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Truth or Happiness? July 30, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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In a conversation last night with a dear friend, the issue of what is more important—truth or happiness–arose.  As a skeptic, my answer is truth.  But I want to say a few words about that because I think that maybe the terms are not as clear as they may seem.

Is there a “truth”?

Yes.  Next?

….

…OK, so I should not be so flippant about that answer.  For some people, this question is not so clear, and for others the answer is no.  For the philosophically inclined, I will say that I reject the concept of reality being inaccessible or an illusion.  So While our perceptual tools are not always reliable on their own, there is a reality out there and it actually is what it is regardless of our often faulty perceptions.  Reality is there whether we think about it rightly or wrongly.

The issue following that (and in another way, preceding it) is which epistemological methodology we use; how do we figure out what reality is like while avoiding those mistakes of perception? Skepticism, obviously.  We demand demonstrable, repeatable, and rational evidence for things and the better that evidence the stronger our acceptance of that thing should be.  So our path to truth is an empirical, logical, and and ultimately a skeptical one.  We believe things when we cannot disprove them, for so long as the theories we generate maintain their justification.

A word about theories.

Remember, theories are things which have survived the assault of people who want to try and tear it down (for the sake of, perhaps, another potential theory).  Theory is the graduation point in science, not some mere guess.  But also, they are nothing but language; they are descriptions based upon the logical rules which make up thought, perception, etc within our heads.  The theories themselves are not real, objective things (they are, at best, intersubjective).  But they try and describe real events and phenomena, sometimes successfully.  Pointing out that the theories we use–the language we use–are subjective narratives which are not objectively real says nothing about the world itself.  The fact that our subjectivity is stuck in our own head, and that theories are subjective experiences, does not mean that the referents are not actually there.  It only means that the language we have to describe it is an imperfect map to the terrain.

Theories are not corresponding maps, in other words, but they try and describe reality in terms our minds can comprehend.  And many scientific theories do this so well that we can predict and construct to such a high degree of complexity and resolution that the computer you are reading this on can work.  Amazing, isn’t it? Such huge accomplishments, based on an empirical theory of truth, that provides some happiness for many people.  Technology is the evidence that our ideas can represent the world well.

Unless, of course, you believe some sort of solipsism is true.  In which case, you are writing a wonderful blog post right now!  And no, that is not me being full of myself, that is you being full of yourself.   Also, you are responsible for everything, including the things you hate and don’t believe are true.  If the world is an illusion, you are responsible for Republicans.

What is happiness?

Are you insane? Don’t ask a philosopher that! Unless you want to read 50 pages that will ramble in incoherently, don’t ask that.

Let’s say that happiness is some kind of emotional or intellectual (and no not “spiritual” because that word does not mean anything!) experience.  Whether it is a conglomeration of emotions, it’s own emotion, or even some kind of an intentional stance we take to ourselves, it is an experience or a background set of experiences.  It is a mind or body state, of some kind.  You want more detail, too bad.  All I am willing to say here is that it’s a real, physical thing like any other experience.  It happens in our brain (and possibly in other parts of our nervous system), and is a real phenomenon of some kind.

Happiness is nice.  it’s better than non-happiness, by definition.  It may (or may not) feel different for different people, but it’s a good thing.  People like happiness.

See, less than 50 pages! And only a little incoherent!

And yet you still have no idea what I think happiness is, do you? Well, I don’t give a flying purple fuck, because it’s not important to the point here. So go eat a pile of expertly-thrown monkey shit if you are left unsatisfied by that.

I’m apparently feisty today.

Are happiness and truth at odds?

There certainly is a tension between truth and happiness in our culture, but is that tension necessary?

Will learning more about the actual nature of reality cause happiness to decline?

Maybe.  There might be some (scientifically and empirically valid) studies which talk about that.  I’m not looking them up, mostly because I want to believe that the answer is no but I know deep down inside that the answer of yes would make me unhappy.  Try that mind-fuck on for size!

