Category Archives: critical thinking
I’ve been tempted a few times to prune my Facebook friend tree, but haven’t done so because in between all the bullshit that’s posted on my feed by the uncritical, there’s the odd gem.
Besides, I have only a little over 100 Facebook friends, a fair number of whom are related to me in some way or the other, and I don’t want to risk a family feud.
I’m not so much annoyed by a lot of the posts that smack of credulity, as puzzled and bemused that otherwise seemingly bright people don’t care to check facts etc. before sharing
guff stuff on their timeline. Anyway, I found this brilliant piece yesterday which kinda sums up what I’m talking about:
Now I’m pretty sure that
some a lot of my posts, especially those of a political or irreverent nature must annoy a lot of them, but I don’t attempt to pass them off as facts. I expect bright people to know the difference between opinion or commentary and verifiable truths.
Non Belief or Unbelief? Does it really matter?
I stumbled across this YouTube video earlier today of Stephen Fry being interviewed on Big Think. The title “The Importance of Unbelief” left me pondering whether there is a difference or distinction between Unbelief and Non Belief, and whether it really matters in the larger scheme of things.
On the surface it appears that any distinction between Unbelief and Non Belief is merely semantic, but the antagonism towards New Age Atheism in recent years made very public by the Internets, seems to indicate that the difference is worth investigating, or acknowledging at the very least.
Now, I’m no philosopher or epistemologist or linguist even, but I have unwittingly placed myself in the centre of this apparent wrangle simply because I have chosen to label myself as an Atheist these many years. It used to be that being an atheist was pretty straightforward, but like with so many other things, the modern world contrives to complicate everything. Where once it was grudgingly accepted that there were shades of grey, it seems there is now shaded shades of grey.
In the quest for answers, I tried to follow this debate Does “Atheism” mean “unbelief or lack of belief in God” or “there is no God” ?, and I confess to being more bewildered than ever.
From what I can gather, Unbelief is closely associated with agnosticism, which is harshly regarded as the fence-sitter position. Non belief on the other hand seems to indicate a positive position which is more assertive and based on either certain knowledge, or rejection of asserted knowledge. I do admit that this I have adopted the latter position, not on the basis of certain knowledge, but on the rejection of positions asserted by those who do claim to have such.
But is the rejection of asserted knowledge enough to formulate a belief? Do I now also have to assume the burden of proof? But proof of what since the whole God concept is not clearly defined?
See, here I was thinking that atheism had simplified my life immeasurably, but actually thinking more deeply has opened up a whole new complication. But I guess such is the bane of introspection.
Does this mean that I will go back to believing because it is much easier? Hell no!
The Debate That Wasn’t
Easing into Sunday evening watching a debate found accidentally on YouTube, has left me with some things to carp about.
I am posting the YouTube video here, so if you’ve got two hours to throw away, knock yourself out. The debate was between well-known cosmologist Professor Lawrence Krauss and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, who is styled as an author, lecturer and intellectual activist. The topic of debate was Islam or Atheism – Which Makes More Sense?
Need I point out who represented what point of view?
The points raised on both sides during the debate were not that important – I, and I’m sure those of you who listen to these kinds of debates will have heard them before in some form or the other. What really sustained my attention for two hours was the manner in which the debate was conducted, some of the strategies used, the seeming inability of the adjudicator Timothy Yusuf Chambers (a former Irish Catholic priest, converted to Islam) to affect any sort of control over the two protagonists, and an amusing event involving an outraged Muslim woman during the Q&A session, which I’ll come back to later.
While Hamza Tzortzis came clearly prepared with a lengthy written opening remark which he was at pains to point out was based on deductive logic, it was absolute rubbish. No doubt Lawrence thought so too and made it quite plain in his opening address. Deductive logic is all well and good, but if your conclusions are based on faulty premises, then it’s all just bullshit.
Professor Krauss on the other hand just winged his way through his opening statement, and chose to engage frequently with Tzortzis in and off the cuff manner. There was something I found disturbing about this though; Krauss often came across as rude, near-insulting and somewhat arrogant. But everything he said, made sense and was scientifically correct. To his credit, Tzortzis in the face of this onslaught of scientific reasoning tinged with rudeness, held it together remarkably well.
Krauss’s approach to the debate was of importance, and he even clarified that he preferred discourse to the strict and limiting formal debate format. The term he used was “chat,” because he explained that it allows more room for people to explore, and gain knowledge, rather than just throwing rigid ideas at each other. There is much merit in this.
After watching this and other debates, it has dawned on me how debate about such opposing ideas as atheism and religion have improved over the years. It used to be that religious apologists would simply quote from religious text and other dogmatic theological literature and demand that it be accepted as unadulterated truth. And it used to be that simply asserting things without having to provide proof or evidence was common. Now, apologists prepare more thoroughly using logic and even science. Alas, logic and science used incorrectly, even disingenuously, will never trump the scientific method.
