Bunkum: “If You Teach Kids That They’re Animals, They’ll Act Like Animals!”

It’s an old canard that popped into my mind recently. The vocabulary word for the day is “equivocation.” It’s slightly less direct than usual, but that’s what it amounts to.

First, we’re talking about the scientific definition of animal. I’m not familiar enough with modern taxonomy or cladistics to get the specific features that define animals and only animals, but the word amounts to a diverse branch of the tree of life. This branch includes vertebrates, which include placental mammals, which include primates, which include humans. We have a lot in common with our non-human kin, on the cellular level up to the anatomic level to varying degrees. We inherited animal features from our animal, non-human ancestors, therefore we’re still animals, though we have some polymorphism that makes us distinct from other animals. We don’t have any sort of difference that’s profound enough to place us into an entirely separate biological category, but thanks to that polymorphism, we do have enough to place ourselves in a sub-category: The species of homo sapiens.

The colloquial use of “animal” would be better described as “non-human animal.” In fantasy and sci-fi works, other sapient species also get excluded from the category. There is a pragmatic need for this version of the definition, since we place the needs and desires of human-level conscious beings over those of less conscious beings. Our higher level of consciousness means we can suffer in ways that other animals can’t. We also hold humans to a higher standard of responsibility for their actions because of that consciousness. Humans are moral actors who can understand the consequences of their actions.

The equivocation comes from the jump from the scientific definition to the colloquial definition. Funnily enough, it involves a contradiction in the process. The kids are human, therefore they can’t be non-human animals. If you choose to use the colloquial definition in both cases, that leads to essentially the same contradiction, since you’re including humans in a category that’s defined in part by excluding humans.

If you choose to use the scientific definition for both cases, it simply makes the sentence a tautology instead of the ominous assertion they want it to be: Because humans are defined as animals, the set of human behaviors is included in the set of animal behaviors. Writing poetry, building skyscrapers, and arguing semantics are animal behaviors, though they are specific to humans. All human behaviors are animal behaviors, but not all animal behaviors are human behaviors. Of course, teaching kids that humans are animals does not imply that humans are not humans. It simply doesn’t make sense to assert that such a fact condones or encourages the kids to act like non-humans.

There’s something rather arbitrary about the assertion, arguing that our behavior and morality should be dictated by one particular definition of a particular scope about us. The extent of “humans are animals” influence on morality would be about biological needs. “Humans need food to survive, therefore it is moral to provide food to starving humans,” for a simplified example. I find this rationale to be disturbingly similar to science fiction villains who discriminate against sapient robots because they aren’t biological. “Animal” is only one term we can use to describe or define humans, and we don’t have to settle for any one term. The fundies who use this bunkum should get acquainted with the general concept behind Venn diagrams. Things can fall into the overlap between different categories, including irrelevant and impractically broad categories. The category created by the overlap may be significant, but the entities in that overlap don’t cease to belong to the parent categories.

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Doggerel #11: “You Skeptics Think We’re All Stupid!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. I’ve encountered my share of trolls who just seemed intellectually incapable of grasping the issue of the day. In some places, there are enough such trolls that some skeptics may start making hasty generalizations. While today’s doggerel has some grain of truth from that, it’s not that simple.

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Sharks at the Beach

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal posted a comic today that does a good job of illustrating a metaphor I like to use. “Sharks at the Beach.” The shark bit comes in at the little red vote button. The comic is about how bad people tend to be at evaluating risk, mixed with a dash of political commentary about the “War on Terror.” Educating a person about statistics or even simple probability can be a big help in getting them to understand the real risks in life.

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Authority

Welcome to the next post in this little series of one-word-wrongness in religion.

To scientifically minded thinkers, authority is a shortcut for time and convenience. If I want to know the answer to a physics question, I can ask a physicist with appropriate letters after his name and published peer-reviewed articles attached to his name. A doctorate degree and peer-reviewed publications generally indicate that the person has done the hard work needed to understand physics and has demonstrated that understanding to the scientific community. So there is a basis for trusting in the accuracy of his answers if I want to save time and effort researching it. If I want to investigate deeper, instead of relying on the physicist’s authority, I can choose to read the accumulated literature to find a consensus or even perform the experiments myself if I’ve got the resources. If the physicist abuses his authority to push unproven or disproved hypotheses as if they were proven, he will be criticized by his peers, hopefully making people more hesitant to just trust his credentials.

