Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Fringes



I recently went to an Intelligent Design presentation from the Discovery Institute. They showed a documentary they had just made and had a group discussion with four authors/scientists.  The one I was familiar with was Michael Behe. I enjoyed his book: Darwin’s Black Box. It pretty much kicked off the Intelligent Design movement and coined the phrase ‘irreducible complexity’.


I was raised in a culture of Young Earth Creationism.  This is peculiar to conservative evangelical -and mostly U.S.- Christianity.  (Through their missionary activity it also has taken hold in pockets around the world.)  The basic tenets are that the Bible is best read as literally as possible, therefore the universe was created in six 24-hour-days, and according to the various genealogies, we can estimate the earth to be only several thousand years old.  All scientific evidence to the contrary is generally chalked up to spiritually motivated scientists who want to make everyone atheists.  


In the past decade I’ve looked more into the subject of evolution, and since my religious orientation was changing I no longer had a motivation for rejecting the idea out of hand.  As I read more and talked to people with scientific backgrounds the idea that their motives were nefarious became harder and harder for me to accept.  Eventually I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘Fine. I see all the places where evolution not only explains stuff really well, but also has amazing predictive power, and I see that these people really don’t care if society is atheist or not.  (In fact, most of them are NOT atheists) And I’m certainly in no place to adaquately vet their work, so I’ll just accept the massive majority opinion on the subject.’  Since that time I found Biologos, (http://biologos.org/ ) an orginazation of (mostely) Christian evolutionists, and really enjoyed reading their work.  Their basic premises -as far as I can tell- are that evolution is merely a mechanism, not an ontological explanation for existence, and that the Bible is not best interpreted as literally as possible.  


So while I am convinced (as much as I am capable of such a state) that evolution is true, I still enjoy hearing other opinions on the matter.  One group I follow is called Reasons To Believe ( www.reasons.org ) a Christian old-earth creationist organization. While denying evolution, they agree with the prevailing science regarding the age of the universe and earth.  I also follow the Discovery Institute (http://www.discovery.org/ ) an ostensebly agnostic organization that promotes intellegent design, very dutifully avoiding naming said intellegent designer.  Additionally I will occasionally check in on Ken Hamm’s Answers in Genesis. ( https://answersingenesis.org/ )These people represent the young earth creationism I was taught growing up, and are busy building multi-million dollar museums, themeparks, and a life sized Noah’s Ark.  They are very silly.


One thing my specific personality matrix has a very difficult time understanding is conspiracy theories.  As part of my continuing effort to really LISTEN to people, I’ve tried my darndest to understand the 9/11 Truthers, the Anti-vaxers, the Anti-Fluoride thing, the Chemtrails thing, etc. etc.  At every step I keep running into the problem that my mental model of human psychology and motives can’t possibly fit the theories. All of these theories require thousands of people to not only be mustache twirling villains, but actually insane enough to damn their own offspring with their actions.  I will grant that SOME percentage of the population has such characteristics.  But then imagining the power required to organize them, unify them in purpose and direction, silence any who change their minds, build an infrastructure that maintains and exercises their power in absolute secrecy… It simply breaks all my credulities into little pieces.  Granted, my mental model of human psychology and motivation could be completely wrong.  But I haven’t been convinced of that as of yet.


Like I mentioned, in order to believe Young Earth Creationism, some amount of conspiracy is generally invoked.  I’ve seen Chick Tracts and homeschool curricula claiming that the idea of evolution is in fact, a satanic conspiracy; scientists being the unwitting (or ARE they?!) pawns of the devil in his attempt to lead people to hell.  




However, once you get outside of the YEC circles, the flavor of the conspiracy changes pretty dramatically.  Probably because most of the people involved in organisations like Reasons To Believe and Discovery Institute are actually fairly well regarded scientists in their respective fields who work directly with “the enemy”.  They are much more sober in their assessment of the powers that fuel the theory of evolution and the social dynamics at play in its teaching and defending. Rather than shadowy demonic forces, they invoke the banality of ego, institutional momentum, politicized funding and group-think.  A deep well many philosophers of science have gone to for a very long time.  Now THIS is the kind of conspiracy I can follow.  This fits my mental model of human psychology and motives.


