Wednesday, September 7, 2016

There Is No Magic

There is no magic in the world, in the shed, or anywhere in the less interesting parts of the universe.  This universe is governed by natural laws which can, if we try hard enough and have a big enough shed, be found out.

There are no magic potions, no magic pills, no magic causes or cures for disease.  Only Science cures by first understanding the natural causes of disease.

There are no magic foods, no magic water, no magic stones, no magic crystals, no magic shapes, no magic numbers, no magic places, no magic plants or animals.

We are not magic.  There is no brain-magic, mind-reading, or fortune-telling.  There is no magic essence lurking deep within us, and we do not live forever.

Magic is not needed to explain consciousness, intelligence, or emotions.  Science explains these things perfectly well and with immeasurably greater predictive power and elegance.

There are no magic words.  Except for "Abracadabra" and "A-La-Peanut Butter Sandwiches!"  Obviously.  Words mean only what the hearer believes they mean, and they have no effect on the actual universe other than slightly raising its entropy.

Existence is not magic.  So far, the existence of everything known to be in existence either has a natural explanation or is at least susceptible to ongoing scientific investigation.  The existence of Life too does not require or even suggest a supernatural magical explanation, and is perfectly accounted for by entirely natural causes and processes.

There is no magical guy in the sky.  We know there is not, because the various man-made legends of various forms of magic sky-guy are each  internally inconsistent and therefore mathematically impossible.  We also know this empirically because no evidence has ever been put forward which bears no other explanation than the improbable existence of a magical man in the clouds.   Stated another way, every piece of evidence ever collected is either directly against the existence of Sky-Man, or bears other, far more likely natural explanations.

The idea of secret invisible magic people can also be tested and found to fail every single time.  We have no more reason to suspect the existence of an invisible magic man purposefully concealing himself from us than we have to suspect that leprechauns are secretly flapping their ears whenever no one is looking.

To believe in magic in any form is to reject reason, to deny reality, and to love comfort and lies more than truth. But what is truth?  Do you really have to ask?  Do you not understand that truth is that which can be shown to be indistinguishable from Reality?  That which can be objectively observed, measured and described?  Truth is only complicated if you're trying to wrest it and contort it into being associated with something that is unreasonable.

So what do I believe?  I do not believe.  Instead, I accept that for which there is adequate evidence.  When one does so, there is no need for belief.  And there is no need for the lie known as magic.

Happiness, healing, joy and purpose exist without the aid of any form of magic.  Morality exists without magic, more so than with magic, which in many forms attempts to supersede and pervert morality. Meaning and goodness exist without any help from magic, which owing to its being devoid of any truth, more often causes suffering than prevents it.

Do, tell me why I need magic in my life.  Chances are I can make (and have made) your argument better.  Certainly I have considered it and found sufficient reason and evidence to dismiss any argument in favour of the nonexistent value of the nonexistent.  But if you wish me to consider the nonexistent, then all I ask is evidence.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Nobel Prize Is Not Enough

. . . to make you a fully rational person and protect you from Bullshit Beliefs.

The following Nobel-Prize-Winning Scientists held bullshit nonsense beliefs in spite of being fairly intelligent people in a specific field:

Pierre & Marie Curie (Physics, 1903), Lord Raleigh (Physics, 1904), Joseph Thomson (Physics, 1905), Charles Richet (Medicine, 1913), Einstein (Physics, 1921), Otto Stern (Physics, 1943), Wolfgang Pauli (Physics, 1945), Alfred Kastler (Physics, 1966), and Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973) all held superstitious beliefs in various forms of paranormal or psychic bullshit.

Alexis Carrel (Medicine, 1912), Philipp Lenard (Physics, 1905), William Shockley (Physics, 1966), James Watson (Medicine, 1962), and Konrad Lorenz (Medicine, 1973) all believed in various crank racial theories e.g. white supremacy and related morally reprehensible (as well as scientifically debunked) pig puke.

Antonio Moniz (Medicine, 1949), Linus Pauling (Chemistry, 1954), Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973), Nikolaas Tinbergen (Medicine, 1973), Louis Ignarro (Medicine, 1998), Luc Montagnier (Medicine, 2008) all believed in various forms of medical quackery, snake oil, crank theories, and general health-related nonsense.

Even having a Nobel Prize is not enough to save you from Bullshit Beliefs. Only a disciplined focus on rationality, evidence and logic can save you.


One notices that Physics seems to be rather well represented in the bullshit belief brigade. The most likely explanation is Expert Syndrome: the belief that "smart in one field = smart in all fields," an attitude which, by the way, is engendered in budding physicists from their first undergrad days and which leads so many of them astray down spooky, dark and stinky paths (stinky from all the bullshit).

Medicine is heavily represented in the medical bullshit category, likely a result of the specialist effect: an individual has to be so focused in one area of medicine to distinguish one's self that some other area of medicine may well escape their complete understanding, or apparently even their passing familiarity.

