Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Woah, dude!

The attentive reader may have noted that, when I was muttering about the reality-based community, I dropped some fairly heavy hints that membership of the RBC was not the only, or even necessarily the best, way to run one's life. That ties in with the rather incoherent post about just getting on with it.

I think I've actually managed to figure out how to turn the get-up-and-go attitude on and off at will. It's really weird - I get roughly the same sensation as when I'm riding the tail end of an all-night work session. Imagination stops. Distractions cease to distract. I no longer have a strong urge to read, blog or laze about.

What's slightly worrying me is that this attitude doesn't feel particularly contrived - I'm not acting it out, I'm just changing into a pre-existing gear. That opens up the rather worrying possibility that, if I get too used to this new mode, I'll get stuck like that. Which would rather suck.

I always laugh when I see cartoons about people smoking weed and going into obscure speculation about the nature of mind. I guess I just find it strange that some people need drugs for that...
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Monday, April 17, 2006

Faith vs. Reality

When I was younger, I spent about 7 years attending a weekly Christian youth club. They were wonderful people, and I spent many happy hours discussing theology with them. One thing that I never really got, though, was their reliance on faith.

Faith (heretofore defined as belief in the absence of evidence) is a very odd thing. When applied to many situations, most people would agree that it is synonymous with stupidity - for example, having faith that you can jump off a skyscraper and survive is not terribly sensible. And yet a vast number of people use it to justify strongly-held beliefs. Where's the borderline between situations where faith is and isn't acceptable, and how is that borderline justified?

My belief is that no such borderline is justified. I have never seen any situation where faith has resulted in a more accurate understanding of reality. Holy books do not generally tell us any confirmable facts about the universe that we didn't already know. They don't make any testable predictions that we couldn't already propose. Faith, when applied to understanding the universe, is completely useless.

So why do people have so much respect for faith? One way or another, I think it's an intellectual cop-out. In its simplest form, it acts as an excuse for not thinking much about the universe. It allows an individual to opt out of the reality-based community with a clear conscience. It means they don't have to waste time that could be better used advancing their position in life. The reality-based community is seriously under-represented amongst the CEOs of major corporations, and I strongly suspect that this is why.

A slightly more complex variant arises from intuitive perceptions of the universe. For example, in this article in the Observer, Richard Harries argues that:

However, religious belief is a matter of considered judgment. It involves our aesthetic sense, our moral judgment, our imagination and our intuition. In this respect, it is not totally different from making a judgment, for example, that Beckett is a great playwright, the war against Iraq was wrong or the sheer existence of the universe is awesome.

It's possible for an idea to Just Feel Right to someone. They can't justify it, but they "know" it's true - so they call upon faith to spring the trap of rationality they find themselves caught in. Faith allows them to treat objective questions ("does God exist?") as if they were subjective questions ("was Beckett a great playwright?"). Faith claims that their intuitive feelings constitute a valid argument. The problem with this, of course, is that intuitive beliefs about the universe have a regrettable tendency to be horribly inaccurate, to the point that overcoming these intuitions is an essential part of joining the reality-based community. As a rule, "self-evident truths" generally aren't.
Of course, faith of this sort has trouble surviving in a critical environment. Any scientist claiming to hold to a scientifically-testable belief on the basis of faith can and will be laughed at. There's a definite social component to faith, and I suspect that it is often provided by those whom faith does benefit - the hucksters and frauds. Religion will never die out whilst there's good money to be made exploiting those who adhere to it. The demagogues, the televangelists, the politicians who are miraculously born again just when their popularity needs a boost - all these, and the honest people they dupe, contribute to an atmosphere where criticism of faith is considered unacceptable. The same goes for other snake-oil salesmen - the psychics, the Qabbalists, the sellers of "alternative therapies".

As many of the crazier religious folk would claim, there is indeed something of an underground war going on. In the red corner, we have the scientists, the skeptics, the folk who insist on hard evidence before they'll believe. In the blue corner, we have the fundamentalists, the quacks, the preachers and the innocent folks who believe them. The former group has by far the best credibility; the latter group has by far the most convincing rhetoric. Who will win? That remains to be seen.

[Reality Check Disclaimer: This post is a rather speculative rhetorical piece, and as such may not be accurate. If you feel that any of the arguments or conclusions presented are incorrect or insufficiently justified, please call me on it]
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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Putting my money where my mouth is

In the last post, I waxed eloquently about the value of a reality-based approach to the world. As I mentioned, a key part of this is testing one's understanding against the facts and the alternative hypotheses to the greatest extent possible. That's where this thread comes in.

