Monday, April 30, 2012

Perpetuating Stigma

Now, normally I'm full of hype about Neil deGrasse Tyson. I found his point on God as a "perimeter of ignorance" right on target (although I would take it a step further perhaps). I will post on that another time. I find the man charismatic and I honestly think, and have said in the past, that he is the best person to be the new voice of a revised Cosmos (Pluto hatred aside). Everything about Neil deGrasse Tyson makes me happy...


And then there is this...

Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinking Small on "Think Big"

I am a skeptic. That means I go to great pains to avoid knowledge claims - especially about concepts that are stipulated to be immune to any sort of verification/refutation. However, I also do not believe in god(s), which is what one would expect from someone who "does not assent" to claims. That is a sufficient condition to make me an atheist.

I think Dr. Tyson is being muddled here - allowing the religious to define "atheism" for him and rejecting atheism based on that agenda-ridden definition. To Tyson, I would ask this: "You know, I don't want to be thought of as any kind of "-ism." Is there a word for people who are anti-racists? Because I don't want to be called it, lest I be associated with an "-ism." Never mind that I am such a person. Do you think that's the proper approach?"

Of course you don't, Dr. Tyson.

Tyson needs to understand that his science relies entirely on a environment of inquiry, scientific and otherwise. Yes, there are dogmatic atheists in the world, but they are becoming much fewer and farther between now, and, generally, they rest of the atheist community is working to correct them. The important point is that looking at theism's and atheism's track record for providing, endorsing and permitting an environment of free inquiry, including scientific inquiry, the history seems to indicate (unequivocally) which is more inquiry friendly.

To be fair, atheism is often seen as another (contradictory to theism) knowledge claim about a stipulation (God) that does not admit of any verification/refutation. As a (real, epistemic) skeptic, I balk at that too.

However, atheists have begun to define themselves now, and we are defining it as a "lack of belief in/of god(s)," thereby moving it from a knowledge claim to a belief state (not a belief; a belief state) - which is quite different, and much more defensible against certain theistic noises. There are dogmatic atheists in the world still, but that's part of the move from the theistic definition (designed to create confusion) and the more coherent new definition of atheism, and the atheist community is busily correcting the dogmatic atheists now. Nowadays, agnosticism and atheism are being seen as separate issues about separate subject matters.

By publicly declaring he does not want to be called an atheist, Tyson is not merely declaring he doesn't want to be claimed by atheism, he is adopting and perpetuating a definition of atheism that has been imposed upon us by theists for millennia, and in the process, Tyson is reinforcing and perpetuating an artificial stigma against atheists. We atheists are striving to move beyond that theist-imposed definition of atheism. It is declarations like Tyson's that hold us back.

Now, if Tyson doesn't want anything to do with the dogmatic atheist, that's his business, but to help atheism evolve into a more coherent form, the best course of action is not to support old incoherent stipulations, but rather to join in the negotiation of a more coherent understanding of atheism. The same mind that brought us god as the "perimeter of ignorance" might have something to offer atheism if he were prepared to set aside the theistic, agenda-ridden definition of atheism. I find Tyson's unwillingness to even try intensely disappointing. I find his pandering to a definition that keeps atheists marginalized and stigmatized infuriating.

On the other hand, if Tyson is unwilling to consider atheism qua "lack of belief" then let's get him out of the frontier, leading edge of conversation about atheism. He won't be the one advancing the subject matter...*

*Yes, this was a parody of Tyson's own depiction of God-believers at the frontier edge of scientific exploration.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Rabid Dog Froths

Wreaking Indiscriminate Havoc with Both Guns Blazing

Recently, Krauss decided it would be a fun idea to vilify *all* philosophy and *all* philosophers, presumably as a hook for his book.

Krauss: Foot In Mouth

I have this to say about that...

I think we can safely say, with Krauss, that science has taken one more step to officially becoming a dogma. When your primary hook is to discredit those who ask questions you don't like, then what you have is a warning sign, made clear, especially, by Krauss's attacks on philosophy of science in particular. When confronted with dogma, a philosophical perspective - a skeptical perspective - is essential and necessary in order to ensure our grey matter doesn't seize up.

Frankly, Krauss sounds more like a petulant child, upset that someone might have the temerity to dare question his assertions, or even *gasp* dare disagree with him.

It is possible to be pro-science and philosophically-minded. Indeed, that's what I claim to be. Of course, unlike Krauss, I recognize that philosophy and religion are not identical subject matters. It has actually been my emphasis to pore over what separates the two.

The most generous reading I can give of Krauss is that he is using scientistic (yes, I just used that word) dismissive canards to try to provide a hook to draw people in by setting up an artificial conflict - essentially, to sell his book, to turn a buck. Krauss's use of these canards is a conflict-based "team spirit" betrayal of what we would normally understand as inquiring processes, and in support of orthodoxy enforcement.

It's too bad, really. I was interested in the idea presented, but now I find Krauss quite unpalatable. Anyone who decries inquiry is unpalatable to me. It is unpalatable when the religious dogmas do it, and it is unpalatable when hook-seeking morons making sweeping generalizations disparaging whole realms of inquiry do it. I guess I'll need to see it presented by someone less obnoxious and who is willing to entertain disagreement. I hope to approach the subject matter with an open mind, but when confronted by a rabid dog frothing at the mouth, it is difficult to see the subject matter neutrally. Is there anyone a little less ridiculous who can present this subject matter.

Beating a Hasty Retreat

Krauss: Backpedaling With Foot Still In Mouth

When I hear string theorists admit that so far they have no empirical referents for their fanciful, little wonderland, I have to wonder if theoretical physics has not become susceptible to the same errors the "philosophical" mystics and the theologians did. Maybe people versed and educated in such errors, from long experience, might be of some help with such issues - you know, if you don't make sweeping generalizations vilifying everyone who ever looked into such matters.

