Sunday, 12 August 2012

Three really is the magic number… sort of, pt 1: The Holy Trinity, the Trimurti and spirituality.

The following is the script from my latest video on YouTube, viewable here:

“Does there truly exist an insuperable contradiction between religion and science?  Can religion be superseded by science?  The answers to these questions have, for centuries, given rise to considerable dispute and, indeed, bitter fighting.  Yet, in my own mind there can be no doubt that in both cases a dispassionate consideration can only lead to a negative answer.  What complicates the solution, however, is the fact that while most people readily agree on what is meant by ‘science,’ they are likely to differ on the meaning of ‘religion.’” – Albert Einstein

The above seems a somewhat unguarded comment by Einstein: to claim a decision before a definition of terms.  It is somewhat of a pronouncement.  This said, I agree with Einstein, but for the lack of a definition of terms, and those I hope to clear up.  In this vein, for the purpose of this article, I’d like to clarify that I am mostly talking about monotheistic religions, the Abrahamic religions in particular, and Christianity most of all, given its long-standing relevance to Western culture.  Also, for the sake of convenience, I will use the term religion as a collective noun, much the way science is sometimes used to collect under one heading the work, thought and action of those who work within that framework.  I also wish to make a distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, which, I hope, will become clear.

Spirituality is a word that gets bandied about quite a bit, in both theist and atheist circles, and it is one that is liable to generate many and varied reactions because of this.  A number within the atheist community, for example, seem to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to it, but this is mostly because of the way that it is misused by some theists or, to use that ugly, but more accurate word, religionists.

The key point of difference between religious and secular interpretations of ‘spirituality’ comes down to the way in which the root word ‘spirit’ is meant.  Theistic or supernatural belief invests the word ‘spirit’ with the idea of the ‘soul’, but there is no compelling reason why ‘spirit’ can’t have a more poetic, non-magical meaning.  Zeitgeist, for example, literally means ‘the spirit of the age’, but I don’t think that anyone would suggest that a period of time has ‘soul’ (references to the 60s, and Stax and Motown aside).  Likewise the idea of esprit de corps (regard for the honour of the body to which one belongs ) and ‘community spirit’ (the sense of belonging to, and participating in, a (local) community ), are ideas that have nothing to do with a ‘soul’ in the theistic sense.  It seems clear that in both senses ‘spirit’ is an abstract concept, a product of the mind, used to create oneself (or others) a place to fit or a way to engage with the wider reality of the world.

So what do I mean by spirituality, then?  To start with, to try and mend the fence between the theists and the atheists, I’d like to use the definition given by Tony Buzan (of Mind-Map fame).  He suggested, paraphrasing somewhat, that spirituality is ‘having an understanding of one’s place in the world’ .  This seems to me to be a useful definition because it allows a theist to contextualise themselves with reference to their god, and it allows atheists to do so without a god, be it by the sum of their social interactions, science, philosophy, or any other bases for self-definition.

A more fully contemplated definition appears in ‘Spiritual, but not Religious’ by Robert C. Fuller: “Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issue of how our lives fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things.  This is true even when our questions never give way to specific answers or give rise to specific practices such as prayer or meditation.  We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die.  We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world.  An idea or practice is "spiritual" when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.”

If that is spirituality, what is religion? To my way of thinking, religion often aspires to help an individual on their path to spirituality.  At its core, it seems to be a codified form thereof, but most organised religions have moved away from that basic description.  A quote often cited to show how long this has been the case is the somewhat infamous, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."   The ‘new atheists’ certainly seem to take this quote of dubious provenance to heart.  For myself, particularly in matters of humanity, I am always sceptical of any argument that is portrayed as being black and white (nature versus nurture springs to mind).  So to say whether religion is wrong or right is to grossly over-simplify the question.  Any given religion seems to be a monolithic structure, a self-stereotyped, homogenous mass, with all people believing in Christ, for example, often being lumped in together.  This definition is not helpful, given the vast gulf between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Westboro Baptist Church, for example.

It seems that the biggest difference, then, is within any given religion rather than between theists and atheists.  And maybe this is what Einstein was referencing with regard to the difficulty of defining ‘religion’.  If we split the theistic camp between theists and religionists, I think we actually have a clearer and more helpful distinction.  A theist being someone who believes in a god, and who contemplates the meaning of their existence with reference to that god.  A religionist, by contrast, is someone who places the hierarchy and the holy book above god, subconsciously or otherwise, and contextualises themselves with regard to dogma, doctrine and (usually self-serving) ideology.  This is effectively the difference between those that engage with religion’s function (theist) and those that engage with the form (religionist).

It seems that these distinctions can be made more pronounced when talking about science.  There are those that embrace science and religion (more likely to be theists), and those that deny science in favour of religion (more likely to be religionists).  The scientists whose names generally crop up as also being theists include Newton, Mendel and LemaĆ®tre, and rightly so.  Less frequently mentioned, though surely deserving a place in that pantheon, as I discovered in a wonderful lecture series by Frank James at the Royal Institution, is Michael Faraday .  So how do theists position science with regards to god?  “[Thomas Aquinas] believed that God reveals himself through nature, so that rational thinking and the study of nature is also the study of God...” .  So it’s appropriate to talk about the products of science, such as evolution, as relevant to a discussion on spirituality.

The evolutionary adaptation that seems to have the most importance when discussing religion and spirituality is called the ‘Theory of Mind’.  The word ‘theory’ is not being used here in the scientific sense, but in a ‘folk psychology’ sense.  Folk psychology being that which almost all humans engage in everyday to try and understand, interpret and predict their fellow humans across the scope of all human interactions.  The eminent psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, Sasha’s cousin) has done a great deal of work on Theory of Mind by studying those that don’t really have one, or whose development of it is much slower than normal.  Autistic people, my son included, are noted for their delayed or suppressed Theory of Mind.  Baron-Cohen (2001)  defines Theory of Mind as "...being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action.  In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one's own and other's minds."

As a social species humans had to develop this cognitive trick of Theory of Mind in order to be able to understand and interact with their fellows, and to be able to intuit their beliefs; even, or maybe especially where one knows that the basis of these beliefs is wrong.  Baron-Cohen (1999)  suggests that Theory of Mind, as we know it, occurred as recently as 40,000 years ago in human evolution.  He goes on to suggest that it was built upon key elements that may be as old as six million years, approximately the point at which humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor.  Indeed it was Premack and Woodruff’s (1978)  work with chimpanzees that defined Theory of Mind in the ethological, and ultimately the psychological, world.

Theory of Mind has a graduated history in human evolution, just as it has stages in child development.  Children generally achieve Theory of Mind by four years of age.  That said, what parent of a 2-3 year-old hasn’t been driven spare by the dreaded ‘…but why?’  This is not indicative of a full-blown Theory of Mind, but it is the child’s recognition that other brains contain different information.  A complete Theory of Mind is properly adopted when the appropriate brain structures come ‘on line’, and as with any ability, Theory of Mind, once it is available, requires ongoing learning.

Psychology has a great deal to say about learning.  For the purposes of this article I’m only going to mention one thing: operant conditioning .  Operant conditioning is the modification of behaviour by the reward/punishment (in this case the perceived success/failure) of that behaviour.  In other words, as the organism operates upon the environment, so the environment operates upon the organism – the organism learns from the environment and in some cases the environment (when it’s other organisms) learns from the organism.  I mention it here for one very simple reason: one element of operant conditioning (and indeed Classical/Pavlovian conditioning) is ‘generalisation’.  This is where we take something that we know to be true of one thing we’ve learned and apply it to all similar things until we discover new rules that disconfirm some, or all, of that generalisation.

