Thursday, July 26, 2012

Inquiry's Nemesis

A Stance of Deliberate Obliviousness

Quoth Ed Brayton:
"Yes, I am the owner of Freethought Blogs. And I was the one who made the decision to remove Thunderfoot from the network, for reasons I have already explained many times. I did what I did because my primary concern is the health of the FTB community, which was being seriously disrupted by Thunderfoot's presence. It isn't about disagreement; we disagree with each other all the time, as anyone who reads the various blogs can attest. I am perfectly content in accepting the reality that some people are going to believe his side of the story and some are going to believe mine. But the opinions of others are simply not my concern, so there is little point in writing to me to complain about it."

This is one of the most tragic things I have ever read by a self-professed freethinker. The opinions of others may not matter to you, Brayton, but they matter to me because I am interested in exploring ideas. Even unpopular ones. No one ever advanced a subject matter by bobbleheading. There was a time, not so long ago, when atheists were considered "disruptive." I saddens me to hear atheists using the same "arguments" used only too recently to keep atheists silent and under thumb. It seems some, possibly many, have learned nothing. It's a good thing atheists insisted on being heard despite the arrogance of those who weren't interested in other people's opinions.

The Prescriptive and the Descriptive

If you are going to conduct skeptical or scientific inquiry you must learn to distinguish carefully between descriptions of reality and prescriptive ideologies (desired or otherwise). Between what is and what you want to be. In an environment that lauds facts, it is not always an easy thing to realize, much less admit, that your cherished notions are not objective facts, but intellectual integrity and the efficacy of the method demands that you do so. Values are not facts. Those, like the FTB, who want to constrain inquiry within ideological boundaries are the bane of skeptical and scientific inquiry. So, too, are individuals who seek to use skeptical inquiry as a niche market for their ideologies.

It's easy to see why this happens, though. Modern distortions of the definition of "skepticism" have placed ideological claims beyond the scope of skeptical inquiry, with the very goal of classing them immune to skeptical inquiry. So, when I speak of people who seek to use skeptical inquiry as a niche market for their ideologies, I am speaking of people like Shermer and, yes, Watson.

Right now, skeptic and atheist communities are wracked with ideology-based conflict, and the primary functions, benefits, and methods of skepticism and of atheism respectively, indeed of science, are being forgotten about in the sound and fury. The noise rises and the signal fades. Skepticism seems no longer to be about rational distancing from subject matters based on evidence or lack thereof. Instead it is about petty personality conflicts, pushing ideologies, and cliquish mentalities. Atheism was once about questions of whether God exists or not, and the implications thereof. Now it seems to be all about ideological orthodoxy. Conform or be cast out. Secular shunning. Assigning stigma, for lack of anything factual.

I am a humanist - by choice - but I do not ever claim that humanism is, in any sense, true by virtue of being objective fact. That's because, despite that humanism is a cherished notion for me, I understand with crystal clarity that it is not in any sense fact. Humanism is a values consideration. Humanism is not a consequence of skepticism, even if dogmatism is antithetical to humanism (as I claim it is). I am not quite so presumptuous as to claim that my values represent objective facts. Think this paragraph is irrelevant to the discussion? Perhaps it might serve to revisit ideas like skepticism, atheism, and science. If these ideas have anything in common it is that they are unconcerned with what you or I want to be the case.

If we let skeptical or scientific inquiry be dictated by ideological considerations, then we are precisely equivalent to the Bush administration's attempts to introduce faith-based evidence into science, or to the former Soviet Union's attempts to recognize only state-sanctioned "scientific" theory. These all undermine the process and render the results unreliable. Are we interested in error-correction or not?

Mere Rhetoric

It is altogether too easy to vilify those who can remain on-topic as "disruptive" because they don't conform to the current orthodoxy requirements. It's altogether too easy to call into question the "sanity," to engage in amateur psychology, of someone who have the temerity to dare question your cherished notions. Theists have been characterizing atheists as mentally deficient for millennia. It's all too easy to call people names, and awash in the revelrous umbrage of spewing vitriol, forget all about the subject matter.

Never mind that such rhetorical ploys are fallacies of relevance.

Every day, the credulous and the fanatics accuse skepticism and atheism of being "just another ideology." Every day, skeptics and atheists claim those claims are not true. And every day, skeptics and atheists forget about skepticism and atheism in favour of petty ideological squabbles. You can almost hear the peals of laughter from the theists and the credulous.

When did skepticism become about seeing which "prominent figure" you can topple in order to enhance your status, with strong-arming compliance via boycotts? When did atheism become about who gets to dictate the terms of discussion? When did rhetoric replace argument? Remember argument? The point of an argument is not to win. The point of an argument is to learn, to explore, to tease some signal from the noise.

Getting On-Topic

I have been an open. public skeptic (with unlimited scope of inquiry) and an open, public atheist for over thirty years. For over thirty years I have tried to be an example of careful, deliberate reasoning to those around me. For over thirty years I have waited for an environment where free and open inquiry, free of ideological shackles, might arise from the dogmatic noise of petty personal interests or suffocating doctrine. And look what we are seeing instead. "Skeptic" organizations shun people with differing viewpoints. So-called "freethought" groups seek to impose orthodoxy on the discussion. My primary concern is always with the environment where ideas can be exchanged.

Aren't those locked in the quagmire of ideological bickering ashamed they so lack focus that they are distracted from the primary subject matters so incredibly easily?

I am interested in skepticism. I am interested in atheism. I am interested in science. I am interested in free and open inquiry. What are you interested in?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

An Interview with Yours Truly

A friend from across the globe has elected to do some interviews with atheists for his blog and decided to include yours truly. As an exercise in self-indulgence (and because I state things reasonably clearly here), here is the interview (warts and all) in its entirety as he presents it on his blog:
Cosmic Stories

OK. I did add some paragraph breaks. ;)

Without Further Ado...

Q: What is your name?

Dglas: Gregory Douglas Teed. Hence the name I use online, “Dglas.”

Q: So, you are a philosopher and an atheist? Why don’t you believe in God?

Dglas: I don’t have any reason to believe in God. There is no evidence for such an entity. Indeed it is specifically defined such that evidence simply does not apply. Recognizing the nature of that definition makes one realize that we can define any host of things that way. If we believed things based on such definitions, there’d be a whole lot of things we’d be believing – like that malicious gremlins (who can only be appeased by sacrificing bowlfuls of Lucky Charms) cause car engine knocks. For me to believe something, there has to be a reason to believe it.