To people with secular morality and politics, authority is generally given by social consensus. We vote for our leaders, and in theory, they are obligated to serve our interests. If they fail in that task, we can vote for a different leader next term. If a leader abuses his authority and works against the public’s interests, we can feel justified in resisting in various ways, whether it’s public criticism to sway voters and lower his chances of being reelected, mobilize other officials as checks against the abuses, or, in the most extreme cases, openly rebel against their authority.

In both these cases, authority is provisional and circumstantial instead of absolute, and the possibility of abuse is acknowledged. In religion, however, this often isn’t the case. Gods are often given absolute authority, and the “Big Three” Abrahamic religions are well-known for it. Being an American, and particularly a Texan, I’m pretty familiar with Christianity’s take on it, and there are a lot of recurring themes in attempts to justify it that are equally applicable in other religions.

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A Dream I Had and the Null Hypothesis

Last night, I dreamed I was having an argument with a theist about the existence of his god. I don’t remember much detail, but it came to the point that, unusual for a verbal debate, he started to suggest we write down our collective arguments. The point that angered me was that he asked me to list all the scientific evidence for atheism. He was missing a central point, so I ended up holding his face, which suddenly resembled a cross between a witch doctor’s mask and the face of a classic Cyberman, looked him in the empty eyes intently, and said, “I don’t base my argument on the evidence, I base it on the lack of evidence.”

That’s one of the ideas I really wish I could drill in their heads. If they don’t back up their assertion of an entity’s existence with good evidence, why should I have to do anything beyond pointing out that void? The burden of proof is theirs to overcome.

A trope comes to mind: The Complainer Is Always Wrong, applied to epistemology. They often act as if the unpopular idea has the burden of proof by default. Or they assume it’s the adversary’s job to do their work for them. The reality, as far as I can see, is that there is no justifiable reason to be a theist, and if someone wants to argue otherwise, they have to provide a justification. Atheism is a null hypothesis, and science works by assuming the null hypothesis until that hypothesis is falsified. That’s what Occam’s Razor is about, in a way. Don’t assume the existence of new entities until they’re shown to be necessary. The null hypothesis generally fails if there is an entity that isn’t accounted for, producing results it doesn’t predict.

All I’m asking for is a god hypothesis that makes true predictions that atheism and known science doesn’t.

Power Outage and The Greatest Show on Earth

Pole in my neighborhood fell down. Curse you, outdated infrastructure!

Anyway, after finishing off Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth, I suddenly remembered I had a WordPress app on my iPod and a full battery. So, here I am. You’ll probably see a post about a dream troll right after this one. Decided I needed to get that one written down, since dreams tend to be forgettable, even if they start out vivid.

The last bit of Greatest Show had a lot on how much waste, cross-purpose, and suffering there is in the world. It helped me become aware of the vast scale of it all once again. Evolution had its part in it, but not in the way fundies harp on: Evolution is driven by competition and scarcity. There’s no grand designer concerned for our wellbeing. In some ways, it’s like unregulated capitalism. You can make money by hurting others, and without a conscious effort to curb exploitation for selfish gain, it’s accepted as business as usual. There’s no god out there regulating the biosphere, telling parasites not to be too horrible, diseases to tone down their symptoms, or telling invasive species not to reproduce into giant swarms.

There’s not even a metaphorical Gaia seeking a balance that supposedly happens the moment humans stop meddling. Sometimes that balance ends in mass extinctions and wasteland, human involvement or not. Nature often is red in tooth and claw. Balance seems more a happy accident and consequence of having adaptable organisms, rather than any top-down governing force. There’s always the possibility that a change is simply too drastic for life to find a new balance we’d like. Of course, human intervention is responsible for a lot of changes like that, not just natural disasters.

Back to the point on evolution and Creationism, this world simply doesn’t look like anything I’d expect from typical human-like deities. Especially not benevolent ones. This isn’t some Disney fantasy backdrop.