Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Non-Lord, deliver us from the negative certitude of the true un-believers.

Events on SHAMblog in recent times have me mulling the whole point of discussion and "intellectual engagement," if you will. Or let me be more direct: What is the point? (That's not rhetorical. I'm honestly asking.) Do we really want to have our assumptions challenged, tested? Or do we just want all of our personal truths confirmed, so that we sense the ground a bit firmer beneath our feet when we leave the house each day, and feel that much more secure in our beds as we pull the covers over us each night? Is that why some people refuse to watch Keith Olbermann ooze his special brand of left-leaning sanctimony on MSNBC...but are perfectly comfortable watching Sean (DMoTV) bluster and bloviate from the starboard side on FOX? Is that why many of us have a welter of issues that we simply declare "off the table" when it comes to debate?

Come on, Salerno. There are certain things that all civilized people can agree on. For instance, we all agree that murder is wrong.

Is that so? What about abortion? What about capital punishment? What about war?

That's not murder.

Who says?

Well, that's not murder as I define it.


Ahhh, as you define it. Well, some people define it differently. Pro-life groups, for example. Or ask the Catholic Church or Amnesty International about capital punishment. For that matter, ask the Japanese about Hiroshima, or ask the Taliban about our actions in Afghanistan, or...

But we're Americans!

Yes. And they're not. Where is it written that "American truth" is The Truth for all of mankind?

Dammit, Steve, you're contradicting yourself again. You yourself said we should consider "taking out" the regime in North Korea!

Yes, and I'm an American, aren't I? If I were Kim Jong-il, I'd see it differently. There's nothing contradictory about it....
See the problem? We don't know what the universal constants areassuming any exist in the first place. Further, as soon as you're allowed to parse these concepts, creating exclusions and conditions and amendments, so am I. So are Islamic terrorists. So is everyone else. And murder is an issue on which the largest number of us would probably agree. Imagine trying to find any degree of unanimity on the lesser concepts!

So then, how should we go about deciding which Givens are universal constants and which aren't?

What most people believe?

Well, most people once believed in slavery. Most people once believed in male-only voting. They still do in some other cultures.
People in China and other parts of Asia think it's OK to abort, even kill, the female children.

What most right-thinking people believe?

I hope the flaw is obvious on that one.

What science shows us?

Science reverses itself all the time. Besides, science is amoral. There are many things that are "true" in science that we might not want to implement in daily life. Scien
ce marches on, oblivious to its coincident impact on mankind: It gave us both amoxicillin and the hydrogen bomb. You can't trust science (or anything overseen by men); it can be perverted to opportunistic ends.

Well then, how 'bout what your religion tells you?

Sorry. I'm not obliged to recognize your religion's catechism or its overall lens on life. I'm not obliged to recognize any religion. I'm not even obliged to recognize the idea of a Supreme Being. Your belief in the Ten Commandments is no more inhere
ntly valid than someone else's non-belief. Maybe I climbed a mountain and came down with a tablet that says "Thou Shalt Kill." And lest you think I'm being purposely asinine, let me remind you that there's a section of the Qur'an that comes darned close to saying just that.
The only approach that makes sense to me, then, is to take all the Givens off the table. To assume that everything is up for discussion. Every last thing.

*********************************

Something else that occurred to me recently is that you'll get some of the most close-minded, intolerant feedback from those who regard themselves as skeptics, cynics, "free thinkers." Several times on this blog I've alluded to Barbara Ehrenreich's wonderful piece for Harper's, "Pathologies of Hope," in which she chronicles and laments the fury of the true believers. But the true un-believers strike me as being just as bad, if not worse. They won't give an inch, either. They're as entrenched in their disbelief as the other side is in its belie
f. As a class, in fact, they much remind me of the aforementioned Hannity, who seems unable to give an iota of credit to Barack Obama or the Democrats, no matter the topic or situation. If Obama were to walk out onto the White House lawn today and announce that he loves his daughters, Hannity tonight would (a) try to refute it, and (b) link it to some covert plot to put U.S. military forces under the thumb of the UN.

This actually speaks to a common, and ironic, human foible. Even those who consider themselves rebels, revolutionaries and groundbreakers often get stuck in the revolutions they start, such that they're incapable of further growth and eventually become the very mainstream that subsequent generations of rebels must rebel against. A fair number of the same musicians who got (and gleefully accepted) the credit for innovating "bop" could not, a decade or so later, bring themselves to admit the aesthetic legitimacy of John Coltrane. At least not at first. "But the cat doesn't play music!" they complained of Trane's so-called "sheets of sound." Apparently they felt that the leading edge of the modern-jazz vanguard extended only to them, and not one grace note beyond.

Look, I have my beliefs, and some of them are quite strong. One of those beliefs is that most self-help is worthless, if not damaging. I think the empirical evidence is on my side; a few years ago, that evidence took the form of a book, which is the whole reason why we're here today. But I recognize that there's a difference between my beliefs and Universal Truth. I recognize that my beliefs are valid only for me, and only in the immediate moment when I'm believing them. As for the next moment, all bets are off. As an example, I cannot imagine that the Law of Attraction is the solution to any of life's problems. It seems absurd; indeed, it seems borderline-insane. If, however, I one day awaken to the notion that the LoA really is the solution, I'll have committed no crime in doing so. I will not have transgressed either legally or morally. I will have simply changed my mind. (Or, to be more precise, my mind will have changed itself.)