So, in other words, I want the truth to lead to happiness. I have an emotional interest in the proposition that valuing truth will at least not make us more unhappy.  That being said, here’s my rationalization; I have a value for truth, which trumps happiness, because I know that when people don’t know the truth it often causes harm.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you need to browse this website:

http://whatstheharm.net/

False beliefs may seem harmless, but they are not.  Not always, but they are often harmful.  By demanding a level of evidence to accept something, you make it less likely (ideally) to get swindled or support a dangerous lie.  And because I care about my happiness, which is in part related to the state of the culture around me, I am motivated to care about truth prior to happiness.  Mostly this is because the harm of non-truth upsets me, and so if I try and consider happiness first, it backfires.  But, of course, this is only true because I care about what is true, fundamentally.  If I didn’t care what was true (or if I thought that truth was subjective or didn’t exist) then I could just be concerned with happiness since truth is, in that hypothetical world, not a real thing.

Of course, some might say that my belief that there is actually an objective reality is not true (or only true for me; from my subjective perspective), and so the harm is illusory.  Of course, I want to know what method they used to tell me that my belief in truth is not true!  If there is no truth, then we couldn’t tell the difference, rationally, between truth or untruth.  The concept of truth would be meaningless, and chaos and nihilism would ensue.  Pure hedonistic, lawless, chaos!  Well, not really, but if there is any means to make a distinction between two ideas in terms of which one is more in line with how the world operates, then we have a methodology to determine truth.  It may not always work, but when it does work we have access to the real world! Amazing!

Bu the more important point is that if we deny the distinction between a helpful and a not-helpful method and set of ideas, we ignore real-world harms.  There is no truth, eh? No objective reality? Tell that to the children who die because their parents choose prayer over medicine.  Tell that to people getting the Measles right now because other people believe that the MMR vaccine causes Autism (thanks Jenny McCarthy).  Tell that to creationists and other delusional people who deny evolution for the sake of an ancient mythological just-so story about a man, his wife/property, and a garden they were kicked out of because the property/wife was too skeptical.  Without a reality, we cannot be angry about these things because there is no objective truth to tell the difference.  But we can tell the difference.  and that very ability to rationally discern indicates a methodology of decision.  It indicates a way to choose between theories.

And yes, there are complicated problems with theory choice in the philosophy of science, but this does not point to the lack of objective truth, but only to problems in refining the methodology to attain it.  it’s sort of like how this is not a duck.  The empirical evidence can give us clues, even if we are missing pieces or are not sure which, among similar theories, to choose.

There are actual truths.  Evolution is true, the creation stories of the world religions are not.  This is not mere opinion, this is an idea backed up by evidence derived from experience of the world around us, meticulously tested and probed to the breaking point–but does has not broken.  Mythology is not true for the culture is exists within; it’s either verifiable or it is bullshit.  Saying that mythology is “true” seeks to conflate meaning with truth.  An idea might have meaning, but meaning does not imply truth.  If something is true and is understood by someone then that idea has meaning, but the fact that it is also true is a different question.  The Harry Potter Universe is largely internally coherent and meaningful, but magic isn’t real so the story is not true.  The concept of “spirituality” might have meaning for you, as if does for many people, but it does not correspond to anything intersubjectively real.  When it’s tested, it fails (there is $1,000,000 waiting for you if you can prove otherwise).  Things that have meaning to you might simply not be true.  Yeah, it sucks, but only because you prefer comfort to reality.

This is not about comfort v. truth, because if so comfort would win in a landslide election,  But mere comfort, for me anyway, is not enough.  Comfort is not happiness.  They might coexist, but not necessarily.

So what about happiness, then?

Some people might not like how reality is.  Compared to an emotionally powerful narrative of some religion, the apparent coldness of truth seems dry and is not conducive to happiness.  I don’t give a flying fuck.  Happiness within an illusion can only remain happiness in ignorance.  And this is where some people may come back with “well, I’d rather be happy and delusional than see the world through your eyes and be miserable!”

False analogy.

