Category Archives: Belief vs Reality

Belief vs Reality

Earth

Religious Science

I have a better internal and intuitive understanding of folklore and myth than science and technology, so in that way fantasy is easier.
-Sarah Zettel, novelist

Josh Peck is a self-described biblical researcher, author and online show host. He has written several books, including “Quantum Creation,” a book about prophecy and “quantum physics from a Christian perspective.” You may be thinking that there is no such thing as “quantum physics from a Christian perspective,” but Mr. Peck tells us otherwise. He explains there is nothing wrong with the experimental results of science, just the interpretation by those who do not cross-reference the holy book. He claims no conflict between science and religion because:

“When we have the proper interpretation of scripture and the proper interpretation of scientific observation, they should both agree in full. They both should act as two pillars holding up the true understanding of reality. If they do not agree then one or both of the pillars are broken and must be fixed, otherwise the whole structure will come crashing down.”

In other words, scientific observation and scripture have the same level of legitimacy and since scripture is correct because, you know…word of deity…any scientific finding that conflicts with scripture must be reinterpreted until it matches. There now, no conflict.

It is hard to swallow that this bastardization of sound methodology is what many believers call science. It is not, though this is what is being taught to the faithful uncomfortable with scientific findings that imply their deity is not the creator of the universe. Their thinking is rationalization (conscious and unconscious) biased by a presupposition of biblical inerrancy. The cognitive blindness is stunning, truthiness applied like a taste preference.

Interestingly, this type of science-off-the-rails often does include some true science. It may even include a great deal as this presentation by Jason Lisle demonstrates. However where Dr. Lisle goes off track can be hard to decipher if one does not already have strong science knowledge, an inherent problem. If one has been raised with a religiously dominated education where evolution, geology and psychology have been replaced with creation myth, a flood story and objective moral rules, it is nearly impossible to notice the slips. To a student listening to this mangled science such presentations can appear to reinforce scriptural texts. Passages are “matched” through numerology-like  pattern recognition, subjective interpretation and prophesy-alignment presented as evidence.

Real science does not operate in this manner. It works on a much tougher playing field where objective evidence rules. Results only sufficient for subjective interpretation are used as guideposts for further investigation (and replication by other studies); they are not touted as final conclusions to be taught to the public. (Note: despite this standard practice scientists are human and can overstep at times, but the fields are aware of this, constantly open to  internal criticism and correction. For good coverage on this, check out Robert Burton’s “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves.”

The vast majority of scientists follow evidence where it leads them. Often this disagrees with chunks of what religiously-filtered “science” teaches. A young believer can find themselves stuck trying to understand these different positions, akin to being asked to take sides in a parental dispute. Worse, parents and preachers may fight back with accusations of academic conspiracy and ivory tower arrogance. If a student buys this defense they not only learn bad science, they learn to mistrust true experts and even the scientific method.

If a student is able to remain objective she will find the position conflicts unresolvable; where there is disagreement, one side is right and one side is wrong. Contrasting this, a true believer (defined as one unwilling or unable to de-sanctify false beliefs) will learn to swim in a fog of cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning tools at the ready, perhaps for the rest of her life.

Another feature in hesitation to accept scientists conclusions can lie in the personality trait of mistrust. You know the accusations—scientists are money mongers who deliver results their patrons desire, universities are places where snobby faculty pretend they are smarter than the rest of us, arrogant intellectuals create fancy jargon so they can talk over our heads. Tables are turned with true scientists being branded as pseudoscientists.

The believer’s solution to this supposed deception? A call to individual critical thinking (paradoxically), self-evaluation of experimental results. In other words a belief that a single person, believent and less educated, is more likely to make a better conclusion than a highly educated specialist.

This is purely wrong. First, anyone with less information is by definition less capable of making a better judgement than one with more information, though admittedly we must be wary of researcher confirmation bias. Second, this type of self-confident believer puts more weight on intuition (Type One thinking) than is valid. (See Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”) Third, individual conclusion, be it by a highly educated researcher or an individual, is prone to error—exactly why scientific conclusion relies on expert consensus, not expert opinion. Further yet, scientific consensus is subject to longitudinal review—study over time—subject to future refinement or replacement.

Meanwhile unscientific believers apply the tools of intuition, apologetics, argument and reinterpretation to scientific findings, mushing results into scripturally-shaped conclusions of their satisfaction. Have you ever watched a numerologist finding patterns everywhere they look? It really is amazing, the mental gymnastics humans are capable of.

Argument is not evidence, nor philosophy conclusion. Bias avoidance does not include presupposition; it starts with a null position. And “not considering deity” is not a presupposition; it is an appropriate “we don’t know” starting position.

Sadly, expect religious scientism to continue because it appears to relieve believers of some of their dissonance. Many of their conclusions will be wrong of course but lay believers may not recognize this.

Spins your head, doesn’t it? Keep this in mind the next time you consider popping a chad for a candidate who denies climate change, supports funding educational vouchers, or advocates shutting down the Department of Education. Meanwhile teach your children well. Give them science toys as gifts. Challenge their minds. Foster curiosity, wonder and intellectual interest. There is a big real world to learn about and it is much more accessible if they do not have to first dig themselves out of a false information hole.

