Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Noci-Notes – ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ - #5

` Chapter Four: Organized Skepticism. (To go back to my first installment, please click on this link.)

` In this chapter, we are introduced to yearning and learning. Unfortunately, I know very little about the concept of yearning other than the fact that always I wished I knew more about everything. Since my hopes as a child were constantly dashed each day, I suppose this explains why I learned not to yearn at all. I’m working on it... and again I am getting off the subject.
` Yearning is indeed the driving force behind science, wanting to know something whether it confirms your ideas or not. In the case of faith, it is also the driving force behind wanting something to be true in order to confirm one’s belief.
` But there is also learning. That is what you do both when you listen to wise authorities as well as not taking what they say as necessarily true in order to find things out on your own.
` Really, though, we need both:

Yearning without learning is seeing Elvis in a crowd, the fossilized footprints of humans and dinosaurs together in ancient rocks, or moving statues. Yearning without learning is buying tabloid newspapers with headlines announcing “Newborn Baby Talks of Heaven” and “Aliens in U.S. Congress!” Yearning without learning is looking for healing in pretty crystals and the meaning of life in horoscopes. Yearning without learning is following whatever current guru offers the most promising prospects of eternal life.
` Learning without yearning is pedantry, scientism, idées fixes. Learning without yearning is believing that we know it all, that what we see is what we get, that nothing exists except what can be presently weighed and measured. Learning without yearning is rote science without a heart, without a dream, without a hope of beauty.
` Yearning without learning is seeing the face of Jesus in a gassy nebula. Learning without yearning is seeing only the gas.
` Yes indeed. Jesus; seen in the famous 1995 Hubble photos of the Eagle Nebula. Really! It’s just a picture of an ancient cloud, some tens of trillions of miles wide, being blasted away by light to reveal the fact that it’s creating stars! If that wasn’t impressive enough, some people had claimed that they saw something familiar from our planet – the face of someone who cannot be recognized from, say, a photo (who furthermore did not even supposedly exist until five thousand years after the light from the nebula had reached the telescope, though I suppose that fact is meaningless in this case).
` Like Raymo, I cannot make out any human face in the nebula, so I don’t even know why anyone would say that to begin with. Here, take a look for yourself!
` What is all this yearning from? The fact that so many people want to see something that relates to them personally in something that could easily exist with or without us. Apparently, this gives people the sense of connection with the universe.
` Perhaps the reason I don’t understand this need stems from the fact that I grew up without learning the concept of why people become emotionally attached to other human beings. It wasn’t obvious to me in my life, and so I was never able to feel connected to even the most mundane thing in front of my face.
` You see, in my life I had became emotionally attached to objects because of their tendency of not putting overwhelming pressure on me, constantly complaining about when I was going to allow them to break my spirit. Of course, I’d been broken ten times over, but I was still declared stupider than a horse, because at least horses allow themselves to be broken.

` That will make a person become a mad scientist, let me tell you, boy howdy!

` This whole yearning thing actually reminds me of something that ‘anonymous Dawn Harr’ brought up in my comments here (not having internet access, I cannot view them at the moment), which contained the gist of her typical argument – something to the effect of; ‘I don’t care if believing in God is rational or not; what if you’re wrong? You’ll suffer in hell for eternity!’
` I responded that, other things aside, I will not believe in something out of a threat. Being rewarded for belief and punished for disbelief is, basically, theological blackmail. This is much the same kind of thing that Raymo had grown up with:

