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Self-Serving

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

File:Daniel Dennett in Venice 2006.png

I’d like to wish a happy birthday to Dan Dennett. What a spectacular day to be born! A while back Professor Dennett and I were in the same room and I’m pretty sure there were at least 23 other people there.

 

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Belief In Nothing

September 28, 2010 6 comments

Completely to the surprise of everyone except atheists and agnostics, it turns out that nonbelievers actually know more about religion than the religious. It’s almost as if nonbelievers looked at the claims of religion, investigated them, and concluded they are astonishingly unconvincing.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

This level of ignorance should be deeply embarrassing to anyone that considers themselves to be a particular religion. It seems to confirm the human bias to form tribes. The importance for most people isn’t in the content of the beliefs just their homogeneity with others in their group. This same type of ignorance I’m sure mirrors political beliefs to a certain extent. 

Looking at this survey, it is unclear whether increasing the level of religious knowledge is casual to being a nonbeliever. Policy proposals (you can start around the 4:00 mark) by atheists like Dan Dennett to increase comparative religious knowledge seem to rest somewhat on the assumption that learning about religion in a secular way amplifies skepticism. Surveys like this help that case, but don’t prove it – after all it’s not like Jews and Mormons did that much worse than atheists and agnostics. Also, given that these numbers are an average, some atheists and agnostics probably have pretty poor competency as well. Yet, I’m never really against raising knowledge as a good in itself. At the least, you’d expect people learning about other religions would be able to better empathize with other groups which could lead to less sectarianism. Dennett seems to believe the same, and remarks that informed consent is essential to democracy. He’s right about the importance of knowledge and I support his proposal despite my worries about abuse of religious curriculum.  

I’m happy this Pew Survey undermines the notion that atheists aren’t believers because they’re religious “know-nothings.” Apologists pursued the wrong target lecturing nonbelievers about their assumed ignorance – the more troubling problem is theists willing to believe while being ignorant of those very beliefs or of alternative doctrines. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote, “It was the schoolboy who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” In Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Bertrand Russell wrote, “We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Both were wrong. Faith seems to be worse, it allows one to accept dogma without even awareness. Faith isn’t blind, it’s mindless. After all, if someone doesn’t know about something you’d expect them to not believe in it. But the unconscious credulity of the faithful is consequential and common. “Belief in nothing” is no longer a slur appropriate for atheists. It’s the definition of faith.

Free Will: Hardwired by the Universe?

Lately on the web there has been a bit of an uptick in discussing free will vs. determinism. Biologist Jerry Coyne shares his thoughts of some of the literature in a blog post and calls for more science to be injected into the philosophy. Over at the New York Times’ newish philosophy blog Galen Strawson tries to walk readers through the “maze” of free will/determinism arguments and consequences. She persuades me that even if determinism is false at its core by some randomness or some quantum ambiguity built into the universe, we can’t be entirely morally responsible for every action we take. 

There may be all sorts of other factors affecting and changing you. Determinism may be false: some changes in the way you are may come about as a result of the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But you obviously can’t be responsible for the effects of any random factors, so they can’t help you to become ultimately morally responsible for how you are.

Some people think that quantum mechanics shows that determinism is false, and so holds out a hope that we can be ultimately responsible for what we do. But even if quantum mechanics had shown that determinism is false (it hasn’t), the question would remain: how can indeterminism, objective randomness, help in any way whatever to make you responsible for your actions? The answer to this question is easy. It can’t.

I tend to find arguments in favor of free will stink of wishful thinking; so I concede that determinism or something philosophically equivalent is most likely true. Yet, as Strawson notes, we still feel as though we are making our own decisions. No matter how strong I think the arguments for determinism are, I behave as though I’m free to act (what other choice do I have?). The main reason is, what nihilists fail to appreciate, even if all our actions are compelled by physics they still have determined consequences which we still feel as conscious beings. 




Let me expand on this by borrowing Steven Pinker’s argument in The Blank Slate, where he eases readers’ fears that evolution and genetics (nature) compel our actions, and apply that argument to this subject.

The difference between the mechanisms that impel organisms to behave in real time and the mechanisms the shaped the design of the organism over evolutionary time is important enough to merit some jargon. A proximate cause of behavior is the mechanism that pushes behavior buttons in real time, such as the hunger and lust that impel people to eat and have sex. An ultimate cause is the adaptive rationale that led the proximate cause to evolve, such as the need for nutrition and reproduction that gave us the drives of hunger and lust. The distinction between proximate and ultimate causation is indispensable in understanding ourselves because it determines the answer to every question of the form “Why did that person act as he did?” To take a simple example, ultimately people crave sex in order to reproduce (because the ultimate cause of sex is reproduction), but proximately they may do everything they can not to reproduce (because the proximate cause of sex is pleasure).

This helps me respect the difference between our actions being ultimately determined by events prior and us proximately making actual decisions. We have been caused to have the ability to reason in real time even if the underlying operation of that reason is at its core predetermined. Ultimately people’s reason is determined by physics, chemistry, biology, and society, but proximately their brains apply logical analysis and emotions to reason and thus make a decision and act. To take this example further, ultimately you are choosing to read this blog post because a series of events beyond your control obligates you to be at a computer and prefer to make that choice, but proximately you are choosing to read because of you reasons (e.g. interest, enjoyment, friendship, lack of better alternatives, etc) that reading this is your preference. 


If our actions are determined beyond our ultimate control, but we still feel and live in that cause-and-effect chain, and therefore are not ultimately responsible (even if we are proximately responsible because we own the body which is acting) it gives me a sense of modesty and humility in condemning individuals’ behaviors. Of course, since nihilism and moral anarchy would cause actual suffering (who cares if it’s by will or has been determined?) we try to act in such a way that best reduces suffering. The pain impulse compels us to not retreat to nihilism. We are hardwired by the universe to act as though we have free will. The phrase Strawson shares with us from Jean-Paul Sartre is “condemned to freedom.”


