Why Skeptics Need to Take a Hit for Believers

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

For me, it’s deeply important to question things things to find out the truth. For others, it’s similarly important to believe in something. There’s a reason why I sometimes let what’s important to them come first.

One of the important rules of talking to people with different opinions is not to question their important beliefs just because you disagree. So, for example, you shouldn’t argue with everyone who believes in God just because you think the belief is not supported by evidence.

What’s not often noticed, though, is that the skeptic who argues against a belief may be standing up for something positive that’s just as important to them.

I am usually the skeptic. I care about believing what is most likely true, not about believing in some particular thing.

This really is something that’s spiritually important to me. To embrace the universe by letting it come to me as it is, not distorted by my subjectivity. To honor truth and exemplify honesty and humility by admitting my own fallibility. To be moral and strive for something greater in the universe no matter what the universe turns out to be like.

This song captures how I feel well:


There’s another, much more common way of looking at spirituality and meaning in life that I find partly relatable but partly very strange. This is when particular beliefs are given central importance in one’s world view and sense of self. Religion is the usual example of this (leading to a somewhat confusing double meaning for the word “spirituality”). This is why, to a skeptic, the existence of God might be a mere factual question, whereas to a believer, very much in life hangs on it, and it is not to be questioned lightly.

Such important beliefs could be about other things as well, like political ideology or aliens. Something very puzzling to me is why they are so often about the supernatural. I don’t think believers know why either.

Of course, the world isn’t divided into skeptics and believers. Religious people can have a very inquiring attitude, even going as far as gladly and without vitriol debating the existence of God. And certainly some of the beliefs I do have about the universe have spiritual importance to me, though hopefully not to the point I couldn’t question them given reason.

Nevertheless, I am often the skeptic while others are believers. Religion is the most obvious field where this happens: I am fascinated by it, I want to know about it and want to understand it, I think it’s important to know about it… and my way of looking at it is apparently very threatening to a lot of the people who actually embrace religion. They don’t want to question things that, to them, have a meaning far beyond whether something is factually true or not.

If I honor others’ beliefs by not questioning them, I have to put my own deep values aside. I do think it is right to do so if nothing (else) of moral importance depends on it, if no-one’s harmed by the belief. “Uncritical” thinking is not threatening to me the same way as the questioning of some central beliefs is to some.


The Difference Between Being Good and Feeling Good

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Is anything really good, or are there only things that feel good?

I’m aware that a lot of what we feel has been programmed by evolution, or something else outside us, like culture.

So we might look at a certain kind of landscape and feel at home there. But all that really means is it was an environment that was good for our ancestors. Yet, it might feel right so that we become convinced that’s where we should live. Aside from the fact that it’s a good thing we get to feel good, isn’t that impression kind of false? We’re just being pushed around by instinct.

So is there a difference between things that just feel good and things that are actually good? I think some such difference might be illustrated by the following examples.

Suppose Bob is feeling unhappy about a lot of things: his job, while important to him, is boring; he’s always tired, lacking energy to do things he wants; he’s not getting along well with his wife; he’s not spending enough time with his children.

In the first story, Bob realizes his real problem is that he’s focusing too much on advancing his career and making more money than he even needs at his job. He decides to change to a lower-paid but less stressful and more interesting position within the organization.

Suppose Bob was right, and this does help with his problems. His work is no longer boring, he gets to sleep more and have more energy overall, he gets to spend more time with his wife and children.

The result? His solution feels good because things have improved in his life.

In the second story, Bob instead takes advice from a positive thinking coach who teaches him how to manipulate his mood so that he no longer feels bad about things. So his life goes on much as before, but every time he feels bad, he makes himself feel better. (I’ve read that this kind of practice has been a real problem with practitioners of NLP; fortunately, the most recent book on NLP I looked at was conscious of this and cautioned against it.)

Bob still doesn’t have enough time for his family and ends up getting a divorce, but the technique he has learned is so powerful that he’s even able to make himself not feel bad about that.

The result? Bob thinks things have improved in his life because he feels good.

This seems to illustrate the difference between what is really good and what only feels good. We may strongly feel that a thing is good – a love affair, a cultural practice, an addiction, membership in a cult – but if it’s objectively not good for us in any other way, then there is a sense in which it’s not really good.

