MLP XX: Douglas and Daniel

Time to close some tabs, this time on my perhaps greatest intellectual heroes. Daniel C Dennett and Douglas Adams.  Starting with Adams:

  • Is there an artificial god?” – Douglas Adams brilliant speech on Digital Biota 2 Cambridge U.K., September 1998. Fabulous stuff in a rambling typical Adamesque way. Including the famous puddle analogy and the ages of sand. Long read, but worth it.
  • “Parrots, the universe and everything” – A likewise rambling speech, but this time on video. Hilarious and reflective, just what we loved him for. And do read the book, it is rather nice.

And now Dennett:

  • “Free Will” – A lecture from Edinburgh University. This is, if you like, a short version of his book Freedom Evolves. Which you should read (I’m re-reading now).
  • “Thank Goodness” – Reflections on his near death experience (from an atheist’s perspective) and a moving thanks to the advancements of science and medicine we tend to take for granted these day. I don’t think I could be as hard on the theists though, but the man has a point.
  • “Autobiography, pt I” – And if you need more, here’s some on the man himself.



The Minimum Threshold Stand-off

Here’s a position I’ve been thinking about lately, and been tempted to try out, which has to do with the problems of communicating across different view points, mostly in paranormal, faith based or plain strange discussions (let’s call them “supernatural” for this post). Such discussions are often frustrating both for the skeptic and the believer as both sides tend to use very different language. But perhaps there’s a starting point we could use, a threshold to see if we should at all go on with the discussion?

Naturally I’m presenting this little exercise as a skeptic, but I’m genuinely interested in if this is a fair argument or not. Let’s call it “the minimum threshold stand-off”.

If you want to persuade me to accept a statement you have made as true which I currently do not believe, you must first, openly and honestly, acknowledge the possibility that you may be wrong. Furthermore, if I can provide you with examples of the kind of things that would be likely to sway me to accept you claim, the you must equally present me with examples of things that would sway you to change your opinion. If you cannot do this, it is either because you have honestly never considered the option and you may find it hard to come up with such examples immediately, or you are quite simply intellectually dishonest and uninterested in genuine argumentation.

Implied here is of course that if this minimum threshold fails, then I’m not interested in the discussion.What I’m trying to establish is mainly:

  1. A fair, double-edged starting point. If you want me to listen, you must listen yourself. If you want me to be open for alternative explanations, you must equally be open. This seems extremely fair and should not be controversial.
  2. A simple threshold based on meta-data instead of real arguments. Instead of arguing and getting involved in the messy details, let’s make sure we we start at the same page, and a page we can both agree to. This also seems fair, but in supernatural discussions it may seem skewed towards materialism (more on that below).
  3. A transparent agreement that both sides may be wrong. This should be obvious, but is remarkably often not.

Obviously I do not think very many supernatural proponents will be able to meet this test. And the reason I believe, is this: Many, if not all, supernatural ideas are based on faith, and faith, famously, is the belief in a proposition despite lack of evidence, or indeed in the face of conflicting evidence.

If this is a fair test it puts the supernatural proponent in a very difficult position. What, after all would make you stop believing in an almighty, all powerful god? What would make you stop believing in ghosts? What would make you accept that homeopathy does not work, and is mainly a fraudulent business?

Is this fair? After all we’re dealing with two kinds of changes here: the switch from “I do not believe” to “I believe” normally only requires positive evidence of some sort, whereas the opposite, going from the positive to the negative is often quite tricky. But in both cases it is a negative statement that is sought: what would it take to falsify you current beliefs? And as such, I’m beginning to think it is fair after all.

I do think that this test is slightly skewed to a materialistic view point, but in a good way. It requires simple, and verifiable examples to pass, and such examples, by the very nature of being verifiable, must be materialistic. There’s no other real alternative. But this is also one of the main strength of the test, in order to pass both sides must agree, in the real world, to examples of what is needed to persuade the other, that both can understand, and it should be nailing down an important point: The only things we can agree upon are facts, and those belong firmly in the real world; make belief can only take you so far.

This test is inspired by the Outsider Test of Faith, proposed by John W Luftus, of which one main point is that the only intellectually honest position from which to test ones faith is that of an outsider looking in.

What do you think?

The God of Eth

Lately I’ve started reading Stephen Law. Don’t really know why I picked him up, but so far so good, most of the stuff he publishes is very nice. In fact I shall have a look around for his books as soon as I’ve finished my current stack.In particular, his take of the problem of evil, is gratifying, The God of Eth:

This hardly sounds like the behaviour of a supremely compassionate and loving father-figure, does it? Surely there’s overwhelming evidence that the universe is not under the control of a limitlessly powerful and benevolent character?

