Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Causality (a rant in four parts)

Our Demon-Haunted World

Delhi deputy mayor killed by monkeys. What a tragic waste of life.

It would have been bad enough if it had been a completely random accident, but this death is a consequence of a deliberate policy of the Indian government. The number of monkeys in Delhi has been increasing dramatically of late, but the government is not willing to reduce their numbers with a cull.

Why won't they take this step? Is it because they don't have the resources? Is it some principled stand on cruelty to animals? Sadly, the actual reason is far more bizarre, and far less justifiable.

Deputy Mayor Sawinder Bajwa died because the Hindu majority thinks that killing monkeys would annoy the monkey god Hanuman.

Now, if this seems bizarre to you, don't forget: a substantial portion of Americans think that the world was created 6,010 years ago, and that Jesus's image miraculously appears on slices of bread and wooden fences. This sort of primitive superstition is scarily common even in supposedly enlightened societies. As this melodramatic news story demonstrates, that can cost lives.

The skeptical movement works to inoculate people against nonsense by teaching the skills of logical reasoning, and by explaining why certain forms of "proof" are invalid. We hope that, over time, this will enable people to recognise and evict the vampiric memes of socially-glorified ignorance.

This is not easy work. If there's one thing these notions are good at, it's dodging the chainsaw of rationality. The problem is that people want to believe this stuff: a garden with fairies at the bottom is less intellectually challenging than one filled with biochemistry and zoology and evolution. As a result, fairies are incredibly resilient creatures.

How do you kill a fairy? First you block up every single escape route you can find. If you miss even a single one - be it a postmodernist assault on reason or a Kantian moral excuse or a Pascal-style argumentum ad baculum - the fairy will disappear down it, and re-emerge as soon as the coast is clear. This is why refuting even a single daft argument, such as the 6,000-year-old Earth, can take a lifetime. The haymaker punch of reason can't be landed until superstition has nowhere to run.

The Role of Apologetics

The skeptic's task is not made any easier by the cottage industry of apologetics. For those who haven't come across this term before, the goal of apologetics is to manufacture excuses for continued belief in the apologist's deity of choice. Rhetorical techniques such as the Gish Gallop, which consists of rapidly spewing out hundreds of lame arguments to give an impression of correctness, allow a single apologist to fight off many skeptics and give his audience an opportunity to hold onto their faith.

We're at a disadvantage in this fight - our only weapon is the truth, which takes a long time to unsheathe. Reality may have a well-known atheist bias, but Rhetoric whores itself out to any religion in search of converts.

How do you deal with an apologist? It's the same fairy-killing process as before: systematically demolish every support, no matter how tenuous, they put forward for their lunacy. Highlight every error, hammer at every inconsistency, drive home every weakness in their argument like a stake through the heart of the audience's parasitical religious beliefs.

The Blockade of Moderacy

Here we have a problem. There is one set of foundations that we can't attack: the foundations that our audience is using for their cherished religious beliefs. If the apologist flees into one of those ratholes, he is untouchable - any attempt to challenge him will result in collateral damage to the moderate believers in the audience.

"Of course God made the world in seven days. After all, it's in the Bible, and the Bible is divinely inspired."
"Of course these 'fossils' we keep finding were put there to test our faith. After all, God is all-powerful, so he certainly could do that."
"Of course Creation Science is parsimonious. After all, we already know that God exists, so invoking Him is not in breach of Occam's razor."

Every single argument for harmless homeopathy is an argument for life-threatening chelation therapies. Every single argument for guardian angels is an argument for forced exorcisms. Every single argument for moderate religion can be used as a hiding-place for the most virulent of extremist beliefs.


Many commentators have asked why we attack moderate religion. "It's sheer foolishness," they say, "to attack people on the same side as you. You'd do far better to work with them to build a more rational world by increments."

To these critics, I say: if we do not attack the beliefs of the moderates then the bigotry and blindness of the extremists slips through our fingers like toxic sand-grains. To the extent that this battle for rationality has sides, the moderates are not on ours. Any attempt to cater to them deprives us of much of our arsenal of reason, and ensures our eventual defeat at the apologists' hands. Moreover, to attack only the extremists would be clear hypocrisy on our part.

To all my fellow skeptics out there: keep up the good work. It's a long, tiring slog, but history is on our side. The world we live in has become more and more dependent on the scientific and technological fruits of skeptical thinking. As this trend continues, the cognitive dissonance of the believers - both moderate and extreme - can only become more and more obvious.

And to any moderates who might be reading this: please think about how you justify your beliefs. Do you use fallacies? False data? Arguments from personal experience or unsupported faith? If you use none of these then please contact me, because one of us is obviously very wrong, and if it's me then I'd rather find out sooner than later.

But, if you use any of these, please remember the consequences of your holiday from reason. Remember the rank superstition that shelters under the broad leaves of irrationality. Remember its results. Remember Deputy Mayor Bajwa.

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