I’d like to illustrate this point more fully.  On the most excellent BBC panel show, QI, there was an episode where the inimitable Stephen Fry asked “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after…?”   Predictably, the differently inimitable Alan Davies suggested ‘C’ and got a klaxon (and lost points) for his trouble.  The issue was that there are more words that disconfirm this rule than there are those that conform to it.  Does this make the rule no longer useful?  According to that episode, yes, but that’s not the case.  To explain: HaƧienda is originally a Spanish word, so if all words that fail to conform to ‘‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’’ are Spanish, or indeed defunct night clubs in the north of England, then the rule is no longer useful.  But that isn’t the case, so the rule is still useful, even though the rule is also disproved by ‘weird science’.

So how does the generalising of rules, even increasingly incorrect rules, impinge on Theory of Mind?  As children we learn to use Theory of Mind through social interaction, through the success/failure of predicting the behaviour of other’s based on our beliefs about their thoughts.  If, having learned about these other minds in the social environment, one generalises the rule to the entire environment it will appear as though all of the things a human mind has (intent, intelligence and emotion), are in the environment.  If we take the QI example of ‘‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’’ as ‘There is a God’, then, as with all of the words that disprove the rule in different ways, there is seemingly ambiguous and even conflicting disconfirming information on the matter of god.  We humans tend to pay more attention to things that seem important and/or that we already believe  (or that we are taught to believe).  All of the issues that might offer a disproof of the existence of your god (depending on your personal interpretation) – the fact of evolution, the problem of evil, the statistical failure of prayer   – are lesser disconfirmations that can be allowed for, individually, as not altering the central rule.

The only mind that a person is able to project into their environment is their own.  This must surely be the root of a great many of our species’ anthropomorphic religious (and other supernatural) experiences, from ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ to ‘Mother Nature’.  The feeling of oneness with a mind that is effectively one’s own, out there, not just ‘in the world’ but ‘through-out the world’.  One might be tempted to say that this generalising of Theory of Mind is relatively recent (Baron-Cohen’s 40,000 years, for example), as it must coincide with the rise of monotheistic religions.  I would suggest that the rise of monotheism has more to do with the rise of perceived personal autonomy within the social group, and the effect such autonomy has on conceptions of self, and thus god, but that’s a different article.  It seems, though, that more traditionally collectivist cultures do tend more to multiple gods.  Hinduism, for example, has many gods, albeit that it has one (Brahma) that is also three (the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) , and some argument as to whether all of the 30 ‘devas’ are also aspects of the one (that is also the Trimurti).  Indeed, this particular debate may be all about Theory of Mind.

This configuration of Theory of Mind, conditioning (learning) and generalisation uses well-established psychological theories (in the scientific sense, not the colloquial sense of ‘hypothesis’) and does away with the need for new theoretical models; of which there are many.  Furthermore, it lends itself very strongly to the idea of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ in the theistic sense: “The original idea of a spirit is of a disembodied agent, as an immaterial soul or a non-material intelligent power.”   Both the belief in a god, and the feeling that we have a soul, is predicated on exactly the same ‘feeling’ about the world, rooted in our Theory of Mind, and different from theist to theist based on their socio-cultural upbringing and the conditioning (learning) they have undergone.

Theory of Mind is intimately related to the emotion/subjectivity from whence it came.  An understanding of one’s own mind is central and formative to Theory of Mind.  The logical outflow of ‘I’-centric thinking is necessarily statements like ‘My God is the one true God!’ and so forth.  Clearly this is a by-product of one’s personal god-concept being, virtually by definition, oneself.  This is underscored by numerous neurological studies.  These studies have provocative titles like ‘Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs’ (Epley, et al. 2009) .  In others, the principal findings don’t pull any punches: “…religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks” (Harris, et al. 2009).

Is the idea of god having a psychological source a new idea?  Not only is it not new, but it is much, much older than psychology itself.  The traditional Yogic greeting ‘namaste’ has been ascribed numerous nuanced meanings that boil down to ‘The God that resides in me greets the God that resides in you’, indeed Gandhi is apocryphally credited with providing Einstein with this definition: "I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides.  I honour the place in you of light, love, truth, peace and wisdom.  I honour the place in you where, when you are in that place, and I am in that place, there is only one of us."

If gods are indeed projections of over-generalised theories of mind, then the idea of any group of people all having the same god is incoherent.  It is only through other vagaries of the human evolutionary and social environment that there haven’t been seven billion schisms.  In Christianity there are around 41,000 denominations and sects , and in Hinduism there are as many as 330 million aspects of god  that could potentially be worshipped individually (though this is probably just a large number implying infinite ).  All that said the similarity between people’s perception of god speaks to the commonality of the human experience (and religious education).  This is why I feel that religion, but particularly organised religion, can’t hope to be authoritative on the full scope of spirituality it can only speak to human commonality.

Spirituality, as a term, has a relatively short history of people tainting it with groundless belief and convenient untruth.  Religion, on the other hand, has a long and rich history deeply rooted in superstition; for all that it was ostensibly aspiring to the spiritual (and would deny the charge of superstition).  It is a shame that religion did not adopt a ‘living document’ approach to its holy texts (which would have been more in keeping with the idea of revelation, for one).  Indeed, both religion and science might have been many centuries more advanced by now had religion done this, whether off the back of Thomas Aquinas’ feelings on the matter, or not.  It is up to the religious institutions of today to decide whether they continue to cling to the vestiges of a tattered religion built on the bedrock of a changeless book, or to actively and publicly build the houses of their gods on the shifting sands of our ever-changing understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit.

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.  When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.  So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” ― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

1  The Chambers Dictionary (11th Edition). (2008). London: Chambers Harrap.
2  The Chambers Dictionary (11th Edition). (2008). London: Chambers Harrap.
  Fuller, R. C. (2001). Spiritual, But Not Religious. Oxford: Oxford University Press (
  Often erroneously attributed to Seneca the Younger, the quote is from Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, known to be rather vitriolic on the matter of Christianity, apparently.
  Retrieved on 21/06/2012 from
  Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). Theory of mind in normal development and autism, Prisme, 34, 174-183.
  Baron-Cohen, S. (1999). Evolution of a theory of mind?  In M, & Lea, S (eds) The descent of mind: psychological perspectives on hominid evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  Premack, D & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 515-526
  What are known as cognitive biases such as attention bias and confirmation bias.
  Aviles, J. M., Whelan, E., Hernke, D. A., Williams, B. A., Kenny, K. A., O’Fallon, W. M., & Kopecky, S. L. (2001) Intercessory Prayer and Cardiovascular Disease Progression in a Coronary Care Unit Population: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 2001;76 (1192-1198). Retrieved from
  Benson, H., Dusek, J. A., Sherwood, J. B., Lam, P., Bethea, C. F., Carpenter, W., Levitsky, S., Hill, P. C., Clem Jr., D. W., Jain, M. K., Drumel, D., Kopecky, S.L., Mueller, P. S., Marek, D., Rollins, S. & Hibberd, P.L. (2006). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934–42. doi:10.1016/j.ahj.2005.05.028.
  Jordan, M. (1992/2002). Encyclopedia of Gods. London: Kyle Cathie.
  Morton, A. (2005). In Honderich, T (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press
  Epley, N., Converse, B. A., Delbosc, A., Monteleone, G. A. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2009). Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Dec 22;106(51):21533-8.
  Harris, S., Kaplan, J. T., Curiel, A., Bookheimer, S. Y., Iacoboni, M. & Cohen, M. S. (2009). The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. PloS ONE, 4(10)
  Prinja, N. K. (2002). Explaining Hindu Dharma (2nd Ed.). Leicester, UK: Vishwa Hindu Parishad (UK), pp. 14.
  Brown, J D. (1961). India. New York, N.Y.: Time, Inc.

