Pure Logic

“Pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts; only experience can.”
James R. Flynn

This is also the single largest criticism one can make of those who rely only on abstract thinking. It is why theist apologetics cannot be compelling. I can reason that the world was created by the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Flying Spaghetti Monster, who defies all attempts to measure Him by actively interfering with the instrumentation of scientists (though judicious application of His noodly appendage) yet reveals himself to the faithful in ways that only He can understand; until there is evidence of my claim, however, you would do well to reject it out of hand. Believers are loath to consider that their arguments apply equally well to the FSM, if not significantly better for its lack of contradictory dogma. When it comes to claims of truth, the following quote should be ever-present in our minds:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Christopher Hitchens


On Religious Experience

“Seeing is believing.” How cliché. This saying is so common yet entirely without merit. When it comes to scientific analysis, seeing alone is most certainly not believing. One first needs to demonstrate that what one is observing is actually what is happening. (Is that really a lake, or is it a mirage?) Then one needs to repeatedly verify one’s observation in further testing. (It sure looks like a lake, but I’d like to make sure before I walk over there. How can I find out? Aha, I’ll climb this tree to see if it gives me a better view!) Of course, other people must also verify our findings. (Hey, Fred. What’s that thing over there? A lake, you say? Great! Let’s go check it out.)

This is perhaps the biggest difference between the scientifically oriented and, well, everyone else. Perhaps the most relevant personal example I of this I can think of took place a few years ago, just as I was discovering my atheism. I had been involved in a lengthy conversation with a friend, and it eventually turned to religion. I knew very little about the scientific method, and I knew far less about cognitive psychology, so I was not prepared for the revelation that followed.

I was an atheist, I said, because I saw no reason to believe; I saw (and indeed, still see) only reasons not to. I had never had a personal religious experience that could not be explained through entirely naturalistic mechanisms. I cited the wide variety of religious traditions as evidence against the accuracy of all religions, for surely if one of them were really true, it would be demonstrably different from the rest (and presumably followed by the majority of humanity). I mentioned the inconsistencies between denominations and even within shared holy texts. I mentioned the incomprehensibility of a deity who wanted to make its presence known, but not badly enough to actually do so in person.

These reasons were entirely unconvincing to her. She told me about a time that she had been filled with doubts, so she had started reading various books on religion. The one that most swayed her was one by a man who claimed that he had previously been an atheist. She said he started writing his book as a way to disprove religion (which speaks volumes to his reasoning capabilities—religions are specifically designed to be unfalsifiable), but the things he found while doing his research caused him to embrace Christianity as the One True Religion™. What she found most convincing of all was the argument for personal experience—seeing feeling is believing.

The reason she believed in God, she said, was that she had felt an undeniable wave of emotion during a religious gathering. She had raised her hands into the air alongside everyone else, and she had felt elation. Thus, God.

I didn’t really know what to say. This is why I regret not having studied cognitive psychology.

Of course it should come as no surprise that emotionally charged social situations can trigger emotional reactions (even especially profound ones). It’s even less surprising when you take into consideration the fact that she was in a crowd of people swaying to rhythmic music. Peer pressure, a sustained beat, and preexisting religious expectations? If this doesn’t sound like fertile soil for a hypnotic experience, I don’t know what does. This does not add any evidence to the theistic argument, however, because the very same kind of experience found in Christian worship can be achieved through Buddhist meditation. If this experience indicates any connection with a divine power, that power does not seem to particularly care about an individual’s religious beliefs. This also supports the naturalistic position, as these experiences are entirely observable in the physical state of the brain, and they can be activated through external stimulation.

Does that mean that my friend did not feel the emotions she described? Absolutely not. This is crucial—I do not deny the realness of religious experience. It’s just that people are wrong to attribute those experiences to supernatural causes.

This is where the science-minded and the religion-minded butt heads. To the “spiritual” believer, personal experience is the single most important thing.

To the scientist, it’s just the opposite.

Richard Feynman sums it up perfectly: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps no lie is so dangerous as the one you tell yourself.

There can be no denying religious experience, but we can certainly disagree about attribution. Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian turned atheist, often talks about speaking in tongues. He remarks upon the tingly feelings he used to get while speaking in tongues as a believer. Since becoming an atheist, he has lost precisely none of his ability to do this, and it still brings him the same feelings. My own personal experience parallels this—I can still summon forth, at will, that sensation I used to get during “spiritual” activities.

Reason teaches us to rely on valid and reliable demonstrations of evidence before establishing firm convictions about anything, and this applies equally to issues of religion. If a phenomenon isn’t repeatable, it probably isn’t worth discussing. To the believer, a satisfying feeling may suffice to substantiate religious claims, but a scientist knows that the easiest person to fool is yourself. The cognitive sciences show us that we are pretty terrible judges of our own minds, particularly because we are incapable of perceiving the processes that occur inside our own brains, below the level of consciousness.

If belief in the supernatural is a prerequisite to experiencing “transcendence,” there is no explanation for the otherwise seemingly religious experiences felt by former believers. But belief is clearly not necessary, and the obvious explanation is that these feelings are in no way supernatural; they are simply brain states. Like every other brain state, they are largely similar between individuals and have a wide range of possible triggers. The experiences, then, are entirely real, even if they are nothing more than convincing hallucinations.

