosophers it seems to be their indebtedness to the history of the subject. This too is similar to theology – where the ancients can remain valid to them. Philosophers seem to need their ancients more than any other discipline with the exception of history. That “there’s nothing new in history” might well be applied to how some philosophers see their field.

And this brings me to the other problem. It doesn’t matter how much philosophy they claim to do, how much critical thinking they perform, how much evidence they consider, they still seem to retain a conviction to the primacy of thought and reason. It doesn’t matter how much pure reason is criticised, they still indulge in it.

I wonder if this stems from Descartes Cogito. This is a pretty good starting point, and one I use myself, in particular here. But many philosophers, even non-dualists, seem to be stuck with the idea that because we start out by discovering our thinking, that this is our natural and primary mode of understanding. I don’t think they get how deep empiricism goes.

Okay, so that’s where we start, with thinking about stuff. But before long, when we follow the trail and side-step Solipsism, we are left with a few clues to the fact that we are not primarily thinking entities.

Evolution is the big clue. You have to throw out evolution to avoid the following.

We are evolved from creatures that didn’t have brains. Our ancestors were various in nature, ranging from the simple single cellular, through multiple cellular, to entities with multiple organs. Back then we were primarily experiential sensory creatures – and by sensory I mean in the simplest sense: physical and chemical interactions at our surfaces; and where there were neuronal nervous systems they might not be central nervous systems but distributed neural nets. An advantage of electrical communication over purely physical and chemical is the speed and the targeted nature of the connections. As early as neurons might have evolved they weren’t what we would call brains – though, given a physicalist perspective, that begs the question of what a brain is anyway. Nevertheless, through physical contact, chemical interaction, neuron transmission, our ancestors were empirical creatures.

This is what we still are, of course. I guess our sensing using light and sound removes us as whole entities from direct contact with much of our environment. Our actual contact with the wider environment, through touch, is often more difficult, and often undesirable: it’s safe to look and not touch; if you can touch you may well be too close. This gives us the illusion that we stand alone in the world to some extent, so that we acquire (once we have thinking brains) the feeling that we are subjective individuals independent of the rest of the world.

We seem to be enclosed minds, when really we are empirical creatures that have brains connected to the outside world by remote sensing.

On top of that, this brain that we each have awakens and becomes aware of itself. This happens to each of us as individuals as we develop from an infant into a fully interactive child, teen, adult. And collectively it has come about culturally, historically, as our collective recorded awareness of our consciousness has dawned on us as a species (and maybe our ancestor species had some of this awareness too). The dawn of recorded history and the emergent self-awareness of the infant are mutual metaphors, both beginning, or at least becoming sufficiently complex, with the acquisition of written language for the species and language generally for the infant.

The problem has been that our philosophical view has been dominated by this awakening of the mind, as if it is the primary source of knowledge, when in fact it’s our experiential empirical nature that has primacy. Our mind is merely looking at, analysing, speculating, on what we experience – and mostly with very poor access to most of our experiences.

Not only are we not directly aware of most of what our bodies or even our brains are experiencing, but we don’t have access directly to our deep past experiences – those that we have accumulated in our DNA.

I think most people accept now that we are the combination of nature and nurture – to the extent that this dichotomy is considered a very simplistic notion. We are each of us a developing complex system of our inherited biology responding to its environment, and in turn altering that environment through the decision processes that go on in our biological brains, which in turn effects how our biology responds further. We might be inclined, biologically, to be a couch potato or an athlete, but we can generally still become either, and even both – who hasn’t seen a once keen athlete turn to flab after they retire.

Though not specifically part of evolution, abiogenesis seems the only real source of what we call life. And, though there is no direct evidence to support it, there is no good alternative hypothesis on the table. It seems that we come from inanimate matter, and we are inanimate matter – just inanimate matter that has become pretty dynamic.

So, there is nothing to suggest there is anything else going on in our heads. There is no evidence for any other source of thinking than it being matter in action. We are ultimately empirical beings, even in our reasoning in our heads. The processes going on in there are real material experiences in their own right; but it is we who categories experiences into externally sensed, or internally reasoned, as if the reason was pure and unsullied by real nasty experience.

In this respect there isn’t a significant difference between the peripheral neurons and the neurons in our brains. Neurons are communication mechanisms, whether in our arms or in our heads. While peripheral neurons connect other tissue to the brain, brain neuron connections are mostly with other brain neurons. So in a very real sense the brain neurons are sensing each other: they are empirical. We are empirical first and foremost. Thinking is an evolutionary add-on.

That some philosophers don’t get how deep empiricism goes is exemplified by the philosopher Steven Law in his discussion with Peter Atkins.

So, some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one rejects evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.


Update…

Jerry Coyne reviews a portrait of E O Wilson.

This bit strikes me as a good assessment of philosophy:

Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain”.


This is part of a set of posts on Thinking.