If you have seen me make any statement that you disagree with, and you think your position is better backed up by facts and logic than mine, this is the thread for you. Tear down my views and/or build up your own, and show no mercy. If I feel you have a more watertight case than me, I'll publically concede. If you manage to overturn one of my more fundamental precepts, for example my atheism, I'll send you a bottle of Scotch (P&P charges permitting).

Additionally, feel free to insist that I provide support for any position that you feel I haven't fully justified. Be as inquisitorial as you like!

All this can be considered to be a standing offer - it's in no way limited to this thread - but having as much of the discussion in one place as possible can't hurt.
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The reality-based community

There is an ideal. It claims that a vital prerequisite of a high-Quality life is an accurate understanding of how the universe works. Recently I've taken to referring to this ideal's adherents as the reality-based community.

This is not the same as the scientific community - it's possible to be a member of the RBC without being a scientist, and it's possible for a scientist to have non-reality-based beliefs. Nor is it the same as atheism - atheists can be dogmatic too - although at the present time I'd say that atheism is a necessary condition for membership (but I'm an atheist myself so I would say that...). It's not quite the same as scepticism - unjustified scepticism is not reality-based. However, it can reasonably be considered to be the motivation for all of these behaviours.

The heart of this ideal is a willingness to admit when you're wrong coupled with an active drive to make sure that your inaccuracies get exposed as quickly as possible. It's about seeking out alternative hypotheses and analysing them on their own merits. It's about not rejecting ideas just because they conflict with your understanding of the world. It's also about ditching ideas the moment you find yourself unable to support them, in an appropriately public manner, no matter how attracted to them you are. It's about truth, often at the expense of beauty.

As the origins of the phrase suggest, this viewpoint has its weaknesses. Members of the reality-based community, dedicated as they are to building an accurate understanding of the universe, may have comparatively less drive to achieve. They will generally have made conscious efforts to avoid being ruled by their feelings and instincts, so may actually be slightly handicapped in situations where intuitive responses are more appropriate (in particular, members of the RBC are unlikely to be good at rhetoric).

However, if you want an answer to a factual question about the universe, ask someone who follows this ideal. Their answer may be wrong (and in fact they'll often caution you against assuming that it's 100% right), but it definitely won't be crazy.

No-one's perfect. There's not a single person in this world who is fully a member of the reality-based community. We all have our dogmas, and it's painful to let them go - and, until we do, we can't consider ourselves part of this select yet self-selecting group. In my opinion, however, it's an ideal worth aiming for.
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Friday, April 14, 2006

Debate: Can science justify the statement "God does not exist"?

There's one of those perennial debates brewing over at PandasThumb.org between those who (broadly speaking) think it is scientifically valid to say "God doesn't exist" and those who think it'll always be a philosophical position (including yours truly). I'm hoping to move it over here so as to avoid horribly derailing the PT thread.

Since I'm creating this thread, I get to go first! Yay!

In accordance with the rules of formal debate, I'll first define a few terms:

  • Logic = inductive reasoning from premises to infallible conclusions
  • Science = the scientific method = hypothesis testing and peer review. Includes both inductive and deductive reasoning.
  • Philosophy = the study of scientifically-intractable problems (technically science is a branch of philosophy, but let's not go there)

My position is that approaches like science and logic are merely a means to an end. They are models that we apply to the universe where appropriate in order to generate accurate predictions about what will happen next. We use them because they have turned out to be very very good at this.

I personally do my best to use them all the time, but that is a philosophical position distinct from science or logic. It is based on my (unsupportable and possibly inaccurate) belief that, in the long run, a strongly predictive model of how the universe works will enable me to be happier, and on my philosophical belief that scientific and logical methods are the best way to achieve this.

If someone felt that this was not the case, or decided that happiness was not their goal in life, then IMO they would be philosophically justified in not applying scientific or logical methods. For example, if a man was suspicious that his wife's baby was not his own, he might legitimately decide that parenthood testing was not in anyone's best interest.

I don't deny that rational approaches are consistently better than all others at determining how the universe works. I do deny that the acceptance of rational approaches follows directly from this statement. Setting rationality aside isn't necessarily a daft decision, and it's something that I feel people have the right to do - as long as they don't inflict their irrationality on me.
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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Cliché Invasion #1

Every so often, someone comes out with a comment that Just Works. It's a cliché in the making, a meme waiting to spread. It encapsulates some concept so beautifully that you just know you're still going to be using it in fifty years time (to the great annoyance of those around you).

On the off-chance I come up with bon mots of this sort, I'll stick 'em here. First entry (in response to this comment):

I think the problem is more that the faithful have all their eggs in one basket, and are thus made happier by evidence that it’s a well-woven basket than evidence that the handle’s about to break. As such, they tend to convince themselves that the former is correct and the latter is merely misguided anti-basket sentiment.

The result? They end up as complete basket cases.

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