They (both Intelligent Design advocates and philosophers of science) point to both historical events and human foibles to demonstrate how wrong ideas can propagate and dominate the culture of science for long stretches of time.  I think their arguments are compelling, but also a double edged sword.  One can certainly take these ideas and run them into the ground.  See every flat-earther and fake-moon-landing apologist out there.  Surely one must recognize that the scientific establishments, cultures, and institutions bring a lot of power to bear on our understanding of reality.  But where does that power come from, given the previously mentioned banal human foibles that muck with our institutions and cultures so badly?  


I think the general consensus is that the power comes from the scientific PROCESS.  While the prevailing theories may come and go, Bacon’s model of the best way to go about vetting one’s own and other’s ideas has remained pretty much unchanged.  The fact that prevailing theories CAN come and go are testament to the power of that process.  Our institutional and cultural accretions around that process are, indeed, full of ego, institutional momentum, politicized funding and group-think.  The misunderstanding of critics come when the process of science is conflated with a particular mechanism by which it is facilitated. The mechanisms are certainly flawed.  But the process is sound.


And right now I’m worried that the mechanisms we have designed for the process of scientific inquiry are breaking down because they can’t scale to the breadth of fields that we have carved out.  What I mean is that there are so many fields, and subfields and sub sub fields that we are getting to a point where it’s almost fractal in nature.  To see this in action, check out any science wiki page, go to the Branches section.  In the Branches section click on the links to those, and you’ll find more. You can keep doing this for a good long time.  ( e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oceanography )

As such, no single mind, or even oversight body, can possibly know ENOUGH about all of these specialties to be able to coherently manage them, analyse them, theorize and unify them, or any other high-level process.  Science right now looks to me like millions of individuals digging very deep, very narrow holes, finding more data than they can possibly interpret themselves, yet unable to synthesize that data with the millions of other diggers, because all those other’s plates are full AND they can’t possibly learn enough about their own little pit, let alone someone else’s, or multiple other else’s!


One neat thing about this is that a universal theory like evolution can be applied to so many of these fields.  So when each scientist pops their head out of their pit and shouts to the others, “Yep, evolution explains what I’m seeing!” the others can do the same, and the theory remains useful as an explanatory framework.  The less-neat-thing is that when a scientist finds that evolution does not fit their data, or is contradicted by it, they have so much work to do that it’s easy to push that to the side, and say “Well I’ve heard so many others agree, there must be something I’m missing. I’ll get back to it.”  And that is a theme I heard more than once among the speakers at the presentation I attended.  Scientist A finds that their sub sub sub sub field has data that would seem to contradict the evolutionary model. Scientist B has data that would seem to contradict the evolutionary model.  So does scientist C, D, and E.  However, because they are so isolated in their sub sub sub sub sub fields, it’s very difficult to compare notes with those in other sub sub sub sub fields.  Not because they don’t think to talk to others, or have journals and other mechanisms for cross-pollinating.  But because sharing one’s doubt about a prevailing model carries a professional cost.  And in the case of evolution, since it is such a hotly politicized model, the cost can be devastating.  So the chances that scientist A and B will ever bring up their issues to each other will be rare.  Because of this social/political climate, I can very easily imagine a theory like evolution dominating despite being wrong.  


