Numbers are part of everyone’s life. We use numbers to count things, to label things, even to describe the universe in which we live. They help us organize and make sense of the world around us. Numbers are practical. How much food do we have? How many weeks before the harvest begins? Numbers allow us to divide the day into manageable chunks, those days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years.
Given this, it is easy to believe that numbers play an important role in our day-to-day lives, but due to how our brains work, we ascribe special significance to numbers that goes beyond their practical value.
Lucky numbers. Unlucky numbers. We are all familiar with these, even if we don’t believe in their reputed powers. In the west, 13 is considered unlucky, while 2, 4, and 12 are considered lucky. In contrast, the number 4 is considered particularly unlucky in Chinese and other asian cultures because the word for the number 4 sounds like the word for death.
If number were truly lucky or unlucky you would think that the numbers that are considered lucky or unlucky, like the number 4, would be consistent across cultures. Of course, they are not, because there is no correlation between a particular number and any good or bad things that happen to us, except in the misguided significant we assign to them due to confirmation bias.
Humans have a need to make sense out of everything around us. This leads us to try to find purpose for events that actually have no purpose. We find it hard, if not impossible, to accept that things that happen to us could have no reason or purpose behind them. Our brains just aren’t evolved to think that way. Because of this, our brains construct explanations for inexplicable events. If something bad happens to us, then someone, either ourselves, someone else, or even a god or spirit must have done something to cause it to happen. The same goes for good things that happen. While the event was likely completely random, we need to make sense of it so we come up with a reason, no matter how strange or unlikely, to explain it.
This is where the ancient myths first came from. Our ancestors needed to understand why things happened, be it rain, drought, famine, or disease. These kinds of events brought great fear and much of this fear was due to the lack of control they had over these events. To understand how something works is to have control over it. To try to regain control and reduce the fear, they came up with stories of gods or spirits that cause these things. If they could somehow appease these gods or spirits, perhaps they could ward off these events in the future.
Of course, despite their efforts, diseases, famines and such kept coming, but now they could explain them by their actions of either doing what the gods wanted (when things went well) or displeasing them (when bad things happened). While the reality was that these events were mostly random, the need for their explanations to be true caused them to remember the times when events seemed to support their beliefs and forget the times that they didn’t. This confirmation bias continues to be the basis for our faith in gods, spirits, mysticism, and luck right up until today.
When skeptics point out the fact that alternative medicine like homeopathy and naturopathy don’t work, people ask, “What’s the harm?” Brian Dunning from skeptiod.com has a very sad and poignant example of just what the harm can be. He opines that Steve Jobs might still be with us if he had pursued modern medical treatment earlier rather than naturopathy. Go read the article.
If you want to read many more stories about the harm of alternative medical treatments, go to What’s the Harm.
Asking questions is one of the primary way we learn things and find out what we need to know. There is more to learning and finding out things than just asking a questions. We need to make sure that we are asking the right questions.
When I was in the U.S. Army I was an interrogator. When people think about interrogators, they think about the tactics and tricks they use to get the subject to tell them what they want. While these tactics are important, the really important thing, which was constantly and continuously drilled into our brains in our training, is knowing how to ask the right questions.
For example, you never ask a leading question, such as, “You were at the science of the crime, weren’t you?” This kind of question allows the person being questioned to give you an answer you he thinks you want to hear. It also allows for only a “yes” or “no” answer, which is not very informative at all. It would take asking dozens of questions like this to get any reasonable amount of information from someone. A better question would be something along the lines of, “What did you see at the scene of the crime?” This allows for much more information to be gleaned.
PZ makes very clear the difference between a good question and a bad question, and his letter to a child who was taught by Ken Ham to ask such a question is one that should be required reading for every child, everywhere. I am posting his letter in its entirety here.
Ophelia Benson at Butterflies & Wheels reviewed an interview with Chris Mooney in which he discusses the compatibility of science and religion. In talking about the Catholic Church’s support of evolution and its contention that god intervened by giving humans souls, Chris Mooney supports this stance as being perfectly compatible with science.
“Mooney says that’s all right provided it’s a supernatural claim, because science can’t say nuffink about that. If the Catholic church said humans have souls and we can prove it and here’s the data, then it would be a scientific claim and science could say No, but as it is, it’s not, so science can’t, and that means science and religion are compatible.”
Basically, what Mooney is saying is that as long as you can come up with any concept, idea, or belief that is falsifiable then it is compatible with science. This kind of argument breaks down very quickly though. The classic example of how this is nonsense is Carl Sagan’s, “Dragon in his garage”, argument. I will quite it in its entirety:
“”A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”
Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle — but no dragon.
“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.
“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”
Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”
You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.” And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.
Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”
Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons — to say nothing about invisible ones — you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.
Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages — but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.
Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence” — no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it — is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.”
Just because someone believes something that cannot be proved doesn’t make it compatible with science, in fact, the scientific method demands that we reject such a hypothesis while keeping an open mind to future positive evidence.
Using this standard, there is no difference between the “Dragon In My Garage” hypothesis and the” I Believe In God hypothesis”. From a scientific point of view we must reject the God hypothesis due to no supporting evidence while keeping an open mind the possibility of future positive evidence.