For my own part, I will keep string theory at a distance until something actually comes from it. See? No sweeping generalizations vilifying all science and scientists - just some reasonable caution with regard to what so far appears to be analytical, metaphysical fluffistry disguised as synthetic truth (empirical reality). Where's the falsifiability, kids?

A rational person would not have had to offer Krauss's half-baked, pseudo, somewhat less than honest apology. In future, check your fucking targets, moron.

Monday, April 23, 2012

By Atheists, of Atheists, and for Atheists


Stipulations, Stipulation

The definition of atheism is currently under negotiation among atheists themselves, as we shrug off the old definitions imposed upon us by the theists (who defined matters as a dichotomous affirmation vs denial in order to crate confusion). Nowadays we atheists are telling the theists to take their definition of atheism and ram it straight up their flabby saddlebags - we are defining ourselves now, and it's about damned time!

"Lack of Belief" vs "Belief of Lack"

The single thing that all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in god(s) - any gods. Read that carefully, a lack of belief - the matter is not about god(s) anymore. It is about the belief state of the atheist. Note I said "belief state," not "belief." While a lack of belief is a belief state, it is not, itself, a belief. This distinction is best represented by a number of soundbites we hear: "Atheism is a belief like bald is a hair colour," or "Atheism is a belief like off is a T.V. channel," and countless others.

This broader definition makes for more coherent understanding (especially with regards to agnosticism) and counters claims of belief/knowledge claim/dogmatism leveled at atheists by theists. This defeats the claim that atheism is just another belief or ideology, the claim theists like to make in an attempt to paint atheism as having no firmer an epistemic footing that theism and having the same kind of character theism has. While there can be a faith-equivalent in atheism (dogmatic atheism), this is by no means required by the definition of atheism as atheists define ourselves, and is actually fairly rare. We are extricating ourselves from the stipulative trap the theists built for us and sought to enforce for millennia.

The Agnosticism Conflation

Now, we can clearly distinguish between agnosticism and atheism, with gnostic/agnostic being about knowledge claims, and atheism being about belief/lack of belief. And something much more important is now available. With this view of atheism, we can now punch our way out of the theistic wet paper bag of seeing atheism as a belief in lack - something we didn't really have the option of before. While questions about the existence of God are Av~A (law of excluded middle) moments, questions about belief states are not necessarily so. Sure one can say that either one does or does not believe, but belief states actually come in a great many more varieties than yes or no, best painted, perhaps, as degrees of confidence (which maps very nicely onto probability).

Reasons Many and Various/No Guarantees

The reasons for this lack of belief vary between individual atheists, and whether one thinks one "knows" that god(s) do not exist is another matter altogether and has some variety among individual atheists. Some point at lack of evidence, some point at the "morality" the theists assume as part of their god-content, some claim there are logical inconsistencies in the very idea of god, etc. Being an atheist is no guarantee of being verification-minded, nor is it a guarantee of being rational with regards to any other (or even this) subject matter. There are atheists who engage in any number of other forms of irrational belief, like water memory, psychics, astrology, ghosts, homeopathy, etc., etc., etc...

Perceived "Weakness"

The only "weakness" that the "lack of belief" definition of atheism has is that it doesn't come across as being as absolutely confident as the theistic claims - especially in shouting matches. In the rhetorical sound and fury, the tendency is to make claims with absolute confidence, but ask yourself this: Why would you want to claim certain knowledge, especially about an idea of God that doesn't admit of any kind of verification/refutation and that therefore no about which no knowledge claims can coherently be made? Some paint being uncertain as "admitting" the possibility of the existence of God. Admitting? What an odd way to phrase it. What we are actually doing is recognizing that we are fallible (prone to potential error) and leaving room open to possible revision or error-correction - something theists almost never do. This is not a weakness; it is a strength. We know it is a strength because we have forged error-correction methodologies that have been wildly successful based on this very premise. One of these is science. So, the "weakness" is rhetorical only, because some see haphazardly proclaiming truth as somehow "stronger" than being cautious, careful and honest about our claims. I think I'll go with cautious, careful and honest and for a mindset that allows room for change and growth with new information.

Whatever definition we eventually negotiate, at least we are doing it for ourselves now.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

God Concepts

I think in order to understand why I am critical of hard determinism, I will need to give a brief history of my thinking.

Teaser: Are we still defining free will in terms of acausality? Are we still defining morality in terms of objective truth?


As a student of philosophy (waaay back then) and an atheist, I was intrigued with the kind of concept God was. After only a little bit of work I learned that, as an explanatory device, God was a failure. For many, the idea that it explained everything was persuasive, but I saw that it prohibited nothing and realized that as an explanatory device it provided us with a goose-egg in terms of predictive power. I referred to it as a God-concept (go figure!), and started looking for others...


In analytic ethics, I came across the plethora of theories based on this idea of "self-interest." What was interesting about the idea of self-interest is that every possible choice could be characterized in terms of self-interest. It soon became plainly obvious that the reason for this was the way in which the concept was defined. It explained all possible behaviours, including self-contradictory ones, and prohibited none, and in so doing, negated any predictive power the idea had. I had found another God-Concept and this one was commonly accepted among contemporary scholars. Again, arguments from self-interest are ridiculously persuasive precisely because self-interest seems to explain everything.

In the meantime, altruism had been defined out of existence...