Sunday, 11 March 2012


The following is the script from my latest video on YouTube, viewable here:

As the channel name suggests, my single driving belief is that, above all else, we (the people) must coexist. The single biggest divider of people is ideology, typified by, but by no means exclusively embodied by, religion. That said, religion is a choice (even if some have had that choice taken away from them). Politics is also a choice, often informed by religion, and it is this, along with the effects of religion on education (which also effects people’s politics) that makes religion so important to me.

Jonathan Wolfe Miller, the British Theatre and opera Director, said, “In some awful, strange, paradoxical way, atheists tend to take religion more seriously than the practitioners. ”I think it neither awful, nor strange, though certainly paradoxical. People’s religiousness has a very real effect on my life, and on humanity as a whole. As with any decision based on a false premise, even with faultless logic, the conclusion will necessarily be wrong. Bad decisions in politics and education absolutely impinge upon me… and everyone else… including those that support politics on religious grounds left wondering why their policies aren’t working.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in her biography of Voltaire (effectively paraphrasing him), "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". I strongly believe that freedom of speech is an inalienable human right - anyone who holds to anything less is misanthropic. This is a sweeping generalisation, but as such generalisations go; I think it a supportable one.

My personal freedom is rooted in everyone else’s ‘freedom of speech’ (including the right to say nothing), and ‘freedom of thought’ (something that nowhere near enough people exercise). These are both rooted in, and contribute to, the fundamental right to be oneself to the best of one’s ability, but with rights come responsibilities, and everyone’s key responsibility is to accord everyone else these same rights.

We (meaning humanity as a whole) are only as free as the least free amongst us. The further we (as individuals) are from those unfortunates, the less it seems to effect us, but the greater our communication technologies the smaller the whole world is. The less distance there is between us and those least free (who are not allowed to be amongst us) the less able we are to ignore it.

We can no longer ignore certain countries that use a deadly mixture of politics and Islam to oppress women and homosexuals and those of other faiths, but likewise we can’t ignore that it is a noisome mix of politics and Christianity that is being used to demonise atheists, oppress homosexuals, and denigrate women who seek abortions in some of the (not-so) United States. To be clear it is not the religions themselves but the use of those religions that is principally at fault. Religion is a personal choice, not something that can be mandated by government. The terrible irony is that in the Islamist states the oppression of women, homosexuals and those of other faiths is what keeps them from expressing their masculinity, their heterosexuality and their unique Muslim identities. Likewise, the oppression of homosexuals, atheists and women who seek abortions in the US, is what curbs the individual expression of heterosexuality, religious thought and the oft-proclaimed “family values”. In a twist on the Marxist ideal: no nation that enslaves its own can, itself, be free.

To all of you not in those countries (and even some within those countries): the freedom to be a Muslim is being abused by these Islamist states, the freedom to be a Christian is being abused by the religious right in the US. With rare exception the freedom to be anything is predicated on the freedom of the opposite to exist. The one key exception to this is that, in order to have humanity, we must not allow inhumanity (and let me be clear, sometimes the difference between those two is not that clear – euthanasia, which I generally support, being a clear case in point).

So, my channel is dedicated to exploring how we go about this, how we get there. How we remove the divisiveness from religion so as to allow the very spirituality it seeks to illuminate. It is my belief that the only way we will get there is through communication of ideas, a genuine seeking to understand each other’s viewpoint, and this requires an openness of both mind and heart on all sides. Hence the name of my channel, CO-EXISTential, in order to coexist we must be open to accepting all existential beliefs (that are humane).

If you’re a subscriber of mine already (thank you very much), or if you’ve had a look at a few of my videos, you may wonder how my strongly atheistic perspective and occasional outright mockery of religion is congruent with all that I’ve said above. It’s a fair question. I observe the right for the religious to hold their opinion, but equally I reserve the right to think it foolish – goodness knows that very often the reverse is true. I would rather be considered foolish by a theist than have my right to that position questioned. I would, further, rather have my reason for my position questioned as, by rights, that would necessitate that person of faith having given a reason for their position.

I know that many will say that faith is the denial of reason – I think this as gross a generalisation as any that theists make about atheism. Someone self-identifying as a Muslim or a Christian is giving you no information as to the quality or basis of that faith, and atheists do need to recognise that. If someone does self-identify as being of a particular faith I am interested to find out why, for one simple reason: unquestioning faith is contrary to the basic human right (and need) of self-actualisation. If you are of a faith I will still disagree with you, but if you have put thought and effort into reaching that conclusion then I respect that.

To re-state a previously used quote slightly differently: "I disapprove of what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to believe it". I respect the person, not the belief. I would further add the maxim of reciprocity (often called the golden rule): Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In combination these two ideals are a pretty good basis for any morality. If you’re really enlightened, however, you could go with the platinum rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them… but you can only do that by talking to them, and that’s what COEXISTential is about, having that discussion.

What I want to get from discussions, on or through this channel, is a diversity of perspectives – and a clearer understanding of why people with widely divergent beliefs hold to those beliefs. My eventual intent is to use this knowledge to frame logically and rationally valid arguments that an Atheist or Agnostic might agree with in a more emotionally satisfying way, such that a theist may be better able to understand the perspective. I say this because it seems clear to me that religion is usually an emotional decision that cannot be swayed by logic – just as the average skeptical or freethinking atheist has made a logical decision and is unlikely to be swayed by an emotive argument.

So that’s the main thrust of this channel. You will also see increasing amounts of psychology-based content, and the odd bit of lay-philosophical musing along the lines of the above. So let me finish with a question for those of a religious persuasion:How do you feel about the more extreme views of those that claim the same faith as you?

One World
One People

Monday, 6 February 2012

Evidence for Life, the Universe, and Everything… Required

This is the script I used for my video, Evidence for Life, the Universe, and Everything… Required (, a response to the DawahFilms video 'Evidence For God: Not Necessary' (

I broke the paragraphs up to make it easier to read for the recording and haven’t put it back to the way it was written. Sorry about that.

The time-stamps are for the points in Dawah Films’ video - the time stamp denotes where the section that I’m responding to ends.

Transmission commences:

Hi Ali, and anybody else who cares to watch. This is my first go at doing a critique - I hope you don’t mind, Ali, but I’ve used clips from your original video for clarity’s sake.

Ideally I’d like this to open up a respectful discourse between you (Ali) and myself, but I suppose I shall have to accept that there may be trolls on both sides.

I shouldn’t really have to say this, but, for clarity’s sake, for anyone watching, I will.

Everything I say that follows is my opinion. From my point of view what I say runs the gamut from that which is purely opinion because it can only be opinion, albeit carefully considered, through to that which I hold to be self-evident truth, due to the available evidence.

I respectfully ask that you consider what I have to say with the due care that I used to come up with it, and reject it if you find it unworthy of you. Further, I would ask that if you think it unworthy of me, that you let me know (along with your reasoning, obviously), so I can do the same.

Anyway, on with the critique…

DawahFilms - 1:00

That’s fine, don’t. But also don’t call into question anyone else’s beliefs (or lack thereof) ever.

If you have good reasons and sufficient justifications then give them, otherwise it’s a baseless assertion – and even ‘because it feels right’ is a better answer.

I would anticipate that your reasons and justifications for belief don’t stand up to evidence or reason because that’s not where it comes from.

I’d go so far as to say that ‘because it feels right’ is a pretty good description of where it comes from, wouldn’t you say?

There is an increasing amount of evidence showing exactly which psychological phenomena combine to give one godly feelings and experiences of the divine.

DawahFilms - 1:03


DawahFilms - 1:28

There is actually a difference between evidence and empiricism, and science doesn’t solely rely on the latter to provide the former…

Sometimes science draws inferences from what can be apprehended.

Sometimes science draws inferences from a lack of something that should be there, given the known interplay between those things that are available to the senses:
Ultra-violet light & infra-red light, subsonic & hypersonic and even audible (but not visible) sound waves, black holes, dark matter… it’s a long list.