When you look at it this way, science and religion are not at all compatible and to call yourself a scientist, as Mooney does, and insist that they are compatible requires either self-delusion or deceit. I’ll give Mooney the benefit of the doubt and hope that he is merely self-deluded.
I got some interesting responses to my post about the call for prayers after the recent earthquake in Japan. One in particualr caught my attention. I am going to ignore the “warth of god” part of this comment to focus on the Argument from Ignorance logical fallacy that it contained.
” I see miracles everyday…unexplained by folks with your opinion… documentated facts that all your hatred cannot change.
> I see them everyday.
> Prayer changes things.”
As for you seeing things that you can’t explain, just because you can’t explain them doesn’t mean that god did it. It just means that, at this point in history, we are unable to explain them. People used to think that illnesses were caused by demons or humors because they couldn’t explain illness any other way. Eventually we discovered the germ theory of medicine which perfectly explains it. To say that “god did it” just because we can’t explain it is an intellectual cop out. It allows us to abandon our reason and intellect and just throw up our hands and walk away when we are stumped by something we can’t explain. The key is to keep asking questions; to keep studying; to keep learning; to thinking about the problem.
As we continue to study the problem an answer, an empirical one bound in reality, will eventually reveal its self. When we surrender our reason and intellect to ignorance and laziness we become as children, who will believe any fairy tail, instead of the mature, thinking adults that we can be.
There something else going on in this person’s comment as well. He referrs to “all your hatred”. What hatred? I never expressed hatred of anything in that post. This is an all too common reaction from the true believer. They take any criticism of their beliefs as being motivated by hate. All I did was express my opinion that prayer is usuless and his god seems to be a cruel diety for making innocent people in Japan suffer. It isn’t me who has the angry, vengful god. It isn’t me who seems to take pleausre in the future eternal tourture of others at the hands of his sadistic deity. The real hate here is bred from the ingornace and fear that indocrtination into any cult-like mindset causes, be it religious or political. The fact is that your dogma encourages hatred of all thouse who don’t agree with you.
As for my philosophy? You can believe anything you like if it makes you happy. Just don’t try to tell everyone else that they are wrong or dammed just because they don’t happen to agree with you. Don’t try to force your beliefs on anyone else.
I’ll leave you with an unattributed quote (Penn & Teller perhaps?):
“Religion is like a penis. It is great that you have one. It is great that it brings you pleasure. Just don’t go whipping it out in public, and don’t try to shove it down my childrens’ throats.”
PZ Myers (yes, him again!) has some interesting thought provoking things to say about death. In this post he compares his experience with near-death to that of Ray Comfort’s (he of the banana-as-proof-of-god fame. Look up “ray comfort banana” you youtube for inane hilarity). Ray, it seems, wishes his last words on this earth to be ones that implore those around him to accept Jesus as their personal savior so that they can have enternal life. PZ’s likely last words? A bit more mundane. Please read his blog post to get the full appreciation.
I just want to leave you with a quote from the end of his post (yes, this is the third time I’ve linked to the post. Can you tell that I really want you to read it?):
“So I rise from the not-quite-dead-yet, but having taken one step down that path, and I can tell you that as the darkness descends, there will be no gods or angels rising to judge you. You’ll be alone, no matter how crowded the room, and the only judge you’ll face is yourself. There will be no authority looking over your shoulder and telling you whether your life was worthy or wasted, and if there were, it’s opinion would be irrelevant — all that will matter is that you can look back and find happiness and accomplishment. We live our lives for our life’s sake, rather than for illusions about rewards and satisfaction after we’re dead.
If your last thoughts are about haranging everyone else about their theology, you’ve been living that life wrong.”
PZ Myers hands us another pearl. This time he is going on about how religious conservatives are trying, again, to legislate sexual morality. He quotes from a Catholic blog where a reader asks the question, “Are unnatural sexual acts moral to use as foreplay, prior to an act of natural marital relations open to life?”. He quotes from part of the answer to that question. I’ll just quote from PZ’s blog entry:
“The expression ‘that use which is against nature’ refers to unnatural sexual acts, such as oral sex, anal sex, or manual sex. Saint Augustine condemns such acts unequivocally. He even states that such unnatural sexual acts are even more damnable (i.e. even more serious mortal sins) when these take place within marriage. For God is even more offended by a sexual mortal sin that takes place within the Sacrament of Marriage, since this offense is not only against nature, but also against a Holy Sacrament.
Dang. Well, at least Augustine didn’t explicitly forbid rubber wetsuits, fuzzy handcuffs, vibrating crucifixes, octopus, ceiling-mounted swings, clamps, chocolate pudding, flavored lubricants, Wonder Woman costumes, rubber chickens, exotic headware, whipped cream, video cameras, Silly String, roller skates, trampolines, nitrous oxide, balloon animals, feather boas, ball gags, or bungee cords, or I might be going to hell.”
