Monday, July 06, 2009

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t

This little story caught my eye today and is just too ironic not to mention.

Kanal T TV a station in Turkey is going to run a game show along the lines of big brother except they will take 10 Atheists and expose them to the an Imam, a Rabbi, a Buddhist monk and a priest who will then seek (over a period of time) to convert one of these atheists to (presumably) one of the respective faiths. A team of theologians will vet the atheists before hand to make sure that they are genuine (I wonder what the collective noun for Theologians is?)

You may be thinking at this point what possible prize could be offered to the converter; well apparently they will be whisked away to the holy site of their chosen new faith? I'd definitely go for Buddhism since I've always wanted to visit Tibet, however apparently that's not the big draw of this show. The following inspiring quote is from the chief executive of the station a man called Seyhan Soylu, who said:

We are giving the biggest prize in the world, the gift of belief in God. We don't approve of anyone being an atheist. God is great and it doesn't matter which religion you believe in. The important thing is to believe.

I wonder how they will establish if the conversion has been honest? certainly a tricky one for the theological "A team", I reckon it will almost certainly involve circumcision, bacon and squashing cock-roaches.

Anyway, I doubt if I'll be staying up to watch this but it's an interesting spin on Pascal's wager; apparently a few hundred people have applied to take part in the game, perhaps it should be called "the pious is right"?


Oranjepan said...


congrats on #851!

Steve Borthwick said...

OP, I like what you did there!

I was thinking along the lines of an "Apology"..

Thanks, still got a long way to go to catch up with you though!

Lisa said...

"God is great and it doesn't matter which religion you believe in."

sorry Steve, but wtf?? So buddha and the catholic god are the same thing? Even if you believe in the flying spaghetti monster it's the same thing as the paternalistic, omnipotent christian god stuff? Then I guess everyone can do away with Sunday school and all religious education for a start since none of it matters.

What if I just believe that other people believe? What if I believe that the idea that people have created of god is a great one because it helps some people to feel better - is that close enough?

And then where do I end up? The islam, christian or buddhist version of what happens after I die...?

It's mind-boggling, the nonsense.

Steve Borthwick said...

Lisa, yeah, you're right, the only thing they all have in common I guess is the "lets all believe in wacky shit without any evidence", for me that's the barrier to entry.

So you believe in belief (in the non-evidential sense) - I do to, since there is plenty of evidence for it; (I think that makes sense?)

The best retort I've heard to a Xian bleating on about what happens after death (as if their stupid belief system was ANY explanation) was "simple, what happens after your death is the same thing that happened before you were born"..

Oranjepan said...

Steve, what do you do about all the things for which you have no data?

Are things necessarily untrue because they are unverifiable? Is it rational to conclude the unproven is false?

Theology is a respected subject for valid reasons, but while it is possible to have valid disagreements on specific points with any particular religion it is a sweeping generalisation to automatically dismiss all religious belief.

I also think it isn't wise to conflate religious belief with the formalised institutions which support the practical application of those beliefs they support.

The bad thing about 'faith' is not that people have it at all, but where they take it to extremes. This is as true for atheism as it is for any other area.

Don't you worry about the reactions you will provoke in those you flatly refuse to engage with or attempt to understand?

Maybe you should ask why anybody might be religious without insulting their intelligence (there have after all been many people more intelligent than you or I who have had strong and sincere religious faith).

My mother, for example, got off a plane when she was due to go skiing with a group of 20 of her friends the year after she graduated because she felt a call. The plane crashed and everyone on board died. If she hadn't I wouldn't be here.

Now someone like Dawkins would argue that this is just coincidence, or that it is post-rationalisation or that there are other explanations, but my mother has an absolutely unshakeable doubt in the non-existence of a deity (as she puts it).

Such experiences are impossible to argue against because there are no rational explanations and sometimes you just have to accept there are things beyond the bounds of knowledge which don't make sense. The world is full of paradoxes, so it can only be a mistake to have no doubts.

I think it would be an interesting game for you to play devil's advocate with the subject and put the shoe on the other foot. Just as you addressed evolution, I think an investigation of the variety among different religions would serve you well. I'd be fascinated to learn your thoughts on the Quaker's, baha'i and yogas etc. What about ancestor worship - how does that fit in your conception of religious faith? Maybe you could examine cargo cults or voodoo... where is the line between harmless and harmful?

My main reason for asking is that I really want to know in how far you agree with the defence of freedom - that you will defend to the death the right to things you disagree with - or whether you are prepared to support persecutions and pogroms. Remember it was the non-secular personality cults built out of irreligion which created the conditions where the worst crimes of the last century were able to be committed and one of the reasons why th theory of evolution is resisted so strongly in the USA is that it is tainted by association with the authoritarian regimes which perpetrated them.

