Friday, February 10, 2017

Faith. Just Religion?

My profession, as many are aware, has an historical embrace of supernaturalism. The founder, DD Palmer was a spiritualist, very common at the time (early 20th Century), which saw an enormous popularity in the notion that one could communicate with dead people (as well as being particularly good business for charlatans). I say this quite bluntly, not to single our Palmer (plenty of 'respectable' people were fooled) as spiritualism is technically defined as believing that one can communicate with the 'spirits' of the dead, their ghosts. I've been increasingly in agreement with the opinion of Philosopher Peter Boghossian that faith be redefined as 'pretending to know things you don't know' and this is why.

We will never eradicate faith or we could argue that it would be as successful as disposing of a mind built by evolution and which happens to have gained the quality of being a dualistic processor. This is quite different from the older idea we had concerning dualism. You may have heard of Cartesian Dualism, Descartes notion that the material and immaterial were ontologically distinct but nevertheless somehow interacting. The observation is intuitively sound.

What the hell did that mean?

You've probably heard of the cliche 'mind/matter' or some will add 'spirit/mind/matter'. Ontology is the study of what it means to be or the nature of being. So conversations about reality, which have gone on for thousands of years, sought to make sense of this world around us. Generally, with a few exceptions, these efforts were extraordinary failures, yet they, the idea that when we say 'spirit' or even 'mind/matter', that we are talking about real things or processes or qualities, remained. The short answer here is that we only know of the matter part and that this is most likely because that is what naturalism is, that when we go looking for explanations or things or phenomena, we've found just that, explanations, natural ones, naturally. And at each stage people have simply, quite lazily remarked that just because magical x wasn't found it still might (just you wait!!). What no one has actually found is a spirit or any evidence (apart from opinion) that 'mind' isn't just (and I really should never say 'just', as it infers lesser or not complete)) what happens when the matter does it's thing. Naturalism is cool. Pretending can be amusing but like any old story the assertion is now quite preposterously dogeared.

But here's the really interesting thing - reality feels dual, we feel dual, most humans feel dual. But even that feeling of a separate and distinct quality is, when you sit down and ponder it, what has to happen if we are to have even one thought. When we think we think 'about' something. There's 'me' thinking (another apparent separate stuff) about (more) you (and you're quite different from me). Try to imagine (imagination can't work without a 'dual' processor) anything at all and you'll notice that you simply can't do it and not be dual, or more accurately, process in such a manner that you can't notice a difference in there somewhere.

To the average inhabitant of the planet this will effortlessly play itself out no matter what idea or collection of sensations we come across. The mind (we also know quite well now) will process most information heuristically. It will rapidly throw out solutions to problems (such as get up/out of the way/friend?:)/foe?!/dunno/right/wrong) in such seamless fashion as to leave us unaware of exactly why we made such decisions. Most heuristics are not all accurate, they just 'work' sufficiently well that we don't get killed too frequently or in large enough numbers. So to be able to process at the speeds required to 'work' well enough, it, the mind, the activity of the brain, is largely 'dumb' a great deal of the time. We are covered by, or a collection of, illusions of sensation. We are a city of cells with cities of cells living in us and on us about which we are unaware and they of us or the others, in the sense of 'consciously aware'. Most illusions work to shore up little imperfections so they don't get in the way. Optical illusions are the easiest to comprehend. We cannot 'see', are not conscious of our retinal blind spots. They'd get in the way, so the brain just photoshops it out, covers the error and let's us on our way.

Wow. Isn't that evidence for Intelligent Design, the glory of a god or Vitalism (take your pick)?

Daniel Dennett (philosopher and neuroscientist) offered that faith (pretending you know the answer) was just an opportunity to stop thinking. In philosophy it's called the argument from ignorance or incredulity. You just stop, inject your 'wonder tissue' (the special fix all magic glue) and dust off, none the wiser and probably less so. Certainly that approach never found anything out. If you want that reality go to Afghanistan or 1066 in your holistic wayback machine.

If it ever answered anything other than 'I feel it's true and it works for me' (which is something we all tend to do) then faith would deserve the status it has claimed all these centuries. That's all it is and as you can see it's a robust human quality of the mind. If you can imagine what a city or a flying machine or a gene or a abcdefgh might look like you can easily pretend to know what a god or spirit or ghost or fairy looks like. You can even feel quite strongly that it talks to you and tells you secrets about cosmic consciousness and world peace. This is where art and literature and ISIS come from. Imagine growing up in such environments (where the rule is to never question the 'pretending to know quite ridiculous stuff' and you'll have real trouble NOT imagining that it's real, which quite ironically is more difficult because you know you can't find it anywhere except in your heart or balls or ego or somewhere else special). We can imagine a great deal but what it often imagines is just that, imaginary.

