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Facts or it didn’t happen: unhooking the bra of reality March 31, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion.
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So, you want to include Intelligent design, creationism, or some other moniker for questioning the overwhelmingly established science of evolution into our classrooms.  You also, likely, equate evolution with the origin of the universe, so you want to talk about how something must have created the universe too.  Like, for example, god.  Well, OK.  In that case, lets also include creation myths from Hindus, various Native American tribes, and (why not, it’s 2012) the Mayans? Let’s have as many challenges to evolution and cosmology as possible, if we are going there.

Or perhaps you are more concerned with the state of medical science.  Perhaps you want to have your medical school include spirituality in their training, so that future doctors will be more spiritually attuned, or something.  Well, OK.  In that case let’s not forget faith healing, acupuncture, and homeopathy.  Hell, let’s throw in some goat sacrificing as well.  If we are going to include alternative medicines, why not throw in everything, just in case someone thinks they are worthwhile, eh?


Have I gone down a slippery slope? Have I taken what should be seen as a legitimate addition of alternative points of view, in comparison with established science and skepticism, and equated them with obviously erroneous methods? Am I not taking things like spirituality, real “scientific” challenges to the Darwinian conspiracy, etc seriously? Am I merely being flippant and disrespectful?


Quantities of complexity and simplicity

What is the difference between the more sophisticated and complex challenges to the scientific consensus and those which are, how should I say, less sophisticated? What is the difference between the Discovery Institute and the creationist screaming on the street corner (or next to the reason rally)?

There are real differences between these two types of challenge to science.  One is better articulated, more gpolished, and appears more professional.  The other has not been dressed up in such finery, and is obviously naked to everyone (OK, most of us).  From where I stand,  all of these sophists look naked, adorned in transcendent Imperial attire, even if to many out there the transparency of such cloth takes on a denseness and opacity to them.  Such observations become quite illuminating to complex eyes, but not so complex to need an intelligence to evolve them, such as mine.

That is, the difference between these sophisticated attempts at “skepticism” and creationist buffoonery is one of methodological degree, and certainly not a difference of quality.

For someone to show a distinction between these two, they would need to show some empirical or methodological difference between the two claims. They cannot do this.  Because there isn’t any.

No matter how well the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), or any other disingenuous attempts to undermine science dresses up their creationism, that’s all it is.  So no matter how slick the presentation, elevated the vocabulary (to make it sound sciency), or how many “credentialed” contributors they parade out (or pay large sums of money) there will only be a difference of degree between them and the whack-jobs on the street-corner yelling about the time being “nigh,” or someshit.

The reason for this is simple.  The methodologies of science, based in logic, empiricism, and skepticism generally, are unique and powerful.  Religion, faith, superstition are all powerful motivators of human behavior, but they lack that method and so they fail to predict or explain reality.  There is a fundamental methodological difference between what real science does and what is done by such think tanks as referred to above.  Places like the Discovery Institute and the ICR are not using the best methodologies, but are in fact using the same type of methodology used by the creationist you will meet on the street, in a church, or proposing legislation to allow discussion of creationism in schools.

They arenot using skepticism.

So when we respond to such trite sophistry with what may appear hyperbolic, the fact is that it is not hyperbole at all.  It is, in fact, appropriate commentary on the ridiculousness of people’s beliefs about the world; beliefs which are not warranted by the facts or the reason that binds those facts into theories which teach us about reality.

Unhooking the bra of reality

One person’s idiocy is another’s profundity.  And one person’s profundity is another’s idiocy.  The difference between the two, however, is not mere subjective opinion or preference; reality can inform the difference, and reality gives up her lovely secrets only to skeptics (when she gives them up at all).  Faith and superstition—ever the prompts of religion—being so obsessed with what lays beneath nature’s bodice, frees itself to imaginings and unverified declarations.  But it is all rhetoric and no real experience.

Real experience requires knowing how to unhook the bra of reality, a secret revealed only by the reaching of the adolescence of our species during our philosophical and scientific development and matured in the fires of the Enlightenment with the advent of the scientific method.  Many an embarrassed and inexperienced person claims to have breached such depths, claiming to have seen this or that, done that or this, and have really only masturbated such things while those of us truly entered into mysteries of the plain world in our face, seen with skeptical eyes, know the beauty of reality’s bosom.

Or, to put the analogy more succinctly; pics or it didn’t happen, you keepers of faith and superstition!

Faith and accidental true belief May 9, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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What is faith, except belief in something that you have no evidence for? Some might say that it is hope for things to be true, but that seems dishonest. When people resort to faith, they are falling back into a corner of belief despite the fact that your skeptical questions have not been sufficiently answered. They don’t have an actual reason, based on facts of any kind, to believe what they do, but they believe it anyway.

