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Archive for June, 2010

If you know someone who seems a little too credulous about an issue, try walking him through the following steps. Ask if he accepts each one in turn. Let X be the issue in question.

  1. I can be mistaken.
  2. It is possible that I am mistaken about X.
  3. Therefore I should hunt for arguments which counter X, making a sincere effort in evaluating each one.

You, the questioner, do not have to be an expert on X. You are merely probing to see if your friend has done his homework. There is a well-understood explanation for why he would avoid counter-arguments to X, if that turns out to be the case. The explanation is cognitive dissonance, and it is the reason people can all-too-easily slide away from reality.

This can be a fascinating exercise when undertaken with a religious fundamentalist. Let X be the proposition that Jesus existed and was resurrected. I’ve had Christian fundamentalists refuse to accept #2! Rewind to #1. OK, now why doesn’t #2 follow? If we can get to #3, it is often objected that arguments against X are biased. But so are the arguments in favor of X! That’s the point! He is trying to decide whether X is true, and he could be mistaken about X. Rewind to #2.

This is my practical demonstration of why I think it is unlikely that a scientist can be fully religious (at least in the traditional sense) while also being fully consistent. Find someone with traditional Christian beliefs who claims to have a scientific outlook (I am not singling out Christianity here—any religion would do). Let X be some Christian tenet, say, that Jesus was resurrected. He may claim to have done #3, but is that really the case? Which books has he read that offer disconfirming evidence for X? He should list a variety of books or papers, and he should be able to explain why he rejected their conclusions.

Of the conversations I’ve had with scientifically-minded religious people on this topic, few have reached that stage. Some will say that they have done #3, but the details are not forthcoming. I have little interest in spoon-feeding them counter-arguments. It suffices to point out that had they applied their scientific outlook consistently, they would have already sought and become familiar with the disconfirming evidence. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, I suspect they are not aware of their inconsistency with respect to #3.

Many would-be clergy lose their faith as a result of what they learn in seminary, a phenomenon examined by Dennett and LaScola in a study containing interviews of non-believing clergy. One pastor in the study joked, “Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!” The individuals who enter seminary are not especially known for their skepticism. How much more should we expect a religious scientist to lose his faith, if only he became educated on the matter?

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“The Tao is good but not moral” is the name of a chapter in The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan. (He’s an interesting guy—a mathematical logician, philosopher, and professional magician, but that’s beside the point.)

Moral is often used as a synonym for ethical. That’s not the sense in which it is used here, in “The Tao is good but not moral.” Here, moral means rule-based.

Thus morality will refer to any codified description of good behavior through laws or ideology, religious or secular. I’ll leave “good behavior” undefined, but I will say that (1) being good necessarily entails being compassionate, and (2) you know damn well what it means to be good.

But if we already know what it means to be good, then what is the point of trying to codify it? Ah, that was what the Taoists thought. In ancient Chinese history, Confucianism tried to systematize every possible aspect of good behavior, while Taoism wanted to throw that all away.

Here is what Smullyan said,

The Taoists, on the other hand, appeared to feel that morality itself—”principles of morality”, that is—was a major cause of suffering, since it only weakened that natural goodness in us which would spontaneously manifest itself if not interfered with or commanded by moral principles or moral law.

From the Tao Te Ching (translated by Ron Hogan),

Get rid of morality.
People will respect each other
and do what’s right.

This kind of shocking contrast with traditional Western views is why I find Eastern philosophy so refreshing. Get rid of morality?

But we already know that any set of moral laws, however carefully constructed, will inevitably become a sock puppet of someone who reads them. Well perhaps not any set of laws—there must be sufficient ambiguity, as is the case for all the major Western religions. And even if we were to accept that a divine being wrote them for us, that does not change the situation one bit. Once they are written down, they can be puppeted—that is, employed for the ends of the puppeteer.

Thus a big problem arises when a society holds up a particular morality as the definition of goodness. For those aiming to do good, it is needless. For those aiming to do harm, it can be employed to do harm under the guise of doing good. And people are easily fooled by it.

