Saturday, February 11, 2012

Science and the Methodological Failure of Faith

Scientific theories are theories that predict the behavior of phenomena within the realm in which they have been tested (within some range and some degree of accuracy) and found to agree with the Theory and not falsify it.

Tests that are Outside the realm which has been thoroughly tested (extrapolations, or in some cases interpolations), form falsification tests of the theory.

Future theories would still be constrained to agree with the tested predictions of the current theory (again, within in some margin of error) but could give us a different understanding of the underlying mechanism.

As our knowledge expands, possibilities for Nature that once existed are found to be untenable.

The simplistic, classical world is no longer a viable view of reality - even as it serves as a perfectly serviceable approximation of our common experience.

We already know that Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are not compatible and complete descriptions of reality, but they are extremely accurate MODELS (within nearly every realm which our instruments can currently reach and have held up over many orders of magnitude). We also know a tremendous amount about what any future model CANNOT be (and that guides our explorations forward in terms of M-theory, LQG, holographic models(all but ruled out now), etc.

The scientific methodology is nothing but our very best attempt at removing sources of error, illogic, and biases from our conclusions. Seen in this light, the idea that science must be excluded from some domain of inquiry is laughable because it implies that a methodology that admits error, illogic and bias will give superior answers.

The methodology of faith, meanwhile, has produced a continuous bifurcation of beliefs, resulting in tens of thousands of conflicting and variant belief systems about the very thing it claims it can give us absolute answers about.

On Personal Experiences

In response to:

I think that the response here to this guy is entirely unhelpful to him or (possibly more importantly) to future readers who might be looking for answers about their own personal experiences.

First, we need to acknowledge that, as a simple matter of fact, people DO have spontaneous ecstatic or hallucinatory experiences (what those experiences mean is an entirely different question). By some estimates ~10% of the population has at least one occurrence of such an event during their lifetime.

Sometimes it's from stroke, stress, illness, injury, autohypnosis, meditation, dancing, drumming, chanting, or just plain-old brain chemistry gone awry (or possibly 'right' in the case of psychoactives).

Shamanistic cultures have thousands of years of reports of interacting with other 'beings'. People used to report interacting with and even having relationships with Faeries. Now it is predominately reported as 'alien abductions'. But there are common themes running through all of these such as feelings of being immobilized, presence of other beings, sense of sexual or reproductive manipulation, experiences of having a child in the 'other' realm, or just generally being probed, studied, or sampled (etc).

I have had similar experiences myself from meditation. Some of the experiences are incredibly realistic. But I KNOW that they are only in my mind. They are wonderful illusions, powerful, emotional, and meaningful to me. But illusions nonetheless.

What we need to be doing is helping this guy understand that his experience is fairly common because it has an entirely mundane neurological explanation. He's not crazy or demented, just uninformed. He's had an experience that he cannot explain, it can be very confusing - hopefully this post takes a few steps towards explaining it and demystifying it (but I know from experience that is unlikely - but maybe some reader will find it helpful).

The brain is perfectly capable of synthesizing entire 'alien' words in the sense of dreams, but it can do this while you are awake as well. Just because your brain says you are experiencing something does not mean that it is actually happening in reality.

There isn't enough detail in the email to really comment on specifics. But the fact that it is reported as 'shared experience', in no way, makes the reality of the event any less illusory. People often cue off of others both verbally and non-verbally. "Psychics" exploit this all the time. They mention something and you respond, they talk real fast and distract you, and then pretend like they reveal some information that you JUST told them but you've already forgotten that you said anything. And despite the 50 things they got wrong, you'll pick that one thing as evidence that they are truly psychic (Confirmation Bias combined with statistical in-expertness).

When you think of someone having a personal experience here is what you should envision: Double Rainbow. Your 'amazing experience' is no different from Hungrybear9562's.

It can be profoundly moving to you because your brain is what is assigning the meaning and significance but there is no external reality to what you are experiencing.

Grooving on Secular Morality

Despite all of our successes, we humans are still miserable thinkers. Just take a peek through the list of cognitive biases. Just a few of them:

  • Anchoring – the tendency to rely too heavily, or "anchor," on a past reference or on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (also called "insufficient adjustment").
  • Attentional Bias – the tendency of emotionally dominant stimuli in one's environment to preferentially draw and hold attention and to neglect relevant data when making judgments of a correlation or association.
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.
  • Congruence bias – the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, in contrast to tests of possible alternative hypotheses.
  • Knowledge bias – the tendency of people to choose the option they know best rather than the best option.

There are hundreds of ways that your thought processes can go awry.

This is why peer-review and consensus building (where everyone agrees the outliers are being unreasonable and why; not that the majority rules the day) is so critically important in the sciences - scientists are in no way immune to any of these problems. Anyone who puts most of their life's work into something is very likely to be blind to many of their own biases on the subject. After all, they didn't get there by accident, they are very carefully studied and rationalized biases. But when we put hundreds or thousands of minds together on a question we can cover our blind spots so much better than just one mind working alone.