I’ll just sum up by adding a few things to PZ’s list he missed that I feel are esential: Anal beads, whipped cream, step stool, garden hose, two-speed massager, rubber bands, hair clips, plastic mattress cover, confetti, fluglehorn, purple paper hats, five medium-firm pillows (with plastic covers), slip-n-slide, and one gallon vegetable oil (or KY if you perfer, but the vegetable oil is way cheaper!)
I wrote back in my post about secular mental health options that all of the divorce support groups that exist in the entire Omaha metro area are faith-based. I was very hesitant to attend any of them, but was encouraged by several friends to at least go to one to check it out. At the best, they said, I might get something positive out of it. At the worse, I’d have something to write about on my blog. Since I’m writing about this here, you can probably guess how things went.
Before I begin my review of the meeting, I must say something about the people who ran the meeting. These people are truly trying to do some real good for people in need of help. They are sincere, caring, and supportive, and some of the information they had to offer is good, practical advice.
They gave me a workbook titled Divorce Care. The book had a lot of different sections such as Facing my Anger, Facing my Depression, New Relationship, and Kid Care.
We started out the meeting with a video titled Financial Survival. It contained a lot of good advice about how to manage a budget and how to prioritize your expenses. It discussed the importance of accepting the life stye chances that inevitably come with divorce, especially about doing what you have to do to meet your and your children’s basic needs first. They explained that this requires making a lot of sacrifices. You may have to sell your house, car, unneeded belongings like T.V.s, stereos, computers; get rid of the cable and internet, possibly even the phone if absolutely necessary. All of this makes sense because these are choices that very well may have to be made to keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your stomach. They mentioned how there are state services that can help you out if you need it. They also mentioned help from the church, family and friends. Never be afraid to tell people you are in need, we were told. Good advice. I just did that very thing by borrowing money from family to buy a car I needed.
Up to this point I was feeling pretty good about things. Sure, there were plenty mentions of praying for help as a way to help you cope, but I felt i could overlook this since I was getting what seemed like good, practical advice. And then came the the last part of this section. Tithing.
They said, “Tithe on top of your budget and God will take care of you.”. WTF!? You just told us that we’d have to give up all these “unnecessary” things, even a phone (employers always love it when they have no way to get in touch with you). Now you tell us that we absolutely must continue to tithe to the church even though we may be facing foreclosure, eviction, lawsuits, and having to go on welfare?!
I almost walked out at this point, but I decided not to be rude. That and I realize at that this was great blog fodder and I was sure there was more to come. I wasn’t disappointed.
Most of the rest of the video was just giving out information which was mostly practical. Then came the last section, God wants to help. Yes, we were told, you are not alone. The magic sky man is always watching over you. No mention of why, if he was always watching over me, I was in this position to begin with, except to say that it was part of the continuing creation. Huh?
Now came an avalanche of testimonials one after the other until we had a veritable Grand Canyon with walls filled with strata after strata of confirmation biases.
“All I had was Christ. You cling to it!”
“I prayed and I saw the results as things got better”
And this strange quote, “God is the father and the husband in this family.” Well, hell, what about may family? Is god going to be the mother and the wife? I’m pretty sure that almost all Christians agree that god is 100% male and he sure as hell isn’t gay.
Then came time to wrap it all up.
“Look beyond people to God”
“You can’t get through a divorce without Jesus Christ”.
Fucking hell! This was exactly what I feared would happen. In the end, it would be all about putting your faith in god and damn the consequences, because with god, there would be none!
The final take away item that different people in the video repeated again and again:
“God (or Jesus, take your pick) is faithful”.
I don’t think I’ll be going back. Although, I am tempted to go for the section, Single Sexuality. That one ought to be a hoot!
“Philosophy is dead,”. So says Stephen Hawking in his new book, The Grand Design. He elaborates on this statement by stating, “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” This has stirred up a hornets nest in the vaunted halls of that once most noble of studies, Philosophy.
I first read about this at Skepchick.org when Jen post it in her Quickie entries. The next day Sam Ogden posted The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) with the question, “Is Philosophy Dead?”. In that article he linked to at article in Philosophy Now which takes issue with Hawkin’s stance on philosophy.
It is an interesting article, but I think it fails to make it’s case. The reality is that science, especially biology and physics, has advanced to the point where their theories are suffciant to explain the vexing issues that philoshers have been pouring over for millenia. When we are at the point in scientific knowledge that we can reasonably answer the question, “Where did we come from?”, philosophy becomes an wasteful and pointless exercise. Philosophy now finds itself in the position of trying to answer questions that have no more relevance than, “How many angle can dance on the head of a pin?”.
In reading the article in Philosophy Now, I am reminded of that paragon of rationality and atheism, Douglas Adams, who in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has the following exchange between two philosophers and the computer Deep Thought:
You just let the machines get on with the adding up and we’ll take care of the eternal verities, thank you very much.
By law the quest for the ultimate truth is quite clearly the unalienable prerogative of your working thinkers
I mean what’s the use of us sitting up all night saying there may -
Or may not be
[Softly] …or may not be… [louder] a god, if this machine comes along the next morning and gives you ‘is telephone number?
We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!
We demand that that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!
We’ll go on strike!
Tthat’s right. You’ll have a national philosopher’s strike on your hands.
Who will that inconvenience?