Along came determinism. For me it was in the form of Skinnerian behaviouralism. It's central effort was an attempt to turn psychology into a science by dealing only with what could be "verified" (external behaviour) and (pretty much) ignoring everything else. A passing nod was given to internal states by suggesting that our feelings of free will and the like were us experiencing our behaviour. It also assumed a causal (or at least correlational chain) between antecedent events and consequent behaviours. Again a scientific way of looking at things. At first I played along with it, trying determinism on for size as it were. It quickly dawned on me that it could explain every behaviour as a consequent of antecedent causal events including self-contradictory ones. Very persuasive. The next obvious task was to try to find a behaviour example it does not explain. Still looking - and this is where determinism gets interesting: Where is the falsifiability? That's right. Another God-concept.

So, to be perfectly honest, I dismiss determinism as an explanatory device for exactly the same reason I dismiss God and self-interest as explanatory devices: they have no predictive power because they "explain everything and preclude nothing." Now, I'm not saying that I don't think determinism has something to offer us, however, to assume it is the truth is as much an error from a scientific perspective (not even considering a skeptical perspective) as it is to accept God as an explanatory device. I suspect it is the first step down a long path, but it is not, as far as I can tell the end point.

Rampant Speculation

Now, there can be any number of possible and different ideas about free will, not all of which need be supernatural in nature. The interesting thing, historically, is that religion sought to annex human volition (just as it sought to annex just about every other human quality and function) within its supernatural framework and most have come to accept this, including, I suspect, some folks critical of religion - perhaps to the point where they dismiss free will on the basis of its presumed supernatural association. Perhaps the reason we see free will as a supernatural breaking of a causal chain is because we rarely try to phrase it any other way, or perhaps more to the point, because determinism presents us with a dichotomous understanding of determined vs uncaused - a dichotomous relationship supported and promoted by religion seeking to present itself as the fundament of free will.

One such non-supernatural way of viewing free will might be as an emergent property of mind as a social construct. I am not saying this is the case, nor am I able at this point to defend it. All I am suggesting is that it may be possible to posit something functionally identical to (or very much like) free will in non-supernatural terms. Perhaps free will is something that naturally arises from our distinction between self and environment, or perhaps from some other aspect of our understanding of self. This is not as new-agey as it may sound. After all, if one conceives of oneself as being comprised of three warring selves in constant conflict, is it any surprise that one feels internally conflicted? If one perceives of oneself as being a being of sin, is it any surprise that one feels the need for forgiveness? You could build a business off of those...

The point really is that just because a particular idea (even something as seemingly irrefutable as determinism) suggests that something is true doesn't mean it is. Of all people, skeptics (scientific skeptics included) must understand this. We've seen through it with respect to the first God-concept....

It may be that we are wholly determined beings, but for the time being, I do not see sufficient cause to accept that we are without allowing for possible alternatives...

Definitions Bind Us; Definitions Can Free Us

There was a time when morality was defined entirely in terms of absolutist commandments imposed on us from some objective, independent of humanity, authority (namely: God). With such a definition, removing God from the equation meant decimating morality. Then we started defining morality as a social construct and matters started falling into place again. We labour under a definition of free will that entails acausality. With such a definition, free will is impossible. What if we started defining free will as a social construct...?

Perhaps in a very real sense, we are what we define ourselves as being.

Into the Next

I rather like humanity, warts and all. I think it has tremendous potential which we are only just now beginning to tap. Some very, very bad people with some hideous ideas infected our thinking and cast us into stagnation, horror, and superstition for a very long time. It was a self-indulgent, self-congratulatory kind of coma, and defined everything we do and think in terms of it, so it's going to take some effort to break the spell of it.

If one considers the history of humanity as a single lifespan, I see us as being in our adolescent stage, just when we are starting to realize that it's time to move out and live our own lives. It is a difficult time, filled with strife and indecision, and the unpleasant reality that we can no longer rely on mommy or daddy to set our life rules for us and that we must accept responsibility for our own lifestyle, diet, health and general balance of living. We must work and no one is going to do it for us - we have to do it ourselves. Leaving behind children's fables is not easy, but it must be done. It's just part of the growing-up process.

There comes a point in everyone's life when (metaphorically) they hold the knife in their hands and realize, fully realize, that they can put an end to their existence. At that terrible moment of ultimate self-efficacy, a decision must be made, for the first time. At that point, for the first time, we must create our own reasons not to use the knife. It is a pivotal moment and it is difficult. We have thought like children for so long and adulthood is uncharted territory.

My generation was the first (arguably the second) to hold the knife in its hands. It may seem trite to say it now, but I grew up under the threat of "the bomb" and the total annihilation of all of humanity. It's been a turbulent time and there are those who rail against leaving the comfort of daddy's basement, but we are dragging ourselves, kicking and screaming, into adulthood. It's not over yet, to be sure, but there are promising signs.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was remarkable precisely in that it did collapse rather than go out in a "blaze of glory," a not unfathomable possibility. Two nuclear-capable nations who despise each other with near absolute passion (India and Pakistan) mutually backed off from the brink. Despite the fact that we have been taught for thousands of years that we are evil and like being evil, we have formed (to varying degrees) some generally compassionate social orders. We see mass cooperation on a grand scale, but are often blinded by the exceptions, reveling in them, despairing in the isolated incidences, and wielding them to confirm our hatred of ourselves. No surprise there - we've been taught to do that. We have developed tools (both physical and idea-tools) that allow us to lengthen life-spans and improve quality of life dramatically. We have leisure time the likes of which was unknown before us, which we can use pretty much however we want. We have time to think about being better than we have been.

I keep a copy of the Cassini photograph of Earth seen through Saturn's rings as a background because, to me, it is a symbol of what we can accomplish - the sheer, astonishing power of human potential and efficacy, when we choose to not be hobbled by small, twisted minds, jealously guarding their empty little metaphysical empires. Such modern miracles are commonplace now and we've become complacent - even blase. There are new ones of ever greater magnitude every other day it, seems. We don't need to wait lifespans for them anymore. We need only wait a few hours, or so it seems. We are never satisfied and are harder to impress all the time.