And then, my “belief” is contingent and subject to change if the evidence warrants a change. My beliefs do not exist outside of reality. My beliefs are about reality and are thus governed by reality.

Q. Some people would say that you don’t want to see the evidence of God.

Dglas: Yes, some do say that.

What I do or do not want is irrelevant. More importantly, however, is that I am no sole arbiter of what is or is not the case. I have bad eyesight, but I do not imagine that looking over the rims of my glasses actually changes reality just because it looks different to me. My perceptions are flawed, just like anyone else’s. We need a better standard of evaluation that just “seeing the signs.” We need something that tempers human fallibility, including my own – or that at least tries. Mere confirmation bias is not a good basis for understanding reality.

Q. I have heard to William Craig, the famous christian preacher. Why is there anything instead of nothing?

Dglas: Many questions expect certain kinds of answers – they are leading questions. “Why are we here?” often expects a certain kind of answer – usually a purpose-oriented one. If you can accept an evolutionary explanation for why we are here, then that answer will be satisfactory. If not, then that answer will not seem satisfactory. Craig’s question is such a leading question, although it requires much more work than our scope here permits. Why would anyone ever assume that there can be nothing to contrast with something?

Q. You don’t believe that there is any evidence of God. But God has always been associated with ethics and morality. Where do the Atheists get their morality from?

Dglas: Unicorns have always been associated with virginity and purity too.

Technically atheism is only about the existence or non-existence of god(s). Questions of ethics are separate and apart from that, but at least atheism opens the door for a model of ethics that isn’t just a tyrant holding us down. To answer the question though, most atheists I have encountered get their morality from their society and the people around them. Many understand morality to be a negotiated social construct rather than a top-down assignment of forbiddings. Personally, I think this is a better model for morality than what gods offer us, since it involves some negotiation and agreement. I think that one important thing to realize about the state of modern atheism right now is that it is in transition, developing it’s own path.

Q. But, weren’t Hitler and Stalin atheists?

Dglas: Hitler professed to be a Christian, and often used appeals to Christianity to push his totalitairianism. Personally, I find the “What was Hitler?” disputes (I won’t even dignify them by calling them debates) childish. In my view he was a ruthless opportunist using anything he could get his paws on to promote his own personal power. The masses could be swayed with Christian noises, so he made Christian noises. As for Stalin, the matter is more complicated, by very similar. Stalin sought to replace Christianity with a state loyalty – effectively another religion. What his motives are are a matter of opinion, but I would say this: atheism itself is less than accommodating of religions – including state-based religions. Again, of course, questions of existence of god(s) and questions of ethics are separate subject matters.

What is more interesting is how these noises could be used to sway the masses. Being a believer seems to make one susceptible to suggestion…

Q. You are a philosopher. How does it helps you to resolve the everyday problems of life?

Dglas: Technically, I am not a philosopher. I am philosophically-minded. However, that said, philosophy, as inquiry, allows one a broader perspective that allows for more possibilities in one’s thinking. I suspect I adapt to new information better than your average believer, because I’m not busy seeking to deny new information on the basis of this or that unsubstantiated faith. Faith does not interfere with my acuity or ability to learn. I can approach problems from a wide variety of different angles, rather than just trying to brute-force my way with the established doctrines.

Q. So, Greg, are you married?

Dglas: No.

Q. I have heard that many atheists do not believe in marriage. Are you one of them?

Dglas: Here’s my take. Marriage is merely a symbolic ritual. What matters is the relationship between the people involved. If that’s not enough to sustain you, then you are living a lie. Unfortunately, the symbolic rituals usually involve introducing doctrinal nonsense into the relationship – poisoning the relationship. My story of becoming an anti-theist has to do with just such a poisoning. The religious may not claim my personal life – it is not theirs for the redefining into their hobbled little framework. That said, I really have no issue whatsoever with marriage. My reasons for not getting married are really my own and involve a lot of factors that others may not be familiar with.

I cannot speak for others on this.

Q. So you believe in only those thinsg that can be proved. What about Love?

Dglas: I am not entirely convinced love is anything but a homeostatic imbalance.

More seriously, love seems to be a social construct as well, subject to negotiated public and private understandings. There are physiological and bio-chemical underpinnings to love, it seems, but the general understanding of these seems subject to interpretation.

Q. Many people think that atheists are cold and distant, that they do not understand things like poetry and beatuty. What is your take on that?
Dglas: I think that’s nonsense. Why has understanding of art been associated with supernatural conceptions. I am a fan of music, despite that the dance of notes can be depicted mathematically. I think this misconception has to do with the idea that without mystery there is no wonder, but in my experience, and seemingly the experience of many atheists, wonder is a vital part of our existence. Our most popular speakers, past and present, like Dr. Sagan for example, speak of the joy of exploration, discovery, and inquiry. For my own part I am proud of humanity when it pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding. Every new discovery, every new advancement exhilarates me. There is a reason why we are typically systematic in our understandings – it helps us grow. Of course, many atheists are also humanists, which is not exactly a cold and analytical perspective. One of my reasons for being an anti-theist is that “I prefer Hobbits happy and free, to Hobbits in chains.” For many of us, it seems, the future is a wonderland of possibilities, open and limitless. Compared to that, the “end of times” visions of the religious seem desperately poor in their poverty.

Q. If there is no god then who created the universe?

Dglas: What makes you think there is a someone who created the universe? For that matter what makes you think the universe ever did not exist, much less was “created?” That is a leading question that expects a certain kind of answer and I think I covered that already.  One does not answer leading questions. One points at their leading nature and laughs at them for trying to control the discourse.

Q. Still there are billions of religious people in the world. Do you take these people as partners or enemies in your endeavor to make a greater change in the world.

