Taking up a thread from my Facebook Post, "God's Plan, first installment..."

Facebook is a great place to have an exchange of ideas, but not so much when the exchange evolves into a more protracted discussion.  This, my first real post on my new blog, takes up a discussion that came about when I posted a cartoon on Facebook with the caption noted in the title above.  I won't put any specific names here out of respect for privacy, but I sometimes have long discussions with this person, and we both realized that Facebook comments do not provide a very good forum for a serious and detailed dialogue.  Which, I'd like to point out, is what is missing in most of the world – has been missing, in fact, for nearly all of human history: open dialogue about the nature of our beliefs; I myself am truly grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a discussion.  My friend prepared what I characterized as an eisegesis, going line-by-line through my previous comment.  Instead of counter-exegesing this person's points individually, I'm going to respond to what I think are a couple of general points of disagreement.  If we had a better forum, like a book, I would still present the claims below, but would also include detailed responses to the points raised line-by-line.  The first general point of digression or misunderstanding between us I think is on the nature of belief itself and how that relates to what we think of as evidence.

The reason beliefs are important to me (and should be to absolutely everybody) is that when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, all of our actions are driven by our beliefs.  I keep my car on the right side of the road because I believe that oncoming traffic will do the same; I just gulped down a glass of milk because I believe that it has been pasteurized and that the date on the jug is accurate; I work to create software and hardware to test cellular phone components using a test platform that I believe is reliable and repeatable because I believe I will receive a paycheck that won't bounce; I don't jump from very high places because I believe that the speed at which I hit the ground will increase as a function of the distance I fall; I try to act kindly and with justice towards my fellow humans and other living creatures because I believe this is what makes the world a better place for all of us; you get the idea.  There are also many things that I do not believe: the moon is made of cheese; the earth is less than 10,000 years old; animals can safely consume anti-freeze; putting a loaded gun into the hands of an irresponsible person is a good idea; you get the idea here also.  All of these beliefs, along with the non-beliefs, guide my behavior in ways both general and specific; I think that all of our behaviors, and in fact all of what we might call knowledge, can be looked at this way: the facts we present to ourselves (and use when we reason) are based on beliefs we hold – we believe that what we hold as facts represent the true state of the world.  Now, when I survey my beliefs I see that the ones about which I am most confident, the ones upon which I am (or should be – see Shermer’s discussion of the effect of reward-level on perceived risk in The Believing Brain) generally willing to stake the most important facets of my life, are the ones for which I have the greatest amount or the strongest evidence; those having very high standing are those for which the evidence is corroborated and agreed upon, especially by those who may have disagreed with the initial premise or who suspected bad evidence or evidence that had been tampered with and who have therefore approached evidential affirmation with skepticism.  Evidence vetted many times over by different actors all employing skeptical inquiry in varied ways has perhaps the greatest standing of all classes of evidence.  Now if you think about it for a minute, evidence amounts to just another layer of belief, really, but it's a layer that of course depends on beliefs that have themselves been previously vetted.  So you can see that the strength of a belief necessarily depends on all the beliefs (or assumptions I guess might be another word) that the belief itself presupposes.  The fact that human beliefs form the foundations of human behavior is not obvious but is critical; that beliefs play such an important role in human knowledge itself is just as critical.  Both of these facts point to the importance of understanding the nature of our beliefs, and also to the importance of approaching such understanding with a skeptical eye.

Now, I don't think there is a being in existence who could justify each and every held belief down to the very root.  We can of course also be mistaken about the ground or assumptions behind any particular belief.  However, just because perfect knowledge and complete awareness is impossible in practice does not mean that the general principle doesn't apply.  When we have tension between us due to differing beliefs, our only recourse is to examine the presupposed assumptions and evaluate them with respect to the things upon which we can all agree; if we cannot agree on the immediate presuppositions, we must peel back to the next layer of presupposition, and continue this until we find common ground; only then can we gradually work our way back up the chain, examining and resolving our points of difference with respect to the things we agree (or come to agree) are foundational.

