Lesson: Learned

This week I had the uniquely rewarding experience of enjoying the payoff of having learned a lesson. I’d like to share the lesson, then describe the experience, then explain why I consider the payoff a moment of “joy”.

Up front, I want to emphasize that I use the word “learned” in the truest sense – fully assimilated into my psychology and internalized to the point of automation. Contrast this with a “lesson heard”, or a “lesson appreciated”. If you have ever read a book containing profound lessons and thought to yourself “Wow, this is really great material! I need to remember this stuff” only to revisit the material years later and realized that all those lessons went in one ear and out the other, then you understand the difference between “hearing” a lesson and “learning” it. (I had that experience with Dale Carnegie’s book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. I read it with enthusiasm at the age of 20, and when I re-read it at the age of 35, I realized how little of its wisdom I had actually assimilated into my character. Upon re-reading the book, I learned how difficult learning truly is.)

A couple years ago, I was introduced to a commencement speech given by the late David Foster Wallace now known as This is Water. Understanding as I do now how difficult it is to learn lessons, and recognizing the profound importance of the wisdom I heard in that speech, I proceeded to listen to it several times in succession, then several times the next day, then periodically a few more times after that, and still again and again to this day. The speech is only 22 minutes long, and I can say with a good deal of confidence that it required no fewer than 10 listenings before I was able to even begin to internalize the wisdom contained therein.

This is important to understand. No one who has ever known me has accused me of being a dumb guy, yet it took me at least 10 listenings to truly begin to absorb a 22 minute speech. I say this not to denigrate my ability to learn, but rather to demonstrate how difficult learning truly is.

The theme of the speech was that, while most of us cannot choose what frictions we encounter during our day, we can choose how to interpret them. For example, when we get cut off by someone on the road, we can choose to either chalk it up to a catastrophic character failure on their part (“That guy is an asshole!!!), or we can choose to give them the benefit of the doubt that the behavior we see from them is the exception rather than the rule (“They might be in a state of true crisis – I hope they make it safely to where they need to go”).

Those interpretations we choose determine our emotional and psychological disposition. That’s the theme of the speech. How others behave is not in our capacity to control. How we interpret the behaviors of others is. Therefore we do not need to control the events around us in order to control our consonance with those events.

Seems simple, right? In fact, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, that’s true! I’ll just remember that from now on.” (To which I would say “Good luck… don’t hold your breath”)

Last week I was running in the gym on the ship I’m embarked on (USS Essex) when a guy got on the treadmill next to mine. He was not clean shaven so he was either a contractor or he was in the Navy (I’m guessing contractor), and he was most definitely not dressed for a run. He looked entirely lost, and when he finally got the treadmill to work, he ran at a speed clearly exceeding his capability to sustain for any length of time, stopped to breath, then tried again. He was clearly not familiar with his own capabilities, and appeared to be another one of the thousands of dudes I’ve seen throughout my lifetime that walks into a gym for the first time wanting to outdo everyone else so that he doesn’t look like the newbie he is.

Those guys often cause nothing but headaches for the rest of us. They don’t wipe down their equipment. They leave weights all over the place. They have no knowledge of gym etiquette, they flail around trying to lift weight that’s way too heavy for them, they try cardio routines that are way too intense, they punch the heavy bag trying to look like Bruce Lee, and they always seem to be in the way. So when I saw him gasping for air on the treadmill, my years of conditioned reflexes kicked straight in. I felt an immediate wave of contempt, rolled my eyes, shook my head, and braced myself for yet another idiot taking up valuable gym space.

Then I remembered Wallace.

Actually, I didn’t remember Wallace explicitly, or even the things he said. Rather, I began thinking the thoughts Wallace insisted are within our ability to choose to think. My line of thought went, almost verbatim, as follows:

“Jesus, this ass-clown is going to be a supreme annoyance, and probably wind up breaking that treadmill. I can’t wait until he gives up and leaves. He’s probably some lame sailor who doesn’t give a crap about learning how to use this gear the right way.

I don’t know… maybe he’s a contractor on a lunch break.

Maybe he was raised in a culture that didn’t value fitness at all.

Maybe he has always wanted to start going to a gym, but could never afford it.

He could be a contractor, raised in San Diego, who worked hard against difficult odds to get the job he has.

He might have been working on this ship for a while now, watching the servicemen work out in the gym during lunch, and it’s possible that he’s been working up the courage to come in here and try it out for himself for a long time.

In fact it’s entirely possible that what he’s doing now are the very things he *had to do* in order to build up the nerve to come in here and try to learn how to use the gym equipment without the humiliation of being pegged as a 20-something-year-old guy who has never been in a gym.

You know, I’d be willing to bet that he’s suffering anxiety at this very moment because he very desperately does not want people thinking the *exact thoughts* I was thinking when I began thinking these thoughts!!!