Or maybe that will indicate that I've finally gone insane. Who knows?

I can be a bit slow on the uptake, folks, but I'm learning that there may be no more inflexible a creature alive than the evangelical skeptic. He has all the non-answers. He's not the least bit unsure of himself. And if you call him on it...watch out.

31 comments:

Tyro said...

Hi Steve, comment & question:

Science reverses itself all the time.

I think this is a big exaggeration and plays into the legions of anti-science folk in the US. Conclusions in science can change but reversals are rare indeed. Instead, science spirals into the truth, starting with a set of weak hypotheses & theories to explain early data and as more data comes in these theories get winnowed down and refined.

Take the case for eating cholesterol - bad one day, good the next, right? Not really. Preliminary studies showed that it was linked with greater risk of heart disease but as time goes on we learn there are subtleties (different types of cholesterol, etc.).

If there are reversals, it's the breathless media reporters who seem incapable of dealing with preliminary results (or any story which doesn't "fundamentally change our way of thinking").


My question:

But the true un-believers strike me as being just as bad, if not worse. They won't give an inch, either. They're as entrenched in their disbelief as the other side is in its belief.

Can you give an example of what you're talking about? I hear this accusation levelled a lot (a LOT!) yet it often appears to be directed at people who reach a different conclusion and who aren't persuaded by fallacious arguments. They also make it clear that they will change their minds if evidence comes in, much like you say:

If, however, I one day awaken to the notion that the LoA really is the solution, I'll have committed no crime in doing so. I will not have transgressed either legally or morally. I will have simply changed my mind.

So are you using yourself as an example of this rigid, closed-minded intolerance that you say is prevalent in the "free thinker" movement, or are you demonstrating open-mindedness? I think you are a good example of all free-thinkers that I've met and can provide ample quotes to back this up, I just can't figure out if you think you're the same or different.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Geez. Your question really requires an extremely complicated answer. But to take your observation about science first: I agree that the media are part of the problem, with their tendency to hype each tentative new finding as the New Paradigm. But I think it's a bit sly to allow science itself to wriggle off the hook, because the loopholes you cite--e.g., interpretation of data, or different studies being performed by different research teams with different criteria--are part and parcel of science, are they not? So if one day JAMA tells us that eggs are bad for us, and a decade later the same journal says, "Well, hold on now--maybe eggs aren't so bad after all," the blame for that reversal must go to science. (Who else would you blame?) We've seen the same thing happen with cardiac-bypass surgery, which went from a "godsend" to a procedure that suddenly shows no provable longevity benefit--and in the interim during which the "new data" were being compiled, hundreds of thousands of the procedures were done, at a cost of billions. You can't blame that on the media. We see the same thing, now, with prostate testing, and dozens of other areas of medicine. And after all, when, if ever, can it truly be said that the "final data" are in? Apropos of which, I think it must be asked: What if at least some of the "conclusive" studies we've seen to date are just artifacts of an aberration in the laws of chance? Maybe Digiton 940RX is hailed as a "wonder drug" only because of a clinical study that was, in essence, that one series of 100 flips that produces 84 "heads." How do we know?

As for an example of the skeptic who's entrenched in his disbelief, I offer Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion. Here you have someone who writes with such condescending smugness about Creationists, opposition to evolution, etc.--when in fact he overlooks a "detail" that may well invalidate his entire book: If you can't explain "how everything started"--i.e. how the first piece of matter came into being--then please don't lecture me about anything that followed. That's a little bit like going to court and suing someone for paternity...if we didn't yet know, in fact, how conception takes place.

In a more general sense, look at the forums and boards that hail from the more skeptical end of the arena. Like, say, the Rick Ross board (hence my reference to "recent events" at the beginning of the post). Note the tone. Note, also, the breezy, snarky, "we're in the know" outlook that emanates from academia, with its contempt for religious faith, most of the sweeter traditions of American society, middle America ("flyover country") in general, military power, etc. I don't know if that answers (or even meaningfully addresses) any of your question, but it's the best I can do right now.

As for me, personally, I have tried to explain the Orwellian doublethink that governs my own view of life and living. For example, I am positive (as "Steve") that there is a God, and I am also positive (as "meta-Steve") that I am wrong. I am positive based on everything I know that self-help is, well, a "sham," while also recognizing that I could very well be wrong, in the larger sense. I would kill a pedophile who harmed my grandkids, while at the same time I sincerely believe the truth of what I wrote the other day about their being blameless. None of that has to reconcile, and all of it has to do with, in my view, the discord between "emotional thinking" and "thinking thinking."

Tyro said...

Steve,

Thanks for your detailed answer. I agree that looking at what is published in journals is a far more appropriate measure. I know of many cases where researchers have said one thing and had the very opposite reported in the popular press with very little means of rectifying the situation. Journal on the other hand, print what the researchers write and have passed some standard of peer review.

I can't comment much on the specific examples as I don't have the background. Taking a look at eggs though, the early research showed that cholesterol build up increased the risk of heart attack. Nothing here has changed. Given the state of ignorance surrounding the causes, avoiding cholesterol sounded like a reasonable precaution until more was known. Since then, we've learned a lot about how cholesterol is produced and absorbed, and under what circumstances it is harmful.

I don't think there was a time when the scientific consensus was that eggs were bad and then this was flipped, rather that one part of eggs was linked to heart diseases and then later we learned that there were different types of cholesterol and eggs weren't a problem after all.