This has been an exciting, vibrant time and of all of human history, this is the time I would choose to live in. There are bumps in the road, to be sure, and we don't know where it leads, but we are hesitantly taking steps to the future. I say "hesitant" in terms of individual lifespans, but in the larger scale, the change over the past few hundred years has been almost fantastic and is accelerating at an astonishing rate.

Isn't it interesting that, to the best of our knowledge, the one species that is able to contemplate it's own way of being, uses that contemplation with such ferocious deliberation to vilify itself, systematically and methodically. In a very important sense, we are what we think we are because our concept of self is subject to negotiation. We decide what kind of people we are. We've made some very bad decisions in the past, but we've made some good ones too and the good ones are slowly, inexorably starting to assume, despite vigorous protestations, a leading role in our thinking.

I don't hate humanity, and I'm not about to let agenda-ridden dogmas convince me that I should. It's not about faith - faith is a throwback to a darker, bleaker, emotionally and intellectually hobbled time. It's about throwing stagnation-faith away, recognizing potentials, and getting on with the business of living.

It's not about knowing; it's about learning.
It's not about mastering; it's about surpassing.
It's not about being right; it's about being adaptable.
It's not about prophesy; it's about efficacy.
It's not about fathers; it's about children.
Its not about the good old days; it's about a better tomorrow.
It's not about surrender; it's about striving.
Its not about stagnation; it's about potential.
It's not about despair; it's about vision.
It's not about the past; it's about the future.

The best teachers want their students to leave them in the dust...

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Need to Know Basis

So, let us conduct a thought experiment. :)


Let us posit that I am hovering, arms flailing, in a state of abject panic, 45 degrees off the edge of a cliff. Forget gravity (for the sake of this experiment, gravity doesn't exist). Instead, let's look at god's will as the sole determining causal factor in whether I:

(1) recover my balance, or
(2) plummet to a screaming, squishy death.

Now, if I recover my balance, is that consistent with god's will?
Now if I fall to a screaming, squishy death, is that consistent with god's will?

Well, if god is omnipotent, as is often claimed, then both are consistent with god's will. Indeed both at the same time are consistent with god's will, and neither at the same time. God could also whisk me up into the skies, never to see the ground again. If God so desired I could hang, terrified, there forever. So, god's will "explains" every possible (and even all logically impossible) outcomes.

This tells us something very important about god's will as an explanation. It actually permits all possibilities and, therefore, prohibits none. Clearly there is no possible result that is inconsistent with an omnipotent god. And that, folks, is precisely why god's will offers us zero predictive power. We cannot say, of any result, that it contradicts god's will.

That's quite a versatile "explanation" indeed. So versatile, in fact, that it doesn't give us anything to use to choose between different outcomes. Some folks find this feature to be compelling. Who doesn't like unlimited possibilities, after all?

So, using god's will, let us ask again, will I recover my balance or will I fall to a screaming, squishy death? It seems the only answer is, "We don't know." Well, as someone teetering in abject terror, I am intensely interested in any predicted results here. I am very much interested in whether I recover or fall to a (you know the rest)...

Theory vs Explanation

A scientific theory is specifically designed to offer predictive power. That means science's "explanations" require some results and prohibit others. The prohibiting other outcomes is referred to as "falsifiability." Falsifiability is the naming of outcomes under which a theory would be proven incorrect. If a scientific theory prohibits an outcome and it happens, then it is time to revise or abandon the theory.

This is the main difference between a scientific theory and any old explanation. Theories tell us something that we can test for. Whether you want to be able to test your explanation is another issue. Many people like composing their "explanations" so that there is no way to test them. This keeps them immune from inquiry. There are even follower-types who will gaze in jaw-dropped amazement at how clever such an explanation is. Such people can often be convinced to give you money, apparently.

"God's will" does not prohibit outcomes. How are you going to search for truth, how are you going to investigate anything, if your method of inquiry tells you nothing at all - offers you zero predictive power?

However, the matter is even worse than this, using "God's Will" as an explanatory device. Since there is no possible verification or refutation of the explanatory device, the matter is forever shrouded in impenetrable mystery. As an explanatory device, "God's Will" stops us dead in our tracks. With "God's Will" we get precisely nowhere and have no potential to get anywhere...


There are two ways an "explanation" may be irrefutable:
(1) it may be true, or
(2) it may be designed such that it can never be refuted.

To say that something is irrefutable is not necessarily to say that it is true. The latter is only interesting as an example of what not to do. It is not profound, nor wise, nor deep, nor, and this is most important, true. So, when you are confronted by an irrefutable explanation, ask yourself if it is actually true or if it is irrefutable because there is no way of telling if it is true or not.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

To Trespass on God's Domain

What is God?

God is an end to inquiry. God is a prescriptive hard line. It is the surrender of our humanity, a despair, a metaphysical failure imposed by us on ourselves. It is a subjugation, a means to keep everyone children/slaves, begging, forever. God is a decision to ignore reality. It is the darkest, bleakest, most horrific idea conceivable. It is a desire for a "benevolent" dictator, a petulant avoidance of responsibility. And all this is made worse because God is an illusion, a deliberate deception.

God is a stagnation, a standing still. God is a learned helplessness, reinforced by petulant emotionalism. It is a refusal to question, a refusal to learn, a refusal to change, a refusal to grow. It is a wallowing in meaninglessness, a drowning in a quagmire. It is the end of all dreams and the eternal recapitulation to one anti-human nightmare. It is horror, it is superstition, it is fear. God is an end to humanity, a derision, a hatred of who we are. It is the assumption that we are not good enough, and a desire to infect others with self-loathing. God is a justification, an excuse, a primacy that leaves us chaff in a dogmatic meat grinder. God is the personification of the worst of all the anti-human noises, an unrealizable idealism, a fantasy, a descent into eternal angst. God is a vague, metaphysical band-aid for a contrived and vague, metaphysical ailment.