In short, he uses a fictional dialog intending to show why the traditional religious responses to the problem of evil are at least inadequate, and the dialog does so by referring to an all evil god and showing that all arguments for the all good god can easily be turned around. Read the whole stuff, it good.Which reminds me; and I’ll leave you with a very beautiful lyric:

Credo in un Dio crudelche m’ha creato simile a sèe che nell’ira io nomo.Dalla viltà d’un germeo d’un atomo vile son nato.Son scellerato perchè son uomo;e sento il fango originario in me.Sì! Questa è la mia fè!Credo con fermo cuor,siccome crede la vedovella al tempio,che il mal ch’io pensoe che da me procede,per il mio destino adempio.Credo che il guistoè un istrion beffardo,e nel viso e nel cuor,che tutto è in lui bugiardo:lagrima, bacio, sguardo,sacrificio ed onor.E credo l’uom giocod’iniqua sortedal germe della cullaal verme dell’avel.Vien dopo tanta irrision la Morte.E poi? E poi?La Morte è il Nulla.È vecchia fola il Ciel!

I’ll leave the translation for you :-)

MLP VII: Islamic madness and cool science

Item no. 1: Via Jim Downey at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, a perfect example on what religious law will give you. I imagine it wasn’t that much different in Europe some hundred years ago. This is the shit: a boy and a girl, walking together in public even though they were not yet married.

According to the Supreme Court’s earlier decision, the killers, who are members of the Basiji Force, volunteer vigilantes favored by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, considered their victims morally corrupt and, according to Islamic teachings and Iran’s Islamic penal code, their blood could therefore be shed.The last victims, for example, were a young couple engaged to be married who the killers claimed were walking together in public.Iran’s Islamic penal code, a parallel system to its civic code, says murder charges can be dropped if the accused can prove the killing was done because the victim was morally corrupt.

Item no. 2: It would seem that Einstein was probably right. If someone was wondering. And also note, nutcases, that this is science working, they’re still trying to find errors with his ideas. So if you think science is dogmatic and religious, well, show the religion where its members work their asses off trying to prove their profets wrong. Hm? No? Ok, then find out what the Gravity Probe B is. Go on. Its fascinating.

The tired narcissism of hereditary sin

So, last night I sang at a midnight mass together with St Jacobs Chamber Choir. The darkest night in the quiet week. Right in the plot, the longest dark, where our heroes seems doomed, with evil on all sides and no way out. And it struck me, forcefully, how self-centered and, here comes an ugly word indeed, whiny the religious angst is often portrayed, especially during passover.

(And with failed metaphors all around. How about this: the congregation gathered outside the church, in the graveyard, around a fire. After a few quiet words a large candle was lit, and carried at the head of a procession into the church. So far so good, eh? But what happens to the metaphor when the candle is blown out halfway? Hmmm?)

The theme of the night was of course angst and darkness. And so it has been for a while now. It’s like a big hammer swung by the church to keep the peasants in line. “You’re wretched creatures, you have no purpose in life except in Christ, you have no meaning in life except through Christ.” And so on. I remember, 17 years ago when I too really believed, that it had an impact. According to me at the time, people had existential angst all the time. (I loved Jean-Paul Sartre.) And they, the nameless sheep, rightly had angst because they were too far from god. Obvious isn’t it? And hang on, we shouldn’t be so fast slapping each others backs even if we’re Christians, we have angst too, we sit in the dark corners shuddering and only the light of Christ can save us. When the priests said things like, and this is an example from yesterday, “where do you go, what do you do, when the café latte have turned cold in your hands?”, I thought it true and manifestly profound.

But in reality, its only empty posturing.

Yesterday, for every metaphor and every story weaknesses popped out of the bare walls of the place. Is your latte cold? Well mate, let that be the most of your worries. Personally I’d go to the nearest microwave oven and heat it. And what of the terrible story you told us last night, including bloody details, of “we can call her Tanni” who is now being refused permanent citizenship in Sweden and is being sent back to the country where she was repeatedly tortured? The story of is “we can call her Tanni” is horrible, and we should be rightly ashamed that it happends on our watch, but did you offer anything concrete, anything tangible we can do to make it better? No. Did you offer any plausible explanation on why she’s being refused? No. Did you in fact, use her misery only to depress us, swing her story like a so gory hammer on our heads, forcing home you message of darkness, depression and angst? Yes. And damn disgusting it is mate. You see, you can keep you blood and damnation, here’s my suggestion to you: instead of gathering the sheep in a cold dark church to no readily discernible purpose at all, you could have stayed home and made love with your wife, you could have held each other warm against the darkness tapping your window. And then, afterwards, you could have sent 100SEK, a small sum indeed for 99.9% of anyone who was in church last night in Sweden, to charity. A tiny token of your love and gratitude for all you have been given. Imagine how much money it would be if everyone had done that, instead of rolling in you mass-produced misery, like so many Stockholm-syndrome sufferers with fat wallets? How many “we can call her Tanni” could we have actually helped with such a small gesture?

Every time a child is saved by the doctors, from an accident that only 20 years ago would have been lethal, we should celebrate. For every “we can call her Tanni” that is given a new chance, a chance that 100 years ago would not have existed, we should celebrate. Every time we solve a conflict at the diplomacy table instead of the battle field, we should celebrate. Every time the sun shines on our, frankly rather privileged, faces, we should celebrate. In fact, we should celebrate and then go out and do something practical, something with our hands or our words, to help those less privileged.

You can keep you bleak, angst-ridden narcissism for yourself.