Perhaps you're criticising the precautionary principle and not scientific conclusions. The whole point of precautions is to act when the whole facts aren't known and this is bound to lead to mistakes! I think it's unfair to tar science with this brush.

What do you think?

Tyro said...

As for an example of the skeptic who's entrenched in his disbelief, I offer Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion.

So here's what I don't get. You use yourself as an example of someone that's open-minded, yet you happily label some beliefs as "absurd" and "borderline insane". Clearly disagreeing with someone and thinking they're wrong doesn't make you any less open-minded, so why aren't you applying that same standard to others? I don't see Dawkins going any further, indeed the wildest he gets is to say that religious belief is (quoting the dictionary) "a persistent false belief".

Like you, he isn't closed to evidence but spends some pages describing not only the reasons for his current position but evidence which could change his mind. On pp50-54 he talks directly to this question, saying that he's a "6" on a scale from 1-7, that "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

Yes, he attacks Creationism, not because he dislikes Creationists but because it is contradicted by a wealth of evidence and because they work so hard to undermine science in the schools and government. Perhaps unlike some aspects of psychology where one treatment could "work for you", biology is a hard science and allows scientists to demonstrate that certain ideas are definitely false. How would you like biologists to deal with this?

If you can't explain "how everything started"--i.e. how the first piece of matter came into being--then please don't lecture me about anything that followed. That's a little bit like going to court and suing someone for paternity...if we didn't yet know, in fact, how conception takes place.

Perhaps this isn't the time & place to argue these details. As I'm sure has been pointed out, the theory of evolution doesn't deal with cosmology but if this is important, try "The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene - he's a physicist and cosmologist so at least you'd be going to the right place. Even still, Dawkins does deal with this argument in chapter 3 where he covers all arguments for God's existence. You may disagree but it's simply not true to say that he "overlooks" (in scare quotes implying deceit?) it.

WRT to paternity - interesting analogy. There are still open questions regarding embryology and human development. Should this stop us from running paternity tests? Without a full explanation of all steps, is it really wrong to say that conception occurred?

Tyro said...

Note, also, the breezy, snarky, "we're in the know" outlook that emanates from academia, with its contempt for religious faith

I understand that this is your impression though I wonder how this impression agrees with observation. Could you be so used to seeing a passive acceptance or agreement with Christian belief that you don't notice it and instead recall every religious slight? If you were to spend a week and record every mention of God, Jesus, Christ, or churches on tv and in the paper, what do you think you would see?

I think very few academics want to deal with religion at all and many adopt Gould's policy of "respect", perhaps trying to not rock the boat. There are undoubtedly some high-profile attacks lately but you can almost count these people on one hand, contrasted with the unthinking abuse & bigotry directed at atheists by media and government officials. I could list hundreds of examples of this, from Sanford's apology to people of faith (because faith is required for morality, of course), through to O'Reilly & Limbaugh's tirades against atheists. No doubt you can excuse them, so why no excuses for others?

I also wonder how much of the abuse you perceive is shocking due to its rarity. Have you seen the incredible abuse heaped upon the directors of bad movies? It's invisible because of its ubiquity yet few would imagine that movie critics wouldn't sing praises if a good movie came out. They're scornful but open-minded, gleefully slamming bad ideas while revelling in the good. I see the same thing in Dawkins - his biology books passionately describe evolution while attacking the bad and incorrect.

Clearly you two have reached different conclusions but I think that calling him "closed minded" is unfair. He appears to be just like you - he has reached a conclusion, thinks his opposition is incorrect and harmful, but remains open to new evidence.

(Sorry for the multiple posts. I must be too long-winded & was getting chopped off by blogger. I do try to be brief...)

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: I hope you'll forgive me--and perhaps you could anticipate this response?--but there is no possible way that I could do justice to the far-reaching (indeed, cosmic and core-level) issues you raise in a mere comment on a blog! I'm not sure that I could do justice to your questions if I were allotted any length of time and space.

As for "what [you] don't get"--I can see where it would be very hard to follow. And I want to say in advance that I know what follows is going to sound like doubletalk. But just try to keep in mind that I talk at two levels on this blog. I might talk on Monday about what I really believe--and then on Tuesday I might post something that appears to call into question (or even rip to shreds) the very idea to which I committed myself the preceding day. In fact, I did that in my post on pedophilia. The reason for the incongruity is that I see a huge difference between (a) what I believe and (b) what I probably should believe. At the very least, I am constantly questioning what I believe, asking myself whether it's a legitimate (i.e. fact-supported) belief or whether it's just an artifact (there's that word again) of some visceral want, need or fear. So if I dismiss something as "insane," what I'm probably saying is that it's insane to me, but that doesn't mean I think it's insane for everyone--or even that I think I'm right in saying it's insane.

If this sounds hopelessly weird--or almost, indeed, insane--look at it this way. If you put a wall of different colors in front of me, and asked me to identify the first color, I might answer, truthfully, "blue." That's me talking, giving you a direct reply in response to the color I see. But if you then asked me, "Is that color blue?", I might very well reply, "No." Because I don't know that everyone sees it that way. Maybe to you it's green. Or I might reply, "Are you asking me if it's blue, or are you asking me to speculate on what I think it actually is?" In other words, which Steve to do you want to hear from? The one who voices his own feelings? Or the one who is constantly trying to transcend being Steve? That's an impossible task, of course, because even the "objective" is subjective. But what am I gonna do at this point?

