Category Archives: Philosophy

Philosophy: You Think, Therefore You Are?

Descartes“I think, therefore I am” is one of the classical philosophical statements, first uttered by René Descartes in the 17th century and most people take it as presented without giving it a whole lot of thought.  However, anyone who stops to consider it rationally for a few moments will realize that it actually is a statement of opinion, not fact, and not even that defensible an opinion at that.  This demonstrates one more area where philosophy goes wrong.

Let’s break this down for a moment.  Descartes was arguing that the very act of thought and existence of internal argument was sufficient evidence to demonstrate independent existence.  Is that really true?  Well, from the perspective of someone living in Descartes’ time, it might have seemed to be a logical conclusion to make, after all, he had no clue that non-human entities might be able to be self-aware and consider propositions, that act alone was probably enough to make him conclude that just thinking was proof of independent existence.

However, today we know better.  We have computers, we’re developing rudimentary AI and it isn’t hard to imagine that sometime in the not too distant future, we could develop extremely advanced artificial intelligence that equals or even surpasses our own mental abilities.  Some have suggested that the way to determine whether an advanced AI was self-aware is if it can think and question it’s own existence.  But what happens if we take one of these hyper-advanced computers and simply program it to think that it is thinking?  What if we hard-code it to question it’s own existence?  Is it then alive? Or is it just mimicking the properties of life?  It isn’t hard to imagine at all that we could take an advanced computer system and program every possible response into it’s electronic brain, such that it thinks it is thinking, it thinks it is making decisions, but in reality, it is just responding to code.  Is this alive?  Is it thinking, therefore it is?  Or is it just responding and being programmed to think it is thinking?

This is a very valid quandary and one we need to consider.  Because it is impossible to solve the problem of hard solipsism, we can never know for certain if we’re actually real, or part of some hyper-complex program like the Matrix, we can only assume that we are actually thinking and not simply following lines of code.  We can only assume that we’re making our own decisions, asking our own questions and seeking out truths, all of that might be a lie, we might just be an electronic brain in a vat, doing what we’re told by faceless experimenters.  In fact, all of reality could be a complete illusion, only one computer-generated “mind” imagining a whole universe that doesn’t really exist and since none of us can ever know what’s really going on in the heads of those that we think surround us, all of their possible responses to our questions could actually be coming from us. Even worse, maybe the world is actually someone else’s fantasy and our own internal monologue is actually part of someone else’s hyper-realistic dream.  How would you know?

Therefore, “I think, therefore I am” really has no objective meaning.  It doesn’t prove anything.  Descartes couldn’t have foreseen the modern world, with the existence of computers performing trillions of operations per second that fit in the palm of your hand.  He couldn’t have had any idea that one day, artificial brains could become so advanced that they might even surpass humanity.  It was totally outside of his realm of experience and understanding.  Given the possibility that all of these things could come to pass, perhaps even in our own lifetimes, maybe it’s time to rethink “I think, therefore I am”.  It just doesn’t pass the rational test anymore.

What is Philosophy For?

Philosophy imageI’ve questioned a lot of “philosophers” over the years, asking what is modern philosophy good for and haven’t really gotten a lot of good answers.  Sure, they’ll toss out all the things that the ancient philosophers have done, but what has philosophy done for us lately?

Anyhow, I came across this short video on YouTube and wanted to address what it has to say.  I still find philosophy, at least as I see it practiced most often, to be entirely problematic.  I’m not saying that philosophy can’t be valid or useful, only that in practice, at least as I see it practiced, it just isn’t all people pretend it’s cracked up to be.

First, go watch the video.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

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Let’s just go through this in order, shall we?  First, they say that philosophy is about asking the “big questions” and points out a couple of them.  “What is the meaning of life?”  “What’s a job for?”  “How should society be arranged?”  He argues that only with sound answers to these questions can we direct our energies meaningfully.  Unfortunately, he’s wrong.  Most of these questions have no good answers, and by that I mean that they have no answers that can be demonstrated to be actually valid or true.  Individual people might have personal answers that they find valuable, but these vary from person to person.  Philosophy has no means of actually finding objectively true solutions to these questions because no such thing actually exists.  He tries to pretend that philosophers are being brave in asking big questions because they’re likely to be ridiculed.  No, professional philosophers are desperately trying to find someone… anyone… who will pay them for sitting around and thinking and trying to pretend that what they think up is actually valuable.

But let’s move on.  He does make a good point about common sense being terribly uncommon, but what, exactly, is common sense anyhow?  It’s not something that is easy to define and therefore, demonstrate actually exists.  The video argues that people ought to think for themselves, but that’s what causes the error in the first place, isn’t it?  That’s why we have defined laws of logic and methodologies for locating irrationality.  It’s why we understand what logical fallacies are.  It’s like telling scientists to think for themselves and not bother with the scientific method.

Next, it says that we are mentally confused.  I’ll agree with that.  Philosophy is interested in self-knowledge, but we have to go beyond that, we need to be able to step back beyond the self and evaluate whether or not the things that we claim to know are actually knowledge, or simply belief and faith and wishful thinking.

Continuing on, he says we have muddled ideas about what makes us happy, but I find that to be entirely irrelevant.  If we’re going to use philosophy to come to actual conclusions about important question in the real world, what makes us happy has nothing to do with it.  Just like in science, how we feel about gravity has no bearing on the reality of gravity, what makes people feel good has nothing to do with philosophical truths.

Lastly, he says we panic and lose perspective.  I’d be in agreement with that until he throws it all out the window and claims that philosophers are really good at knowing what’s important and what is not.  Clearly that’s just not true, otherwise you wouldn’t have so much disagreement between philosophers.  The idea that Zeno’s losses somehow make unencumbering his life a philosophical concept is absurd.  If his leg got chopped off, would he conclude that hopping around on one foot was the better path of life?

There is a reason why we don’t have modern philosophers on the payroll, for the same reason that we try not to have priests and rabbis on the payroll.  They aren’t saying anything worth listening to by and large.  They aren’t solving problems in any way that’s demonstrable or effective.  In fact, they are more like theologians than they are like scientists and I think we need a lot more scientists, people who are more interested in demonstrable reality and objective evidence than in personal opinion and wishful thinking.

So that brings us back to those supposed big questions.  What is the meaning of life?  There isn’t one, at least not an inherent one. We all give our own lives meaning and no meaning is inherently better than any other.  You don’t need to sit on a mountain top and noodle your navel to come up with that one.  What’s a job for?  For making money so you can live and be a productive member of society.  How should society be arranged?  However society wishes, such that society operates as the majority of its members are comfortable living within this arrangement.  These are answers that we should ask, but not questions that can be demonstrated by the philosophers.  In fact that’s really the problem with modern philosophy, it’s just people using big words to express opinions that are wholly undefended and unsubstantiated.  Where philosophy might be useful is in pointing out irrational arguments and logical fallacies, but if they did that, they might have to “know themselves” and realize that they’re often engaging in exactly the same thing.

Are Americans Stupid?

It seems to me that Americans, indeed humans regardless of where they’re from, have gotten stupider as time has gone on.  There was a time when people were at least marginally intelligent, they had the ability to work out simple problems for themselves and didn’t need their hands held to ponder the most infantile dilemmas.  That’s all changed today, Americans just seem dumber than ever before and the data bears this out.

These are some disgusting statistics.

  • In a Newsweek poll, of U.S. citizens, 29% couldn’t identify Joe Biden as the Vice President, and 44% couldn’t describe the Bill of Rights.
  • Researcher Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary analyzed 300,00 Torrance Creativity Test scores of children and adults in the US. Kim found creativity and IQ scores rose steadily until 1990, and were in decline thereafter, and the most serious decline occurring for the youngest children.
  • A new global study of educational systems in major nations ranks U.S. 15 year olds 14th in the world in reading skills, 17th in science and 25th (below average) in math.
  • According the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 68% of public school children in the U.S. do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. And the U.S. News & World reported that barely 50% of students are ready for college level reading.

Now there are lots of reasons Americans are becoming more stupid, but I’m going to stick with the one I’ve brought up many times in the past, the liberalization of America.  People are becoming more liberal and as such, more stupid.  Unfortunately, when you have all of your questions and all of your problems handled by the government, there’s no reason to actually think about what’s going on in the world around you.

