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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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.

The Outsider Test of Faith

John Loftus, one of the bloggers I started following in recent months is thinking about quitting or semi-quitting, handing the Debunking Christianity blog over to other writers, maybe dropping in for the occasional post. I’m familiar with this sort of “skeptical burnout,” so I understand the frustration. Writing as a skeptic is often a thankless job, and when we do end up having a result, it’s probably more often in the form of planting the seed of doubt, rather than an abrupt deconversion. I hope to keep fighting the good intellectual fight, but there’s nothing wrong with a skeptic who wants to move on with his life.

I can especially understand John Loftus wanting to move on from his criticism of Christianity. He was once educated to be an apologist before becoming an atheist, which means he wasted a lot of his life on Christianity on one level, and emotionally speaking, it can feel like dwelling on the past. On another level, it does help him to quickly and more thoroughly refute the apologia he once used and educate new skeptics about lesser known arguments. Whatever he decides to do with his life, I wish him luck.

In the mean time, I’m going to pay a little tribute to one of his favorite topics, the Outsider Test of Faith.

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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.

Doggerel #6: “Impossible”

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

To me, “impossible” isn’t really a word for skeptics, despite what you may have heard. It’s only really supposed to be used for some relatively narrow circumstances. Even when it’s used, there’s typically an understanding that it’s conditional or just very unlikely. Let’s look at those extremes:

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A Touch of Moral Philosophy

I recently (for a given value of ‘recent’) had an anti-abortionist named laodeciapress comment on my post, “‘Potential’ People” a few times before moving on. In our argument, he hinted at objective morality, a concept which I currently find incoherent. Combined with today’s Doggerel that discussed confusion between fact and theory, it got me thinking about a sort of moral equivalent of theory and fact.

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“Potential” People

I was reading the comments at one of PZ’s posts when I thought of this:

1. Anti-abortionists often ask the rhetorical question, “What if your parents had chosen to abort you?” to implicitly assert that abortion is wrong because a hypothetical past abortion would result in the non-existence of a fully sentient person in the present.

2. Many people are the product of premarital sex.

3. If the parents of these people had chosen premarital abstinence instead of having sex, they would not exist, therefore hypothetical past abstinence would result in the non-existence of a fully sentient person in the present.

4. Therefore, by the same logic, abstinence before marriage is immoral. And yet, belief that abortion is immoral quite often coincides with a belief that premarital abstinence is a moral obligation.

Of course, the “logic” is absurd and relies on a variation of the Historian’s Fallacy, viewing past decisions as if the participants had the same hindsight a person from the present does, instead of judging the decisions based on the information available to the people at the time they made their decisions. We do not have the luxury of being able to see into the future to see which sex acts will result in the next generation. This is the real world, not Star Trek: we don’t have people from the future popping in to inform us which decisions are the “right” ones.

All I know for sure is that the past and present contain real people. The people of the future are on much shakier ground. If the future’s fixed, the question is moot, since there’s nothing that will prevent them from becoming real. If it isn’t fixed, why should one possible future person have superior rights to another possible future person?

If the future isn’t fixed, every decision, not just abortion or contraception, has an impact on which future is realized. This would mean that if abortion is “murder” because it prevents a future person from developing, so would seemingly inconsequential decisions that end up doing the same thing. Staying home on a Saturday instead of going out and unintentionally meeting the woman of my dreams and thus potentially raise a family would have the same sort of consequences for potential people as aborting them. Even if you enter explicit intention into it, it gets into the problem in the opening of this post: Abstinence would be “murder” because it’s an act that would obviously prevent the development of potential persons.

Of course, a big part of the main debate is about whether zygotes/fetuses/embryos are “persons” or not, or about when in development they become persons, but that’s a different argument for a different post. This one’s specifically about the fallacious rhetorical value of the “potential person” argument.