And now we come to that amusing incident. During the Q&A session a clearly irate, albeit foolish woman decided to use the opportunity to complain about some guy who had entered the debate late, and decided to sit at the rear of the hall next to a group of girls of which the complainant was a member. She was quite adamant that her values as a Muslim woman was violated by this latecomer who according to her, should have chosen to sit elsewhere with other men, because she had clearly distanced herself from the men in the audience as was required of her belief system.
Krauss pointed out quite nonchalantly that the debate was clearly advertised as a non-segregated event, and she should have chosen to watch the debate on YouTube, rather than demand deference to her quaint beliefs.
Quite so, Professor Krauss, quite so.
And so who was the winner? I’ll leave you to decide, but for me, science always wins.
Does Science Contribute to Sound Moral Judgement and Behaviour?
On this blog I am frequently confronted by people who post comments that seem to indicate that science has no contributing effect on good moral judgement and behaviour. Indeed science is portrayed as an enemy of religion by most fundamentalists, while religion is claimed as the sole harbinger of morality.
In the religious world it is generally taken for granted that morality would be totally absent were it not for the foundations laid by theology. Subsequently science and religion has been pitted against each other in nearly all social debate as competing forces, which they are not.
Science was never meant to replace religion and I think just about all scientists will agree. It’s unfortunate that religious folk continue to foster the belief that science is “out to get religion.”
I was therefore intrigued when I came across this scientific study published by Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich in Plos One, which demonstrates a correlation between the exposure to science and sound morality. Here is an introduction, but the methods, procedure and conclusions are available through the link above:
Science has stood as a powerful force in shaping human civilization and behavior. As both an ideological system and a method for acquiring information about the world, it offers explanations for the origins of the physical universe and answers to a variety of other fundamental questions and concerns. Past research has noted that personal values influence both the questions that are asked and the methods used in arriving at the answers; as such, scientists have often been concerned with the moral and social ramifications of their scientific endeavors. Not surprisingly, the general consensus is that science is value-laden. However, no studies to date have directly investigated the link between exposure to science and moral or prosocial behaviors. Here, we empirically examined the effects of thinking about science on moral judgments and behavior.
It is important to note that “science” is multi-faceted construct that takes on distinct forms. On the one hand, the scientific style of thinking employed by scientists is unusual, difficult, and uncommon. Although science can serve as a belief system, it is distinct from other belief systems (e.g., religion) insofar as its counterintuitive nature and the degree to which it does not rely on universal, automatic, unconscious cognitive systems; as a consequence, relative to other belief systems like religion, science has few explicit “followers”. On the other hand, apart from the model of the scientific method of acquiring information about the world, we contend that there is a lay image or notion of “science” that is associated with concepts of rationality, impartiality, fairness, technological progress, and ultimately, the idea that we are to use these rational tools for the mutual benefit of all people in society. Philosophers and historians have noted that scientific inquiry began to flourish when Western society moved from one centered on religious notions of God’s will to one in which the rational mind served as the primary means to understand and improve our existence. As such, the notion of science contains in it the broader moral vision of a society in which rationality is used for the mutual benefit of all.
We predict that this notion of science as part of a broader moral vision of society facilitates moral and prosocial judgments and behaviors. Consistent with the notion that science plays a key role in the moral vision of a society of mutual benefit, scholars have long argued that science’s systematic approach to studying causes and consequences allows for more informed opinions about questions of good and evil, and many have argued that the classic scientific ethos stands as an ethically neutral, but morally normative, set of principles that guides scientific inquiry. We contend that the same scientific ethos that serves to guide empirical inquiries also facilitates the enforcement of moral norms more broadly.
Notwithstanding the adage that correlation does not prove causation, this work is invaluable as it was the first time that an empirical attempt was made to find a link between science and morality.
It would be interesting to see if further studies are done and if the results remain consistent with the initial findings.
The Venn Diagram of Absolute Bollocks
The journey to unbelief, revisited
I spent some time last night going through a manuscript on atheism and unbelief, sent to me by a work colleague. Reading through it reminded me of my own personal journey from credulity to skepticism.
I could see the same mistakes in the manuscript that I had made when I first ventured out into the world of unbelief, trying to make sense of this bewildering, yet deliciously liberated frame of mind… no being. It was like deja vu.
I remember grabbing eagerly at any book I could find, any resource that would explain this new world to me. And most of the time I was led astray by utter nonsense. Believe me, there is a lot of it out there. From the cunningly sublime, to the outrageously ridiculous. There’s all kinds – from conspiracy theorists to pushers of woo of every hue.
It is amazingly easy to be lulled into accepting bullshit, because it is comforting. Yes, bullshit is comforting. Which is probably why the world is full of it. Generally people want to be comforted. Who can blame them? Being or feeling challenged is not a natural desire.