There’s one stat I didn’t list above because it shows that both sides of the political spectrum are not above abject stupidity.

  • 74% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53% in the House of Representatives deny the validity of climate changes since despite the findings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other significant scientific organization in the world.

While I’m sure you get some real retards who say there is no climate change whatsoever, the above is purposely misleading by the liberals.  The majority of “climate change deniers” don’t deny that climate change is occurring, only that mankind is the primary, or only, cause of it.  It takes only a short study of historical climatology to find that these things are cyclical, they happen all the time and have done so, not only before man was industrial, but before man even existed.  I won’t deny that we’ve probably played a contributing factor in making global climate change worse, but we didn’t cause it and if we stopped all negative acts, it wouldn’t stop.  The  sun was, at least until very recently, in a warming cycle and the planet is in an active volcanic cycle.  Those two combined together created a warming trend worldwide.  We have no control over the sun or the planet’s core and only an idiot would think that we do.  Unfortunately, some of these wingnut liberals, who have a psychological need to point fingers and place blame for everything that happens, refuse to acknowledge that fact.  They can’t blame the planet so instead, they blame themselves.  Of course, over the past 15 years, the trend has started to reverse and the planet is no longer warming, yet the liberals haven’t gotten it through their heads yet.  The fact that the Antarctic ice pack has rebounded more than 150% increase from just last year, such that a team of global warming fanatics got themselves trapped in the ice for over a week because there was too much ice!

But it’s not just stupid, people are becoming ignorant, rude, obnoxious and pathetic as well.  Basic manners in public seem to be a thing of the past.  If I hold a door for someone, it’s extremely rare to get a “thank you” or any other kind of acknowledgement, they just expect you to do it.  People drive like maniacs, talking on the phone, ignoring the road, acting like they have the automatic right of way at all times because liberalism tells them that they’re special and have no obligation to anyone else.  They don’t have to think about anyone but themselves and they don’t.

Some of this, I can and do lay at the feet of technology.  Kids now grow up not being able to express themselves well verbally because they spend almost all of their time online.  Being exposed to little but net-speak, they lose the ability to communicate intelligently and effectively, as well as the ability to spell proficiently.  That’s sad because they spend their time typing and still can’t do it correctly.  Also at issue is their lack of basic socialization.  When you can hide behind the inherent anonymity of the net, you don’t have to be sophisticated.  You’re free to be socially inept because people can’t pop you in the mouth like you probably badly deserve.  Add to that the rise in claims of autism, which some claim affects 1 in 110 children now, and you’re left with people who are unable to deal with people on a personal level.  Sorry, like it or not, I think that the whole Aspberger thing is a bunch of liberal bullshit.  Yeah, there may be some people who are fundamentally miswired and cannot function socially, but I’d argue that the majority are just anti-social asshats who are, as with so many others, being labeled as “diseased” to get away from the social stigma of being douchebags.  There are far too many people who, not that long ago, would have been deemed in the realm of normal, but today have a “disease” or a “condition” and are treated with drugs.  That honestly should not be necessary.  It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of autistic children were those that rocked back and forth and rarely communicated.  Now, almost everyone is autistic to some degree.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where education doesn’t matter and everyone sits around being entertained by a series of idiot boxes.  That’s not to say that these things can’t be useful or educational but for the most part, they’re not used that way.  They’re just used as mindless entertainment.  There was a time, years ago, when TV networks, as a consequence of their FCC license, had to present a certain amount of educational programming. That’s long gone today and it’s a shame.  There was a time when cartoons were forbidden to be half-hour long toy commercials.  Now, that’s all they are.  Kids are brainwashed from day one to be mindless consumers who don’t think too hard about the garbage coming out of their phones, computers and televisions. It must be true!  It came from YouTube!

I don’t know if this is something that we can solve because society just keeps getting more and more liberal and things keep getting worse and worse.  There seems to be no point in just socializing and having a good time, you see kids sitting in groups, each of them engrossed in whatever is happening on their phone.  They don’t talk.  They don’t play.  They don’t engage each other.  Heck, I have seen kids text each other while standing a few feet apart.  Something is seriously wrong, yet most don’t want to correct anything because they are blinded by the blinking lights and the information overload.

So how do we fix this?  I’d really like some realistic ideas.

Most Morality is Wholly Emotional

system-of-morality-which-is-based-on-relative-emotional-values-is-a-mere-illusion-a-thoroughly-socrates-174031After the end of the Atheist Experience show I talked about here, I stayed in the chat channel and talked to a couple of people. Things shifted to morality and wow, there are a lot of irrational people about who unfortunately are convinced they are rational.  The discussion was sparked by people talking about claims of religious morality during the show and moved to a discussion of Matt Dillahunty’s “superiority of secular morality” which I talked about here.

One person got really upset that I wouldn’t accept his subjective criteria for what makes up objective morality. He kept saying that things were “good” and “decent” and promoted “well-being” and when I asked him to define those things objectively, he got mad.  Apparently, he thinks that what he believes to be “good” and “decent” and promoted “well-being” are the same things everyone believes about those things.  The very idea that anyone might disagree is anathema.  In fact, he started defining “all moral people” believe what he believes, leaving the assertion that anyone who doesn’t believe what he  believes to be immoral. He just couldn’t get it through his head that every time he came up with a criteria, that criteria was, by definition, subjective and thus could not be used to demonstrate objective morality.  He kept getting madder and madder and calling names, all the while proclaiming his morality to be entirely objective.

Of course, this is wholly emotional, something that I kept trying to steer the ship away from, yet every single one of the people involved kept forcing it back.  They couldn’t even see that they were being emotional about it, they kept demanding that their views were right and nothing anyone could say could show otherwise, in fact, anyone who disagreed had something wrong with them.

Just like theists, in fact.

In fact, all of these arguments are just subjective, based on individual biases and things that the person has been indoctrinated into.  My goal is to move beyond biased opinions and cultural indoctrination to a discussion about what really constitutes an “objective morality”.  To be honest, it very well might not even be possible, I think that all moral codes are inherently subjective and I’m fine with that, so long as people stop pretending otherwise.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing about debating morality, I think that’s something important to do, I am against people simply holding out their own morality as the sole model and demanding everyone else comply because they say so. Discussing morality isn’t simple, it’s an inherently messy process that requires a lot of time and effort to define your terms, defend your terminology and explain why you think what you think.  Using “moral” as a philosophical shorthand is meaningless.  That means that any discussion about what is moral and what is not is going to be a long one.

It just disturbs me to see so many atheists who really ought to know better, doing the exact same thing that theists do, declaring their view of morality to be factually and objectively correct without understanding that it simply isn’t.  And then, faced with this failure, they get emotionally upset instead of learning from their mistakes.  By the end, I had the remaining handful of people in the channel cussing at me because I kept asking them to justify their positions and they simply  could not.  I’m not sure if it was more sad or more funny, it was certainly a mixture of both.

Morals are subjective, emotional things, there isn’t any moral code you can point out that can be demonstrated objectively. There are no criteria that you can point out that you can show to be factually true.  Just declaring your criteria to be worthwhile, just because you think it is, just proves the subjectivity of it all once again.

And that’s something most people, even supposedly rational atheists, don’t want to admit most of the time.

Arguing Free Will is Religious

Free Will2There are a lot of subjects that I really don’t like to talk about, not because I can’t, but because people on the other side really haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about and they’re often very emotionally attached to one side or the other.  One of those subjects is abortion, another is natural rights and, unfortunately, one more is free will.

Free will is an odd critter.  People will often cling to their beliefs about it with an almost religious fervor. Unfortunately, I think most of the time, people on both sides of the argument are just talking past each other because nobody ever bothers to rationally define their terms.  You’ve got the people on one side who are very sure that free will can’t possibly exist because we live in a deterministic universe.  They define “free will” in such a way that it cannot possibly exist, they’re convinced that we’re all just automatons programmed by the universe to wander around and do things for reasons inscrutable.  Those are the people I have most trouble with because they’re really using “free will” in an absurd manner.  Since I won’t use it in their terms, they really don’t like me much when I point out how ridiculous their claims really are.

