Skepticon Reflections

Last weekend, I once again attended Skepticon in Springfield, MO.  I would link to the website, but it’s apparently expired sometime in the last few days.  This was a the third year the conference has been held, and it’s been bigger every year.  The first year, it was just Carrier and PZ, who were great.  Last year, it expanded to two days, and this year it was three.  I really hope it continues to grow, as it’s really nice to be able to spend some time around like-minded individuals.

That said, the conference had one major problem this year: it allowed itself to be defined by some criticism that occurred before the conference started by someone who wasn’t even attending.  The criticism was that the conference would have been better named “atheistcon” instead of “Skepticon.”  I really think this criticism is pretty ridiculous, so I’m not going to spend time talking about it here, especially after hearing so many people talk about it at the conference, especially DJ Grothe and Randi.  They both seemed very defensive to me and I didn’t understand it at all.

Phrases like “atheism is skepticism about only one thing” and “I’m an atheist because there is no evidence” were hammered on so much, I just wanted to yell “get on with it.”  I mean, it’s 2010, is this really an issue?  Was this actually unclear to anyone?  Never-the-less there were some really good points made, and it was great to hear Randi in person.

DJ Grothe made a really good point that I had to applaud.  He said that he would rather hang out with someone who is skeptical about everything but god than someone who is skeptical about only god.  Examples given were Bill Maher, who is a prominent atheist, but pushes some really bone-headed ideas, compared to Martin Gardner, who was very skeptical, but believed in a deist god never-the-less.  I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more.  I’ve stopped going to some of the local skeptical meetups because they are populated with people whose only concern is religion and have really strange ideas about other things.

Don’t get me wrong, Religion is an important topic to discuss and be skeptical of, but listening to atheists who believe the crap about vaccines and autism, or push Zeitgeist as a good source for information is not my idea of fun.  I’m not going to accept atheism as ‘good enough.’  The end goal is skepticism.

There were several speakers at the conference I had never heard of before.  The best speaker at the conference was John Corivino, a philosophy professor, gay rights activist and skeptic.  It’s safe to say that I’m now a fan, and I hope to get more opportunities to hear him speak.  His best trait?  The ability to effectively explain and communicate nuance.

David Fitzgerald was someone else who I hadn’t really heard of before.  He gave a talk on the historicity of Jesus which was very good.  He has a book out called “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that show Jesus never existed at all.”  After hearing his talk, it’s definitely on my wishlist.  The historicity of Jesus is a topic that’s very interesting to me, even though it has a reputation of being somewhat ‘out there.’   In the last decade or so, it looks like the scholarly case for a mythical Jesus has really been put together, though, and can hold up to criticism.  I would go so far as to even call it compelling.

Other new speakers included Debbie Goddard, Amanda Marcotte, and Greta Christina.  These talks were all very good, though I don’t have much to say about them.  Marcotte’s presentation on Skepticism and Feminism was very good to hear.  I haven’t paid much attention to feminism; it just isn’t something that I’ve been interested in, but after hearing her talk, I think it’s something I should be interested in.  It’s important, and I should learn more.

I did have an interesting conversation with a Christian who stopped to witness to me in the hotel.  It was very cordial, even though his accusations of “you never really were a real christian” irked me.  Who is he to say that?  I didn’t go that route, though, and I think we had a pretty good conversation.  I was helped by the fact that he had a background in psychology, so I was able to bring up our cognitive biases when he started talking about ‘evidence’ for god.  He didn’t really have a reply to that, and kept complaining about superficial christians.  I don’t think either mind changed at all, but these are the conversations we need to be having.

Overall, the conference was great.  We had some of Ray Comfort’s people outside handing out copies of their annotated Origin of Species, and there was a gun show right next door.  Other than the expected “you’re going to hell” accusations, everything was very civil.  I can’t wait to attend again next year.

Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

A few weeks ago, I listened to this great podcast episode from Hanselminutes with James Bach.  While the podcast is normally about programming topics, this particular episode was more about auto-didactic learning.  Near the end of the show, they talk about the concept of ‘Strong Opinions, Lightly Held.’

The idea behind this concept is that you have very strong opinions about something, but you’re not dedicated to it.  You can make a passionate defense of a topic, but when presented with contrary evidence, you simply switch over.  Imagine making a very strong argument and then going ‘Oh, you’re right. Nevermind.’

This is something I don’t think very many people understand, but as someone who’s philosophy is scientific in nature, I’m very familiar with it.  I’ve experienced this countless times where I’ve made what I think is a very good argument for something, then had someone completely destroy it with a simple counter argument.  At that point, I have no choice but to change my mind.  And that’s a good thing.  It means I’ve learned something new, and I’ve progressed in some way.  It’s something I strive for, and when I see it in others, it’s something that gains them immediate respect in my eyes.

Being ‘wrong’ about something has been unfairly stigmatized in our culture.  If you change your mind about something, many times you’re viewed as a ‘waffler,’ or someone who doesn’t know what they believe, or someone who lacks principles.  In reality, it’s just the opposite.  Changing your mind when faced with a better argument does not represent the lack of principles, but dedication to the pursuit of truth.  Is is the embodiment of the idea that truth is more important than the self and that any opinions, beliefs, and views one has must bend to reality, because to do anything else is delusion, by definition.

It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, that you can’t be misled.  It’s easy to imagine a situation where you hear what you only perceive to be a better argument, and in reality, you’re missing some vital information that would clearly demonstrate its incorrectness.  The beauty of this philosophy of ‘strong opinions, lightly held,’ is not that it always leads directly to ‘truth,’ but that it’s self-correcting. If you take the wrong path at some point, it’s easily corrected once you do have the required information.  You never reach ‘absolute’ truth, but you do get closer to it with each iteration.

If there is a path towards wisdom, it surely must begin with the recognition of your own fallibility through self-examination, and this is exactly what is represented by ‘Strong Opinions, Lightly Held.’

Science is Beautiful

I’m getting kind of tired of people scoffing at the idea that science can make things more beautiful. For some reason, many people seem to think that knowing about something makes it less beautiful. I call bullshit, and it’s very easy to demonstrate my position.

Would the people who think understanding the world develops dullness think the same about people? Do people grow less beautiful the more you get to know them? You see a girl. She’s pretty, but doesn’t necessarily stand out. But as you talk to her and get to know her, does her beauty grow or diminish? In my experience, it’s nearly always the former; the exceptions are those rare occasions when you actually have a pretty ugly and hateful person. Ann Coulter comes to mind.

Why would it be any different for a flower, or a rainbow, or the night school, or the sunrise? Or any of the other endless examples of beautiful phenomena that we encounter everyday. It seems to me that looking staring at a sunrise without really wondering how it works is missing much of the experience. While it’s not necessarily a shallow experience, it’s certainly not as full as it could be.

It’s more meaningful to me to look at something that I have some understanding of and wonder at it. The feelings are intensified through knowledge, not dulled.

Maybe for some people, it’s the opposite. Maybe they view the world fundamentally different. That wouldn’t be terribly surprising. If that’s who they are, that’s reality, and there’s no use denying it. But I really would like you to stop scoffing at my own way, and to assume that you have it all figured out. If there is one thing that true understanding cultivates more than anything else, it’s the humility that you really know very little at all.

That’s something we can all learn from.

Looking at the ‘verse

Cailin has written a great description of what it’s like to look up (and around) at the awesome beauty of the Universe we live in:

These are the moments that fill me with the greatest pleasure and wonder, my appreciation for my own existence swells within me and I feel my eyes glaze with tears of joy and sorrow.

I once read a comment by someone made when viewing a beautiful sunset.  They said, ‘How can anyone look at something so beautiful and think there is no god?’  I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, ‘Why would I want to pollute something so wonderful with something so ugly?’

