The Big Questions: Evidence

On Sunday, January 11th, I had the great good fortune to be in the audience for a filming of The Big Questions. The topic for this episode was, ‘Does evidence undermine religion?’ A great deal arose from the comments of the various panelists for this, and I will address those in part 2 of this blog (after the episode has aired, January 18th). In this installment, though, I’m going to take a look at the concept of evidence with a particular emphasis on how it relates to religious claims.

For a discussion on whether evidence undermines religion it was unfortunate that the definition of ‘evidence’ was not discussed. Then again, that would make a much less interesting hour-long show. So, in a show such as The Big Questions, it is to be expected that the focus be on the big AND interesting questions. This being said, a working definition of ‘evidence’ (such as the one below), provided to the panelists ahead of time, might have produced quite different results (or lead to the less interesting episode I just mentioned).

There is a vast difference between folk theories (or so-called common-sense) about what constitutes evidence, and scientifically and philosophically literate theories of such things. In the context of a discussion, panelists can only start to get an understanding of what the other panelists’ positions are on that underlying question. Whilst one is assessing that position, and until one has accurately deduced it, one is necessarily talking past the other. Over the course of this essay I will explain why, by referencing what different individuals tend to consider appropriate as regards evidence, and the impact of interpretation on evidence, after the fact. The best place to start is with a (Chambers) dictionary definition, but, rather than evidence, let’s start with what it means to be ‘evident’:

Evident: that can be seen; clear to the mind; obvious…*

Dictionaries generally order their definitions such that the most common usage is first, and subsequent definitions can add clarity, whether by comparison or contrast. This is well illustrated with the above. Firstly, “that can be seen” has a modern, scientific, empiricist slant. By comparison, “clear to the mind” is an older, but still relevant, philosophically rationalistic view (indeed it calls to mind Descartes’ extended discussion of “vivid and clear” mental imagery from ‘Discourse 2’). Finally, “obvious,” which is problematic. What is obvious to one person may not be obvious to another, and for a whole host of reasons. I think it fair to say that, in a discussion about science and religion, the more scientific, and those (like me) with a passing understanding of the history of philosophy, are working with the first definition, and sometimes the second. The more religious tend to use the last two. Some religious people might take umbrage at my saying this, so let me be clear, I used the word ‘tend’ for a reason, and I would point to the ‘evidence’ for God using testimony and ‘the witness of the holy spirit’. (See Christian apologist, William Lane Craig’s defense of the Christian God “by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit” and arguments against that.) The use of the word “witness” is itself problematic, as it is a witnessing that seldom involves senses – there is no earwitnessing or eyewitnessing – indeed one might suggest that miracles are the provision of corroborating external sense data. Unlike miracles, witnessing is an emotional (and internal) experience. As such, something that is “clear to the mind” certainly is obvious – to you – but not necessarily obvious to anyone else. So you’ll need some other kind of evidence:

Evidence: that which makes things evident; means of proving an unknown or disputed fact; support (e.g. for a belief); indication; information in a law case; testimony; a witness or witnesses collectively…*

Evidence is that which makes something evident, but as discussed, what is evident to one is by no means evident to another. As such, witnessing and testimony, as employed in religious circumstances (and indeed in legal ones), is not proof of the claim, but proof of the witness’s belief in that claim (assuming that they’re not lying, but we’ll touch on intentional falsehood later). Does belief prove an unknown or disputed fact?

Psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus has shown us that a witness’s testimony can be affected by something as simple as the way in which a question is asked about an event. For example, in a famous experiment (Loftus & Palmer, 1974), participants were shown footage of an automobile accident. After being shown the footage, participants were assigned to answer one version of the question, “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?”. The resulting estimates varied between ‘contact’ (the lowest estimate, at around 32mph) and ‘smash’ (the highest estimate, at around 41mph). The participants’ responses were biased by the version of the question they saw, such that their estimates varied by around 25% (which I’m sure you’ll agree is quite a lot considering they viewed the exact same footage, not merely the same event). This serves to make the point about memory and, without being diverted by too much further detail, human cognition is riddled with similar flaws of receiving, processing, understanding, and recalling, of information, as highlighted in the work of Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman (1974), and many, many other psychologists.

It’s likely that the fact of these flaws in cognition is exactly why science has been so very successful in describing the natural world, as compared to other methods that rely on human cognitive faculties. Instead of developing folk theories about a phenomenon, or asking someone else about their folk theories, we have sufficient humility to ask the universe itself. We attempt to re-enact the scenario in which the relevant phenomenon occurs (or predict its occurrence and observe it more closely), and measure the outcome. That measurement, as objective as we can make it, is evidence.

The fact of evidence, even where it is agreed upon, does not mean that differences of interpretation can’t occur, even between incredibly smart people. The Einstein-Bohr debates at the birth of quantum mechanics make that evident. But, just as the way in which a question is asked can alter the answer given (and without the respondent being aware), so too, can exposure to ideas change the way in which you receive subsequent information. The Bible, for example, has variously been used to support slavery, mostly in the past, as well as condemn slavery, more recently. As such, if one considers the Bible to be evidence (rather than the claim), what has changed is the set of extra-Biblical facts (or at least beliefs) that the Bible-believing populace hold to be true. This is, in effect, hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts), and it is instructive that hermeneutics was born out of Biblical textual analysis. It was subsequently recognised (first in philosophy, and then in Biblical criticism) that hermeneutics had to include an understanding of the “social, historical, and psychological world”* of the time in which the original text was written (I’m sure Professor Stavrakopoulou – one of the panelists – would correct me if she happened to read this, and I happened to be wrong on that latter point).