Take a discussion I had today with someone who was a strict determinist.  I gave him an example of being at an intersection and having a choice of going left, right or straight ahead.  I could make any of those decisions I wanted, I could go left, I could go right or I could go straight ahead, barring obstacles like brick walls and the like.  So what is it in his deterministic universe that decides which path I will take?  I could go left and then, the next second, I could  go right.  He says no, the universe has changed in the second between my decisions.  Oh really?  Please show me the specific changes in the universe that have altered my ability to make a choice?  He couldn’t, in fact, he didn’t even try, which is hardly surprising because he couldn’t do it and he knew it.  He just asserted that there must have been a change because he had to keep to his original religious faith in determinism.  Sorry, that’s not how rational debate works.  If you make a claim, you have to back it up.  If you cannot back it up, don’t make the claim.  In fact, that’s exactly how religion operates, isn’t it?  Make claims that cannot possibly be supported and get upset when people don’t take your unsupported claims seriously.

What’s worse, these people tend to get really upset when people won’t buy into their unsupported drivel, it wasn’t long until this guy was calling me names because I wouldn’t take his word that the universe worked the way he insisted that it did. The more I pointed out the irrationality of his position, the madder he got until the moderators shut him down and banned him from the thread.  As I said, people get really emotionally attached to things, even if those things are really absurd. They lack the ability to step back and look at their own position from an intellectual perspective and see the flaws in their own beliefs.  This is true of the religious, this is true of many political debaters, it most certainly is true when it comes to free will.  It stops being about accepting the best supported and most rational positions and becomes all about standing your ground, even when you’re wrong.

Why do so many people do that?

Where Philosophy Falls Apart

Philosopher ReasonI’ve been very critical of philosophy over the years and for very good reason because philosophy tends to get misused a lot. There are times where philosophy is useful, such as when it keeps debates and discussions on the proper, logical, non-fallacious path and keeps people from saying things that are simply unjustified and unjustifiable.  However, there are plenty of times when philosophy is pointless and a lot closer to religion than anything else.  When people start using philosophy as a means to describe reality, for instance, that’s pointless.  Philosophy doesn’t have the mechanisms to keep people objective, to test conclusions, etc. like science does.

That was the point that I made to someone who recently argued that reality didn’t exist without perception.  If there wasn’t an intelligent entity to experience reality, then reality, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist, it is the perception of an intelligent entity that gives reality form and thus makes it real.  This is, of course, complete and utter bullshit.  The universe was around for billions of years after the Big Bang before it is likely that any intelligent life developed anywhere, if indeed any intelligent life but us has ever existed.  Does this mean that, before that first human precursor evolved that very first  gleaning of intellect, nothing existed?  Well, very likely so according to this guy.

So I pointed out that we have objective evidence pointing all the way back to the Big Bang that yes, there was a real universe and unless he wants to suggest that human perception simply made it look like there was a previous existence, he was simply wrong.  He paused for a moment and then acknowledged that the universe did actually exist before intelligence, it just didn’t mean anything because perception gives reality “meaning”.

You just can’t win with these people.  In that, they are just like the religious and for pretty much the same reason.  They are desperately trying to justify what they already believe but they have no good reason for actually believing it.  It’s something that feels good to them and they think the emotion is good enough to think that it’s actually true.  This goes for all kinds of empty believers.  It goes for solipsists.  It goes for libertarians.  It goes for theists.  These are people who want to feel good about what they believe so they just lie to themselves and pretend that what they believe is true, even if it cannot be demonstrated to actually be so.  Philosophy, like religion, does a good job, to rationalize these unsupported belief systems and they build their entire worldviews on top of that rationalization.

I also find it sad that philosophy, again like religion, tends to rely heavily on that old, tired logical fallacy, the appeal to authority.  If you have a discussion with an armchair philosopher, they will almost always rely on “this philosopher said this” and “that philosopher said that”.  So what?  I’m not debating them, I’m debating you.  I want you to justify those beliefs and if you can’t attaching the name of some old philosopher to the argument doesn’t make it any better.  I’m no more impressed by saying “David Hume says…” than I am with “Josh McDowell says…”  So what?

Ultimately, it’s all just opinion and unjustified opinion at that.  There are questions that cannot be easily answered but just because you want an answer to an unanswered question doesn’t mean you get to make one up and be taken seriously.  This goes for the religious and the political and the social believers.  Just because you want a thing to be true doesn’t mean it actually is true unless you can rationally justify it.  Waving your arms around and pretending it means anything does not justify a damn thing.

That’s Just The Way It Is

thatsthewayitisOne of the most disturbing arguments I see and one that bugs me a lot is the idea that we shouldn’t try to change humanity for the better because people are irrational and “that’s just the way it is”.  This comes up most often in religious discussions where I try to encourage people to think critically and rationally about their religious beliefs and invariably, someone will pop up and say “humans aren’t rational, you can’t expect them to ever be rational”.


That’s like saying that humans are naturally racist and sexist, which we know they are.  We generally seek out those with similar characteristics to ourselves and tend to fear those with different characteristics.  It’s part of our biology and part of our evolution.  That doesn’t mean we should throw up our arms and accept it, in fact, we’ve spent a lot of time, several generations at this point, fighting exactly that and it’s worked.  There aren’t as many racist or sexist people around anymore.  Just trying actually accomplishes things.

So why is it so awful to ask that people actually use that piece of meat in their heads?  Why shouldn’t we hold people to a higher standard than we do cattle?  Well, it all comes down to those lovely people, the accomodationists, who don’t want anyone to ever feel bad for being stupid.  Unfortunately, the theists tend, and I say tend, to be stupid and irrational, basing their entire religious worldview on emotion, not intellect.  It makes them feel good to think that there’s a powerful invisible man in the sky who is keenly interested in what people do in their bedrooms.  I don’t know why it makes them good, I just know that it does, it certainly did back when I was religiously delusional, even though I can’t, for the life of me, remember why I ever thought it was a good idea.

That said, no, I do not accept that it’s just the way that it is.  Those who aren’t willing or capable of upping their game ought to be criticized for it.  People shouldn’t be allowed to feign stupidity as an excuse for believing ridiculous things. They ought to be challenged and if they fail the challenge, they ought to be ridiculed.  It makes it a bit easier since the United States is becoming increasingly more secular, up to 38% in the most recent polls, for people who claim no religious affiliation.  We’re winning, folks.  Maybe we ought to press our advantage and take the war for intelligent debate over religious topics to the streets.  Don’t let people use blind faith as an excuse.  Blind faith is a failure.  Make sure they know it. Make sure everyone knows it.  The more people are ridiculed for relying on such absurd things, the more embarrassed they get by repeatedly failing to win these debates, the more they’ll be forced, by peer pressure, into actually adopting a more intellectual and rational standpoint.  From there, it’s only a few steps to giving up the ridiculous religious beliefs altogether.

Let’s not allow “that’s the way it is” to be an excuse.  It isn’t the way it ought to be.  We need to demand better of everyone. We need to have high expectations.  We need to keep raising the bar instead of what so many accomodationists routinely do, pull out a shovel when they look for the lowest common denominator.  Stooping to the worst possible choice doesn’t improve humanity, it just allows humanity to remain blissfully ignorant and ignorance doesn’t help any of us improve.

Opinions vs. Statements of Fact

fact opinionThe recent discussion on natural rights has resulted in yet another concept that libertarians and others of their ilk don’t seem to get.  See, there was one libertarian who was honest and admitted that “natural rights” was just his opinion.  Well no, it’s really not because for every single natural-rights advocate I’ve ever come across, it’s never stated as an opinion, it’s stated as a fact.  There is a difference.

An opinion would be “it is my opinion that everyone has these particular rights”.  A statement of fact is “everyone has these particular rights”.  In close to 100% of cases that I’ve encountered, natural-rights advocates have said the latter and I’m only hedging because I’ve never seen anyone say the first, I’m just giving the benefit of the doubt.  Even our libertarian who admits that it’s his opinion, stated it as a fact and when I pointed this out to him, he didn’t correct his error.

What he did do, though, is declare that it was a “core value” and therefore, not open to debate.  Wrong.  Everything is open to debate.  Absolutely everything, without exception.  If you cannot provide a compelling case for your arguments, no matter what you want to call your position, you lose.  He says, though, that no core values can be defended, that’s the nature of a core value.  I call bullshit.  All of my “core values” are defensible, I can argue why I think they are important, why they have an important impact on society and why they ought to be in place.  I just don’t claim that any of them are necessarily true or that everyone actually respects or recognizes them because clearly, they do not.

