Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

why agnosticism is a pointless stance

February 8th, 2009

Disclaimer: Depending on your definition of atheism and agnosticism, I may actually be advocating agnosticism in this text. These two terms have any number of definitions and what follows simply reflects my perception of them. The point is not that one term is better than the other. What I'm trying to argue is simply that one type of thought process associated with agnosticism is not particularly useful.

The more I think about agnosticism the more I think it's just the politically correct face of atheism. It's a way to say "Hey, listen guys, you say you know god exists, and we're skeptical. But that doesn't imply we think we're better than you, we just think it's impossible to know at all." That is the gist of it, but does it really differ from the atheist position in any important way? I don't think it does.

Does an agnostic believe in god? If he did he would be a believer. Which he isn't. So the answer is no. Of course, the agnostic slogan is "I don't know", but in a question of belief, there is no such thing. There is no way to not know if you believe in something. You either believe or you don't, and if you "don't know" that means you don't. You fail to give a positive answer.

The problem with agnosticism is that it gets you into meaningless statements about probability. An agnostic who adamantly repeats "I don't know" is likely to be seen as low hanging fruit for believers and unbelievers alike. "Okay then, what do you think is more likely?" Agnostics in their drive to be even handed get pushed into saying that both are 'equally likely'. Well, what on earth does that mean? Is that a statement about statistical probability? So in a repeatable experiment where the universe is created god appears 50% of the time? That's absurd reasoning. We are not talking about something measurable and therefore there is no way to say 'how likely' it is.

Wrong question, wrong answer

A philosopher once said "as a philosopher it is not that I can produce more answers, but I can make sure we don't ask the wrong questions".

Religious people claim to know with absolute certainty that god exists. And thus they seek the equivalent answer from the unbeliever. "Can you say with absolute certainty that god does not exist?" It is the wrong question. And to see why we need only ask a different, obvious, question. "Is there anything at all you believe with absolute certainty?" Again, the answer is no.

What does 'absolute certainty' even mean? It would have to mean, I think, that notwithstanding circumstances you know nothing about, your faith would still hold. If nothing else, that strikes me as just about the most foolish statement imaginable. Religious people claim to have this certainty, and that's their business.

In any case, we know that life is unpredictable, and it is possible that anything one has established as knowledge may be overturned. Is there any knowledge at all you have that holds beyond the constraints of sensory perception and reason? No, there isn't. Everything is theoretically subject to change.

So why on earth should I have to answer the question of god to a greater degree of certainty than I have about any other question in life? Agnosticism exists only because we need an answer to this incorrect question.

Atheism is the realization that the question is incorrect. An unbeliever simply does not have an equivalent answer to the question of absolute certainty. Atheism is not about absolute certainty, it is about giving an answer to a question that has a reasonable answer. Does god exist? No. Do you know this with absolute certainty? Irrelevant. I know god doesn't exist with the same certainty that I know Superman doesn't exist, and that's perfectly sufficient.

Atheism is the realization that the difference between a hypothetical "no" and a practical "no" isn't worth dwelling on. Because when it comes down to choosing how to live life, there is no agnostic option. You either live your life according to religious observance or you don't. No agnostic will sit in the 'waiting room' until the answer comes in. Thus there is no practical difference between the agnostic and the atheist, only a theoretical one.

This also resolves the misunderstanding that "atheism is faith just like theism". Atheists do not have an equivalent belief, that is what the a in atheism means.

Political correctness

How does political correctness factor into it? I think the answer is obvious. Religion is such a big issue in our culture that we have the intuition not to take these questions lightly. Religion is not just an issue of faith, it's also a question of world view, of social institution, of tradition, of family ties. To reject the god hypothesis is to reject religion, because what sensible religious observance could follow if you eliminate the cornerstone of religion itself? And to reject religion is to make a big life decision.

That is the paradox of the god question. The fallout may be complicated, but the question isn't. So people hesitate to say what they would so easily say if it wasn't for the collateral damage.

To say "I don't know" to a question of belief, I think, is to say "I don't believe, but I'm not sure what the consequences are going to be". We are not so hesitant to answer other questions of faith. Do people say "wait a minute, you can't be dead certain that Superman doesn't exist"? Actually, I can. He's a fictional character from a comic book. Do I need to be more guarded in my reasoning? No, I don't. I'm never going to get a more useful answer than "no".

Are you still on the fence about Santa Claus? Of course not. Because there is no reason not to say just say "no".

when people stop believing in god

February 5th, 2009

I decided to brush dust off this old chestnut that I've seen trotted around recently:

When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing— they believe in anything. ~ G. K. Chesterton

People seem to be using this rationale as a warning. "Now listen, if you stop believing in god, bad things could happen." And apparently the same people insist that it's true. Supposedly new age medicine is on the rise, people join various cults, the world seems to be acting more gullible on the whole. Perhaps.