Dglas: We are all engaged in a grand enterprise, a planet-wide negotiation of who and what we are and of who and what we might be. We need variety of perspective in order to have a wide diversity of ideas and material to work with. Some, I think, approach the negotiating table dishonestly with no interest in compromise or possibilities. I do not see the people as “enemies.” I see dogma as an affliction that hobbles could-be allies in that grand exploration. I see orthodoxy requirements as a means of halting discussion, of silencing critical inquiry, of limiting possibilities. I see them as potential allies who could be friends if only they didn’t have this intellectual/emotional disease, this dogma, telling them to hate me and to hate humanity. Dogma, including religious dogma, is antithetical to change. It is a cage of the mind. Our understandings of self are a negotiated social construct as well. I add my voice to the negotiation advocating that we be more than just a caged animal.

Q. Thank you Greg for your support and honest answers. I wish you luck in your life.

Dglas: Thank you. I hope I have been helpful in some way.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pawns & Perspectives

Adventure Awaits!

Let's shift gears, just for a moment. I said in my blog description that I would sometimes talk about gaming...

Games have always fascinated me from a logical systems point of view, even before I started studying that analytic wonderland called logic. I just didn't always know what to call that fascination. Now, most of the early popular games of the first half of the century were pretty simple matters. Most, like Monopoly, didn't offer much in the line of decision making, much less in terms of those decisions being influencers on the outcome of the game - chess, of course, was the notable exception.

In the second half of the last century we saw a movement away from religion in western society and, in a new generation, a move towards viewpoints critical of religion in particular. I put it to you that gaming has been a significant part of that movement. A generation, perhaps two, was raised on a particular kind of game, indeed a particular game, the likes of which we had never seen before.

I am, of course, speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, and the multitude of games that spawned from it. Dungeons & Dragons was a radically different kind of game in a number of respects, and in some of these respects, it absolutely terrified religious influences in our society - and rightfully so, but not for the reasons the religious presented. They dared not speak of the real reasons...

The first hardcover edition of D&D, AD&D was published in a three part core ruleset, with the "Monster Manual" being the first book published. In it a demon lord of the undead, Orcus, was described as "great." In this context the meaning of the word was clear: great as in powerful. The fanatics, of course, latched onto what they perceived was a positive connotation in the word "great" and squealed that AD&D was worshiping, and promoting worship, of figures such as Orcus. As if Orcus was real. Pfft!

Anything different or new is dangerous to the religious mindset, precisely because it isn't an eternal recapitulation to dogmatic orthodoxy. And, of course, anything that can be exploited as a polarizing factor will be latched onto by religious figures in a desperate clutching at remaining topical. There is much more to D&D that makes it dangerous to the religious mindset.

Role-Playing Games

For anyone not familiar with role-playing games, imagine that you and some friends are around a table. There is a stack of a few hundred blank pages before you. In order to put something, a story, on those pages you are each assigned a role. One is the story's narrator. Others become protagonists within the story. Together, in a cooperative setting, you build a story that slowly fills the pages of the novel, develops the protagonists and antagonists, and writes the scenes. The story can have any of the traditional elements, from heroism to betrayal to just about anything you can imagine. Some of the games have swords and sorcery settings, others are space operas, and others post-apocalyptic high-radiation zones. Still others are cyberpunk corporate wastelands.

Even this example has you playing, in your mind, the role of a story developer using a particular method.

Above all, role-playing is, even among the less cooperative players, a cooperative enterprise. This has implications. After all, religion is not about cooperation; it is about submission.

Interactive Media

To the best of my knowledge, Dungeons & Dragons was one of, if not the first, game to be presented as an interactive medium. Unlike the one way media of television, radio or even of other games with their established regiment of inflexible rules, D&D did something radically different. It assigned roles to the players, not just to the players playing the roles of characters in the fictional game world, but also to the players around the table as participants in the game (character as opposed to gamers). A game or campaign in D&D was a social-interactive, cooperative enterprise in which all persons worked together to build a story. The players' decisions influenced the outcomes of the story - even the progression of it.

This is a far cry from the top down, strictly restrained world of Monopoly. In D&D the gamemaster presents a story, a challenge, and the players seek to resolve that challenge often in ways unforeseen by the gamemaster. This meant that the gamemaster had to adapt his/her work to accommodate new elements as brought up by the players. The story became interactive with players and the game's master participating in its development and resolution. The players stopped being pieces moving around a board according to the dictates of dice in carefully and resolutely locked manners and became vibrant pockets of influence in the game world.

This form of participation gave the game an incredible appeal. Why? Because it was a kind of metaphor for participatory cooperation - a kind of metaphor for democracy actually.

Now when you look at religions, and especially of religion-inspired templates for morality, their vision is invariably top-down, authoritarian, with humans being like pieces in a Monopoly game. Roll the dice and go where they send you. Lucky you if you got to pass Go and collect $200.

And then there was...


In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing was considered a horrible thing, and justly so - if your perspective was that of the fanatic. Later, of course, role-playing would become legitimized methodologies in professional areas ranging from marketing to business management to meta-ethics to psychology to evolutionary biology, and much, much more...

In Dungeons & Dragons, players assumed the role of personalities not their own. Think about what that means for a moment. People are seeing events from the perspective of someone else, even if just a fictional someone else. This was so troublesome to the fanatic that they created stories of "sublimation" into character as scare tactics. The classic example of this was the absurd Tom Hanks film, "Mazes & Monsters." In this film a disturbed young man seeks refuge from his own tormented identity in the character of a fictional character in a role-playing universe. The result is someone getting stabbed. The moral of the story? Role-playing can cause you to lose track of who you are and make you become someone else instead - possibly, indeed probably, someone dangerous.

Assuming a personality and perspective not your own and seeking to role-play it honestly involves some mental gymnastics the sort of which the fanatic, obsessed with the petty smallness of their own delusion cannot tolerate. It involves putting yourself in someone else's shoes, in spinning stories (recharacterizing events) to meet that perspective. Among the religious leaders, already engaged in endless spin, the ability of the populace to do the same, even just to recognizing it happening, is deadly to their enterprise - the enterprise of keeping the wool pulled over your eyes. Imagine if that were to happen. Pedophile-sympathizers within the church might not be able to pass off crimes as attempts to forgive the pedophile. The church might actually start being held responsible, and people might start seeing through the absurd spin.

Role-playing gives people the opportunity and ability to look beyond their own immediate interests and perspectives. It is a similar effect to having, say, a worldwide communications network that allows you to meet people and hear ideas different from one's own. This is a kind of practical empathy - the likes of which is antithetical to the religious engine of conflict mentality in which people with other beliefs are alien, strange, dangerous - enemies.