The natural-rights crowd doesn’t do that though.  They pretend, and most are actually convinced, that these things are actually so and in that, it places them in the same camp as the religious, who are similarly supremely convinced of their own delusions.  In fact, I’ve run into plenty of theists who claim that they don’t have to defend their “faith”, just because it’s faith.  No, the only way to avoid having the burden of proof for your views is to not talk about your views.  The moment you bring them up, you’re automatically on the hook for defending them. That’s the way rational debate works, you don’t get to just opt out.

Maybe if both the libertarians, at least those who are natural rights advocates, and the religious figured that out, we might have more productive debates.  Instead, we’re just left with the religiously and politically faithful demanding things they cannot show to be true and the rest of us are left shaking our heads.

Why People Believe What They Believe Part 6

IRRATIONALHere’s the last of my 6-part series detailing 57 cognitive biases that everyone ought to be aware of and people who want to pretend to be rational have to address and purposely avoid. As intelligent people, we need to know why people believe what they believe and how to improve our cognitive functions.

So how did you do?  Did you find any of these that  you were guilty of?  I found a couple that I fall into now and then and am going to be more cognizant of and avoid in the future.  So without further ado, here’s the last 7.  Enjoy.

Self-Enhancing Transmission Bias – People tend to talk about things that make themselves look good and, in contrast, not talk about things that tend to make them look bad.  Therefore, if you’re talking to someone online that you’ve never met, you can be sure that they will describe themselves in glowing terms and avoid talking about their shortcomings because they want you to think well of them.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re lying, but humans tend to exaggerate when they talk about themselves, even subconsciously.  This is true of ideas and beliefs as well.  If someone  believes a thing, they will tend to talk more positively, to present it in a more favorable light than it might actually be worth.  People know they are judged by their beliefs and therefore, they want everyone to think that their beliefs are absolutely true and valid, even if they’re not.

Status Quo Bias – Many people will take the current situation as the baseline and any change from that baseline is seen as a loss or a failure.  This bias exists strongly among the neo-cons, who want no change from the current situation, even if the change is demonstrably superior to the current situation.  This does not mean that it is automatically irrational to want to maintain the status quo until something better comes along, in fact, that’s the way rational change happens, we stick with what works until something that works better is found.  There is an opposite bias that I discussed in a previous post where people want change for the sake of change, whether the change is superior or not.  That is equally as fallacious.

Stereotyping – Stereotyping is not necessarily bad, as some people seem to think, it is a means for humans to take large amounts of data and boil it down to a few simple and fast general rules about things.  The problem comes when the stereotypes become more important than the facts, as is too often true.  We need to remember that at the core of most stereotypes is a truism, a reason that the stereotype began in the first place.  So long as we remember that these are general truths, not specific facts that apply equally to every member of the particular set, we can avoid this bias.

Survivorship Bias – This is a logical error of paying attention to the survivors and ignoring those who did not survive a particular process.  In other words, only seeing the success and dismissing the failure.  This can lead to overly optimistic views because you are only concerned with those who were successful and pay not attention to those who were not.  This kind of thing is very common in advertising, where companies will purposely tell you all the good things that a product does, but none of the negative things unless forced to do so.  If you listen to prescription drug commercials on TV, you can hear how all commercials ought to be if they were even-handed, telling you the positive benefits, but then the side-effects, so that you can make a rational decision.  You don’t hear many breakfast cereal commercials telling you that eating their cereal might kill you, do you?

Tragedy of the Commons – People tend to act according to their own self-interest before the long-term survival of the crowd.  This also can occur when people will take short term gains in the face of long-term losses because immediate gratification is more important than long-term survival.  There is a reversal to this where an individual may be so concerned with potential long-term losses that they will not permit any short-term gains, just in case it might interfere with something down the road.

Unit Bias – Unit bias is the tendency to see a particular defined unit of something as the “correct amount”, regardless of whether it’s an acceptable amount or not.  Take for example a bag of potato chips.  People have no problem sitting down and eating an entire bag of chips because they see it as a single unit.  It doesn’t matter if they’re that hungry or not, they just eat it because it seems acceptable.  This is also true of things we buy, we’ll purchase things in quantities we won’t even use and don’t even need because of the way they are packaged. Advertisers often take advantage of our tendency toward unit bias to get us to buy more than we normally would.

Zero Risk Bias – We see the tendency for people to choose zero-risk options, or at least things that seem like zero-risk, over options that may be less risky overall, but are presented in a way that are less easy to understand. Humans are very good at thinking about proportions, less so thinking about differences.  Given a choice to reduce deaths in a particular situation where 20 deaths occur by 50%, or by 11 deaths, many people will choose the 50% reduction, even though reducing by 11 deaths is more.

So there you go, that’s the list.  There are more cognitive biases out there, but this will get you started.  Think about the things that go on in your head and realize that your brain isn’t really wired to do things rationally most of the time, you have to take control of your thought processes and be responsible for how your cognitive functions work.  It’s your responsibility to be rational.  Saying “nobody else is rational, why should I be” is asinine and defeatist.  It’s not how critical thinking works, it’s not how intellectual people work and it shouldn’t be how you work.  Be the best you can be and stop allowing cognitive biases to get in the way of that.

The Religion of Natural Rights

Natural RightsI always find it amusing whenever a discussion about natural rights pops up because the typically libertarian adherents have to resort to quasi-religious means to have any hope whatsoever in justifying the concept.  Recently, yet another of these fun topics reared its ugly head and, like clockwork, the libertarians leapt into the fray, declaring, without evidence, that there are all kinds of universal rights that magically exist, even if they were totally incapable of proving any of it.

One guy, in fact, became the poster boy for libertarian natural rights stupidity when, not only could he not justify it in any way, he started getting mad.  Really mad.  But along the way, he hit the smorgasbord of theistic irrational responses, the things that we pretty much expect to see coming from the apologists because they really have nothing intelligent to say.

Some of those included:

  1. Declaring that everyone knows natural rights are real and anyone who says otherwise is just lying!  Clearly, natural rights are “self-evident” and anyone who doesn’t accept that is an idiot and a liar.
  2. Throwing the argument from authority into the mix, saying that the Founding Fathers believed in natural rights so clearly, they’re true.
  3. When that didn’t work, he went for full-tilt insults, calling people stupid for disagreeing with him, then “excusing” himself from the conversation because he had better things to do than talk to idiots.  Of course, he never really excused himself, he kept coming back again and again to repeat the same nonsense that had come before.

How often have we seen these things from the religious?  This guy was running with their playbook, whether he knows it or not.  And like the religious, his tactics aren’t impressing anyone. pretty much everyone else in the discussion is pointing out the same inherent flaws that I am and he’s getting madder and madder as time goes on. I’m waiting to see how long it takes for a blood vessel in his forehead to pop.

But that’s really the thing, even if you aren’t given to fits of rage and utter religious irrationality, libertarians and other “natural rights” advocates still have no good reason to believe that they’re actually true or meaningful.  It’s a blind faith in something they wish was true, yet cannot demonstrate is true.  This puts it in the same religious setting as a Christian declaring moral laws.  It came from an unquestionable authority!  You have to accept it!  It’s magically and automatically true!  Except in this case, that authority isn’t a god, it’s the deified demi-gods, the Founding Fathers.  Here’s a news flash for you, just because the Founding Fathers said something doesn’t make it true. Just because the patron philosophical saints, Locke, Hobbes and Paine said something, that doesn’t make it true.  Just  because you want to believe something, that doesn’t make it so either!  The only thing that makes a proposition true is being able to logically, rationally and objectively argue its merits and produce evidence to support your claims.

And libertarians can’t do that, any more than the religious can.  Intelligent, rational people would accept that their beliefs are unjustifiable and find a better path.  So what’s wrong with the libertarians?

Clear Immorality Doesn’t Exist

rightandwrong540On a recent Atheist Experience, Matt Dillahunty was talking to a caller, explaining that people can be clearly immoral, holding opinions that Matt and other atheists find reprehensible.  You know, while I agree with Matt on his moral views more often than not, I have to call bullshit once again and explain that there is no such thing as objective morality and pretending that your personally preferred moral views are just inherently better than everyone else, without actually doing anything to defend your views, is just nonsense.