Man, I’d like to help this guy out. I hope he sticks with it and doesn’t give up. Come on man, slow down your pace. Control your breathing. You can do this!”

As easy as it is to articulate the line of thinking I progressed down during the 60 seconds-or-so it took to get me from that first thought to the last, it is much more difficult for me to articulate the true emotional journey that took place over that same minute. I wish I could, because therein lies the reward I spoke of. Put simply, I went from feeling supreme annoyance and aggravation in one moment to, over the course of about 60 seconds, feeling a sense of sublime solidarity, optimism, and camaraderie for a guy I didn’t know a thing about. The journey from “Jesus” to “You can do this!” was as rewarding an emotional experience as one can have, and even while watching him crawl off the treadmill to start fighting against a way-too-heave stack of iron, I felt like I was running on air. I felt like we were all in this thing together. I felt in complete harmony with my environment. The moment felt, as Wallace described it, “sacred”.

Of course, that dude might have been a total poser, who had no interest in fitness, and just wanted to go in there to show people up before coming face-to-face with the reality of his own limitations. He might have been some sailor who was just in there because his chief demanded it, and didn’t give a rat’s ass about self-improvement. There are a thousand possibilities, I guess, and I will probably never know what his real story is.

But as Wallace taught, I did have a very important choice. It was a choice of what assumptions to favor. It was the choice between dissonance and consonance. A choice between negative and positive.

“The choice between darkness and light.” – N. Peart

And once I made that choice – a choice that is now become more and more internalize and automated, one being made for me, without having to run through the internal dialogue – I began to realize that the lesson has been learned. The reward is abundant and unmistakable, and well worth the effort.

 

 

It’s not what you believe right now that matters most.

Imagine the following scene: There is a stream of water that stretches as far across as the eye can see. In one direction there is a perilous waterfall, and in the other, dangerous rocks. You are compelled to cross it – staying on the safety of land is not an option.

The stream seems calm on the surface, but you can clearly see people being swept away by an undercurrent which seems to run in different directions as people cross the stream. Some people are being swept over the waterfall while some are floating in the other direction uncontrollably until they smash up against the jagged rocks. But looking straight ahead, you find what appear to be some safe stones leading to the bank on the other side of the stream, and some people have found a way to reach those stones one-by-one, as they progress across. You aren’t sure what awaits you on the other bank, but you know you can’t remain at the one you’re on. You have to cross.

The most important concern you have right now is how to cross safely. It seems that there are ways that work, and ways that don’t. You aren’t sure what to do, but you have to figure it out.

You contemplate this for a while, and then an idea occurs to you… you need a *method* of crossing. You realize that you can track the undercurrents by watching people float across, and in doing so, you can swim in the right direction to the next safe stone. In this way, you can progress across the stream indefinitely without being swept away in either direction.

As you cross, you find people discussing how to safely navigate the stream. The voices are more numerous than you can count, each seeming to have their own idea of where the safest place in that stream is.

  • A lady is waste deep in the water. She is drifting toward the waterfall and confidently assures you that the water will always steer you in the right direction. She decides that if the water steers you over the side, then that’s the right place to go.
  • A man swims furiously toward the jagged rocks, screaming that the waterfall is terribly dangerous and the best way to avoid it is to cling on to one of the razor sharp rocks. He insists that the jagged stones are the right place to be.
  • A man stands on one of the safe stones. He got there by closing his eyes and jumping, and suggests you do the same. He invites you to join him on his safe stone, declaring it the only good place to stand.
  • A woman floating by tells you that it doesn’t matter – the stones and the water, the waterfall and the rocks, are all equally safe, and that everything will be alright no matter what you do.

A cacophony of other voices join in, each of them standing in a location they consider safest, insisting that where they stand is the right place, and all those who stand elsewhere have made a grave error.

The one thing you notice about all of the people you encounter is that they all seem to endorse where they stand at that moment, even those who have occasionally moved. None of them seem to be concerned with how they got there, or how (or if) they will take the next step. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of them are convinced that where they are currently positioned is the only right place to be, and that being anywhere else either means certain doom, or is a complete waste of time. They all appear to be planting their metaphorical flag in the spot where they are, and they banter incessantly about which place is the right place to be. Even the few who agree with each other seem to be standing on different stones.

Meanwhile, you track the currents. You step in the water and swim in just the right direction to get to the next safe stone. You look back and observe you last stone you were on… you watch as the water rises over it… you realize that it wasn’t safe to begin with, and you are grateful that you didn’t stay there. You realize that if the safety of the last stone was illusory, perhaps the safety of this one is as well. You track the currents. You swim to the next stone. You remain in motion. You progress.

Then you look back and notice that many of the people who were bantering about the correctness of their position have been swept away by the changing currents and water level, either over the waterfall, or into the deadly rocks. You continue moving forward to safer stones, as those left behind continue insisting how correct their position is.