This emotional baggage can't easily be dropped and I'm sceptical of anyone who is able to do it quite so easily as they make it appear.

Whatever I may otherwise wish to argue it is impossible for me to admit that I would exist without the presence of faith, so it must have some value even if it is not 'true' by contemporary definitions - even if it is a primitive and instinctive means of communicating process order functions.

Steve Borthwick said...

Hi O,

Thanks, v. good questions, I think about the issues you raise here a lot.

You ask, “what if there is no data”, I think that’s an easy one, I simply say I don’t know or I don’t understand, anything else is making it up by definition for me. Clearly I am not au fait with string theory or frog anatomy but I (generally) trust in the scientific method to weed out fakes, so I don’t feel the need to drill into the detail on absolutely everything, I am happy to stand on the shoulders of giants etc.

Would you say that you believe in Leprechauns? we can’t disprove those either. Since when did proving a negative become the measure of utility for any argument, this is crazy talk!

WRT Theology, my view is that it is fair to respect the effort and sincerity of the students but in terms of the subject in general I have no respect for it; of course there are aspects of history and anthropology which are fascinating but otherwise I think most of it is daft, as someone once said “theology is the study of the unknowable”.

WRT to “faith” in general, absolutely, attack the idea and not the person; but I really disagree with the notion that modelling the universe based on faith (revelation, tradition or authority) has any merit or virtue at all, and if it is considered a virtue then there is a distinct and predictable pathway to trouble, injustice, prejudice and conflict.

Hold on O, you are badly misreading me; I don’t refuse to engage with people of faith, I do it all the time, there is nothing I enjoy more than a good friendly debate; I am merely forthright in my views as they mostly are; the problem is that after 2000 years of having a “free ride” from criticism it sounds “strident” to most ears (especially apologists) when anyone speaks out against “faith”.

Do I worry about it?, of course, my goal is not to insult or demean anyone, it is to understand through [honest] enquiry and debate but at the same time if I believe that something is nonsense then I am not afraid to say it, why wouldn’t you, if someone makes a proposition like "God exists" then isn't it up to them to provide justification for it?

Why is saying an idea is false insulting intelligence?, do you insult the intelligence of all NF members by saying their ideas are wrong or that to believe what they say they do is stupid (giving rational reasons for you position). That’s called debate, why do you hold a special exemption for religious belief from that?


Steve Borthwick said...

Part II

Probability is a subject little understood by most people; how many times has your mum had a “calling” and nothing happened? I know I feel nervous every time I board a plane, but that is perfectly well understood, it’s called anxiety. You have to ask the obvious question, what did all the other people on the plane do that made them so bad and your mum so good? It is well documented Human behaviour to look for causality in everything, even intelligent and rational people would prefer to make things up to explain events rather than have no reason at all, walking under ladders, black cats etc. etc.

I also missed death by shear coincidence a couple of time whilst working in Northern Ireland in the early 90s, once really, really close (seconds); I feel no need to attribute this to anything supernatural though, because some poor sucker with at least equal if not more merit to ride this planet for three score years and ten bought the farm that day, to think that I am somehow "special" is not only unbelievably arrogant but an insult to those that are unlucky IMO.

You are right unfalsifiable things are impossible to argue against, so in a way you are agreeing with me; think about it, that’s exactly why they are so dangerous when combined with authority or automatic firearms. This is of course not the only thing that is dangerous; you mention the personality cults of Mao, Hitler, and Stalin et al, to suggest their regimes were “built out of irreligion” is a tired old straw man argument. Stalin was bad, Stalin was an Atheist, and therefore Atheism is bad; daft. What do you thing the inquisition would have done with mass production and AK47's?

WRT the USA and Evolution, I disagree, for example the Scopes trial was in the 20s i.e. way before communism was a “threat” to the USA; not sure what you are talking about there? The real objection is simple IMO, if you don't have Genesis, you don't have original sin, if you don't have that then Jesus is pointless; plus if you can demonstrate the holy books are man-made then what is the foundation of it all?

Looking for causality in things has a huge evolutionary advantage; faith is a misfiring of that instinct, that’s why we have it, it is deep seated for sure, but that doesn’t make it true, we have outgrown it and the truth is more beautiful, interesting and useful that any man made mythology.

Oranjepan said...

We're getting through the major issues aren't we.

I think my question with your position is summed up in your first line - that having no data is not enough to assume a position either way, which you seem to follow up precisely by assuming a position.

