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The Thoughts & Whys of a Skeptophrenic


I was raised Seventh-Day Adventist, and many of my relations still are, though not my immediate family. It was in my early teens that belief in any sort of god began to wane. I suspect that the Oil crisis of the 1970s played some part in it, as it became cost-prohibitive to travel to church on Saturdays, and lack of continued indoctrination in sabbath school led in part to the erosion of my faith.

My late Grandpa, may he always be at peace, was of the faith to the very end of his life, and though a creationist, had always encouraged me to think, to question, to better myself. I don’t think he would have liked where that led me, but to be fair, he would have understood. Despite his views on evolution, it was his rather extensive fossil collection (I wonder whatever became of it?) that sparked my love of science (to be regained some decades after a lull in the 1980s following the diagnosis of my…condition, discussed here and here…), and later my identification as a skeptic.

Skeptic is my preferred label, though agnostic (philosophical) and atheist (belief-wise) could be and have been used before. I don’t use the latter two of the three as much anymore, and I don’t think that calling myself a skeptic makes me especially rational, unbiased, or otherwise bestows any special status or powers of objectivity.

It merely means that among other values, reality, logic, and evidence count highly to me, despite any failure on my part to consistently and perfectly apply them to all situations. I do not aspire to the humanly impossible, and it is irrational to demand that of anyone, even those in the rationalist community I’ve come to admire.

On the other hand, it also means that belief without or against the evidence, illogic, love of authority, and ideological partisanship rank very low in my system of values.

I regard them as disempowering and the source of great social danger, both religious and political.

I prefer to have no religion, not even a belief system along those lines, for even in what little I’ve experienced of the world in this mere half-century, the siren call of dogmatic certitude and the belief of having absolute knowledge are among the chief sources of temptation and danger of today’s often politically-polarized American society. Political partisanship I regard as a threat to my country’s future, and a clear and present danger in its present.

Again, none of this means I’m enlightened, objective, or special in any way. I do, though, try to note my biases and deal with them as I may. Why? Because I care about that sort of thing. I care about being honest with myself, about being true to who I am, and about being authentic to those I deal with to the best of my ability.

I care about these things because to me they are the best way to avoid fooling myself, and through that, to best avoid fooling others. Integrity is a moral value to me, though that’s no reason for self-righteousness. It’s the reason I left my religion. I found I could no longer fool myself, couldn’t find it in me to argue sincerely in defense of the faith, couldn’t take seriously the same claims I’d been making for years in arguments in my childhood and early teens. None of it seemed credible anymore, not even with what little about the world I’d learned. And the more I learned, the less credible it all seemed.

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, my non-belief lapsed, as I hadn’t really thought it through very well since my outing myself as an atheist in my high-school days. I had no knowledge of much of the literature of religious and secular doubt that was out there, and so had little basis from which to reason about it very well. I even explored a few religious belief systems, though committed to none of them.

I even held the notion that some psychics were real, and for a time took seriously relativist ideas on religion and morality, and even reality, before being thankfully disabused of them in the first decade of the 2000s, I think around late 2006, with my first skeptical book, Why Darwin Matters, by Michael Shermer, and my first skeptical podcast, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, which I continue to listen to today.

While reading a collection of writings by Harlan Ellison, Edgeworks, I had thought to myself something like: “To be honest with myself. This is the kind of person I want to be, however I may berate myself in failure to reach any imagined ideal, whatever self-loathing I may experience in that failure, I want to know myself, to be true to myself, and maybe, just maybe, have a clearer picture of the world than I once did. Damn what lies I may believe for the truth, whatever it is and wherever the evidence leads, even if I don’t like what it tells me. And damn my ever fooling myself into thinking I’ve ever reached final truth. Real knowledge is never final, and nor should it be!”

However it was worded, it was almost like an epiphany, though more like clearing away fuzzy cobwebs of the mind rather than any revelation of mystical certitude, any call to believe the unbelievable.