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When Reason Isn’t Enough

As someone who routinely and vocally advocates for reason and speaks out against all forms of irrationality and faith-based beliefs, I frequently encounter the attempted counter-point that efforts at exercising reason are no guarantee for success, with my interlocutor citing numerous examples of strict adherence to the process of reason resulting in errant information and conclusions.

And it’s true. It might surprise you to hear me say this, but when investigating truth-claims and propositions, when engaged in science or forensics, when trying to ascertain what is real and what isn’t… even the strictest application of reason is no guarantee that ones conclusion will lead to the right answer.

Finding out the “truth” requires more than just an effective process. It also requires complete and correct information. That is the wild-card that limits the certainty of any conclusion made using the process of reason.

This is one reason that “proof” is a word that is typically limited to the realm of math, or math-based pursuits (such as chess). Rational skeptics do not deal in “proof”; they deal in the preponderance of the evidence. For example, I believe the moon landing happened because the evidence for it is, in my mind, convincing. However, it is possible that future discoveries may reveal the moon landing to have been a hoax. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. Therefore the moon landing is not proven… but proof is not a prerequisite for rational belief.

(Proof is possible in the realm of math because complete information is given up front, and the possible introduction of new information is not considered. For example, if you want to know what the simplest way to express 2+2 is, the answer is 4. This is easily demonstrated, and there is no possible “new” information that can change the answer. No discovery will change the answer, because the concepts are fixed by their very definition.)

Reason is a process that always works. Its ability to provide results is limited to the quality and completeness of the information at its disposal. It is vital to recognize that this is not a limitation of the process of reason, but rather a limitation of the human condition. As long as our access to information is limited, and as long as the quality of the information we do have access to is subject to imperfection, reasons ability to lead us to truth will be limited.

I once read an amusing quote from Charles Babbage, the man who originated the concept of a programmable computer. His efforts to educate to populace on the concept of a device that would take data and process it into usable information were often met by objections that resembled the very same objection we find against reason today.

“It doesn’t always produce the right answers!” – This is a vague and misguided indictment of the idea that [(a good process) + (good and complete information) = (the right answer)]. It’s vague because it doesn’t specify the point of failure, and its misguided because those who invoke it tend to believe that the failure was in reasons ability to process information rather than in the quality or completeness of the information itself. Babbage’s amusing recollections tell the story:

On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

It’s amusing because it was a genial way of saying “This is the stupidest f***ing question I’ve heard in my life.”, and it’s also instructive because it was the first statement expressing what would later become a computing truism: Garbage in = Garbage out.

To wit: If you are looking for the simplest way to express 2+2, then you had better punch the correct buttons on your calculator, in the correct order, if you want the correct answer. Punching any of the wrong buttons, failing to push all the correct buttons, or pushing all of the correct buttons in an incorrect sequence will cause the calculator to display something other than the correct answer. This does not mean the calculator is unreliable; on the contrary, it means that the calculator works.

And so it is with reason. Bad (or incomplete) information into the process will result in bad (or incomplete) information coming out.

Some years ago I saw a fantastic movie that illustrates the principle that reason can only provide results as reliable as the available information – “The Life of David Gale”.

You can read the plot of the movie in the Wiki article if you like, but I recommend you watch the movie. Long story short – David Gale and a co-conspirator devise a plan to prove that, no matter how certain one believes they that they have accurate and complete information, there is always the possibility that new information may be discovered that changes everything. It also speaks an important truth about how this principle applies to capital punishment (to wit: the imposition of a sentence that cannot be revoked even if exculpatory information is subsequently obtained is a bad idea).

The bottom line is that no amount of examples where incorrect or incomplete information led to incorrect or incomplete results is an indictment of the process of reason. Sometimes one doesn’t know all the relevant facts. Sometimes the information one has available is incorrect. Sometime you will accidentally punch the wrong numbers into the calculator. This means that no matter how committed one is to reason, one will be wrong from time to time. This is because the process of reason works, not because it doesn’t.

Note 1: There is another element of reason/logic required in order to obtain truth, which I have omitted from this essay for the sake of brevity – the mechanism (or machine) that is applying the process must be in good working order. If the physical parts of the brain, calculator, computer, etc… are broken or otherwise damaged, the value of the output is diminished. This is an obvious issue that few people would challenge, so for the sake of this essay I allowed for the assumption that the physical mechanism in question is in good working order.

Note 2: “The Life of David Gale” wasn’t exactly a box-office smash, but I enjoyed it and I think it speaks well to my point.

What we learned from the Ham/Nye Debate

Last night saw the highly anticipated debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. I watched the debate online despite my fears that the debate was a horrible idea, for reasons articulated by many in the skeptic community. Chief among these fears was the concern that Bill Nye, an engineer and not a professional debater, was not the right person to offer arguments in support of biological evolution, and that any weakness in Nye’s style or preparation would be seized upon by Ham as an indictment of the entire scientific community. I didn’t know much about Nye, other that that he is a TV personality that appeals to kids, and I had a gut feeling that he got involved in this debate more for his own exposure than as strategic move in support of science.