I think the confusion stems from here - the atheist position is denying proof while the religious position is denying disproof and both are arguing at crossed purposes.

Your point about the leprechaun is exactly this. But I don't agree that it is to engage in debate with your opponent by raising examples such as this because I don't agree that there is any equivalency: a leprechaun is clearly defined, while 'god' is not.

Which is why I ask you to address specific definitions according to the different religions which hold them.

I understand why you think theology is daft, but it commits a fundamental error to say so - theology provides the scientific and philosophic basis for attack as well as the defence of religions, so the atheistic argument depends on it as much as that which it intends to counter.

When modelling the universe, what precisely is the difference betewen basing your understanding on a theory supported by various facts you consider relevant and on a faith which you construct out of various real experiences you consider relevant? To choose between them is like comparing science with art or grammar with algebra.

The example of my mum is interesting as you extrapolate from the one incident to construct a general model. According to her it is the only time she's ever exited a plane after boarding and she has flown many times since. While I accept the accusation of the search for causality it is an instance where rationality offers no help according to our current knowledge base - it may be that some as yet unknown or alien form of ccommunication was transmitted. I mean it is a reasonable question to ask whether time always proceeds in the same direction or whether this is just our contingent perception - we know that time is not a constant and it's properties change, so why is it so difficult to accept the possibility of unknown truths?

I agree it is premature to formally act on the basis of any unknown truths, but in circumstances such as that the consequences are clear.

I've also had near-death experiences, but nothing where my survival was the result of conscious illogic.

Oranjepan said...

Finally I must apologise for laying a trap which led you to the standard assumption I was referring to Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot when I mentioned 'non-secular personality cults built out of irreligion' I was actually referring to a broader selection of pervasive if less directly political icons. I've mentioned before how I think religion is central to society - temples of shopping and sport etc offering places and rituals of worship to the gods of mammon and athens, so why is it not fair to include in this critique the negative consequences of the logistical support networks which see child slaves paid pennies per hour to manufacture premier football shirts - just because their deaths are less fore-thought and violent the suffering is equally tragic.

The Scopes trial is a red herring (pardon the pun) as the authoritarian threat of 'survival of the fittest' refers back far earlier - for Roman gladiators it was kill or be killed, and Malthus codified this theory in the aftermath of the Revolution era. Anyway it was the reversal of US anti-interventionist policy in WW1 which reaffirmed the universal mission, so Scopes was consequent not contributory.

So in cnoclusion I'll return to my overriding point. Politics is applied religion since faith in the future is very much necessary. Different belief systems have different practices which reflect the internal political make-up of their supporting institutions.

Faith in people, faith in markets, that you will get paid at the end of the month, that your wife will keep her wedding vows or whatever else is omnipresent in life. We depend on it. We imbue spirit into things such as artworks or good pieces of technology as icons of our culture and symbolic of the best of creation.

Whether your mythological history refers back to founding fathers or Ur-men (like Adam and Eve) or proto-scientific explanations of a primordial big bang, the scientific 'truth' of it is less important than the value it provides in connecting you with your cultural heritage and the debates which were conducted in order that we were able to arrive here.

The pattern of life requires order for us to decipher meaning in our own lives, without which it is easy to descend into the pit of inhumanity: there was a gangrape in central Reading the other day - what would you recommend to similar individuals to make them think twice if they found themselves in the same situation? When it comes down to it continual asking why? why? why? isn't good enough - we may not have all the answers but we still need to offer the best approximation we can to ensure social cohesion.

If it's a choice between being unsatisfied with less than perfect, or making do with the imperfect it's easy to find reasons to make a virtue of necessity.

Steve Borthwick said...

Hi O, apologies for the tardy response, I’ve been travelling and then jet lagged/lethargic to the point of incapacity!

Thanks for your post, you always make me think carefully about my position and you’re a bit like a politician (you’d make a good one I reckon) in that you answer questions with more questions!! ;-)

I think you are wrong when you say that having no data is not enough to assume a position, it most certainly is, I have no data that there isn’t a million pounds buried in my back garden but it is so improbable and lacking in evidence that I assume the proposition to be false; I may even strongly desire or hope that this is the case, I may even believe it with all my heart, it may give me comfort to feel this way, but it’s false. A rational approach is about looking at the weight of evidence and in that respect it can never be 100% certain. Neither can I prove a negative, but using that fact as an argument gets you nowhere since it is not necessary to have 100% certainty in order to be right/ethical/moral/successful 99.9% will do nicely, religion has been working with less than 1% for millennia.