But that’s a very different thing than saying that I think evolution IS wrong.  Again, there is SO much that is SO beautifully, eloquently explained by it. ( http://biologos.org/blogs/dennis-venema-letters-to-the-duchess//understanding-evolution-theory-prediction-and-evidence-1 )  But the biggest problem I have with all the Discovery Institute’s argments have nothing to do with their varacity, delivery, quality, motivation or anthing else they have any power over.  All those aspects seem right on to me.  I find many of their arguments compelling.  Especially their big hit: Irreducible Complexity.  The PROBLEM I have with their arguments is the same problem I’d have listening to ANY expert in ANY field argue against consensus.  I simply lack the knowledge, education, experience -and probably intelligence- to be able to tell a good argument from a bad one.  I can tell if the STRUCTURE of their argument is sound.  But I can’t tell if the data they present is the whole picture.  In other words I’m blind to their selection bias.  And it would take me a lifetime to truly investigate and learn everything I would need to in order to vet what they are saying.  Sadly, I’ve got better things to do with my life.  Like writing really long blogs no one will read.  Important stuff like that.


So while I enjoy reading on the topic, from almost all perspectives, I simply can’t get on a ‘side’ and root for the underdog, or hope that the noisy ignorant idiots will shut up.  I think the “best” option is to side with the consensus on a contingent basis.  I am genuinely puzzled by several ‘holes’ in the theory of evolution.  But when I read counter-arguments I’m left wanting, because I simply don’t know enough to even know what I don’t know or what any of those writing their arguments don’t know about knowing what they know or don’t know.  Know what I mean?  Me neither.


My gut tells me that the way nature works is way too haphazard, sloppy and gross to be the design of a Master Craftsman.  It’s easy for creationists to cherry pick all the astoundingly cool systems and say “That means God did it!”  But I look at things like the way our excretory and reproductive systems utilize the same organs, and…. Uh… I’m  not claiming to be the BEST designer ever.  But that is just TERRIBLE design.  And it can’t be blamed on The Fall.  (A lot of creationists say EVERY gross\bad thing on Earth is because of the sin that Adam and Eve did and God’s subsequent curse.)  So I think that if human bodies were artisanally hand crafted by a better designer than me, they would not have the theme park and sewage waste plant in the same building.  And there are lots of other less-funny examples of hodge-podge design language all over the place.  I don’t think that NEGATES the role of a designing God.  I just think it’s clear that there was some mechanism between the sculptor and the clay.  And a mechanism like evolution fits the bill really well.  


So while I can’t hop on board with these folks on the fringes of science, I can certainly identify with them and enjoy their work.




Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Faith Breaks the Golden Rule

Mini-epiphany time! (Macro-explanation time!) I think I just put my finger on why I’ve become more and more repelled by the concept of faith.  For years I’ve been thinking this was because of the strictly interior rational deconstruction of my own reasoning faculties.  I’ve said many times now that I believe my epistemology is broken.  Not in the sense that it must be wrong.  But in the sense that it puts me out of phase with society.  As a social animal, any anomalous behavior, beliefs, attractions, etc. are little ‘breaks’ from social cohesion and acceptance. So the fact that I can’t ‘sign on the dotted line’ for practically ANY belief structure makes me an outsider to everyone. (at least on some level) My failure to be able to put my stamp of belief-approval on anything is not from lack of trying.  Being raised a Christian and having very close ties in that institution, and nothing but positive experiences from it, meant that I naturally tried as hard as I could to keep believing all the doctrines that would maintain my social cohesion and acceptance in that group. My drifting away from it/them was never a case of finding some “more real” Truth with a capital T out there that defied or contradicted those doctrines.  The drifting away from my faith was strictly driven by the slow revelation that I’m a terrible machine for interpreting reality.  

Cognitive biases, brain sciences, education about other religions and philosophies, all chipped away at my epistemological bedrock.  The one MOST people still have intact.  It’s the one where you can say you “just know that’s true” like a political ideal, an economic principal, an educational maxim; a personal gut instinct telling you not to back down no matter what others say.  It’s the thing that propels passionate people to do powerful things.  I broke that mechanism.  I’m now mostly powerless.

This is not say that I don’t hold convictions.  I do.  But they are ephemeral.  Contingent on new facts, interpretations and analysis.  