 

 

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The Worldview Fallacy

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview—nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.
-Stephen Jay Gould


Worldview:
“A particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.”

Worldview is often sited by religious believers as an authorization for logic that yields their desired conclusions. An example of this came up recently at a debate (not mine but attended) where a believer didn’t like a scientific conclusion. He dismissed the evidential outcome, replacing it and stating that his own conclusion was valid given a Christian worldview. In other words, he didn’t like the real answer so he changed the rules of analysis.

Worldview has nothing to do with fact. It is an overlay that makes one prone to bias, particularly a worldview based on the sacred texts of a deity. When a person places an immutable prerequisite in front of their thinking, logic becomes unreliable. If a conclusion conflicts with the precondition it is rejected then modifications are applied—bias, rationalization, reinterpretation of evidence, dissonance-reducing confabulation—until an acceptable result is reached.

Worldview has been described as seeing through color-filtered glasses, usually rose-colored to represent a desirable bias. While there is something to this concept—we are all influenced by our knowledge and environment—it is incorrect to assume that all worldviews are equally valid. My Christian friend could have been confronted by a Scientologist, claiming that her worldview accepts that emotional baggage is traceable to engram-inducing in-utero trauma. He could have been confronted by an astrologer whose worldview holds that good and bad days are due to planetary alignment. But on this day he was confronted by a scientifically educated person with high confidence (from the knowledge of a consensus of cosmologists and physicists) that the universe is 13.72 billion years old, rather than the 6000 years his book implied.

Putting forth a false worldview as an analytic shield is like pretending to throw a magic spell that automatically elevates your conclusions to incontrovertible “truth.” At best it is a demonstration of believence in full bloom, at worst a dodge or manipulation.

I have also seen worldview used to encumber when, seeing their own argument attacked, a believer tried to counterattack but accusing his opponent of having her own falsifying worldview. This tactic is reminiscent of the accusation that atheists practice a religion—faith in science. In other words, the childish ploy of “Oh yeah? Well you too.” Not exactly high debate. The problem again is the assumption of balance, this time to an equally low level, not admitting (or worse not recognizing) the deficiency of this plane.

Some will retort that validity is in the eye of the beholder. Who is either side to judge whose worldview is valid and whose is not? Why not default them to equal footings? Rubbish. The best source of knowledge is a consensus of a majority of educated specialists within a particular field, unless of course the subject has already been dismissed (I’m thinking astrology here). Experts don’t always turn out to be correct but they have the best chance of being so. When the consensus shifts, so does the best current knowledge. Is this an Argument From Authority fallacy? No, because a consensus is not a single authority, and we simply do not have a more reliable method. Conception and non-evidential belief don’t even come close. Would you rather be subject to an Argument From Ignorance fallacy?

Until recently we have thought of these tactics as misrepresentation but it more appears to be honest belief, sad evidence that apologetic teachings are having some success molding opinions. Believers are not unthinking followers but apologists seed and feed their opinions. Given that these followers have a propensity to accept religious views, they then become resistant to physical explanations of nature. Worse, creation rationalizationists are laying claim to science itself, arguing that science is now proving deity and accusing real scientists of being the deceptive, illogical ones. It’s a classic attack switch tactic—take what your opposition accuses you of and reverse its direction.

Time will tell if the worldview tactic holds up. So far it’s providing many with a comforting belief bubble, a safe haven to reduce the dissonance stress of being in disagreement with the world’s most prominent scientists. But bubbles are thin…and they can pop.

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The Role of Philosophy

What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Blood from the right chamber of the heart goes to -vena arteriosa – lungs – arteria venosa – left chamber…”
-Ibn Nafis (1210-1288 AD)

 

“We likewise discover that there cannot exist any atoms or parts of matter that are of their own nature indivisible.”
-Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Philosophy is proto-science, the development of hypotheses and the testing of these by thought experiment using the tool of logic. Its limitation, as the above quotes demonstrate, is that its conclusions cannot be raised to a level of strong confidence since, evidence not being part of the process, there is no way to tell which conclusions are true and which are false. Sometimes it results in a hit, sometimes a miss. This is not to say that philosophy is useless—it is in fact essential—but that its conclusions are preliminary. They are the end of a road that does not continue unless and until evidence becomes available to progress the investigation with physical experimentation. The samples above are both reasonable and logical, however only one is correct. In time, evidence arose and accumulated to elevate one to the level of high theory while the other has been relegated to the dustbin of ideas that didn’t pan out.

Ask yourself then: before evidence was found to substantiate or destroy the hypotheses, what degree of confidence should have been stamped upon its plateaued conclusions? Sans evidence can any confidence even be assigned? In other words, can the output of philosophy be considered truth?

The answer is no, in of itself. Although it may derive what later becomes learned as truth, until that result is proven by evidential experimentation of positive result, a philosophical conclusion is held in a waiting position, cued up hopefully for the scientific method to take the baton and move forward. But if no runner comes along—no evidence arrives—then conclusions remained cemented at this level they have obtained, able to advance no further. They are refined speculations, educated guesses, reasoned options, even hopes.