In re-reading Plato’s Theaetatus just recently, I was thinking about the idea of faith in light of justification. Are people of faith justified in believing what they do? More specifically, is an article of faith something that can be intellectually respectable?


A proposition given without any rational basis, whether from logical argument or empirical evidence, is not a belief that has merit.  And despite what apologists say, the arguments for god, especially the specific gods of religions like Christianity, don’t have merit.  Why would anyone take such a proposition seriously, except for the fact that they were exposed to accept it under youth or emotional upheaval, as well as the subsequent emotional association with the idea. It may actually be held as an idea and accepted as a fact, but without a reason to accept it, it’s just credulity.

And further, it would not be justifiable even if it happened to be true. Why not? Because the criteria to consider a belief justified is whether there is justification (yes, it’s that obvious) for the belief.

To be correct about a belief by accident, that is to say to accept it without rational justification, and have it be true anyway is merely a stroke of luck.  To take pride in being right by accident is no better than thinking that the lottery numbers you chose were right before the drawing.  And faith, being a belief without rational justification, due to the fact that the belief lacks evidence, is therefore at best accidental true belief.  At worst, it is a false belief held for no reason.

This is just one of the reasons why Pascal’s wager (the idea that we should believe just in case it is true) is so absurd.

If you cannot supply good reasons to believe something, then you cannot be surprised when other people do not accept your belief as intellectually respectable. Further, you may not have any justification for believing it yourself, in which case your credulity may be a reason to wonder about whether you are a person worthy of respect as a rational person

Rational is as rational does, or something.

Why “these beliefs work for me” is not enough October 6, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I get into a lot of arguments with people.  Sometimes, the argument gets ugly, and sometimes it is not.  I’m just one of those people that cares about what is true, and so when someone says something I find to be unjustified or that I  have reasons to disagree with, I often say something.

This often leads to me being called “closed minded,” arrogant, etc.

Just in the last couple of days I have had an email correspondence which started on a polyamory discussion list with someone who seems to consider himself spiritual, and who commented that he has become more serene since he stopped arguing with religious people (it was this and some other things I’ve been annoyed by that led to yesterdays blog about spiritual but not religious people).

I was offended by a comment he made, and tried to explain why I was offended, but it didn’t stick for him.

In any case, I wrote him back late last night, and thought some of the points I made would be relevant to people that might run into this blog.

With no further yapping on my part, here is the entire email:

I am quite aware that your email was not about me.  I was replying to the content that I disagreed with.  My offense at your comment needs some unpacking for you to understand why I was offended.  I’ll get to that at the end of this email.

First I want to say that I notice among many people, in fact this seems to be common wisdom, an unspoken assumption about beliefs.  There seems to be a notion that there is an automatic validity to a belief simply because it works for people, or simply because they have it.  Yes, people rely on things, but I don’t believe it is enough to say that they rely on it and therefore it’s not my place to judge it or even to comment on it.  After all, people have a right to their beliefs, right?

I believe this idea is wrong-headed.  And, more importantly, I don’t think it’s true just because I believe it.  This speaks to the unspoken assumption above.  I have this belief for reasons, not just because it works for me.  This is the crux of the issue for me; I think that people’s beliefs should be justified rationally, or they are not worthy of respect by anyone else.  Of course people have a right to their beliefs, but they don’t have the right to not have their ideas criticized.

An acquaintance and personal favorite leader in the atheist community has become known for asking “What do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  I think this is an important question, and I think that in the attempt to be tolerant, diverse, and respectful this question often gets left behind in the cultural maelstrom (especially in liberal circles).

You said:

Just because you “vehemently view spirituality as meaningless” doesn’t mean that it is. In fact its one of the biggest driving forces in the human experience for many. The fact that you got so offended may suggest that its not quite as meaningless to you as you say.

This, I believe, is a symptom of the problem.  It’s not merely that I believe this, I believe this for reasons.  I am not merely asserting it and saying that it’s true.  It’s not that this idea works for me, it’s that I think it can be defended rationally.  But you didn’t address the content of the claim at all.  I find that to be fascinating, because I would hope that a claim I make would not merely be swept aside with the broom of ad populum, but rather challenged.  Why wasn’t it challenged?

Your comment was not a challenge as to the merit of the proposition or to content therein, but rather to whether it was an idea that worked for people.  The fact that it is a driving force for people has absolutely nothing to do with its validity.  Truth is not determined by what ideas people like, and it is truth that I am interested in.  I am offended by the apparent shrugging off of pursuits of truth in the name of mere pragmatism.  These issues are questionable, investigatable, and conclusions can be drawn with good evidence.  The fact that people use these ideas in their lives does not make them immune to the criticism that can be provided.