This is for my colleague. I hope you are reading this. DO NOT ACCEPT ANYTHING YOU READ OR HEAR. EVEN YOUR EYES MAY DECEIVE YOU. DOUBT IS YOUR BEST FRIEND…
Misconceptions About Science
Based on the many comments received on my blog posts, I gather that there are many misconceptions about science – how it works and what it can and can’t do.
I am therefore quite chuffed at having this valuable resource pointed out to me by Facebook friends at the link below, and hope you will find it as useful as I have:
Misconceptions About Science. 2012. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 25 September 2012. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/teaching/misconceptions.php
It is part of a larger resource by the same authors known as Understanding Science. How science really works, of which I have posted a permanent link in the sidebar of my homepage.
- MISCONCEPTION: Science is a collection of facts.
CORRECTION: Because science classes sometimes revolve around dense textbooks, it’s easy to think that’s all there is to science: facts in a textbook. But that’s only part of the picture. Science is a body of knowledge that one can learn about in textbooks, but it is also a process. Science is an exciting and dynamic process for discovering how the world works and building that knowledge into powerful and coherent frameworks.
- MISCONCEPTION: Science is complete.
CORRECTION: Since much of what is taught in introductory science courses is knowledge that was constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s easy to think that science is finished — that we’ve already discovered most of what there is to know about the natural world. This is far from accurate. Science is an ongoing process, and there is much more yet to learn about the world. In fact, in science, making a key discovery often leads to many new questions ripe for investigation. Furthermore, scientists are constantly elaborating, refining, and revising established scientific ideas based on new evidence and perspectives.
- MISCONCEPTION: Science contradicts the existence of God.
CORRECTION: Because of some vocal individuals (both inside and outside of science) stridently declaring their beliefs, it’s easy to get the impression that science and religion are at war. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. Because science deals only with natural phenomena and explanations, it cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities — like God.
Have fun exploring the rest…
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci
I completed reading this book about two weeks ago, but have been grappling with how to review it. For starters, the title threw me off somewhat, as the contents eventually revealed what I was not expecting.The book is not composed of the typical science versus pseudoscience and non-science debate, that is characteristic of books of this type.
Instead, Massimo Pigliucci focuses on uncovering in some detail what the true nature of science is and indeed what it is not. To this end his discussions involve looking at the history of science from pre-Socratic to modern times, attempting to distinguish between hard and soft sciences, and also what he terms “almost-science.” Further, he looks at the philosophy of science and its proponents such as Popper, and delves into what constitutes an expert in a field of science, and ends with a critique of Postmodernism.
Massimo uses many real-life examples to further his discussions, sometimes going unnecessarily too deep into them as in the case of his criticism of Bjorn Lambourg’s views on climate change. However, overall one sees the necessity of using these examples as in the case of the tiresome Creationist, and patently dishonest Intelligent Design belief systems, to make clear the distinctions between science, pseudoscience and plain bunk.
An eye-opener for me was the revelation that being a skeptic is not necessarily the intellectually superior position it is made out to be by some proponents as Shermer and Randi. Indeed, there are many skeptics out there who have taken positions that are contrary to widely accepted scientific findings, and peddle either pseudoscience or plain nonsense.
Ultimately though, even though scientists are fallible, one comes away convinced that science works because it is self-regulating, being subject to peer review, while pseudoscience and non-science are not.
I think the best way to get an insight into what the book offers is through some quotes which I have selected:
1. Clearly, human senses can be misleading, which is plainly shown by the kind of dream that feels real while it is happening or by phenomena like mirages. Even human reasoning is faulty, again as shown by the fact that we can be absolutely convinced of the soundness of an argument only to be ruthlessly shown wrong by someone who has looked at it more carefully or from a different angle.
2. What interests us here, however, is the potential for fruitful interactions between science and philosophy when it comes to a joint defense against the assault from pseudoscientific quarters.
3. Moreover, it is important to note that it was scientists who uncovered the hoax, not creationists, which is both an immense credit to the self-correcting nature of science and yet another indication that creationism is only a religious doctrine with no power of discovery.
4. We shall see later on how science itself can still claim a high degree of quasi-objectivity, despite the fact that its practitioners are not objective machines, but instead are emotionally and subjectively after the same three universal rewards sought by humankind: fame, money (or material resources), and sex (not necessarily in that order).
5. Objecting to such procedure on moral grounds would be similar to objecting to vaccination on the ground that God wants us to suffer from the diseases He invented (the absurdity of which has not stopped people from actually defending such “reasoning”).
6. To expect a scientist to be more objective than average is the same as to expect a moral philosopher to be a saint: it may happen, but don’t count on it.
7. Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society on the grounds that ‘it doesn’t hurt anyone’ is, well, not a very rational position to take.
8. But the beauty of science is that it so often shows our intuitions to be wrong.
9. Then again, arguably this peculiar relationship between science and philosophy is nothing new. Philosophy has often been the placeholder for areas of intellectual inquiry that have subsequently moved to the domain of science.