Of what use then is philosophy? Tremendous use, particularly when evidence has not yet been discovered or when evidence may never be discovered. For the later consider the question, what is “importance?” As an abstract concept, there is no way to discuss this question without thought argument. The outcome therefore remains hypothetical and conceptual. A vase may be important or unimportant for a variety of reasons but its physical properties do not change according to its deemed importance. This is analogous to a truth vs the perception or knowledge of a truth; a truth exists independent of any knowledge or perception of it. Yes, a tree falling alone in a forest does make a sound.

In millennium past, philosophy has had a great role in leading us toward truth, though for every truth eventually matured to fact many alternate dead ends were abandoned. We kindly tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. We revere Isaac Newton for his Calculus and Theory of Gravitation while diminishing to trivia his efforts in alchemy and apocalyptic prophesy.

Though the knowledge we have gained from the last four hundred years of science has reduced the realm of philosophy—natural philosophy in particular–but there is still much we do not know. (Indeed we don’t even know how much we don’t know, so perhaps philosophy should be considered to have just moved on to new territories.) Thus philosophy will always have an important role. While science continually moves into new areas, it is often philosophy that first helps us imagine beyond the current one*. And if the history and progress of the philosophy-science team has taught us anything it is that there will always be new horizons.

However, there is a problem. Among the believent, (those with a propensity to conclude belief, particularly when evidence is scant or nonexistent), philosophy is often used beyond its boundary. When faith is criticized or considered insufficient, deities are often rationalized by argument. Religious apologists lacking physical evidence of the supernatural (by definition) make philosophical arguments to justify not only scriptural teachings but their preferred deity’s existence. This would be fine if only done to the degree of hypothesis without confidence, but they often treat their conclusions as raised to the level of likelihood, even seeing them as “truth.” This is typically an honest error, motivated reasoning being in full bloom, but it is nonetheless incorrect. Problematically, when people group and reinforce such beliefs, the result is a deficit from reality that can result in ideological, educational, political, even physical conflict.

A bigger problem: when one can generate a conclusion that is intuitive or desirable, avoiding the discomfort of the unsatisfactory, the unfamiliar or the unanswered, the search for knowledge stops and sometimes inconvenient evidence is suppressed. This is common because evolution has sculpted us to be intuitive. Intuition is a quick-decision neurological shortcut that enhanced our survival in an environment where there was often no time for slow, deliberate consideration. Infinities, time dilation, “nothing” before the Big Bang do not make intuitive sense yet they have non-supernatural explanations. But settling on a deity explanation, fanciful and teleological, is intuitive and comfortable.

So use philosophy wisely. Value its contribution in the past, present and future. But be aware of its limits and our bias to use it beyond its ken. If truth is what you’re after, philosophy is just the first step.

 

*Science does not progress only by the philosophical generation of hypothesis. Given the knowledge base we’re standing on now and the technology available, much (most?) of new science is investigating questions that previous work exposed. Just ask anyone who is involved with a planetary exploration project; the backlog of data to be analyzed is monstrous, not even including the reconsideration/revaluation that future findings will trigger. Almost everything we learn generates exciting new questions. Mathematics too is a field that proposes and generates new horizons, particularly in cosmology.

 

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A Ranking of Values

For me, human rights simply endorse a view of life and a set of moral values that are perfectly clear to an eight-year-old child. A child knows what is fair and isn’t fair, and justice derives from that knowledge.
-Tom Stoppard

Values
“A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.”

Morals
“A person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.”

Perhaps the strongest thing that drives me is the thought that some people are working with beliefs and information that is untrue. The range of this is wide, from youthful beliefs that others care much about what they think, to world-shaking Kool-Aid parties to bring about an imagined transition to a next life. Too much of our populace is moving backwards in what is believed matching up with what is true.

My journey to understand this phenomenon has settled into a very simple goal—seeking truth, whatever the answer. By necessity then truth itself must be a value to uphold, perhaps the highest. From this all else will follow. Only with the truth, or more accurately our best estimation of truth at any time, can we best accomplish everything else that is meaningful to us.

Once truth was labeled as a high value it got me wondering what else should be on the list so here we are. Admittedly this is a soft list. With time, thought and input from others I’ll probably shift items around. There is also some mea culpa here; while the order makes sense in a way of what should be, I’ve been less than optimal in responsibility to family vs self. Trying to be better at it these days, especially in awareness.

The sequencing task was interesting. Some interactive logic raised its head, not unlike Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” That’s how Truth got demoted to Number Two. Below that it was a process of reverse prioritizing—what should be degraded in the service of upholding the one above.

You’re probably already thinking about what your list would look like so to help with alternate concepts, check out this site as a reference: http://www.stevepavlina.com/articles/list-of-values.htm. Steve Pavlina gives us 500 “value words” to choose from. I’ve taken another approach but like his too so have selected some to clarify each section below.

  1. Human Life

It’s interesting to note that we can justify breaking even this top code by sacrificing one life to save two. Abortion is up here too, a difficult issue with strong logic on both sides. And of course “Would you go back in time and kill Hitler?” is on this shelf, albeit philosophically. Well, would you? Easy yes for me.

So this is the Free Speech analog value—sounds obviously and simple but it’s not as clear as it seems when put into situational context. Still, it’s a strong place to start.

Value words: Reverence

  1. Truth

This has such high placement because almost every decision, every judgment is maximized when input is correct. We too often operate on belief, but if belief is the know-it-all Uncle at the Thanksgiving table who nobody has the energy to counter, then truth is the wise old grandmother who actually knows what’s what, even if she isn’t putting forth the effort to shut him down.