The simple fact is, morality is a human invention and it varies from person to person, place to place and culture to culture.  What you think is moral in one place may not be moral in another, what people elsewhere consider moral, you may consider immoral and the fact is, neither of you are any more demonstrably correct than the other.  Oh sure, one side might be able to construct a framework that they like better than the other person’s framework but that doesn’t mean that their framework is objectively superior, based on their preference.

I’m honestly not picking on Matt, even though he tends to spark these kinds of reactions because he often talks in absolute terms, even if, I would assume, he knows deep down that he can’t really do that.  He’s just been indoctrinated, like almost everyone else, to think that the cultural norms of his native land are correct and the cultural norms of others, where they differ, are wrong.  However, we have to remember that this is all a bunch of opinions.  Take killing, for instance.  Most people would agree that killing another person for no defensibly good reason is wrong.  Some people think that killing another person is okay in self defense or times of war.  Some people think that there is no conceivable reason to ever kill another person.  Some people think there is no conceivable reason to ever kill any creature whatsoever.  So who is right?  Who is wrong?  It depends on your perspective and, like it or not, none of the perspectives are demonstrably better than any other.

Beyond culture though, Matt has also bought into a political and social perspective, that being liberalism.  His liberal morals, in addition to his cultural morals, differ significantly from the morals of a conservative from the same culture, or from a neo-con, or from a libertarian.  Can Matt prove that his morals are any better?  Can he demonstrate that the substrate upon which he bases his morals is inherently correct?  No, he cannot.  It’s all subjective and Matt knows that it’s all subjective, even if he rarely allows that to slip.  He has said in the past that the criteria for determining morality is subjective, but once you have that criteria, it can be applied objectively, therefore his morality is objective.  No, he’s just missed the subjective part, the part where he picked a criteria that appealed to his cultural and political sensitivities.

In reality, people jump to these moral beliefs, not because their set of beliefs is better, but because declaring them to be authoritative negates the need to actually defend them rationally all the time.  It’s easier to just say your beliefs are true and beyond reproach than to have a ready and rational response to challenges.  What I say is better than what you say because this authority figure says so, or this document says so, or because this group of people says so.  None of that is rational.  The only way for one position to be better than another position is for it to be demonstrably and objectively superior and usually, that’s not the case.

The fact remains, our founding fathers picked a general set of criteria for how things would operate in the United States and enshrined them in the founding documents of this nation.  That doesn’t mean that those criteria are special, it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re magical, any more than the religious, who claim their morality springs from a supernatural creator, get to claim that their chosen criteria is special.  It’s all just opinion and while we can argue the merits of individual or cultural opinions, we cannot state that one is inherently true and others are inherently false, no matter how much we might agree or disagree with the individual ideas.

Just because humans have this social and cultural shorthand, just because most people do it, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing and that we shouldn’t be aware of it and correct our behavior.  There is no objective morality, no inherently superior moral code, we’re all just smart animals wandering around on an insignificant planet in an insignificant solar system, adrift in an insignificant galaxy, it’s about time we started recognizing our failings and foibles and being better as a species.

And yes, that is my subjective opinion.

Why People Believe What They Believe Part 5


Welcome to part 5 of my series on cognitive bias, the things that any rational, critical-thinking individuals must be aware of in order to keep from falling into cognitive traps and unsound thinking patterns.  If you missed the first four parts of my series, check the last 4 Mondays and you’ll find them.

It’s really a shame that so many atheists, so called critical thinkers and skeptics, fall into these traps so often.  Many times, they are simply unaware that these biases exist, others, they are programmed by their worldviews to ignore them entirely because they get in the way of a favored emotional conclusion.

Therefore, please read through this set of 10 cognitive biases and see if you can find them playing havoc in your own mind.  The only way to be rational is to recognize your own irrational failings.

Let’s begin.

Pro-Innovation Bias – This is very common, I see it among liberals and so-called “progressives” a lot.  It is the belief that any social innovation should be accepted by society immediately and without question or alteration, because it is seen by its supporters as important and imperative.  Those behind an idea tend not to be able to see the idea’s weaknesses or limitations and therefore push the idea regardless of how well it might actually work.

Procrastination – We all know what this is, the tendency to put off less pleasurable tasks in order to avoid hard work or undesirable activities as long as possible.  However, there is a cognitive element here as well, we often put off difficult thought processes, or avoid thinking about uncomfortable things for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily stop us from making decisions without considering all of the factors, we simply make them ignorantly, based on incomplete evidence or ideas uncritically accepted.  We may also put off making a decision as long as we can, exacerbating other factors and making the process more difficult in the long run.

Reactance – When one feels they are being pushed to accept a particular idea or concept as true, they may over-react and adopt an opposite position, simply out of obstinance, instead of being convinced that the opposite position is actually valid.  Many people who understand reverse psychology will attempt to use this cognitive bias by pushing the position they do not favor in hopes that the individual will accept the position that they do.

Recency – An idea which has been recently encountered will be favored over one that has been less recently encountered.  As ideas become less and less encountered, they become less favored because they are not reinforced in the mind.  This really has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the idea is valid or not, we’re just programmed to think that ideas that we encounter consistently are more important.  This may be why religion relies so heavily on memorization and recitation, it keeps reinforcing the same ideas over and over again so that the individual automatically sees those ideas as true.

Reciprocity – In the cognitive sense, this is the belief that people will think in similar ways, therefore if you find a particular idea or belief compelling, that everyone else ought to to do as well.  This is a very serious problem that I see constantly, people acting like because they like an idea, that idea must be true, simply  because everyone ought to think exactly the same way as they do.  Ideas are not true because you favor them, but on their own merits and based on independent evidence and critical evaluation of the validity behind the idea.

Regression Bias –  Also known as the regression fallacy, this is the belief that a trend will continue, simply because it is a trend.  It doesn’t take into account the natural fluctuations which occur in any system which throw any claims of tendencies out of balance.  Trends only show where things may go, not where they absolutely will go.

Restraint Bias – Restraint bias is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control their impulses, such that they are convinced that they can avoid potential downsides of actions or beliefs, because they think they are able to override those impulses better than others.  Physical examples of this may be addictive behaviors like drugs or alcohol or smoking, where the individual thinks that they could never be addicted to these things, therefore it is safe to experiment with them.  This is also true of psychologically addictive behaviors where people may overestimate their ability to be affected negatively.

Salience – In the realm of cognition, salience refers to things that stand out from those around them being given extra attention, just because they stand out.  Some people will give extra importance to an object or an idea, just because it is different in some way from it’s neighbors, even if that difference has no bearing on the question being considered.  This tends to lead people astray by focusing on the variation instead of on the actual content.  I see this in Christians who will claim that Christianity is special because it is “different” in a few minor ways from other religions, while ignoring the overwhelming majority of ways that it is exactly identical.  They will also entirely refuse to acknowledge differences between other religions and their own which might lead adherents of other religions to claim their beliefs are special.

Seersucker Illusion – First written about by Scott Armstrong, he describes it as “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”  People tend to want to believe that there are others who can provide information about their future or make them feel good that their actions are going to lead to positive results.  This isn’t just about psychics and other hucksters, it can also apply to stock analysts and political experts who really have no better track record than random chance, they just present themselves as professional prophets for a fee.

Selective Perception – Again, this is extremely common, it is the tendency to ignore or quickly forget stimuli that causes emotional pain or contradicts existing beliefs.  This is very true in religion, politics and social belief structures, an individual may see in the media those things that support their pre-existing beliefs and forget everything that disagrees with them.  This is a bias that many psychologists think is automatic in the brain, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hazardous to critical thinking.  We have to be careful to see all of the evidence and evaluate it rationally, regardless of whether it supports our views or not.  To do otherwise is irrational.

And there you have it, another ten cognitive biases to be aware of and to consciously avoid.  Next week, I’ll present the last seven biases and wrap this series up.  Do you remember them all?  Have you noticed yourself being affected by any of them?  Let me know in the comments.