So if we’re not ultimately morally responsible, what does that mean for criminals and evildoers? It shouldn’t mean that we let them act in ways that hurt others’ lives. But the arguments for determinism convince me that we shouldn’t punish for its own sake. Even if a rapist, for example, isn’t ultimately responsible for his actions doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lock him up to prevent him from harming others. Likewise, if temporary punishment causes a change in behavior for the better like in the case of a misbehaving young child than that is a convincing argument in its favor. Just as if a doctor must stick a needle in a patient’s arm to provide a helpful vaccine or cure, a police officer might have to strike a violent criminal to prevent or stop an assault. Yet the vengeful torturer has no moral justification that sits comfortably with determinism. 


If you didn’t like this post I’m not ultimately responsible. Coming soon, a blog post on a form of proximate determinism. 


I hope to read Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for a scientific and philosophical blended discussion on free will/determinism. Has anyone read that or any other titles which they recommend (or dislike)? 


(image: Erin Schell, The New York Times)

Cancer Is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens has cancer. His statement released by his publisher reads:

Been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me.

You really have to admire the man. I hope the hard work of all the nurses and doctors aided by centuries of scientific and medical advancement can cure him. His mental constitution certainly won’t let him down. I admire Hitchens as much as any other writer, thinker, or public intellectual and wish him and his family the very best. Here’s an older piece of writing (it’s worth reading in entirety) from Dan Dennett when he was recovering from heart surgery – I’m sure Hitchens would approve:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence  is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea,  India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning  out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

Freaking Faking It

April 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The boys at Freakonomics have a cool pod-cast on “Faking It” that I encourage everyone to listen to. It touches on a few topics that come up on this blog from time to time. It’s always interesting to see how religion or politics forces “honest” people to “fake it.”  The pod-cast makes the argument that faking it from time to time is a good thing so long as you’re not deliberately swindling anyone. That’s hard to disagree with on some levels but it also contributes to an awful lot of cultural inefficiencies (to adapt some language from economics). 


How much time (i.e. resources) do people waste pretending to be a certain way when they really aren’t? How many golf-courses have phonies hacking away when they’d rather be shooting hoops? How many church pews are filled with frauds knowingly talking to themselves? As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, whole lives of pastors are spent “faking it.” How many otherwise sensible people are forced to stay out of politics because they don’t want to be or can’t be fake on a seemingly endless variety of issues. Faking it definitely has its place – communities, as the pod-cast makes clear wouldn’t be possible without some degree of it – but I wouldn’t discount the harder (equally hard?) to calculate effects of our cultural inefficiencies.   If you think that our politics are poorer because our system rewards the best actors instead of those best able to govern and that our world is more dangerous because of the sanctuary built with forged piety shelters the worst aspects of religion, maybe “faking it” is best left to the bedroom. 

Trapped in the Confessional

March 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola release their study on “skeptical” clergy. Here’s Dennett in the Washington Post

Our report tells the different–and moving–stories of five good people who find themselves caught in a trap that only someone intent on doing good could fall into, a trap that nobody invented but that subtly and ingeniously blocks the exits.

One study participant was persuaded by Sam Harris (another by Hitchens):

He expressed more about his views on God after the interviews, commenting on an article he emailed that was written by atheist author Sam Harris.  (“10 Myths—and 10 Truths—About Atheism” December 24, 2006.   The Los Angeles Times.)  He felt that he’d been “educated and sensitized” by the article, saying, “If not believing in a supernatural, theistic god is what distinguishes an atheist, then I am one too.”  But he also said, “I don’t consider myself an atheist” and, “I am not willing to abandon the symbol ‘God’ in my understanding of the human and the universe.”  

Rebecca Goldstein thinks that the ministers’ worries might be a bit overblown.

All of the ministers interviewed here sincerely believe–I trust their sincerity–that speaking the truth as they have come to know it would cause distress, not only for their families but their parishioners. I do think they may be exaggerating the distress of their congregants (their family is another matter). Those whose faith will be tried by the spectacle of a man of faith renouncing his faith will be, even on these pastors’ accounting, taking a step toward the truth, surely a good thing. And those parishioners–the great majority, I should think–whose faith will be left untouched will write off the wayward former clergyman as a kook, congratulating themselves on having ferreted him out as they listen to his replacement sincerely sermonizing. We all tend to think we are more irreplaceable than we really are.

Here’s my previous post linking Dennett’s speech on the topic.  

Happy Birthday Mr Darwin!

February 12, 2010 2 comments


It’s time to celebrate one of the most significant lives in our species. Charles Darwin’s remarkable theory permeates more of science every year expanding our perspective on life on this planet. In one of my favorite books looking at Darwin’s influence on science and our understand of ourselves, Dan Dennett best describes the theory as a “universal acid.”

In honor of his birthday, here’s a great recent column by Olivia Judson. Enjoy.
Each ciliate has something called a micronucleus; this contains two complete versions of its genome. During sex, the micronucleus divides in such a way that each individual keeps one version of its genome for itself; it then gives an exact copy of this version to its partner. Afterwards, each individual fuses the two genomes (the one it kept and the one it got) to make a new micronucleus.

This has three odd consequences. The first is that, by the end of sex, the two individuals have become genetically identical. It’s as if you and your mate began coitus as yourselves and finished as identical twins. The second odd consequence is that, partway through its life, a ciliate can radically alter its genetic make-up; genetically speaking, the transformation is so extreme that it’s as if you changed into one of your children. Talk about being reborn.
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