In Letter to a Christian Nation Sam Harris writes (noting below that “moral intuitions” means our own sense of goodness, with moral meaning ethical as distinguished above),

We decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God’s teachings on morality: if a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). If we are civilized, we will reject this as the vilest lunacy imaginable. Doing so requires that we exercise our own moral intuitions. The belief that the Bible is the word of God is of no help to us whatsoever.

My reaction is: Well duh, the Taoists figured that out well over 2000 years ago. But I’m glad to see it finally catching on in other forms.

(Lately Sam Harris has been talking about morality. I’ll withhold opinion on that until I read his book, due in October.)

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I was much cheered on my arrival by the warden at the gate, who had to take particulars about me. He asked my religion, and I replied ‘agnostic.’ He asked how to spell it, and remarked with a sigh: ‘Well, there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God.’ This remark kept me cheerful for about a week.

–Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, on going to prison for pacifist propaganda during the first World War

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[N]early a thousand scientists from every corner of the globe were preparing to gather in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on May 23-25 for what was billed as “the cold fusion shootout.” Tens of thousands of others would gather to watch the proceedings live via satellite. The secretary of energy, Admiral James Watkins, had asked a distinguished Nobel laureate, J. Robert Schrieffer, to organize the Santa Fe meeting and to ensure that all points of view were fairly represented. The objective was to exchange every scrap of theoretical and experimental evidence that might shed light on the question. Schrieffer invited Pons and Fleishmann to lead off the conference, and they accepted, promising to present the results of their new tests. But that was before the raccoon attack.

The tale of cold fusion is hilariously recounted in Robert L. Park’s Voodoo Science, quoted above. You see, there was this raccoon which had wandered into a transformer. The transformer exploded and the raccoon received a surprise cooking. Unfortunately for the future of humanity, the transformer was connected to Pons’s laboratory, causing a power outage and disrupting the crucial experiment whose results were promised at the Santa Fe meeting. At least this was the story coming from Pons and Fleishmann.

The media excitement over cold fusion was enormous. Congress got involved; politicians were taking photo-ops with Pons and Fleishmann; millions of dollars in public and private donations were being thrown about; venture capitalists came clamoring for deals. All while scientists were becoming increasingly skeptical of Pons and Fleishmann, not only because of their lack of results but because of what increasingly looked like shenanigans on their part. When at last the raccoon attacked, scientists had not been entirely surprised.

The point I wish to make about Pons and Fleishmann is that they did not start out as frauds. The subtitle of Park’s book is The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. It gives some interesting accounts of individuals who traveled along this road.

It starts out with a few not-quite-true but well-intentioned statements, rationalized as serving a greater purpose (and which, after all, do not matter anyway). Some time later a foolish decision is made, perhaps in part to compensate for one of the previous not-quite-truisms. Eventually, a raccoon is introduced.

Now I’ll switch gears to another book, Mistakes were made (Point of Inquiry podcast, For Good Reason podcast), one which I’ve flogged before.


The guy depicted above has just made a small mistake. Say, he just formed an opinion on some issue using faulty data or he said something which was technically true but misleading. Since he has only taken a small step in the wrong direction, there is still hope for him. He can be persuaded to change his newly formed opinion; he won’t be too embarrassed to backtrack on what he said.

Mistakes were made describes the fascinating psychological apparatus in place which causes our protagonist to start sliding down that pyramid. As he slides he becomes more invested in his viewpoint while becoming ever more insulated from reality.

We already know a phenomenon of this sort exists just by looking at the Amazon reviews of a book on a controversial topic, although the dichotomy there is not necessarily reality/unreality but simply PositionA/PositionB. All things being equal, one should expect the 1- to 5-star histogram to roughly resemble a bell curve. But when the book is about a contentious issue the graph is often U-shaped, and steeply so! There is an attractive force pulling readers toward one side or the other, thinning out the middle.

Since the reason for the sliding is not the purpose of this post, I won’t delve into the explanation. If you are interested then you can read the book and/or listen to the podcast(s). Most likely you have observed this kind of sliding, and the fact that it happens is not in dispute. So for now I will simply assume: that guy is sliding.

