Friday, May 06, 2011

The problem with Christians

Sansego goes on a bit about The Problem with Atheists. After some tangential introductory material, he gets down to the meat of the issue.
One thing I've noticed about atheists is that when they argue against religion, they make their arguments against the most fanatical, conservative religion, as though fundamentalist versions of the religion speaks for all people who are spiritual.
This is a classic non sequitur. We make our arguments against the most fanatical, conservative religion because that's the sort of religion that's bad. Sansego might as well complain that M.A.D.D. makes their argument against only drunk drivers, as though all drivers were drunk.
I don't like fundamentalism any more than atheists do. But I resent that atheists put all spiritually-minded people in the same box. To me, it only proves that atheists are every bit as narrow-minded as a fundamentalist Christian is.
This is a flat-out lie. Atheists do not put all spiritually-minded people in the same box, at least not the exact same box. There's probably some Z-list blogger out there who claims an exact equivalence, but you can't find any prominent (e.g. Dawkins) or semi-prominent (e.g. Myers, Christina, Mehta) atheist thinker who claims an exact equivalence.

Of course, most atheists do draw similarities between rabid fundies and somewhat calmer "spiritual" people such as Sansego. But drawing similarities does not assert equivalence, and non-equivalence does not render similarities prima facie false. Even I myself have some similarities with rabid fundies: we both breathe air, drink water, eat food, and in due course void the dross. If Sansego wishes to address the similarities that atheists argue, perhaps he can, you know, actually address the similarities instead of taking blind umbrage. Ironically, Sansego goes on to demonstrate two of the most important similarities that "spiritual" people like himself actually do share with rabid fundies: unscientific thinking and a sense of divine privilege.

Sansego starts off with the old chestnut. He finds atheists:
to be a bit too smug in their arrogant assurances that the world is as they say it is: strictly logical, where everything can be proved or disproved by science. This view closes the door on phenomena that simply cannot be explained or verified by science.
This statement is egregiously stupid on a number of counts. First, it's a somewhat hasty generalization. Atheists are people who do not believe in any gods, for whatever reason. That's all. Atheism does not logically entail a commitment to any particular form of reasoning. Second, why is it any more "smug" for atheists to believe they are speaking the truth than for Sansego himself? This is pure special pleading. Theists and "spiritual" people can be sure they know how the world works, but we atheists must always be deferential; we are permitted only to admit ignorance.

Third, no one* says that that everything can be proved or disproved by science. There are a lot of things we do not know scientifically; that's why we still have working scientists. And, since Popper, philosophers of science readily admit to the utility of "metaphysical" statements, statements that themselves cannot be proven because (among other things) they specify how things can be proven. I suspect too that Sansego has an equivocal view of "science". In its narrowest sense — people in lab coats doing rigorously controlled experiments — science is a set of techniques only for answering certain kinds of questions. There are questions that have obvious answers; they don't need the rigor of the laboratory. There are other questions we cannot apply laboratory rigor to for ethical or practical reasons: it's often impossible to do full controlled experiments in economics and sociology, for example, and it's often unethical to do controlled experiments in psychology. These limitations are not philosophically problematic: science in its broadest sense just means making falsifiable hypotheses, testing them against the evidence by whatever means we can devise, and rejecting what doesn't fit.

*At least no one reasonably prominent; hit Google hard enough and you can find some idiot saying just about anything; see Rule 34.

Ironically, after deprecating science, Sansego makes a quintessentially scientific argument (at least in form) for some sort of spiritual power.
When having a discussion with atheists, I always like to ask, "Haven't you ever had a coincidence so bizarre and unlikely that there was no logical explanation for it?" But atheists don't want to go there, so they give pat answers that in a random universe, the statistical probability means that eventually, such an event will happen. That's not good enough for me. In my short life on earth, I have seen too many strange coincidences happen as well as the amazing experience of seeing my long-held dreams or desires come into fruition even better than I had imagined it. If it only happened once, I can give an atheist the answer that it was a fluke. But when it happens time and again, it indicates that there has to be something more to it than that.
Coincidences are something we can observe: they are, really, correlations. And while not every correlation has a causal explanation, every cause creates a correlation. Correlation is the fundamental falsifiable prediction of every causal explanation. If you hypothesize some cause and effect relationship, you must see a resulting correlation unlikely by chance alone; if you do not see one, your theory is wrong in some way: either the causal explanation is itself wrong, or your theory is missing other causal relationships. (Hence when we're trying to detect subtle causal relationships or causal relationships in a complex system, we use sophisticated techniques, such as careful controls, to isolate the specific cause.) Sansego is trying to have his cake and eat it too: creating a purely scientific argument for his beliefs — and thereby leveraging the rhetorical authority of science — but deprecating science so that when the rest of scientific epistemology contradicts his conclusions, he can simply dismiss the criticism.

And, of course, while his argument is scientific in form, it is woefully inadequate in substance. First of all, all correlations "unlikely"; if they were likely, we would not reject the null hypothesis. The unlikeliness of a correlation is evidence for a logical explanation, not evidence against one. Every time I drop an object, it "bizarrely" and "improbably" falls towards the ground, instead of moving in a random direction. That's evidence for a causal explanation, i.e. gravity. Merely the existence of bizarre and unlikely coincidences and correlations does not by itself disprove atheism or a scientific orientation. Science says there should be bizarre and unlikely coincidences: it is precisely those coincidences we must construct logical explanations for.