Unfortunately, that is how I go through my day. Pity my long-suffering wife.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Let me throw something else at you.

If it's true that our thoughts are predetermined--which I believe to be the case--then that means we have no choice but to end up at, well, the end-points we end up at. And if that's the case, then the utility of logic itself must be questioned, because we are incapable of (a) seeing the flaws in our reasoning and (b) using an alternate system of thinking. Our minds just won't allow it (i.e. you can't add 2 + 2 and get 5).

In fact, this may explain why we can't figure out where life/mankind/matter came from: because the answer lies in a mode of thinking that's precluded by current conceptions of logic. Either that, or the answer does indeed lie in the realm of the miraculous.

Steve Salerno said...

Of course, the previous analysis may itself have no validity, since it's...logical?

Anonymous said...

this is all very strange, as it is confusing what a real skeptic is.

if one goes by Carl Sagan's and Michael Shermer's definition, then a skeptic is someone who looks at the evidence. there is no complete certitude in any way.

but there is a hierarchy of accuracy, somethings have more evidence than others, and are more accurate.

what happens in most cases, are those who are salesmen get angry when they can't convince skeptics to buy what they are selling.
Tony Robbins is always railing against skeptics, as they don't believe his salespitch.

and religious people get angry, as the skeptics aren't buying their salespitch either. there is no proof for god, and that makes the religious very angry.

so there is no such thing a real skeptic, who has certitude.
if there is enough proof, then everything is on the table.

the frustration usually just comes from people who are certain they are correct in their biased personal opinions, and are angry that skeptics don't take their opinions as evidence, and demand real proof from objective sources.

it all comes down to - prove it.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 6:46:

Yes. These are the kinds of discussions that make one's head explode.

I think it comes down to two things, actually.

1. Can "it" ever be proved? Look at the categories of things that we think we've "proved"--looking at them in isolation, at any given point in time--then we later find out otherwise.

2. Regardless of whether we consider something "proved," we should take positions with humility. In my opinion.

Tyro said...

Steve,

Sorry for a bit of a pause - got caught up in work!

In fact, this may explain why we can't figure out where life/mankind/matter came from: because the answer lies in a mode of thinking that's precluded by current conceptions of logic. Either that, or the answer does indeed lie in the realm of the miraculous.

You may be surprised at how much cosmologists have learned about where matter came from, not to mention what biochemists learned about life and biologists about mankind. Our current theories have pushed our understanding of the universe back to unthinkably small fractions of a second and explain where essentially all of the matter in the universe "came from" (the debate appears to be whether 6-10kg of mass is unaccounted for, about the mass of a small dog). If you do get a chance, Brian Greene does a good job at making this subject somewhat approachable though you still have to work a bit.

We experience plateaus in research occasionally but we also keep pushing the boundaries. There may well be limits to what we can know but I don't think there's reason to give up yet.

As for "miraculous", it's certainly possible but if the only evidence for a miracle is a gap in our understanding, I think the best answer is to just say that we don't know. Gaps have had a way of being filled and I would like to see some reason to think this is different.

1. Can "it" ever be proved? Look at the categories of things that we think we've "proved"--looking at them in isolation, at any given point in time--then we later find out otherwise.

As the saying goes, only math and alcohol have proofs, science just has evidence and confidence. Every theory is provisional but sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming it's virtually proven.

Many theories have been disproved but I really don't think we see these flips you talk about. If there's sufficient evidence to justify confidence, that evidence doesn't just go away so either someone jumped to conclusions with very poor evidence or more likely the theory just gets refined and exceptions are added.

Newton's gravity was disproved by Einstein yet we still use it to send satellites to Jupiter. Relativity is almost certainly wrong (well, incomplete) but the exceptions are going to be tiny indeed. Rutherford's atom is gone but we still think atoms have a massive nucleus which is "orbited" by electrons. Cholesterol is still linked to heart disease but now we know the exceptions - different kinds of cholesterol, different sources, different metabolisms, etc.

Very little that makes it to be a theory is ever totally wrong, more that we have to chip off the broken bits while leaving the core truth intact.

Regardless of whether we consider something "proved," we should take positions with humility. In my opinion.

Some theories are so well supported that it's appropriate to ridicule opponents or say they're "borderline insane". There are still people raping virgins to cure AIDS and burning witches to stop droughts - humility in the face of dangerous superstition seems to be the wrong response.

I think true open-mindedness isn't giving credence to any claim no matter how poorly supported, it's apply the same standard and the same methodology to every claim. Sometimes that means changing your mind, sometimes it means saying that one side is simply wrong. It should also mean being most sceptical for those things we most want to be true (because we are the easiest people to fool!)

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, I agree with much of what you say here.

I'm sorry if I appear to be "blowing you off" with a pat phrase; believe me, that isn't my intent. As one who writes for a living, I very much appreciate the time and brainpower that visitors put into their comments. I never cease to be amazed at the fact that people take time out from their busy days to contribute to SHAMblog.

But again: To tackle this to a depth that recognizes the many complex philoso-scientific issues embedded in your comments... Well, as you suggested: Work intervenes. There simply isn't enough time, nor enough mental energy left over after all the other writing I do in my 16-hour days.

