In this audio blog, I discuss the advice (featured in the excellent book How Not To Be Wrong), that you should try to prove your theorems right during the day and try to prove them wrong by night. I liken this to the very nature of scientific epistemology and the notions of free expressions championed by John Stuart Mill. I decry the tendency of true believers to try to shut down dissent as failing themselves and their own arguments…among other problems.
In this, my second audio blog, I explain why I intend no longer to get involved in discussions of consequential topics on Facebook, not because I don’t think such discussions are valuable, but because of how I react to them. I also talk about audio versus writing a bit more, and grammar, and various other random thoughts.
I might have written about this before, but I think it bears repeating, if only because it’s a point of personal irritation: there’s no such thing as the “supernatural.”
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not necessarily saying I think there are no such things as spirits, magic, deities, psychic powers, or the like. I strongly suspect that none of these things does exist, but my point is about categories of thought and terminology, not about the reality of proposed phenomena, and the term “supernatural” is inherently pointless. Continue reading “The “supernatural” does not, and cannot, exist”
Fans of The X-files will no doubt recall the poster on Mulder’s office wall, with its stereotypical picture of a flying saucer and the words, “I want to believe” written on it.
Well, I for one don’t want to believe.
Despite being a fan of at least the first four seasons of The X-files, I don’t want to believe. It seems bizarre to me that, as a culture (as a species?) we have elevated the notion of belief as a good thing in and of itself, and we often respond to people based upon the strength of their belief, as though it were a sign of personal strength, as though it were something we should admire or even emulate. We’re often told that we need to believe in ourselves*, that we need to find something in which to believe: a religion, our nation, a set of ideals, what have you. Rarely are we ever enjoined to question whether this is always a good thing.
Given, however, that humanity’s greatest strength—the attribute that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom—is our ability to reason, it seems absurd that so many of us respond to, and even reward, those who accept the truth of propositions not adequately founded on evidence and argument.
I don’t understand this tendency, and I don’t think I really want to understand it. To me, belief beyond the level justified by reason is not a strength—it’s not even neutral—it’s a weakness. If your conviction doesn’t scale with the evidence, then you are, in a very real sense, deluded. If your understanding of reality is out of sync with what reality is, then sooner or later you are going to collide with reality. In such collisions, reality always comes out on top. It can’t do otherwise; it’s reality. I don’t just believe this; I’m thoroughly convinced of it.
Of course, at times I run afoul of the multiple meanings and connotations to the word “belief”, and I understand that this is a legitimate issue. After all, when someone counsels others to “believe in” themselves, they rarely mean for them to believe without restriction or reservation. They’re just advising people to have confidence in their own abilities—not to think that there’s nothing at all that they can’t do, but to recognize that they do have abilities, and can accomplish many things. It’s hard to feel too critical about such advice, if it’s not carried it too far. But even when we’re confident in ourselves—for good, sound, experiential reasons—it’s rarely good to believe that we’re the best in the world at everything. It’s rarely even accurate to say that a given individual is the best in the world at anything. If we can’t decide, from among a pool of a handful or fewer, who the world’s greatest basketball player is, then it’s pretty unlikely that there’s any one thing in the world at which any one person could readily be called the best.
We’re exhorted to believe in God, to believe in our country, to believe in a set of ideals, to believe in our political party, to believe in a philosophy—not as conclusions, but as starting points and, ultimately, as endpoints. To maintain such beliefs persistently requires from one a near-paranoid protection from argumentation. Such beliefs are delusional in character, even if they happen to be correct; if you believe something without having arrived at that belief honestly, then even if that belief happens to accord with reality, you can’t claim to be right. You can only really consider yourself lucky to have stumbled into a valid conclusion.
I don’t want to believe; I want to be convinced by a body of reasoning, with my level of conviction always on a sliding scale, adjustable by new inputs of evidence and argument, and always—in principle—open to refutation. If I’m not amenable to correction, I’m as much a victim of self-deception as a person who thinks he’s Napoleon.
I don’t really like to use the word “believe,” even in its more benign forms, such as when someone says, “I believe that’s true, (but I’m not certain)”. I prefer to use such terms as “I think,” “I suspect,” “I’m convinced (beyond a reasonable doubt),” and “I wonder.” When presented with a proposition that I consider highly unlikely, I like to use Carl Sagan’s polite but dubious phrase, “Well…maybe.”
In this, I’m much more in line with Scully than with Mulder. I’m deeply skeptical of the whole panoply of paranormal perfidy such as that with which Mulder was obsessed, though I am open to being persuaded and convinced. But I don’t want to believe, whether in the existence of the supernatural, or the rightness of certain political ideas, or in any religion, or in the power of positive thinking, or anything else without adequate support. Faith, I think, is not a virtue, and I suspect that it never has been. I’m convinced that doubt, reasonable doubt, is the virtue. If that means that I’ll go through life never experiencing the untrammeled confidence of the true believer, that soaring, absolute conviction that I am on the side of right, and those who oppose me are not…well, good. I’m sure non-sanity of that sort has its moments of joy, but I think I’d prefer skydiving or free solo rock climbing. Those activities would be dangerous to myself, but at least they’re unlikely to endanger anyone else.