The Bible, very generally, is a collection of testimonies about events, claims about the nature of reality in light of those events, and claims about the impact of that reality on the social world, and so on. As such, within the Bible, there is a great deal of interpretation of prior work that is also within the Bible – there is no clear distinction between older and newer writing. My understanding is that the Qur’an contains a great many of the stories that are contained in the Bible, and this seems likely to be due, at least in part, to the impact of the Jewish and Christian knowledge of Muhammad’s cousin-in-law, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, and others, in interpreting and writing down Muhammad’s revelations (themselves the product of the social and religious environment of the time).

In the case of the Qur’an it is often said that it must be read in the original Arabic, and no translation is a true Qur’an. Much the same was said of the Bible, when it was still in Latin, and attempts to translate the Bible into English were met with death threats. This is no longer the case, and as such there are now hundreds of versions of the Bible… and all of them are at least subtly different.

The Bible and Qur’an are, at some level, claims made by people about events. In the case of the Bible, those claims are voiced either by the authors themselves, or by the protagonists in the Bible story in question – as such there is at least one or two levels of interpretation involved. The Qur’an, by contrast, is a claim by one person, Muhammad, about the nature of a set of revelatory experiences, which may or may not have been recontextualised by the input of various scribes, family members, and followers, depending on their own knowledge of the Torah, Tanakh, and Christian Biblical writing, and other socially relevant historical matters. Needless to say, depending on the impact of the knowledge of Jewish and Christian scripture on the Qur’an, the layers of interpretation may move from one layer deep, to three, four, five, or more layers deep. These interpretations of interpretations of interpretations are presented with a human voice (as opposed to a divine one), and they are about very human concerns, such as life, love, death, and meaning… and this fact leads me to my final point.

Most people take other people at their word, unless they have reason not to. The reason not to may be because the individual has been found to be a false witness in the past, but bearing false witness is different from being mistaken. I am often surprised by how readily people who claim deep religious faith will call someone that makes an opposing claim a liar – calling someone a liar is very different from saying ‘I disagree with you.’ Likewise, saying someone may be mistaken in their interpretation is not the same as calling someone a liar.

As discussed above, religious texts have very strong human themes, and as such it is unsurprising that some people will engage with these in a very human way, especially if they have been raised to do so. If you’ve been raised to not contradict your elders and, by extension, to accept religious authority, with little or no question, then the issue is the way in which you are engaging with the evidence. If your continued exposure is to a limited subset of religious claims, delivered emphatically by a priest or imam, then your engagement with the claims will continue to be social and emotional, not rational.

“As Loftus puts it, ‘just because someone says something confidently doesn’t mean it’s true.’ Jurors can’t help but find an eyewitness’s confidence compelling, even though experiments have shown that a person’s confidence in their own memory is sometimes undiminished even in the face of evidence that their memory of an event is false.”

In this modern scientific age, even the most ardent believer will have been affected by their exposure to both science and technology – not least the democratisation of information on the internet. With this exposure, and access to both good and bad information, skepticism is a necessary skill. The realization that a modern teenager knows far more about how the world works than the authors of any ancient holy book did, should give believers pause for thought, whether they believe humans were conduits for, or interpreters of, the divine word.

Nice people treat people they meet with respect until given cause to do otherwise. Extending this courtesy to long-dead people who were short on good, evidenced information does not make one nice, it makes one gullible (which is nice, if you’re a sociopath looking for people to use). Where individuals use their belief in the words of the long since deceased as the basis for being rude to someone that is right in front of them rather makes a mockery of the religious claim to humility. Assuming that your assessment of the claims of the long-since deceased is correct, and that someone else’s assessment of other, contradicting evidence is therefore wrong, is arrogant. Of course, most religions suggest humility in the face of evidence. Unfortunately for many believers, what constituted evidence at the time those words were written has changed because we now know how fallible we humans really are… then again, doesn’t your omniscient being of choice know that, too?

*Definitions of both ‘evident’ and ‘evidence’: The Chambers Dictionary (13th Ed.)

*Definition of ‘hermeneutics’ and related quote (“social, historical, and psychological world”): Blackburn, S. (2008). Hermeneutics. In Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Second Edition (Revised), p. 165).

For an excellent read about human memory I recommend Charles Fernyhough’s Pieces of Light: The new science of memory

Non-believers and American politics…

It is hard to ignore two psychosocial features of religious observance: First, that with increased material wealth (or, to put it less hedonistically: with increased protection from privation), religiosity reduces (Paul, 2009). This is not just personal wealth, or societal wealth, but an interaction of the two. Secondly, with increased learning (both at the personal level, as well as the societal), comes decreased religiousness. More correctly this seems to be an interaction between intelligence (e.g. Zuckerman, Silberman & Hall, 2013), and education (Martinez, 2014). These facts interact; as such the highly educated and most wealthy are the least likely to be religious (Paul, 2009). This can be seen in the reduced religiousness of wealthy but equitable nations (such as the Scandinavian states, and Japan), and in the hyper-religiosity of the US (as a wealthy but inequitable nation), and the religious zeal of the poor and uneducated nation states of the third world. Such tendencies, at the population level, must have some degree of expression in individuals. As such, a significant number of US politicians (and their primary donors), who are undeniably wealthy and well educated, must also be non-religious, despite the wealth disparity in the US, and despite their claims of religiosity.