Christianity and it’s ideological ancestors and cousins may have tainted this question for us too much to see this clearly (Nietzsche sad that “the Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”), but there are no mythologies more awesome than the intricacies of cosmology, biology, quantum mechanics, or even mathematics.   As I have argued previously (please read that post if you have not already, as it applies to more than just humanism), the attempts of many liberal-minded people to seek solace in some sort of religious or spiritual environment in the face of the wasteland left behind the wars between the powers of monotheism and science (which has created an illusory dichotomy between the beauty and meaningfulness of religion and spirituality versus the dead, meaninglessness of a world without divinity) are still stuck in that Platonic worldview.  The question is framed in such a way that to ask whether we want religion or science/atheism seems to be asking if we want happiness or boring, dry, grey “truth” (which is actually just a lie, a deception of Satan or at least Loki).  The idea that truth is a fiction is, surprisingly to some, a very Christian (Platonic) theme.

The narrative of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic (hell, it’s down-right Platonic, neo-Platonic even, of them) dichotomies between meaning and nothing, Heaven and Hell, etc is ubiquitous.  It’s so old, so natural-seeming to us, that most people simply don’t even know it’s there.  When I discovered it myself, I was blown away, and frankly I still reel from it.  I, who never believed in any gods, always distrusted Christianity, and who found the idea of Heaven silly from a young age, was susceptible.  It is one of the most invisible assumptions and ideological axioms in our culture, and it’s power to sway not only our actions but our very beliefs, cannot be underestimated.  And if we think that we avoid it by leaving those large-tent religions, we are fooling ourselves.

But replacing one version this narrative with another one, rather than discarding it, is much easier.  Christianity and New Age Paganism, for example, have a lot in common despite the fact that they hate one another in many cases.  They have very different theologies, for sure, but the similarities of their basic metaphysical assumptions are striking.  There is an implicit distinction between the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, and meaningful and the meaningless.  These are false distinctions.  They simply are not real except in the mind of believers, and then only as abstractions with no correspondence.

There is no meaninglessness.  If it were meaningless, we couldn’t conceive of it, think about it, etc.  We have a place-holder word, but it points to nothing.  (Also, there is no nothing.  Same reasons).  There is no ‘spiritual’ world or being.  Because of that, ‘physical’ is redundant.  Everything that exists is physical (or material, or whatever term you prefer.  It is made out of stuff).  Tell me the difference between the lack of marbles, the non-physical marbles, and the imaginary marbles again, please? In other words, the dichotomy between the area (or realm, or whatever) of the source of happiness and the (other) area from where happiness cannot derive, is not a real thing.  Wherever happiness comes from, it is coming from somewhere real.  And knowing more about that reality will give you more information about your happiness (if you look in the right places), and what causes it (or prevents it).  Must I invoke Sam Harris?

So, the best way to be happy, both individually and as a culture, is to value skepticism as a methodology towards truth.  That way, your worldview is accustomed to change, possibly being wrong, and since you have been using it you are more likely to already have ideas which are rationally justified, so more likely true.  No matter how open-minded your faith tradition is–no matter how new, radical, or enlightened it is–the nature of faith is to conserve itself.  Conservation of culture is stifling of curiosity, freethinking, and ultimately of the truth.  So while paganism and other forms of Western New Age might be tied to liberalism generally and may provide more happiness than the traditional religions, they can only become less so and never more so.

Not without truth, anyway.

The longer a tradition which is not skeptical stays around, the more tradition, and thus conservatism, becomes important.  So the new age is preferable to Christianity, but only because Christianity has been in a position of power, and power only seeks its own happiness, not yours.

Progress is in the direction of atheism and naturalism.  That’s where the truth leads.  So, again, what about happiness?

Spirituality and religion only look like better sources of happiness because, in our culture, we have been conditioned to see a relationship between meaning and belief in something more than this mere physicality.  Since Plato’s long influence, people have thought that the physical is cold and dead, and needed something more to give it life and meaning.  This is a disease which has been eating at our species for two and a half millennia.  And as Nietzsche said, in my favorite quote of his,

“To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task”

We need to ignore the siren calls of spirituality and religion, thinking they are the only possible source of happiness.  We cannot be content to lie happy in illusion.  There are more things in reality here on Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your mythologies.

