Monism

You could call me a “materialist,” but I think that dilutes some of the point. I happily use materialist language because, let’s face it, the advocates of the supernatural, the spiritual, and the Platonic ideals simply don’t have the language it takes to describe the everyday world with a useful level of accuracy, precision, and detail the way materialistic science can. They have a hard enough time getting their stories straight when it comes to their alleged specialty. Still, being labeled a materialist risks catering to a dualist misconception: That people like me say the supernatural is categorically impossible.

To condense the point: My problem is not that I think the supernatural is categorically impossible. My problem is that dualist categorization doesn’t make sense to me, so I don’t understand how or why scientific methodology should adapt to their asserted categories.

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Good News/Bad News

You may have heard about a woman who recently decided to try living on solar power, tea, and water, instead of food. Good news: She’s stopped. Bad news: She lost about 20% of her weight in the experiment, and she’s rationalizing. One sentence in particular got me annoyed:

“I was just asking a question, but there was just so much negative response that that means the question can’t even be asked,” she said.

This is the sort of tepid excuse I’ve come to expect from a lot of woos regarding scientific questions. They can’t handle adversity like adults, and science is pretty adversarial. You don’t just dismiss criticism for being “negative.” You deal with criticism as rationally as you can, using logic and evidence to answer it. That’s a part of what it means to ask controversial questions. Criticism is supposed to be expected. Brainstorming without criticism is good for generating new ideas, but sooner or later, you need to sort the good ideas from the bad, and that typically means having a two-way conversation with critics. When you speak, you are not entitled to uniform cheering.

A lot of the time, people with the consensus view reacts negatively because the idea in question has been tested and failed or is implausible for well-established reasons. And with ideas like hers, the most likely outcome was that she’d harm herself. I care about people, even if they do stupid things. I criticize precisely because I care and want to dissuade them from harmful action.

Here’s the kicker: If you don’t have answers to criticism, question the value of your idea. You might be the one who’s wrong.

I’m glad she stopped, though I’d prefer if she did so for rational reasons.

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.

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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Witchcraft

It seems Pat Robertson recently brought up the silly “D&D is Satanic” meme, again. It’s accompanied with the usual fainting over players allegedly learning black magic.

For the people who are actually worried about witches going around hexing people, I have one point to make: People like you probably carry the bulk of the blame for witchcraft gaining any sort of popularity. I think it’s ironic. Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, and all the fantasy franchises out there treat magic as fictional. It’s just entertaining escapism. Just like any other hobby, there are people who turn it into an unhealthy obsession, but they’re not the norm. I don’t play fantasy games out of some delusion that it’s a road to magical powers, I play because they’re fun.

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Surveillance Society & Google Glasses-Type Stuff

There’s a bit of hyperbole involved with a lot of Big Brother scenarios, but worst case scenarios are still worth talking about because we need to be able to talk about what’s possible with technology, how it can be abused by those with an agenda, and which lines can be established to prevent those abuses. What really irritates me is all the people who naively assume that people like me wanted privacy because we’re all easily embarrassed stupid klutzes, impolite assholes, or criminals.

No. Just no.

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Doggerel #10: “I’m Not Arguing to Convince Anybody!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

This phrase and its variants strike a chord of incredulity when I read them, especially if they show up late in an argument, after several points are raised and rebutted. Presumably someone who devoted that much time and passion to arguing over an issue would be greatly interested in swaying people towards their firmly-held position.

Then the cynicism I’ve built up over my years of being an internet skeptic sink in: Trolls. The particular variation I’m speaking of are those who argue a position not because they believe it, but because they enjoy angering and frustrating people who hold a contrary position, often with deliberately and transparently fallacious arguments. They avoid changing their position or making any sort of concession a sincere person might make in the face of good arguments to amplify the frustration.