Objections from the Bleachers:

"But doesn't that simply indicate that they are using their full brain - creative and rational together?"

Absolutely not.  The two "sides" (not literally sides btw) of a brain work together in concert. Being creative is not enhanced by being illogical, gullible or have debilitating cognitive biases. Creativity works best when paired with an analytically disciplined mind in possession of a large number of facts.

"I think it's a laudable quality that even Nobel Prize winners can keep an open mind about their facts possibly being wrong."

Um, no.  That's not what's going on here.  From the cases I've read about in greater detail, it is clear that it is definitely not the situation that they are "hedging their bets" against the possibility that their "prize-winning" knowledge turns out to be incorrect.  Rather, these Bullshit Beliefs are in areas outside the individual's field of expertise.  They are almost always hobbies or outside interests in which their irrational beliefs are free to run wild without the constraint of empirically established facts.

But occasionally smart people have bullshit beliefs within their own field of expertise.  Not a Nobel Prize winner or even remotely a candidate, but I once worked with a Physicist who held bullshit beliefs about Relativity Theory being completely wrong and believing in the existence of a Luminiferous Aether.  And yes, his job was in a technical sub-specialty in the field of General Relativity.  Somehow he had managed to get a PhD in Physics without ever having had a rigorous course in Special Relativity in his life.  Also, I suspect he did not really grasp the real nature of scientific endeavor.

"Well, then they're doing their best to try to understand some other area they are not familiar with, and accepting the challenge of doing so."

Again, no.  That is not what is happening either.  If they applied the same rational approach to, say, paranormal beliefs as they did to their scientific work, they would quickly discover that it is bullshit.

You see, the Defining Feature of the rational process, aka the scientific method, is that it actively seeks out any data, observation or fact that could disprove its hypotheses. 

By contrast, the hallmark of a Bullshit Belief is that its adherents exclusively seek out only confirmation of their bullshit and willfully ignore all dis-confirming evidence. If you want to know whether a belief is bullshit, just observe how they are going about it.

"Wait - you mean to tell me that Science is about working out a new theory and then trying for the rest of your life to disprove it?"

YES - YOU FINALLY UNDERSTAND SCIENCE!!!!  Congratulations!  That is exactly how the scientific method works.

Convincing yourself that something is true is really easy. People do it all the time for all sorts of patent nonsense. Anything whatsoever that the mind is motivated to accept can be "confirmed" by almost anything you experience.  Conspiracy theorists do it all the time - everything they see, hear or read confirms the conspiracy for them.

But only ideas that are so true that they are indistinguishable from the full truth are able to withstand sustained, skillful and determined efforts to disprove them, debunk them, falsify or otherwise discredit them.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Religion Against Humanity

For most of my life I was a devout religious person, but at the same time I was always committed to truth and reason.  I felt that if a faith could not withstand exposure to reason, facts, logic and an occasional robust challenge, then it was not worth having in the first place.  I was one of those people who felt that Religion and Reason were complementary.

As time has progressed and as I have had the chance to explore certain facts and ideas more thoroughly, I have changed my mind about Religion and now find myself believing that it is incompatible with Reason.  But are we really better off without it?

Like most religious people I was taught that Religion was the sole source of human morality, and like most religious people I did not question this assumption.  Now however, I see things very differently.  I have come to the conclusion that Religion is the antithesis of morality.  And no, this is not merely an ad-hoc justification for sleeping in on Sunday, but a conclusion forced upon me by logic and empirical observation. To understand how this can be in any way a logical, reasonable conclusion, consider the following arguments.

Suffering.  The nature of suffering is that it is not a vector quantity, but a scalar amplitude.  In plain English, this means suffering cannot be offset or reduced by something else: it has no opposite, no negative quantity, no "antisuffering."  This means that no amount of joy, for example, experienced today will diminish or offset some suffering you may experience tomorrow.  One individual's happiness does not count against another's suffering when the total amount of suffering in a community is being weighed.  Suffering in one nation is not nullified by another nation's simultaneous prosperity.

No, the only way for the rate of suffering to be reduced is for it to fail to be created.  We fail to create suffering either by our omissions (things we don't do) or by our commissions (things we do).  Whose suffering?  What suffering?  I refer to one's own suffering, that of others around us, or the general degradation of the living environment or quality of life.

Morality.  A moral person is one who deliberately fails to create suffering by his omissions.  In other words he intentionally refrains from acts that can reasonably be expected to lead to suffering in himself or others, with others given priority.  "The needs of the many" etc.  A moral person also fails to create suffering through his deliberate acts.  He intentionally commits acts that can reasonably be expected to lead to the avoidance or discontinuation of suffering.  A moral act is thus objectively defined as one which raises the quality of life, leads to an avoidance or discontinuation of personal suffering, and is reasonably expected (barring accidents or unforeseeable consequences) to not directly result in suffering.  And if you need a further definition of suffering in order to understand what it is, then don't worry about it - it won't do you any good.