Belief is dangerous, because when it collides with reality, the believer is quite often not the only casualty of the collision. Often the results are explosive and cataclysmic. So I don’t want to believe. And I really don’t want you to believe, either.
*this is perhaps the least objectionable form of belief, but it can still be problematic, as the personality disorders of some public figures shows.
At work yesterday, I was listening to the song “What You Came For (featuring Rihanna)” on our office music source. This is not a rare occurrence; the song gets played at least once daily. It’s one of those songs that has only a few lyrics, frequently repeated, but one doesn’t mind too much because the tune is catchy, Rihanna has beautiful voice, and listening to her voice conjures the image of Rihanna herself, which is never a bad thing. The words, limited though they are, are evocative, and despite having heard them an uncountable number of times before, today one of the lines struck me, specifically, the declaration that “lightning strikes every time she moves.”
This sounds like the description of someone well worth avoiding. I mean, if lightning strikes every time she moves, she would indeed be a very dangerous person. Just how dangerous would depend on how we interpret “every time she moves”. Does it count even if she merely twitches her finger? Does breathing count as moving? Imagine the carnage, to say nothing of the ozone, that would surround such a woman!
Then I thought more carefully and realized that I was drawing unwarranted conclusions. After all, the lyrics just say that lightning strikes every time she moves. They don’t say that lightning strikes where she is, every time she moves. If we assume that lightning is striking somewhere on Earth at nearly every instant—and if that’s not quite true, it’s surely striking on Jupiter, and possibly also on Neptune, if not on Earth—it can honestly be said of pretty much anyone that lightning strikes every time that she, or he, moves.
It’s a bit like that old statement about drinking early in the day: It’s always five o’clock somewhere. Now, this at least cannot be strictly true. It would only be precisely true every hour on the hour. But one could make the statement accurate just by saying that it’s always after five somewhere, and that would take care of the nitpicking.
This led me to wonder just what generalizations that sound dramatic might be true in a trivial sense pretty much anywhere. It didn’t take long to come up with some. One could, for instance, make the seemingly terrifying statement that “everyone who pisses me off dies,” and be telling the truth (unless the transhumanist movement is correct, and some of the people who are currently alive will never die because of advances in technology). Still, even if people end up extending their lives to a tremendous degree, it seems likely that the universe itself will eventually arrive at a state where no life of any kind is possible. This is probably an inescapable consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (see here). If there is no escape allowed by the laws of physics from this eventual universal heat death, it’s not unreasonable to say that everyone alive will eventually die. Thus, it is a true statement—as far as it goes—that everyone who pisses me off dies. It’s also true, unfortunately, that everyone who doesn’t piss me off dies. But when you’re trying to be scary, I guess you’re not required to make full disclosure.
In a similar vein, one could threaten someone into doing what one wants by saying to them, “If you don’t do exactly what I say, you are going to die.” This, again, is a true statement, even if the speaker never has any intention of killing or otherwise harming the person being addressed. What’s more, even if the person does exactly what you say, they are still going to die. It may take years—a dozen, a hundred, a million, a trillion, who knows?—but it’s a reasonable assumption that eventually each person will die. That’s probably a better assumption even than the guess that lightning is always striking somewhere whenever a woman in a song moves.
The dread super-villain, Dr. Pedantic, might well choose to elaborate on his threats, saying, “If you do not do as I say, you will die. And I don’t just mean that you will eventually die, but that you will die sometime within the next seventy-two hours, approximately, and it will be a painful, violent death at my hands—figuratively speaking—unless something else, by chance, kills you before I have the opportunity to do so. And, of course, barring any intervening events that make it impossible for me to carry out a violent act upon you, such as my own death or capture. However, these are relatively unlikely events, and though past performance is not a guarantee of future results, I have not yet failed to carry out such actions when they were warranted against someone who failed to obey my commands. And to be clear, there have been other such people.”
Dr. Pedantic gets a bit boring sometimes, and his would-be victims occasionally lose track of what he’s trying to get them to do; he doesn’t quite get the art of using intimidating rhetoric. Neither does he grasp the intention of such poetry as the statement that lightning strikes every time a woman moves; he doesn’t understand that the song is actually just saying that she is such a “striking” figure that, no matter what she does, she almost always seizes the attention of those who happen to observe her.
In any case, as the song says, whether or not lightning literally strikes every time she moves, it’s not that important, because even when everyone’s watching her, she’s looking at you. Aren’t you lucky? At least, you’re lucky if the words are figurative, much more than than you would be if she were, literally, emitting large bolts of discharged static electricity with every movement.
But even if the statement is meant in an entirely figurative sense, you’re still not safe. After all, no matter what you do, everyone is going to die some day.