We always have to choose some things to start with, basic values, to be able to determine what is good. Beyond that, however, it’s how things affect the harmony of our lives that makes them good or not.

Freedom, responsibility, and higher-level laws

In this post, I present an argument for the following thesis: When determinism holds, a person’s action is free and the person is responsible for the action if determinism does not hold on the relevant higher level on which the action is being described.

Let’s start by unpacking what that means: Continue reading

The imperfect universe and the idea of a perfect being

All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small
All things foul and dangerous
The Lord God made them all

Monty Python’s version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”


I’m far from the first to question the idea that god as the perfect being fits together with our world as it is. The problem of evil has been used as an argument against the existence of god: how could there be a perfectly good and all-powerful being and there still be evil in the world? Wouldn’t the perfectly good want to fix it and the all-powerful be able to? (Personally, I don’t need an argument against when we haven’t got an argument for.) There have been attempts to argue against this, but they’re all dodging the issue: the argument proves that there can’t be a god that’s perfectly good and all-powerful in the sense assumed in the argument, and it’s not easy to come up with a sense for both that’s satisfactory but doesn’t run afoul of this argument. Honestly, I think theists should just see reason on this point and admit that god doesn’t have both attributes, but it seems as if surprisingly few do.

But that’s an old thing. I want to go a step further. Not only is god’s “perfection” incompatible with the imperfect world without selectiveness and doublethink — the whole idea of a perfect being barely makes sense at all, and especially not in conjunction with the imperfect supposedly created world. Existence in this world is based on happening and striving towards something, and both imply imperfection. Continue reading

A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?

A vague sketch of an idea, but might be significant.

I’ve been reading and thinking about the nature of religion and its relation to belief and to the supernatural. What ideas I get depends on what I focus on or what I read. If I read Daniel Dennett, it seems religion really is built around the supernatural. If I read Karen Armstrong, it seems that it’s not. This idea comes from the latter way of looking at it.

So, this idea is that religion was not originally supposed to be about beliefs, that this is only something we think because we’re confusing it with science. On the other hand, I’ve also read that science has been made too much about knowledge only. And that religion — and myth — used to have an important function that we’re partly missing now.

This makes me think: Do a naturalistic world view — belief in only verifiable things, nothing supernatural — and religion need to contradict in any way? From this perspective, it seems that not. Here’s a sketch of different ways they could be closer and closer to each other as they come to involve a better understanding of the world and people. Continue reading

Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?

It is common to think that determinism contradicts free will. One way to put this is that if everything that will happen has been determined by past events, then you cannot change what happens. Another way it could be put is that if past events are the causes of your actions, then you cannot be the author of them.

When I discuss free will and determinism with people, I constantly run into the problem that some people cannot really think about what they mean by it. As I argued last week, every event is either deterministically caused or not, and there’s no third option. Yet people will insist, by either explicitly saying it or unknowingly assuming it, that something can be neither determined nor random (undetermined) but instead be a free choice. From this, we can get the idea of ultimate self-determination: that a choice is not random because it is under the person’s control, but is also not determined because the person could have chosen otherwise and prior events in the universe do not determine what they choose.

This is already proven impossible by the fact that any action is either deterministic or not and indeterminism can only mean (some degree of) randomness. But let’s look at it from a different point of view: what would it mean for a choice to be grounded only in the person themselves and not, even at a greater distance in time, in any prior events? Continue reading

Review: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize the truth: the living cell evolved with no Creator, no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own, created by the evolving biosphere? The truth is much more magnificent, much more worthy of awe and wonder, than our ancient creation myths.

Reinventing the Sacred proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based world view. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe. Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred — creativity, meaning, purposeful action — are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically. (…)

-From the cover blurb

Reinventing the Sacred coverLast week, I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and criticised it for answering the human world/physical universe problem in a way that effectively rejected current science. Fittingly enough, this review features one of the books I think successfully integrates science with humanity, even spirituality.

Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion actually has much more scientific content than one would expect from its descriptions. Certainly, it offers a view of how we could see sacredness as a property of the evolving universe rather than a god outside of it. Continue reading