The most important thing about that guy is that he could be you. And he could be you at a moment when you are not quite thinking straight–when you are angry, upset, or whatever. If so, then in effect you’re about to start sliding without your full consent. Your own psychological apparatus is going to screw you. The only preventative measure I can imagine is to be attentive and to recognize the situation when it arises.

Next consider someone you know who is in that position. What do you do? I don’t have an answer except that if you can recognize yourself in that person then you’ll be more able to pull them back.

And finally, how do we deal with those who have traveled far down the pyramid, far away from reality? Most likely they are beyond reach, but not always. For the truly obstinate ones, we can hold them up as warnings to us all. We can show the clear, unassailable evidence of why they are wrong, but also–and this is what I wish to add–we can provide a full explanation of how they arrived at such unreality and why they persist in it.


The above image is based on art from N by Metanet Software.

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Suppose you are a high school biology teacher in the American Deep South. Most of your students are creationists. You need to teach evolution. What do you do?

What seems to be underappreciated in this debate is that, generally speaking, it’s too late. At that point, explaining evolution is like pushing students down an expert-rated ski trail when they are still falling on the bunny slopes. Before considering evolution, they need to be well-practiced in critical thinking skills. First things first.

I propose that teaching skepticism early is a path which leads out of this predicament. I’ll use skepticism as a catch-all term for critical thinking, the scientific method, baloney detection kit, etc. Substitute whatever term you believe is most appropriate.

  1. Skepticism is foundational. A background in skepticism is necessary for evaluating creationist claims. A conversation without this agreed-upon approach is pretty much forlorn; participants may as well be speaking mutually unintelligible languages.
  2. Skepticism has no prerequisites. It is readily understandable by anyone, religious or non-religious.
  3. Skepticism is universal. It provides a form of intellectual self-defense. It can offer protection from being swindled by pseudoscience, cults, and crass commercialism. It can prevent the adoption of conspiratorial thinking, for example the “birther” subculture, AIDS denialism, and global warming denialism. It is (desperately) needed for a more reasonable, forward-looking society.
  4. Minds are only changed through their own exertion. Therefore the best we can do is give students the tools which they can use to change their own minds. Besides, we don’t want them to accept our answer because we say so. We want them to work it out for themselves, like a math problem.

    If a student understands skepticism but continues to hold creationist beliefs, then at least he knows the path leading out. He may not follow it, but he also knows that he’s not following it. This alone may prevent a persecution complex. Presumably the student at least understands where science is coming from; that science is not out to get him.

  5. Skepticism is not “accommodationism.” Promoting skepticism just means “first pants, then shoes.” If you can’t even agree on whether homeopathy is ridiculous or not, then teaching evolution is going to be difficult or impossible. Arguing about religion is going to be even worse.
  6. Atheists and “accommodationists” have skepticism in common. Atheists can be content in believing that their position is the logical outcome of applying skepticism to religious claims. Religious persons can be content in believing that their religion can withstand skeptical inquiry (though atheists will wonder if the religious person ever undertook such an inquiry).
  7. Skepticism slips through the cognitive dissonance barrier. Debating religion raises the dissonance barrier. See Mistakes were made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Here’s an interesting podcast on it (if you are impatient then skip to the 33-minute mark).
  8. Skepticism is a long-term solution. Skepticism can be introduced to young audiences, ideally as part of a formal curriculum. And the earlier the better–before the habit of credulity becomes second nature.

    Bringing skepticism into schools nationally is a realistic and practical waypoint on the road to a scientifically literate society. However it runs headlong into the historical issue of local control over education which has contributed to the dismal condition of scientific literacy in America (see the second chapter of The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby).

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Late Preface: Since this post first appeared, it has come to light that I was dealing with several sock puppets of the YNH author, who admitted this after the evidence came out. For the short answer, scroll to the updates at the end. For the shorter answer, look at the screenshots.

If you really wish to read this, keep in mind that it shows much naivety on my part. Based on three threads at YNH–two on promoting evolution and one favorable of Richard Dawkins–I had drawn the wrong conclusions about YNH. I had been unaware of the YNH history outside of those three threads.