So, tell me that your religion provides happiness where the truth cannot, and I will say you are not looking closely enough at the truth, or are still viewing it though lenses with Platonic or Zoroastrian labels on them.  I think you need new glasses, ones with scientific lenses.  Because if you want to know more about happiness, you need truth.  Truth is the tool by which we better understand the potential for, as well as limits and causes of, happiness.  Because while we could experience happiness with little truth, the truth is the only sure way to lead to any more.  The better our access to truth is, the better we can be sure we are heading in the right direction.  Without truth, our forays into happiness will be a crap-shoot at best.  Being a good craps player means knowing the odds, and the odds are a kind of truth.

It’s not so much that truth causes happiness as untruth causes harm (or at least chaos and unpredictability).  But remember, even if the lack of truth in your world is not harming you (and it might be doing so without your knowledge), it is hurting someone else somewhere–possibly many others everywhere.  And I, personally, can’t remain happy knowing that is possible.  Or, at least I can’t without avoiding truth, which doesn’t seem like a good solution.  Ignorance is one thing, but willful ignorance is quite another.

I choose truth and happiness.

God Who? October 12, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, there’s this:

OK, so first of all the doorway to the polyskeptic compound is totally not in the shape of the TARDIS.

If you drive around New Jersey long enough, you will see this door. If you do, don’t stalk me.

OK, it is, but that does not mean that the house is bigger on the inside.  But the house can travel through time and space! …although only forward in time at the usual rate and in space only relative to things like cars, people, and so forth which move around and through it.

There are a couple of issues with the video above, such as the definition of religion used is not universally accepted, but I think it would be somewhat silly to seriously criticize such a video made with at least one tongue implanted in some cheek somewhere.

OK, so that sounds like it might be sexual, but I guarantee I’m only slightly turned on right now (and that has more to do with the TARDIS; it’s bigger on the inside.  That’s what she said).

OK, terrible jokes aside, I am sure that under some definitions of religion, some people I’ve met might classify as Whovian-cultists or someshit.  After all, a cult is really just a religion that is not Christianity, right? (It pains me to reference Matt Slick, so I feel like I need to balance that out with this video of a discussion between Matt Slick and Matt Dillahunty about the transcendental argument for god, or TAG).

Two sexy Doctors, a Dalek, and even Jack Harkness participating in the traditional Whovian ritual of being drunk.

OK, so Doctor Who, in conjunction with its fan-base, might be thought of as a religion.  I have never thought of it that way, but I also think that one part of what makes something a religion is the acceptance, or belief, that the object of reverence is real.

And then I wonder how “real” the people who created texts in ancient times about gods, creation, etc thought the stories were.  I think part of what makes mythology interesting is realizing that for many people, throughout many eras, didn’t have the same distinction between reality and myth, nor did they have a solid meaning of reality which we would recognize.  In other words, it may be the case that many people who have religious beliefs are not thinking about “truth” or “reality” using empirical or skeptical concepts of either of those terms.

Certainly, people can take those mythological ideas and subsequently think of them as real in our modern sense, but the fact that they end up there does not necessarily mean they started there.  There is the question, for example, of whether many of the New Testament books were closer to literature than history (I would recommend Tom Verenna’s blog for more about that), and whether many scriptures from around the world are even comparable to any sort of skeptical inquiry.  It may be that Jesus was a character of inspiration for first century Palestine in a similar way as the Doctor is an inspiration for many people now, all over the world.

And this is the point where some people will point at me and be like ‘See! You admit that religion is not to be taken literally, so your criticisms of them as if they are literal beliefs is shown to be wrong-headed,’ or something similar.  The problem here is two-fold.

First, in many cases people do take mythology as real in the sense I mean it; as in it describes the actual world and they simply are wrong about the facts.  Second, the fact that some people do not think of things this way shows where they are going awry in not understanding that we have a reliable methodology for knowing things about the world, and that mythologizing the world is not a means to understanding, but obfuscation, parochialism, and ultimately a worldview based not on what’s real but rather what is comfortable or even non-confrontational.