Theology isn’t the only thing that provides a basis for counter argument; reality does too, any material religious assertion can be tested and proven false, for example that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that the sun revolves around the earth or that prayer works, or that religion provides morality, or that atheists are evil, or that the Bible is infallible etc. etc. in fact there has never been a supernatural assertion that has been proven (beyond reasonable doubt) to be true, ever in the history of mankind, if you know of one you would win millions from the Templeton foundation, guess what no one ever has. This is not to say that there are things we don’t know, there are plenty, if science knew everything it would stop!

I am referring to “model” in the sense of modelling the real world, we all know that things like art are not necessarily models of the real world and have subjective value, that’s fine, I love music, painting and poetry as well but religion is different, it attempts to model the real world by providing “truth” and control the lives of people in harmful and immoral ways in which art does not. Religion is like money, i.e. it is only valuable because we all agree that it is, take it to Mars and it is practically obsolete, same with religion and good evidence that none of it represents universal truth IMO.

Saying that we must give credence to something because it “might” (i.e. <0.0000001%) be possible when all the evidence (i.e. >99.99999%) points to is not being true is stupid, ignorant or mischievous IMO. I believe it is fair and valid to point this out when it materially affects my life or material interests. You argue that we should choose to ignore the stupidity in the interests of social cohesion, in fact you suggest that we try to accommodate it somehow(??), I feel it is not possible to do that, and I would evidence the continued harm that unfalsifiable beliefs wreak on the world every single day. Sure if all religion was benign, perhaps like the CofE then fair enough, where is the harm but unfortunately it is not and you choose to ignore this.

My chosen strategy to make religion benign is to mock it and point out the obvious stupidity, expose it I guess. Sure, there are other less confrontational approaches but haven't they all been tried?

Steve Borthwick said...

To move onto your overriding point, it’s a seductive point of view I will agree with you on that, all opinions are equal depending upon your perspective etc., it seems like a fair and reasonable position, but it is a delusion IMO. Your examples of everyday “faith” seem to clinch the problem with this position, for example you claim that the following are “faith” based positions, i.e. unfalsifiable, they are not.

-Faith in people, this is a phrase we use but is not the same as unfalsifiable, when I hire someone I say that I have faith that they will do a good job; but I interview them, I take references and I continually assess their performance, this is evidence based.

-Faith in markets, same thing, we use history and expertise to assess the likelihood of an outcome, this is using EVIDENCE! Of course there is risk but we are assessing that too, we also acknowledge that even with all of this evidence we may still get it wrong, but it is rational, i.e. a decision based upon incomplete information, but still not the same as “faith”.

-Faith in love – do you think that an atheist can’t feel love? Again you are confusing unfalsifiable faith with an evidence based position, how do I know if my wife loves me; simple, look for the evidence for it (even subconsciously) i.e. at her eyes when she looks at me, I talk to her about it, I ask her, I see how does she behaves towards me, does she give me gifts, does she pay attention to my needs etc. etc. humans have been using this kind of evidence for millions of years to answer that question, basic behavioural science.

All of these things are evidence based, it may be subconscious but it’s there. You seem to be conflating two kinds of faith, i.e. certainty that something unfalsifiable is true and hope; everyone, even hardcore atheists have a sense of hope.

I would say we *desire* meaning, this is from our evolution, but we don’t need it; if we did we would not have got this far. However, I would argue we need purpose in our lives and we all find that in different ways (those Neanderthals who committed rape in Reading clearly have none and should be locked up for a long time to help them acquire it) but that is not the same as “meaning”, there is no meaning other than falsehoods we invent for ourselves; the universe does not care about how we feel, we are insignificant this is what the evidence tells us; accepting this fact is scary to some but in practice utterly liberating, it frees us to pursue more useful earthly goals.

There are no “why” questions only “how” questions... discuss! ;-)

Steve Borthwick said...

Oh BTW OP, I think when you talk about Malthus and US objection to Evolution I fear you may be making the same fundamental error that the God bots over there are?

The foundation that Malthus laid gave inspiration to Galton and later Hitler in the area of eugenics, but this is not natural selection it is in fact the opposite, i.e. selective breeding.

Darwin discovered natural selection and used the example of selective breeding of pigeons (among other examples) to make the point that nature can do the same thing without the need for intervention by humans.

To think that Eugenics is somehow derived from Darwin (which religious people often do in the USA) is either evidence of ignorance or a most mischievous position to hold.

Oranjepan said...

Hi Steve, hoope you enjoyed your travels - where did you go... Walsingham, Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem?