For the record, as a 30+ year long role-playing gamer, I have never seen anyone get sublimated into character. Quite the opposite, in fact, Despite our geekiness we seem more aware of the line between fantasy and reality than most. And that has to be the most terrifying thing of all for fanatics who want us to believe in gods, devils, unicorns, miracles and a host of other nonsense that directly conflicts with reality. The Phelpses and Campings of the world must really hate us...

The worst emotional influence I've seen is some depression over the lost of a loved character. Sorry, Darren.

Ethics as Story Conflict

Gary Gygax was a writer. An interesting question to ask is from what perspective a writer will approach game design. Dungeons & Dragons evolved out of war games, like Avalon Hill games, involving units on a battlefield. The units on the Avalon Hill style battlefield became heroes. The great leap for D&D was in having players adopt the role of these heroes and a fantasy world simulation was woven around that. D&D was, and is in large part, a conflict-based game. In writing stories conflict is always an integral part. One would expect a writer, trained in this to bring that perspective to a game that he was co-designing (along with Dave Arneson).

Now, in seeking to create a simulation of a swords & sorcery society, one would only expect that a simulation of ethics in some form or another would be included. In D&D that simulation took the form of the nine alignments. In the ethics of the D&D universe, the ethical alignments are depicted by two axes. One axis runs the gamut from good to neutral to evil. The second axis runs the gamut from lawful to neutral to chaotic. There are nine permutations: Lawful good, lawful neutral, lawful evil, neutral good, true neutral (neutral neutral), neutral evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and finally chaotic evil.

What is astonishing about the "nine-alignment" depiction of ethics is not its failure, but its success - as a story-telling conceit -success that would lead to intense critique. Entertainingly, much of the discussion is about what each alignment means, but that is not to my point here. What is to my point is that the alignments were structured as conflict-driving devices. More interestingly still, the nine-alignments were surprisingly representative of the morality of religions, complete with adherence and orthodoxy requirements. The nine alignments were dogmatic. Even being true neutral did not mean being unaligned. It meant striving to maintain a balance between the extremes. There is no third axis representing live and let live vs convert or die. Everything was convert or die.

Sound familiar?

If you are able to posit the idea of other perspectives possibly being legitimate in some way or another, and if  you depict ethics as a conflict engine, then it is a short step to realizing that the paladin is not the noble knight in shining, holy armour as depicted, but is instead a killer for a cause. Does that sound familiar? One would expect it to. It is the story of every soldier who kills for nationalism. Of every person brutalized in the name of vital interests. Of every child slain because their, or someone else's, religion depicted them as something less than human...

Expanding the Ruleset

In this age of computer gaming, player choices influencing outcomes is a primary consideration in game design, whether the game is PvP or PvE (Player versus Player or Player versus Environment) oriented. What is at work is a philosophy of game design that incorporates the player's input in the unfolding of the events of the game (either real or illusory). Some games do it better than others, and one of the issues in game design is the limits on the impacts on the outcomes players can have, even in an ideal world of unlimited processing power and unlimited storage capacity.

We have similar issues when confronting ideas such as freedom and responsibility in a social setting. One of the meta-game issues among some games was the tendency on the part of rules to favour the players or to favour the environment. The difference between "say yes to the players unless you absolutely can't" versus a "say no to the players unless they are exceptional rules-lawyers" mentalities. Religions, I have found, are a mentality of "No! You must not! If you do you will be punished!" And under no circumstances ever consider that maybe the rules might be subject to revision through negotiation - that the mere subjects might have input into the ruleset.

Equally interesting to me, however, is the idea of games like Dungeons & Dragons qua simulation. In a strong sense these logical structures are very much like the norms, values, rules, and structures of a society. Do we wish to depict ethics as two axes of mutually exclusive dogmatically held ethos - all of which are "legitimate justification" for often lethal conflict, about limiting and restricting? Or will we have the courage to add another axis, perhaps more? Perhaps do away with the axes altogether...?

Tell me, are you excited by the possible directions our examinations into ethics might take us, or are you constrained by fear and think morality exists to keep intrinsic monsters under control...?

When we engage in social theory, indeed in meta-ethics deliberations, are we interested in expanding the ruleset, or restricting it? I, for one, am interesting in expanding the ruleset. I prefer Hobbits happy and free to Hobbits in chains.

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, I don't think even you knew what you did for us. From me, as one growing up in a generation with D&D, thank you for providing all that fun, and more, expanding my perspective. I took an interest in logic and analytic ethics, in part, because of you.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Positive, Practical Skepticism

Out With the Bad Air - In With the Good Air

I am a philosophical skeptic, which is not common today, I understand, but you have to start somewhere. Sometimes that involves taking a look at the arguments once used to dismiss something and re-evaluating them in light of new information or in light of the context of the time when bad arguments might have seemed convincing. There was a time when appeals to "intuitive obviousness" and "immediately evident" were common among philosophers. Mostly, these are now seen as errors. Mostly...

For example, the theists desperately want to define atheism as another dogmatic belief with no better founding than any other (especially their) ideological or epistemological stance. This so that subtle and not so subtle errors and difficulties can be imposed upon the thinking of atheists. Atheists today, however, are redefining themselves in terms of "lack of belief" rather than " belief in lack" (much less "knowledge of lack"). The old arguments based on theistic definitions of atheism do not hold up so well in the face of "lack of belief." The epistemological quagmire has been avoided, much to the consternation of the theist. Much energy is spent by theists attempting to impose old definitional traps and irrelevant errors onto atheists. Perhaps this is because they realize we have solved the errors and to recognize that will decimate the unsupported nonsense that props up their baseless theism...

Similarly, dogmatists (those who imagine they have certainty and the really true truth) seek to define doubt as denial, and if defined that way, serious problems arise for skepticism. If, however, you understand that doubt is not denial, then those issues and seeming contradictions vanish like the illusory chimera they always were. With doubt not being denial, one can be skeptical of skepticism and it is not a contradiction. Instead we end up with an infinite series of meta-levels of uncertainty - which is skepticism. This is not some terrible infinite regression. Don't flee in abject terror yet. Instead it is a constant state of uncertainty - of permanent inquiry. This is not as terrifying as it seems. True, we don't get to claim we "know" with "certainty,"  We do, however, get to keep learning...