Also, there was the valid concern that, no matter the outcome of the debate, it would be a financial boon for the Answers in Genesis organization, as well as the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the idea of any scientist doing anything that would generate material support for such a travesty of science makes me wretch. So for these reasons, I was understandably wary of this debate.

I was actually in for a pleasant surprise. For one thing, the debate topic wasn’t evolution at all. The debate topic was “Is creation a viable model for origins”. Now, while Nye may not be qualified to speak expertly about biological evolution or even Big Bang cosmology, he is absolutely qualified to speak about what does and what does not constitute a scientific model. He knows what features and attributes a model of a physical system must possess in order to qualify as scientific, and that was the button he pressed throughout the debate.

All said, I think Nye made his case that there is nothing scientific about creationism pretty convincingly, and Ham flopped worse than the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, which actually surprised me.

Ham made some admissions I didn’t expect him to make.  (During the conversations with YECs I have from time to time, there are certain concessions and admissions that they typically refuse to make, either by relentlessly evading the questions or by outright lying about the answer.)

Ham wisely ignored particular questions, asked repeatedly by Nye, such as “Why should we take the word of an ancient book over the evidence that we see right before our eyes?He also ignored questions about the fossil record. This sort of thing is to be expected. But, much to my astonishment, Ham was forthright and honest when asked questions that most YECs intuitively know they should dodge at all costs. That’s not to say he wasn’t evasive… rather that he was inexplicably foolhardy in what he chose to be honest about.

The first admission that struck my attention was Ham’s declaration that “I admit, my starting point is that God is the ultimate authority”. By “God”, he means the bible (he has presumably never had an actual conversation with God, and he makes clear that he believes all the answers he needs are in the bible), specifically the book of Genesis. This declaration was a bit surprising, because most scientists understand that science is an inductive process, rather than a deductive process. Ham’s declaration that he starts off with the answers and then sets out to support them by seeking out evidence that will support them constitutes an admission that he is doing science backwards.

Scientific discovery begins with questions, not answers. Scientific curiosity is borne not of knowing, but of not knowing and desiring to find out. Facts are compiled to create models, not to support models that are pre-made. To begin with what you think is the answer and then setting out to prove it is science in reverse.

It would have been nice if Nye had pointed that out, but again, he’s not a professional debater, so a little latitude is in order. To his credit, Nye did hammer Ham with the question: Can your alleged scientific model make any verifiable predictions? This was a question posed to Ham at least 4 times, and was never answered, addressed, or even acknowledged. Nye, on the other hand, cited example after example of scientific predictions made using the natural selection model, all of which were eventually observed.

But the most shocking admission from Ham came during the question and answer period. The question was “What would it take to change your mind”. It was posed to both participants, and it is a question that has been asked many times before, normally phrased as “What evidence, if discovered, would compel you to abandon your current theory of origins?”

Despite the poor phrasing of the question, Ham was unhesitant and unambiguous in his response. He said that, as a Christian, nothing could possibly change his mind. No amount of evidence, no future discovery, nothing at all could compel him to revise or abandon his beliefs that the universe was created 6000 years ago.

Ham tried to turn the question around to Nye who, being a scientist, then proceeded to list of over half a dozen examples of evidence which, if found, would compel him to revise or abandon his current model of natural selection, and stated that there was no real limit to the number of such discoveries that could be made. He made it clear that he will gladly go wherever science takes him, and that he welcomes evidence that runs contrary to the model he currently finds most compelling.

As a scientist, Nye knows that no scientific model is considered final; no scientific model is considered absolute; no scientific model is closed to revision based on future discoveries. That is not how science works. A scientific model must be testable, verifiable, falsifiable, and able to make predictions. Nye pointed out that discoveries in science are embraced and welcomed.  They are appreciated and they compel change. This is one of sciences strengths. Ham’s admission that there is no possible discovery – no possible evidence – that could falsify his model, constituted a literal admission that his model is not scientific. 

Once again, Nye missed an opportunity to hammer this point home. But again, the latitude. Debating isn’t easy, and it’s difficult to keep your mind focused on the points you’d like to make while simultaneously keeping watch for opportunities to seize on your opponent’s subtle admissions. Nye no doubt had a list of talking points that he worked hard to stay on, and I get the feeling that this morning he’s realizing how many missed opportunities he had during that debate.

But this is not to say that he did a bad job. Indeed, a poll on the Christianity Today website indicates that an overwhelming majority of respondents felt Nye made the more convincing argument. And as long as the video of this debate exists, we have undeniable proof that Ham is not coming from a scientific standpoint. He reiterated over and over that his beliefs are rooted in the bible, and that where any inconsistency exists between what we observe and what we read in Genesis, in his mind Genesis wins by default.