Unfortunately, many postmodernist approaches to the world are much closer to those who mythologize the world, which is why, I think, many (secular) progressive intellectuals tend towards liberal theology or at least show deference to such liberal theologies.  Karen Armstrong, for example, has talked about ‘God’ without concern for whether such a thing exists, as if that was not even relevant.  While I appreciate some of the contributions of postmodernism in philosophy, the tendency towards anti-realism, as opposed to realism, in the philosophy of science and in metaphysics has always been a bane for me.

Art and religion

So, The Doctor is not real.  But the show can be a source for thinking about the nature of the world, our choices and their consequences, and so forth.  It’s a living mythology, of sorts, which many draw inspiration from.  But is that inspiration, entertainment, and possible edification spiritual? Is it a religious experience?

As a person who has never believed in supernatural realities, but who has had experiences that seem similar to the descriptions of spiritual/religious experiences, I would say that there is some gray area here.  Where I think I am likely to say no is that I think that these experiences are the result of art, and not religion per se.  Religion, the great usurper of all things human, has once again stepped in and claimed something as its own when it belongs to all of us, religious or not.

So, insofar as Doctor Who, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Shakespeare, or…you get the point.  So long as artistic expression invokes existential inspiration in us, it is art that has done it.  We need to stop associating these things with gods or spirits, because they are natural occurrences with no supernatural explanations necessary.

Where does this leave ‘religion’? Well, as we become more secular and educated as a species, I envision religion becoming conflated with artistic and ritual social ties which will probably never go away, even as their supernatural associations dissolve into the nothingness from which they came.  But we should not forget that those supernatural and irrational additions to the art we have created over time have been semantically tied to so many things, and that people will continue to associate nonsensical ontological concepts to everyday experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.

Supernaturalism, theism, and even deism are irrational and even silly concepts which are clutching onto our art, even as they slowly die.  But the art, the inspiration, and the creativity of the human mind will continue long after the gods have all been forgotten.  So Doctor Who might be called a religion, but only in the loose and artistic sense that all that we do and love as humans is considered religious.  That is, in the watered down way that only seeks to distract us from what is truly irrational and dangerous about religion; faith.

When art turns into certainty, when creativity and inspiration is not checked by skepticism, is when it goes wrong for our art.  Because we can create illusory worlds to play in, but the imaginations of humanity are only for pretend and should not be guidelines from policy or morality without a skeptical check on their influence.  We need to leave faith behind because we don’t need to believe that our imaginings are real for them to be interesting.   Further, if we do believe they are real then we may be too unwilling, whether through reverence or fear, to make sure that they are rational.

So science and skepticism are not the source of all understanding, but they should be the arbiter of what we accept as true.  Art can inspire, entertain, and even teach us about the world, but we must make sure the lessons are actually true and not merely revere them unskeptically.

In other words, enjoy Doctor Who, and remember that he’s probably a better source of inspiration than Jesus.

Amen?

Scientism, put more succinctly… December 31, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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So, you say we can’t use science or rational thinking to appreciate music, love, poetry, etc?

So, when you look at, hear, feel, small,  taste, or apprehend those things, you are not using your empirically-based sensory apparati to perceive something real, and then to subsequently use your physical brain to process the information into a meaningful image with related concepts? Is not that beauty, and the appreciation of it, the result of that physical process?  Is that appreciation itself not another physical process in your brain, perceives subjectively?

Is the experience of appreciation of beauty nothing but what it is like to be that process, born of experience with a real world perceived empirically?

And what is science but the use of empirical tools to gather information then to use rational methods to organize that  data into meaningful ideas, which may include images, concepts, etc?  And when we can predict the behavior of reality based upon the principles learned from this, we have knowledge and understanding.

What is scientism, then, but accepting that the world, all of it, can be understood in terms of empirical methodologies and rational analysis?

Scientism or skepticism? November 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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There have been quite a few comments in recent months—in articles, debates, etc—proposing the evils of scientism.  Religion and science, say many thinkers, are compatible and to see otherwise is to see science’s reach as going beyond its fingers.  John Haught, for example, defines scientism this way:

Sicentism may be defined as “the belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth.”  Scientism, it must be emphasized, is by no means the same thing as science.  For while science is a modest, reliable, and fruitful method of learning some important things about the universe, scientism is the assumption that science is the only appropriate way to arrive at the totality of truth.  Scientism is a philosophical belief (strictly speaking an “epistemological” one) that enshrines science as the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.

