You make and break your own religion

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Note: I addressed the following essay to the general population of the No Agenda Forums, a community that I cherish despite frequent frustration.  It is peopled by many conspiracy theorists and champions of various “alternative” things, such as alternative explanations, alternative medicine, etc.  In short, people I cannot really reach on a level of reason.  What I say may not do any good, but if even one in a thousand of those readers can see the light, then I am proud to have played a small part in the emergence of a rational mind.

It’s funny to me that no one here agrees on what “the truth” is, even in broad strokes.  But, (most) everyone agrees that authorities or experts must be lying to them about that truth…er, whatever it might be.  And if an authority occasionally says something you accept as truthful, then it must be to distract from something more secret and sinister.  The circular reasoning and contradiction are so palpable I can scarcely believe you don’t trip over them.

Ponder for a minute what this says about your thought process and your own bias.  You begin with an infallible conclusion, only trusting whatever evidence you see that supports it.  Evidence to the contrary is dismissed as untrustworthy by the very fact that it contradicts what you believe.  You decide wholly based on your own internal compass, even embracing the idea of cognitive bias as a sort of meta-physical truth detector.

This is, essentially, a definition of religious devotion to an unassailable faith.  You act as though you have arrived at your belief system through a a rational process, but even a novice critical thinker such as myself can trivially destroy your claims.

When you choose not to be cognizant and critical of your own bias, you disown reason itself, and make it impossible to discern the plausibility, likelihood, or truth about anything (except perhaps stumbling upon it as a complete accident).

When you cry “wake up”, what do you mean by it?  You do not accept what you are told, but instead you accept what you have invented.  To be “awake” as you are, is to be trapped in a fever dream of conspiracy and unreason, with no light to guide you; only the ever-deepening rabbit hole of your own delusion.

There is a much higher level of awareness than the one you defend and so cherish.  You already possess the tools to attain it: intelligence and doubt.  Turn these faculties upon yourself.  Doubt not only “authority”; learn the ways your own mind has evolved to be a poor reasoning machine.  Learn what logical fallacies and cognitive bias are.

The grand collective endeavor of science and reason tell us that the most simple, parsimonious, and mundane explanations are usually (but not always) correct.  This is not a dogma, but rather a good default position from which to begin.  The more complicated a claim is, the more skeptical you should be; the more work the claimant needs to do in order to show it’s valid.  As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  People untrained in science may not find it obvious why this should be the case–  If you have not had the benefit of truly understanding the methods of science, please find the time to read The Demon-Haunted World.

You can escape the wall of religion in which you have trapped your own mind.  From the inside, it’s an insidious, invisible wall that only tells you you’re right.  From the outside it’s an unassailable fortress of irrationality.  Learn how to be wrong.  Revel in your mistakes as you discover them.  Each time you find an error, you win the opportunity to correct it.

I subject myself to the same standard that I ask of you.  Also, the same criticisms.  We are all imperfect in our reason, in some ways irreparably so.  But we can be clever enough to design systems that give reliable results in spite of our bias (science), and modest enough to understand and work around our own limitations (awareness of fallacy and bias).  And as we continue down the road of reason, we find flaws in these systems and refine them as well.  Nothing is sacred, everything is subject to scrutiny.

I can argue against unsupported claims, and try to provide directions for understanding why they are likely wrong.  But there’s no way I know of to plant the seed of desire to reason.  If, like me, you managed to reach adulthood without learning these things, then I hope you too will choose to born again into reason, science, and skepticism.

6 comments to You make and break your own religion

  • Satchmo Bevins

    Excellent essay. You sum up a lot of my frustrations with people, but much more articulately than I ever could.

  • You cover a lot. Is psychology a science? What do you make of “applied sciences?” Economics and psychology for example. When our observations of the cosmos do not match our equation’s predictions, is it legitimate science to use complex math in a “Ptolemic epicycle” type of explanation? I think so but I don’t think it good physics.

  • BaS

    Mark, you ask a lot of questions in a short space. I’ll try to give the beginnings of answers here, but a reasonable treatment would definitely require one or more full posts.

    I think the term ‘science’ can reasonably be applied to any field of rational collective human endeavor, where an effort is made to find, test, improve (and discard) theories about how things work. In some fields this is reasonably straightforward, but in others there are confounding challenges. Psychology and the study of cognition have come a long way in recent decades. Because this science deals with phenomenally complex systems, its conclusions aren’t always cut and dried. The more we work at it, the more it will grow into the role of rigorous, respected science.

    If your theory is invalidated by observations, then you have to come up with a better one. But you are asking, how does science determine what “better” means? Generally given Occam’s razor, parsimonious and straightforward explanations are preferable to convoluted ones. But sometimes our intuitions or notions of simplicity or elegance are not sufficient to find the right answer. For example, the theory of relativity, or quantum physics.

    Then there’s dark matter, the current favorite whipping boy of cosmology. It works better than any other theory we’ve got to explain things. But even the strongest proponents admit that they don’t know WHAT it is for sure, and admit they could have it wrong. It’s really hard to test things that are out of our reach and resist our attempts at observation. I am constantly humbled by the innovative genius and persistence that astrophysicists have, telling us so much about the universe using such limited means.

  • Dude,

    Ok, I really like your essays. But I am a bit confused. I cannot find an ‘about’ page, or other clarification of your position on issues (like, in the most general and broad way).

    In fact, you seem to avoid taking too many risky positions, despite an obvious ability to deconstruct positions.

    So what exactly do you mean by “born again”???? Is that sarcasm, or are you serious about that?

  • BaS

    I’m not trying to avoid positions. I find things are much clearer if I learn to take a step back and be a little less trusting of my own reactions, and a little more analytical of why we think the way we do.

    I guess you could say my “position” on a lot of things is that they are complicated and nuanced, and most people who pick a “side” seem to be acting less than rationally.

    I would ask you in response, have you thought about why it matters to you where I come down on your issues? I have. Isn’t it interesting how we almost frantically need to find out whether someone shares our “positions” (underlying subtext: biases and conclusions) before we feel comfortable with them? Our minds are hard-wired to take this shortcut because it saves a lot of processing power.

    I chose “born again” because for most of my life I did not know anything about critical thinking, cognitive biases, logical fallacies, etc. After learning how to think properly, I feel liberated, clear, and nothing will ever be the same. If that’s not a good use of “born again” then I don’t know what is.

  • Alexander Baez Ubeira

    You are awesome sir, contrary to any expectation I found you in the No Agenda forum (via the TWIV clash of the podcasts [ha]).
    You are doing the Sagan’s work in there. Keep it up

    Greetings from Chile

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