Less cynically, it harkens to my own soft-sell vague spirituality phase of my life, when confrontation was discouraged and “negative.” It dipped in postmodernism, since being right wasn’t considered a part of being happy or prosperous. Phrases like that were used in attempts to move the argument towards a non-judgmental brainstorming session where any idea was welcome. The problem is that brainstorming is a beginning for generating a large pool of ideas to test, not a place where you want to remain. Finding good ideas means sorting them out from all the bad ones. This means you have to be willing to criticize an idea that looks bad or defend an idea that you think looks good and argue convincingly in either case.

Advice to my opponents: If you don’t like having your position criticized, think twice before asserting it. It’s better to bow out or remain silent than to grow indignant because you didn’t expect opposition. It gets worse if you carry on an extended argument and then claim that you weren’t arguing toward the purpose of argument, namely convincing other people. In the age of the internet, where insincere trolls arguing for the lulz are a dime a dozen, don’t use an escape clause that so easily depicts you as one of them.

Single & Loving It

One issue that’s starting to come up a little more often for me is marriage. Not in my personal life, but in my net life. Ed Brayton over on Dispatches occasionally responds to fundies and the like who whine about people who don’t immediately marry, and I occasionally run into trolls who implicitly or explicitly argue that being unmarried means you’re an unlovable loser who doesn’t matter and doesn’t contribute to society.

I’m on the borderline between hetero and asexual. I could be an asexual who’s hetero-curious or a hetero with a naturally low libido. I’m not sure which way to split the hair. Add in the social issues that come with Asperger’s for extra fun. Whatever it is, I’m just not strongly inclined to go looking for Ms. Right, though I don’t rule out the possibility that I might stumble on her. I’m glad I have understanding parents who haven’t been pushing me to get married. It’s not something I would want to force. I think marriage is supposed to be about genuine love and respect, not a forced duty to someone else’s wishes. Society’s drive for white picket fences and 2.5 children be damned, this is about what individuals want in their lives.

If you want to be married and have kids, go ahead and do that, but do it because it’s what you want and let me do what I want without being shamed for who I am. I do have a romantic side, but it’s like that idea of being “in love with love.” I think people who love each other should be free to celebrate their love. I like the idea of a couple who love each other making it work against the odds, and I’d be glad to help them. That’s one big reason why I’m pro-LGBT rights. Why should the heteros be privileged?

By the way, I think we should consider adding an A to LGBT. I think I might try doing that and see how well it goes. I had it relatively easy, but I still see some discriminatory attitudes against asexuals. One of the big ones I see is the assumption that relative disinterest in the opposite sex means homosexuality, which lets us have our turn at being targets for the same bigots.

One thing that really hurts are the people who cheapen marriage by making it about reproduction. First, our planet is suffering from human overpopulation. Reproduction isn’t an absolute duty because of that. Having a proportion of non-reproducing individuals seems like the most civilized way to lower the population, especially if they’re already disinclined towards reproductive forms of sex. Second, we’re k-type reproducers. We have relatively few offspring, but invest heavily into making those offspring successful. There’s more to the reproductive success of a species than simply popping out more babies. Non-reproducers like me can still contribute to the human infrastructure we call civilization for the next generation’s benefit.

Some trolls pull out the “if everyone did it” canard, which is quite moot. We aren’t trying to talk hetero couples out of having kids. We aren’t claiming there is One True Way to Live like these trolls are. Humans are naturally diverse and in large societies we naturally end up specializing. If everyone was a farmer, we’d have no scientists, no factory workers, no doctors, and so on. So what? No one’s proposing that everyone be a farmer. I’m not proposing that everyone should be a bachelor. And in this case, it’s not like a profession. You can change your profession. You can discover that you like a different line of work you hadn’t considered. You can get bored with your current profession. Sexual orientation isn’t so easy to change. As I see it, heterosexuality is the most common orientation, and it’s not going to die out just because we let same-sex or transgender couples marry or let asexuals stay single. We just want people to recognize that the other options are acceptable and they shouldn’t be stigmatized. They’re not objectively better or worse, just different, and it’s up to the individual to decide what best fits him.