If adults kept this level of reasoning to themselves the world would be pretty good but, well, we're built for it, blame evolution, another irony as it is yet another scientific powerhouse of an idea which failed (once again), to need to invite any ones god to the party. I can just imagine it, a million celestial entities screeching "But what about MEeeee?!"

Can't hear them? No matter, their sycophants are only and always too happy to voice what they regard is it's opinion. Moreover don't get mad with me. The sycophants are usually too busy arguing with each other to care about an atheist. That's another good point (I have many), IF people kept BIG faith to themselves (as opposed to the little faiths we all tend to indulge in) I wouldn't even have the need to write, but more on that below.

Yesterday I was sentenced to have to read yet another metatheory paper regarding why we still need to take magical thinking seriously. It makes no difference that it was about 'vitalism' because it could work as well with 'insert any bloody imaginary thing' which science never found (then claim science found it). The argument was, as usual, incomprehensible from a critical thinking point of view and led off with why vitalists can comprehend complexity without needing to dwell on details, which reminds me of Doug's holistic mechanic video (it's a cracker). That this still gets significant airplay (albeit only in CAM mags) in academia used to make me wonder when it would be over but it wont.

Magic goes down (apparently) and bequeaths upon the person the ability to know all AKA - Pretending to know you know more (Vitalists 'see' emergent global structure' like Palmer saw dead people) means you know more. Ya know? AKA The Arrows Knows Metatheory.

The above 'metatheory' is basically a philosophy 101 ballsup. For any simple argument to be basically sound the assertions (the labels) have to be valid (we gotta have something to support the claim and vitalism has zero except blank assertion - it's always "We found this stuff and we reckon the magic stuff is there as well") and the reasoning (the connections) must be, well, reasonable. It doesn't take much, yet a few highly spurious headings linked by crayon = a metatheory is asinine.

The diagram could be cogent. Rub out the bit on the left. No one ever found it and what we do know came via mechanism. Even the term 'emergence' was invented by scientists grappling with, but never rejecting or downplaying by any stretch, mechanism. Emergence never meant "invite magic" it meant "complex systems are really hard to predict" a feeling which always applied to investigation. It's always been hard. Ignorance always looks to itself to claim knowledge or perhaps we could do with reminding ourselves about the cognitive bias the  'Curse of Knowledge' (it's a mind bender) - think of something you know, now try to know what you knew before you knew that. When we know, we forget how hard it was to learn it. Vitalists are always trying to downplay mechanism by, ironically using it (whilst not understanding it). It's preposterously arrogant. The only argument against reduction which is valid is a comment on people not reduction. It is Dennetts Greedy Reductionism.

But saying that something is just bullshit will never do. Like the dualistic mind, the only possible way to know if you have a good idea is to subject yourself to truly awful ones and, like a small child dissecting any toy or insect, notice why or if it works and how. See if you can put it back together and 'Pump' it for life, for an answer. Is it sound, can you still wind it up and make it mobile or does it break? Yes, all vitalistic propositions are the proverbial house of cards but faith (a thought set upon nothing but pretense) is the toughest interlocutor. Given the precarious nature of it one might wonder why it doesn't fall with a slightest puff, but it wont, Only honest competitors concede the possibility of failure whereas faith is immune to evidence and only honesty (and bravery) can change that. The authors of the paper above will most likely die convinced that vitalism was something but I'd offer this - much more is to be gained by people publishing negative results. Vitalistic articles would serve the world well to say - it's popular but, shit, we aint found nothin.

Vitalism suffers from intellectual cowardice (or if that is too abrupt try a 'lack of intellectual humility' and other valuable suggestions), whilst the history of science and philosophy is populated with figures who came to grief almost exclusively by questioning 'the gods' or inadvertently discovering great ideas that didn't invite them or congratulate them or pat them.

With regular monotony, individuals who like the idea of spirits (vitalisms) will quote various philosophers or scientists in the belief that they support their own conclusions. I've sat in vitalist coaching classes while they waxed lyrical about Socrates and the Socratic Method (I'm a great fan) except Socrates was put to death for questioning the very concept of 'gods' etc. No small irony there. If you want to bring up and suggest you value the philosophical approach of any person you should take care to notice exactly what it was they stood for.

No wonder the comedian Louis CK referred to 'god' as the 'shitty girlfriend' (and no wonder that vitalists and others who grasp onto their faith a little too tightly seem to lack humor. Strong faith builds many safe spaces which eschew serious self reflection. A sense of the ridiculous may well be the only solution to it or the only measure of successful 'deconversion').

Supporters never question, always ask 'why is this still so good again?' not 'why would this not be a good idea? Should I understand the critic?' which would after all mean that one was interested in satisfying curiosity not merely comforting themselves. It would mean they were really thinking about it. Faith warns to avoid any real introspection. The evidence is absent and the arguments atrocious but that is the beauty of truly bad ideas. Without Vitalism or any other example of pretending to know things we don't know, we would not have the sounding board of greatness.

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