How to filter bad beliefs

A six step guide to weeding out truth from nonsense

A few posts back I made the case that beliefs don’t matter as much as the process in which you acquire them. This is not a problematic conclusion to anyone with any semblance of common sense, the logic being that even if your beliefs prove to be wrong, you will have been wrong for all the right reasons and also that in the long run, you are likely to have more beliefs proved right than in the case you adopt them arbitrarily. But just how do we go about choosing our beliefs? Is there a set of principles that we can use to weed out the good beliefs from the bad ones?

I believe there is. Read on to find out:

Step 1: Can your belief pass the Truth Demon test?

One of my favorite pieces of philosophical wisdom in recent months has been this article by Keith Frankish which describes the Truth Demon, a very simple thought experiment that everyone can use to test just how strongly you are committed to a belief. In summary and in slight variation to the original, imagine there is a Truth Demon that will torture you for eternity if the certain belief in question is wrong. Take god, for example. If you had to bet your soul’s eternal torment on whether god exists, I suspect that not only atheists but a large share of believers would bet against his existence. Why? Because there’s no real negative payoff in believing in god in real life. Pascal’s Wager even argues that this is a logical, rational choice. However, imagine if we modified the decision matrix to assume an infinite loss if you believed in him wrongly. Suddenly you need to be really, really convinced. The Truth Demon fits in neatly to what mathematician Nassim Taleb calls the “silent risk” of not taking payoff into account. Continue reading

Steven Pinker’s dangerous optimism

How to defend the status quo by giving humanity props it doesn’t deserve

Are we high on humanity? Despite the pessimism over the return of right-wing populism, religious fundamentalism, gun violence, and stagnating prosperity in the West, two recent events can give us hope that some degree of optimism about the destiny of our species is not entirely unwarranted. For starters, we recently accomplished the singular feat of sending a car to space, orbiting permanently (and pointlessly) around the globe in order to remind us of the supreme narcissism of its previous, earthly owner Elon Musk. The other, is the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a quasi-sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both books follow the same basic plot line: humanity has never had it so good. By every measurable standard of progress, we are leaps and bounds better than any generation before us. Stop complaining.

If optimism is a religion, the Canadian-born Pinker is its high priest. The religious analogy is not unfounded: Pinker defends his thesis with a zeal that is uncommon outside of theistic circles, admonishing his critics and presenting absurd arguments even in topics where he has little or no academic authority. In a recent article in Popular Science, he argues that we should not fear AI being smarter than humans any more than we had to fear airplanes being faster than eagles because “someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle”. For someone defending the use of reason, an argument like that almost begs ridicule. Sadly, his perennial defense of human progress comes with an unfortunate by-product: it becomes a thinly disguised support of the economic and political status quo. If this makes you uneasy, just remember how much wealthier and healthier you are compared to your great-great-great-grandfather.

End of story, so it goes. Continue reading

How to know that you know nothing

Our lives are dominated by beliefs and faith, not truth and facts

The Thinker

In this age of fake news, conspiracy theories, and denial of science, we rarely step back and analyze the process by which we construct our beliefs. The smarter ones among us know that as a minimal starting point, we must be capable of understanding the difference between opinions and facts, even if a lot of what we would like to think of as “facts” aren’t exactly so. In fact, practically the entire body of knowledge of the social sciences and humanities are closer to opinions than they are of facts since they are not consistently replicable; for many of the humanities disciplines they are not even meant to be so. How do we know that anything we know is true? The basic premise of truth is that of a proposition needs to correspond to a fact. As Aristotle stated over two thousand years earlier, “to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”. However, how do we know that these facts are true? Could we exist in a truth-less universe?

This is not the plot of a future episode of Black Mirror. We’re living in it already.