(Science and Religion: from conflict to conversation, page 16)

John Haught

Now, John Haught is considered, by many, to be one of the world’s foremost experts in the relationship between science and religion.  And while I don’t deny that he has a lot to say about both science and religion, much of it valuable, I agree with Jerry Coyne (as well as Eric MacDonald) that his fundamental views about the intersection of science and religion is problematic if not down-right absurd.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the critics of the so-called “scientistic” people (one is tempted to juts call them “scientists”) seem to not understand the position as it is commonly used by those, such as myself, who believe that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world (perhaps the universe!).  The other part is, as has been pointed out, that this method conflicts too much with theological methodology which is often non-empirical.  People like Haught have a bias, a conviction that ties them to a set of doctrines which make claims at odds with science, and so they see something beyond the reach of empiricism.

But to say something is beyond empirical reach is to say that there are non-empirical things.  Well, how would they know? How could they know? From where could they get that data? Revelation? By what train does the “revelator” travel in order to get from a non-material world to a material one? What are the connecting tracks made of? Without a justification for how they get their information, we are right to be skeptical.

And that’s precisely it, isn’t it?  It isn’t about science per se, but skepticism.  The critics of us scientistic people think that we are claiming that we can design laboratory experiments in order to find answers for all questions, even their magic ones.  They think that when we say that science can answer questions about morality (for example), that we mean that people in lab coats can sit around with complicated bunson-burner experiments to determine what types of things to value, what meaning is, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It is a rather silly caricature, isn’t it?

Truth and the scientific method

If we are concerned with what is true, then we need to find tools which can help us find clues as well as shift through them to determine which of those clues can help.  But further, we need to find the best tool-set to use, how to use them, and how to know when they are not working.  Over the millennia human culture has developed a complicated history to how we determine the truth.  From the early days of philosophy and rationalism through the enlightenment which brought us more powerful tools of empirical research, we have developed what we now refer to as the scientific method.

It is through this method that we have the best information about what is likely to be true.  No other methodology is close to competing in terms of practical success or theoretical power.  This perpetually leaves me asking people who are critical of the scientific method what they could even try to put up against it.  There is no competition.  Cake or death, or something….

But despite this success of the scientific method, many people (especially postmodern philosophers and theologians) try and argue that neither empiricism and/or logic can tell us what is true.  That is, we have to assume some axioms, we must assume some things, to get anywhere with any of these methods.

Well, of course we do.  The question is whether A) other methodologies would have to accept the same axioms (such as non-contradiction, existence, and reliability of sensory perception) and B) whether this actually damages the method itself.  All important questions, but also beyond the scope of this post.  Instead, I want to take another related path here.

Do you value truth? Does it matter to you to have as many true beliefs as possible and as few false beliefs as possible?

As a preliminary, I must address the issue of whether I should have to justify why we should desire truth.  Having to justify the desire for truth when considering what methodology to use in determining truth is akin to justifying hunger when considering nutritional value in deciding what meal to eat.  If you aren’t ever hungry, there is no point in making such a decision.  If you don’t value truth, there is no point in the consideration of methodologies.

Is it not a value of yours to know true things? If so, then just stop reading.  Just go somewhere else, play some video games, and have a few drinks because nothing you say, do, or think is relevant any more concerning anything I have said here.  If you don’t care about what is true, or if what you prefer to be true is more important than verification, then there is simply no talking with you about epistemology, methodology, etc because you don’t care enough so it does not matter.

If you do care, then it should be your value, as a direct logical descendant of that prior value of truth-having, to utilize the best methodology for determining if things are true.  To accept any other method would be absurd, because it is not as good at determining if something is reasonable to accept as true.