We should not imagine that 'morality' (or our sense of Right or Wrong) should be any different. We learn about morality the exact same way we learn about the world... We observe, we build models, we predict, we select desirable outcomes (sometimes altruistically and sometimes selfishly), we act, we measure the results against our model, and we try again.

This process is GOING to result in biases, you are working from limited information, limited experiences and driven by emotional currents that we don't directly control. We NEED the feedback loop from other minds in order to do better.

This is why I find the Golden Rule to be a complete failure as a moral guide - it puts far too much stock in the individual and ignores the negotiation, the feedback, the consensus building that is critically vital for any moral system. The Golden Rule is nothing but a nice platitude because it assumes that the other guy will think exactly as you do. I'm not saying the Golden Rule is BAD, but rather that it is, in no way, sufficient.

How we interact with one another is extremely important, not just to us individually but to how we're going to intellectually evolve as a species.

This means that Humans desperately need to sit around around and talk to each other about what is Right and what is Wrong. But we we need to do it in a context where we're not presuming that 2000 year old morality is reasonable to continue to promulgate. We know more about human behavior, sexuality, and disease now than they did - we can make better decisions than they did.

The advantage of secular morality over religious morality is that we can admit our ignorance. We don’t KNOW the perfect answers – so we can engage and discover and learn and be willing to be wrong so that we can improve. If you freeze your morality based on ancient superstitious beliefs then you freeze out this process of improvement based on increasing knowledge.

We have also learned some things about Morality itself. We know that it's wrong for Majority or Might alone to rule, Minority opinions must have a respected voice and perspective.

Cognitive neuroscience has also begun to reveal important information about how our brains work and, perhaps more importantly, how they fail.

One study looks at how our brains process moral questions differently depending upon the immediacy of the situation (The Theory of Moral Neuroscience). To me, this is a moral bias and failure that is wholly unjustified in the modern era. We need to work to expand our empathy to a greater tribe. I think that many people feel this way already.

Cognitive Neuroscience and the Structure of the Moral Mind (and lots more info from Joshua D. Greene) looks at many of the studies that are peeling back the layers of our brain and peering into how the Mind really works.

With new, modern tools for studying the brain, such a fMRI, the Cognitive Neurosciences are exploding. I suspect many of common sense notions will be soundly refuted but at the end of the day, we still need to find better ways to treat each other like the best human beings are known for, and not our worst.

Google: Neuroscience Morality

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Someone who's properly read the Bible

This is an excerpt from The clergy a source of danger to the American republic By William F. Jamieson:

Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe relates that in the unpopular days of abolitionism, a meeting of anti-slavery people was interrupted by a violent hail storm, the roar of the elements drowning, for a time, the voices of the speakers. During a lull and an awe like stillness, a frightened Methodist minister arose, and, with quivering lip, remarked he felt that God, in His wrath, was about to smite him for being present in such a meeting! At this juncture an old negress pointed her long, bony arm and finger toward him, and sought to soothe him, "Don't be skeered chile! keep quiet' for I 'spect as how God has not so much as hearn tell on ye!" The shouts of laughter which greeted this quaint speech submerged the sanctity of the priest.

Clearly someone had read their Bible. How sad is it that someone would be visibly shaken by fear because their God was pro-slavery.

This text has been very difficult to find but it's now available on Google eBooks for free.

Here is another passage (I haven't corrected the formatting yet):

The clergy as a rule are moral cowards They advocate such sentiments as are popular in their several localities In favor of temperance when it is the prevailing sentiment of community silent or opposed when unpopular So even with slavery Stephen S Foster when the war raged fiercely between abolitionists and pro slaveryites declared that the clergy in thejr ecclesiastical character have publicly defended the slave system as an innocent and heaven ordained institution and have thrown the sacred sanctions of religion around it by introducing it into the pulpit and to the communion table At the South nearly the entire body of the clergy publicly advocate the perpetuity of slavery and denounce the abolitionists as fanatics incendiaries and cut throats and the churches and clergy of the North still fellowship them and palm them off upon the world as the ministers of Christ I know it will be said that there are exceptions to this charge but if there be any I have yet to learn of them I know not of a single ecclesiastical body in the country which has excommunicated any of its members for the crime of slave holding since the commencement of the anti slavery enterprise though most of them have cast out the true and faithful abolitionists from their communion To understand the true character of the American Church and clergy and the full extent of their diabolism you must hear them speak in their own language Should I tell you the whole truth respecting them and tell it in my own words I fear you would entertain the same opinion of me which the Brahmin did of his English friend who on a certain occasion as they were walking together along the banks of a beautiful river admiring the richness of its scenery imprudently remarked that in his country during the winter season the water became so solid that an elephant could walk upon it The Brahmin replied Sir you have told me many strange and incredible things respecting your country before yet I have always believed you to be a man of truth but now I know you lie The Church and the clergy of the North voluntarily consented to become the watch dogs of the plantation SS Foster

I will say, Jamieson is no saint and I found several portions of the book to be racist and biased against the Native Americans tribes.

It was disconcerting to see someone who seemed to have a wider view than most, be so myopically racist. Where, in our own lives, are we so blind?