 Now, you clearly have any number of beliefs that I don't share; the obverse is certainly just as true.  One of the beliefs you hold that I do not is that god exists; another belief that I also do not share is that god influences your life.  However, the belief that god influences your life clearly presupposes the idea that god exists; so, the belief that god influences your life is actually three beliefs:  1) god exists, 2) something outside of your knowledge or control influences your life, and 3) that influential something is in fact god.  That god could still exist but not actually be the thing influencing your life or thinking in any given situation is still a distinct possibility.  Another possibility is that there are multiple gods and that several of them are colluding to influence you, or that a god other than the one you assume is influencing your life.  I think it obvious that we can both agree that there are things that neither of us completely understands that have influenced your decisions on many occasions; where we disagree is on the cause or nature of such influence.  If you concur, then we have found our first commonly foundational belief: something is influencing your thoughts and/or behavior.  I also hold this belief with respect to myself – I am certain that there are things outside the scope of my direct knowledge or control that influence me personally.  The next step is to look for evidence that supports each of our contrasting claims: you claim that the (or at least, an) influence is god while I claim that the influence is most likely a product of the unconscious processes that under-gird one's awareness.  It is true that the evidence for either claim is in a sense subjective – at some level investigation of the phenomena surrounding consciousness will always rely on the testimony of the subject.  That does not, however, indicate that all such evidence is equal – contrasting testimonials do not by definition cancel each other out perfectly.  I'm sure you have heard that there are experimental methods in psychology, psychiatry, and neurology which are designed to eliminate bias; some use misdirection, for example, so that any bias possessed by the subjects may only be interjected in a manner that is inconsequential to the study's true aims.  Neurologists perform real-time scans during experimental questioning to study activity in areas of the brain that have been previously established to correlate with, for example, willful deception.  These techniques are of course not perfect but they are peer-reviewed and replicated.  Taken together they constitute strong evidence for a number of fascinating and revealing attributes of our personalities: our brains are active in the subconscious decision-making regions for anywhere from fractions of a second to tens of seconds before we ourselves become consciously aware of a decision; our personalities can be altered in specific, predictable, and repeatable ways by either damage to or intentional stimulation of particular areas of our brain.  It has repeatedly been shown that persons can be induced to feel all of the reported occurrences that have traditionally been ascribed to supernatural influence, including out-of-body experiences; the sense of a separate, and oftentimes loving presence nearby; auditory and visual intrusions; continuity of oneself with nature or a feeling of oneness with things external to one's physical body; feelings of bliss or peace; sensations of being touched; feelings of terror; the sensation of another's presence within one's own body or mind.  We know from other studies that our brains are largely driven by their pattern-recognition engines, and that those regions of the brain responsible for recognizing patterns can be exhibit hyperactivity (or the opposite) which profoundly affects our perceptions and behaviors.  There are also many studies that look at belief-bias (what Shermer calls Belief-Dependent realism) which also affects our perceptions and our interpretations.  I see these empirical results as evidence of a very strong type – corroborated, replicated, and often approached with skepticism (or at least employing double-blind or other methodology that suitably shields the results from any bias the investigator may have). 

On the opposing side there is compelling and what I'm sure is heartfelt personal testimony.  I have no doubt that those who put forth such testimony are convinced of the reality of their experiences; I also have no doubt that they have indeed experienced something strange or mysterious and that such occurrences are well worth our serious attention.  As I pointed out above, though, such statements invariably entail more than one belief, and I can certainly agree with some of those beliefs while disagreeing with others.  Those beliefs on which all of us can (must, really) agree are directly supported by strong forms of evidence or by causal or logical links to foundational presuppositions; those about which we disagree are in such a state either because they are not supported by the evidence, or because we cannot agree on any logical/causal connection between them and our agreed-upon foundations.  If we are truly at an unbridgeable impasse on a given point then we must acknowledge that the thing about which we disagree cannot be claimed by us to be objective – it isn't knowledge in any meaningful sense.  Before we resort to this, however, we are obliged to go through the exercise of examining presuppositions, if we are indeed serious about resolving our differences.  This is the magic of the scientific method – any and every claim or connection of this sort is always open to question; when something is discovered that calls into question a previously assumed claim, that previous assumption is again subjected to scrutiny and possible revision based on new evidence.  I know I've stated before that I am not (nor is virtually any other atheist) wedded to the absolutist claim that there is no possibility whatsoever of a god existing; it's just that there is absolutely no evidence, in any but the very weakest sense, that this is true.  You cited a number of things such as testimonials of life-after-death experiences and the like, but those types of claims are problematic for a several reasons: they themselves actually entail multiple beliefs that are co-dependant and whose presuppositions are almost never brought to light; they always turn out to be suspect in some way or another when they are investigated closely (i.e. there are zero or perhaps one witnesses); they are never able to be replicated under anything close to controlled conditions; they tend to exhibit strong cultural biases. 

