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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The Truth

There’s a villain named Doc Scratch in Homestuck who got me thinking about what it means to be a skeptic or a scientist, as well as what it means to be human in an uncertain world. He is a nearly omniscient being who manipulates the cast into furthering his master’s goals. One of his big things is that he never flat out lies. He’ll tell “temporary lies” for the sake of jokes, which necessitates revealing the lie in the punchline. When he’s called out for “lies of omission,” he has a very good response:

Lies of omission do not exist.
The concept is a very human one. It is the product of your story writing again. You have written a story about the truth, making emotional demands of it, and in particular, of those in possession of it.
Your demands are based on a feeling of entitlement to the facts, which is very childish. You can never know all of the facts. Only I can.
And since it’s impossible for me to reveal all facts to you, it is my discretion alone that decides which facts will be revealed in the finite time we have.
If I do not volunteer information you deem critical to your fate, it possibly means that I am a scoundrel, but it does not mean that I am a liar. And it certainly means you did not ask the right questions.
One can make either true statements or false statements about reality. All of the statements I make are true.

(I’m amusing myself by duplicating MSPA’s antics. If you can’t read it, highlight it.)

We’re story tellers, not just to other humans, but to ourselves. We don’t record all the details of an event the way a camera would, we simplify it into a story where we mostly keep the details that we consider relevant while dumping minutiae. We put this story in our memory and when we call back that memory, we reconstruct it from those elements. Our biases color the interpretation, and we can easily drop details that contradict the story we want to tell each other or tell ourselves. We can also embellish by making up details to convince ourselves of the story’s trustworthiness. Recalling the memory can also change it.

Knowing that our memories are unreliable is one reason we need documentation. An experimenter’s memory may be distorted over time, but if his experiment’s results are recorded as they come in, self-deception from biased memory becomes less likely. Cameras are generally more trustworthy than eyewitnesses, and journals are generally more reliable than your personal recall.

Another aspect I want to bring attention to is the point about asking the right questions. Like Doc Scratch, the universe doesn’t “lie” by capriciously violating its laws to produce deceptive results. If we don’t control for a confounding factor in an experiment’s design, it’s equivalent to being sloppy in asking a question.

We aim to ask questions like “Does A cause X?” If, however, we know that B can cause X and don’t design the experiment with a to exclude B or hold B constant between experimental and control groups, we’re being sloppy and asking “Does A or B cause X?” without realizing it. When the affirmative answer comes in, we fall victim to the sloppy question because it remains possible the positive outcome was actually the result of B’s known influence, while A did nothing.

The universe isn’t malicious like Doc Scratch, but a lot of pseudoscientists are, and in effect, they use his tactics to allow us to deceive ourselves if we aren’t careful and self-aware. There are also plenty of people who don’t acknowledge the complexities of human experience and don’t realize they’ve been deceiving themselves while leading others down the same road. Science is hard work because we acknowledge the difficulty and complexity in asking questions of an uncertain universe. It’s the only way we can trust our results. Self-deception, on the other hand, is quite easy.

Quote of the Time Being: Social Reputation

Greta Christina has a good post up about “The Just World Fallacy,” and Leftover1under left a good comment:

In a one-off encounter between different species, selfishness pays (e.g. lions and cheetahs), but not in a social atmostphere of one species (e.g. amongst a troop of chimpanzees). The religious would ignorantly counter by saying “You wouldn’t steal from a family member but you’d steal from a stranger!” which is a load of crap. Socialization is more than family, it’s communities, cities and countries. Even as a tourist in a foreign place, people tend to act ethically because we are concerned about what others think of us.

Atheists want to live in a civilized society, so we try to make it one. By voluntarily working for the benefit of others as well as ourselves, we gain a social structure, both community and relationships. The religious are also motivated by selfishness, but they are more concerned with the myth of “going to hell” and having a spit inserted up their nethers and out through their mouths. They don’t see the need to be civil or cooperative except where there is personal benefit, not because it is “the right thing to do”.

The two may sound similar, but atheists don’t believe the lie of “I can pray and be forgiven!” Forgiveness from a god is an excuse for hypocritical behaviour – wanting the protections of society but none of its obligations.

That pretty well explains why I don’t think belief in heaven and hell makes a person moral. It’s a cheat to get similar results, but with many flaws.

Quotes of the Time Being: Exceptionalism

From a post at Debunking Christianity:


Plantinga’s “exclusivism” might better be called religious exceptionalism — the silly idea that, of the class of abstractions purporting to describe reality, the ones described as “religious” should be exempted from common standards of evidence and consistency.

What Plantinga calls “withholding belief” is better known as “admitting ignorance,” and it’s the beginning of knowledge, not the end of it.

But what annoys me most about this kind of philosophical apologetics is the transparent effort to to fix one variable (the truth of Christianity) while bending every other concern (consistency, logic) to fit.  Sure, you can put together a jigsaw puzzle by whittling the pieces until they go where you want them to.  But the result isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t make much sense.

Followed by cipher:

“You pays your money and you takes your choice, realizing that you, like anyone else, can be desperately wrong.”

And it would never, ever occur to him that it is unreasonable and lacking in compassion for his Invisible Friend to place us in such a position in the first place – especially as the stakes are supposedly so high.

Quote of the Time Being: Politeness

Provided by Perry Bulwar:

An obsession with polite or correct public language is a sign that communication is in decline. It means that the process and exercise of power have replaced debate as a public value.

The citizen’s job is to be rude — to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of DOUBT. Politics, philosophy, writing, the arts — none of these, and certainly not science and economics, can serve the common weal if they are swathed in politeness. In everything which affects public affairs, breeding is for fools.

—John Ralston Saul, The Doubters Companion, p. 237