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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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.