God is a marketing campaign, designed to keep you bowed and broken, begging. It is designed to make you give a free ride to all the frauds, all the mystics, all the cryptic hawkers of nonsense - the parasites.

The world leaned on god concepts for thousands of years and accomplished absolutely nothing, except wallowing in despair, poverty and stagnation. In a few short hundred years, science has accomplished marvels that make God's miracles look like cheap parlour tricks.

Every time science pushes the boundaries of human knowledge, the God-hawkers are there trying to pretend it is their domain, trying to prevent exploration. Every time we look into the holes in our knowledge where God is supposedly hiding, we don't find God. We find, instead that we can understand if we choose to try. And the frauds have God scurrying from unknown to unknown, only to see God evicted when the unknown becomes known, again and again and again. This pathetic sleight-of-tongue act gets pretty tired after a while.

I have had my life saved no less that three times by intrepid explorers who dared assume we could understand, despite the condemnation of the God-loving/fearing who want everything to be mystery so their God has a place to cower. Thank you to the intrepid explorers who defied God and discovered ways of treating pneumonia. Thank you intrepid explorers who developed surgical techniques. Thank you intrepid explorers who discovered and found ways to produce insulin. I owe my life to you all, and all because you had the courage to ignore the mystic wailing about "treading on God's domain."

Mysticism does nothing but keep things vague and hidden - just like God. Not only are there no answers there, there can be no answers there - by design. The greatest lie ever told.

The west underwent a 1400+ year stagnation under religious influence we call the Dark Ages. What could we have done in that time? 40+ wasted generations of living, breathing human beings lost in the grubby, stultifying haze of God-think!

Enthralled by your personal relationship with the voice in your head? I got some bad news for you. The voice in your head is your own. No wonder it agrees with you. Myself, I have a personal relationship with reality. Reality is not a compromising lover, but at least you can touch her.

Learning the Lesson

The only thing we can do now is learn from our past errors. Away with God. Away with mysticism. Away with helplessness. This is the time in our species' history when we move out of daddy's basement, find our own reasons, build our own future, create our own masterpieces.

Before we can learn, there must be room for learning. There must be some place in our minds not overwhelmed by dogma, a place where doubt resides, a place open to the new, the different, the innovative. It is the place skepticism dwells. It is the place skepticism *provides.*

People say that skepticism is negative, but I see a universe of possibilities, of potential. A universe denied us by dogmatic assumptions and orthodoxy requirements. Don't adopt mentalities that seek to convince you that despair of humanity is a good thing, that tries to make you proud or deserving of your suffering. We can be more than that.

We can!

Look at this picture:
In the Shadow of Saturn

This is not a drawing. It is not an artist's rendition. It is not fantasy or here-say or testimony. It is a photograph of Saturn. If you look through the rings to the top left, you can see Earth. How did such a photograph come about? We did that. Us. And we did it because we had the courage, in the face of the mystics and God-purveyors, to dare to explore - to dare to trespass on God's domain. To dare to strive. To dare to actually try. God is surrender, capitulation, failure. Not to try is to fail. Do not surrender.

We can, if we choose to not fall victim to failure-think. If we choose to give ourselves some credit, some opportunity, some possibility.

We can.

Evicting the Frauds

It takes a special kind of person to push fraud. It takes a special kind of mentality to deliberately deceive. It takes a special kind of psychosis to tell us that all we have to look forward to is eternal grovelling before forces we cannot perceive, that we have no possibilities, that there are no options, that we may not explore, that we may not learn, that we may not grow.

Sorry, purveyor of fraud, the door is that way. Don't let it hit your ass on the way out...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Into the Abyss

"We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact."
- Carl Sagan, "Cosmos"

Let us take a voyage, shall we, to the dark heart of nihilistic razing. Don't worry; it's not (quite) that scary...

When we talk about knowledge (justified true belief) we are talking about three things: the knower, the known, and the link between them. Skepticism convincingly illustrates that our perceptions are *potentially* flawed. This puts paid to the link between knower and known and turns "knower" into mere believer and the "known" into the merely believed.

Now, really, this post is not about that journey itself, which is pretty much non-controversial (Cogito Ergo Sum aside, which is an analytic truth and needs to be examined separately). An honest, thoroughgoing and dedicated inquiry into what we really know (with certainty) yields a whole lot of nothing. That nothing, however, is instructive. This post is about what we do when we hit ground zero - when we reach the point of epistemological nihilism.

So, what is the result of our voyage? Uncertainty. Nothing more; nothing less. Some run squealing in blind panic away from uncertainty. Others try to tolerate it. A very few embrace it and see the potential in it, the room for growth it gives. Some people just like to pretend that what they believe is certain knowledge.


Well! That was fun. And here we sit on the broken and smoldering debris of our respective houses of cards. Don't look down. We can't even be sure we are sitting on anything!

For your amusement, a couple of links to a conversation with a bomb stuck in its bomb bay as the ship's crew desperately tries to convince it to not explode...

Phenomenology with a bomb...
The bomb blows it...

One thing we have to be careful of is to avoid making the same mistake we were correcting on our way here. It is tempting to think that if we do not know something that we know that something is not. This would be an error, since it would be confusing the subject of the inquiry, which is our knowledge state, with the thing about which we do or do not have knowledge about. To make this mistake, where we are in our journey, would be introduce what is called "metaphysical solipsism." Solipsism in its most favorable reading is cautious, metaphysical solipsism - not so much.