Why People Believe What They Believe Part 4


Welcome to part 4 of my series on cognitive biases and other irrational things that go on in our heads that we need to not only be aware of, but we need to know how to counter.  As in the past, I’ll give a short explanation of each and hope that you try to recognize these problems in  your own life and how they affect your rationality.  As critical thinking individuals, we have to be aware of potential problems that may arise in our thought processes.  Just wanting to be rational isn’t enough, we have to continually test our positions to make sure they are arrived at through rational means.

So on with the show!

Observer Expectancy Effect – Here, the observer can influence witnesses by holding and/or expressing an expectation of the witnesses.  One example of this was backmasking, the belief that Satanic messages are recorded backwards in songs.  Because people are told that there are messages in the songs, many people hear these messages where, before they were told what to listen for, they only heard random noises.  This is also common in irrational and undemonstrated practices like dowsing.

Omission Bias – When engaging the Omission Bias, people are likely to judge an action that is harmful as worse or more immoral than an equally harmful lack of action because it’s easier to see action than inaction.  A good example would be a politician who knows his political rival is allergic to a particular food.  If people are asked if it is worse that the politician gave his rival food that he knew his rival was allergic to, or if he purposely did not inform his rival that the food he was about to eat contained something he was allergic to, people tend to identify the first option as more immoral when they both lead to the same conclusion.

Ostrich Effect – Those guilty of the Ostrich Effect attempt to avoid risky or dangerous situations by simply pretending they do not exist.  While typically used in financial transactions, it does apply, for example, in faith healing cases, where the parents simply refuse to acknowledge the possibility that prayer doesn’t work and their child may die from lack of proper medical attention.

Outcome Bias – When considering a past decision where the ultimate outcome of the decision is known, individuals will often judge that decision, not on the basis of the decision itself, but on the outcome, positive or negative.  Data discovered after the decision is made should have no bearing on whether the decision was good or bad at the time.  A doctor, for instance, should decide whether a particular treatment option is warranted based on the prognosis at the time.  If an operation had a good chance of success for the particular ailment, it would have been a good decision to make, even if the patient ultimately died.

Overconfidence Effect – Some people are extremely confident of their abilities, even when their abilities are demonstrably faulty.  People tend to overestimate their own accuracy when the truth is notably less.  Someone who claims to be 99% confident in their ability to correctly answer questions, yet their answers are only 40% correct, has a problem with the calibration of their subjective probabilities.  We need to understand the reasonable limits of our abilities and not pretend, through ego or unwarranted confidence, that we are better than we actually are.

Overoptimism – Also called the Optimism Bias, this is the state of belief that one is less likely to suffer adverse effects because they are optimistic about the world around them.  For example, there are smokers who are convinced that they are less likely to contract lung cancer than other smokers, people who think that they are less likely to be victims of violent crime than others in similar situations, etc.  Much of this comes from self-presentation, the desire to present a specific image of oneself, whether that image is realistic or not.  It can also come from a desire to impose personal control on the world around them, whether or not that control is possible.  It really asserts that the individual is special and thus at less risk than anyone else, a demonstrably faulty assumption.

Pessimism Bias – This is the opposite of Overoptimism, it is the assumption that bad things are more likely to happen to an individual than to other similar individuals under similar conditions.  All of the things that I said about overoptimism apply here as well.

Placebo Effect – In medicine, the placebo effect is a demonstrable change in health or behavior that cannot be attributed to actual medication or treatment, only the assumption by the patient that such treatment has been given.  Our brains have a wonderful capacity to heal and sometimes, it only takes the assumption that we are being treated and the confidence that such treatments are effective, to trigger these healing properties and allow the body to fix itself without outside intervention.  Of course, this doesn’t just apply to medicine, people who believe, for instance, that they are being prayed for, can experience dramatic changes in attitude or experience if they believe prayer helps. It is important to recognize that outside of a desire to improve, placebo doesn’t actually do anything, it just provides a means for people to improve their own situation.

Planning Fallacy – People often have difficulty estimating how long it will take to complete a particular project, even if they have experience with the amount of time it may actually take.  Asked to estimate how long it would take to complete their thesis, only 30% of students actually accurately predicted the timetable.  Most vastly underestimated how much time it would take.

Post-Purchase Rationalization – Especially when it comes to expensive purchases, or perceived expensive decisions, the decision maker will attempt to build up their purchase or decision to rationalize the cost.  This isn’t just a matter of cars and boats, where a buyer may disregard any shortcomings because they paid a lot for the product.  People who make heavy decisions that have a lot of personal cost to them may ignore problems with their decision in order to make themselves feel better about having made it.  People tend to want to avoid admitting that they have made bad decisions for bad reasons.

Next Monday, ten more!  We’re coming down to the wire, I hope you’re enjoying this look at things we need to avoid to make good decisions.

Why People Believe What They Believe Part 3


Here’s part three of my 6-part Monday series on cognitive biases that we all should be aware of.  I got the idea from here, but it’s something we should all strive to understand and be careful with if we want to be as rational as we can.  Just because we’re programmed to believe certain things doesn’t mean those things are actually good to believe. And so, here’s my next set of ten biases to think about, things that come up all the time and that we need to consider before acting.

Hindsight Bias – I would argue that the tendency for Islam to declare that scientific discoveries are found in the Qur’an is an excellent example of this fallacy.  This deals with people “discovering” in retrospect that ideas are true and they knew it all along.  It springs from selective memory and is often associated with schizophrenia and PTSD.

Hyperbolic Discounting – When given a choice between two similar rewards, people tend to discount the later reward and give favor to the earlier, simply because it comes first.  Even if the reward is greater if one waits, people tend to place value on the smaller reward, just because it comes sooner.  As the amount of time the subject has to wait increases, their tolerance for slightly longer waits increases as well.  If they are told that they can get ten dollars today, or thirty dollars tomorrow, a significant number will choose the ten dollars today.  However, if you tell them that they can have ten dollars a month from now, or thirty dollars a month and a day from now, a smaller number will pick the ten dollars, preferring to wait the additional day for the larger amount.

Ideomoter Effect – The human body may sometimes take action, seemingly without being commanded by the brain.  This likely explains things like Ouija Boards and dowsing, where people are subconsciously maneuvering objects without being consciously aware they are doing it.  In fact, people are often so unaware that they utterly refuse to acknowledge the possibility that they are influencing the outcome of the experiment.

Illusion of Control – I’ve talked about people’s ability to under-estimate the control they might have over a particular situation, but the Illusion of Control addresses the opposite, people can vastly over-estimate how much control they have in a particular situation, to the point that they assert that they are actually responsible for things that they simply cannot be responsible for.  This is especially true with many superstitions and belief in extrasensory perception, etc.  People think that they have special powers that let them change the results on dice or that performing a ritual will help their sports team win the big game, etc.  Feedback loops play a particularly strong part in this, if a person takes a particular action and a favorable result comes about, they may link that action with that result and continue to perform one in order to get the other.  Of course, this is subject to confirmation bias, the ability to remember the hits and forget the misses, when things really operate no better than random chance.

Illusion of Validity – We find this commonly when people think that getting additional data points that provide no more actual evidence, will provide for a better result.  Essentially, it’s data for data’s sake.  If having 50 points of data is enough to come to a conclusion, having 100 points doesn’t make the conclusion any better.  However, there are some who insist on increasingly large data sets, just  because they don’t ever want to come to the conclusion that the data seems to indicate.  This is very true of the religious, especially creationists, who want an ever-increasing data set for evolution because they do not want evolution to be demonstrated, even though it’s absurdly clear that it has been.

Information Bias – Information bias results from an individual insisting that any data, even irrelevant data or potentially faulty data, is better to acquire before coming to a conclusion than less data, even if it is all relevant. This is similar to the Illusion of Validity, in that people who are guilty of it think that more data is better, just because there’s more of it.  In rational studies though, only valid data, data that directly speaks to the thing being studied, makes any difference at all.

Inter-Group Bias – Also called in-group favoritism, this is the tendency to give members of your own group, whether social, religious, sexual, racial or whatnot, more credence than people who fall outside of your  group. The reasons for this are numerous, through our evolution, competitive pressures between groups have been commonplace and those who are with you, typically aren’t against you, therefore you work harder to protect and defend those who are on your side of the conflict.  There is also a modicum of self-esteem involved, you tend to see yourself in those who are similar to yourself and therefore, feel better about supporting those who look most similar to yourself.  The lower one’s self-esteem, the more likely they are to rely on the group dynamic as a substitute for their own self-worth and be more likely to value in-group vs. out-group dynamics.