“The average age of Members of the House at the beginning of the 112th Congress was 56.7 years; and of Senators, 62.2 years. The overwhelming majority of Members have a college education. The dominant professions of Members are public service/politics, business, and law. Protestants collectively constitute the majority religious affiliation of Members. Roman Catholics account for the largest single religious denomination, and numerous other affiliations are represented.” – Manning, 2011

Given the unavoidable fact that some of these politically motivated individuals MUST be non-religious (despite there being no professing unbelievers in the houses at this time), the question then arises: Are they claiming religion for personal gain, or are they claiming religion for personal gain? Clearly this is a non-question, but under the surface a genuine question lurks: Does this belief inure the individual from the fundamental injustice of their wealth at the expense of their fellow Americans, or do they adopt an outwardly religious pose to assure the masses that they are merely there by the grace of God? I would suggest that this dichotomy is no dichotomy at all – both are hypocritical. Try as I might, I see no third option; at most, I see variants of these two.

It is interesting to note that the two political parties have, in general terms, qualitatively different approaches to the issue of wealth. Liberals don’t really have a coherent narrative regarding wealth, aside from occasional attempts to enact progressive taxation and wealth redistribution. There is also a notable propensity amongst Democratic donors to be known for their humanitarian giving (e.g. Warren Buffett and George Soros). Republicans, on the other hand, have rationalised wealth as indicative of moral worth (Lakoff, 2002), conflating merit with money. Of course, it’s hard to maintain this position of moral authority when the majority of members of Congress (of both parties) are from very well paid professions that seem to attract those high in psychopathic tendencies (CEO and Lawyer are listed at first and second, respectively, and Civil Servant is listed at tenth).

“Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial character, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality.”

On the matter of religiosity, the parties also have different approaches. The Republicans claim religiousness at every turn, appealing directly to the religious right (obviously), and lying about their statistically likely lack of religiousness. Liberals, by comparison, avoid mentioning religion wherever possible, except where politically expedient. This a difference of degree, not type, and the reason is simple. The populace generally treat sins of commission more harshly than sins of omission (Harris, 2010), but where that sin of commission is a claim of religiosity, it is more readily overlooked, particularly by the religious right:

“On September 20, 2006 an independent Congressional-watch organization called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released its second annual “Most Corrupt Members of Congress Report.” Three senators and seventeen members of the House were named, most of them hold-overs from the first annual report (although the news release noted with some glee that two of the previous winners were already on their way to jail).

In other words, corruption, and overtly irreligious (one might say sinful) behaviour are not sufficient to impact on a politician’s chances, but proof of atheism will. The highly religious will put up with an incredible amount of widely reported “unChristian” behaviour (although that term seems to have lost all meaning in US politics), but they will not countenance an atheist in office (Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011). So, let’s find (and out) atheist Republicans, as this will have one of two effects – it will either improve the stock of atheists with the highly religious (and atheists are less trusted than rapists (ibid.)), or it will remove the atheists of low integrity from the political landscape… I see both as positive outcomes.

Late addition: here are the religiosity stats for the current Congress.

The Right to Die as a Human Right

Two commentators on the recent appeal to the Supreme Court over the right to die, Baroness Jane Campbell (former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2006-2008) and Lord Carlile (Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords) present a stilted view of the situation. The position put forward by both is flawed, both through poor reasoning, and failing to focus on the individuals as rational and emotional beings who happen to be physically incapacitated.

In a stellar piece of fallacious reasoning Baroness Campbell said:

The main reason given for wishing to die is not wanting to become a burden, whether their family would see it that way or not. Against this background, the “quick-fix” of an assisted death appears attractive.

It is precisely because that is the majority view that we must continue to oppose it. There is no better evidence of the negativity with which terminal illness, chronic illness, and disability is viewed than that we might be better off dead.

Notice how in the first paragraph she speaks of the main reason for those wanting assisted death for themselves, but in the second paragraph, she states that the majority view must be opposed. So we must resist the majority view of those most directly affected by any such future law? I think she meant to say that it if the majority view of the able-bodied was to be pro-right to die, against the wishes of the incapacitated, that we must resist that. And she would be right, if that were the case, but, by her own words, that is not the case. If the majority of those that would be in the position to opt for the right to die are in favour – and I suspect that the majority of empathic individuals who are not personally affected by the issue would, likewise, be in favour of it – then it is a law that must be seriously looked at. Perhaps the Baroness would like to clarify her point (and cite her sources whilst she’s at it).

For some reason, the Baroness thinks that the individual that is suffering through a debilitating illness is somehow no longer able to make rational decisions based on their own empathy for the dilemma of their loved ones. Maybe, as an incapacitated person with a fierce desire to live, herself, she is unable to empathise with someone that does not have that drive, or who expresses other equally strong but still perfectly human drives. An able-bodied person makes decisions about what they will and won‘t do based, in part, upon the impact of those actions on the people around them. In the case of many of the terminally ill and incapacitated, this element of self-determination has been taken away from them, and the Baroness would seek to extend this by perpetuating the removal of this element of their legal personhood.