I believe that they are physical events in the brain too but who’s to say that our brains weren’t wired like that in order to produce that spiritual experience by a creator? I believe that science and spirituality should be joined at the hip instead of being in opposition and I think fortunately things are headed in that direction.

I cannot [dis]prove that such a creator exists who created our brains such.  But I see no cause to believe it.  What if the world were created by an invisible pink unicorn, a flying spaghetti monster, or blue dwarfs that currently live in my closet?  I can’t disprove those ideas either, but why should I believe any of them?  The issue is not whether I can disprove the idea of such a creator, the question is what evidence is there for belief in such a thing?  What would compel me to believe it? My whims and what works for my life are not relevant here.

Until there is some reason to believe so, it is rational to not believe.  It’s called the null hypothesis.  Do you believe in the dwarfs in my closet?  if not, why not?  Who is to say they don’t exist? I’m betting you don’t believe in them, and I don’t consider it respectful to say “hey, whatever works for you.”  I find this condescending and disrespectful of my ability to think critically and take criticism.   If I believe something you find unjustified, why would you pretend otherwise and merely shrug it off? That’s how we treat children, not adults.  Our beliefs affect the decisions we make, and unjustified beliefs often lead to decisions that affect the world around us.

As for science and spirituality, they are not necessarily at odds.  The simple fact is that they are at odds through investigation, that is by accident of the beliefs of spiritual people not standing up to scrutiny.  And when they are not at odds with science, the thing stops being called spiritual but is then called part of the confirmations of science.  It is like the difference between medical science and alternative medicine; when it works, it’s simply called science and no longer is alternative.  The claims of spiritualism have been tested and have failed repeatedly.  There is no counter-example I have ever seen to this claim.  Look into James Randi’s million dollar challenge.  The fact that nobody has won it is telling.

And no, things are not headed in the direction of science and spirituality being reconcilable.  Despite what morons like Deepak Chopra and the other goons at HuffPo say, there is most definitely a distance between them.  Some, like the Templeton foundation, will seem to say otherwise, but the arguments are spurious.  If you are curious about ths issue, I suggest the JREF (linked above), the Paryngula blog, or the general skeptics community (say the skepchicks blog).

I’m not a religious scholar by a long shot. All I know is my own personal experience. And I know that I became a much more serene person when I stopped vehemently opposing religious people (still struggle with Fox news types). They aren’t all the same.

I am a student of the philosophy of religion.  In fact, that is what I have my MA in.  This does not make me right, but it implies I have spent considerable time thinking about these things. But that does not matter….  I have experiences too.  I used to wonder if they were spiritual in nature, but then I seriously investigated this question, and found that such an explanation is not rationally warranted.  It is not enough to say that you have a different conclusion, you need to demonstrate why or I have no reason to respect your ideas.

The fact that you became more serene person when you stopped opposing religious people says nothing for the validity of whatever spiritual ideas you took on since then.  When a person changes through experience with a new religion, spiritual tradition, etc it does not imply that the ideas they adopted did the changing or that those ideas are true.  That’s simply a tremendously bad argument.  And of course they are not all the same, although there are often common characteristics among them.

There are plenty of good, strong, intelligent people who believe in a higher power on this planet. To paint them all with the same broad stroke is as close minded as a fundamentalist is about non-fundamentalists.

I have never done this.  I am very aware that people who believe such things vary greatly, and I try as much as possible to try and address what they specifically claim and address those claims.  What I am saying is that insofar as a person accepts faith as a strength, I think that it points to a problem.  People use faith in many ways, for many beliefs, and with different temperaments.  But we have to step back and ask what faith is.  It is belief in something despite a lack of evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence.  If there were evidence, there would be no need for faith, because there would be reasons to believe.  personal, internal experiences are not enough for other people, and they do not provide evidence that you have not misinterpreted your experience and attributed it to something imaginary rather than a more mundane and material explanation.  Until someone gives reasons to believe in spiritual ideas, people have to rely on faith and problematic personal experiences.

This is incontrovertibly a weak position to be in intellectually and rationally.  If it isn’t, please explain why it isn’t.

My view is not closed minded, it is considered and measured.  I think that believing in things for which their is no, or at least poor, evidence is not an intellectual, personal, or social strength.  How is that closed minded?