Irrational Escalation – This is sometimes referred to as Escalation of Commitment, or the Sunk-Cost Fallacy. As one becomes invested in a particular proposition, they become more strongly committed to their current position, even if it becomes clear that they’re wrong.  The more wrong it appears they are, the harder they cling to their current belief, doubling down on the losing side as it were.  In U.S. politics, many think that recent military actions owe much to the sunk-costs of building up the military during the Cold War era.  We’ve already spent the money, we might as well use the hardware!

Less-is-More Effect – Sometimes called the less-is-better effect, it results from people choosing a lesser option when presented in a certain way than a clearly better option.  Dan Ariely, whose book I reviewed recently, studied this effect.  People, for example, if offered two cups of ice cream, will often take the smaller amount of ice cream if offered in a small cup, over a larger amount of ice cream offered in a large cup.  The size of the cups makes them think that more is actually less than the lesser amount.

Negativity Bias – Many people will more easily or strongly recall negative experiences than positive experiences, thus attempt to avoid future negative consequences much more strongly than to re-experience future positive events.We do understand that there is more electrical activity in the cerebral cortex while viewing negative images than there is while viewing positive images.  We also know that learning takes place much faster in cases where a negative influence is used, compared to a positive influence.  We also know that when humans distinguish things or people from one another, it is the negative aspects that stand out, not the positive or neutral ones.  Your brain looks for things that are wrong with a person’s face to distinguish it from a different face.  We also find negative information to be more credible than positive information.  In marketing terms, a good experience may cause an individual to tell one or two friends about it.  A bad experience will cause an individual to tell upwards of ten people about it.

That’s it for this week.  I know that it’s difficult because a lot of these things are evolutionary relics of our human brains, they once fulfilled a purpose in our survival, but today, most are simply useless vestigial patterns in our heads.  However, we have the ability to over-ride these patterns and recognize them for what they are, so that we can make better, more rational decisions.


Bad Expectations


One thing I really get tired of is the never-ending race to the bottom, where people think acting like animals is their right and nobody had better ever disagree with them, or else.  I’m tired of the bad expectations, I look at it differently.

See, most lower animals operate on pure instinct and emotion, they have no ability to think rationally because most are barely even sentient.  They operate on a pre-programmed path, doing what nature and biology demand of them because they have no other choice.  however, as evolution progresses, as animals become more and more advanced, they start to have choices, they start to recognize that they’re not just mindless automatons.  Then you get to humans, the current pinnacle of evolution on the planet, and we have free will, we have the ability for our intellect to override our instincts and emotions.  We are not robots following DNA’s programming, we can do what we want.

That’s all well and good but only really matters if we actually *DO* something with our intellect.  That’s kind of the problem, most of humanity isn’t interested in actually accomplishing anything with their brainpower, they just want to coast by on their primitive instincts and expect to be successful that way.

I’m currently doing a long series on cognitive biases, where people’s brains are telling them to do things in ways that are wholly irrational and illogical.  These thought patterns may have had a use in the distant past, where pattern recognition and quick decision making were essential to our survival, but that’s just not how it works today.  Evolution hasn’t cleared away the mental dead wood yet, we have to all be aware of it and mentally edit our thinking patterns so that we make good decisions.

It’s not just biology, it’s society as well.  Many people, if they can keep their expectations low, figure why bother doing anything for themselves?  They know that someone else will come along and give them a welfare check or a bag of food or pay to put a roof over their heads, so why bother working hard to achieve it on their own?

And let’s not stop there.  Some people will only think of themselves or their little family group, they won’t consider how their actions affect others, their neighborhood or city or state or nation.  Oh sure, some might react emotionally and want to give free stuff to lazy people because they feel bad that these people are too lazy to do it for themselves, but they don’t look at the big picture, how to achieve social sustainability.  Imagine a nation where most people have all of the necessities, the food, clothing and shelter that they need, because they work hard for it and earn it on their own.  That is infinitely better than having a constant under-class who has their hands out for freebies because they don’t want to get off their ass and get it for themselves.  Imagine a world where people have respect for those around them and for the social structure that they’ve built up, where people follow the law, not because they’re afraid to get caught, but because the law actually means something.  Imagine a planet where people have rights and freedoms, but also have responsibility for their actions.  You can do what you want to do, but you’re responsible for what you actually do.  That’s a self-governing system, where we have one standard and only one standard.  You follow the rules of your community and your country and you have a part in establishing those rules with your vote.  You can’t have anarchy but you can have stability and stability is one thing all humans need to thrive.

We really need to stop this race to the bottom.  Religion pushes it.  Liberalism pushes it.  Conservatism doesn’t. That’s why I’m a rational conservative, one who rejects the absurdity of primitive human thought and demands that people be intelligent, rational and think about the world around them with a critical mind.  We can get to all the right places by just thinking intellectually and not reacting emotionally.  Why is this so hard for most people to understand?

Why People Believe What They Believe Part 2

IRRATIONALWelcome to a 6-part series of articles detailing cognitive biases, based on an article I found here.  I’ll post one part every Monday between July 28 and September 1, hopefully informing people who actually care about accepting the factual truth and avoiding cognitive dissonance, 57 things to be aware of and careful to avoid.  I hope it will also be useful for understanding why the irrational believe what they believe and to help us show them the way out.

Let’s get started.

Curse of Knowledge – The curse of knowledge is something that a lot of atheists, particularly those atheists who regularly debate theists, know all about.  It is a difficulty for those who have lots of knowledge about a particular subject to look at the situation from the perspective of those with less knowledge.  It’s a fault of perspective, in some ways, a reverse of the Dunning-Krueger Effect.  Now that doesn’t mean that the more knowledgeable individuals may not be correct in their assessment of a given situation, they more than likely are, but they cannot assume it a priori because they feel superior to the lower-knowledge opponent.

Decoy Effect – When making a decision between two products or ideas and one criteria is important to the decision maker, that bias may cause the decision maker to come to an irrational conclusion by placing an undue importance on the specific criteria.  For instance, if a consumer is considering a new car and their criteria are cost and mileage, a mileage-conscious consumer may not consider the cost-per-mile of the vehicle if they see an expensive vehicle that gets more miles per gallon.  People who tend to focus on only a single criteria may be misled by marketers who try to hide other important criteria from the consumer.

Denomination Effect – While this may have limited application, the Denomination Effect refers to a tendency by consumers to be less likely to spend larger bills than their equivalent in smaller bills.  People tend to think they are saving money by transacting in small bills rather than large bills, even if they spend more in the small bills than they would in the large.  It is a cognitive bias in recognizing the difference between perceived value vs. actual value.

Duration Neglect – Individuals do not tend to take the duration of a bad experience into account when thinking back on it later.  This is likely because our brains tend to edit out pain or discomfort, we can remember having been in pain but we cannot remember the actual pain itself.  In one experiment, subjects were told to put their hands in uncomfortably cold water.  They were asked to take their hand out immediately first, then when the experiment was repeated, they were told to leave their hand in the water for several minutes while it was slowly warmed, although never to a comfortable level.  After a few days, the subjects were asked which of the two tests they wanted to repeat and most people chose the second, even though their discomfort lasted for much longer than the first.

Empathy Gap – This is the effect that a person in one state is unable to easily place themselves in, or imagine themselves in another state.  In an experiment on bullying, people who were not placed in the position of being a social outcast routinely underestimated the pain and unhappiness of those who were placed in the out-group position.  It may also serve to overestimate the pain if having pain is particular to the belief. For instance, Christians might assume that atheists are in a lot of “pain” and “suffer” from their disconnect from God because Christians want to think that belief in God is the optimal position.

Frequency Illusion – Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, this is the feeling that a recently encountered word or idea may come up an inordinate number of times in the short span that follows. It’s how we see coincidences.  For instance, when I bought a new car a couple of years ago, suddenly those cars were everywhere, I was seeing them wherever I went and I thought it was odd.  In reality, there were no more of them on the road after I bought mine, I was simply paying more attention to them because I was now driving one.  It is drawing additional significance of these newly-noticed events that makes them irrational.