However, even if a particular individual (or even more than one) objects to a claim, we are not thereby automatically obligated to abandon that claim's status as objective; we are obligated instead to ascertain if the claim is acknowledged by many (or any) others to be valid, and whether it is supported by evidence or logical/causal connection. If evidence contrary to an assumed position is presented, we are obligated to treat it as we do all other evidence: with skepticism. We should also not be fooled by what may initially seem like a large amount of evidence: the volume of evidence is never so important as its quality. As Stenger has noted, the plural of anecdote is not data.

In addition to the lack of supporting evidence and paucity of logical connections to foundational concepts, I would have to add that there are also many very good reasons why it makes absolutely no sense for it to be true that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity who intervenes in human affairs.  There is also plenty of evidence that the kind of thinking that goes along with such beliefs has deleterious effects on society and human progress in general.  While I can already feel the heat of your objection rising in response to that last sentence, I fully acknowledge that there are plenty of other modes of thinking are just as (and perhaps more) damaging to humanity.  If you also agree with that statement, then we should be on the same page with regard to shining a spotlight on such modes of thinking.  One of the differences between us is that I feel that I should not only follow where the evidence leads, but I should also verify with at least some degree of skepticism that what I am calling evidence is the real thing.  And this is where we part ways on the testimony of your personal experiences.  As I said above, I don’t doubt for a minute that you have had transformative and transcendent experiences.  I do doubt, however, that those experiences in any way prove the existence of anything supernatural.  The ‘evidence’ as I see it is that you have had such experiences; what that evidence is evidence for is up for grabs.  If you want to posit that the evidence points to the existence of something, then you are of course free to do that.  I have of course also had peculiar things happen that seem to stretch the limits of coincidence, although not in the numbers that you seem to have had them happen, but for my part I have an obligation to investigate further – I feel the need, and an equally strong desire, to keep peeling back layers of understanding until I reach some kind of bedrock, or the limits of understanding.  I feel that this obligation is never more true than when the thing in question is something around which one is potentially going to organize one’s life.  The greater the impact on one’s life-direction, the more important it is to seek a deeper understanding.  This doesn’t mean that I would (or could) coerce someone into my way of thinking or reasoning, but thankfully I live in an Age that has inherited the benefits of the Enlightenment and in a country which has sanctified freedom of thought, so I can think as I do and speak my mind as I would.  

The other major topic on which we diverge is inspiration. It always seems assumed that someone like myself, who places great stock in reason and science, can have no basis for inspiration other than what is tangible and in immediate view.  I see the key ingredient of inspiration as being imagination, and I guess I just assumed it was obvious that nothing I have said or written disabuses anyone of imagination's power and reach. There is no need to believe (in the strong sense that equates belief with fact) anything that is not supported sufficiently by evidence and reason in order to imagine virtually any possibility, even the most fantastic.  Nor does it follow that the level of one’s intellectual discipline must be inversely proportional to one’s imagination.  Nor does it mean that such persons cannot be excited to the point of action by some of those possibilities.  Now if the essence of inspiration isn’t imagination plus excitement, I don’t know what you are talking about.  If it were not for the imagination and enthusiasm of people like Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and Feynman, science would not have come very far at all. In fact, to turn this around, their inspiration would have amounted to nothing at all were it not for their intellectual rigor. And I'm sure they imagined things that they later discovered were unattainable or even ridiculous – the key would be that they first imagined what might be true then discovered if those things were in fact true – they didn't just believe things to be true. Granted, the particulars of their discoveries were different from the particulars of, for example, personal experiences, but those differences do not negate the underlying principle.  Inspiration drove their inquiries but was far from the whole substance of those inquiries.