I credit this moment, and each precious moment since, for the success of the treatment plan I’ve been on, and with it, a life more than worth living in the here and now. It’s made me appreciate this life, in this world, and not yearn for anything after it.

I don’t deny the existence of immortal souls.

I don’t deny the existence of an afterlife.

I don’t deny the existence of anyone’s gods, or angels, or demons.

But nothing that I’ve seen or learned in my fifty years of life gives me any sound reasons to believe that any of these things are true or real. What would convince me?

Evidence and good reasons why it counts as evidence.

That’s it.

But why even bother to care at all about such things as evidence, reason, and science? The short answer is that they seem to me to be the most effective and reliable path to real understanding and knowledge. The long answer is: I have no idea, if what you’re seeking is some grand, logical, self-justifying first principle, because there isn’t one there to be sought.

And frankly, I don’t care. I’m not out to be better than anyone, or deadset to prove anyone wrong. That’s not the point.

Fantasy is good as fiction, and a firm thank you to Mr. Deepak Chopra, but as one of those ‘militant skeptics’ I’d rather be ‘bamboozled’ by evidence and logic than fooled by often dangerous and shallow nonsense passed off as deep truths.

It’s less harmful when its conclusions are shown to be wrong, and self-correcting to boot. So if caring about what’s more likely to be true is being bamboozled, then count me in.

Michael Shermer: Why Do We Need a Belief in God?


Mike Shermer explains some factors of human psychology that lead to belief in gods and religion. A researcher with over 30 years of work in the science of human belief under his belt, you may agree or not on the God question, but the factors he discusses here can be applied to many other areas of human belief as well, including politics, economic doctrines and other ideologies, and belief in the paranormal.

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A Shift of Direction for this Blog, and Plans for the Future


As I sit at my desk this morning, fueling myself with such unhealthy but tasty things as Halloween themed gummy candy, I wonder where I’m going to take this blog. I don’t know with certainty, except for one thing:

No more posts on organized atheism. Organized atheism is dead where I am concerned. I do not identify as an atheist, for it says nothing at all about me save my lack of belief in gods.

Historically, ‘atheist’ was a strawman invented and argued against by religious apologists since the ancient Greeks, and this was certainly the use to which those like Blaise Pascal have put it. ‘Atheist’ was also a convenient epithet used to accuse and point fingers at rival theists of other religions.

Everything good was ascribed to religion, or theistic belief, or a specific subset of theistic belief, and everything bad to the reviled unbeliever or heretic.

I do not identify as an atheist because it makes no sense and serves no purpose than to point me out as a choice target for conversion, pity, and discrimination by proselytizers and zealots.

I might as well specifically identify as an adraconicist, for my lack of belief in magical, fire-breathing dragons, or perhaps an asidheist, for my lack of belief in Celtic faerie folk, an aZentradist for my nonbelief in ten meter tall alien cloned warriors…

The list of useless labels could go on forever, but you see my point. ‘Atheist’ only serves as a label to point at and judge for theists, even liberal theists, and serves no real function. I find ‘agnostic’ also philosophically and descriptively useless.

I do identify as a skeptic and as a humanist, as at least those actually say something about me. ‘Skeptic’ says something about my approach to claims of fact and the examination of arguments, while ‘humanist’ speaks of my ethical views in a positive way, by what I do believe is right and wrong, not by what I don’t believe exists.

I am a proud skeptic and a proud humanist, but being proud of a lack of belief in gods is just as silly as that of not believing in three-headed Martians. I may as well be proud for not believing in Leprechauns or the Easter bunny! (Thanks, Maria. Your FB post earlier this evening went to good use.).

Pointless!

So, no more written posts by me on atheism or any discussion by me of religious faith on this blog. You saw it here first. I may not even post on logical fallacies that much if at all, as by themselves I don’t think they’re that interesting. Cognitive biases, yes. Posts on effective methods of rational thinking and practical tests for their reliability, yes. Those have some value, and fallacies will be discussed in brief, but really, no longer at length in their own posts on this site.