Ham tried a few tricks of his own. When Bill Nye spoke of discoveries that have yet to be made, Ham – a couple times – retorted (paraphrased). “you know Bill, we do have these answers. They are in the bible!” This was intended to be clever I guess, and I kept expecting Nye to point out that primitive explanations to unexplained phenomenon do not constitute a scientific model, nor do they provide any useful information. But as these remarks came during the question and answer period, Nye had no opportunity to respond specifically to those remarks. Ultimately I don’t think it mattered… the tactic was weak enough that I doubt even Ham’s allies found it very convincing.

From this debate, we’ve learned that Ham either doesn’t realize, doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care what qualifies a model as “scientific”. We’ve learned that his model doesn’t qualify. We’ve learned that the answers to the most important questions are not found in Genesis. We learned that scientists such as Bill Nye are not afraid to admit when they do not have the answers. We learned that Ken Ham accepts primitive explanations with absolute certainty and gives them primacy over any possible future discovery. We learned that Ham’s beliefs regarding scientific matters are, by his own admission, not rooted in science. They are, by his own repeated admission, rooted in his religion.

And I learned not to jump to conclusions about a scientist just because he wears a bow tie. Ya dun’ good, Science Guy.

Winner

 

Men, women, and polarity

The following is an essay I posted elsewhere, reproduced here for continuity, ease of access, and as a part of a series of essays I intent to author regarding the concept of polarity and how it manifests itself in our paradigm.

                                                                                                                                                                    

Okay, I’m going to articulate a notion of mine that has been brewing in my head for quite some time now. It has to do with the essence of masculinity, the essence of femininity, and how they fit into the “yin/yang” model that seems to define reality as a whole – the idea of counterbalance and every force depending on an equal and opposite force for stability.

Two of the most compelling, engrossing, engaging, and addicting vices that grip society as a whole are sports and pornography, the former being the quintessential expression of competition, the other being the quintessintial expression of unity and social consummation.

I have concluded that sports and pornography are expressions of equal but opposite social complusions. As humans, we ultimately have two social alternatives… to impose our will on people or to capitulate our will to others. Sports is nothing if not an exercise in the former. Sex is nothing if not an exercise in the latter.

The essence of masculinity is domination and survival. This manifests itself with competitors essentially eliminating the competition. In other words, if at the end of a competition there is one person still standing, that person has essentially defeated and *vanquished* all competitors. That’s why competitive endeavors such as UFC, NFL, etc. are largely the province of men. It is the ultimate, unvarnished act of competition on display. Women do sometimes get involved, but the men are the real draw.

The essence of femininity, on the other hand, is unity, nurturing, and reproduction. This manifests itself in some interesting ways. For example, heterosexual women (and girls) are routinely physically affectionate (sometimes even sexual) with each other, without it being relevant to their sexuality. Also, women tend to take on professionals as care providers, teachers, and babysitters more frequently than men. That’s why pornography is largely the province of women – it is the ultimate, unvarnished act of “unity” on full display. Yes, men get involved, but women are the real draw.

Just as magnetic poles operate, so do humans.

If you put two like poles together, they repel. This is absolutely natural, and unquestioned. This is analagous to competition (and by extension sports, which is competition on display). There cannot be two winners. There can only be one winner. The amount of losers is irrelevant… only one person wins. It is the ultimate act of “standing alone”, in which the dominant figure denies the submissive figure access to the will of the dominant figure’s being and instead imposes his or her own access to the being of the submissive figure against that figure’s wishes. This is why winning in sports feels so good, and losing feels so bad. This is what is referred to as “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” You will never see a competitor express a desire to share their victory with another competitor. Being the sole victor, at the expense of the interest of all other parties involved, is paramount in this polarity.

If you put two opposite poles together, they attract. Again, this is natural and unquestioned. This is analagous to sex (and by extension, porn – which is sex on display). Sex is not possible alone (notwithstanding masturbation, which is merely self-simulated sex). It must involve two or more people, all of whom are in agreement and willing to consummate this agreement. It is the ultimate act of “coming together” – an ultimate act of unity in which each has full access to the other’s body. This is why ALL figures in sexual activity are gratified. There are no losers – everyone wins during sex. You will never see a sexual partner express a desire for their partner to not be as gratified as they are. Gratification for all, at the expense of none, is paramount in this polarity.

It seems clear that sports are an expression of the ultimate “like poles” dynamic and that sex is and expression of the ultimate “opposite poles” dynamic. And the former is of the “masculine” essence (which is why it is male-dominated), which the latter is of the “feminine” essence (which is why it is female dominated).

Let’s face it… when we think of sports, we think of men. When we think of sex, we think of women. Can any honest person suggest otherwise?

I am a Rational Skeptic

Consider this blog post the definitive statement of my core beliefs.