I do have to say this: It is of little consequence to me whether the great minds of our generation are able to regress the universe to a point where it consisted of just a pinhead's worth of compressed matter. Matter is still matter. Supposedly it can neither be created nor destroyed (in scientific terms). If that is so, then where did that pinhead of Original Matter come from? The only thing that could have always existed is Nothingness. That means that at some point, Nothing had to become Something. What occasioned that metamorphosis? And where did the constituent ingredients of that New Matter come from?

Tyro said...

Steve,

What occasioned that metamorphosis? And where did the constituent ingredients of that New Matter come from?

I don't know yet. Do you?

If someone says "God" without evidence or the method by which this happened, or any evidence of God's existence, abilities, methods or motives have we learned anything?

If one says that energy (not matter) can be created under some circumstances (e.g.: God), then doesn't this undercut the very evidence for God?

It seems to me that open questions and gaps in our knowledge aren't a good basis for drawing conclusions.

Did you know that it was less than a century ago that we first understood that galaxies were composed of stars? In the last century, we've discovered how stars burn, how elements are created, how matter arose and how the universe developed (that the universe developed at all was a big discovery!). We've discovered Pluto and hundreds of planets around other stars.

There's a temptation to think we should have answers to everything and if we don't, then the answers must be impossible, a clear sign of divine intervention. But as far as we've pushed our understanding, we're still learning.

Neither you nor I know how the universe arose and any answer would be little more than a guess. I'm content to wait though if you see God's hand in it, that's fine but I think a gap is a poor argument for God's existence.

Anyhow, lest I run off at the mouth some more, let me say how much I enjoyed reading your book. I quoted it at length to anyone who would listen. I'm delighted to find further thought-provoking articles on your blog and it's a treat to see you respond to comments but please, please don't feel you need to! I blather on too much I know. Dreadfully sorry, and I'm also sorry if any of this sounded like a personal attack. We can't agree on everything, doesn't mean I don't respect what you've done.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: I hear the "gaps in our knowledge" rebuttal all the time, and I don't think it washes here. No matter how much knowledge we accumulate, we still need an explanation for something that is essentially supernatural: the "sudden" materialization of something (i.e. the earth, humankind, etc.) where formerly there was nothing. We need an explanation for a paradox: a cosmos without a beginning; the introduction of matter into a perfect vacuum. How do we get past that?

Or let me put it this way: If tomorrow you woke up and sat down for breakfast, and your cereal began talking to you (let's say in French), that would be infinitely more explainable than the origins of the universe. If the cornfield I can see from my window as I type this suddenly morphed into 10,000 gorillas, I could see a case made that eventually we'd find a scientific explanation. But a universe appearing where there was none? I don't see that as a "gap in our knowledge." I see it as more of a refutation of the very concept of knowledge, as we understand it.

Tyro said...

Steve,

Or let me put it this way: If tomorrow you woke up and sat down for breakfast, and your cereal began talking to you (let's say in French), that would be infinitely more explainable than the origins of the universe.

No doubt many would say that about QM (actually Einstein went to his grave saying just that) or about much of cosmology yet they're well described, well supported theories. And, as I said, replacing "I don't know" with "God" doesn't get us anywhere - it replaces one unknown with many, many more. How did god arise, what is God composed of, how does God operate, what method did God use to create the Universe, where did the matter come from, and on and on. If we had concrete evidence for God's existence and God's intervention we could set these aside but we don't, we just have unanswered questions and you're piling on more.


Anyway, I didn't mean to try present a complete argument for atheism, only to show that a rational, objective person may look at all of the evidence for theism (esp Christian theism) and not be convinced. I understand that you think the arguments are persuasive but I hope that you also know that there is no direct evidence in favour of a divine origin and withholding judgement till more evidence comes in is as perfectly reasonable position to take. Arguments from ignorance or personal incredulity are listed prominently in every list of logical fallacies for a reason. I certainly don't think that the arguments are so clear and the evidence so strong that you should put scare-quotes around "free-thinker" or describe them as "inflexible" or imply they're closed to evidence and reason.

In a world with people who deny the holocaust happened when the evidence is overwhelming, not to mention anti-vaccine nuts, you say atheists are the most inflexible creatures alive. Surely not.

Anyway, thanks for the discussion. Perhaps my mind is closed to thinking that my mind is closed =)

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, let me just reply that I dispute your assumption that ascribing the universe to divine action "replaces one unknown with many, many more." The whole point of my argument here over these past few days is that introducing God into the equation takes us to a whole other realm where logic and science (and questions rooted in logic and science) no longer apply. And you know what's funny is, it's not like there's no precedent for taking that approach (i.e. abandoning logic and science). We do it, for example, with love: Logic, science and empiricism would tell us, intellectually, that the person we end up pairing off with is not likely to be a good match for us. (What are the odds that out of a pool of 6 billion people, or at least 3 billion members of the opposite sex, we just happened to stumble on Mr. or Mrs. Right? EHarmony notwithstanding, odds are that most of us settle for someone who isn't even in the top 25% of our "ideal matches"). Then there are the sad odds of having a marriage end in divorce. Then there are the sobering stats on adultery. Then there are the chances that you'll beget, and have to raise, a problem child. If rationality ruled, who would bother with all that? Yet we suspend disbelief and forge ahead, persuading ourselves that "love will carry the day."

P.S. I think that QM is largely sophistry, an arcane framework created to explain the inexplicable.

Tyro said...