In a similar vein, after the ruling came down against the right to die, Lord Carlile said:

There are other people involved in these cases. The subject may wish to commit suicide, but his or her children may see things in a completely different way. They may value every minute of the rest of that person’s life, and so rights are not merely in the mind of the person, of the individual concerned, there are other people involved too, and we need to take a broader view than is sometimes advocated.

Why, if someone is of sound mind, is that person’s right to self-determination removed, and instead ceded to their relatives? We are concerned about the dehumanising of the terminally ill and incapacitated, but here we have rendered them down to the legal status of chattel. So in trying to offer dignity (which is, I assume, the goal of Campbell and Carlile), instead we offer ignominy. Why can the relatives not “value every minute” of a finite and determined time with their loved one? That is something that the families of cancer patients are not afforded. Why is the family’s emotional pain allowed to trump the mental, physical, and emotional pain of the individual?

Indeed both Campbell and Carlile seem to be treating incapacitated humans as merely physical beings, due to their physical condition, and not thinking of their emotional well-being at all. This is best illustrated by another comment from Lord Carlile:

There are very few people who die in agony. Some do, but there are very few people who die in agony as a result of an inability to treat pain.

When did the physical become the sole determiner of an individual’s quality of life? What if a previously very physical person is suddenly incapable of movement? Daniel James, the rugby player who took his life after becoming paralysed from the chest down, felt that he could not thrive after the loss of physical movement. Another rugby player, Matt Hampson, saw his paralysis as a challenge. Can anyone say which of these two men is “right”? The only ‘right’ here, is the one of self-determination.

On this matter Baroness Campbell also sets up a false dichotomy by saying:

We help those with suicidal thoughts look for positives in their lives. I believe chronically ill and disabled people deserve that “right”, to be helped by us all to live their lives.

Indeed. Most calls for right to die legislation also call for appropriate counselling and that checks and balances be in place to minimise abuse. Counselling is, or is called upon to be, a mandatory part of the process for gender re-assignment, and even relatively minor plastic surgery. Campbell points to the media exposés of abuse in care homes as potentially indicative of the way that the incapacitated are treated, but then counselling, properly undertaken, would uncover these problems, as well as any duress associated with it.

In conclusion, Baroness Campbell said:

I didn’t want Tony Nicklinson to die and I don’t want Paul Lamb to die. I respect and value them. I want them to carry on disagreeing with me for as long as possible.

Why, Baroness Campbell, does what you want have any bearing on what they do? It is called self-determination for a reason. You can determine your course for yourself, something which you have shown yourself amply capable of doing, but these brave individuals should be allowed the same right for themselves. If you respect them, you should respect their decision, even if you disagree with it.

To conclude, Baroness Campbell is understandably nervous about right to die legislation that is too broad, too permissive, too open to abuse. So, I imagine, is anyone who is pro-right to die. Her position, however admirable for its motives, is not helped by misrepresenting her own facts and by using fallacious reasoning. And it is fatally undermined by Lord Carlile displaying a startling lack of empathy. The right to die is a logical extension of the right to self-determination. Counselling, in an effort to determine the state of mind from within which the decision is being made, is clearly a necessity, and such checks and balances can be put in place, through consultation, in the writing into law of the right to die. The writing of such a law is the context in which these discussions should be had, not here, not now, actively stopping any such law from being formulated in the first instance.

Religious thinking is not the same as religious thought…

The main problem with religions (and this is pretty much all religions), is that the words of a few have been painted as revealed (God-given) wisdom, and as such are unimpeachable. If they were wrong (and they were), any given religion will never improve in any appreciable way until the founding utterances are discarded, and the fallibility of the utterers conceded. But because everyone in positions of power within the religion has a vested interested in keeping the enterprise going, no such acceptance of what is patently obvious to anyone outside the fold will occur. Hence, I have more time for the clergy that have joined The Clergy Project, than I do for sophisticated followers that hope against hope (aka pray) for a change in ‘the system.’

Apart from anything, the concept of “revealed wisdom” is patently a misunderstanding of what we now call intuition, and that we know is the product of non-conscious (which is to say evolutionarily old) processes. Intuition is the product of available (crystallised) knowledge, deeply processed, as such these intuitions can only be the product of knowledge as it was at the time. For example, many Muslims point out the embryology of the Qur’an as being ahead of its time, but not only is the embryology wrong, it’s also similar to the work of Galen (b. 129CE), who was based in Pergamon (modern Bergama) Turkey, despite his Roman origins, centuries before Mohammed.

There’s no doubt that religious people have occasionally made inspired guesses, for example, Maimonides, in describing the making of the world in Judaic terms, came very close to describing the Big Bang as starting as a mustard seed and spreading out. But that is clearly a poetic device that almost captures the truth of the Big Bang whilst actually describing Genesis. A Christian example is the work on memory by St Augustine, which just last year was noted for being highly prescient with regard to modern neuroscience in regard to memory and mental time-travel (links below).

