A Can of Worms Revisited

Our beliefs guide what we do, and why, because we base our actions on our beliefs — those things we hold to be true — for the purpose of maximizing the success of those actions. Few people are inclined to act or behave on the basis of beliefs they do not think true, except maybe charlatans and con-artists.

Let me state from the onset that I am not anti-belief. It is not my intent or purpose as a skeptic to ‘make people not believe,’ to otherwise violate anyone’s right to believe. But it’s people who have rights and privileges, not beliefs or claims of fact. All claims of fact are eligible for a fair hearing, but not all have equal truth-value. Nor are all beliefs equally harmless, or equally effective as a result of actions based on them.

I contend that the view that all claims have equal validity is specious, for to paraphrase Carl Sagan, If all claims are equally true, then none have any truth at all.

A problem arises when people confuse what they believe, when what they believe cannot or has not been demonstrated to be true, to be facts. I run into this a lot in some of the comment threads on this blog.

This includes even the claim that it’s a belief that something is a belief, and not whatever one wishes to be fact…

Sorry, but wishes, or to use the new paranormal vernacular, ‘intention,’ have no effect on reality save for the results of our physical actions to fulfill them.

Does one’s belief in a claim unsupported by sound evidence or reasoning, no matter how sincere, justify actions taken on its behalf? Does even sincerity and conviction of belief grant one an ethical free pass to promote or practice any belief, however questionable?

I argue no.

For without casting any doubt or speculation on their purity of motives, many promoters and practitioners of various scientifically and medically questionable claims are often fully knowledgeable that the mainstream research community considers their particular claim to be controversial at best, and its efficacy or factual worth not adequately supported by valid evidence in any case.

Practitioners of various claims not supported by evidence are at best providing a useless service, and at worst causing their clients great harm, such as death or serious illness resulting from the denial or delay of adequate evidence-based medical care for a serious but treatable condition, or even the use of unproven modalities that are not merely ineffective, but actively dangerous. This extends into finances too, when mystics provide what they claim to be ‘divine,’ ‘prophetic,’ or ‘psychic’ advice for a fee, when the services rendered are no more effective than merely guessing, and more often than not, wrong.

Again, they may be perfectly sincere in their belief, but this does not make them right, nor their beliefs true, nor the practice of those beliefs ethically justified.

Even with the purest of intentions, (…and to steal a page from Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto: “We all know about roads to Hell and what they’re paved with.”) one can believe so strongly in something that they are willing to go to any length to support the belief, even cheat, even lie, sometimes even worse, when cognitive dissonance gives them the means to rationalize these acts, as opposed to using rationality, in their own minds. There is the frequent occurrence of what is referred to by skeptics as the pious fraud, the true believer not adverse to bending the rules and cutting corners a bit.

I say this: Let people believe what they want, but should they desire it, should they ask, provide them with the mental toolkit and methods to assess claims for their worth themselves, of their own free will and full understanding, rather than just being forced to accept or reject claims by coercion of others, a knee-jerk reaction, or on a whim.

People who can think for themselves are much less likely to leave their belief systems up to the vagaries of chance, and much more able to protect themselves both financially and health-wise from those who would take undue advantage of their trust, even without meaning to. Fnord.

Speculative Technology — Realism vs. Lala Land

As a science fiction fan, I sometimes get into some highly speculative, and highly animated, discussions of SF technologies, some more or less realistic, ranging all the way from the just-around-the-corner possible to some that are far distant future if not pure fantasy. I’m occasionally chided for my conventionalized closed-mindedness, not just by fringe-science or paranormal believers, but by science fiction enthusiasts who are irked by my refusal to accept that time travel, hyperspace travel or Star Trek-style transporters will be practical realities in the near future (usually within the next couple of hundred years or so).

I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to effectively and constructively argue for realistic SF technologies, you have to limit the parameters of the discussion to those technologies that are conceivably possible, according to what we can honestly say we know at the present time about how the universe works.

In short, to meaningfully discuss realistic technologies, we must limit ourselves to speculating within known physical laws as they are currently understood. Why?

“But Troythulu,” you might say, “why should we be so arrogant as to believe that what we know at this moment is all there is? Why must we think that that’s how it’s necessarily so?”

Well, I’m not arguing that…

I’m saying that there’s a huge world of difference between science fiction with the accent on the word ‘science,’ and science fiction with an emphasis on the word ‘fiction.’ Let’s not fool ourselves with muddled magical thinking — We live in a universe in which there are genuine limits to what can be achieved, as far as we can currently tell, such as the Einstein’s law and the second law of thermodynamics, not a universe in which literally anything goes, and likewise literally anything and everything is possible. Sorry.