And on a side-note… 5 senses?
What about thermo-reception? Proprioception? Equilibrioception?

But I digress…
To answer your question, no, evidence isn’t only found in science. How about law? Forensic accounting? History? ...and just the day-to-day information and deductions that we use to get by. Sometimes we call it knowledge.

(Storm: Looseweave)

In fact we can only genuinely call something knowledge if it comes to us with evidence. Without evidence it’s faith.

DawahFilms - 1:36

I agree, many atheists do and, to an extent, so do I.

I get that the God you postulate is non-material and supernatural and so defies all direct testing (which, you’ll admit, is mighty convenient for the burden of proof), and if something can only be experienced then it’s harder to test (in fact you’d have it so that it’s completely unfalsifiable)…

Unfortunately for this standpoint all Abrahamic religions have claimed God’s hand in our physical world, so there should be inferential evidence of she/he/its existence.

Another alternative would be monitoring the brain-activity of believers. A study in 2009 (link below) showed that believers’ brains on fMRI light up almost exactly the same way when asked about their opinion and God’s opinion.
This was on everything from abortion to the death penalty to Iraq to marijuana legalisation.

Different areas lit up when asked about the opinion of the average fellow American or George Bush (it was 2009… and does that imply that George was a below average American? I think, yes).

Now, before you say:
‘of course people will believe that they believe the same as God’
– it was further found that reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking, more so than did reasoning about another entity’s beliefs.

To quote Epley, the study’s author (with a couple of additions for clarity):
This research suggests that, unlike an actual [moral] compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may [instead] point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.

DawahFilms - 1:39

Problem? There are numerous claims of God having physically interacted with the world, so why wouldn’t there be evidence?

The problem I see is that you’re either:
a) denying elements of your own faith’s ideas about God’s physical interaction with the world in order to get out of having to allow that there really is no evidence, or;
b) you’re implying that she/he/it deceptively wiped down the fingerprints and swept away the footprints.

DawahFilms - 1:44

Tablets of stone? Physical. The parting of the Red Sea? Physical. The raising of Enoch into Heaven? Physical. It’s another long list.

Oh, and I don’t know whether you identify with this story, Ali… but the earthquake and blacking out of the sun at the time of Jesus’ resurrection? Physical… And cosmological… And historically absent despite the number of people affected (and that includes the ruthlessly efficient administrators and record-keepers in the Roman Empire).

DawahFilms - 1:55

Yes, we believe it’s not possible, which is consistent with our position. How is that a word game, exactly?

DawahFilms - 2:02

Acting open-minded?
You’re aware of the yardstick for belief –evidence - if you can’t meet that requirement why have the discussion?

Is it because YOU’RE ACTING open-minded?

(Tim: The denial of evidence so that faith can be preserved)

(clip from Openmindedness?)

If you provide evidence for your belief then, by rights, we would have to test the evidence and, if found to be irrefutable, accept the evidence. That said, just as all science is open to being refined or rejected by subsequent tests and evidence, so your evidence would be subjected to the same rigour.

It’s not actually our fault that you lack evidence (empirical or otherwise) for your belief. If that lack of evidence saddens you then you know what you have to do…

DawahFilms - 2:12

As previously stated, indirect material evidence should abound given God’s purported heavy-handed influence in times past.

DawahFilms - 2:20

The amputees thing is given as an example because limbs do not grow back, whereas cancers do go into remission, and cataracts do reduce, and so on. It’s a nice, simple, eminently achievable act for a deity… you’d think.

Why does God only act as Health Insurance for otherwise the able-bodied?

DawahFilms - 2:32

I’m sorry, but asserting what you believe atheists would say is not an argument. Sure, many atheists would be extremely resistant to it, just as you are resistant to our assertions about your contentions.

Which just goes to show how all-embracingly human that behaviour is.

If, however, it did occur and had a proper case history so that any possibility of fakery was excluded, then it would be pretty incontrovertible.

Well, that is until stem-cell research gets more traction, then your golden hope will be gone because man will be able to heal amputees and your God won’t.
Bear in mind, also, that we’re now turning skin-cells into brain-cells without even needing stem-cells, so God’s time is limited.
(Link for that one down below, too)

It’s interesting to note that Jesus healed the lame and lepers and all manner of other maladies that can be faked for the credulous or simply misdiagnosed by the layperson – but he never tackled amputees.

Why is that do you s’pose?

DawahFilms - 2:42

Naturalism of the gaps? Cute. Ridiculous, but cute.

Yes, the great thing about science is that it accepts the gaps and tries to find answers, as opposed to being afraid of the gaps and inserting an all-purpose filler, aka God/Allah.

Saying ‘I don’t know’ is not an admission of failure, saying ‘GodDidIt’ is.

Pro-actively looking for gaps in our knowledge to supply naturalistic answers is entirely different from reacting to gaps and plugging them…

You’ve merely confirmed an existent normative, natural bias rather than increasing the sum of your knowledge.

DawahFilms - 2:55

It’s your life, Ali, shouldn’t it be based on something a bit more substantial than Aesop’s fables and a funny feeling in your head? You probably put more mental effort into deciding who cuts your hair and which video camera and editing software you use.

You put a lot of effort into justifying the decision already made rather than making the decision based on all available information, it seems.

DawahFilms - 3:06

Again with an unfounded assertion, but this time about the foundations of atheists’ unbelief…
There’s no doubt that some atheists don’t have a strong epistemology, but that’s hardly the preserve of atheism, now, is it?

Did you happen see the last Pew Report?
It showed that atheists, in the US at least, have a better understanding of religion than the religious do (admittedly Muslims weren’t polled, being such a small minority in the US).
Epistemologically Atheists tend to be more knowledgeable about the available options, not less.

In the words of Albert Einstein: "When you understand why you don't believe in other people's gods, you will understand why I don't believe in yours."

Given that most, if not all, holy texts are internally inconsistent, logically incoherent, and fail to demonstrate the slightest evidence of the oft-claimed foreknowledge, Atheism is by far the most sensible default-state because few ideas based on incorrect information have real world value.

Even if it’s only YOUR god that I don’t believe in I can justify that stance with exactly the same book you base your belief on, in much the same way that you don’t believe in every other god-hypothesis out there. Not living by a book that is incongruent, even if you live by no other written rules whatsoever, is more sensible.

You’ll notice that many atheists will assert an underpinning of secular humanism or sceptical, metaphysical naturalism or similar. In other words a lot of thought has gone into the adoption of the atheistic position, and that atheism is consistent with their worldview (not the other way around).

Given that 40+% of US Catholics are unaware of the miracle of transubstantiation (a key tenet of their faith), and that most Muslims maintain the faith they were born into, it’s fair to suggest that those of faith cannot claim the level of rigour that most atheists can.

DawahFilms - 3:10

I’m pretty sure that only theists would be screwed – that is until some evidence comes forth.

DawahFilms - 3:20

Seriously? Evidence is a concept, much like logic and maths. YOU claim that God exists beyond the conceptual level and has a direct affect on this world.
You create the demand for evidence by the terms of your claim.

Evidence is necessitated by logic, and both logic and evidence show their value by allowing us to describe and predict the world in a way that works. Here’s an example of how logic works with regard to evidence:
I go to street vendor (A) for food. Later that night I’m sick.
I go to street vendor (B) for food. Later that night I’m not sick.
I go back to street vendor (A) for food. Later that night I’m sick, again.
The evidence suggests that I shouldn’t go to takeaway place (A) for food.

Every time I derive a useful rule for my continued existence based on evidence it is also evidence that using evidence works, evidently.

And, before you say it: it’s not a closed system, it allows new information in, so it’s not circular reasoning, even though it is a cyclical process.