And the best methodology for determining truth is, well, science right?  Well, partially.  The best methodology is actually…

Skepticism

That is, after all, the central theme of this blog.  “The Atheist, Polyamorous, Skeptic,” right?  The first two terms in that title are qualifiers of the last; they tell you what kind of skeptic I am.  But further, I believe that skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (and possibly polyamory; a topic for another day), but that is beside the point that I am a skeptic first, which should imply that if the evidence were to point elsewhere I would be otherwise.  Because evidence is what matters.

One of the primary ideas in skepticism is the idea of the null hypothesis.  Now, I realize that in every day practical science this ideal is not a reality, but a s a rule of scientific inquiry in general it is essential as a part of the philosophy of science.  It basically says that you should wait for sufficient evidence before accepting a hypothesis as true.  That is, you withhold belief until enough evidence, or at least rational justification, is given to accept something as having a basis in reality.

Obviously the amount of evidence necessary to accept a claim is proportional to the claim; I don’t expect you to withhold belief in the claim that I ate pizza for dinner tonight; it’s not an extraordinary a claim that is worthy of serious skepticism, and accepting it even if false has little to no consequences generally.  A supernatural being who created and controls aspects of the universe is a different matter, one worthy of skepticism and requiring good support to accept.  As far as I have seen, no good support exists for such a claim.

Skepticism involves many tools and ideals beyond crude empiricism.  Empirical testing, verification through demonstration of material effect, logic, reproducibility, etc.  It is a large tool set which together give us a very powerful detection apparatus for what is true, what exists, and what is not sufficiently verified to rationally accept.

It is this method, that of skeptical inquiry, which the scientistic people are on about.  It is not science per se but the whole set of empirical  and logical tools which I call skepticism.  It is thus my proposition that rather than call us “scientistic,” we should just call ourselves skeptics and have done with it.  Rather than argue against scientism in the science/religion debates, we should be framing the debate as one about skepticism versus non-skepticism.

It is my contention that many fans of NOMA or other angles on the science/religion compatibility side are being non-skeptical, or at least not properly applying skepticism to all aspects of their beliefs, worldviews, or reality.  I think this has been the crux of the issue all-along.

Religion

Against skepticsm, religion has a hell of a time competing.  This is not to say that religion does not use logic, empiricism, or skepticism at all.  It just often subverts them under the wing of revelation, authority, tradition, etc.  Many theologians (including William Lane Craig) have said that if it came down to what science says and what their scripture says, they stick with scripture.

But of course many other religious thinkers, such as John Haught and Francis Collins, believe that the methods of science (and perhaps of skepticism) are compatible with their religion.  But the problem with this is immediate, at least to me; religion is often essentially reliant on certain unquestioned propositions (sometimes referred to as “facts”) such as the crucifixion, the miracles of this or that deity or holy person, or the existence of a deity in the first place.  These questions, when pressed against the methods of skepticism (and not merely science), do not stand.  It has been one of the themes of this and many other “new atheist” blogs to demonstrate this week after week.

But when we open our skeptical tool boxes in the presence of ideas accepted due to tradition, faith, or unsupported personal experience we are told that those tools cannot reach there.  We are told that the substance of those things, the nature of their meaning, or even there very ontological status is beyond material manipulation.

But we, as animals with material nervous systems which make up all that we are, are not exceptions to the universe.  We ar enot privy to some magical bridge to some supernatural world.  This has to be supported first.  Haught and his cohorts on sciency-religious love-fests have to demonstrate that there is anything to their revelatory experiences in the first place.  They have to demonstrate that there is any reason to accept that there really is a separation of nature from supernature before they start making claims that the questions about them need different tools.

Science and religion are incompatible because while they both deal with the real world, the extra stuff that religion is supposed to have exclusive access to are not credible in the first place.  There is no reason to think they are real at all.  Only the best set of truth-testing tools that we have can reliably determine what is likely to be true, and those tools don’t expose the presence of the magic world which religion claims propriety over.

If the science/religion discussion is about who can say what about what is beyond the scope of skeptical analysis, then I vote that we let religion have it.   The result is that theologians get to play in imaginationland and skeptics and scientistics can go on having (as Haught says) “the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.”  What Haught and others don’t seem to get is that the rest simply is not rationally acceptable as real.