Right now, we have little good justification for thinking most of those laws we currently know of wrong, since they allow the creation of practical technologies that actually function, which wouldn’t be the case if they weren’t at least partly true. Science is not a magical, irrational myth that makes things work for no reason at all, but a powerful, rational, and thus far useful method of understanding the world. Don’t like science very much? Too bad. Reductionism may not be the whole ballgame, but it works.

I’m not arguing that what we know now is all that’s ultimately possible, and that we know everything about the universe that can ever be known, or my nom de blog is not Troythulu.

I’m arguing that we really do happen to know things about the universe, many of them tested and verified beyond a reasonable doubt, and these things have to be taken into account when discussing the realistically possible, including conceivable applications of that knowledge. We must in such discussions limit ourselves to what we know, pending further and better evidence as we come to understand more in the way of new and more precise findings.

We most certainly don’t know all there is to know, and we probably never will, but we don’t understand absolutely nothing at all for not knowing absolutely everything. Our science is stumbling, incomplete, infantile, we know close to nothing, but it’s the best thing we have so far in terms of our comprehension of Reality, of what’s ‘out there,’ apart from the subjective worlds inside our skulls.

It’s almost certain that there indeed remain undiscovered forces, laws, theories, paradigms, hypotheses, physical constants, findings of science that have yet to be made. Cool discoveries we have yet to uncover. But unless we are somehow made aware of these findings through the scientific process, as limited as that is, we have no business invoking unknowns to fantasize about technologies and techniques that may not even be possible when attempting to discuss the realistic, rather than just admitting it and saying we are engaging in pure technological fancy and speculation.

Let’s not be misled into believing what we merely wish were true. Fnord.

A skeptic ‘fesses up

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’ve had my moments as a larval skeptic, and I’m not out of the chrysalis yet… When I first got into the skeptical movement some three and a half years ago, I was, like anyone involved with something novel and interesting, just a wee bit more excited about it then than I should have been.

In my newbie enthusiasm, I have said things on this blog that I am not particularly fond of recalling, things I no longer agree with which make me cringe when I think about them. Have I dismissed believers as though they were all idiots or lunatics? Have I criticized unfairly? Have I attacked faith itself and not merely taken its excesses to task? In many of my earlier posts, perhaps I have, often without meaning to, and in doing so shamed myself by contributing in my small way to the condemnation of other skeptics to ‘permanent minority status,’ as Carl Sagan once put it.

I have, over time, acquired a much more comprehensive view of those who espouse certain… non-scientific doctrines and concepts, and they are at least as diverse as skeptics, and almost certainly more common.

As a former religionist, I do not consider religion itself to be the evil that the so-called New Atheists make it out to be. There are far too many people I know, good, caring people who practice a religion or spiritual tradition, Old or New Age, who are not zealots. Many are steadfast supporters of science and reason, and express opposition to religious extremism in politics. These are people who I think the world of, who have done nothing but wish me well in my endeavors. Certainly they and the traditions they practice deserve more respect than I’ve given.

Regardless of its benefits and drawbacks, its gems and its warts, religion will be with us for some time, though individual traditions may rise and fall with the march of history. It is not my place to take away from people that from which they draw solace. I restrict myself to commenting upon its fallacies and excesses. Faith in moderation is not the enemy — my problem is with extremism.

As a former paranormal believer, I do not wish to dismiss those who still are as universally crazy or stupid — there are many brilliant, articulate, sane and well-educated believers in the paranormal and fringe-topics. While this alone does not validate their beliefs as true, nor their views correct, it does mean that I need to treat them with respect as individuals, and avoid hasty generalizations of them in my commentary. If one cannot respect those one disagrees with and even criticizes, one is not a skeptic, but a bigot.

In my experience, many of the paranormal and fringe-science proponents I’ve dealt with play by different rules of logic and evidence, some with none at all that I can discern, and these discussions are rarely constructive — often we have wound up talking through each other instead of to each other. But some employ the same thought-processes and reasoning as I, and these discussions have been enriching to say the least. Not all believers come from Mars.

It has sometimes been frustrating to me, and at other times instructive, but in any case it’s something to learn from, and illuminating with the insights it imparts and clues it reveals about the thought-processes of some believers. I’m not psychic — I can’t get inside peoples’ heads and read their minds directly, and I don’t know of anyone who really can — but I can learn a bit on how they think by listening to what they say, online and in person…

…And this blog is at its heart a learning experience — so learn is what I’ll continue to do. Fnord.