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.


Memes Ganging Up on Us

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Selfish memes can survive in human culture by forming into larger units that offer mutual protection.

Last week, I wrote about how a kind of natural selection among ideas, memes, can cause harmful or inaccurate ideas to spread and survive. This time, I want to look at another way in which undesirable memes can survive: by relying on protection from other memes and each other.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Water M. Miller Jr., and the Hyperion quatrology by Dan Simmons are both stories set in a far future where a cataclysmic destruction has faced the Earth. Aside from that, there’s more or less just one thing that they have in common: in both, the Catholic Church is nearly the only thing to survive in its original form. In Hyperion this is more extreme, as while the whole Earth has disappeared in the disaster, the original Vatican still exists, because the whole thing was physically transported to another planet.

A cultural unit as big as a whole religion is not one meme. It is, to use an expression I got from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, a memeplex, consisting of a large number of memes tied together. The memes still can, and probably do work together in terms of survival. I think of it as something like a multi-cellular organism.

The Catholic Church is known as a bastion of tradition, which in the terms used here means a preserver of memes. Is this bad? I mean, since I’m talking about bad memes and bring up the Catholic Church as an example, I might seem to be saying it’s a bad memeplex. Well, I’m not saying the Catholic Church on the whole is bad. However, what must be acknowledged is that it’s giving some bad memes great protection, especially irrational and immoral “moral” ones.

Memes get selected for survival, and especially as parts of memeplexes, they can build themselves both reproductive efficiency and protection against being abandoned. All by natural selection, of course. When it’s about time they died, they can resist it this way. Perhaps the worst part of this is that so-called moral norms might well be ones that have especially good defenses when they’re part of the system that forms the values of the community. Moral norms are in the habit of getting outdated and really affect people’s lives, so this is a serious issue.

Of course, there are also universal moral norms that are resilient memes in their own way, and that have been invented way back and should be remembered. Even these are subject to the decay mentioned earlier, though. The basic ideas may not be totally lost, but they may be totally lost on some people, like the Americans who can’t tell Ayn Rand’s values from those of Jesus.

The Agnostic Fallacy

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Paradoxically, it might be more agnostic not to believe in any gods than to be agnostic about them.

A headline from Scientific American: “Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prize-Winning Physicist Says”.

Of course, Marcelo Gleiser won the Templeton Prize for spiritual contributions, as it were, not physics. Not sure whether that should make him more or less credible on this matter.

Anyway, he sounds like a deep and respectable thinker in that interview… except for this one thing I want to argue against. I’m sure my argument has been made many times before, but as long as esteemed thinkers keep disregarding it, it bears repeating.

He says: “I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. … It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in non-belief. ‘I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.’ … But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, ‘Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.’ And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. ‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ and all that.”

To get a couple of things out of the way first:

Firstly, absence of evidence is evidence of absence in the sense that’s usually relevant. Sayings are not arguments.

Secondly, atheists could claim they have evidence against the existence of god(s). But, all right, let’s consider the case where absence of evidence is cited as the evidence.

If the case is that there’s no evidence for the existence of any gods, then there is no reason to think gods exist. Anti-scientific, is it? What else is there in science that we believe in spite of lack of evidence? Not finding evidence in spite of trying to is cause to abandon a hypothesis. Having no initial evidence whatsoever suggests there is a reason not to even test it.

Further, if you’re agnostic in the sense that we can’t know anything about things like gods, that doesn’t imply things like the gods we imagine could be real. There could be something unknowable out there, but if you say that something has a non-negligible chance of being like anything like gods, that only makes sense if we can know about it. If it’s unknowable, what we imagine about it has no meaningful chance of being right.

Hence, it makes sense to be “agnostic atheist”.

When people express belief in an unknowable god, they usually mean you can know about it somehow, can have some evidence, probably by inference or intuitions. But then others challenge them by applying standards to their evidence, and they retreat into saying the normal standards don’t apply… and that they know it because it’s unknowable.

One Quote that Tells You All You Need to Know About Creationist Arguments

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

They never quote this paragraph from the “Origin of Species” … and that makes them dishonest.

This is the quote (from Darwin, The Origin of Species, chapter VI) that tells you all you need to know about anti-evolutionist arguments:

“When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.”

Well, anti-evolutionists (“creationists”) probably don’t agree with this one, so why should they quote it? Maybe some of you have guessed. It’s because they like to quote the sentence right before it:

“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

This earlier sentence sounds very different alone without the following ones. Basically, Darwin wrote “It seems incredible that they eye could have evolved, but things proven by science have seemed incredible before, and my theory can totally explain it.”