Often it seems pointless to counter people with wrong opinions strong as they may be, but there has to be a line. Actually, I can define two lines.

The first is stepping in when someone is putting out offensive or blatantly untrue information. If nothing else I want them to know that what they are saying is not acceptable in society, to say or to impose on others to hear. Think racist putdowns, homosexual slurs (had a coworker going on about gay men all being pedophiles).

The second is mistaken belief that we know to be untrue, such as a stance that we never went to the moon or that climate change is not caused by human activity. Here, I want them to know that their opinion is being challenged; hopefully others nearby will then speak out, the result being truth becoming majority opinion.

Value Words: Accuracy, Correctness, Credibility, Deference, Fidelity, Honesty, Learning, Precision, Sacredness

  1. Responsibility to Family

Honestly this is a tough call between self and family, especially if taken to a sacrificial extreme. What each of us would do in a life-and-death situation probably can’t be known until being in that situation. Evolution theory indicates that self preservation should come first, unless the fractional benefits add up sufficiently—three brothers beats one you (50% x 3 > 100% x1 of the same genes).

Most of us will answer this easily however if comparing ourselves to our children. We would willingly sacrifice ourselves for them, especially in their early vulnerable years. Biological instinct is strong.

Value Words: Care, Duty, Love, Loyalty, Protection, Support

  1. Responsibility to Work

While it’s easy to justify leaving work to rescue a hospitalized family member, that impulse is countered by logic that the job is what provides self and family with food and shelter—short term vs long term effects. In theory one can always get another job. I’m guessing people will place this one up and down this list.

On a personality level, this and the responsibility categories that follow—collectively responsibility to non-self—implies what type you are.

Value Words: Accountability, Attentiveness, Commitment, Dependability, Diligence, Duty, Loyalty, Obedience, Prosperity, Reliability

  1. Responsibility to Self

From an evolutionary perspective this would be much higher, at least prior to successful reproduction. And we all have a responsibility to make ourselves happy, love ourselves first, enjoy our one and only not-God-given life, yes? Ayn Rand would agree. Seriously, what would life be without ComicCon and classical music? Service to others is important but ultimately we are the “I” in our heads, a small piece of the universe that has become aware of itself by whatever cause. This also means learning as much about life, the universe and everything as possible. For me this is reading, attending talks and listening to others. For most travel and expansive experiences go here.

Value Words: Achievement, Awareness, Care, Comfort, Consciousness, Experience, Fitness, Fun, Happiness, Health, Introspection, Knowledge, Learning, Pleasure, Rationality, Security, Sexuality

  1. Responsibility to Others

This is a big one for me, which is how I know I’m a liberal by personality. I recognize my bleeding heart, clear as day. From another perspective, every time I walk past someone else’s left-behind dog poop I want to etch their car with “Do Unto Others.” How do some people operate with so little consideration for others? By having a different type of brain.

Value Words: Acknowledgement, Altruism, Awareness, Benevolence, Compassion, Courtesy, Diversity, Empathy, Fairness, Friendliness, Honesty, Kindness, Patience, Respect, Sincerity, Understanding

  1. Responsibility to Society

An extension of the Do Unto Others instinct with a dash of paternalism yields a desire to care for society beyond my extended kin. We vote to make our preferences known, recycle to protect resources and construct like the United Nations to define and extend rules of civil decency. We are unavoidably interdependent now. Corporations are global, making their reach wider, their shareholders unbordered. This is a good thing since interdependent groups have a self-interest to avoid conflict. Economic theory points this out too—every seller requires a buyer, every product sale to a foreign country is money pulled into the source country (in theory).

There is value in preferring our home city, state and country but the world has less strife when we remember that those on the other sides of borders are basically the same, with mirror interests of equal value. Certainly they have equal rights to profit, liberty and safety, to the extent that they are not trying to pull such off at our expense (we or theirs). Win-win is a better strategy than win-lose. Evolution has figured this out as the process of reciprocal altruism.

Value Words: Accountability, Commitment, Community, Connection, Country, Duty, Impact, Justice, Liberty, Organization, Peace, Prosperity, Resilience, Security, Stability

  1. Responsibility to Future

This takes responsibility to family, others and society one step further thanks to our abstract-thinking big brains. We are no longer a species of three million beings. There are few, if any, homesteading land rushes in the future of mankind. Rare earth metals are now shorter in supply, prone to political play as China begins to monopolize these commodities (though two generations ahead will likely be mining asteroids). Global temperature rise will not reverse itself without significant human intervention. Attention investors—get into the carbon sequestration market on the ground floor! People with children have an increased motivation to pass forward an unruined world. The life of each generation has become dense, not only in population but information and interactions. Every generation naturally strives to have their offspring do just a little bit better.

Value Words: Accountability, Advancement, Change, Commitment, Continuity, Endurance, Inventiveness, Longevity

  1. Learning

Some people don’t have this interest and there’s nothing wrong with that if they so choose. To those who are content with unending days of porch chair rocking, I tip my hat to your ability to bask in that satisfaction. For me though, especially as an atheist highly confident in the existence of only one life, I am driven to learn as much about this universe as possible, for as long as my mind spins. There is satisfaction in learning something new but also an awareness that each bit of information adds to the knowledge pool, helping me make progressively better decisions. For example, I no longer eat donuts multiple times a week because…you know…knowledge.