On Manliness

I like to think of myself as a feminist, and I recognize that gender roles are harmful. That said, I still feel there might be room for some sort of “manliness” as a concept, if not under that name. This is up for debate, of course, since I recognize I’m subject to privilege-induced blindness. I’m thinking out loud so I can mull over and refine concepts.

The ironic thing is that I think feminism has raised the bar for mangrit, at least as far as I estimate it. The result for me is that the men who whine about women not being “feminine” by their standards are having their lack of “masculinity” exposed. If anything, the old definition of femininity as submissive and passive had a once-hidden backlash on masculinity: It’s produced a lot of snivelers who can’t deal with women as adults, on equal terms. Feminism encourages women to be strong in character, and I like that. I want higher standards, and I think having strong women in a society also helps encourage men to be strong.

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Why Fallacies are Stupid

Recently, Mariah at Post-Abe wrote a post challenging Hicksians to defend Hicks. She explicitly discouraged them from using logical fallacies, going so far as to include a link to a chart displaying a lot of the popular ones. That’s when things get silly. Someone named Flipside decides to comment on the matter:

Mariah–how fair, let alone rational, is it to invite a “defense of Esther Hicks”, which you say you will be “…glad to hear”, and then, before anyone has even offered anything at all, you limit said defense with “no logical fallacies”? Wow! And I don’t see any responses. What a shock!!

It’s hard to find words to describe how amazingly oblivious that comment is. Being rational pretty much means minimizing the use of logical fallacies, as does being fair in an argument. If this were a saner world, discouragements like Mariah’s wouldn’t even need to be typed, but apparently some people are so out of touch with reality and/or so shameless in their deceit, they’d object to such reminders. They generally aren’t so explicit about it, though.

In logic, a valid argument is one where if the premises are true, the conclusion will be true. A fallacy is an invalid argument because the premises can be true but the conclusion can be false. There’s some fuzziness with the real world, since there’s uncertainty, but on that level, there are “cogent” arguments, where correct premises will lead to the conclusion most likely being true. Fallacies undermine the cogency of an argument for the same reasons. In many cases, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises at all. There’s no connection between P and Q. It’s a non-sequitur. Hence, rational people will favor valid or cogent (non-fallacious) arguments to reach conclusions and reject fallacious arguments.

Using logical fallacies is inherently unfair. It’s also like in math class when you don’t get any points on a question because you didn’t show your work. If you skip the process, the teacher is justified in suspecting you just stole the answer instead of actually working the problem. If you rely on logical fallacies, we’re justified in suspecting that your assertions are baseless and that your conclusions are likely to be wrong. People with a sense of fair play (and the requisite critical thinking skills) will call out fallacies because they’re a way to cheat your way to the illusion of a correct answer and a way to cheat your way past some people’s critical thinking abilities to convince them of the accuracy of an unsupported conclusion. Humans have cognitive biases that distort our thinking towards irrationality. Fallacies are often employed by propagandists and other deceivers precisely because they unfairly exploit our irrational tendencies.

The non-sequitur type fallacies are probably the best reason why Mariah moderates her comments. As much as I like to roast trolls at times, it’s often pointless because they simply won’t learn what they’re doing wrong, and many readers will just roll their eyes as they try to dominate the topic while everyone else tries to convince the troll that he’s wrong on a seemingly obvious and fundamental level. The trolls will just spin their wheels and double down on their insanity without actually contributing anything meaningful to the discussion, forcing the others to either dwell on a PRATT (Point Refuted A Thousand Times) or let the troll get the last word in and have the illusion of victory and unearned self-esteem. It can be quite draining and distract from thoughtful comments that might get skipped over as a result of the troll’s inability to learn basic logic.

It really sickens me that society has been lax in combating fallacious modes of thought. Many so-called “journalists” will happily let people say pretty much any absurd thing unchallenged and unquestioned in the name of “balance” against rational positions, rather than do the critical thinking, research, and investigation involved in their job. Politicians happily employ fallacies in the form of propaganda. Religions demand special exemptions from rational scrutiny. I often wonder if the problem’s getting worse, and/or if I’m becoming more aware of it.