Finally, why was I offended.  I was offended because we atheists are tired of hearing that things like morality, personal strength, and wisdom come from divine or spiritual sources.  It implies that those who don’t believe in such things cannot be moral, strong, or wise.  By associating spirituality with good attributes, you imply that people like me are not capable of it.  If I were to say that all the people I know who are strong, wise, and good were atheists and that atheism is the key to being like those people, would you not take offense at the implication inherent to this?

This is simple discrimination of people who don’t believe in the kinds of things you believe.  It is based on faulty assumptions and poor logical thinking, and it leads to real discrimination, demonization, and distrust of atheists.  Recent studies have shown atheists to be the least trusted group in America (even below Muslims).  I’m offended because you essentially claimed that an atheist cannot be a good person.  I doubt this was your intent, but it is the result nonetheless.  I’m just trying to give you a touch of consciousness-raising about discrimination against atheists and its unseen sources in common wisdom, as evidenced by your comment.  You are doing actual harm to real people, probably unintentionally, by promoting a meme that is simply false.

Please understand that I’m trying to communicate in good…faith.  I’m not attacking you, I’m trying to get you to understand where I’m coming from.

His reply was to say “You’re right” and then to sign off.  I can’t help but feel patronized with an intent to discontinue conversation.


Atheism and Skepticism May 12, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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[edit: This issue continues to be relevant in the skeptical community.  I’ll link this.]

Within the skeptic community, there is a sort of fault, a split, that is often avoided because it is an issue of some contention.  And we know how much skeptics avoid contentious issues! I mean, to do that would be unfortunate–one might stir up some deep-held beliefs that people have.

I’m an atheist.  I’m also a skeptic.  And while I have participated in the atheist community longer than the skeptical community, I have been part of both for some time.  I listen to Skepticality regularly, will often refer to skepdic.com or snopes.com when looking up information.  And while I  have not yet gone to TAM (but would very much like to this year),  I have had the honor of meeting Randi himself once [and later again at DragonCon 2010, where I had dinner with him and Jamy Ian Swiss], who was very friendly in introducing himself with a joke during an Anti-Superstition party in Philadelphia a few years ago.  This coming weekend I am attending the Atlanta Skepticamp.  In general, I demand evidence for claims, as any good skeptic should.

That is what skepticism is all about, right? According to Skeptic.com’s about page,

“[s]kepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.”

A good start.  Like science, skepticism is not so much about what we conclude as being true (or at least supported by evidence) but the method by which we approach finding answers.  It is a disposition, perhaps, more than any set of conclusions.

To be skeptical is to demand evidence upon hearing a claim about the world. Of course, non-extraordinary claims may not be sufficient to demand evidence; claims such as “I had eggs for breakfast,” for example, may not get your skeptical dander up.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (said Carl Sagan).  The common usage of the term ‘skeptic’, however, is often to conflate it with the term “cynic” (which is itself a term that has diverged from it’s ancient roots), which implies a kind of dismissive attitude towards claims rather than a desire to seek evidence for the claims.  Skeptics are not, ideally, debunkers of beliefs so much as investigators of beliefs and seekers of evidence.  And when such evidence does not exist (or is dubious), the belief is not held by the skeptic.

Within the skeptical community you will hear talk of cryptozoology, UFOs, psychics, and astrology, for sure, but not too much discussion about religion or faith.  Why is that? Well, it is because many people who identify as skeptics are, nonetheless, religious.  That is, they believe things about the universe such as the existence of god(s), but apply their skepticism elsewhere.

OK, well, let’s step aside for the moment and take a look at atheism.  I’ve addressed my definition of atheism before (as well as whether it can be considered a religion), and so I won’t go on at length.  Essentially, my definition oft atheism is the position of not having any belief in any gods.  That is, if ‘theism’ means belief in god(s), then atheism is simply the negation-causing ‘a-‘ attached to that term, meaning the lack of such a belief in god(s).  It is not the belief that there are no gods, because that is a subtle but importantly different position to hold; there is a difference between saying that there are no gods and saying that I don’t currently believe that there are.  The former assertion brings with it the burden of proof, while the latter lack of belief does not bring any burden of proof into play.

My position, as an atheist, is that of a response; when someone says that they think there is a god or that god exists, I simply am saying “I don’t believe you.”  This is an essentially skeptical position.  I am saying that the evidence is not sufficient, from my point of view, to accept such a claim.  Any person who calls themselves a skeptic must hold this position unless they have evidence for the existence of god; evidence which I have not seen (or accepted as sufficient). If they believe by faith alone, then they are not applying their skepticism to their belief in god(s), and thus lose some skeptical street cred (see video below). Faith and skepticism are at odds here.