I’ve gone through many superficial belief systems in my life, for better or worse. Many of the things I believe have changed over time, but looking back through my history and assessing what I believed and why I believed it, I can say with confidence that my core system has never changed, and is unlikely ever to do so.

I think that a person’s core beliefs are significant, and speak to the heart of what that person is all about. I believe they can be used to reliably predict their behavior and their responses.

My beliefs are not common in the society or communities in which I’ve lived. They are not unheard-of in my country, but they are certainly the struggling underdog in the culture war. They are also frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. Therefore, in order to save myself a lot of explaining and re-explaining, I will articulate them here, and in the event anyone is curious as to what they are (as happens from time to time), I will simply point them to this document.

I am a rational skeptic, and I’d like to unpackage exactly what that means.

The first word – rational – describes how I deal with information derived first-hand. It tells me, without anyone’s help, that if I’ve eaten my cake, I no longer have it.

Rational means “Based on or in accordance with reason” and this is probably the more weighty of the two words I use to describe myself. I hold reason as an absolute primary, meaning that it is the starting point from which all my derivative beliefs may be traced back to.

The concept of rationality has a lot of “sub-concepts” packaged in with it, and it important to clarify these concepts and articulate how they relate.

Reason is the primary concept associated with rationality. Reason is defined as “thinking, understanding, and forming judgments by a process of logic”. Logic is a methodology of thinking conducted according to strict principles of validity.

All of this rests on certain axiomatic truths. They were described by Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand as follows:

1) Existence exists
2) Consciousness exists
3) A+A (The Law of Identity)

Without debating or deliberating those axioms (I will accept them until I have reason not to), it is important to understand the role of the Law of Identity in the process of reasoning. Logic is a process of non-contradictory identification. Logic, in its simplest form, takes the position “If this is true, then that must also be true”. The if/then statement is the simplest and most basic expression of logic.

The Law of Identity, which tells us that a contradiction cannot exist in reality, is something that must be accepted in order for logic to be accepted as useful. The usefulness of logic must be accepted in order for reason to to be accepted as a useful guide to knowledge. Reason must be accepted as a useful guide to knowledge in order for rationality to be accepted as a useful principle to live by. Thus, the Law of Identity justifies logic, reason, and rationality. To dispute the efficacy or utility of any of those concepts is to dispute the Law of Identity. Indeed, reason, logic, and rationality are themselves expressions and inescapable consequences of this law.

To put this simply – my commitment to reason is as absolute as the Law of Identity, and will remain so until and unless I discover that the Law of Identity is not absolute.

The second word – skeptic – describes how I deal with information I receive that is not derived first-hand.

Skeptic means “a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.”. In the context of my own belief system, it may best be described as the commitment to assign a degree of certainty to all propositions, whether positive or negative, in exact proportion to the available evidence supporting it. This approach is necessary because, while nature cannot speak untruths, people can, and they do, and they do it for more reasons than can be named. People may lie. People may lie to themselves and pass the falsehood to others with conviction. People may have been fooled by others. People may have been fooled by their own senses. People may report facts which were true at one time but are no longer true. People are naive at times. People are sometimes too slow to accept unhappy realities. There are as many reasons not to take propositions at face value as there are people on the earth.

It is therefore important to identify the most reliable method available to us for handling information we receive from others, which is typically presented in the form of a proposition.

A proposition is, in a philosophical context, a statement about reality. (An in-depth discussion into the various types of propositions is found here, but for the purposes of this essay I speak of propositions generically.) Propositions can be ordinary (“I spoke to your mother yesterday, she’s doing well”), abstract (“People have free will”), or extraordinary (“I can solve a Rubik’s cube faster than anyone on Earth”), but all of them purport to provide some information about reality.

To be skeptical of all propositions would be to question all propositions. Besides being exhausting, this would be irrational, as most propositions are easily validated using immediately available first-hand information. Examples of this are:

  • A guy at a Rush concert singing along to every song turns to you and says “I love this band!”
  • Your spouse wakes you up with kisses and says “I love you”
  • A cashier at a fast-food restaurant rings in your food and tells you the total (which is also reflected on the receipt).

These are the sorts of propositions we hear most often, and while it is always important to keeps one’s “reason-filter” turned on, the fact is that 90% of we hear justifiably passes through without a problem. To doggedly demand more evidence than is required to validate an ordinary proposition is neither rational nor practical.

However, for those times when we hear propositions that don’t immediately pass through that filter, the rational skeptic does all he or she can to see that what should pass through does, and what should not pass through does not.