But let's go back to Chesterton. Let's see what he's saying there. And this is not just my reading of it, this is how I perceive people are interpreting his statement to make a point:

When people stop believing in god they start searching for something else to believe. And they end up believing the most ridiculous things, they turn to superstition.

On the face of it, that seems like an insightful observation. But when you think about it for a minute.. what could be more ridiculous than god? I mean if you believe that story, how much more gullible could you get? Superstition? You mean like supernatural beings?

You know how people say "don't do drugs, they'll mess you up"? I wouldn't know, because I've never taken any. But it seems to me people are messed up already without the drugs.

The only difference between religion and your run-of-the-mill superstition is that religion is institutionalized. It is the accepted (or if you will, tolerated) superstition. It's the emperor's new clothes. It's Santa Claus. It's "sssh don't say it out loud, those people over there still believe it".

Chesterton was half right. People will believe anything. They do this not after rejecting god, but from the very beginning. And god is very much a part of of this "anything".

We see this again and again, how easy it is to trick people into doing things that are not in their best interest. How advertising makes us desire things we don't really want. How phishing attacks get people to give up their password by telling them lies. It's absolutely true. This is our weakness, and everyone is vulnerable.

I do it myself. I somehow got this idea that I have an impact on the results of my team. The situation is like this. I'm not watching the game, and I don't even know there is a game underway. So I just randomly check the scores to see if anything is happening and I notice my team is playing. If I then start following the scores until the end it often seems like a positive starting point turns into a bad result. What started out as a lead results in a draw or loss. I seem to have a bad impact. So what do I do about it? I don't follow it. I try to put it out of my mind and just check the score when it's all over. (Inevitably, of course, I forget. And I check before the game is over, by which time it might be a draw, so that just fuels the superstition.)

So what is that? It's superstition, plain and simple. Of course, I know that I don't have any effect on the result. And I would never try to suggest to someone that it's better not to check the scores underway lest you impact the result. It's totally irrational. But I still kind of believe this, my behavior proves that I do.

Superstition is a common thing, a lot of people have one thing or another that they kind of secretely believe despite knowing better. It's who we are. But to say that one man's superstition is gullibility, while another's is virtue? Let's cut the crap.

shifting the perimeter of debate

September 4th, 2007

Every debate has a perimiter. Which means it has limits, within which the debate unfolds. There is a left extreme, and a right extreme. These limits are not imposed, but they are naturally respected by most people who engage in the debate. And for those who feel the limits are too narrow, and whose position is found outside of the extremes, generally abstain from engaging in it, because they don't expect to find any support for their standpoint.

What is interesting is that this perimeter is not fixed. The extreme positions of the debate represent the most extreme reasonable positions on the subject. Of course, most people don't find the extremes reasonable at all, they find their own position somewhere in between, but they are reasonable limits to the debate. That is to say, people are inclined to think my position is in between, but I recognize the extremes as the correct limits for this debate.

Now, most people are not concerned with the perimeter at all, because they only care about their own position somewhere in the middle. But the perimeter does affect the debate. Just how far to the right the right is, affects the perception of where the middle is.


Suppose you shift one extreme further outwards than it was to begin with. Anyone who is new to the debate will now perceive the middle to be in a different place than it used to be. Those who were present from the beginning will not, they will still have their own bearings. But the debate has effectively been transformed.


Why is this possible? Because people care about the consensus, not the extremes. The discussion is centered around finding a common ground somewhere in the middle, it may be a bit to the left or a bit to the right, but it isn't anywhere near the edges. The consensus is found on neutral territory, the part that is mostly white. And the discussion is ferocious, you can be sure of that, no one is willing to budge an inch.

Shifting the perimeter is a powerful thing. Suppose there is a heavy debate about an issue. In comes someone who presents a view so extreme that it falls outside the limits of the debate. What will happen? Those engaging in the debate will most likely dismiss the argument out of hand, that guy is insane, no one takes him seriously. But suppose he is able to win a little support for his stand. As soon as a handful of people start taking him seriously, the perimeter has effectively changed. To anyone who hasn't heard the arguments before, it would seem that the debate is broader.

Radical opinions

There is a lot of hype about Ron Paul these days. In the distinct absence of politicians who represent people's real values, Ron Paul has become somewhat of an icon for common sense. So much so that his hype has triggered a counter reaction. You will hear people say things like that Ron Paul thing is getting out of hand, as if I believe that he is the *one* honest politician who actually *will* solve all our problems.

And that's a perfectly reasonable reaction, why *should* Ron Paul be the messiah when every other politician lies through his/her teeth through the election campaign? But under the circumstances, given the current political climate, Ron Paul is very useful, because he steers the debate into a sensible perimeter.