As with science, nothing is ever proven, but confidence in any other method asymptotically approaches zero with each cycle.

It is a framework, which, amongst other things, gave rise to philosophy. You know… the very thing you’re studying.
Where would philosophy be without logically derived axioms? Axioms themselves are based, at some point in their past, or the past of their contributory axioms, on evidence.

DawahFilms - 3:26

You know what, Ali, I gave that a look, and honestly, it’s beneath you to have it up, and beneath me to answer it. But I’ll be happy to critique it if you think I’m just posturing, here.

DawahFilms - 3:42

Right, now we get to the nub of your argument.

It’s our normative, natural predisposition to believe that heavier objects fall faster than light objects. As you know Galileo proved this wrong.

Presumably our normative, natural predisposition come from primitive man being more inclined to get out of the way more quickly for larger objects - a survival mechanism.

It’s our normative, natural predisposition to follow authority figures, even when it means doing something unethical or immoral.
And the more witnesses to a rape/murder in progress the less chance that anyone will step in to stop the rape/murder from happening (known as the bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility).

It’s the normative, natural predisposition to be rubbish at estimating any number of things, often to our detriment. Agenticity, pareidolia, apophenia, ratios, and our own emotions in the future, for example.

It’s the normative, natural predisposition to adhere to in-groups and to punish out-groups on the flimsiest of pretexts (ahem).

No, transcending your normative, natural predispositions is what life is about. We should be striving to not be a slave to a re-purposed hunter/gatherer brain and nervous system.

DawahFilms - 3:45

Condescending much?

DawahFilms - 3:53

Wait, so now scientific inquiry is useful? The evidence-based approach to gathering information and deriving logical conclusions from that which is observed? Now it’s OK? Cherry-picking at its finest.

DawahFilms - 3:59

Not “hard-wired” no, that would get us into a debate about free will vs. determinism… some other time, maybe. We are pre-disposed, certainly.

DawahFilms - 4:13

Whilst trying to find the basis (or rather the mechanism) of agency in things may have started the ball rolling for science – I’ll grant that – scientific inquiry is in some ways the denial of our hard-wiring.

Science requires that someone else observe the same thing I’m observing so that my own personal biases (normative, natural predispositions) don’t get in the way. The scientific method is very nearly the exact opposite of what we would otherwise do.

Or, to put it another way, as I have, recently:

…as a species, working together, each compensating for the other, we find the ultimate expression of humanity: science… using our collective strength to overcome our individual failings…

DawahFilms - 5:05

Which just goes to show that you’re not prone to ’realism’ at all, you’re prone to perceptionism as part of your apperception (which is interesting, because that’s a form of empiricism).

You’re not ‘forced’ to believe anything – you can choose to stick with what seems like the easy answer, or you could ask some questions of the universe, with a bit of help from a few unbiased or counter-biased friends, and see what you can discover. To quote your own profile page:

"The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim."

DawahFilms - 5:09

The previously mentioned scientific method is a paradigm shift.

You can change your programming or psyche if you choose to, or you can let your normative, natural predisposition run (or is that ruin?) your life.

It is exactly this attitude which kept us in the Dark Ages for so long.

Getting real answers to real questions is a much better vector for knowledge than putting your hands up and saying, sorry, I’m just an ape with an ego, a monkey in shoes, I can’t transcend my lowly existence.

DawahFilms - 5:16

Yes, this is what we get, individually. Another tool that we get in our toolbox is socialising with other humans – we are in fact predisposed to seek out company. And not just for sex!

If you haven’t experienced the joy of being challenged intellectually by someone you admire then your life is the poorer for it.

DawahFilms - 5:59

Hang on! You’re doing philosophy – isn’t the study of the nature of reality kind of your thing?

Unfortunately for your argument there is not necessarily a functional difference between the homeless guy whose mind is addled and your belief that only what your mind is predisposed to interpret is true. You are assuming causal correlation between his apparently intoxicated state and his belief about the nature of reality.

What if he is predisposed to believe that, and it is only through alcohol or drugs that he can, A) live with this concept and/or, B) summon the Dutch-courage to try and explain it to other people?
Some would call that proselytising.

How do you know that he’s not clinging to chemical intoxicants for his relative sanity in much the same way you’re clinging to conceptual intoxicants for yours?

DawahFilms - 6:19

How do you know that what the homeless guy was expressing to you wasn’t what he perceived ‘uninhibited’.

Do you have the slightest clue about the idea of Qualia and the fact that what we perceive about the world around us is, essentially, unique and personal?
It just happens that through language we’ve managed to find an equilibrium of sorts, a democratisation, a commonality of understanding as to the nature of a jointly perceived reality…

But the nature of reality, as we individually perceive it, will always be personal. Anyway, weren’t you questioning what evidence is and why we should even use it a few minutes ago? Now evidence has truth-value?

DawahFilms - 6:26

What? You mean, like the supernatural? I agree.

DawahFilms - 6:57

You have no reason to question something until you have reason to question it? Brilliant!
And it’s that thinking that gets in the way of the scientific inquiry that you were so happy to invoke back at 3:53 (in your original video).

The “reason to question” something would be contradicting… say it with me… EVIDENCE.
What you’ve effectively said is that evidence is necessary, except when it comes to god.

Bear in mind that what you were talking about was enquiry into the nature of the human mind. By your logic, what possible reason would we have to question the nature of the human mind in its normal state?

I’ll tell you. Because if we don’t benchmark what ‘normal’ is (and that’s an average across the population) we can’t know what ‘abnormal’ is.

As individuals we can’t tell what constitutes abnormal in our own mind if our personal change from normal to abnormal is gradual.

The descent into madness affects your apperception such that the delusions become normal and you can’t know what is normal as most others see it.

One man’s normal is another man’s madness.

DawahFilms - 7:07

No, we’re far more interested in finding out how what’s really there really works, how it may be used elsewhere, and how it got to be really there in the first place.
It’s part of our normative, natural predisposition, as you said yourself at 4:12 (in your original video) - looking for agency.
Trying to prove that it’s really there in the first place is philosophy – which is what you’re studying.

DawahFilms - 7:21

Ooh, cognitive dissonance! Do you know how cognitive dissonance works?

DawahFilms - 7:43

So the answer’s ‘no, you don’t know how cognitive dissonance works.’ All we can ‘KNOW’ IS the natural. You said that it is our predisposition to ‘BELIEVE’ in the supernatural – believe, not know.

So you have a belief in the supernatural, but all you can sense is the natural world. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that you need to modify what you believe or how you interpret what you see so that the two are congruent and no longer in conflict…

Do you know how you most likely do that?

By attributing even more to God and the supernatural than you are already predisposed to do, imbuing clearly natural things with supernatural agency.

So your default state becomes self-referential and your very own personal cognitive bias… as such you have indeed moved beyond the normative, natural predisposition that you have. Sorry.

I would respectfully suggest that you have done so in the wrong direction.

DawahFilms - 7:54

Normative does not imply rational as has been repeatedly pointed out.

What is normative was evolved on the plains and deserts and hills and woodlands over the last 150 thousand years or so.

Much of what was evolved there has become excess baggage over the last 150 years…

For example, we crave the sugars and fats that drove us to pick fruit and kill animals for food, but now it just makes many of our species obese.

It is normative to seek out others like us, to extend our in-group, to homogenise those directly around us so we can hedgemonise everyone else.
We do this so that we can either reinforce each other in our shared beliefs or correct each other’s incorrect beliefs.
It is then the basis of that belief that becomes the issue.

Written communication, be it millennia old, or milliseconds old, is the newest addition to our normative toolbox. We are predisposed to ascribe too much agency and authority to writing:

“it’s written down so it must be true!”