What's profoundly interesting about this is that it is arrived at critically, rather than by some baseless affirmation. Skepticism is the only philosophy to do this.

Positive Skepticism

People often see skepticism as a negative thing, a negation, but it isn't.

Skepticism is a careful nurturing of doubt, of that tiny but vital, necessary room and capacity for growth, change, learning, and inquiry. Without it, we stagnate, wither, and our grey matter hardens. Without it we mentally and emotionally stop. Without it we stultify, are frozen in place, intellectually dead, left merely waiting for our organs to fail.

Skepticism is positive in ways mere affirmation cannot even begin to fathom or approach.

Here's what I see as the big issue with a dogmatist's (like theists) understandings of skepticism. A claim is made (or affirmed), and that affirmation, that "Yes!," becomes the baseline for evaluating anything else said on the subject. It's a little like your opponent seizing sente in a game of chess, of making you react to them rather than playing your own game. The result is that they end up controlling the game and you are left helplessly following the events as they play out. The skeptic's game is the game of unending inquiry, of learning and exploration. I see no reason to play the dogmatist's game.

The result is that one can deny a dogmatic claim, and that would be a denial. X, not-X - you get the idea. But to doubt the claim is not necessarily a denial in that it refers not so much to the claim as it does to the knowledge-state of the person considering it. The claimant wants it to be about the claim. Whereas, with knowledge claims, we are actually talking about the knowledge-state of the "knower." And here's the interesting thing about knowledge states: one can know X, one can know the negation of X, or one can not-know either. This translates directly over to the error that atheism is the denial of God:

The logical contradictions of (belief in God) is not (belief in not-God).
The logical contradiction of (belief in God) is not-(belief in God).
See how in one we are talking about God, and in the other we are talking about belief-state?

Traditionally, critiques of atheism have been based on the assumption that atheists are making a knowledge claim about the existence of God. And atheists have reacted, helplessly following the events on the chessboard, as if this were true. Hence we have the rise of agnosticism as an "intermediate" state between theism and atheism, but it isn't a single straight line: "theism-agnosticism-atheism." We are talking about different subject matters: God vs knowledge. This, with atheism being defined as "lack of belief" is changing now.

Doubt is Not Denial

I think something similar has happened with skepticism. Sextus Empiricus (yes, that was really his name), in "Outlines of Pyrrhonism," lists the skeptical tropes, many of which are a little dated by today's standards. But most, if not all, refer not to reality, but to the reliability of our apprehension of reality. Skepticism does not deny reality (indeed skepticism is a realist philosophy, assuming there is a reality we can be mistaken about), but rather illustrates, and with seemingly good reason, our fallibility. So skepticism is not denial of reality, it is doubt of our infallibility. Doubt is not denial. If someone wants to form the proposition "We are infallible!" and assert it as an affirmation - and then claim we are "denying" that, then I will be only to happy to guffaw at them for being so presumptuous as to use a mere trick of language to present our rational caution as some sort of negation. That same presumption is shown everyday in the theists who disingenuously claims that atheism is necessarily a denial of their affirmation.

Warning - Hard-Hat Zone: There seems to be a problem where people equate propositions about a thing with the thing itself. This, I think, bears further exploration. Is it possible to doubt or deny a proposition without doubting or denying the content of the proposition? Hard question. There do seem to be implications of seizing sente by crafting an affirmation, and there seems to be an assumption that this is somehow a legitimate exercise. Perhaps we will find, eventually, that truth and falsity are purely analytic ideas, tricks of the language, and do not map onto reality like we think they do. Maybe truth-values in logic have a hidden, perhaps normative, content...

The Rhetoric of Rhetoric

We live in a marketplace of ideas in which expressions of confidence, the more confident the better, are seen as positive, regardless of whether or not there are actually reasons for having such confidence. Screaming fanatics are given credit for "the strength of their convictions." We have ridiculous soundbites like "stick to your guns" and "don't ever let them change you." This is not only absurd, but counterproductive to advancing any subject matter. When ranting opponents are counted as authorities, how do we approach the delicate, speculative task of critical inquiry. "Yes" or "No" is simply not good enough. We need to address the whys of it, and we need to adapt a mentality that thinks in terms of more than just "Yes!" or "No!"

The point of an argument is not to win. The point of an argument is to learn, to explore, to tease some signal from the noise.

Imagine, if you will, a dog chained to its stake. It has been the victim of consistent abuse and now reacts to anything new reflexively, fearfully, snarling, growling, snapping at anything and everything that comes along. New ideas seem strange, threatening, frightening, evoking a visceral reaction rather than a considered, contemplative one. So, when you have a new idea before you, how will you react? Will you be that dog?

Mere rhetoric is a snarling, snapping dog, jealously guarding its turf against perceived threats, real or imagined.

Practical Skepticism

Is it not infinitely practical to be able to adapt one's view and understanding? Is it not a practical measure to rigorously maintain that capacity - to avoid harening of the grey matter? Isn't that capacity a practical necessity of learning, growth, flexibility and change? People say, "What is the benefit of doubt?" Well what is the benefit of learning that building a bridge that other way didn't work, so let's try it a new way, incoporating new ideas instead of sticking faithfully to past biases and expecting better results the next time? What is the benefit of experimenting with new explanations when the old explanations fail to provide us with predictive power? God may be a comforting delusion for some, but as an explanatory device, it lacks any practical application. Is there a practical benefit in seeing illness as caused by microbes rather than demons? It would seem there is, but without skepticism, that moment of doubt, we'd still be shaking rattles and kissing beads, praying that the demons would stop possessing the sick.

There seems to be all-pervading, and seemingly, unshakable opinion out there that if you don't affirm something with absolute conviction, you can't work with or build on it, hence the strange conclusion that skepticism is sterile and unproductive and leads to a state of stasis. But that's simply not true. I think that is an expression of belief/delusion bias. Have you never entertained an idea and built on it, seeing where it leads? When doing this, did you necessarily have to deny the capacity to throw out the original idea if it didn't lead anywhere or if you found another that led farther faster?

Skepticism is painted, quite erroneously, as a negative, impractical, sophistical process, but the opposite is actually the case. Skepticism is the capacity to learn, to grow, to explore, to inquire. It this respect it is positive, forward looking, and conducive to adaptation, versatility, and change. And adaptivity is infinitely practical. What could possibly be more practical than being able to adapt to reality?