Seriously though, it was the stress of not understanding why people had vehemently conflicting opinions that induced me to start this study and eventually this blog.

Value Words: Achievement, Awareness, Challenge, Discovery, Exploration, Growth, Inquisitiveness, Introspection, Knowledge, Openness, Understanding, Wisdom

  1. Animal Life

I’m surprised this almost got pushed off the list but it shows how many things are important, how rich our lives are. We are animals. We evolved from animals. We can see our ancestry in their eyes, even the yard lizards who stare blankly into the distance. Every animal we see is a reminder of common ancestors, of a path commonly travelled a thousand million years in the past. The least we can do is to share the space with them.

Value Words: Balance, Connection, Diversity, Harmony, Protection, Preservation, Sharing

 

What does your list look like?

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The Pattern of Your Life

Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.
-Junichiro Tanizaki

Imagine a sky-high viewpoint, a moving dot below tracing a line everywhere we go in life. It records our movement from home to work, to the store and the weekend park, day after day, month after month. The line forms a bright zone where we spend our most time, documenting not necessarily where we wanted to go but where we had to go—too much of our lives spent at work, not enough time in the world beyond our typical paths. There are a few outcroppings, vacations of unretraced paths one hundred miles and rarely a continent away. And always back.

The pattern draws a story of our life, an image more unique than a fingerprint, distinct for every person who has every lived. Are you happy with the path your life is tracing? Would you prefer it to be different in any way?

Now imagine another dimension, a plane (A) representing all the knowledge of mankind. There is history here, geography, physics, religion, astronomy, biology, economics and art, each spanning a wide terrain. A parallel plane (B) underlies with continental zones of abstract subjects—imagination, emotions, feelings, sensory experiences and pure concepts. Each coordinate point on these planes represents a single piece of information. The shape of a maple leaf is at A324,68221, love for a newborn puppy at B5489,44395.

Now picture your life’s knowledge, a subset of this whole illustrated on these planes. When you experience one of these discrete elements—learn a certain fact, see a new thing, think a new thought—a pixel lights up. It stays on forever, brightening if you experience it more than once. This shining tapestry expands with each moment of your awareness. Finally at the moment of your death, the painting becomes static and the record is filed away for eternity. You have made your mark. Never again will there be another you, the same pattern of experience.

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Finally let’s say there is a librarian who guards these eternal records, a Keeper of the Patterns who knows what is true and false of all your known things. We’ll call her Gad. She can show your life pattern to others, displaying it in three ways—your knowledge in total, all of your knowledge that is true, and all of your knowledge that is false.

So what do your life boards look like? How much knowledge have you touched in your days? How many places have you gone and how much does your movement represent where you wanted to be? How much of your experience is informational, how much emotional? Despite your knowledge that you believe to be true, how much does Gad reveal to be false?

For every point of truth there is a matching falsehood. It is easy to pass through life unaware of the validity of what we experience. Faith implies nothing about truth, though when it conflicts with reason may imply the opposite. Seeking the truth takes extra desire and effort. You must be able to question what you know, even sacred knowledge. To experience the most truthful life, truth itself must be a sacred value. Any fact may be falsity masked even if sincerely gained; the value in a piece of knowledge is not only its information but its correctness.

On these canvases of experience and knowledge—the pattern of your life, the planes of your knowledge and emotions—strive to make the most of your years of awareness. A grand and truthful pattern is a life well lived.

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The Falsity of Presupposition

There is a right and wrong way to evaluate a piece of information. When people use different methods a populace ends up holding different sets of “facts” and beliefs. Regardless of ideological loyalties we all want to be on the side of truth. How we get there is open to debate and we must be wary of manipulative methods.

The correct way to judge new information is analogous to the American judicial system’s innocent until proven guilty—begin with no opinion and consider all end points to be possible. We then evaluate evidence and concepts to thin the herd, ultimately ending up with a most-likely conclusion. This becomes our belief coupled with a degree of certainty or doubt.

To be complete, we are not limited to physical explanations reachable by experimental evidence. Supernatural possibilities may be considered though the former has much stronger purchase, as we will see.

Presupposition

A thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action.

Presupposition is similar to supernatural explanation except that it is placed at the start of an argument, a prerequisite premise that is not to be questioned. It is a speculative non-zero starting position. This muddles the analysis of data because its preemptive assertion may have no connection to likelihood of that data being true. Worse, it is typically inserted to bias the upcoming evaluation to a desired conclusion.

Consider the term margin of error. When something is evaluated there is a degree of uncertainty of it being correct or not. The scale of this is margin of error. We see this commonly on public opinion polls. For example, people support a piece of legislation at 60% with a margin of error +/- 5%. The margin represents uncertainty in the accuracy of the poll accounting for elements like people answering honestly, pollsters recording correctly, etc. The ability to calculate this margin is also a factor; when impossible we must concede that an answer is unknowable, at least until better methodology is available.