It surely can’t escape anyone’s notice that followers of any given religion can point out the flaws of other religions, but often fail to see those same flaws in their own faith. Some, a very few, can see the flaws in their own religious organisation and the way in which it administers doctrine, but abide, nevertheless. The issue is not the mode of thought, per sé, the issue is the focus of that thought – if a religiously inclined thinker is open-minded about science, they will be a valuable asset to any committee on scientific ethics. But if a religiously inclined thinker applies that same mode of thought, with archaic beliefs about the world as its base (as many of the most outspoken religious individuals are inclined to do), then one can only expect archaic (and occasionally post-archaic, but certainly not modern) outcomes.

There IS such a thing as a Good Atheist…

In response to Rick Henderson ‘Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,’ and quoting him to make my responses clearer:

“A worldview is your view of everything inside (and possibly outside) the universe: truth, religion, beauty, war, morality and Nickleback—everything.”

Well, strictly speaking a worldview is one’s view of the world, not the universe. One’s view of the universe is epistemology and ontology. If you include truth, beauty and morality we’re then also getting into aesthetics and ethics… Also, it’s spelt ‘Nickelback.’

“While some want to state atheism simply as a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it.”

Only by inference. The word atheist, as I’m sure you know, Pastor Rick, is made up of the prefix ‘a-,’ meaning ‘without,’ and ‘theos,’ meaning ‘god.’ A lack of belief in any god does imply some other things, but it doesn’t state them. Because you’ve focused on ‘atheism’ and not ‘agnosticism’, we’re only talking about belief, not knowledge. Which is interesting, because most atheists are agnostic (no claim to knowledge), but any theist who is claiming knowledge is either lying or deluded. Please, do not take offense, I’m not saying that experience of God or the Holy Spirit doesn’t underpin your belief, I’m just pointing out that, just as eyewitness testimony is the least dependable of testimonies, so personal experience is the most open to bias, misunderstanding and mistake.

“1. The universe is purely material.  It is strictly natural and there is no such thing as the supernatural, i.e. god or spiritual forces.”

It’s a curiosity of our language, the English language, that which has only ever existed under the auspices of Christianity, that we refer to things that we implicitly believe to be the case, that which we believe to be most important, with a root word. Modifications to that root are achieved with prefixes and suffixes, and imply a modification of the norm. We have the word ‘ruthless,’ for example, where the root-word ‘ruth’ has fallen into obsolescence, but we know that because ‘ruthless’ means ‘having no compassion or pity’ that ‘ruth’ must mean ‘compassion or pity.’ It’s a shame that ‘ruth’ has fallen into disuse. The words ‘physics’ and ‘natural,’ however, have not. They have meanings that we all implicitly take to be the case. It is ‘metaphysics’ and ‘supernatural’ that extend these words beyond their intended meaning and into the realm of thinking about thinking without reference to sensibility.

“2. The universe is scientific.  It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.”

Indeed. See above, with regard to physics vs. metaphysics.

“3. The universe is impersonal.  It does not a have consciousness nor will, neither is it guided by a consciousness or will.”

Indeed, and even Christians have to come to terms with this. Does describing great good fortune as ‘God’s will’, and great misfortune as ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways’ make a difference? Does putting a face on it make it any more personal? Really? Given the grossly solipsistic nature of such thinking, it is also a million miles from the humility that your Bible contradictorily demands.

“Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.”

The universe IS meaningless. Just because YOU believe in a God, and use that to make the universe meaningful doesn’t stop the universe from being meaningless, but it does mean that you have managed to create meaning in a meaningless universe. We atheists just choose to create our meaning in different ways.

“A tree falls.  A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery.  A dog barks.  A man is killed for not espousing the national religion.  These are all actions that can be known and explained, but never given any meaning or value.”

Meaning is purely interpretation. Interpretation is personal, by definition. We are all persons. Ipso facto, everything has meaning, or not, as we see fit.

“A tree falls.”

Meaningless, unless it happens to fall on your car, or on the mother bear of a cub you then rescue. Then it has meaning.

“A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery.“

If you’ll pardon the tasteless pun, this is pregnant with meaning. A young girl has had her body-autonomy returned to her. As a fellow human nothing has more meaning. How do you, as a Christian, reconcile the belief that the lack of a jealous God changes this fact?

“A dog barks.”

That’s a curious incident, isn’t it? And if the dog barks due to your house being broken into? Meaning.

“A man is killed for not espousing the national religion.”

A sad comment on the divisiveness of religion… one of which you’re espousing.

“A good atheist, that is a consistent atheist, recognizes this dilemma.”

I’ve known many a Christian to be unhappy at being told by an atheist (i.e. me) what makes a good Christian. Like when I point out that failing to follow the teachings of Christ makes the word ‘Christian’ meaningless. I suppose I should take consolation in you allowing the words ‘good’ and ’atheist’ to appear in the same sentence

“His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality.”

False dichotomies.

Objective meaning is that which exists independently of us, but without us there’s no-one to give it meaning. Unless you allow for extra-terrestrials, in which case they’ll give it their meaning… which is still not objective, because then it’s their subjective meaning. You COULD (and indeed I would) argue that there IS an objective reality for us to discover, and it will be some combination of all of our perceptions.

Objective morality on the other hand, is an absurdity. Morality is, by definition, ‘duty, obligation and principles of conduct’[1] which speaks of behaviour between one human and another, and as such is subjective. The only claim to moral objectivity is the de facto objective morality predicated on the fact that we humans are more similar than we are different.