Via The Friendly Atheist.

What If? A Hypothetical Look at the Bible

The Friendly Christian was asking what turns us off from Christianity. I gave my answer there, but I want to expand a bit on one point.

One of the main reasons I can’t be a Christian is what I call the ‘non-uniqueness’ of Christianity. If Christianity was really the one source truth, and all other religions were wrong, wouldn’t there be some very obvious indicators for it? Having posed that question, the first thing that needs to be discovered is what would be an indicator of truth?

There could be a long discussion here about ‘what is truth,’ and/or ‘how do we know what truth is,’ but I’m bored of such discussions. Truth is a representation of realit y. In other words, a ‘true statement’ would be an statement that accurate reflects reality. We verify that something is true through logic, reason, and emperical evidence.

With that out of the way, it’s time to pose my hypotheticals about the bible. What if the following would have happened?

Hypothetical #1
What if the Genesis actually followed the path of creation we know to be true? For example, there was an explosion, and then gas formed, and the gas gathered into stars, and the stars formed into galaxies, and eventually our own star was formed, and around that star was our planet. Et cettera. It would not be difficult to describe this even to a primitive people roaming the desert four thousand years ago. They may not have understood at the time, but it would be something for them to marvel, and then eventually come to understand. And how glorifying that would have been for god! It would be a win-win all around.

Hypothetical #2
[EDIT:  This wording was terrible]
What if instead of portraying men as superior to women, the bible explicitely stated that all people were equal, without regard for gender, ethnicity, or anything else? What if god had given them a morality we could recognize today as ‘good’ instead of something that believers today try very hard to ignore and rationalize away?

Hypothetical #3
What if instead of burnt offerings and other ceremonies, god decided he wanted to have us show our devotion through service to others? You say that Jesus did that? Why the hell wasn’t it like that from the beginning? Some might say that the people weren’t ready, and God was just guiding them along with what they could handle. Can you honestly believe that? Are we better moral beings than what existed a few thousand years ago? The ideas simply hadn’t been invented yet, which is quite obvious when we look at how quickly democracy and similar ideas were adopted after their invention among multiple civilazations. It’s also interesting to note how opposed the church has always been to these ideas, which we know to be good, or at the very least, better than what we had before.

Ok, there are three examples of possible ‘truth indicators’ that could have been unique to Christianity/Judaism. Instead what we see time and time again is that both are copycat religions. They take ideas that have been in use elsewhere, steal them, and use them as their own. And even then, we can see that they still have bad ideas, with little verifiable truth to be found. Sure there’s lots of stuff they say is true, but can’t be proven, but those things are meaningless because of it.

The fact of the matter is that where Christianity has the opportunity to shine as a beacon of truth, it fails miserably. And that is cause for great consideration.

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything!

We all know that answer is 42, right? Well, perhaps not.

But what is the answer? Why are we here? What is the meaning for our life?

I have my own answers to those questions. People will disagree – that’s great. I’m not going to demand that you live your life according to my standards, but I am going to demand that you pay me that same respect.

When I look at the universe, I see beauty that is indescribable. We can talk about it, but the experience of seeing that beauty is something I cannot find the words to communicate completely.   But even with all that beauty, there is some cold hard facts that I (and I believe that since they are facts, others should as well) have had to come to terms with.

The universe has no absolute purpose, as far as we can tell.  This is different than saying that it definitely has no purpose, just that there is no evidence for purpose.  In other words, we cannot know that the universe has purpose.

Our lives have no extrinsic meaning.  We are not here for a purpose set by someone or something greater than ourselves.  Please note once again, I’m not saying that no such purpose exists, only that there is no evidence that such a purpose exists.

With those two facts in mind, what possibly could be the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?

Well, if purpose and meaning are not set by some external source, then we must set our own purpose and meaning.   This is an incredibly powerful idea.  We can decide what our lives will mean.  We can decide the purpose of our actions – the purpose of our existence.