Given an honest skeptical inquiry, we can no more make claims about the non-existence of other minds than we can about the existence of other minds. We can only claim that we don't know with certainty either. Claims about reality are in the same boat. We can no more claim that reality doesn't exist than we can that it does. The argument that the bomb makes from "Dark Star," is a mistake. We cannot conclude that "you are false data" any more than we can conclude that "you are true data." Understanding this is critical to negotiating the treacherous depths of the abyss.

So, the problem with "metaphysical solipsism" is not the inquiry itself; it is the attempt to "resolve" (read: evade) the inquiry in a particular way. It is a refusal to accept the conclusion of the inquiry. It is still desperately seeking certainty and tries to contrive something to be certain about.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is no certainty (at least with respect to reality). Is this really the, so to speak, end of the world? I intend to post, down the line, about skepticism as a positive philosophy, as potential for growth.

Choices, Choices...

What now? Do we sit and wallow in the angsty, yet smugly comfortable broodiness of nihilism or do we start throwing ideas out there? Well, we can sit and wallow if we wish, but here's the thing: reality is not denied by skepticism, only knowledge of it is. The conclusion that there is no reality has just as little basis as the conclusion that there is a reality (much less a particular one). Don't let the theologians fool you: skepticism is not denial of anything except certain knowledge. The trick is to accept that we don't have certain knowledge, to take it seriously rather than running away from it. Nothing more and nothing less.

So, after spending some time wallowing in existential angst, we finally realize that non-existence is as poorly substantiated as existence is, and that assuming non-existence of reality is getting us nowhere at a glacial pace. We decide, perhaps out of sheer boredom, perhaps in a desire to explore options, to put ideas out there and see what happens.

There are two ways of putting ideas out there for consideration. Now we are getting to the heart of things (and the purpose of this post)...

(1) One is to affirm as truth (which we'd already established is unsubstantiated).
(2) The other is to posit tentatively and see what we can get from it.

Now, the difference in mentality is critical. One is critique-based, exploration-oriented, and open to correction. The other is based on uncritical recapitulation, mistakes building an elaborate story with exploration, and confuses orthodoxy requirements with error-correction. I'll give you two guesses which is which. ;)

Into the Future

Mostly, throughout human history we have tried the former, affirming truth, and that has resulted almost invariably with orthodoxy-based tyranny. Sadly, orthodoxy requirements are not error-correction. Affirmation is not confirmation. One, and only one, philosophy tried the latter approach, tentative positings. That was skepticism. "We may be wrong, but let's try this idea on for size" (compare that with "we are right, make it fit no matter what!"). Well, after skepticism got put to the sword for a couple of thousand years, by the religious, for having the temerity to question dogmatic orthodoxy (indeed dogma itself) and undercutting false certainty, it reappeared in a methodology that had the assumption of potential error (the recognition of uncertainty/fallibility, AKA: skepticism) and hence error-correction at its core. Science. Let the explorations begin! In a few hundred short years, compared to the thousands before it, we have something other than blood to show for our efforts. It is a popular misconception that "pure skepticism" is "sterile and unproductive." We can build with skepticism. We just do so tentatively. Carefully, ever watchful for error.

And this is not as difficult as it sounds on first blush. We all do this every day. Here's an example:
Compare (1) "It may be raining outside" with (2) "It is raining outside."
If you understand the difference between these two propositions, and the mindset involved with each, then you understand the difference between expressing something provisionally (1) and expressing things as affirmations (2). One is a question, an expression of inquiry. The other is an answer, an end to inquiry.


We take the point to heart. Could we be wrong? Sure we could. Does that mean we *are* wrong. Not necessarily, but we will keep the possibility of error (fallibility) firmly in mind, so that we don't repeat the same tired old mistakes of the dogmatic affirmers in the past. More, we will realize that doubt and denial are not the same thing. We may doubt, say, the existence of God, but that doesn't mean we are denying it, because doubting is not actually talking about God at all. It is talking about our knowledge-states.

Reality is a tentative positing (an axiom, if you like), not a dogmatic truth, and we add more tentative positings based on it, and deduce therefrom. "Holy worldwide communication network, moon landing, and tripled lifespans, Batman! This seems to be working!" ;)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hijacking Humanity

I am a "from-the-cradle" atheist, which is to say I never had religion. Sadly, I have no grand deconversion story, nor can I claim any great deprogramming feat. No profound realizations or life-altering moments. My atheism story is rather simple, blunt and uninteresting - I was a neglected child. My role models were public personalities, from the fiercely human-centered, life-affirming Roger Waters to the calm, compassionate, visionary Carl Sagan. I could have done a lot worse. I was quiet, introverted (perhaps cowed), introspective, and non-combative.


I am now a self-professed anti-theist, which is to say anti-theism (not to be confused with anti-the people who are theists - as one disingenuous twerp I encountered claimed, trying to paint me as attacking the people instead of the dogma).

I remember the last time I was in a church, for my uncle's wedding. I was there for my uncle and his new bride, for celebration of the beginning of their new life together and the love they shared. The priest decided to halt the proceedings to berate the audience about there being a non-believer present. What followed was a disgraceful hijacking of my uncle's ceremony for this parasite's dogmatic agenda. He actually felt he had a right to *use* this celebration for his *purposes.* I held my tongue, for the benefit of family, fuming at the sheer arrogance of this parasite. He saw my uncle's wedding as an opportunity - an opportunity! - to push his garbage and attack this unnamed non-believer. At that moment I realized, with absolute clarity, precisely what religion was and what it did. It annexed us, our lives and our humanity, and used us to push doctrine. I realized they would not stop - ever.