Burden of Proof

It’s kind of interesting how often I run into people who have issues with the burden of proof in rational discourse. Whenever it happens, I invariably feel obligated to put my asshole hat on and call my interlocutor out on their bullshit. The burden of proof is Serious Business(™), and if you can’t follow its single edict, you’re not worthy of being considered an intellectual adult.

Prove your own claims.

That’s the burden of proof. If I say “I don’t believe you,” you are not allowed to tell me to prove you wrong. You said it, so either you prove it or you shut up about it immediately. Even if I can prove you wrong, the onus is on you to prove yourself right. If you can’t demonstrate your rightness, you’re actually just wrong. If I have to go out to find evidence that disproves your argument when you have no evidence for your argument, something is amiss, to put it lightly. (And I think you’re an idiot, even if I’m far too polite to directly tell you so.) Can’t prove a point you want to make? Then don’t try to convince anyone to believe it.

Why is this important?

Well, it’s important because Venus is made entirely out of burnt popcorn kernels. Don’t believe me? Prove me wrong.

What, you want to cite satellite data to disprove my claim? Well, that’s obviously photoshopped. Or entirely fabricated. The man doesn’t want you to know the truth, so he manufactures fake information all the time. I have access to a reliable source who’s proven the popcorn Venus theory, but I can’t reveal my source because that would put the man onto him. Or her. Whichever. And no, you can’t see the data because I burned it to prevent it from falling into the man‘s unsavory hands. He has satellites with sci-fi level spying precision (complete with CSI Enhance! software) and even minor holography. But trust me, it’s totally true. Unless you can prove me wrong…

You can’t, can you? Of course not. This is why the burden of proof is so damn important. Perhaps the most revealing example of this idea comes from a little thing called Russell’s teapot. Bertrand Russell, intellectual badass extraordinaire, used this to illustrate the importance of giving demonstrable evidence to back up the claims you make. The more extraordinary a claim is, the more evidence it requires. (If you’re not familiar with the idea of Russell’s teapot, take the time to read that article now. Don’t worry; I’ll wait for you to finish.)

If I claim “my local grocery store does not carry apples,” you might believe me if I take you there and it has no apples. Does this prove that they don’t carry apples? No, all it proves is that they don’t have apples at that very moment. If you want better evidence, I could interview the store’s employees and customers, and if a coherent, consistent answer emerges, we might be better prepared to ascertain the truthhood of this claim. Still, the danger from believing a lie like “my grocer refuses to stock apples” is very low, and this would be a fairly trivial fact that likely had no real impact on your life (although lying is generally stupid, so there is that). Thus, the evidentiary bar for this claim is not set all that high.

On the other hand, if I claim “China is a lie, and that entire country doesn’t exist,” you will instantly recognize that this is a far more implausible claim. The evidentiary bar for this claim is so high that you can’t even see it from ground level with the naked eye. You might produce your phone from your pocket and point out the Made in China sticker on the back. In order to believe that China does not exist, you might need to be taken there in person, and you still wouldn’t believe it unless instead of China, you saw an endless sea. (You’d probably still be reluctant to accept this premise even then!)

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Extraordinary lazy arguers require extraordinary dismissive reprisals. When someone unleashes an unsubstantiated utterance, I occasionally opt to unload my attempt at its undoing. This should not be necessary, however. If you’re unable or unwilling to back up factual claims, you have no business letting them leak from your brain and slip through your vocal cords. Indeed, if you can’t fulfill your burden of proof, it is highly likely that your beliefs are erroneous, and you should sit down for some meaningful self-examination.

Serious business. The burden of proof. Respect it or be horribly wrong.

Creativity and the Nature of Science

I adore the creativity of the human mind. There is enough wonder in the world that you could be rendered breathless on a daily basis and still not drink the well dry. We’re capable of coming up with what seems to be a never-ending supply of amazing ideas. I enjoy theses flights of fancy even if they’re not true—as long as they’re not erroneously presented as such. It would be easy to compose a nearly infinite list of things that I would love to have be true, but no amount of wishing is sufficient to make something imaginary become something real (side note: if it’s already true, then you aren’t making).

The problem is that it’s a lot easier to invent an idea than it is to test it, and this means that bad ideas vastly outnumber good ones. “True” hypotheses exist adrift in a sea of error and noise until rigorous scientific study pulls them ashore. Science isn’t always a benevolent force, however, and sometimes things that had been mistakenly believed to be true are cast back into the ocean to drown. “Survival of the fittest” is the guiding rule in the marketplace of scientific ideas, and the strongest models destroy their weaker competitors with ruthless conviction.

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What is Faith?

What is faith? As it’s most commonly used, faith falls into one of two categories:

1) Belief without evidence (e.g., faith in gods)
2) Confidence gained through evidence (e.g., faith in friends/family)

Faith is often said to be one of these abstract “virtues” to which all people should aspire, but I subscribe to a far different interpretation of faith. In terms of the first definition, faith is a disease of the mind.

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