I’ll continue to do the fractal posts, writing on skeptical issues at times, thoughts that come to mind, reviews of books, movies and the courses I take, and such. But the rest is kind of up in the air. I’d really like to have the *Oomph* to post more on mental health topics, particularly schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders, since that’s something important and needed, and something I’ve just never been able to do very often to my satisfaction.

Over the next few days, while I’m sorting out this blog’s future, I’ll be doing fictional journal entries by a character played in my gaming group’s GURPS campaign, Sergei, the ninja who ninjas wish they were.

I’m planning, in about a year, to shift my blog posting over, bit by bit, to my blogger site, since I find the user interface more friendly and versatile than WordPress, but all in due time. I will, even after fully moving over, keep this site online, but inactive for posting purposes.

There’s a lot to do to get that going, and I’ll probably have to purchase extra storage and other options for image files I post on Blogger, but it’ll be worth it.

In the mean time, let’s see what I can do to make THIS blog better! Thanks for tolerating my silliness.

Talotaa frang.

Update:

I’ll have to clarify some of what was said above:

I’ll not post material dealing directly with organized atheism, its activism, and particularly the topic of Atheism+, as I know next to nothing about it and want no involvement in anyone’s conflicts.

I know people on both sides of the argument, and on neither side; good, smart, sensible people, and friendship is more important to me than ideology.

I’ll not post direct attacks on religion, on the matter of religious faith as an epistemology, nor attacks on the arguments of religious apologetics, as I’ve done plenty of those ad nauseam in earlier posts. Also, others do it and have done it far better than I. Seriously, it’s time to move on.

I’ll likely continue to post on some matters of specific secular importance, like issues of separation of church and state, science education, religious and ideological attacks on science, and on discrimination against the rights of religious nonbelievers.

A disclaimer: I do not think that my skepticism, my humanism or my theistic nonbelief say anything about me as a person compared with others, and I can only be better than myself as I was. Skepticism speaks only of the intellectual principles and methods I strive to employ in evaluating claims, humanism of ethical principles I strive to follow, and theistic nonbelief says nothing at all. I try to avoid dogmatic thinking and entanglements in ideology; economic, political and religious, but also other sorts when I can. I recognize that these can be and are toxic, tribalistic, and dangerous, even if and especially when they seem to agree with my prejudices a bit too much.

What Matters Most, Part III: Human Flourishing


One thing I find most important is the worth of my fellow human beings, the well being and flourishing of all of us, not just our own ingroups at the expense of outsiders, but all of us here now and in the future. And I think that there WILL be a future, so long as we survive the next few hundred years. It may be bright, it may not be. I’m hoping we don’t kill ourselves off in any case.

I believe in the right to all to the pursuit of relative happiness, freedom from harm or coercion, affordable access to the necessities of life, and the freedom to learn, grow, to formulate and pursue our own goals and objectives where these do not conflict with the rights of others.

The following conditions must be met to achieve this:

  1. Freedom of belief and thought: This means the freedom to think and believe — and to not believe — what we wish, so long as what we think and believe does not imply imposing on those same freedoms of others and our acting on our beliefs brings no harm to anyone else.
  2. Freedom to express our views in the marketplace of ideas, and the duty to face valid criticism of our views: There is little worse than one segment of the population promoting one view to the exclusion of others. I find it unacceptable to expound on or proselytize for one set of views, and cry “persecution” when those views are challenged. Any idea that cannot bear thorough questioning is not worth holding — ideas should either be adequately defended or abandoned.
  3. The right to affordable good education and critical thinking skills: Literacy, numeracy, and training in higher order thinking skills make you an effective and powerful voter and consumer, while ignorance weakens you. Not only does analytical thinking make you better able to question authority, it makes you a better decision maker if and when elected to public office. It may be useful in the short term to some of us to restrict analytical thinking in the populace, but a party does itself a disservice when newly elected membership in that party is made up of incompetents voted in from that same illiterate population. It risks the future of a party when its own membership is increasingly unable to govern effectively and wisely.
  4. The right to basic necessities: This includes access to adequate and safe food, water, and medical care. I see this violated more and more as time goes on. One corporate official even claimed that access to clean water is ‘not a human right.’ I disagree. Since we cannot live without it and remain healthy, I think that it is a profoundly human right. Whether or not you think that universal health care is a good idea, it is better to be healthy than sick, better to be well than unwell, and better to be well-fed than dying of starvation. That is independent of how we go about achieving these things. I for one have little faith in free market ideology claims.
  5. The right to equal protection under the law and equal representation by leadership: This requires a sound civil and criminal justice system and functioning democracy where there are adequate checks and balances and a reasonably fair electoral process. These two things have recently come under fire in my country, and I fear for its future with the rise of dogmatic ideological fixation in our leadership and a disregard for fair elections and judicial process. The authoritarians foolishly voted into our government are becoming increasingly bold — and reckless — in their pursuit of scoring points for their world view at the expense of honest and effective governance. People are beginning to notice.

These are necessary conditions, and most are already implemented in some parts of the world, others, much less so, including the United States, but I think they are worthy goals to set. I do not expect to see this in my lifetime, but one can hope. I for one am an optimist, as otherwise I’d have killed myself long ago having seen the things I’ve seen. Being a cynic would me no good…

…so I’m a skeptic instead.

 

Nonbelief without Evidence Needs no Justification


An artist's conception of 79 Ceti b (min mass ...

An artist’s conception of 79 Ceti b (min mass ~0.26 M J ), an exoplanet with a mass less than Saturn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I sometimes come across someone who takes much exception to my nonbelief in their pet claim, or confuses it with a denial of their claim, or thinks I’m infringing on their right to believe by expressing my views on the subject when asked. If one doesn’t like the answer, one should not ask the question.

Well, given the notorious lack of evidence for most odd claims one will come across, I’m of the view that provisional nonbelief of a claim, any claim unsupported by real evidence, any evidence admissible in science, at the least a court of law, needs no justification.

My particular approach to knowledge is one in which reason and experience work together to build a tentative, continuously updated view of the world. This means that I place a premium on accepting claims as true if I have reasons to accept them, if some sort of valid, demonstrable evidence, direct or indirect, supports the claim.

My rules of rational engagement do not require me to prove anyone’s beliefs wrong, since that is not my aim. This is because I’m not the claimant, and the burden of proof falls squarely on the shoulders of the one making the knowledge claim, not the critic.

That’s not just a pronouncement from the chair, as with many questionable claims, but simply the way science works.

Consider — The rules of science are there for a reason, and were not just thrown together arbitrarily — they are the way they are because they allow science to be as effective and reliable as it is.

What’s my basis for knowing this? Seven years spent informally educating myself on the nature, purpose, process and history of science, formal symbolic logic and argumentation theory, and a good layman’s understanding of the psychology of belief, all of these gained from the work and writings of professionals in their respective fields.

I’m still learning all these and more, and will continue doing so until my death.

I will not debate anyone lacking the integrity to abide by basic standards of logic and intellectual honesty. People are certainly welcome to their cozy beliefs, but failure to abide by the ethics of good argument will get you ignored; persistent disregard will win ridicule, in the most tongue-in-cheek, civil manner deserved by the claimant.

My nonbelief in The Great Cosmic Dragon of the Metallic Hydrogen Seas of Jupiter™ needs no justification; I’ve obviously just made it up, so I’ve no reason at all to believe it exists.