The only thing you know

There is only one truth in this universe that we can believe in without equivocation: that we exist, even if in what form we exist remains unknown. We all conceive of ourselves as human beings, an evolved carbon-based life form with a sense of consciousness but it is not an exaggeration to think that we might be bits of software code inhabiting some alien Matrix-like simulation. Yet the fact that we are able to understand our own existence is true. The only truth. And even assuming we have no free will at all, that every single aspect of our life has been scripted either by a divine being or that same alien simulation, we are still able to know we exist even if we are not in control of our own existence. Note that this not quite the same as Descartes’ famous statement of cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”). You can actually not think and still be aware of your own existence much the same way as microscopic organisms without a central nervous system actively avoid getting killed, that is, losing their existence. Continue reading

The god arguments

Why god as described in most religions makes no sense
God does not approve of this post

God does not approve of this post

Does believing in god make sense? For atheists like myself, the answer is clearly no: from scientific, logical and even theological perspectives, the arguments in favor of god simply do not stand the test of scrutiny. Belief therefore boils down to an issue of accepting dogmatic ideas and ignoring those that even to believers will appear contradictory, unethical, or just outright false. Often, we debate these ideas where they relate to specific religions. For example, arguing that Noah could not have conceivably built a wooden ark to save every species on Earth is specific to Christianity. But proving Christianity wrong doesn’t prove all religions are wrong. As a result, I have tried to summarize some arguments against god that could be seen as somewhat universal. Admittedly, most o these are biased towards the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as they are the ones most familiar to me. But to some extent, they apply to any belief in an omnipotent deity that looks over us and that who we must worship to achieve salvation.

Here are the reasons why I think this concept of god is impossible.

The omnipotence argument

“Since power is said in reference to possible things, the phrase, ‘God can do all things,’ is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason He is said to be omnipotent.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

Let’s start off with imagining what god actually is. It seems to me that god cannot be anything other than a being that features the three “omnis”: omnipotence (can do everything), omniscient (knows everything) and omnipresence (is everywhere). Indeed his power, knowledge and presence could not be conceivably limited because that would imply that there is some other force or condition in the universe that could limit it. Omnipotence, however, does have to be logically consistent: god cannot make a circle a square. There is also the omnipotence paradox which is illustrated by the case of whether god can create a stone so heavy that even he cannot lift it, so it is clear that any sensible definition of omnipotence needs to be less than absolute lest we end up in a logical quagmire. Continue reading

Freedom of speech and fundamentalism

A fictional exchange of ideas about a touchy subject
You get it or you don't

You get it or you don’t

So, this freedom of speech thing is pretty complicated, don’t you think?

Yep, it is.

But as barbaric as the Charlie Hebdo attacks were, you don’t think the reaction in the West was a little hypocritical?

Yes. Perhaps the people on the street were being honest but certainly not the politicians. That (staged) picture of all of them walking together in support of the marches in Paris was a good photo op but a bunch of them have shoddy records in supporting freedom of speech in their own countries.

And even the ones who are democratic, tend to be allied to governments that are disgustingly repressive. Is there a major Western nation that does not make it national policy to kiss ass with the Saudis? The US and the UK are the most egregious example, but even Hollande was quick to fly to Riyadh when King Abdullah died.

And they seem to have no shame about it, which is the worst. It’s this in-your-face discarding of the very things they so passionately seem to defend that is the most insulting. And nobody seems to challenge them about it either, which is the worst part. All of this is done with the excuse of national security coming into play.

But now, back to the freedom of speech part, can we at least agree on a definition of what we should be permitted to say and we can’t? Because let’s be honest, some of those cartoons were blatantly insulting. Not just to Muslims but probably to most people of Arab descent, even if they were not religious.

Yes but they were equal opportunity offenders. They didn’t spare Jews, Catholics, anyone. And what we saw were some of the more outrageous covers, but the fact of the matter is that their primary targets were French politicians, not religions. Right-wing politicians to be precise. If we can’t ridicule a religious belief, why do we tolerate political insults? Discrimination on political grounds is as valid from an international legal perspective as religious grounds.

That would be the end of satire as we know it.

Indeed, which is why we agree that religion should be fair play too. And certainly we can agree that nobody, under any circumstance, should ever be killed for something he/she believes in. Continue reading