Matt Dillahunty, the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin, host of the Atheist Experience and the Non-Prophets (both of which I have been following for several years now), has come out strongly with essentially the same position as mine (I think), as can be heard in the following:

Matt and I corresponded a little while back concerning a post at skepchick.com that addressed this very issue.  And while it is true that none of us are completely rational about everything, the bottom line is that by ignoring such a large aspect of one’s life, such as the belief in a god (whether one is a deist or a Christian) is a hit against one’s skeptical credentials.  Simply admitting that one is not being rational about something does not excuse the lack of skepticism.  It would be sort of like an astrologer admitting that they are not being rational about their belief in astrology, but considering themselves a skeptic because they are skeptical about vaccinations causing autism and Bigfoot.

So, can one be a skeptic and be a believer in god(s))?

No, I don’t think so.

I contend that there is no good evidence for the existence of a god.  If there is, I have not seen it.  And if there is good evidence or reasons to believe in god(s), I want to see it.  But in my many years of having discussions, thinking about this issue, and writing about it, I have not yet been presented with good reason to believe.  Not even those skeptical theists have good reasons to believe, from what I have seen.  Thus, believing in a god, despite the lack of evidence for it’s existence is a non-rational position.  A skeptic is supposed to reserve belief for positions that are supported by evidence, not believed despite the lack of evidence (or evidence to the contrary).  A skeptic believing in a god despite the lack of evidence is no different than a skeptic believing in the Loch Ness Monster with similar scanty evidence.

And despite the fact that stating this may cause some rifts among certain ‘skeptical’ people, I think it is important to address because of one very important reason; it is true.  And if it is not true, then it must be argued to be so, not simply stated.  If it is possible to be a consistent skeptic and be a believer in god(s), then that implies that there is good reason to believe in such entities.  And if there is reason to believe in deities, then the issue between skeptics and atheists is that atheists are wrong to lack belief in gods because there is evidence out there that is sufficient for belief.

But if there is not sufficient evidence to believe in any gods, then to be a skeptic and a theist is a contradiction.  A skeptic, being consistent, will be an atheist.  They will not say there is no god, but they will join me in saying that they simply see no reason to believe there is a god.

I’ll leave you with some more video:

Quick thought December 14, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Perhaps faith is considered a strength because it survives without food, water, or atmosphere to breathe. It lives with nothing but itself to feed it.

A weed like that will survive many a drought of evidence.

Faith v. Evidence August 21, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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theistic ironic comedy?

All too often I will hear from theists (but not exclusively), that there is plenty of evidence for what they believe.  And sometimes there is.  In that case, well bravo! Now we have something to talk about.  But inevitably, somewhere along in many discussions, the dialog comes down to their faith.  That is, when the evidence that they demonstrate either has not convinced someone else or they are shown why the evidence is insufficient, they pull out the faith card.

But what is faith? It is the believe in things despite the lack of evidence.  It actually may be, in some cases, the belief in something despite contradictory evidence.  Creationism is a prime example.  Despite the overwhelming evidence for evolution by natural selection, some people still think that magic man done it.

And, of course, creationists don’t have any evidence of their own, just lame apologetics.  But the same goes for gods in general.  What’s worse is that the evidence pointed to, even if reasonable, points to some vague higher power rather than their very specific deity with all of its personality.  But they believe anyway.

There is a very short and quick response to such faith and the attempt to show such evidence.

If you had evidence, you would not need faith.

That’s right, folks, faith is what is pulled out because you have insufficient evidence.  The whole idea of faith is that one believes something despite the lack of evidence.  So if one actually did have evidence (as theists, creationists, birthers, etc do not) then their belief would never have to appeal to faith because they would have something demonstrable to point to and then we could all take a look at their evidence and deal with it.

Pulling out faith is akin to admitting that one has no rational reason to believe in what they believe.  They have admitted that they have no evidence to bring.  Sure, they will trot out apologetics, but these are only brought out either in some ironic sense (they are putting us on, perhaps?) or or because they don’t see the extreme irony of being people of faith trying to provide evidence.  It’s almost like saying that one does not need evidence (faith, after all, is better in many of their minds) but insisting that they show evidence anyway because they know, deep down, that evidence is how the rest of the world (including themselves for every other belief they hold) is how the world makes decisions.  It’s a beautiful little display of compartmentalization and irony, unfortunately not intended to be funny.

It’s quite adorable to watch.  It’s almost as adorable as watching a small child pour tea for their imaginary friends while introducing you to them.  It is play, so you say hello and drink some pretend tea (perhaps its supernatural or transcendent tea–what is the difference between the transcendent and the non-existent anyway?).

Except they are adults, which makes it a little weird.

So, the next time someone tell you that they have faith AND evidence, perhaps you could stifle your laughter at the joke, because they might not get the irony.