A presupposition is worse. It is presented as unquestionable, presumed to be true, shielded from testing by definition. It is a concept with a margin of correctness of unknown scale, presented as if it had zero error. Placing such a prerequisite before an evaluation of data makes the evaluation useless, the degree of confidence in a decision unknowable.

To get less abstract consider the big question–does God exist?

To a presuppositionalist this is asserted as a given, so yes, God does exist. The proper unbiased position is that we don’t know, a null position to be followed by the judgment of evidence and supporting ideas.

The immediate problem with the presupposition is that the question stops on step one, an answer decreed without evaluation. Presupposition is typically used when the evidential argument has been lost. It is an extra factor used by one side only, supposedly immune to attack. End of argument, X is true because it is. It can also be applied as a preference bias, X being more likely given the presupposition as a supporting premise. In the world of conclusion, this is the weakest position possible.

Back to our question, the existence of God. First let’s examine the possibility of a physical entity. Evidence sited over the years has decreased significantly, modern explanations having progressively replaced ancient speculations. God of the gaps has been left with few gaps to hide in. We know how tides work, what causes thunder and comets, and even have reasoned insights into how life may have begun. Arguments from complexity (proposed to discredit evolution) fail when one moves from the realm of hypothesis to evidenced explanation. Most items that people still call evidence are miracles (events that break physical laws), anecdotes or hearsay (personal experiences and revelations) or just plain tradition. On balance we are left with a negative result—insufficient physical evidence.

Next, we consider the non-physical possibility, the supernatural. This is limited to thought consideration, the tool of philosophers. Since no experimentation is possible we are limited to inductive reasoning, that is, taking relevant premises and concluding a broader potential explanation. However the conclusion is never proof, it can only be suggested as a possible explanation of truth. The explanation may in fact be false. This is as far as we can go—a conceptual maybe.

Putting these together we have a probably no answer and a slightly possible maybe. We do not have an absolute yes or no. We are left to derive the likelihood, the probability of these two options, the result of which will be our belief.

Drilling down on the physical no, there are probability considerations. We may have missed an experimental yes because of the limits of our current knowledge and experimental ability. This must be judged on a case by case basis—are we testing to determine if humans have three eyes or what came before the Big Bang? Given 21st Century knowledge it’s fair to say that we’re far along on our testing ability, at least for questions less extreme than the origin of the universe. Thus the no answer to a God being physical has a high probability of being correct.

Looking closer at the pro-supernatural maybe let’s assume that some thought concepts are logically valid. For example, some entity more powerful than a human could have the power to manipulate our universe. Others ideas are invalid, such as an anecdotal “I have felt God” or the hearsay of revelation “Someone told me it’s true, a book says that it’s true.” These can be dismissed just as we dismiss them in a court of law—not as being false but of being no better than speculation, prone to source manipulation. Allowing these would be trying to affirm ignorance as fact, like claiming to know what is behind a closed door. One “maybe” speculation is as likely as another; cherry-picking ones preference is invalid.

Defense of presuppositional positions is an art in itself. I’ll leave that exploration to you if you wish to spend long evenings allowing your brain to be twisted into knots, though it is a good exercise in testing your ability to catch logical fallacy. Be prepared for a torrent of circular logic, bent definitions, philosophical manipulations and debate tactics. YouTube has many such discussions. To give one example, a common defense is that one cannot be sure of any knowledge, even logic itself, without God. The arguer pesters the opponent with this presupposition and dominates the conversation, cleverly ignoring the fact that if the anti-presuppositionalist knows nothing by this reasoning, neither does the presuppositionalist. Cue the circus music, round and round.

Presupposition is a ruse, a parlor game to confuse the dialogue and help justify preferred beliefs. It is wanting to know masquerading as what to know, tactic rather than substance, a manufactured tool of a lost argument.

Earth

Upping the Anti Ante

I had therefore to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief.
-Immanuel Kant

Either a piece of information is true or it is not. There may be two sides to an argument but not to a fact. In a debate where one side is arguing for the truth and the other something false, the truth side should win. Unfortunately life is not that simple. Issues can be guarded by ideology, belief, self-interest and occasionally deceit. Any of these may be at work on a wrong-side argument but today I want to focus on belief, in particular the length that some may go to when defending an indefensible position, a position contrary to evidence. The discussion would be complicated with a nuanced topic where positions are not black and white, but to make the broad point let’s go with a simple true-false scenario—one side is right, the other wrong. Here’s a fun example to illustrate the point.

A tree in a yard is the biggest of all the trees on the property. It is located ten feet from the back of a house in a beautiful mountaintop community. Does the tree contain a sentient mind or does it not? On the no side an investigator (aka NoMind) sites the knowledge that in all known Earth species, sentience requires a mind which requires a brain. This tree as with all trees has no nervous system, no brain thus no mind and no sentience. On the counter side, Neighbor takes the stance that because all living things feel this tree must feel, and that because it feels it must have a mind, thus it is sentient. He further believes that it is likely the tree is aware of its surroundings, perhaps seeing itself as a sentinel for the house, a predestined purpose. How can we judge these contrary positions?