Yet anti-evolutionists are quoting him as (only) saying “It seems incredible that they eye could have evolved.” This exemplifies the level of dishonesty and/or cluelessness that’s common in their arguments. It’s also an example of, and something of an apt metaphor for, something else: They keep rejecting evolution based on challenges that already have answers.

(As to why they would do this and how it works, there’s a really interesting piece here by an ex-anti-evolutionist.)

When I say this tells you everything you need to know about anti-evolutionist arguments, I don’t mean it proves they’re all like that. That’s something that needs to be proven by looking at the rest of them. Try it, and honestly look at scientists’ answers too. The thing is, anti-evolutionists are always going on about these supposedly hard questions that evolution can’t possibly answer, but if you actually listen to scientists, they have been answered already, and often just understanding evolution properly would automatically give the answer.

So, I have not proven to you that the arguments tend to have this flaw, I have just made the claim that they do and illustrated it with one example. You can find an incredible number of challenges to evolution answered here, for example on the eye here and here.

“Against Their Religion” or “Wrong”?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Why do some people try to impose their own beliefs on others? That’s really the wrong question to ask. For most people, when something is wrong “according to their religion,” it’s also just wrong, period.

Why don’t people whose religious or other similar convictions are against something, like same-sex marriage, just keep it to themselves? Why do they insist on trying to make others conform to their beliefs as well?

The answer, as far as I can see, is depressingly simple.

They don’t actually think it’s just their religion (or whatever). They think it’s wrong. And one does not allow morally wrong things to be done just because someone else thinks it’s okay.

In a society with a variety of cultures, including different religions, everyone has to get used to dealing with people who don’t take the same things for granted as they do. Someone’s version of their religion might forbid X, and among people of the same group, it’s taken for granted you shouldn’t do X. But outside that group, the person can’t just act shocked at the suggestion of doing X and expect to be understood. Hence the classic explanation: “It’s against my religion.”

But that doesn’t mean people with different values will think of them as arbitrary peculiarities of their own traditions. Sure, some will notice that since there are different traditions, that maybe what their own says is not the final truth about everything. And some traditions have the nature of really only applying to one’s own group; I have heard that Judaism’s rules of conduct are like this.

But in many cases, people still think some things are simply wrong, and if it’s their religion saying so, that just means it’s stated on the highest possible authority.

In such cases, though the people may or may not explain their views in the weaker terms of “my religious convictions,” they’ll see such things as objective moral requirements or prohibitions, not just tradition or opinion. The rest of the world won’t agree because they don’t share the same beliefs about the authority of that tradition. But that doesn’t change the fact of how the group itself ultimately sees the matter.

So really, though what they do is wrong, people such as Christian conservatives opposing same-sex marriage are not wrong in opposing what they see as being wrong. It’s right to oppose that which is morally wrong, and someone opposing an actual wrong thing would have my support.

They are wrong in seeing that thing as morally wrong in the first place; they’re wrong in thinking their tradition is reliable and has such moral authority, wrong in thinking something can be morally wrong that harms no concerned party, wrong in their beliefs about what homosexuality is. But they do not think what they’re imposing on others is just their personal religious view. (In that too, of course, they are wrong.) So they do not need to think it’s all right to force one’s personal religious views on others. The answer to why they try to do it is that they think they’re doing something else.

An unhappy atheist’s tale

Some time ago, I had an appointment with an optometrist at the city centre. I got there a little too early, so I decided to just wait in the street for a few minutes. While I was doing that (ie. nothing), two women I didn’t know approached me. It was a bit too long ago for me to remember the ensuing conversation in detail, but I can give the general idea.

One of the things they asked me was whether I had heard about Jesus Christ. This was in Finland, but it was about the same as asking that from someone in America. Maybe even more absurd, I don’t know. How would you not know about Christianity? Around 80% of people in Finland belong to the same Protestant church. It’s a secular society, to be sure, not at all like the US. People belong to the religion but are not actively religious, and religion has very little place in politics. Nevertheless, how could you not have heard about the basics? We even teach it in schools (just not in biology class like people in the US want to do), though admittedly based on what church people belong to (or don’t). Yet this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard religion peddlers ask that question. I don’t know what’s behind it. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter.

Whatever the case, the two women were clearly bent on selling some brand of Christianity to me. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be rude or argumentative. 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