It is affirmations, assumptions of truth and certainty, that are negative, that are impractical, despite the trick of language involved (the sente of positive connotation). It is affirmations that hold us back, stop us in our tracks, end our investigations, and impose stagnation upon us. Do not define yourself in terms of what you think you "know." Define yourself as an inquirer, an explorer, a delver. Eschew certainty. Keep the grey matter loose and flexible. Be a lifetime learner...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The End of Reason (Reprise)

Secular Shunning (Excommunication)

Thunderf00t Speaks

Thnunderf00t Discusses his Dismissal from FreeThoughtBlogs

Normally, I'm not a big fan of Thunderf00t. I found some comparisons he made in his famous "Why People Laugh at Creationists" series to be unfortunate and not conducive to popularizing science. Insulting the people you are trying to popularize science among doesn't strike me as profoundly clever.

However, there does seem to be an environment of secular shunning at work in the freethought community and more than a bit of it seems to revolve around a certain social climber using unevidenced claims and character assassination as her MO.

Now, don't straw man me. I'm not evaluating Thunderf00t's arguments on the topic this revolves around one way or the other. But I will say that an exchange of ideas requires an environment where an exchange of ideas is possible. Some folks, those whose minds and reason have been overwhelmed by ideology and dogma, won't like that environment - go figure.

It seems freethought, whatever it meant to you before, now means be orthodox or be shunned and banned. Conform or be cast out. I worry for the future of freethought. Soon, we will need a freethought free of freethought orthodoxy requirements in order to be able to talk about anything.

Of course, I wouldn't know anything about secular shunning. It's not like I was banned, on a false accusation, from the JREF forums for having the sheer temerity to be an outspoken atheist and to dare challenge something The Lord God Randi said.

Oh, wait. I was. Imagine that...

P.Z. Myers Speaks

So, here is the video presented by P.Z. Myers speaking of "dismissing" Thunderf00t:

P.Z. Myers Discusses Thunderf00t's Dismissal from FreeThoughtBlogs

I've heard claims on both sides and one important point seems to be missing here. In order to have open and free inquiry there must be an environment where open and free inquiry is not only possible, but encouraged - even if one finds some of the views presented personally distasteful. I see little room for advancement of any subject matter where dissenting views are simply not permitted. What P.Z. Myers depicts as freethought is not freethought. It is orthodoxy requirements. It is ideology. It is dogma.

I thought we were supposed to be beyond that. I thought we were supposed to be advocating for better than that. I thought we were supposed to rely on solid and sound argumentation and evidence, not popularity contests and ideological conformity.

My estimation of PZ Myers is rapidly fading. His apparent disdain for those of us with the inclusive, and epistemologically sound, "lack of belief" understanding of atheism, and now his orthodoxy requirement mentality for the "FreethoughtBlogs" indicates to me that this man has a dogmatic mentality, rather than a versatile, flexible, inquiring one. Now, Thunderf00t may or may not be much better, (I'm not defending Thunderf00t here; I am defending something bigger), but at least he seems to recognize that a debate necessitates that opposing positions at least be permitted to be represented. Something PZ Myers seems to have lost all concept of - if he ever had it. Apparently, "reason" does not involve open and free inquiry in the mind of P.Z. Myers. Now, the Enlightenment was a little bit about exploration and inquiry, was it not?

Now, whoever owns "FreethoughtBlogs" can determine what is and what is not permitted on their site, but that does not mean that these determinations need to afforded credibility. This behaviour, and the rationales for it sound terribly and recklessly familiar, are a terrible blow to Freethough Blogs' credibility. Thanks, PZ Myers, but I can get banned from any fundamentalist site in a heartbeat. You are not representing anything new, innovative, or profound by adopting their tactics and justifications in the name of this ideology rather than that ideology. All you are doing is showing that you have been polarized beyond "reason" by a mere ideology.

Running in Cycles

Historically, skeptical perspectives, are often trotted out to undermine the previous in favour of the new, and then conveniently shucked aside when the new becomes the current. I hold that we need to step sideways, out of the cycle, so that we "don't get fooled again," because orthodoxy requirements are orthodoxy requirements, whomever the "boss" is this time. And orthodoxy requirements always stifle freethought. I recommend we stop using skeptical tools as a matter of mere convenience and actually embrace skepticism.

We need to stop permitting people to dictate the course of discussion on the basis of personal offence and appeals to pity. Surely atheists have heard enough of those nonsensical rhetorical tactics already, and constantly dismiss these rhetorical ploys for the errors they are. By what standard do we say that theists are mistaken to use these "methods," but that "freethinkers" are now entitled to use the very same garbage?

I'll tell you something I have noticed - precious few people are talking about skepticism in the skeptical movement anymore. Everyone seems too wrapped up in this or that ideological showdown. If this weren't so tragically absurd, it would be laughable.

The Ideological Assault

The atheist, and even more disturbing, skeptical movements are now under attack by ideological demagogues seeking the usurp the primary content with their ideological orthodoxies. While atheism does not require non-dogmatism, one would think that even dogmatic atheists would have some sympathy for an environment of dissenting opinion - like one that permits atheists to rise from suppressed obscurity to being able, at least to some degree, to present their case.

For skepticism - remember: the method of doubt the primary function of which is to defend against dogma - to be subverted by dogmatic ideology is entirely unforgivable. This arises, I suspect, from warped and distorted definitions in the skeptical movement presented by those who desire to limit the scope of skeptical inquiry, accommodate apologists, and present ideologies unchallenged by skeptical inquiry. I covered this more thoroughly in "Fluffistry Unchallenged."

We are being fooled again.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fluffistry Unchallenged

So, I say in my introduction blurb, "I am a skeptic, a real one - both scientific and philosophical with unlimited scope of inquiry." What does that mean? Let's start with the not quite hidden evil twin of agnostic atheism:

The Evil Twin

Nowadays, and I push for this as well, atheists are in the process of defining themselves. The rising star is atheism as a "lack of belief" rather than a "belief in lack." This avoids certain epistemological issues and heals the rift between agnosticism and atheism. Oh, buy, does that ever piss the theists off. They no longer get to control the discourse. I often sense their panic setting in. Thta said...