The NoMind position is based on a compilation of relevant facts about similar trees and species. To apply experimentation he can cut off a sample and examine it microscopically, comparing its cell structure to known cells of all types of which we know their function. Similarly he can test its ability to react to stimuli and to transmit electrical and chemical impulses, something we know is required for mental functioning. All together, he can compile evidence that it is indeed a mindless plant. That being so he can then make further predictions–it is unable to feel pain, has no knowledge of its nearby plants, is unaware of its insect inhabitants (though can react to them chemically as a protective process), does not spend its time pondering theories of the origin of the universe, and has no opinion about the 2016 presidential race.

On the yes-mind side Neighbor will first also apply the same relevant facts and experiments but to no positive avail for his cause. However this neighbor feels intuitively that all living things have awareness. He wants to believe in tree minds, sentience and purpose so presses on to make the case in other ways.

He accuses NoMind of bad experimental technique, saying that it’s likely NoMind took a non-representative bore sample. Also it is possible that plant’s nervous system is whole-organism, using intracellular chemical communication such that its brain/mind is emergent, totally unlike animal brains of nerve cell clusters.

NoMind is insulted by the accusation of bad technique but yields the possibility, as least having non-zero probability. He’s not buying the whole-organism argument though, seeing it as a far-fetched idea with no basis beyond speculative concept.

Having made a sliver of progress, Neighbor then attempts to bolter his side of the ledger by adding that, precisely because the physical evidence was negative, the tree’s mind must exist in a non-physical plane, unobservable through science.

NoMind points out that this is a gap argument; it no more proves that the tree has a mind than it has a parallel universe unicorn admirer.

So then Neighbor argues that the plant feels because all living organisms feel, else they wouldn’t be alive.

NoMind points out that this is a circular argument–using something to prove itself, a logical fallacy.

Frustrated but undaunted, Neighbor does some research and finds a 1972 study that concluded after meticulous measurement and calculation, that after a tree was uprooted it weighed 21 grams less. This difference was evidence of a mind having left its trunk, something that therefore existed during its life.

In response NoMind suggests that it is more likely that the 21 gram loss was so small as to be within the margin of measurement error given the large mass of a tree body. Another more likely hypothesis would be that a tree starts to immediately lose water weight by evaporation, now not being able to replenish it, assuming it is not placed in a water bath or vapor-saturated atmosphere. And by the way, if 21 grams of mass was lost and that represented the mind, wouldn’t that make the mind physical?

Neighbor ignores that last comment and changes tactics. He next does an experiment removing a nearby bush, noting a month later that the tree sprouts a branch into that space, thus giving evidence of both awareness of his plant colleague and perhaps even a desire to rebalance local entropy by acting to refill that space.

Unconvinced, NoMind retorts that tree experts, after decades of study have concluded that trees only have sense processes to measure temperature, humidity and chemicals, processes that do not extend beyond the tree’s bark or leaf cellular pores. NoMind also reminds neighbor that the tree and its environment, actually extending to the Sun as the supplier of light, is an open system thus not restricted by changes in local entropy; laws of physics allow for local fluctuations within an open system, even organized reversal.

Not wanting to delve deeper into physics and debate that last point, neighbor concedes the retort. He then goes off and launches a Kickstarter campaign to fund the more expensive experiment of removing the house, ultimately concluding that the tree, after a time of emotional adjustment, decided to repurpose itself to guard a nearby rock, this being evidence not only of sentience but of free will and intent.

Though disturbed by the highly elaborate, if not inconsiderate act of dismantling someone else’s house, NoMind simply says to Neighbor, “Now you’re just making stuff up.”

Neighbor, disappointed in his failure to bring NoMind to his opinion but, after all these angles of investigation and argument, even more convinced of his position exclaims, “I can’t prove it; it’s just what I believe.”

NoMind responds by noting that Neighbor has failed to substantiate his claim. Given strong evidence to the contrary, the best conclusion is that this tree is not sentient.

Finally Neighbor exclaims that they will have to agree to disagree, quickly leaving the room before NoMind has another chance to respond. He goes home to water and talk to his plants.

To an outside observer the evidenced side had the correct answer, the belief side a losing position that was defended by any means possible. For the believer many tools are available to avoid giving up—rationalization, evasion, misinformation (intentional or not), denial, fallacy, diversion, counter-attack, presupposition, etc. Though initial arguments may at least sound feasible when these fail subsequent arguments are weaker, assuming the strongest techniques are used first.

To detach ourselves further remove the topic and imagine being on a debate team, having been randomly assigned a side. Defense of a position supported by evidence is easy and quick, while defense of the opposing view is a sequence of strategies and techniques. The complication in defending a belief is that the defender is honest and sincere, often unaware of their argument flaws. Without evidence the position is doomed to either losing (conceding) or standing on purely speculative ground, however the persistence of a strong belief will not fathom a loss since that would negate the belief. The end position thus becomes the indefensible “I just believe.” This does not bode well for future success beyond back-pats from same-minded supporters.

The best aftermath of a debate loss is to step back, question ones position, reexamine the winning argument and evidence, and reconsider the result. In other words, learn from ones mistake. Unfortunately some cannot bring themselves to do this so they instead double-down on their belief, sometimes labeling their opponent as closed-minded (for not accepting a belief-based notion or giving its consideration full equivalence) and accusing them of ivory-tower arrogance. Cognitive dissonance settles in and life goes on for them, a hardened opinion thought of as fact.