Now, I understand that the source of our inspiration isn’t always obvious – you are sitting there, drinking coffee, and a wonderful and intriguing thought pops into your head.  Where did that thought come from?  It could have come from a god; it could have been that the previous cup of coffee’s caffeine started kicking in and caused some idle neurons to fire inside your head; maybe it was an idea or a thought you had previously but have totally forgotten about (I know that I have had thoughts that I’ve forgotten…); in the same vein, perhaps you unconsciously noticed something two days ago that stimulated unconscious processes in your brain resulting in your wonderful thought.  There are many possible explanations, but what’s important to note is that from whence it comes is a matter that can itself be investigated.  What is really a mystery (and a source of inspiration) to me is, why doesn’t everyone want to know the answers to these questions too?  How can anyone be happy just with the simplest possible explanation that withers under even a casual investigation?

Aversion to Controversy

In a previous post (located here) I wrote about the technique of avoidance employed by religious institutions, and postulated that such avoidance can be thought of in terms familiar to those interested in the science of evolution, albeit with the transmission medium consisting of memes instead of genes.  Although I was speaking in general terms, with a note that there were some such conversations in which I had personally participated, I feel I should expand upon this a little more, and include a few more specifics.

I said at the outset of creating this blog, and still have in my very first post, that I am interested in provoking conversation.  I have found that it often takes a blatant poke in the eye to get some folks to actually engage with passion and commitment.  In fact, the creation of this blog originally stemmed from what I'd thought was an interesting series of exchanges that started with what some might characterize as an offensive cartoon - the cartoon indeed contained the words, "shitting my pants," but that's not a characteristic of the cartoon that most folks would have found the most offensive.  One of my earliest blog posts was my effort at continuing that conversation. The thrust of the cartoon was essentially to point out the problem of theodicy, or the theological problem of the existence of evil.  Now, I could have easily written a paragraph pointing out the philosophical difficulties posed by theodicy, but that would hardly have garnered any reaction at all (and wouldn't have been nearly as much fun!):  today's bumper-sticker and sound-bite attention-spans wouldn't have given it a second's thought - most folks probably wouldn't have bothered to read a whole paragraph; that's just too much work {insert nasal whine}.  The reaction to that cartoon by a several people indicated that the subject itself was important, but it took a provocative cartoon for anyone to think seriously about it for more than a few seconds, and to actually react.

Nonetheless, it was inevitable that the conversation would end, but it ended a bit prematurely as there was to be no reply to that last post.

What I encountered was a point beyond which there existed virtually zero interest in pursuing the matter to a point of resolution.  I am left wondering why this is the case - if a topic has any importance to someone, what's the point of not finishing out one's arguments?   I guess that it's just so much easier to surreptitiously un-friend and ignore someone than to complete a thoughtful exchange or to even think about things that might be unpleasant or disagreeable.  Of course there are those that will claim hubris on my part, but I submit that this is just another case of self-preservation (of one's tenuous claims) by avoidance.  Exchanges between myself and this person were spirited but always respectful, so the abrupt end took me kind of by surprise, especially since this person is an author with a decided penchant for lengthy passages of florid and very descriptive language whom I thought would take advantage of the opportunity to expound on her beliefs.  I chalk it up as a learning experience, but I don't feel what I've learned is anything like the lesson that may have been intended.