It is possible for someone to be a dogmatic atheist - not relying on skeptical reasoning for their belief and/or claiming that their atheism is a knowledge claim. At that point skeptical doubt is not being universally or rigorously applied.

Beware the new age definition of skepticism. That definition limits the scope of inquiry and decimates the primary function of skepticism - protection from dogma.

Scientific "Skepticism"

Modern "scientific skepticism" defines things entirely in terms of empirical evidence (this admittedly aligns itself with science), effectively claiming that non-empirical matters are beyond the scope of skeptical inquiry. Hence a whole non-empirical realm of "woo" is deemed off-limits to skeptical inquiry. This is the underlying effect of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria). Thus you see skeptical organizations attacking "woo" that has empirical references, but holding "woo" without empirical reference immune to skeptical inquiry. This, of course, is loved by the apologists and accommodationists who wish to selectively decide what does and what does not get called into question. The primary example of course, is that the greatest, most dangerous and pervasive "woo" of them all is left unchallenged by scientific skepticism - God. And that, ultimately, is why the Pope has never received a Pigasus.

So, how did we get to this miserable state. Well, this may come as a shock to some, but religion was not always tempered by considerations like reason and honesty. Basically think of religion as being temporarily papertrained. Stop watching it, and will start pissing all over everything again (current American/Canadian politics display this only too vividly). In order for a fledgling movement to avoid getting squished like a bug under religion's heel, certain compromises were made. NOMA was developed and made part of the agenda. Now, "skeptical" organizations are effectively under the heel of apologists and accommodationists. The justification now is theists "being welcome," but whatever the justification, the result is the same - a hobbled scope of skeptical inquiry.

The JREF's Shame

That is one of the reasons I have such a profound disrespect for the JREF. The last MDC (Million Dollar Challenge) I saw was an hour or more long live videofeed of Jeff Wagg's crotch as some poor, deluded backwater woman tried to prove she could make him urinate with the power of her brain. I kid you not. Meanwhile, God remains unchallenged and the Pope still does not have a Pigasus.

The other reason has to do with free and open inquiry, but that's a story for another time.

Worse, with the new age definition of skepticism, ideologies are also outside the scope of "skeptical" inquiry. Hence we get people like Shermer and Watson seeking to annex skepticism as a niche market for their personal ideologies and demagoguery (and sometimes mere cliquish popularity contests). Ideologies are non-empirical, as are values. Hence we see Shermer's clam that "pure skepticism" is sterile and unproductive. This is, of course, utter nonsense - we can work from posited starting points just as easily as we can from dogmatically believed ones. Uncertainty does not necessarily equate to indecision or helplessness.

Shunning Your Allies in Favour of Your Enemies

What this hobbled definition really amounts to is a disdaining of anyone who has the temerity to think in any but empirical terms. Which is all well and good, until again, you encounter an ideology, or a claim that is presented in such a fashion that it does not admit of empirical verification/refutation (such as God). Whether ideologies are empirical or not, they do have real influence and real empirical effects. I hold that we cannot afford to leave the other magisteria unchallenged, to the dogmatic nutjobs.

And that is when you need pure or philosophical skepticism, because it also provides a defence against these "other magisteria" claims. That "other magisteria" is within the scope of philosophical inquiry.

The purpose of skepticism is not (merely) to indicate when a claim is false, but to indicate when a claim is not necessarily true. If we limit the scope of doubt to a very specific realm, then skepticism loses its ability to provide us with a doubt methodology for non-empirical matters (more properly said, we ignore that tool) - to provide us with a defense against mystical/metaphysical/non-empirical fluffistry. The ideologues and dogmatists are left a whole realm where they are left unchallenged. And, you see, this is where I, as a philosophical skeptic, differ from the mere scientific skeptics. I recognize no artificial limits on the scope of skeptical inquiry. I can meet the dogmatists, the mystics, the ideologues, and the demagogues on their own turf and soundly thrash them there, rather than just pretending they can be ignored - because they can't. They have influence, like it of not, and I think the evidence bears that out.

So, I am a scientific skeptic, but I am also a philosophical skeptic, with an unlimited scope of skeptical inquiry. The apologists and accommodationist influences who seek to hobble and contain inquiry within their very specific parameters can go to hell, straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Dishonest Skepticism

Fortunately, many people extend their skepticism beyond the scope of scientific skepticism and that stopped Shermer in his tracks not that long ago (and has also resulted in a strong correlation between skeptics and atheists) when he tried to equate skepticism with his radical political and economic ideology (libertarianism), Whether it will be enough to halt Watson before she turns the whole enterprise into a polarized shouting match and skepticism is lost in the demagoguery is an open question. Getting polarized is easy - remaining unpolarized, not so much.

Unfortunately, many people extend their skepticism selectively so that their private gris-gris remains "beyond the scope." The principle of eschewing certainty gets shuffled off to a limited scope, defined, in part, by individual whim (which really equates to intuitionism). And that is the purpose behind Shermer's definition of skepticism. Hence we get silly claims like "no one can be skeptical of everything." Of course anyone can. Doubt is not denial. All it requires is the recognition of the possibility of error regardless of the subject matter, the eschewing of certainty with respect to all subject matters, including one's own cherished beliefs and preferences. I, for example, am a humanist by choice, but I do claim that humanism is The Truth!(TM).

Skepticism can be harsh, it'll tell you things you don't really want to hear, but it is absolutely loyal and will never tell you lies.

No True Skeptical Scotsman

Now, the intelligent design (cdesignproponentist) people tried to redefine science such that faith-based evidence was considered scientific. Most people with any grasp of science will realize that this utterly subverts science as a methodology of error-correction based on empirical evidence. After all, if adopted, the ID mentality will now base error-correction on the whims of faith. In this way intelligent design completely decimates the primary function of scientific inquiry.

So it is with artificially limited scope and skepticism. Skepticism is, first and foremost, a protection/defence against dogmatically held ideas - any ideas - including non-empirical ones. When we say that a subject mater is "beyond the scope" of skeptical inquiry, we are rendering ourselves defenseless against that other magisteria. Thus utterly decimates the primary function of skepticism.