Part of being good was buying the package whole, the entire catechism. One was not allowed to pick and choose. Doubts were not admitted. Call any part of the system into question, and the whole thing was in danger of coming apart, because, to tell you the truth, none of it was based on the kind of evidence that might impress a scientist, a court of law, or even a reasonably skeptical child. The legitimacy of the system was guaranteed by revelation and holy tradition, the sources of which were conveniently tucked away in the past, beyond immediate inspection....
` The whole thing stood or fell on a single premise: eternal salvation. Believe and you shall be saved. Buy the pig in the poke, and death will have no sting.... Guardian angels, devils, stigmatas, apparitions, levitations, miraculous cures – all buttressed the system. Even secular manifestations of the paranormal (mind readers, poltergeists, the evil eye) were secondhand evidence for the promise.
` ...We were told nothing in our religious education about the anthropological foundations of religion, or the terrible atrocities and genocides that had been perpetrated in the name of our triumphant faith. We heard nothing about the many contingencies of Church history, the abominable behaviors of Renaissance popes, the egregious materialism of the Vatican. It was never suggested that one might choose to live ethically without the threat of hellfire, or that the tendency toward altruism might be part of the genetic inheritance of every human being.
` It’s bizarre – but perhaps not that surprising – how often that happens. Furthermore:
In our science classes in Church-sponsored primary and secondary schools, we learned innocuous facts, the bare rudiments of biology, chemistry, and physics, but never the grand syntheses – celestial mechanics, geological chronology, natural selection, molecular biology – never the vibrant, resonant web. We were never given a hint of what science really was: organized skepticism. The postmedieval cosmic order was kept firmly out of sight.
` Raymo went through part of college, reading the great Catholic authors, practicing asceticism, even hoping to be raptured at the Trappist monastery! It was only when he was exposed to skeptical thought and decided to re-examine the Catholic dogmas (through the Hawthorn Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism) that it dawned on him just how easy it is for people to have faith:
A few dozen pages into the book, it dawned on me that if I could believe in angels, I could believe in anything. And I didn’t believe in angels. The evidence for angels was as convincing as the evidence for poltergeists, fairies, or Bigfoot; perhaps less convincing. I closed the book, and the whole cosmological system of my childhood came tumbling down. I had become a Skeptic.
` I’m not sure if this happens very often when people examine their faiths critically like this, though they usually do agree that their own beliefs do sound just as silly as those of many other faiths – from organized religions to creepy little cults.
` This includes Raymo, as well as most people of faith and of ex-faith that I know of. There are also others who do not, though these are the types of people who seem to lack a sense of worldview perspective. (Much of it probably has to do with a general lack of being comfortable with the idea that other perspectives exist.)
` In any case, many people are terrified by the empty, effectively infinite universe that is known to exist out there. And so, they want to add onto it. They want to personify the universe beyond all appearances. They want something out there to acknowledge them. They want to see themselves in the far corners of the cosmos. It is why they see the face of the champion god-man in a nebula, or – in the disturbing case of the Heaven’s Gate cult – a flying saucer for adherents’ souls in a comet.
` For those faithful who cannot reconcile science with their beliefs, sometimes they’d rather push out the science where it’s most convenient. And, says Raymo: ‘[I]f the promise of eternal life is to have maximum drawing power, it is essential for Church and guru to undermine the legitimacy of science.’ Sometimes, that’s just what they’ll try to do!

` I recall a time in which I used to complain that mainstream scientists were in the way of all the evidence of the supernatural discovered by people who were also scientists. In fact, I used to shamelessly proclaim; ‘Of course there’s evidence of the paranormal! Tons of it! Most scientists are just close-minded!’
` After reading all of the way through this book, I finally was able to look around me and see for myself that the mainstream scientists don’t flat-out ignore such ideas, so much as they demand carefully-controlled experimental evidence for them – evidence that no one has been able to provide to this day:

If every idea has equal currency in the marketplace of ideas, then truth becomes a matter of whim, politics, expediency, or the tyranny of the strong. Science has evolved an elaborate system of social organization, communication, and peer review to ensure a high degree of conformity within an institutionally supported orthodoxy. This conservative approach to change allows for an orderly and exhaustive examination of fruitful ideas. It provides a measure of insulation from fads, political upheavals, religious conflicts, and international strife. Yes, offbeat ideas do have a hard time of it in science. But not an impossible time.
` Unexpected facts do pop up from time to time, and, because scientists have to take all facts into account, they are forced to learn from them whether they like it or not. Therefore, even though some scientists have this bias or that bias, such anomalies will eventually have to make their ways into sound scientific theories – prevailing ones or not!
` In that way, science has the ability to progress. And so, it moves forward... carefully!
` As an example, the natural philosophers living hundreds of years ago noticed just how well animals were suited to their habitats:

Camels carry their energy-storing fat in one place, on their backs, so that the rest of their bodies can effectively cool off in the deserts where camels live. Giraffes have long necks that allow them to eat from the high ungrazed trees of the savanna. And so forth. This specifity of design was thought to be compelling evidence for the work of an intelligent Creator, as described in Genesis....
` Well yes... if those animals were not so well-adapted, they would be extinct! Until around the beginning of nineteenth century, however, extinction wasn’t something most scientists were willing to accept.
But what about birds, such as the ostrich, that have wings but do not fly? Why do blind fish that live in lightless caves have eyes? What might an Intelligent Designer have had in mind? These examples of apparently maladaptive design were ignored by scientists until Darwin proposed a new theory – [common descent through natural selection] – that explains with equal facility the hump on the camel, the neck of the giraffe, the wings of the ostrich (descended from birds that flew), and the eyes of the blind fish (descended from fish that lived in light).
` So, in the years before Darwin, useless body parts (and many other anomalies) could not be explained in light of an intelligent creator, unless that creator also made useless and arbitrary structures. (That is not to say there weren’t other theories of evolution that explained them as well, though these turned out to be bogus.) In the late 1800s, Darwin published his explanation for these odd facts, and from then on such contradictions to design – as well as an entire host of other consistently observed patterns – plus biological discoveries made later on in time, have actually made sense.
` However, it wasn’t really until Darwin published his theory that anyone else felt comfortable acknowledging these previously unexplained facts. It is because the always-analytical scientist is typically slow to notice such small things that could have such large implications.
{Alan Lightman and Owen Gingerich, “When Do Anomalies Begin?” Science 255 (February 7, 1992):690.}
”Exactly!” cry creationists, supernaturalists, and paranormaliss. “Scientists ignore what doesn’t fit.” “Scientists work with blinders on their eyes.” “Science is an orthodoxy more rigid than the most conformist religion.”
` Whoa there, Checkers! That’s not entirely true! First off, science is not orthodoxy because it does change, it does progress – those anomalies do not go ignored forever! Remember, science itself dictates but one thing about our knowledge; that it is tentative and by no means complete! Eventually, anomalies that cannot be explained by one theory will need to be explained by another that includes more of the picture.
` Also, do not forget that science is mostly made of theories which mutually support one another across the fields. Most of these ideas are actually quite stable. Small pieces that seem to fit may turn out not to, and that is what the scientific attitude is all about: ‘Since this makes sense here, and this makes sense there.... Hmmm... what to make of this over here? I could ignore it for a while and see if it continues to contradict other discoveries or instead makes sense in their light.’
` When you compare that to; ‘Oh, let’s believe this and ignore new discoveries altogether’, you can see why the skeptical process of science would be the fruitful route.
` Of course, this is not to say that some scientists are close-minded or arrogant, but the fact that the rest of the community is there to balance them out ensures that this isn’t as much of a problem as some might think.
` After all, science is in fact a system that is committed to changes in knowledge! It just has to look around a bunch before it leaps. This is not to say that there are no useful shortcuts in determining what is most likely to be true....

The nineteenth-century physicist Michael Faraday once said, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.” With that in mind, the Skeptic must be open to the possibility that an apparently offbeat idea contains a germ of truth. At the same time, he is right to insist that certain evidential criteria must be met for an idea to qualify as science....
` ...The Skeptic’s guiding principle is Ockham’s razor: No more things should be presumed to exist than are necessary to explain the phenomenon.
` Consider the newest fad in our search for pop spirituality: fire walking. A new breed of entrepreneurial guru stands ready to lead us to a life beyond merely material existence – across twelve feet of glowing coals.... The laws of physics are made to be broken, says the instructor, if only we can harness the spiritual power that lies deep within us....
` In fact, it is because of the laws of physics that fire walking is possible.
` You see, while glowing coals have a high temperature, the amount of heat they can contain is not very high. The same can be said for air; in an oven heated to 350 degrees, you can still put your hand inside without being burned by the surrounding air. Wood ash also does not conduct heat very well, and so any heat it contains is slow to transfer to your feet.
` This is the reason why a 350-degree cake pan will burn your hand instantly while the 350-degree cake in the pan – being slow to conduct heat – requires you to rest your hand on it before it sustains damage. Also, low conductivity is why an oven mitt prevents your hand from being burned by very hot objects.
` According to what is predicted by physical science, nothing strange is going on when you dash across ashes and don’t get burned – wood ash itself is somewhat insulating. At the same time, nothing fundamentally different is going on when you simply stand still on the coals and sustain burns!
` So, because we understand the thermal properties of wood ash (and therefore its likelihood of their burning people), why would any person think that fire-walking breaks the laws of physics – much less go out of their way to invoke spiritual energy as the cause?
` Before writing a column about the subject, Raymo himself made a bonfire and raked up some coals for himself:

While witnesses watched, I stepped barefoot onto the red-hot coals, then again, and again, and again. No burns. No blisters. Can’t even say that I felt anything unusual. But I will admit that the first step was scary. My successful fire walk was not mind over matter, but mind over mind. A small victory for Ockham’s razor.
` Of course, True Believers will say that my feet were protected from burns by my own involuntary powers of mind. No talk of thermal physics will dissuade them from their belief.
` Similarly, the Black Death was once viewed as God’s way of punishing heathens. And yet, when the fleas of rats were discovered to have spread the disease, God could still be viewed as the one who sent the rats to punish the faithless. ...Until the rats were disposed of and the plague receded.
` Indeed – ordinary physical causes (of any type) to which superfluous beliefs are attached are the type of thing that allows the True Believer to ‘have his ideological cake and eat it too.’
` But those extra conjectures are not needed to make sense of the world. They are, however, sometimes needed to make sense of belief systems. In other words, such ideas are dictated by beliefs rather than reality!
` Additionally, one cannot disprove such spiritual speculations and the like because they are not physically available for so doing. This is why Ockham’s razor is used: There could be a weightless, massless, invisible pink unicorn in the lab next to me, but there is no physical reason I would even begin to suspect such a thing to begin with. Therefore, why bother with the idea in the first place unless I was a member of the (grin)
Cult of the Invisible Pink Unicorn? The Vegnautic sect, no less? (Apparently, she reveals herself by speaking through cats!)