The effect on society is exactly what we have seen in the last thirty years—tribalism of information and conclusions. When conclusions are not allowed to be questioned, false information can reign and be carried forward generation after generation. Society becomes unable to ferret out its errors, leaving it susceptible to others who do.

Belief is no way to run your life in the 21st century. It is simply outdated, an evolutionary shortcut that helps us get through the day without having to consider every analytical angle. It developed as a quick-reaction best guess that yielded survival more often than not. But it does not mean truth. In fact by definition it is often independent of it. In this century after 50,000 years of modern human existence, 5,000 years of written history, the same years of cumulative knowledge of science, engineering and mathematics we are no longer limited to belief. It is time to elevate our goal to truth. As Carl Sagan once said, “I don’t want to believe, I want to know.”

Earth

Turning the Reality Corner

 Ignorant themselves of the forces of nature and wanting to have company in their ignorance, they do not want people to look into anything; they want us to believe like peasants and not ask the reason behind things …. But we say the reason behind everything should be sought out!

(William of Conches (c. 1090-1154 AD), Philosophia mundi)

The horizon of our collective knowledge has expanded hugely over the millennia though with setbacks that have caused knowledge to be lost, some not to be rediscovered for centuries, some permanently. We have also endured forces that stifled progress until these obstacles were overcome or discarded.

The losses are many and multifactorial. Starting from the peak of scholarship by the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire simply did not translate all texts to the dominant Latin (100-300 ACE). Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the only legitimate Roman religion (380 ACE) establishing a theocracy that suppressed thinking that might contradict biblical teachings. Similarly illiteracy was encouraged, even among many priests who could not read their own bible, in favor of looking to church leaders for proper biblical life instruction. To be fair this was as much a wielding of religion by leaders to consolidate and maintain power, a tool used by English kings in later centuries. Non-Christian temples were destroyed across the empire including the library in Alexandria (391 ACE), the world’s largest depository of international scholarship. As the empire declined a resource shift to military assets redefined priorities (to 476 ACE), this lasting for the hundreds of years after the Empire’s fall. The church was the surviving entity and thus began the Dark Ages (476-1000 ACE).

Arab culture took a different route, with intellectual study flowering in the wake of the unity generated by Islam’s early Caliphates. They built on the collective works of the Egyptians, Hebrews, Persians, Greeks and Romans—in fact much of the Greek works being carried forward in history is due to this work, translated texts into Arabic. While the Europeans were muddled in darkness, the Arabic empire became the world’s preeminent center of scholarship (700-1300 ACE) until being broken up by assaults from Ottoman Turks and crusading Europeans. The renewal of Arab regions today after several stages of transition and influence is again attempting to reconstitute its caliphate, this time against the competition of modern knowledge.

Though the west has experienced a steady growth of knowledge from philosophy and science (1600’s) to physics and biology (to today), a resurgence of Christian religious conservatism (1980+) especially in the United States is causing factual back-stepping in a large portion of the population. This refocus to biblical teachings is having detrimental influences within government as adherents have worked themselves into power.

Both Christianity and Islam today struggle against modern knowledge which largely debunks diety-based explanations of nature. It is interesting to note that, while early Christianity led to the suppression of non-religious thought, early Islam prompted intellectual study and coexisted with the results. To some degree philosophical ideas (as proto-science) were absorbed as explanations of how God worked. This was perhaps an easier outcome when so little was known about how nature worked; God of the gaps was more accepted when the gaps were so large.

Why does religion hold such domain, belief over fact? There are psychological and evolutionary factors but the common thread is a failure to hold reality as the highest worth, in exchange for maintaining the sacred. Best knowledge illuminates fact and reality, not opinion and belief. It is also subject to correction when newer, more proven information is obtained. Systems of religious doctrine are defined and then held to, resisting intake of new information. They strive to maintain the old, teaching that they had it right at origin.

The path to embracing reality involves a willingness to move in whatever direction evidence carries us. Early evidence points us; repeat and reinforcing evidence moves us. Beliefs based on speculation or hearsay should be studiously, if not reverently, retired to the archives of history reflecting not what is known but what was once thought to be known.

Science does this to itself in a process known as paradigm shift. When trusted concepts—even those trusted by the majority—are overturned, the new replaces the old. Examples are our shifts from Earth-centered to Sun-centered to non-centered cosmology, each reducing the apparent significance of man but placing us closer to  understanding reality. Progress too can be made as refinements built on past knowledge, for example general relativity as a refinement of the Law of Gravitation.

Evolution points to belief originating as a survival tool, thus it is a natural tendency that will be hard to overcome. However it is important that we make this belief-to-reality transition. The instincts that kept us alive 50,000 years ago are now having the unintended side effect of causing us to make decisions on false information.

There are four possible roads ahead. One is where we fall back to historical and religious delineations for society, advocating suppression of new information and oppression of dissenters (sound familiar? 16th Century Galileo). A second is where we stagnate in eternal conflict, struggling between those of conflicting beliefs as well as those who don’t believe. A third is an abrupt end to our species as a reckless result of this conflict—nuclear war, etc. And a fourth is a movement beyond the bottleneck, the elevation of truth-seeking.

These are very broad strokes but outlines of our choices are now visible. Where do you stand? What road do you choose for your children? What path do you choose for the future of our species?