Your predisposition is to believe in the centuries-old tradition (because it’s also normative to believe that things were better in the past, which is demonstrably untrue) – mine is to follow where the evidence leads to the future.

DawahFilms - 8:02

Dumb? Ooh, snappy rhetoric!

To again quote your profile:
"Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance." Einstein

The baby thing was only ever brought up to illustrate the point that the default starting position is lack of belief.

Now I know you want to say that we’re hard wired to believe, and so on.

But until a child’s cognitive abilities are significantly more developed it’s not possible for a child to believe in a god, in and of and for itself, as you’ve effectively said.
It’ll need to have well-developed language faculties before it can be told the “good news”, let alone accept it.

DawahFilms - 8:14

Do you think that all atheists are English or something? To be clear, I do live in England, but I’m from New Zealand.

You’re misapplying the baby analogy, as pointed out previously, and I certainly wouldn’t use it to point out I’m more rational than anyone.

Failing to understand the baby analogy, however…

DawahFilms - 8:16

Yes, really.

DawahFilms - 8:36

Yes, you did, that’s perfectly normal, as is assuming supernatural powers of your parents.

DawahFilms - 8:44

Supplying a name to the natural artefacts of a developmental stage (the thickening of the corpus callosum) such that you have now not functionally progressed from it is indeed unfortunate.

There is a reason why atheists, when in condescension-mode refer to God/Allah as the sky-daddy:
You haven’t progressed to the stage of being a fully autonomous being - you’ve taken the autonomy your parents ceded to you by degrees, and by degrees you’ve passed them on to a proxy.

When you realised that mummy and daddy weren’t all-powerful you applied that characteristic to that which you came to call God or Allah.

DawahFilms - 8:54

You’re not forced to believe anything! You can choose to believe based on the limitations of your experience, or you can choose to take on new experiences with a genuinely open-mind, and let brain plasticity do its thing.
Instead you’re bogged down in the doldrums of primacy - assuming that the first answer, or rather the by-product of normative, natural predisposition, is the best answer.

It may have been the best answer out on the savannah 150,000 years ago when an assegai and fire-making tools were the height of technological sophistication, and language and philosophy were still in their infancy…
But none of those things are the case any more.

The products of human civilisation, as a whole, have evolved more quickly than we have, as individuals.
We have the cognitive ability to recognise this and, because we are social creatures who can catalytically use each other’s minds, we can transcend it.

DawahFilms - 9:05

I agree, it should have – so stop perpetuating it.

DawahFilms - 9:25

So you’re really using the supernatural as a rational starting point? You’ve said yourself that you’re forced to believe it. What is rational about belief that you’re obliged to hold?
Here’s a real world example of why it’s not:

Children born in North Korea, until recently, were obliged to believe that Kim Jong-Il is god (and may be forced to believe the same of Kim Jong-Un).
Given your own journey of supplying the name ‘God’ to the agency you saw all around you there would be no functional difference to a Korean child having given that same agency the name Kim Jong-Il.
With one important difference – TV appearances.
A North Korean child had more reason to believe that Kim Jong Il was real, even if predisposed to imbue him with powers that aren’t.

DawahFilms - 9:45

I don’t think you should necessarily prove everything you’re naturally disposed to believing, but you might want to test your predispositions against reality once in a while (for reasons previously given).

Furthermore, as there is no evidence for God it absolutely falls to you to prove God’s existence, especially if you want us to believe you… or take your belief seriously.
It’s reasonable to assume that you do want us to believe, or you wouldn’t put so much effort into debate on YouTube.

Or are you just a Poe?

DawahFilms - 9:50

No, it’s OK, we’ve got this thing called the scientific method that can help you establish benchmarks and test evidence and stuff. It’s brilliant. You’ll love it!

DawahFilms - 10:01

You do, yes, along with other people.

Just like morality is achieved by consensus, so is reality – although we find that testing the outcomes for truth-value is super-handy.

And before you jump on my use of ‘morality’, I think it’s worth pointing out that our respective moralities will be functionally very similar, certainly on the important stuff, and I didn’t arrive here via any god.

I can justify my morals with evidence and logic, and I use those tools to test them for consistency on a near daily basis.

DawahFilms - 10:10

Not an illusion, no, just open to mis-interpretation, as witness the fact that you’re predisposed to seeing agency when there is none.

DawahFilms - 10:22

The theory of evolution can certainly give the appearance of agency – of course it can, if you misunderstand it – but the purpose is survival of species by adaptation to environmental factors, also known as life, but that doesn’t require any agency above self.

Agency suggests an end product in mind, which, given that humans are still evolving, is not the case for a creature that was made in God’s image.

What agency or purpose is there to rabbits having to pass cecal pellets in order to re-ingest them and have the contents pass through their digestive tract 3 or 4 times in order to get the full nutrient-load?

That’s not a human revulsion at eating one’s defecation: that’s just disdain for the incredible inefficiency of it.

What agency or purpose is there to the left and right oesophogeal branches of the vagus nerve passing below the right subclavian artery or the arch of the aorta, and then back up to the oesophagus?

It’s a stupid design for humans and outright absurd on a giraffe.

Only evolution without agency explains this… because, yes, bad design IS indicative of a lack of a designer, even moreso when you attribute omniscience to that designer.

DawahFilms - 10:34

Most atheists don’t care for philosophical questions?
How do you figure that one?
And how have you managed to poll most of the world’s 750 million atheists?

The very question of the existence of God is a philosophical one, by definition. Furthermore, science used to be called Natural Philosophy.

Then there’s the small matter of Karl Popper, a philosopher, I’m sure you’ve heard of him, who basically invented the scientific method as we now know it.

Yet you keep mocking the predominant atheist leaning towards science, and now you want to venerate philosophy, from whence science came, from which science takes many of its processes, and to which science often looks?

DawahFilms - 10:38

Philosophy isn’t a form of knowledge – it’s a process by which knowledge is gained and theories put forward and tested, often by logical deduction.

Once hypotheses have been gained in this manner it generally gets passed to one of the –ologies, which is to say sciences for testing.

DawahFilms - 10:45

I dunno, you seem surprisingly ignorant of the philosophy that you’re studying, or at least the logical underpinnings thereof at times.

DawahFilms - 10:51

Given your apparent mis-understanding and mischaracterising of evolution I’d be really careful about mockery at this point.

DawahFilms - 10:59

Key point here – there is nothing stopping a scientist using philosophy or even gut instinct to derive a hypothesis, especially if they do so from a significant level of knowledge within the field they are hypothesising on.

But even if they’re completely ignorant of the field to which their philosophical musings pertain, if they test it with the scientific method, they may well confirm their hypothesis and open up new areas of inquiry.

Now, let’s clear something up, are you dissing science or the scientific method?

I’d be prepared to bet that in many of these conversations you’re having the word science is being used as short-hand for ‘the scientific method’, and the scientific method IS the only way to obtain knowledge, because until it’s tested and confirmed, it’s just a belief, sorry, hypothesis.

This method has been thoroughly tested… by philosophy.

DawahFilms - 11:09

Skeptical? No. Misuse of the term.

"The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim," remember?

To be skeptical you wouldn’t already have a position, or you would be testing that position’s validity.

As you’ve amply demonstrated you have no desire to go outside your normative, natural predispositions for any reason whatsoever, including the seeking of knowledge.

You don’t believe that the atheist position has any truth-value as compared to yours, but you don’t seem to be subjecting yours to any scrutiny whatsoever.

Or, to put it another way, I’m skeptical of your claim of skepticism because skepticism is ‘asking for evidence’ not ‘reactive disbelief’.

DawahFilms – 11:12

Again with the condescension? Aaaaanyway…

In summation:

Your entire video, by any reasonable definition, is a cop-out. There were interesting twists and turns in your reasoning, but even that was often sunk by internal logic and fallacy issues.