I held out the possibility that YNH had some misunderstanding of me, caused in part by what appeared to be some groupthink. In the end the explanation turned out to be much simpler: I was dealing with just one person obsessed with an agenda.

Since the You’re Not Helping site disappeared soon after the confession was posted, the original YNH links now point to an archive of the site graciously hosted by Josh.

(more…)

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About the title

As far as I or Google can tell, “the Buddha is not serious” is my own phrase. Though a respectable explanation would entail a bit of Eastern philosophy, I think I can summarize it roughly like this: “The Buddha is not serious” means that clear-mindedness (whatever that means) necessarily contains elements of humor, spontaneity, and lightheartedness.

Alan Watts said something along the same lines, that “humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive.” That gives me an excuse to quote him at length, although the context is likely to be insufficient. Bolding mine.

No one can be moral—that is, no one can harmonize contained conflicts—without coming to a working arrangement between the angel in himself and the devil in himself, between his rose above and his manure below. The two forces or tendencies are mutually interdependent, and the game is a working game just so long as the angel is winning, but does not win, and the devil is losing, but is never lost. (The game doesn’t work in reverse, just as the ocean doesn’t work with wave-crests down and troughs up.)

It is most important that this be understood by those concerned with civil rights, international peace, and the restraint of nuclear weapons. These are most undoubtedly causes to be backed with full vigor, but never in a spirit which fails to honor the opposition, or which regards it as entirely evil or insane. It is not without reason that the formal rules of boxing, judo, fencing, and even dueling require that the combatants salute each other before the engagement. In any foreseeable future there are going to be thousands and thousands of people who detest and abominate Negroes, communists, Russians, Chinese, Jews, Catholics, beatniks, homosexuals, and “dope-fiends.” These hatreds are not going to be healed, but only inflamed, by insulting those who feel them, and the abusive labels with which we plaster them—squares, fascists, rightists, know-nothings—may well become the proud badges and symbols around which they will rally and consolidate themselves. Nor will it do to confront the opposition in public with polite and non-violent sit-ins and demonstrations, while boosting our collective ego by insulting them in private. If we want justice for minorities and cooled wars with our natural enemies, whether human or non-human, we must first come to terms with the minority and the enemy in ourselves and in our own hearts, for the rascal is there as much as anywhere in the “external” world—especially when you realize that the world outside your skin is as much yourself as the world inside. For want of this awareness, no one can be more belligerent than a pacifist on the rampage, or more militantly nationalistic than an anti-imperialist.

You may, indeed, argue that this is asking too much. You may resort to the old alibi that the task of “changing human nature” is too arduous and too slow, and that what we need is immediate and massive action. Obviously, it takes discipline to make any radical change in one’s own behavior patterns, and psychotherapy can drag on for years and years. But this is not my suggestion. Does it really take any considerable time or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. Humor is the twinkle in the eye of a just judge, who knows that he is also the felon in the dock. How could he be sitting there in stately judgment, being addressed as “Your Honor” or “Mi Lud,” without those poor bastards being dragged before him day after day? It does not undermine his work and his function to recognize this. He plays the role of judge all the better for realizing that on the next turn of the Wheel of Fortune he may be the accused, and that if all the truth were known, he would be standing there now.

If this is cynicism, it is at least loving cynicism—an attitude and an atmosphere that cools off human conflicts more effectively than any amount of physical or moral violence. For it recognizes that the real goodness of human nature is its peculiar balance of love and selfishness, reason and passion, spirituality and sensuality, mysticism and materialism, in which the positive pole has always a slight edge over the negative. (Were it otherwise, and the two were equally balanced, life would come to a total stalemate and standstill.) Thus when the two poles, good and bad, forget their interdependence and try to obliterate each other, man becomes subhuman—the implacable crusader or the cold, sadistic thug. It is not for man to be either an angel or a devil, and the would-be angels should realize that, as their ambition succeeds, they evoke hordes of devils to keep the balance. This was the lesson of Prohibition, as of all other attempts to enforce purely angelic behavior, or to pluck out evil root and branch.

–Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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