Now, to some popular fallacies, why they’re stupid, and why you should naturally feel ashamed of yourself if you rely on them.

Ad hominem: Attacking the arguer instead of his arguments. It’s one of the big favorites, and it’s worth pointing out that insults are not necessarily ad hominems. “Your argument is wrong because X, Y, and Z, and you’re an idiot because you didn’t realize that” is not a fallacious ad hominem. The ‘idiot’ part is a largely pointless (though sometimes stress-relieving) side conclusion. It does not affect the refutation it’s packaged with. “Your argument is wrong because you live in your mom’s basement” is fallacious. Before you try to badly mimic a critical thinker and sling the phrase around as if it were a magical totem, think. Oh, and welcome to the internet. If you can’t take a few side insults along with the meat of the argument, you’re probably not mature enough to be arguing with adults. This goes double if you’re going to waste the other commentator’s time by whining about the tone and nothing else, trying to halt serious discussion while you go on about your overly delicate feelings. Grow up. If you want to change our minds, do the mature thing and address the meat of the argument before doing any pointless stuff. Or how about doing one better and not doing the pointless part at all? If you’re civil, that will more likely encourage civil tone.

Straw Man: A favorite of politicians as well as woos. The popular metaphor is the image of two combatants; one combatant hastily constructs a straw effigy of his opponent, commences to pummel the straw man into oblivion without touching his real opponent, and then declares victory. Simply put, this is about attacking an argument your opponent never made or attacking a position he never asserted. It makes you look closed-minded because you don’t want to deal with reality. It tells people you’d rather play softball with figments of your imagination than challenge yourself. Oh, and asking a question about someone’s position isn’t a straw man, it’s a question. So many trolls seem to assume that we just know what they believe and that every request for clarification is actually intentional, malicious disinformation. If you don’t know what a person’s position is, ask and listen. Then you can start constructing criticisms based on what they actually say, not merely rehearse a script.

Argumentum ad Populum / Appeal to popularity: Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true. Epistemology isn’t American Idol. Truth isn’t determined by popular vote or by fashion. The world wasn’t flat until scientists convinced enough people it was round. What’s sick is that I’ve seen trolls use this fallacy and then call skeptics sheep when they start pointing out their fallacies as a result of thinking about it. Of course, there’s something of a hipster reversal of this fallacy, where a troll assumes that popular or consensus ideas must be wrong because they’re popular or consensus and that we must bow down to how superior and independent-thinking he is for subscribing to the most obscure belief we’ve never heard of, even if it is completely baseless.

Appeal to Authority: Here’s a tricky one that trolls never learn the nuance about. If you’re under a time crunch, it’s okay to accept the word of a recognized expert. If I’m severely injured and rapidly losing blood, I’ll trust the paramedics and doctors to do their job. If there’s no time crunch, however, the appeal can become fallacious because it becomes unnecessary. In your typical blog conversation, there’s no pressing deadline, so we don’t have to bow down before an alleged expert’s assertions. That’s when we get into the nitty-gritty details. The real authority is in the diligence of the experiments and observations and the logic behind interpreting the results, not the guy with the most letters after his name. We don’t treat anyone as an absolute authority or divine, infallible prophet. Ironically, I find a lot of trolls who try to assert that skeptics use this fallacy are more often projecting their own authoritarian tendencies, since they’ll often offer up an alternative expert, complain when we dare to question his magnificence, and go on to pretend the whole thing is a clash of two titans of light and darkness, not about logic or the steady accumulation of quality evidence by an entire world full of scientists.

It’s frustrating knowing that so many people out there don’t understand the basics of how to argue, and prefer to rely on cheats and volume to get their way. So many are raised in segments of society that coddle ideas and shelter people instead of striving for something better.