But we have to make sure that coincidences really are bizarre and unlikely. There are very few people (and perhaps none at all) who have reliable intuitions about probability. There's a lot of evidence that the human brain is just not built to have good probability intuition. Professional statisticians know that you have to be extremely careful to consciously and intentionally set up the problem and actually perform the calculations to draw any conclusions. There are a lot of professions where experience means you can "guess" accurately, but statistics is not one of them. Indeed, if you ask a (good) professional statistician an offhand question about probability*, her first response should be, "I don't know. I'd have to set up the problem and do the math." I am at least a semi-professional statistician, so if Sansego were to ask me if I myself had ever had a "bizarre or unlikely coincidence," I would have to answer that I don't know; I'd have to spend a lot of time doing the math just to determine if some coincidence really were unlikely.

*Unless it's exactly identical to a specific "toy" problem that's already been solved.

What "bizarre and unlikely" coincidence does Sansego offer as evidence?
I mentioned the strange number of coincidences involved with my White House internship experience. Particularly, when I sent out my resume and application materials to a dozen places to intern, I was accepted by the Democratic Party, Senator Dianne Feinstein's office, and the White House. There was no question that I would accept the White House internship. However, even as I did, my heart was torn because I wanted to experience BOTH the White House and the Senate. ...

I didn't know where I would be assigned in the White House complex until orientation day. My dream was the Office of the Vice President. ... when I received my intern notebook at orientation, the sticker with my name revealed that I was assigned to the Office of the Vice President! ... I learned that I was assigned to Gore's office in the U.S. Capitol building. At first, I was disappointed. I was the furthest White House intern from the White House complex. So much for my dream of working in the West Wing! ... [but later I] remember[ed] my torn emotion regarding wanting to experience both the White House internship and a Senate internship. Somehow, someway, the universe gave me BOTH! ...

Of course, the atheists were dismissive of my experience. No surprise.
Well, yeah, I'm dismissive. According to Sansego, there were 188 White House interns, 15 of which were assigned to the Vice President. He doesn't say how many were assigned to the Vice President's office in the Capitol (Sansego did not appear to know that Constitution assigns the Vice President to preside over the Senate), but even if we assume there was only one opening in the Capitol, then we have a 1 in 188 chance. 1 in 188 is not "bizarre"; even if there were only one opportunity per day, everyone makes a 1 in 188 chance about twice a year, just by chance. We also do not know if Sansego mentioned that he would like to work for the Vice President. If so, it might be the case that those assigning positions to the interns were simply accommodating. In which case, the probability goes (assuming one slot in the Capitol) to 1 in 15, which happens to everyone twice a month by pure chance.

So Sansego worked hard to build an impressive resume, joined the Navy, applied for a White House internship as a veteran, achieved his goal, and lucked into his preferred assignment. What conclusion does he draw?
This experience taught me what I read about a few years later in my study of the Universal Law of Attraction. Whenever you passionately desire something, don't obsess with the "how." Let the universe decide how best to deliver your desires. Just focus on what you want to experience in your life and allow the universe to make it happen.
Yeah, right.

The "Law of Attraction" is, of course, completely unfalsifiable. Since there's no way to directly measure how much someone "passionately desires". Whatever someone achieves is by definition what they passionately desired; if they don't achieve something, then we can conclude only that they didn't desire it passionately enough. There is no observable outcome that can ever falsify the Law of Attraction.

(Sansego also includes the stupidest kind of argument from ignorance: You can't explain this even though I'm not giving you all the facts, therefore God exists. But there's no need to paint the lily.)

The Law of Attraction is not only tautological and meaningless, it's also morally reprehensible. Believing the Law of Attraction entails believing that everything that happens to everyone is not only what they "deserve", but what they passionately desire. Of course Sansego has as much disdain for logic as he does for science, probability or common sense; I suspect he would explicitly disclaim this interpretation, regardless of how ordinary logic compels this interpretation. But it's still true: since we can infer what people passionately desire from what happens to them, we must conclude that every raped and murdered child passionately desired to be raped and murdered. Every person dying from American bombs in Iraq passionately desired to be bombed. Every person dying in pain from cancer passionately desired to die in pain.

Fundamentally, the Law of Attraction does the same job as any religious belief: to metaphysically justify the privilege of the believer. The believer is privileged not because he has the power to exploit others, but because God, or "The Universe" has singled him out because of his stellar qualities; if the "The Universe" has singled others out for suffering and misery, well, that's how things should be.

That's the fundamental similarity that atheists draw between rabid fundies and less vicious, "spiritual" people such as Sansego. The justification is the same; the only difference is what ends the believer uses that justification. I'm please, I suppose, that Sansego does not himself want to actively make people suffer, but his epistemic methodology cannot work against anyone who claims "The Universe" does compels or permits him to make people suffer.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy watching as a little reasoning and logic goes a long way to ripping fools like Sansego a new one. I heard today that Christian Family Radio has the Rapture occuring May 21/11 ie in two weeks. Make sure your packed!



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