That monster really opened my eyes. I walked in a live-and-let-live atheist; I walked out an anti-theist, because I now knew there could never be peace with these monsters - they simply would not permit it. And it wasn't just this particular monster, it was a function of the dogma, prescribed by the dogma for the aggressive, expansionistic perpetuation and spreading of the dogma. I looked at the content of the religion, what it said, and there it was. There was even a word for it - evangelism, and other religions had it too with marginally different names. It would never be possible to live and let live with these dogmas - they expressly forbade it. I delved into it, studied it, broke it down. Later, I would learn the name of what I now think is the base disease behind it all: prescriptivity.

And there were many variants of these prescriptive dogmas, all absolutely determined to never live and let live, all redefining us in their terms, and all using human lives as their currency.

I vowed never again to hold my tongue while these monsters stole our humanity away from us, redefined it for the benefit of the dogma, chewed it up and spit it out as if it were mere expendable chaff. I was now an anti-theist, because there are really only two choices in the eyes of the theist: anti-theism or theism. You are either a cog in the dogmatic machine or you oppose the machine itself.

So be it. I didn't pick this fight. It was brought to me, precisely because of the nature of the monstrosity that is religion.

We must reclaim our humanity, define it in our terms. We must remove god the middle man, and the parasites that prey upon us - the very ones who instill vague, metaphysical fears in us, who tell us we are intrinsically and inexorably flawed in the face of some unattainable ideal, in order to sell us vague, metaphysical band-aids. We must burn the twisted lexicons of religions and seize our birthright - who we are. All the qualities that we admire, and even the ones we despise, are not "through" god, they are from us. We are not mere conduits. It is well past time to ditch the parasites...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Primordial Soup of Ideas

A Student of Philosophy

Yes, I studied philosophy. Logic, epistemology and analytic ethics, actually. In my studies of philosophy, I learned two things:

(1) A healthy respect for philosophy as inquiry. That it is unbounded makes it no less valuable. Actually, that is what provides it with its power - incredible power, which (unfortunately) can be vigorously wielded dishonestly and disingenuously. Abuse of philosophy to attempt to establish truths runs rampant. Searching for truth is not the same thing as thinking one has it.

(2) A healthy disrespect for individual "philosophies." Philosophies are, to be as trite as humanly possible, a-dime-a-dozen. To think that one is the truth is the most profound of egotisms. Yes, I am referring to any given religion.

Unbounded Inquiry

Here's the "problem." Philosophy is unbounded inquiry - the primordial soup of ideas. This is terrifying to most, because it means that their precious sacred cows will be brought under the scope of inquiry as well, something most find intolerable - mainly because much of the time, those sacred cows don't bear up to even cursory, casual inspection. And, make no mistake, many "scientific skeptics" I have encountered are not immune to this. The open derision for philosophy expressed by many scientific skeptics represents precisely the same dogmatic fear as that laboured under by fanatics of all other stripes. Not my sacred cow! Not MY sacred cow, dammit! Some "skeptics" would even go so far as to suggest, even attempt to require, that we limit the scope of skeptical inquiry! Not bloody likely!

I have likened deriding all of philosophy as fluffy sophistry to deriding all astronomy as fluffy astrology or all medicine as fluffy Chi-manipulation. Because, you know, all astronomers are really astrologers. All doctors are really homeopaths. There is nothing at all else in it. Does anyone hear the error when stated that way? Obviously, I do not think all doctors are homeopaths or that all astronomers are astrologers and, of course, I do not think that all philosophers are fluffy navel-gazers. It doesn't take much to avoid making that error, but it takes more than most, it seems, can muster.

I often say philosophies are tools, not truths. A "philosophy" that thinks it's found truth is the most profound of failures. The grey matter seizes up, shrivels and petrifies. All growth and progress is over. All that's left is to wait for the body to fail.

This is the source of one of the most shall we say "entertaining" ironies I have encountered. Everyone hates philosophy, because it doesn't affirm what they want affirmed. They love the power of critique (most often equating critique with criticism, argument with bickering), but are careful to never apply it to their own sacred cows. Some even go so far as to openly declare some things not to be questioned. And there's where I, personally, must part company with the disingenuous. One can be skeptical of skepticism without falling into contradiction if one is not so ridiculous as to equate doubt with denial. The religious, in particular, are especially amusing, in a cynically hilarious sort of way. While they declare philosophy meaningless and derision-worthy, they actually live for the one truly true truth (philosophy). I have been told that philosophy is "stupid," to which I usually reply, "Then why are you a slave to a philosophy?" I'm not sure if the expression that follows is puzzlement, amusement, exasperation, or hatred. Maybe all of the above.

Unbounded Stupidity

Now, I have been gently chiding some scientific skeptics in this little piece, but for the dogmatic types out there who may think that I am thereby supporting you, please do permit me to disabuse you of that misapprehension. Remember that part about wielding philosophical tools dishonestly and disingenuously? An interwoven web of nonsense is not philosophy if all it does is self-affirm. Internal consistency (at least superficial internal consistency) is easily contrived. That is simply not enough to be honest philosophical work.

Remember that dime-a-dozen snippet? Anyone can create a web-work of self-affirming ideas. That is neither profound, nor particularly difficult. "Perfect concepts" (concepts stipulated so that they "explain" everything, including contradictions) are the same. Ideas not subject to any kind of external verification or refutation proliferate like maggots and are just as insidious. Here are a few "perfect concepts" that often escape unnoticed and are taken as given in the popular culture: god, self-interest and hard determinism (was at least one of these controversial - oh dear!)

A lifetime of learning to you all....

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Word of Thanks

I want to take this opportunity to thank the men and women who had the courage to inquire, to explore in the face of dogmatic orthodoxy requirements intended to enforce stultifying mentalities.