  • An acquaintance says “I can help you lose 30 pounds in 3 months!”
  • A preacher says “Accept my religion or you will go to hell”
  • A politician says “I will uphold the will of the people!”
  • A teacher says “We evolved over millions of years.”
  • A lawyer says “My client is innocent!”
  • A friend says “You won’t believe what I heard about this other guy!”
  • A stranger says “Jesus loves you”

None of these propositions are ostensibly factual. All require a good degree of skepticism in order to sort out which are probably true, which are probably false, and which are entirely arbitrary. Some may require more information. Some may be unknowable. None should be accepted at face value.

At this point, I would like to clear up some common misconceptions.

– A Rational Skeptic does not need to witness or perceive something first-hand in order to believe it. Rather, Rational Skepticism demands that all propositions be validated using first-hand information.
– No two Rational Skeptics will believe exactly the same things. This does not invalidate rational skepticism. In fact, this is one of its strengths, and it a necessary aspect of rational skepticism.
– Atheism is not a necessary aspect of rational skepticism. Although I believe that most rational skeptics, if they dig deeply enough, will arrive at an atheistic worldview, so long as a person is considering all of the information they have available to them, and exercising their rational faculty as best as they know how, they are a rational skeptic.
– A belief does not need to be validated to the point of 100% certainty in order to be considered a rational belief. If the degree of certainty with regards to any proposition is scaled to the available evidence, and the amount of certainty is sufficient to meet the threshold of belief, then the amount of certainty is rational and the belief is rationally justified.

So as you can see, my self-identification as a rational skeptic is deliberate and calculated, so please don’t ever make the mistake of thinking it frivolous, or that it’s merely a smaller aspect of a larger belief system. It is the largest framework in which my mind and beliefs operate. Do not make the mistake of thinking I “believe in nothing” just because I don’t share your beliefs. Don’t confuse certain features of my belief system as being the belief system itself.

In closing, I am compelled to emphasize one final point. There is an almost ubiquitous tendency, particularly among theists, to identify my belief system by reference to the same linchpin on which their beliefs hinge – specifically the question of whether or not someone believes in a god or gods. Thusly, they tend to identify all those who hold no such belief, regardless of what their actual belief system is or whether or not they even have one to begin with, as merely “atheists”. I find it patently absurd that anyone would hold up a one particular position – a derivative position that is a consequence of my belief system rather than a feature of it – as being the prime motive from which all of my other beliefs stem. But it happens all the time, and it’s worth addressing here.

I am not an atheist at the core. Atheism is a default position, and it is a feature of my belief set, not of my belief system. While it would be true to say that I do not believe in a god or gods, it would not be true to say that I have a positive belief that no god exists. My position is that the concept is undefined and every proposition I’ve heard about any god thus far has been arbitrary, and therefore dismissed as all arbitrary concepts ought to be.

But as a rational skeptic, I am committed to examining evidence for all propositions, and if presented with compelling evidence that a god or gods exist, I would change my position. I would be a theist. I would have to be, because at that point rejecting the proposition would mean rejecting rational skepticism, which is what I am first and foremost.

The rejection of arbitrary claims about an undefined god is no more relevant to my belief system than rejecting unsupported claims of alchemy, astrology, water divining, or the Kennedy assassination. Therefore if you’ve read this and you understand it, please do me the favor of not making the mistake that atheism is my belief system. It isn’t. It’s not even part of my belief system. It’s nothing more than a default position that will continue until reason demands otherwise.

In my judgment, I was a rational skeptic even while I was a theist. I have better information now than I did when I was 16, which is why my conclusions have changed. And I’ve known quite a few theists – Christians even – that I consider rational skeptics, and I would consider them my intellectual brothers-in-arms before I’d throw in with any atheist who doesn’t consider reason to be a primary absolute. Perhaps in another 15 years I’ll have even better information, and my conclusions will change yet again. One fortunate aspect of being a rational skeptic is that there’s never a moment when one feels one has finally arrived – it’s a never-ending process of discovering, learning, assimilating, re-assessing, and growing.

So hopefully this post can serve as the final one-stop-shop for those curious folks who either want to know what it is I believe at the core, or who routinely fail to understand it, or are looking for a better way to describe themselves.

Reason, Faith, Belief, and Certainty

The following is an edited version of an email I wrote to someone in an effort to clarify the relationship between some of these commonly used terms – terms which, when used loosely or without very clear delineation among concepts, can muddle very important issues being discussed. I have posted it elsewhere, but I want it here in order to preserve continuity between other posts I intend to write and to make it more accessible.

It is an explanation of why I advocate the use of reason, and only the use of reason, as a tool of cognition and the basis for what I believe and what propositions I reject.

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A proposition is a statement about reality.

Propositions can fall into two broad categories: Those that have truth value, and those that don’t. A proposition that is verifiable and/or falsifiable has truth value. A proposition that is neither verifiable or falsifiable has no truth value. We call those propositions “arbitrary”, and statements arbitrarily made may be arbitrarily discarded.

Propositions that have truth value ultimately fall into one of two categories: True or false.The placement of propositions into those categories is done by each individual, to varying degrees based on ones degree of “certainty” that the proposition is true.