` Is this making sense, class? Well, I must say; I had best be pulling myself up to the rafters now! Hope to see you unwilling subjects later on!


Aaron said...

Spoony, you're awfully hard on true believers. Don't you know that simple minds need simple concepts to grasp onto in order for them to feel relevant in some way.

All too often religion is imposed on young skulls full of mush, therefore crippling their skeptical scientific development. These people, even the zealots, need to be approached, not with contempt, but with calm understanding of their shortcomings from a stunted development.

Religion will not go away any time soon, more and more children are being indoctrinated every day.

I like your term 'theological blackmail'. It seems very appropriate to describe many christian sects.

Galtron said...

I run away from Jehova's Witnesses for that reason.

S E E Quine said...

` Mmmheh heh heh heh!!!
` Yes, tragically, people with stunted reasoning abilities are - in general - not that way biologically as much as they are kept from developing them by other means.
` I'm going to have to create a mascot that says; "Only you can prevent the misunderstanding of skepticism!"

Anonymous said...

Speaking of skeptics -- I'm skeptical of YOU, Spoony. I think it takes a vastly bigger leap of faith NOT to believe in a creator and to declare the whole universe a giant cosmic accident than it does to believe in intelligent design. NOT having a religion does in fact create its own system of religious thinking. When you say “there are no absolutes”, logically, that single belief in and of itself becomes your absolute! If you admit that there ARE in fact absolutes of some kind– natural laws if you will, your belief in those rules becomes eerily similar to embracing a religion, because your belief does in fact govern your behavior and the way that you live your life!

Darwinian theory admittedly accounts for a number of modern changes. Mutant bacteria thrive when they become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Scientists have clearly demonstrated that the median beak size of Galapagos finches has changed in response to changing weather patterns. Similarly, the ratio of light to dark-colored moths in England shifted when pollution made lighter-colored moths more clearly visible to predators. These are certainly clear examples of natural selection in the works. However, these specific examples demonstrate only one or a few mutations, and the resulting mutant organism is not all that different from its ancestor. In contrast, to account for the very existence all of life, an endless series of mutations would have to have produced vastly different types of creatures from a common source. I’ve seen no clear proof of that, or even reasonably compelling evidence.

Also, Darwin's theory hits a brick wall when it comes to explaining the development of cellular systems. There are a good number of cells that are irreducibly complicated in their design – in other words, they need several components in place before they can function AT ALL, even minimally. For the more simple minded – an everyday life example of irreducible complexity is a common mousetrap, built with several components – base, hammer, spring, etc. It is impossible to kill a mouse with just the base of the trap -- all the components have to be in place before it is capable of catching any mice.

Just one example of what I understand to be an irreducibly complex cellular system is the flagellum of some bacteria -- the flagellum requires a number of cellular components before it works -- a stator, rotor, and motor. Furthermore, I’ve also read reports that have shown that around 40 various kinds of proteins are found in a working flagellum. I’ve never seen a sufficient explanation for the evolution of a flagellum based upon Darwinian theory.

The intracellular transport systems in plant and animal cells are also extremely complicated. Cellular components including proteins and enzymes have to be transported between various cellular compartments. Some components are packaged into molecular “trucks”, and each truck has its own unique “key” that can only fit the “lock” of its cellular destination. Other types of proteins act like loading docks -- opening and dumping the contents into the compartment once the transport system has reached its destination. Of course, I’m simplifying this and am speaking in lay terms. It reality, it is all much more complex than this.

A wide variety of other examples could be cited, but this isn’t MY blog. What is boils down to is that even cells -- the most basic ingredient in life -- are breathtakingly complex. James Shapiro, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Chicago, once wrote, "There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations." I would have to agree with him.

Scientists have on occasion suggested non-Darwinian theories to account for the origins of the cell, but I don't find any of them the least bit convincing. Instead, I find it most likely that the complex systems were in fact deliberately designed. I’ve seen no evidence of another mechanism aside from deliberate design, including Darwin's theory of evolution, which is capable of producing that kind of complexity. If scientists demonstrated that bacteria without a flagellum could systematically evolve such a feature, or evolve any new structure of comparative complexity, my system of thought would be called into question. But so far, this hasn’t happened, and I doubt that it ever will. But, I AM open-minded, and my belief in a creator doesn’t mean that I am unable to consider that this creator might have used mechanisms that I hadn’t considered to do the creating.

Dawn Tareila Harr

S E E Quine said...

` Due to several factors, I have chosen to respond to you in my next post. It will be lengthy.

Galtron said...

*Hastily runs off to construct bomb shelter.*

Aaron said...

Room for one more Galtron?

Galtron said...

As long as you don't mind sharing it with a couple of hot girls.

Aaron said...

darn, i was hoping for 3 hot girls...