Steve,

introducing God into the equation takes us to a whole other realm where logic and science (and questions rooted in logic and science) no longer apply

I'm highly dubious but if anyone can provide a methodology where we can gain knowledge, detect and correct errors, and avoid self-deception then I'm all ears.

I have read a lot of theology and apologetics and the best method seems to involve ignoring the possibility that your gut instinct could ever lead you astray. I think this is a recipe for self-delusion, not gaining knowledge.

Logic, science and empiricism would tell us, intellectually, that the person we end up pairing off with is not likely to be a good match for us. (What are the odds that out of a pool of 6 billion people, or at least 3 billion members of the opposite sex, we just happened to stumble on Mr. or Mrs. Right?

Do you believe that there is One Mr/Ms Right? I don't think that any science or logic says that. And despite the flood of emotions telling us that this is The One, many of us in divorce and indeed, many widowers manage to re-marry and find The One again. Funny how so many people can find The One in a few years of dating without having to leave their home town.

I think that the best marriages are those where both parties are open to the evidence. We watch to see whether our partner really isn't that into us, so to speak. We watch for signs of abusiveness, commitment, care and consideration. There are people who don't care about evidence or reject it but is this a path to happiness? Many women are forced to deal with evidence as they lay in the hospital, recuperating from a spousal beating.

Love is definitely a chemical, irrational emotion and many formerly-married people can testify that this emotion is not a reliable guide.

Yet we suspend disbelief and forge ahead, persuading ourselves that "love will carry the day."

Some do, yes. Some even set aside evidence but given the success rate, why would we wish to apply this methodology to other areas?

P.S. I think that QM is largely sophistry, an arcane framework created to explain the inexplicable.

Hmm... How much training & humility does it take to dismiss physics' most successful theory of all time?

I don't know what you're thinking of when you talk about explanations and sophistry. QM describes the describable and it does so with unparalleled precision. Despite the counter-intuitive predictions, they are routinely verified and form an essential component to your computer, microwave and other technologies. Fight the Chopra-tastic BS "explanations" if you wish (I'll be right there beside you) but QM itself is a different matter.

But probably all for another time...

Tyro said...

Sorry one addition..

I get caught up in minutia and miss the big picture sometimes. I'm trying to show why a reasonable, open-minded person can not only arrive at different conclusions and feel confident that theists are incorrect.

Do you really think that a reasonable person can not disagree with you on this? Is the evidence & argument so compelling that it is irrational to reach a different conclusion? Are we splitting with reality here?

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, I was imprecise. My gripe with QM is not about some of its nuts-and-bolts observations, but rather the point at which it yields to (or is bastardized to embrace) Quantum Physics, i.e., the macro inferences drawn about the (supposedly) real world.

And you have the last word. Or maybe you already had it. ;)

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Since you asked a question, I will reply. Of course I think that reasonable people can disagree. By no means do I set myself up as the Oracle of Reality! I'm simply telling you the way it seems to me (which is what I'm stuck with, right?) Personally/privately, I do not believe in uncertainty, which of course is the foundation of QM. I do not believe in "random" behavior--of anything, down to an electron. If there is seemingly random/uncertain behavior, that--to me--is a measurement problem (i.e. we don't yet have the tools to pin things down). I resist the idea of waves, even though QM-based models (and the resultant inventions, like semiconductor technology) seem to validate them. (After all, a wave in the ocean is solid, not liquid--a mass of solid particles behaving a certain way. If all of the elements of that wave could be sorted and cataloged, then the wave's exact motion could be predicted. The problem is that we haven't yet found/isolated all the variables.) Further, it's a bit coy--don't you think?--to posit the existence of "uncertainty" at the sub-molecular level when we have such a high degree of certainty at the observable/life level. If QM is valid, then truly bizarre things--people exploding randomly now and then; cereals talking to you in French--should also occur. They don't.

Sometimes things are invented that seem to "work," even though they don't address the deeper truth. For example, there are two ways to cure a bacterial infection. You can cure it with penicillin, which is the preferred way. Or you can kill the host, which, to most of us, is the somewhat less preferable way, especially if the host is Us. To me--again, TO ME--QM is killing the host. The innovations it has given us work because they address the problem through a larger lens, even though the deeper truth has not yet been discovered. I firmly believe that if every single thing could be measured, every single thing would be predictable. There would be no "wave theory."

Also, consider this: If everything in the universe is present and accounted for, including all particles and waves, then the universe at any given moment should be steady-state. What made the first thing "happen"? It would seem to require the introduction of an extraneous variable, wouldn't it? I submit that the only extraneous variable is what set the whole thing in motion to begin with, which had to be something outside the system.

Tyro said...

I think we're drifting but what the heck, I love science so down the rabbit hole I go...

Further, it's a bit coy--don't you think?--to posit the existence of "uncertainty" at the sub-molecular level when we have such a high degree of certainty at the observable/life level.

If you look at the equations, the uncertainty is very, very, very small and it varies inversely with the size of the object. That means that to observe any effects, you need to be looking at very small objects and use very precise instruments. When the objects grow even to microscopic levels this effect becomes negligible except in certain circumstances (e.g.: double-slit experiment).

This isn't being coy, it's just a fact of the equations, sort of like the differences between Einstein's General Relativity and Newton's Gravity cannot be detected unless you are near very large gravity sources or travelling near the speed of light. We need to take time dilation into account for GPS satellites but not when we drive to the store for groceries.