For myself, I find meaning in discovery.  I need to know how the world works.  I need to know why I find it so beautiful.  I need to share those discoveries with others who are interested in them as well.

Where do you find your meaning, really?

What does the Prisoner’s Dilemna Teach us about Morality?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic non-zero-sum game in game theory. I know that can sound a little intimidating, but I’ll lay it out in it’s simplest terms, because it really is quite simple to grasp, and quite valuable to understand.

As a former Objectivist, I really understand the power of selfishness and what it entails. Everyone is basically selfish – in fact, it’s impossible to be completely altruistic. However, that explanation depends on very rigid definitions of both altruism and selfishness, and those definitions are rarely used outside of Objectivism. The main point is that most people, most of the time, will look to maximize their own gain, and I think that most people will agree with that. Objectivism states that this can be a very valuable tool for the betterment of everyone, and there is a lot of evidence that backs that up. The problem is that it never takes into account non-zero-sum games, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

To illustrate what I mean by a non-zero-sum game, let me explain the Prisoner’s Dillemma. Imagine two people who committed a crime together. When they are arrested, they are seperated into two different rooms, and the prosecuter comes in to talk with each of them. The situation is explained to them. If they betray the other person and turn states evidence, they will get away scot free. If they stay silent, while the state can’t convict them for the original criminal act, they can easily get a conviction for a smaller act committed later. The options each person is facing are these:

1. Stay silent, get convicted for the smaller offence, serve 5 years in prison.

2. Turn states evidence, betray their partner and serve no prison time.

It seems pretty obvious that option (2) is the best option. However, there is a twist. The other person is also getting the same deal, so the situation is more complicated. The possibilities are now this:

A. Both stay silent, both serve 5 years in prison.

B. One talks while the other stays silent, and so one goes free while the other spends 10 years in prison.

C. Both talk, where they both serve 10 years. In other words, if they both turn states evidence, there is no need for a deal, so they both go to prison.

Now the Dilemma should be clear. If they both take option (2) from above, they will both serve 10 years prison time. However, if one stays silent, they risk the other turning states evidence and getting off free while they serve 10 years prison.

What would you do?

Given that situation and the options given to each, I’m going to define option (1) as altruistic in nature, and option (2) as selfish in nature. If both people act purely selfishly, as our tendencies are, they both lose greatly. If only of them acts altruistically, they risk being screwed into something pretty bad. The best option now becomes for them to both act altruistically, seeking cooperation instead of self-preservation.

That deserves quite a bit of meditation. As in the Tragedy of the Commons, the best option for both the group and the individual over the long run is more altruistic behaviour than purely selfish behaviour. However, where as the tragedy of the commons can be addressed through private ownership to a point, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is more about interaction, which can be more difficult to really grasp, and I think relevent to morality. Where-in Objectivism holds selfishness as the highest moral principle, it does not necessarily reflect reality. Obviously, altruistic behaviour can lead to an even greater gain, depending on the situation. Those situations are non-zero-sum games.

Given that gaining and keeping resources is good for the individual, we can now derive a moral principal. In a non-zero-sum game, it is morally best for an individual to act altruistically, and immorral to act selfishly.

Okay, you might be wondering why I’m taking the time to write something so blazingly obvious to anyone. As an atheist, I’ve been accused as being a moral relativist, or even worse, completely lacking in morals. This is obvious to the accuser because morality can only come from god. I have now answered those accusations. I have demonstrated the creation of a moral principal using only reason, and without invoking the supernatural. What’s more, it can be applied equally to everyone, and it’s reasoning is available to everyone. It is not dependent on revelations to the elite, or an ancient and contradictory book. It something you can learn, here and now.

This is not something new. It’s not something I did completely on my own. This has been explained over and over again, and as I mentioned, there is a whole field dedicated to the study of such situations. Richard Dawkin’s has done a documentary on the subject called ‘Nice Guys Finish First,’ which explains the subject much better than I can hope for.