Perhaps there is a giant alien sea monster of titanic proportions and cosmic origin living on Jupiter at this moment, but as it currently stands, no evidence points to that conclusion — no reason exists for anyone to justifiably say it is real.

The idea would quite rightly not be taken seriously by astrobiologists or astronomers who specialize in the study of gas giant planets or hypothetical life-forms on other worlds.

It would be surprising if I turn out to be wrong about this, but it would not shake the foundations of my world.

I could be wrong about Xulleus the Bunny God — He Who Nibbles Annoyingly at the Center of the Universe. Perhaps such a strange, irritating, and disgustingly cute being does exist, but I’ve no reason to believe he does, and no need to justify the fact that I don’t believe.

Regarding religious belief and nonbelief of other religions on the part of believers:

Does a Christian feel any need to fully justify a nonbelief in Indra or Quetzalcoatl or Shiva or Weng Chiang?

I think not.

Does a Hindu think it’s important to have rigorous logical proofs for supporting a nonbelief in Thor, the Dagda, or Zeus?

I don’t think that’s the case either.

Do Muslims feel it necessary to have a rock-solid defense of their nonbelief in Marduk, Kadaklan, or Freya?

The quick answer: No.

Do Scientologists think it matters to have an airtight, knockdown argument refuting the reality of Cthulhu or Ishtar?

Hardly.

Most religions don’t give much thought to the gods of others, except to dismiss them out of hand, or with some fundamentalist sects, consider them ‘real’ entities, but (lesser) evil beings in disguise.

Fear is as good a motivator as faith, and they often feed on each other.

The most rigorous standards of proof are demanded of and by believers for the gods of other religions, and the position of those with no religion, but typically I’ve noticed that one’s own religion always gets a free pass.

Interesting double standard there.

I could be wrong. You could be wrong. We could all be wrong. But if I’m wrong, I want to be SHOWN wrong.

Historically, most of the criticisms of any religious belief system have come from outside the belief system, most of the defense of any religion has come from those with a powerful vested interest in supporting it from within.

Yes, some traditions do encourage debate on certain matters within the faith, but by far, questioning the fundamental tenets of the religion is frowned upon, sometimes severely, sometimes fatally — the price for heresy in powerful, entrenched religions is high, sometimes involving excommunication, imprisonment, torture, and/or execution.

Even in the 21st century. It all depends on where you live.

Science, on the other hand, is intensely self-critical, with the proponents of any idea vigorously debating their findings with their colleagues and rivals in the same field; not a good environment to foster groupthink and ‘hide the data’ conspiracies.

Science is a fiercely competitive free market of ideas, and open to anyone willing to abide by its rules of logic and evidence.

The rules of science must be obeyed if its practice is to work well, but they do not have to obey themselves.

Religious apologetics and indoctrination have been around as long as religions themselves have, for many thousands of years, while science communication and education are relatively recent, and science itself only a few hundred years in a recognizable form.

Religious apologetics, like religion itself, is a lucrative and influentual industry, undertaken by those with a strong vested interest to defend the faith on the part of powerful and often ancient organized religious bodies.

In contrast, science communication and education are often poorly funded and struggle against attempts to politicize them by entrenched legislative bodies, wealthy corporations, think tanks, tireless, well-funded lobbyists, and clergy antagonistic to the findings of science and their implications.

Presently, there’s still no consensus on a metaphysically certain justification of science, and neither it nor its methods are true or false in any logical sense, but I’ll issue a challenge here:

Show me something, anything that works better, more reliably, more effectively, more efficiently, and I’ll switch my advocacy and support to that. But I’ll be up front: I’m not holding my breath…

…for by the time someone does come up with something better, I’m of the strong suspicion that I’ll be long since dead. I’m also of the strong suspicion that it will bear some resemblance in output if not methods to what we currently call science, only more so.

Prove me wrong.

Talotaa frang.

(Last Update: 3:30 AM, 2013/06/19 — Grammatical Corrections/Meaning Unchanged)

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