As we've talked about with science "flip-flopping", this shouldn't be a big surprise. Our theories start by describing the accessible world and its only as our instruments improve that we discover exceptions. The fact that we require more advanced instruments should tell us that these exceptions happen only in parts of the world that are increasingly removed from our daily experiences. We're still spiralling in but the turns are growing tight indeed.


If QM is valid, then truly bizarre things--people exploding randomly now and then; cereals talking to you in French--should also occur. They don't.

I don't see why the uncertainty in the position, momentum or spin of quantum particles should translate into explosions or worse, French.

It does explain why quantum particles always arrive in discrete chunks like particles but under certain circumstances move like waves, their position is "smeared" out due to uncertainty creating something similar to a wave. This "probability wave" is concentrated in a very small area though.

(To dip briefly into numbers, the uncertainty in the position times momentum is one half of Planck's constant which is 6.62 * 10-34 m^2 kg / s. When you see a negative exponent that big, you can put down the dictionary while eating breakfast.)

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: But let's think about this a moment. I realize that life doesn't always make sense--that what is, is. And if maybe 200 years from now this is proved, I'll instruct my successors and assigns to buy into it. And to carve a notation into my headstone, THE DUMB, POMPOUS SOB WAS WRONG. But for now, to press the point: Does it make sense that uncertain behavior at the sub-atomic level would fail to translate to gross and bizarre effects at the visible (i.e. "street") level? That finding, if true, is inconsistent with every other known truth/theory in science. In Chaos Theory, for example, very, very, very tiny changes introduced into (or emerging in) a (supposedly) closed weather system produce dramatic and sweeping changes in the overall nature of the system (i.e. the Butterfly Effect). The tiniest gust of wind blowing near the muzzle of a precision rifle will produce a skew of 8 or 10 inches-from-true a few hundred yards out. But you're telling me that unexpected wave drift or other QM-described effects do not produce epochal, life-changing effects farther out on the line? I'm not buying it. The uncertainties are artifacts of something else and will be revealed as such in time. Again, IMO.

Steve Salerno said...

I think some of that was haphazardly phrased. I guess what I'm saying is, we may not be able to know (or predict) where a particle is with certainty, but the particle is exactly where it is, and must be, and can only be, every time. It has no choice and there's no randomness. The problem is one of measurement and knowability. That's why I look at the Schrodinger's cat thinking problem and I shake my head. The cat is either alive or dead--one or the other, for certain. Maybe we can't know it. But it is.

Tyro said...

Does it make sense that uncertain behavior at the sub-atomic level would fail to translate to gross and bizarre effects at the visible (i.e. "street") level?

Intuitively I don't know but it's true nonetheless for several reasons:

* the random fluctuations cancel each other out. This is the same reason why Brownian motion (which can be observed in microscopes) doesn't cause buildings to rattle or a warm frying pan to leap from the stove. We know all atoms vibrate yet large objects made of atoms do not.

* the uncertainty is contained. When electrons "orbit" the nucleus, the electron is no longer in one well-defined position but the "orbitals" are regions around the nucleus where it's highly likely to be.

* the chemical interactions between atoms to form molecules don't depend on a precise location of the electron and once the atom forms larger molecules, it is only the large-scale shape and charge which causes significant changes. A hydrogen atom is 5 * 10^-11m across compared to 1.5 * 10^-9m for insulin, and 5*10^-7m for DNA.

That finding, if true, is inconsistent with every other known truth/theory in science. In Chaos Theory, for example, very, very, very tiny changes introduced into (or emerging in) a (supposedly) closed weather system produce dramatic and sweeping changes in the overall nature of the system

Not everything is chaotic. Chaotic systems only arise when there is a positive feedback system, where the effect at one state is amplified in the next. Material structures don't amplify the motions but tend to dampen them (Brownian motion again). It's the difference between sound of all frequencies hitting a wine glass and causing no effect and just a single, precise frequency causing it to shatter. There's nothing to direct the uncertainty so they behave like noise.

No doubt you could probably construct a scenario where the uncertainty in a position of an electron leads to macro events (for want of a spark the flame didn't light, for want of a flame the signal wasn't sent, for want of a signal the battle was lost) but even these reveal the problem. Electric currents deal in the billions of electrons and like a river is made up of individual atoms moving in all directions but a net result is downhill, the random motion of electrons cancel out en mass. Setups which are sensitive to individual electrons or photons are extremely difficult to construct.

but the particle is exactly where it is, and must be, and can only be, every time. It has no choice and there's no randomness. The problem is one of measurement and knowability.

Many of the founding fathers of QM thought this way and fought hard to defend it, not least of which was Einstein. But for every challenge he dreamt up, experimenters knocked it down. One of the final nails in the coffin was discovered by John Bell in 1964 called Bell's Inequality which showed that there would be real-life experimental differences if quantum properties had a real value which we couldn't see, or if they really were undetermined (and has since been refined to be even clearer). It has been tested experimentally and each time the results have been clearly in favour of uncertainty.

Fascinating stuff. Not intuitive, not at all, but the results are clear.

(I know I've recommended him before, but Brian Greene's other book, "Fabric of the Cosmos" covers Bell's Inequality and the experiments in some detail.)

That's why I look at the Schrodinger's cat thinking problem and I shake my head. The cat is either alive or dead--one or the other, for certain. Maybe we can't know it. But it is.