I tried not to get bogged down in labelling the logical fallacies as I think it can get in the way of the clarity of disputation.

I have instead presented the reasons why it was a logical fallacy and left it at that – with, I think, two exceptions – one of which I will go into further now…

The single biggest problem with your entire video, Ali, was the hypocrisy of both accepting and not accepting the scientific method and evidence as valuable, depending on your need.

This is cherry-picking (a fallacy) and a logic issue (law of non-contradication, a.k.a. you can’t have it both ways).

You seem to be mischaracterising what evidence is when you use it, as witness your misuse of the term skepticism, which is a demand for evidence.

Further, the decision to ignore vast swathes of philosophical discourse on the nature of reality, which does indeed call into question personal experience and issues arising from ‘theory of mind’, is baffling given your field of study.

Ali, and anyone else bored enough to watch this right through, I hope you’ve found it thought-provoking, and I look forward to some spirited debate off the back of it.

…and if we agree to disagree, at least we agree on something.

1 people
1 planet

Saturday, 21 January 2012


First let me say I am philosophical by inclination, not by training. Some might say that this immediately makes anything that I have to contribute of lesser value, but I would suggest that such a viewpoint is impoverished. Philosophy should be about individuals’ existence and experience, and their thoughts on matters that arise from those things, then their ability to express those things coherently, and finally about how those thoughts fit in, or don’t.

The vast majority of people want some kind of explanation of their existence, something understandable, clear and consistent. This is amply illustrated by the thousands of religions in the world today. Though it would be fair to say that characterising most religions as 'clear' is to ignore the inconsistencies that they are riddled with, and the huge number of religious philosophers, apologists and theologians tasked with interpretation and explanation. This issue is down to the time, place and people involved in the documentation of these religions, and implies a failure on the part of multiple gods to do what most people would agree is a strong indication of high intelligence: explain the complex in a simple fashion.

Philosophy seeks to explain the complexities of existence, amongst other things, but it has become as cloudy and impenetrable as religion in many ways. There are branches, theories and schools of thought (analogous to major religions, sects and cults in some ways), and there is jargon and form (just as there are in places of worship) such as to boggle the mind of the uninitiated. This is not a criticism; rather it illustrates that there are no simple answers, least of all to simple questions, and that, as humans, we’ve done remarkably well in exploring this, but also in complicating it. Of course another area of human endeavour that has branches, theories and schools of thought, jargon and form is science (mostly because it used to be a branch of philosophy).

To add my own twist on something that Sam Harris said: Religions are philosophies based on failed sciences. This is not to denigrate religions (which may come as a surprise to some having seen the word ‘atheist’ elsewhere in my writing), they have played an extremely important part in the development of what we now call science and philosophy. Indeed, the creation stories were attempts to explain the world in which we lived in terms that could be understood, but by that very fact they were limited to the knowledge of the time. The creation stories then had philosophies attached to them - implying a causal relationship – attaching philosophies to beliefs about reality that have no basis in fact would tend to lead to philosophies that have questionable value in reality. That said, the truth of this is entirely down to how contingent on the religion’s science the religion’s philosophy is – I suggest, though, that there is not an outright poisoning of the well, but a tainting that requires further investigation.

Religions were important, and to an extent still are, as thought exercises, as foils to the rational mind. As an outspoken atheist of almost no repute I regularly find myself debating the existence of god(s) with people of faith. It is through doing so that I can strengthen my thought-processing, logic and argumentation. By subjecting my ideas to scrutiny and refining them as new information of possible value is presented. So what I deem to be irrational is important to me. This might seem like a strange thing to say when espousing a rationalistic approach to life, but the arts, for example, are not rational. They are ways of expressing a perceived reality, or re-framing an accepted reality – they are the distillations of individual experience which, ironically, do a very good job of connecting all of us in ways that transcend so many of our limitations, some of which are entirely self-imposed. Rigidity and failure to adapt is deadly to all fields of endeavour and the ultimate barrier to progress.

Building barriers, both personally, in reaction to society, and societally as a reaction to each other, is probably the single biggest hurdle to human progress. Pre-historically, evolutionarily, the tribal mentality, the in-group/out-group survivalist instinct, was entirely necessary. In this day and age it is rapidly becoming an impediment to the furtherance of the species. We can find the truth of this in many of our behaviours, the so-called ills of modern society. What does humanity do, almost ritualistically? Try and break down those barriers, be it by alcohol or other de-sensitising or disinhibiting drugs. We try to get over our inhibitions, be it to try and chat someone up or to engage in deep philosophical discussion. Of course we also sometimes find ourselves over-shooting the mark and disinhibiting ourselves too much and falling foul of those societal barriers that generally do have merit.

Society is in a perpetual struggle to find an equilibrium between all of its members – to accord personal rights and duties to each – and this is generally according to their ability, or rather their presumed ability. The reaction to the discovery of an individual’s inability to get on in society runs the gamut from virtual disinterest and an expectation that, given time, the person will figure ‘it’ out, to charity and altruistic help, to institutional ‘help’ (be it financial, mental, medical, or judicial). Of course the reverse is also true, we all too often simultaneously venerate and despise those who get on too well. Just as irrationality is both a catalyst and a curse for rationality so, too, jealousy and those other human emotions we often don’t like to admit to ourselves that we feel, are both motivational and de-motivational.

As a species we are naturally inclined to react in ways that solve problems at an individual level in the here and now, and at a societal level by applying historical fixes for perceived future problems. Religion is riddled with prognostications of future events predominantly those of doom, destruction and death. Of course these are framed in the context of the failed science in question and are generally not applicable to reality. But this does show that we have a belief in ourselves; that we have the need, and the ability, to predict future events. We even manage it, to an extent, in most branches of science. Societally, however, we fail time and time again, regardless of the framed political ideology or fiscal model. Is this because the further removed we are from the problem, especially in the behemoth that is whatever form of government we engage in, the less altruistic we can genuinely be in finding a solution?

Is our evolution letting us down by not breeding out certain negative behaviours, or is it that our breeding has let down the evolutionary process? We have to educate ourselves to transcend our limitations. Too many people give little to no thought to the reality of their lives, and whilst doing so requires a certain level of intelligence to undertake, as with any woe in the world, the key is education and communication. If we co-opt the power of the human mind to actually engage in thoughts about self, without being selfish (or detrimentally selfless, for that matter), to communicating needs, wants and desires in a manner that is respectful to others we could take a massive stride forwards. Our education systems are geared towards teaching facts, but very often not how to learn, be critical, and actually think. Religious education has demonstrably failed to imbue ethical and moral behaviour in its adherents, and in extreme cases outright teaches how to not think, just accept, and then act accordingly. It’s to the point where the disseminated work of humanity, which is to say the sum of published opinion, is evolving significantly more quickly than our ability to discuss, much less adopt, the good ideas and values presented therein. Because of this we fall further and further back from a conceivable utopia/heaven/Eden/Nirvana.

(To Be Continued)

Friday, 20 January 2012


I realise that some people may see this as a cop-out, a soft-soaping, a pedestrianising of the new Atheism. In response I would say that Einstein said it best - 'Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'.

At times I can be the most brutal and unforgiving critic of religion, but at the same time I am at once sceptical of my scepticism and cognisant of the futility of a full frontal assault on any given iteration of faith, let-alone the juggernaut that is organised religion. I respect the rights of anyone to believe whatever futile bastardisation of reality and science they want, so long as their doing so doesn't adversely effect me (and I have a much lower tolerance for what I believe effects me than my otherwise tolerant attitude might lead you to believe).