Which is what all educated people are trained to say about themselves.  But their manner of conduct when it comes to confrontations with opposing beliefs reveal just how true or false the claim is. Do they Strawman or Ironman their interlocutor’s argument?  Do they sincerely research the opposing side’s material?  Do they ever back down to say: “I could be wrong. Let me do more research.”?  It’s easy to count cognitive biases and logical fallacies when you’re removed from an argument.  And it’s such a delightful feeling to Monday Morning Quarterback someone else’s exchange, pointing out how *I* would never make this or that mistake because I’m so well read on the subject of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. I’m sure you can find plenty of those in this blog.  My point is not that my broken epistemology frees me from cognitive biases and logical fallacies.  Only that it removes the incentive to convert anyone to my ideas.  I don’t get those dopamine infusions when someone relents to my impeccable logic and yells “I WAS WRONG! TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR BRILLIANT IDEAS!” You know, that thing that constantly happens in internet debates.

Ok, so that never happens, but in that hypothetical scenario, I don’t ‘win’ anything.  No good feeling.  No vindication.  Why?  Because for all I know I just convinced someone of something that’s totally wrong and is going to negatively impact their lives and society around them.  I don’t think I’ve recently ‘converted’ anyone from one position to another, but I’ve had plenty of exchanges where they have softened their position and acknowledged that there may be some merit to parts of my argument.  Back in the day that was a huge rush.  Back in the day that was me saving a soul from hell or helping to make our country great again.  Now I don’t even know what those words are SUPPOSED to mean, let alone what they actually mean.

Which leads me (a little closer) to my point.  The word “faith” means so many things to so many people it would be a fool’s errand to try to define it here.  But I can simply use the word according to the way *I* have used it and how it impacted me throughout my life.  For me it meant accepting the validity of doctrine that had been handed down to me, without recourse to falsification, logical consistency, or definitional variation.  Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are, in fact, strongly encouraged -to a degree- in my religious tradition.  But the degree to pursue these projects have fairly strict boundaries that, once one crosses, sets one squarely outside of “the faith”.  Which is precisely what happened to me.  I witnessed first-hand the post-hoc rationalization for why my autistic sister was never un-autisticafied, why my missionary/pastor church member died of cancer despite many churches in many countries praying against, thus negating any attempt at falsification of claims. One must simply have faith that the lack of healing had a higher purpose. (Could be. It’s not even worth the dispute to me.)  I witnessed the parsing of texts in order to fully accept a God who ordered multiple genocides and the rape of girls with the God who IS Love.  The God who loves the smell of burnt sacrifices and the eternal torment of the wicked with the God who forgives 70x7.  When un-contradicting these apparent contradictions is the bread and butter of theology, it sends a pretty strong message that no amount of apparent contradiction is enough to breach the dam of determination to stay faithful to the doctrines.  I witnessed the public shaming of any evangelical leaders who dared to point to variant readings and interpretive frameworks that might ameliorate these apparent contradictions in heterodox or heretical way. (e.g. God doesn’t know the future, eternal hell is not real, etc.)  People who pointed out the etymology for the Latin word that got used to render a Hebrew word that clearly doesn’t always mean ‘eternal’.  The people who think Paul’s admonition about the evils of homosexuality are closer to his opinion that long hair is “unnatural” on a man, than the admonition of perfect commands handed down by a God who is super upset by unusual sex. (Again, I’m not ARGUING for the validity of any of the “orthodox” or “heretical” positions here.  I have NO IDEA which is right or wrong or some other intermediate state, or completely invalidated by some OTHER truth.)

The need to stay within the boundaries set by my inherited doctrine is how I interpret “faith”.  How do I, after years of intense and sincere research, come to a place where I’m on the wrong side of that belief divide, and still claim to “have faith”?  Simple.  I don’t.  I still have many of the same hopes that Christians do.  I still feel and call myself a follower of Christ.  (I don’t care whether my positions place me inside or outside of anyone’s particular definition of Christianity.)  But I don’t BELIEVE those things anymore.  Not because I discovered anything BETTER. But, as described above, my epistemology broke and I lack the engine to continue to sign on the dotted line.  