(1) Several years ago, I had surgery to remove a blockage of my urinary tract. What I thought was a minor annoyance turned out, according to the medical specialists, to be a real and immediate threat of catastrophic renal failure - a fatal conclusion. I was in surgery within 24 hours. The anesthesiologist was excellent. I suffered absolutely no pain during or after the surgery - the joys of explorations into consciousness states and chemical effects thereon. The problem was efficiently and effectively dealt with with such minor inconvenience, I barely even thought of the import of what had just happened. It is easy to overlook the measures taken to protect me from infection, and the purposeful, coordinated actions of each professional who took part in the procedure.

(2) Within two more years, I developed pneumonia. It turned out the cause was bacterial. I was prescribed some antibiotics and within two weeks, the pneumonia had cleared. I was back in near perfect health again. The lethal trauma of pneumonia in human history is a matter of record. Imagine - two weeks and a few pills to deal with a condition that only a generation or two ago was a frequent killer. Today, we say "pneumonia" and it has about as much emotional impact on us as saying "sniffles."

(3) In 2007, I suffered a massive staph aureus infection of blood, bladder and prostate. At the same time I was also diagnosed with diabetes - a truly wonderful combination. It took a bit of effort, but the hospital was able to beat the infection, and I now live on a steady, subcutaneous diet of synthesized insulin (Humalog) injections. Thank you, Dr. Banting.

That's three times I owe my life to modern, science-based medicine.

There was a time, and it was not nearly so long ago as many might think, that any of these three problems would have killed me and all that could have been offered to me would have been some kissing of beads, and/or shaking of rattles, mutterings of incantations to aloof and uncaring supernatural forces and beings. People who called themselves "kind" would have tried to make me feel better about, and accept, dying in the name of some ridiculous fluff and nonsense.

Fortunately for me there were people before me who had the courage and insight to try to understand human medical problems and resolved to develop effective means to deal with them. They determined that they were going to slough off the kinds of thinking that condemned us to the whims of fate. Beads and rattles were obviously not working, and feeling good about dying was a ridiculous and inhumane way of thinking, however soothing-appearing the noises made seemed to be. Humanity needed and deserved something better than surrender.

The science that developed the knowledge base and procedures to save my life is a means (a method), but the decision to choose efficacy over helplessness is a philosophical choice.

Why post this at this time? There are those who would advocate moving back to beads and rattles, who advocate resigning to destiny and returning to being helplessly blown along on the winds of fate. These throwbacks to a darker, crueler, dismal time wield such things as prophesy and purely internal realms as weapons to try to convince us to surrender our efficacy. Their hatred of humanity has them gleefully anticipating the wholesale slaughter of all of humanity in the name of a catastrophically horrific ideal. It is a mindset we must always guard against, one that took us a very long time to overcome. It offers us nothing, even if there was any reason whatsoever to accept any of it as true.

Fortunately, we have another tool - a philosophical one - that can help protect us against superstition spreaders, helplessness purveyors, and dogmatic doomsayers. It is skepticism, that simple determination to eschew certainty and Truth, to always reserve acceptance as conditional and subject to change; to always provide that essential room for growth and development. And, above all, the courage to explore.

So, I offer this small post as thanks to all the people who had the courage to move beyond helplessness, to inquire, to advance the subject matter. To those people who had the courage to look the fanatics in the eye and say their way was not good enough. To those who had the insight to cast off the shackles of stagnation and eternal recapitulation and choose methods that empower us. To those who made the decision to look beyond the insides of their own minds to become more capable of forging a better future. To those who cared enough to decide a better tomorrow was more important than dead-end thinking. To those who did not just, metaphorically, lie down and die, as some would have us do.

I owe my life at least thrice over to efficacy-based thinking. To my last breath I will thank those who gave me more breath to thank them with.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Future Conversation

I found a new word in an old dataslip. "Atheist." I'm an atheist.
Oh, no. Not again. *Sigh!* Never heard of it. What does it mean?
It means that I don't believe in God.
What's God?
God is a superpowerful, supernatural being who created the universe.
And God is also the source and paradigm of all morality.
I see. And you don't believe in this God?
That's right.
And you felt some need to express this sentiment precisely why?
A lot of people once believed in God and used that belief as an excuse to kill other people and stifle inquiry.
What? Why would they want to do that?
To make sure everyone believed in God. Or at least to publicly claim they did.
And people went along with this?
"Source and paradigm of all morality," remember? It was seen as morally obligatory.
And not killing people was not morally obligatory?
They said it was, but they didn't act that way.
OK. So ... what was the evidence for believing in this God-thingy?
There was none. God was commonly defined so it could not be evidenced.
Then how did people believe in God then?
They used faith.
What's "faith?"
Faith is believing something when you have no reason to.
That's crazy-talk. You made this up just to torment me, didn't you?
So, you are going to go around claiming not to believe in something there is no reason to believe in?
OK. Well, to each their own, I guess.
But, you see, you are an atheist too.
What? How do you figure that?
Do you believe in God?
Well, no. Of course not. Why would I?
Remember the definition?
But I've never heard of this before.
Doesn't matter. According to the definition, you are an atheist too.
Are you kidding me?
In fact, you have always been an atheist. From the day you were born...
That makes no sense...
...according to the definition.
Wait, so you are claiming me, as a baby, in the name of a stance on a definition I never heard of until today?
Yes. The logic is clear.
What about that rock, or this tree. Are they atheists too?
Well, no.
According to the definition...
Oh, come on. Trees and rocks have no concept of God.
And babies do?
You're just trying to avoid the point.
That might be true, if there was a point to avoid.
Law of excluded middle. You have to choose. Theist or atheist.
You expect me to choose sides over a nonsensical concept?
Sounds like an unnecessary, contrived conflict to me.
Maybe unnecessary. Maybe contrived. But there it is.
Can I just pretend I never heard of this concept before?
I hate you...