“Thus, calling him good in the moral sense is nonsensical.”

You had to ruin it, didn’t you?

“There is no morally good atheist because there really is no objective morality.”

Yet theocracies are collapsing under their own weight, the US included (given the Conservative Christian hand in the recent shutdown and the massive impact this had on the poorest in the US, this is hard to ignore). The most secular nations regularly lead the standard of living polls and studies (e.g. Inglehart, Foa, Peterson & Welzel, 2008[2]. Paul, 2009[3], and even Forbes([4]) placed the US (the most religious Western Nation) as the 11th happiest place to live, behind Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (amongst the most secular Western Nations).

Let’s be explicit, the US fares poorly because they trail behind the rest of industrialised nations in homicide, incarceration, juvenile (not just infant) and adult mortality (lifespans are actually shortening in parts of the Bible belt), gonorrhea, syphilis, abortion, teen pregnancy, divorce, income disparity, poverty, long work hours, and resource exploitation, they only lead in being the most religious.[5]

“At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.”

Indeed, which is why we should all be clinging to it for dear life rather than using it as a yardstick by which to beat each other. The moral hypocrisy of the US being the self-appointed world-police when their own house is in such disarray (as outline above) should be pause for thought, at the very least.

“For those of you who think you’re about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following”

Indeed, it is a strawman, and in quoting the scientists that you do, you make the same mistake that Sam Harris made in ‘The Moral Landscape’ – science tells us what to value, not how to value it. The how is a product of honest interpersonal communication.

“Based on the non-negotiable premises of atheism these are the only logical conclusions.”

Please pardon me if I offend your sensibilities with this answer: Bullshit!

“All the atheists I’ve known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality.  How is this explained?”

As mentioned above, “The only claim to moral objectivity is the de facto objective morality predicated on the fact that we humans are more similar than we are different.” As such, despite our differences, more unites us than separates us, on almost any metric you care to choose.

“In a Hail Mary like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, 2 possible answers are launched.”

Sorry, but your assertion of the “inescapability of objective morality” is dismissed with the same level of evidence as it was asserted. Atheism at least is assured by the fact that of the (as many as) 28,000,000 gods[6] that man has ever dreamt up, we disbelieve in 100% of them – monotheism is a rounding error of 0.000036%.

No? OK, which of the 41,000 Christian denominations (Pew Forum[7]) are correct? Some of them say that belief in any other denomination is punishable by hellfire. Are they right? How do you know? Now that is a Hail Mary, and then some.

“1.  Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution.”

Correct. Dogs, elephants, and chimpanzees exhibit moral behaviour (De Waal, 2013[8]), and so do we, for the most part.

“So, compassion for the dying would be immoral and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral.”

Interesting that ‘compassion’ only turns up 41 times in the Bible, but ‘kill’, ‘killed’, and ‘killing’ appears 198 times[9]. Also, ‘destroy’ appears 261 times, and ‘destruction’ 94 times. It speaks poorly of your fellow Christian’s if they believe that they need to feel that they are being watched in order to behave. Do I have to bring up the endemic use of porn in the Bible belt, the relative lack of atheists in US prisons, etc., etc., etc.? Both of which (and more) put lie to the idea that people feel they are being watched and/or that this makes them better behaved.

“Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children. Morality in this view can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans.  It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.”

If we had pre-frontal cortexes the size of chimpanzees or dolphins, then yes, maybe some of this might be plausible… but even then, I doubt it. As we have moved beyond the first level moral reasoning you’re talking about (indeed, some of your examples don’t even make it up to the level of morality, let alone second order moral reasoning).

Let’s use your example to show how wrong you are. A woman birthing a large number of children is against her self interest as she won’t be able to raise them all to the point where they can fend for themselves without putting them all at risk at least some of the time. As you said “actions that are helpful to make more fit humans,” as such, women’s education must be a priority, and an emotionally traumatised multiple-rape victim is not likely to be a fit mother without a lot of support. Also, when do I point out that it is religious families that tend to be largest, and secular families that tend to err on the side of not unduly burdening the planet?

“Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness.  If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible.  Because morality is the construct of a social group it cannot extend farther than a society’s borders nor endure longer than a society’s existence.”

Oh, really? What about the successful societies scale or the happiest countries polls cited earlier? The societies may make the rules, but the individuals that live in those societies are the barometers. We are more alike than we are different – significant differences in lifestyle require justification.

“Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code, but the ones who intend to change it. This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral, that is until they become the majority and institute change.”

No. By humanist standards, which most atheists tend towards as it is naturalistic morality, something is only immoral if it causes harm or transgresses fairness. A consensual act between consenting adults causes no-one harm, or only causes consensual harm, as such, it is the choice of the individuals engaging in the act/relationship as to whether they partake. As such, people standing up for this are moral, people standing against it are immoral. End of.

“Then, I suppose they become moral and traditionalist become immoral.”

Nope, religious traditionalists are immoral, stuck as they are with the anachronistic beliefs of 2000 years ago, but humanist traditionalists are not, as illustrated above.

“But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.”

No. As illustrated above, you’re approaching the mathematics of morality incorrectly. The content breaks down to harm or fairness, and then numbers of people affected. It’s actually (mostly) that simple.

“So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don’t affirm a national religion.”