Not quite so surprising was a previous case that has similarities.  This involved a person whose political leanings are opposite mine and which occurred during the political campaigns of the 2012 election.  I would not infrequently post links and comments about what I perceived to be inconsistencies and outright falsehoods coming from the other side (I still enjoy doing this), and I would also occasionally comment on posts that I saw as outrageous or ridiculous.  Some of my comments and posts were fairly acerbic and sarcastic in tone, but never more so than I perceived those coming from the other side to be, and these devices were always used in the service of illuminating a valid point.  Other folks, including the person in question here, would do the same for (or to) me.  Surely, this is both in the nature of, and the very strength behind, a public forum.  As part of this, which I thought of as rather a lot of fun, I would keep tabs on these posts and was always interested when someone replied or had something to say.  One day, all of these links simply disappeared from the list of recent activity that a particular social media site maintains under my profile.  I was a little mystified; I then noticed that this particular individual was no longer in my "friends" list - I assumed she had had enough of social media and deleted her profile, since there was no record to be found when I searched the name.  However, what I found was that she was still active on this particular site, but had simultaneously un-friended and blocked me.  I was struck by the hypocrisy of this person, as she had once sententiously proclaimed in a public post (which I remember very well) that she had never un-friended someone of the opposite political bent, while she herself had been un-friended more than once by those in the other camp because of their distaste for her political views.  While I've tried to word things a little more politely up to this point, I can't help but call this out for what it really is: chickenshit, reactionary, and cowardly.  Once again, I leave it up to the reader to judge the level of hubris when I claim that this was done primarily to avoid engagement once the tide had turned against her (which it clearly had, since the political side I favored won the presidential election by a substantial margin).

I'm sure that nearly every reader has at least one similar story: expressing passion or excitement about a topic leads to others disengaging completely.  What is it that makes people pull away from interacting with one another?  I think there are several candidates.

The reason might simply be that I come across as an asshole, and that I've misperceived the frequency with which others encounter the same phenomenon.  While I certainly hope, and definitely believe, that this is not the case, it is a possibility.  I console myself with the fact that in no case of which I am aware do I fit the strict definition of such as laid out in Aaron James' fine book, Assholes: A Theory.

Many folks let themselves be driven to a large extent by what amounts to a very poor guide for self-regulation: an obsession with what they imagine are others' perceptions of them.   I have found that in some people this is nearly the entirety of what constitutes their self-image.  This, taken to the extreme, can be the root of narcissism if all one cares about is that others have a constant positive image of oneself - I have to look good in the eyes of everybody!

If such a person (A) interacts with another (B), and B's behavior obviates the fact that B will never have a completely positive image (or will have a decidedly negative one) of A, then A will usually make decisive, immediate, and sometimes histrionic efforts to affect separation from B, and also to negate any association of him- or herself with B in the minds of C, D, E, etc.  This is like cutting away tainted flesh when tending to an infected wound.

Another reason I imagine folks tend to pull away is that they may have an innate, and probably unacknowledged, fear of reaching the limits of their ability to defend a particular position, especially when that position holds meaning that goes beyond rationality or when there is strong emotional attachment either to that position itself or to its consequences.  When we are emotionally attached to an idea we tend to cling tenaciously and vigorously defend that idea much more so than when our attachment is derived solely from reason; this can be a good thing if the idea is worth defending, but of course the only way to be sure of this is by means of rational consideration.  It may be true that sometimes (perhaps often for select individuals) one has an initial attraction to a particular idea that is reflexively emotional and that later on, when one has a chance to apply reason, one discovers that the idea is in fact worthy of respect.  Even if this is true, it clearly does not exonerate the neglect of reason; it just means that instinctual or subconscious reasoning can be accurate but must at some point still be verified by overt, conscious effort.  I trust my gut instinct only up to a point.

When folks exert themselves to defend a position that has no firm basis in reason, their exertions are of course just as ramshackle as the original idea itself.  A valid complaint lodged by Sam Harris against many of his critics is that they never engage his arguments directly, but instead use sideways attacks against a farrago thrown together using a variety of Harris' ideas and out-of-context statements.  It's not always clear whether these thinly veiled straw-men are construed intentionally or are merely the result of poor debating skills, but I think the technique is more common that we might realize.

Whatever the particular reasons behind the two aforementioned folks "un-friending" me on social media, we could as a species certainly do a far better job of communicating and validating the reasons behind our actions.  Without a doubt we would be much better off for the effort - lets us hope that we realize this sometime soon!