Let me be clearer in my response. I don't see why science and religion are at loggerheads and I don't see any benefits from presenting them as mutually contradictory. I remain to be conviced that they are in competition.

You state a selection of the many valid criticisms presented against several institutional beliefs which are impossible to disagree with, but they are not representative. The view that 'the world' is only 6000years old is held by a tiny minority of a small section of the faithful (just point out to them that Noah lived before that point, and see what they say).

You are making an argument against conservative religious institutions, not against religious faith itself.

The point is that certainty and doubt are mutually necessary - one cannot exist without the other. It is an eternal paradox.

You make a hugely important point that the state of science is entirely contingent on contemporary techiniques because we can only know what we can measure.

However our (in)ability to assign and communicate secondary values to the measurements we make in the course of our daily lives in order to just exist does not undermine the reality of our experience - we still feel the wind on our skin, smell the scent of flowers etc.

Therefore I think it is important to be clearer about whether it is the institutionalise beliefs and the system of institutionalising them you oppose or whether it is the ability to believe or have faith.

Oranjepan said...

Personally I have no problem with being a spiritual person, and I think it is essential that we are able to express our faith in all sorts of ways. We need faith in our future, in our friends and loved ones, in our abilities, in our expectations etc otherwise we simply couldn't exist from moment to moment.

I find it amusing that you assert 'evidence' as reason enough for us to accept the conclusion that markets work, or that our love is reciprocated when evidence also shows so regularly that we are capable of fooling ourselves (have you SEEN Jeremy Kyle?). Incomplete evidence is by nature unreliable and we must overcome our logical doubts and emotional fears in order to accept the state of being.

Science also does not provide an ethical framework telling us how to use it or the potential dangers it represents.

Quite simply if either science or religion are politicised then they become the tools of the fanatic - either creating the means or the motive for huge damage.

I think it is far safer and more productive to remain secular and keep them out of political debate. They both are and both must remain - they each have their jobs to do, and they should each let the other get on and do them. But furthermore they have both existed forever and it is unforeseeable that either will ever be extinguished.

Any gains to be made from a science vs religion debate must be seen in the context of their history, and while I can see massive academic interest I think the better approach is to accept people have their different views, but that we can be blind to what they say in order that together we can build a productive consensus around real action.

On the trident issue, for example, should we spend huge amounts of money we don't have on a weapons system we may never use?

Does state sponsored weapons technology function as R&D for more practical science and does the development of weapons create a weapons race making war more likely, or does greater defence capability reduce the likelihood of attack? Is it possible to have a defence system which equally prevents attack from terrorists and aggressor states?

So, can we afford Trident, or can we afford not to have it?

I think these are more important questions, and clearly every society is split equally over the answers - worshippers and scientists alike.

Anyway, I really enjoy discussing with you, because I have a pretty strong sense that despite everything we've said that we do actually agree on the fundamentals, even if we disagree about how to descibe them.

In a narrow sense most people would describe me as an atheist, but because I'm typically contrarian I reject the categorisation and prefer to take a broader perspective of the meanings available (although not so wide open that my brain falls out).

I always try to remember my Seneca - it matters less whether it is true or false than whether you can use it to the ends you desire. One of the primal skills of humanity was to learn deception and self-deception: perversely and paradoxically the ability to be confused enables us to reach transcendent enlightenment! And I don't know whether to find it odd that therefore I am motivated to argue against the attack on basic flawed humanity from your 'humanist' position.

Finally I have to return to my thesis that everyone is trapped by our ability to communicate ideas according to our language skills. I know I will always struggle to say exactly what I mean however strongly I mean it.

Oranjepan said...

Whether eugenics and Darwinism are tied, I think is actually less important than the fact that people believe it is.

The problem is perceptions, as perceptions are behind all political views. Accurate or otherwise.

Going back to my point about communication, it seems obvious that nobody can know everything, so we are dependent on the information and interpretations we recieve. Being right or wrong alone is not enough - we must have an audience.

It is easy to say we *desire* meaning, but I also think that statement starts to shine a light on the difference between life and an existence. At some point we choose whether we just trundle along from day to day, doing what we do, or whether we gain some oversight. I think it is the easier choice to say it would be better not to try to change the world, but it is unrealistic because there is always someone somwhere else who will do the opposite. So for me the more difficult choice is the correct one.

Anyway, I agree that we want to use our knowledge and feelings and thoughts to liberate ourselves, so I think it's probably best if I extricate myself from this overly theoretical discussion before we start going round in circles. Back to practical matters.

Oranjepan said...

BTW I'd appreciate it if you could email me. My address is oranjepan[at]hotmail[dot]co[dot]uk