A moral person is therefore chiefly concerned with the direct consequences of his actions or inactions, both short-term and long term, and he makes choices by evaluating - that is, applying a value system to - the available actions relative to the effects of those actions on himself, on others, and on the quality of life in his environment.

An immoral person, by contrast, is mainly concerned with his short and long-term gain in any choice considered.  How it affects others, how it affects the living or social environment, or even how it affects his own well-being is at best a secondary consideration.

Religion.  After fifty years of studying and practicing religion I have come to the following conclusion:  Religion teaches people to be immoral.  It teaches us to consider only our long-term gain (specifically, post-mortality) in any situation, and not to consider either our own well-being, that of others, or that of the environment.  It teaches that to be devout, we must have no other consideration in the choices we make other than adhering to a set of arbitrary rules purportedly given by a silent, invisible deity.  Through Religion, it is possible to ignore or even cause significant suffering if there is any conflict between religiously prescribed acts and those acts I define as moral, i.e. that might diminish suffering.  In any such collision, every religion I have encountered requires you to put absolute devotion to the religion ahead of what a moral person would do having never heard of religion.

Essentially, Religion teaches people to think only about themselves and about their own reward or punishment at a time and place that remains entirely hypothetical.  The objection raised here by the keepers of religion and its apologists is that Religion starts with essentially selfish humans and teaches them to be not quite so selfish by appealing to their natural self-interest in a carrot-and-stick system of incentives.  Follow our rules, you get the carrot; don't follow them, you get the stick.  This argument assumes that in essence every human is a sociopath unless and until they get Religion.

This defense of Religion falls apart by considering that sociopaths usually only pretend to be religious while remaining complete sociopaths.  Consider that atheists represent only 0.07% of those incarcerated in the US prison system - the largest prison system in the world.  Also consider the following two words that  have no business even being together:  paedophile priests.   And consider the verifiable observation that normal people are naturally empathetic and moral, with sociopathy and psychopathy being relatively rare exceptions in the population, with or without religion.

Another defense of religion that apologists will be thinking right about now is the window-dressing of "feed the poor, heal the sick" that many religions include in their programs.  "We tell people that if they don't give money to us for charity then they will certainly go to hell."  While I may be guilty of straw-manning religion here, it's only a little bit, and it is needed to point out the essential problem.  What is the motivation offered by religion?  To do the right thing because it reduces suffering?  Or to do whatever you're told in order to advance your own self-interest?  When it's something as obviously good and valuable as alleviating the suffering of the poor, it's easy to comply.  Then when people get used to doing whatever they're told to do, it's easy enough to replace one thing with something entirely different.

A side-effect of charity-by-extortion is that it provides an incentive to maintain a population of impoverished, disenfranchised people upon whom we can bestow our points-earning charity.  There are even various sick, perverse religious theories relating to scapegoats, "victim souls" or "God's Will" to justify the existence of poverty and suffering.  If combating poverty were the aim instead of getting to heaven, things might be done differently that rather than perpetuate poverty would meaningfully address the underlying causes.

The other problem with charity as a justification of religion (other than the obvious fact that charity and relief aid can and do exist in the total absence of religion) is that it can be and often is used as an ideological weapon.  This happens every time a religious aid organization places conditions on how or where the aid is distributed, or uses it to score political points.  One famous church that rhymes with "bath lick" uses its aid money and its global might to aggressively push a no-contraception agenda in countries that desperately need contraception as a means to address wholesale suffering and poverty.  A true cynic would suggest that this is their strategy for ensuring they have ongoing membership growth.  An even worse cynic would say this completely illogical policy ensures that there will be plenty of children for the priests to rape.

In the last million years as a species, we humans have evolved physically only superficially (for example some of us have turned an abnormal pasty white, a temporary aberration likely to disappear in a few thousand years).  By contrast, our software has evolved considerably.  Ideas have developed which allow individuals to experience long lives marred by significantly less suffering.

If this species is going to exist for another million years, it will be due to our minds evolving further still.  We will consciously choose to condition our behaviour to voluntarily limit our population, to limit violence and destructive emotions, and to place greater social value on reason, science, logic and morality.  The immoral self-interest of religion, of doing things strictly on the basis of reward or punishment by an imaginary agent in an imaginary after-life, and the inherent inter-tribal distrust and violence that religion promotes, has no place in a sustainable future for humankind.

And so we face the ultimate question of morality.  Do we immorally and selfishly cling to belief systems that feed our egos and desires, or do we take the moral and more difficult high road of throwing off our past superstitious, destructive conditioning to ensure a future for this species?