I dislike the apparent stridency of those that I otherwise admire, like Dawkins, and his stance on children of faith, for example. It leaves me cold. The faith is at fault, not the parent's decision to raise their child in it. Encourage parents to practise the open-mindedness espoused in most religious texts, rather than the closed-mindedness of subsequent self(ish)serving interpretations. More than that, though, I dislike the active acceptance of the version of reality that religions offer that many adherents take up without any apparent thought for its effect on their lives. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not you should have a care for how your choice of belief system affects you and those around you.

The way forward, however, is to enshrine our commonalities, to recognise the fundamental freedoms, the most human of humanisms… that which actually binds us together. The majority of what we ALL hold dear, irrespective of where we think we derive that belief/ethic/morality from. Religions have codified human ethics, as such the majority of these moralities are humane and held by all but a few. Let the way we deal with each other reflect that.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Science – The New Tower of Babel?

The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel shows God confusing his people with a multitude of languages to stop their physical ascent to heaven. We now have the people of gods confusing belief with rationality, hope with truth, progress with stagnation, and predominantly doing so with misunderstanding, very often one based in language – be it the language of intentional deceit, or the language of the pursuit of knowledge.

We see it in the beliefs of the presidential candidates, in their mouthing of platitudes, the observance of form, not function, their convenient Christianity hiding several inconvenient truths. We see it in the debate about ‘Faith Schools’ in the UK. We see it in the Creation “Science” rhetoric of Intelligent Design and the desire of its proponents to either have it, or at least the “controversy”, taught in classrooms. The controversy being that such things as evolution are “just theories” – showing a profound misunderstanding of the colloquial and scientific uses of the word.

Another word that is massively mischaracterised is ‘belief’. A sceptic or rational thinker would say "I believe" and imply ‘on the basis of available information I have concluded’, whereas someone who is more inclined to intuition would say "I believe" and mean ‘on the basis of my gut feeling I feel’. This schism can be somewhat represented as physical well-being vs. spiritual well-being or, in reverse order, church and state.

In line with the gradual erosion of the separation of church and state in the US, starting with the inclusion of ‘In God We Trust’ on the legal tender over the 19th and 20th centuries. Now it is necessary for candidates to profess Christianity to have a hope of reaching the White House. This profession of Christianity runs the gamut from the conveniently Christian – and therefore liars – to the genuinely Christian – and therefore predominantly demonstrably delusional (who are also sometimes fully cognisant liars). Of the two I’d actually rather have a competent liar and political player (tautology?) than a science denier. And this has to be the ultimate cognitive dissonance... the ultimate devil and the deep-blue decision – one that no one should ever have to make, but one that the United States, particularly, makes every election.

An enlightened society must allow people to believe what they want, that is an adjunct to freedom of speech, but we cannot allow people into positions of supreme political power whose beliefs make them demonstrably unfit for office. This is an uneasy equilibrium to reach.

How do we balance the rights of freedom of speech, recognising that this speech can be used to express the most ridiculous beliefs, with the needs of civilisation to have competent people in charge? We have a hard enough time achieving this in the sphere of politics when only contesting on the basis of political ideology, let-alone religion. We have candidates lying about their faith to get in, or at least not dissuading the electorate that they are not 'of faith', and we have people who wear their faiths on their sleeves (or around their necks) – but is that the issue?

It seems that political savvy and relative popularity are the prerequisites of political office - competency is a very distant second, and very hard to measure. That said, a basic grounding in science, statistics, and economics should be common to all candidates. That is not an anti-religious sentiment, as it is quite possible to be religious and scientifically and mathematically literate. What it is not possible to be is so religiously trained as to be illogical and irrational – to place personal belief before evidence-based critical thinking – and a sensible person to have in office.

A state sponsored prayer for rain, for example, is politically savvy, but a massive waste of taxpayers money and devoid of any rational basis. The single element that might be considered positive is bringing a large group of people together and the comfort that this gives to them – but comfort doesn’t bring rain or stop forest fires - and it doesn't bring comfort to non-Christians.

Just as the jury isn’t truly a representation of a defendant’s peer group so much as a representation of a cross-section of their society, so too, should political hopefuls be an educated cross-section of the electorate. And this is something that can be tested for. How can we call ourselves an enlightened society if our leaders are unenlightened? Knowledge and belief are not mutually exclusive, but basic knowledge must serve as a baseline for political candidacy.

Governance from ignorance is an absolute and unequivocal recipe for disaster and the language of discourse needs to be clear and unambiguous. If we repair the education and rationality of the political arena maybe, just maybe, the quality of political representation will improve and, more specifically, the value of education and scientific literacy will be raised, removing the babble from the classroom.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Too beautiful a piece of editorialising to pass up...

The following is the conclusion from the paper named/dated below - first published in The Psychological Review, 55(4), 189-208. In all honesty it has precious little to do with the experiment, hence my reference to "editorialising" in the title - the parallels drawn have some validity, even if they go very far beyond what was clinically being tested.

Edward C. Tolman (1948)

"...consider the "displacement of aggression onto outgroups." Adherence to one's own group is an ever-present tendency among primates. It is found in chimpanzees and monkeys as strongly as in men. We primates operate in groups. And each individual in such a group tends to identify with his whole group in the sense that the group's goal's become his goals, the group's life and immortality, his life and immortality. Furthermore, each individual soon learns that, when as an individual he is frustrated, he must not take out his aggressions on [p.208] the other members of his own group. He learns instead to displace his aggressions onto outgroups. Such a displacement of aggression I would claim is also a narrowing of the cognitive map. The individual comes no longer to distinguish the true locus of the cause of his frustration. The poor Southern whites, who take it out on the Negroes, are displacing their aggressions from the landlords, the southern economic system, the northern capitalists, or wherever the true cause of their frustration may lie, onto a mere convenient outgroup. The physicists on the Faculty who criticize the humanities, or we psychologists who criticize all the other departments, or the University as a whole which criticizes the Secondary School system or, vice versa, the Secondary School system which criticizes the University-or, on a still larger and far more dangerous scene-we Americans who criticize the Russians and the Russians who criticize us, are also engaging, at least in part, in nothing more than such irrational displacements of our aggressions onto outgroups.

I do not mean to imply that there may not be some true interferences by the one group with the goals of the other and hence that the aggressions of the members of the one group against the members of the other are necessarily wholly and merely displaced aggressions. But I do assert that often and in large part they are such mere displacements.

Over and over again men are blinded by too violent motivations and too intense frustrations into blind and unintelligent and in the end desperately dangerous hates of outsiders. And the expression of these their displaced hates ranges all the way from discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.

What is the name of Heaven and Psychology can we do about it? My only answer is to preach again the virtues of reason-of, that is, broad cognitive maps. And to suggest that the child-trainers and the world-planners of the future can only, if at all, bring about the presence of the required rationality (i.e., comprehensive maps) if they see to it that nobody's children are too over-motivated or too frustrated. Only then can these children learn to look before and after, learn to see that there are often round-about and safer paths to their quite proper goals-learn, that is, to realize that the well-beings of White and of Negro, of Catholic and of Protestant, of Christian and of Jew, of American and of Russian (and even of males and females) are mutually interdependent.

We dare not let ourselves or others become so over-emotional, so hungry, so ill-clad, so over-motivated that only narrow strip-maps will be developed. All of us in Europe as well as in America, in the Orient as well as in the Occident, must be made calm enough and well-fed enough to be able to develop truly comprehensive maps, or, as Freud would have put it, to be able to learn to live according to the Reality Principle rather than according to the too narrow and too immediate Pleasure Principle.

We must, in short, subject our children and ourselves (as the kindly experimenter would his rats) to the optimal conditions of moderate motivation and of an absence of unnecessary frustrations, whenever we put them and ourselves before that great God-given maze which is our human world. I cannot predict whether or not we will be able, or be allowed, to do this; but I can say that, only insofar as we are able and are allowed, have we cause for hope."