In all three cases: harm and fairness. A child, diseased or not, can still be harmed, and the fact of disease does not change the calculus in a discussion about fairness. Rape does harm, and body-autonomy is a way of judging fairness – her body, her choice. Killing someone for an idea, no matter how absurd, is always wrong, because it harms the individual who needs educating away from their bad ideas. If they are beyond education, or their ideas so heinous, then the state is harmed by sinking down to their level.

“It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.”

The religious delusion of objective morality. Atheists don’t believe in objective morality, according to your own definitions, earlier in your piece.

“2.  Morality is logical.”

Morality is logical, but most human thinking on this matter is post hoc reasoning, but moral decisions are almost invariably made in the heat of the moment using our internal pre-conscious calculators, aka emotions. This is the stuff of morality and ethics debates, not the stuff of daily moral decision-making in the real world.

“All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views.”

That’s mostly accurate, though I can certainly see how the moves to have chimps, bonobos and dolphins included as conscious creatures that are also moral beings might have some weight.

“The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points.”

Strictly speaking atheism has nothing to say on the matter. Atheism is just the lack of belief in a god, and as such allows for placing the ‘brotherhood of man’ at the focus of our moral thinking.

“So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.”

Incorrect, both because of the misunderstanding of what atheism is, versus what atheism implies, and because of the arguments supplied to both 1 & 2.

“Intelligent people ask serious questions.  Serious questions deserve serious answers.  There are few questions more serious than the one I’m asking.  How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true?  If a worldview can’t answer this question it doesn’t deserve you.”

Neither objective meaning, nor objective morality are true, as has been repeatedly pointed out. Atheism isn’t a worldview, it is a position on a single question.

“One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself—becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question.  Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism which he contends is true.”

Indeed. Religions requires articles of faith, and a personal morality to cherry-pick the best bits. Christianity requires God to make ideas about human interactions, i.e. an arbiter from outside. Why not skip the unnecessary step and engage in moral philosophy without recourse to ancient books and imaginary Gods?

“If your worldview can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality)—it’s not worth your allegiance.  This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery.  Whoever you are. Wherever you are.  Whatever you believe.  You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.”

Just be cause you keep saying that objective morality is true, doesn’t make it true, and as no rational Westerner believes in genocide, slavery, the beating of their children, or the subordination of women (all of which the Bible supports and codifies) the Bible is, as you say, not worth your allegiance.

Can you be sure you know which way is up when you read the Bible?:

2 Samuel 24:1 And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

1 Chronicles 21:1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.

[1] Blackburn, S. (2008). Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 240

[2] Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C. & Welzel, C. (2008) Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981–2007), (

[3] Paul, G. (2009). The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 398-441.

[8] De Waal, F. (2013) The Bonobo and the Atheist.. London: W. W. Norton.

Too much…

My problem, well, one of my problems, is that there’s too much. Not of me, although that, too. No, there’s too much that I’m interested in. Too much that I’m not good enough at to make a living, but interested in. Interested enough, to know a bit more than the average man on the street, but not interested enough to make it my life’s work, or even a passionate hobby. Like this blog, and its evidence of sporadic writing, despite intending to write at least weekly. There’s too much to write about, so I write (almost) nothing.

I used to DJ. I was pretty good. But I love so much music, so much, that I was trying to keep up-to-date with not only the stuff I was playing (pop and retro), but everything else that I liked; from acid jazz to deep house, from psychedelic rock to death metal. Too much. So now I don’t DJ.

When something becomes too much it becomes a source of procrastination. Either I will immerse myself in it, and lose any ability to see clearly that the immersion is counter to my ability to get on with other things, or I will avoid the very thing I love because there’s too much of it and not enough of me, and that asymmetry is aversive.

It’s all too much, and I am not enough, yet I am too much, and it is not enough, and the asymmetry is aversive.

Effective Observation…

It’s well known that the act of observation affects that which is observed. In physics it’s called the observer effect, and it can be demonstrated in most other areas of existence – things that happen in physics have a habit of being the deep patterns that philosophy and religion are always looking for. Not so much the grand unified theory of physics, but the commonplace, everyday theories of daily life.

Having noticed such a deep physical principle in life, it has historically been tempting to extend such thoughts into metaphysics, whether the mundane, everyday metaphysics of ‘A watched pot never boils,’ or the more exotic paradoxes of Zeno. Of course, a watched pot will eventually boil, but it seems to take longer than if you go about preparing the ingredients for the forthcoming meal for which the pot is being boiled in the first place.

Even though the idiom ‘a watched pot never boils’ is momentarily arresting, and even intuitively true, to an extent, it is likewise intuitively not true. We’re quite capable of holding these two contradictory interpretations of something without ever really experiencing a contradiction. This is probably because the hyperbole of ‘never’ speaks to our felt experience of mild exasperation, but few people are likely to suggest that such a statement is actually true. So it’s strange that Zeno’s paradoxes, which speak to the same basic effect, took so much longer to unravel.

Zeno’s ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’ paradox portrays Achilles giving the Tortoise a head start in a foot race. It takes Achilles a certain amount of time to cover the distance of the head start, in which time the Tortoise has covered some small distance. It takes Achilles a lesser amount of time to cover this distance, in which time, of course, the Tortoise has covered yet more ground. The question being: can Achilles ever pass the Tortoise? The answer is of course yes, but one can, and many people did, get sidetracked into an infinite loop of shorter and shorter distances that you can mentally conjure up and that Achilles had to therefore run, and the Tortoise was forever in the lead.