Michael Moore is another radical. People have accused him of playing fast and loose with the facts and being purposely misleading even without outright falsehoods. That may be so, but he's very useful nonetheless as someone vocal to shift the perimeter and throw light on issues that really need to be looked at. He isn't the voice of reason, but in his radicalism he makes the reasonable *more likely*. The principle is that you have to *exaggerate* to be heard, you have to go past the line so that people notice and it becomes a real choice. Does Moore do this deliberately? Hard to be sure, but I'd say so.

More radical still is, of course, Richard Stallman. What Stallman accomplished is a pretty amazing thing. He shifted the perimeter for what was for most of us the spectrum between pay-to-use and freeware by saying that no, freeware is not free, genuine freedom is only in Free Software.

Stallman gets a lot of flak for being so pig headed. He's completely unwilling to compromise, and he won't even speak to you unless you accept to use his terminology. Unless the software is completely free he won't use it, no matter how small the concession is. And this comes across as silly, people say he would make more friends if he were just a tiny bit more flexible.

But that's precisely why he's so valuable. He *defines* that extreme standpoint. Must all software be free? No, of course not. At the present time, we are still lacking a few things, like hardware support (video drivers) and access to closed formats (flash), but otherwise the free software desktop offers just about the best experience of what *can* be had with proprietary software. So why *should* I be concerned that there is lots of software that isn't free if I have an experience just as good?

You probably don't agree fully with Stallman, but thanks to his position we *have* a debate about free/open source software. Otherwise we would probably be stuck discussing the merits of shareware vs freeware. Stallman might just be the most powerful example of shifting the perimeter in a positive way.

Lawrence Lessig has tried to do the same with copyright as a whole. He may have called it raising awareness, which is a common term for this. He rejected the whole discussion about whether or not people were infringing on copyright as being beside the point, by saying that most works that are still under copyright should be free. Forget fair use, we need to shorten the copyright term and strengthen the public domain. His involvement has given us the Creative Commons, which similar to Stallman's GNU, is about creating new works and ensuring their freedom from the start.

Interestingly, Lessig has quoted Stallman and GNU very widely as the positive example of what he tried to achieve, so it seems clear that Stallman's position has helped this come about.

Ps. Do not confuse this with personality worship, I'm discussing standpoints, not personalities.

extra terrestial life

June 29th, 2003

First of all, I'd like to dedicate this installment to Torkel, he's the one who got me into blogging in the first place, thanks to his own blog. Ie. it's his fault you're reading this now ;-)

A popular representation of extra terrestial existence It amazes me the kind of ideas people have about intelligence in outer space. For many it's hard to imagine we are alone on this tiny little planet, in an infinite (or not) universe, just us and there's noone anywhere. So they make up stories about aliens, who they are, what they look like and so on (apparently their ships are gigantic and in most cases silent). We like to picture them as similar to us, breathing air, looking all weird with various animal like features and we like to kick some alien butt too.

Well I got a beef with that, it's far too simplistic for my taste. The assumption is common for all speculation of that kind, ie. the human being is the center of the universe. Apparently, that is obvious to a lot of people, few dare question it. Why does it have to be so? Because all those theories assume that if indeed there is life in the universe, the human being can see it, communicate with it and why not destroy it. Ie. the human mind is at least equal, perhaps superior, to any other form of intelligence.

Let's take a radical step now, what if that is not the case? What if the human being, along with the human mind, is just a small element of a greater whole? If you think about it this way.. everything that we know stems from our reasoning. Our senses give us a base to explore the Earth. We employ them to do that, and every step from that very beginning all the way to modern time, is a chain of deductions, nothing more. All science is based on the information we first obtain through our senses. The periodic table is a list of chemical materials we believe cannot be split and make up the world we know, it's a result of our reasoning.

Time for that step now... What if the world we know is relative to a greater entity? What if our minds operate in some section of that entity and there are things we are not fit to understand? If we imagine this is the case, then it follows that we will never understand anything more than we now do. The term "dimension" is one we like to use. Time is the 4th dimension, no further dimensions are defined. What if extra terrestial life is to be found in other "dimensions"? Wouldn't that make more sense, imagine "life" is spread uniformly in the universe and our specific brand of life exist on Earth, but there are other life forms we don't know about, will never know about and even if we did, could never understand nor communicate with? We simply have no bridge into their world, their type of existence is completely abstract to us. Is that a less reasonable speculation?

To me that makes just as much sense, simply because of the explanation already given: our understanding of our own existence boils down to our mind. "It's all in your head" and that's exactly right. Imagine there is a world where concepts of time, quantity, memory etc (all fabrications of the human mind) are abstract.

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it becomes very vague very quickly, ideas emanate which are hard to grasp, there are no firm definitions because very few assumptions are being made. I cannot say if the statement above makes any sense to anyone but me.

Ps. No, it's not "The Matrix", I've had these thoughts way before I knew about the movie, nor do they have anything to do with it. The closest movie I know to touch on the ideas I've put forth is "Contact", though it is egregiously boring.