A real cat would be dead or alive, yes you're absolutely right. But quantum particles aren't like cats :)

Steve Salerno said...

OK Tyro. You get the much-deserved last word.

RevRon's Rants said...

If I may be allowed to emerge from the shadows a bit...

I'm frequently amused by the intellectual partisanship so evident in the debates between "believers" and "skeptics," not so much by the content of the debate as by each faction's obvious emotional attachment to being "right." And the zealousness is equally intense at both extremes.

Being what I would label a pragmatic believer, I am forced to acknowledge the logic of conclusions based upon exhaustive studies. At the same time, I take with a grain of salt those conclusions that are aggressively presented as representing "universal truth," when key considerations are overlooked or outright dismissed because they fail to fall within the framework of one's particular mindset. The assertion that the earth is only 10,000 years old, for example, is no more absurd than is the assertion that science disproves the existence of a divine being in some form. While we have the technology to determine the age of physical objects, we simply lack the technology to either prove or disprove the existence of a God. We can argue till pigs fly in support of our particular set of beliefs, but that's about all we can do. In my mind, the more pertinent question, which transcends all others, is why we feel such a burning need to be "right," to the extent that we make anyone who doesn't share our mindset "wrong."

And while Steve & I disagree on a number of fundamental concepts, I have to agree that the ratio of rabid "skeptics" to the whole group is higher than is the ratio of rabid "believers" to the whole of that group. And that they tend to be nastier in their defense of their conclusions. We've seen it evidenced in this forum, as well as others. Perhaps the "believers" are less prone to acrimony due to kinship with fellow humans being at the core of all major religions, rendering hostility unacceptable to that group. Or perhaps the hunger for certainty renders the "skeptics" more prone to dismissing anything that lacks that clearly quantifiable certainty.

Who really knows? Candy mint or breath mint... we choose what we want, but our choice has little effect upon the mint. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

This might be the perfect place, also, to quote from the "what is a skeptic?" page that's a key part of the front matter of every issue of Michael Shermer's wonderful magazine:

"Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse 'skeptic' with 'cynic' and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas--no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position [NOTE from SS: italics added.] Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are 'skeptical,' we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe...."

Skepticism, thus, is an approach to critical thinking. It is not an ideology in its own right. And it is certainly not the kind of close-minded, belligerent attitude of which I wrote in the several posts that preceded this one.

An aside to Ron: As noted in my response to Connie's column, it's great to have you back.

Tyro said...

Skepticism, thus, is an approach to critical thinking. It is not an ideology in its own right. And it is certainly not the kind of close-minded, belligerent attitude of which I wrote in the several posts that preceded this one.

As you just said, it's a methodology. How can you say that and in the next sentence jump to saying it's an attitude?

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: You lost me. I honestly don't understand the question. I specifically said it is not the kind of attitude I encountered...

Tyro said...

I mean that attitude is independent of open-mindedness. There are dickish sceptics (sounds like you've met some) and nice ones, just as there are dickish closed-minded people and nice ones. Whether someone treats you and your beliefs with respect or scorn is no indication of whether they're following a sceptical methodology.

I don't know anything about your beliefs so I can't think of an example where we would definitely both be on the same side, but I'll hazard an example: vaccines. They have proved to be enormously successful and have saved the lives of uncounted millions of lives to the point that there are now one or two generations of people who have never seen polio, or pertussis (whooping cough), don't even know what they are. Yet there is a small but dedicated minority who is rabidly anti-vaccines for a variety of ideological reasons. They use a smoke-screen of "evidence", all of which has been disproved over the last decade.

Doctors involved in the struggle, who have seen outbreaks of these once-vanquished diseases, watched children suffer brain damage or death, may show no respect for the anti-vaccine movement. They may feel very upset and resort to insults, personal attacks and abuse.

Their attitude doesn't mean they haven't sceptically evaluated the claims of the anti-vaccine movement, but rather that they have evaluated and concluded that it is baseless and dangerous. What respect, they may argue, is due to people whose dogmatism is harming children?

I know many sceptics feel the same way about religion, that it's immune to reason or evidence (frequently in contradiction to both), and dangerous to the intellectual and political ideals they cherish. I think some grow very frustrated, disheartened and even scared, and they may take it out on others.

Is that wrong? Maybe, maybe not. Is it counter-productive? Possibly. Does it mean that they are closed-minded or haven't followed a sceptical methodology? Definitely not!

(Feel free to think of examples of self-helpies who may spread falsehoods and lies yet be very nice people, or of Christians whom you agree with on some issues but still act like real jerks to others.)

Pointing to their jerkish attitude doesn't mean they're closed-minded! It just means they're jerks.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Yanno, I get the sense that we're getting so caught up in nuance here that we're missing the big picture. What I objected to in making my allegations of dickishness was the all-too-prevalent attitude (yes, attitude) that "if you don't hate so-and-so as much as we do, then we don't want you here." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. It's fine to be skeptical; be as skeptical as you please. I'm skeptical. But being a skeptic doesn't mean that you get angry or show lots of attitude (there's that word again) if somebody else tries to make a point in the other side's favor, or even wastes too much time getting around to hating the person the group has decided (so gleefully) to hate.

Or to put it another way, if Joe is a self-described skeptic/atheist who actually gives the cold shoulder to those who profess a belief in God, or who gets belligerent when he hears Buddhists pray, then Joe isn't really a skeptic. He's more of an a-hole.