So why, if you explain the “paradox,” can most people say that of course Achilles will pass the Tortoise, even if they can’t provide the mathematical proof as to the distance covered and the time elapsed? Well, the intuitive correct answer was never the point – explaining why the formulation of the paradox is wrong, was. Just as we know that the watched pot does indeed boil… eventually.

If you make the act of measurement as real as the race, for example, if you had a particularly large and obstructive individual measuring the distances, and remaining permanently in the way of Achilles, then, indeed, the act of measurement has affected that which is being measured and Achilles may well never pass the Tortoise, or will only do so after bundling the official measurer into the bushes, which will serve to delay Achilles’ passing the Tortoise, and give no clear measurement of when and where this occurred.

The problem is that we can virtualise the problem in mental space and mental time, but whilst our brain can do this, as with many things that our brain does that seem flawless to us, as observers of our own mental phenomena, there are in fact flaws. A very large part of our brain is given over to visual processing, and so our virtualisations of the visual aspects of this puzzle are quite acceptable to us. But we’re not quite so good with time, which is fairly important to solving the puzzle. We’ve established that the mere fact of doing something whilst waiting for the pot to boil seems to make the pot boil faster. Of course, it doesn’t boil faster, we are merely less aware of the intervening time. If space and time become detached in consideration of a ‘real world’ problem, the chances seem good that we won’t come up with a ‘real world’ answer.

The so-called paradox seems to rely on a dissociation of the elements. We can virtualise all of the elements in our minds, but it’s less easy to maintain an accurate relationship between these constituent elements. Indeed, part of the difficulty with the problem is that the third ‘protagonist’ is never mentioned, merely implied – but it is pivotal to the story – the space in which the race takes place, and the behaviour of time between the start of the race and the point at which Achilles passes the Tortoise; in other words, context. We intuitively know that the race is set in our time and approximate space, but we ignore the attendant properties of local time and space in focusing on Achilles and the Tortoise. Further, it takes as much mental time to contemplate each key point in the race (when Achilles reaches a point that the Tortoise was measured as being at), despite the increasing rapidity with which those points would be generated. Ultimately, as the story purportedly takes place in real world space (and time) the moment the distance between Achilles and the Tortoise is less than one Achilles-sized stride the mental gymnastics of measuring is no longer necessary, unless you want to know exactly when, to the micrometer, Achilles passes the Tortoise, and that’s what mathematics is for.

A more modern paradox of similar type is Thomson’s Lamp. Here the idea is that at the start of the story the lamp is on. After one second it is turned off. After a further one half of a second it is turned back on. After a quarter of a second has elapsed it is turned off. And so on, and so on. After each period of time has elapsed, being half that of the time that elapsed in the previous condition, the lamp is switched to the opposite position. The questions are, then: Is the lamp switch on or off at exactly two minutes? And would this be different if the lamp had started in the ‘off’ position?

As with Achilles and the Tortoise, we can imagine the time halving and halving, and with each halving the lamp switching, but switching itself takes time, so as soon as the time between switches is less than the time taken to switch, the question becomes redundant. This is true, even if the switching is carried out by a superfast computer, we just end up dealing with smaller increments of time. Some period of time elapses in the act of switching, so once the measured time is less than that time, the question becomes redundant. Further, once our ability to measure the increment of time has been surpassed the commonsense mathematical attitude is to round up to two.

Yes, we can contemplate the foot race or the lamp switching continuing on into some kind of infinity, but we can only do so by shedding some of the elements of the story. The deeper into these paradoxes we go the less the elements that make up Achilles, the Tortoise, and the Racetrack, or the lamp, with its bulb and switching device, are present, and the more they are merely labels divested of their elements. This is not our fault, this is how things that we label as a single thing are made up in our minds; by their constituent elements. These elements may have labels, themselves, but the key point here is that whilst we’re focusing on the label of ‘Achilles’, ‘Tortoise’ or ‘Racetrack’, we’re bad at maintaining all of the embedded elements that those labels imply, so the deeper we go into the paradox the more meaningless the labels ‘Achilles’, ‘Tortoise’ and ‘Racetrack’ become – in much the same way that they will lose meaning if I continue to use the words ‘Achilles’, ‘Tortoise’ and ‘Racetrack’ at the current rate.

So we can manipulate objects and constituent elements in our minds. Indeed this is the very virtualising process that our minds are most useful for, and that which underwrites our success on this planet. At some point, when manipulating virtualised objects with embedded characteristics, we end up manipulating only the labels, or at least not the full complexity of the embedded elements implied by the label, and thus not really the objects that those labels represent.

I would submit that this is exactly how actual physics lead to metaphysics, but it’s also why so many metaphysicians are leaping on to the quantum physics bandwagon – the actual abstraction into the counter-intuitive that is quantum physics, at a certain level of abstraction, does seem like the intuitive abstraction from the ‘real world’ that is metaphysics. Quantum physics starts, to all intents and purposes at the microscopic (sub-atomic) level, with known and established labels for the particles under consideration. Metaphysics starts at the macroscopic and gets to the faux quantum by divesting real world facts of the embedded elements of context and descends into actual absurdity rather than mere counter-intuition.