“Certainty” is a word that describes how fully one accepts the truth of a particular proposition. It is up to each person to judge for themselves how certain they are of any given proposition. No one can decide this for someone else – the degree of certainty is always up to each persons individual judgment.

Certainty always falls on a spectrum from 0% (not at all accepting) to 100% (accepting completely).

On this spectrum, we have certain broad “zones” where we classify the certainty of our acceptance of a proposition. For example…

If a person feels 0% certain of the truth of a proposition, they may say they “do not believe”.

If a person feels 1-20% certain, they might call themselves “doubtful”

If a person feels 21-40% certain, they might consider themselves open to the possibility that it’s true, while not yet accepting it.

If a person feels 41-60% certain, they might consider themselves “on the fence”

If a person feels 61-80% certain, they might say “it’s probably true”

If a person feels 81-100% certain, they might call themselves a believer.

Note: These percentages are rough estimates and only used as an example. The true degrees of certainty, and the thresholds they trigger, are different for each person and must be decided on by each person. There are no real numbers… but there are real degrees, and each person much decide what the thresholds are for each degree of certainty.

There is no law that determines what degree of certainty any person must have about the truth of any proposition. We are all free to be as certain or as uncertain as we want about any given proposition whatsoever.

There is no law that demands what we base our degree of certainty upon. We can base our certainty on whatever we choose, or we can arbitrarily choose to be certain.

So on exactly what should be base our degree of certainty?

The philosophical branch of epistemology concerns itself with exactly this question. Among other things, it endeavors to identify and justify what certainty ought to be based on. (It also speaks about what certainty means, whether it’s possible, etc… but that is outside the province of this discussion).

When we debate faith versus reason, we are specifically debating what the basis of certainty (and thus belief) ought to be.

Reason is a process by which one uses empirically observed fact in order to ascertain facts which are not empirically observed. Reason relies of the law of non-contradiction (A=A), in concert with sensory evidence, in order to gain knowledge and understanding of what we do not observe, based on what we do observe.

Faith is not a process. It is a direct cognitive leap from “not accepting” straight to “accepting”. Do not pass go. Do not bother with scaling belief against evidence.

So how does this apply to certainty? Is it possible to believe a proposition on faith and on reason?

The answer is yes.

In the context of epistemology, reason demands that the degree of certainty with which one accepts a proposition is congruous with the amount of evidence that supports the truth of that proposition. In other words, if you are presented with a proposition, backed up with evidence that supports it to a degree of 50% (for example), then reason demands that your certainty that the preposition is true should be roughly 50%.

If the proposition is backed up with evidence that supports it to a degree of 80%, then your degree of certainty should be 80%

(It is important to point out here that supporting evidence of 100% is not possible. Since all evidence is subject to further discovery, 100% is never possible. We cannot ever know everything – the potential for future discoveries are an inherent aspect of objective, contextual knowledge.)

So, if one is committed to reason, one will always strive to ensure that ones degree of certainty is scaled – to the best degree that one is capable – to the degree of evidence that supports that proposition.

What about faith?

In the context of epistemology, faith is the act of *assigning certainty disproportionately* from the amount of evidence supporting a particular proposition.

In other words, if a certain proposition is supported only with 25% evidence, yet one accepts the proposition with a a 99% degree of certainty – one has “bridged the gap” with faith.

So, to be clear… a person who does this would believe the proposition based on “evidence” (to the degree of 25%), and “faith” (bridging the cognitive gap). In this way, most faith-based beliefs do have supporting, albeit insufficient, evidence.

(This “bridging of the gap” is what is commonly referred to as a “leap of faith” – it’s a cognitive leap from certainty that is supported by evidence to certainty that is not supported by evidence).

It is important to remember… just because one accepts a proposition based on evidence and faith does not mean that faith and reason are compatible. They are two separate and mutually exclusive concepts. Evidence generates a specific degree of certainty…. and you are free at that point to stop there, or you are free to exercise faith and assign more certainty to the proposition than justified by the available evidence.

To say that faith can be based on evidence is nonsensical. Faith always begins where evidence ends – literally by definition.

My position is that such a cognitive bridge is always wrong. It is always wrong to assign a degree of certainty that is disproportionate to the amount of evidence available. Our degree of certainty ought to always be scaled to what we ascertain via empirical evidence, coupled with reason, any degree of certainty above and beyond that – or even below that – is cognitively unjustified. This is the definitive statement of my position.

So, if you really want to discuss epistemology… this is the place to start.

Reason demands that certainty is scaled to evidence.

Faith is the act of subverting the scaling process and assigning a degree of certainty that is incongruous with the amount of evidence available.

I advocate a policy of strict adherence to the demands of reason. I reject any suggestion that my degree of certainty of any proposition ought to be scaled above (or below) the degree of evidence available.

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