Since I lost the ability to order my life around a set of religious doctrines, I had to find a substitute.  Not because I need a crutch, but because all human activity requires a set of values in order to arrange and enact literally any activity.  Once religious doctrine fell away, I was left with the underlying values.  And the primary value under all that turned out to be Love.  My Christian heritage has taught me that absent from the Christian doctrines, any attempt to promote or embody Love is doomed to failure.  Oh well.  That’s still my life’s goal and organizing principal value.  God is free to use me or not.  As broken as I am, and disconnected from the human zeitgeist. But God will have to use a different handle than faith if I am still to be an instrument.  

And now my small epiphany.  I’ve explained how I’m broken. I’ve explained how I lost the ability to faith. Now I’m realizing that it’s not the broken epistemology that is actually at the emotional core of my resistance to faith.  It’s actually the Golden Rule. Is it irony that one of Jesus’ central messages undermines one of His other central messages for me?  I don’t know, but it sure did, and here’s why.  The Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would have them do unto you is -as far as I can make out- based on Love.  Having faith in a proposition is not.  As far as I can tell, having faith in a proposition is self-oriented.  It’s an internal process of deliberation where you determine that your interpretation of a thing is so infallible that no other data is needed or wanted.  I was taught all my life that faith is accepting what God tells you.  What that glosses over is both the delivery mechanisms (Bible, prayer, prophecy of others who share your faith, preaching, etc.) and the person they are delivered to. (my brain/soul/heart/spirit/whatever you want to call it)  In order to accept a proposition “on faith” one has to believe that all those delivery mechanisms AND the self that interprets them, are all infallible.  I can’t see a way around this problem.  I’ve never heard a solution to this problem.  

This applies to the Golden Rule thusly: In an ideal world, every person I share my ideas and experiences with would try their best to understand me and what I’m saying.  They would not have a partition where literally nothing I say could change their mind on a given topic.  They would not have faith that this or that proposition is off-limits to new ideas.  Faith that democrats are always virtuous warriors of light.  Faith that Keynesian economics are the best model for interpreting that field.  Faith that vaccines cause autism.  Faith that democrats entire platform is based on being lazy and selfish, Faith that genetically modified foods are poison.  Faith the republicans are all motivated by greed and hate, Faith that unborn babies are only tissue.  Faith that anarchy would usher in a utopia.  Faith that working hard guarantees success. Faith that eating animals has zero moral implications.  Faith that there is one God and Muhammad is His prophet. Faith that banning guns is impossible.  And on and on and on.  Faith is exactly what keeps us from actually hearing each other.  The Sacred is what builds echo chambers and in/out groups.  Faith is the substance of not hearing.

As a social animal I don’t just WANT to be heard.  I literally NEED it.  Humans actually go insane without some amount of human interaction and love.  We get by -get our bare minimum of being heard- within our family and our tribal communities.  I think we can do better.  I want to LOVE all people.  That means I want to HEAR all people.  And I simply can’t do that if large portions of my belief landscape are quarantined by faith, effectively blocking billions of ideas.  Can I ever have a 100% “open mind” where literally ANY idea has an equal and fair hearing in my head?  I don’t think so.  I think our mind requires some amount of restricted space in order to operate coherently.  (For instance, I still can’t really HEAR most conspiracy theories.)  The question I have been asking, and answering, over the past decade has been: Do I increase or decrease that restricted space that faith creates and occupies?  And my project of opening up space in order to Love/hear others required that I bulldoze large patches of terrain that were formerly occupied by faith.  Not because I want an open mind for open mindedness’ sake, or for self-improvement.  But because I want to Love better.  And yes, this proposition that “The best way to love people is to hear them as well as I can”, is a faith statement.  Again, this is not a binary state of pure closed or open mindedness.  It’s an ongoing project of experimenting to try to find the best way for my actions and attitudes to match my values.  I want to be loved via being heard.  Therefore, per the Golden Rule, I must love others by hearing as well as I can, which requires losing a lot of faith.