This is what I mean when I say I am a true skeptic. It's not a fallacy; it's a recognition that skepticism has a function. Scientific skepticism is all well and good within its sphere, but the moment it tries to limit all skeptical critique to within that sphere (as Shermer and others have done), a terrible, terrible error is being made - usually by those who don't want their dogmas critiqued. Perhaps you would prefer I say, "a thoroughgoing skeptic?"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Not-Truthiness

The Takedown

Following is a fun video "takedown" of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. It is interesting and worth the see, IMHO.

The "Takedown" of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

However, I wish to approach the subject matter from a different angle...

While Craig asserts that infinity is only a concept that doesn't exist in reality, why does he not afford the same courtesy to nothing? We build logical systems to help us understand and explain the world, but quite often because these logical systems involve boolean values, yea or nay, we assume that these absolute values are entailed by the logical system themselves and, therefore, that they translate into reality or "map onto" reality - but this need not be the case. Concepts like infinity arise from an unending progression and concepts like nothing arise from as idea of a perfect absence. There is nothing to suggest that these "perfect" states exist in reality.

While the video is all well and good, and interesting, I suspect the real "takedown" is in understanding the difference between synthetic and analytic arguments. The Kalam Cosmological Argument is an entirely analytic argument, as is the Ontological Argument.

The Ontological Argument relies on existence being a necessary condition for perfection, but from whence cometh perfection? Perfection seems to me an extension of idealistic thinking, completely divorced from reality, and a mere logical contrast to imperfection. To say that perfection necessarily entails existence is to make a baseless assumption - that perfection is existent or even possible. Claiming that that there is perfection refers not to any feature of reality - please do point to it if you can - but rather to a definition derived entirely from a logical structure - an implication of the terms involved. Nothing more. So when the Ontological Argument goes from "existence is a property of perfection" to "therefore God exists" what we have is an equivocation of the word "exist." Analytic existence is not equivalent to synthetic existence.

More Than One Truth-(Value)

And it is no surprise this happens, since logical "truth" is often equivocated with "empirical" (or "synthetic") truth. We have been engaged in propping up this error for millennia and I suspect this equivocation of truth is responsible for much, especially, theological error. It is, of course, trivia to create a valid argument that is not sound. This proves that logical truth values are not empirical truth. To find out empirical or synthetic truth you actually have to check with reality, something neither the Ontological nor Cosmological arguments do, although they end up making a claim that we are supposed to take as empirical/synthetic.

The nifty thing about entirely analytic arguments is that reality is not a function within them - no empirical reference is made prior to the assertion about reality. In this way terms in the premises represent equivocations of similar terms in the conclusion.

As given in the video, the Kalam Cosmological Argument goes:
Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
The universe began to exist
Therefore the universe has a cause
And that cause is God.

Leaving aside the non-sequitur of the universe having a cause leading to that cause being God... ;)

The real problem here is the word "begins/began." Defenders of the KCA assume that beginning involves arising from nothing, hence their constant mockery that anyone who argues against the KCA is assuming the something arises from nothing. Now a careful examination reveals this to be a mere matter of definition - and analytical function, with no clear reference to reality. The matter seems persuasive because science makes a similar working assumption with regards to causality in order to do its work. However, at no time, does science necessarily invoke the logical concept of nothing in the same way apologists like Craig do (except as an effort to make a dramatic title intended to sell books perhaps). Indeed a recent understanding of the "origins of the universe" seem to posit the idea that there is never really any state of absolute nothing. Hence the "dilemma" presented by the KCA apologists is simply bypassed. And there is no particular reason why this cannot be done, since our understanding of "nothing" is merely the placing of a negation in front of "something." The logical nothing is not necessarily empirical nothing. To confuse them is, in my opinion, to equivocate the word "nothing."

Referencing Reality

The trick now is to make sure the new physics cosmology refers to empirical reality, and that's where things get interesting. Then it is an exercise in developing experiments from the theory that confirm or refute. We'll know whether the theory is interesting or not when we are provided the falsifiability in the theory.

I am not confident that replacing one entirely analytic argument with another does much for us except display the cleverness of everyone involved. Of course, science provides us the benefit of actually referring to reality - at least most of the time.

Which brings to mind string theory, but that's a topic for another time... ;)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Utopian Dreams

God is in everything.

God is in the bell used in circumcisions and the knife wielded in female genital mutilation. God is in the wail of agony and the state of shock of the baby. God is in the poverty, despair, and torment of the destitute. God is in the bot fly and the tapeworm and the virus. God is in the cancer cell. God is in the acid thrown in women's faces. God is in the umbilical cord wrapped around the unborn's neck. God is in nuclear weapons, and jelly babies, and natural (and unnatural) disasters.

God is in the idea that "glory" is about the ability to inflict suffering and death. God is in describing murder as "honour." God is in depicting psychopathy as divine inspiration. God is in morality as a bait and punish mentality. God is in visions of retribution as "justice." God is in human beings being seen as mere chaff in dogmatic meat grinders - as pieces in a numbers game. God is in every bullet in the brain pan of "the enemy." God is in every ingenious torture device devised to spread the "good news."

God is in the inquisition. God is in holocausts. God is in crusades. God is in jihads. God is in death fatwahs. God is in "moral" demands that others die. God is in every pogrom and in every belief that you are among the chosen ones. God is in throwing rocks at helpless people until they die. God is in inculcating fear, self-loathing and hatred in children. God is in violent polarization. God is in every dream of orthodoxy, of "winning" the competitions between religions - whatever the cost.

God is in every vague, metaphysical terror. God is in every superstition. God is in all horror. God is in every supernatural justification for violence, death, and imprisonment.

God is in every failed hope, every broken dream, every devastated life. God is in every loved-one's death, however slow and torturous. God is in every dream of dominance and control. God is in every rapist's heart.

God is in division, malice, and shunning. God is in every "murder by numbers." God is in every segregationist policy.

God is an engine of conflict.

We have to do better than God.

The Argument from Utopian Idealism

It's *never* the ideal's fault, is it? It's *never* the Vedas, or the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran, is it? It's never God, is it?

It's never communism's or capitalism's fault, is it? After all, they've never *really* been tried, right?

It's never dictatorship's fault, is it? It is always that the dictator wasn't benign - just like every other time before.

If only we had a benign dictator this time. If only we had God. Right?

The Dark Heart of Totalitarianism

Let's face the fact of it. Every God believer is a totalitarianist. They all desire the benign dictator. God believers are simply not ready for democracy.