Galatea Effect – The Galatea effect is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy.  People who are expected to do well tend to do well in tests and at work.  Those that are expected to do poorly tend to do poorly in the same situations.  I;m sure a lot of us have seen this in action in our work lives, where management who thinks their underlings are horrible and can never succeed are not surprised that it turns out to be true.  This can also be a factor for the rational individual where they can influence the outcome of an experiment with their expectations of the conclusion.  If they expect things to turn out well, things will usually turn out well, if they think they will turn out badly, they tend to turn out badly.

Halo Effect – The Halo effect, first described by psychologist Edward Thorndike, describes the influence that a person’s physical appearance might have on the overall reaction of the observer when discussing their character. We know this can have a strong impact in court cases, where the more attractive witness is taken more seriously than the less attractive witness, and in politics where the more telegenic politician is given more credence than the lesser telegenic politician.  In reality, physical attractiveness has nothing whatsoever to do with the character of the individual and it certainly has nothing to do with the arguments that individual makes.  Facts are facts, who delivers the facts is irrelevant.

Hard-Easy Bias – This relates to confidence when related to tasks that are easy or hard.  People tend to be more confident in their ability to perform difficult tasks and less confident in their ability to perform simple tasks.  This seems to be non-intuitive as we’d think that easy tasks and questions would elicit a much more confident response, but repeated studies show that this is not usually the case.

Herding – Humans maintain our herd instincts at some primal level and, even in the modern world, tend to want to act together in complex but unplanned social behaviors.  Many people are extremely concerned with fitting into the social structure around them and thus may unconsciously act as the group acts, wear the same clothes, profess the same beliefs, enjoy the same music, watch the same movies, etc.  From this, we can get many other irrational behaviors and beliefs, some of which I’ve already talked about.

It’s clear that a lot of these biases and effects are present in our every day life and, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves falling into them quite easily.  However, as rational people who have the intellectual ability to both understand and override our basic mental instincts, we have to be aware of these biases and how to overcome them, or at the very least lessen their effect in our daily lives.

Next Monday, another 10 cognitive biases that we should all be aware of.



Why People Believe What They Believe Part 1

IRRATIONALI talk a lot about stupid and irrational beliefs, about people who believe things for bad reasons, who refuse to think critically or rationally about the things they allow into their heads, but it’s relatively rare that I look at the actual causes of these bad beliefs.  There are actually a lot of reasons why people give credence to these ideas and I thought it was high time I took an extended look at many of them.  There’s an article over on Business Insider, 57 Behavioral Biases that Make Us Think Irrationally.  There isn’t much detail there so I’m going to actually address all of them over a series of 6 posts, one for the next 6 Mondays, and try to spell out some of the problems and why it’s important that we, as rational human beings, need to be aware of them and know how to avoid falling into the trap.

Attention Bias – Attention bias refers to our tendency to continue to pay close attention to things that we already think are important.  This is true of everyone, myself included.  Just to use myself as an example, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about religious horrors, due to the Religious Horror Show, therefore I tend to pay closer attention to such things than someone who doesn’t find the subject matter interesting.  Now that doesn’t mean that religious horrors are somehow overblown, just because I pay attention to them, clearly they exist in great quantities

Availability Heuristic – This refers to the reliance on easily recalled examples, assuming that because we can remember something, it must be important.  This has the side effect of people placing more importance on recent events that are fresh in our minds, just because they are more easily recalled.  This changes a perceived view of statistical averages, what you can more easily recall becomes viewed as the norm, which simply may not be the case.

Backfire Effect – The Backfire Effect is a specific form of Confirmation Bias which is viewed especially strongly in the religious, although it applies to any strongly held belief, such as strong political beliefs.  The Backfire Effect takes place when a believer is presented with evidence that strongly refutes their beliefs, yet instead of adapting their beliefs to the new data, they will reject the new data and strengthen their resolve to continue believing their previous belief even stronger than before.

Bandwagon Effect – The Bandwagon Effect refers to the belief that a position is more likely to be true based on how many people already accept it.  It is a variation on the argumentum ad populum fallacy and comes from a desire to be socially acceptable by holding similar beliefs to your neighbors.  In fact, this is really why we have so many people claiming to be religious, they think it makes them look better to the people around them, whether or not they actually hold those beliefs.  I’ve labeled these people “social Christians” for that reason.  The Bandwagon Effect can come either from within or without, it can be imposed on people due to social pressure, or it can be individuals trying to fit in with the group.

Belief Bias – People are naturally biased to accept evidence, based on the conclusion being plausible or desirable.  I see this all the time in religion, where Christians, say, will accept claimed evidence of personal experiences with their God, while rejecting the exact same evidence of personal experiences with other gods, just because they want their belief in God to be true.  So long as the conclusion is either desirable or sounds reasonable, people tend not to pay much attention to the evidence that is claimed in support of it, they just want the conclusion to be true, whether it’s actually well supported or not.

Bias Blind Spots – This may be one  of the most important biases and one that most people suffer from unless they are very careful.  It refers to blind spots that many, perhaps most people suffer from because of their own inherent internal biases.  It requires one to be constantly introspective of what you believe and why you believe it and be willing to test all beliefs in light of new information.  It’s a never-ending process and one that I’ve spoken about before because it is so important.

Choice-Supportive Bias – Choice-Supportive Bias is the tendency to go back and assign positive characteristics to something that you’ve already selected, a choice that you’ve already made and now want to make look better to those around you.  It is a form of confirmation bias and cognitive bias.  For example, if a person buys an Apple iPhone instead of a comparable Android product, they are more likely to ignore or forgive any faults with the Apple product and instead, build up and overstate the positive aspects while ignoring or downplaying the positive aspects of the Android product.  How we remember the choices we make is influenced by our internal desire to have made the correct decision and we tend to remember, or invent, the best consequences from our choices and ignore the worst consequences.

Clustering Illusion – Humans inherently seek patterns, the Clustering Illusion is our tendency to give those patterns meaning, even if they are nothing more than a random set of data.  We may see patterns in a random string of numbers or points on a graph and we think that these patterns, which are almost always illusory, have some significance that they do not, in reality, have.  We already recognize such pattern-recognition errors as pareidolia and apophenia, this is an overall internal bias that is related.

Confirmation Bias – Confirmation bias is extremely common, it is the tendency for people to only accept information that confirms what they already believe and reject any other data out of hand because it doesn’t support their preconceived position.  The more strongly the belief is held, the more emotional the issue is, the more likely that Confirmation Bias will take place.  There are several reasons suggested for Confirmation Bias, including wishful thinking, the tendency for people to examine their beliefs only from a self-indulgent perspective and the consideration of the social and personal costs of being wrong in a belief.  Many people are so adverse to being open to public humiliation and embarrassment if their strongly held belief is shown to be wrong, that they’d rather continue to believe a false position than admit that they were ever wrong in the first place.

Conservatism Bias – This is the tendency of humans to over-emphasize the importance or relevance of past events and the status quo while under-estimating the importance of new events and ideas.  This has the effect of slowing the change of ideas and opinions based on new evidence, even when the new evidence is compelling.  There is a reverse of this bias, where people will vastly over-estimate the importance of new data, just because it is new. It doesn’t allow for people to judge the importance or effect of the new data, or the weight of the old data, they just leap from conclusion to conclusion because of the hottest new thing on the block.

Please come back in a week to see the next ten cognitive biases that we, as rational people, need to be aware of.  If we hope to be intellectual, rational and critical thinking, we cannot allow ourselves to fall victim to any of these problems.  Far too many people do, unfortunately, and maybe by making people aware that these biases do exist, they can help to override the problems that our brains may cause.


Philosophy is Dead, Or It Should Be

neil degrasse tysonLawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson have both been very critical of philosophy lately, saying that it hasn’t kept pace with modern science and, at least according to Tyson, what has it done for science lately?  Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has responded, specifically to Tyson in an article, but I’m really not convinced.

Now I admit to being rather anti-philosophy myself, not about any specific field of philosophy, but about the practice in general.  I don’t think that, compared with other fields of inquiry, it has much to offer.  Sure, lots of ideas, but nothing demonstrable to do with them.

Anyhow, here’s one of the comments left by Pigliucci toward Tyson that I wanted to address before I got into a wholesale evaluation of the general state of philosophy today:

A common refrain I’ve heard from you (see direct quotes above) and others, is that scientific progress cannot be achieved by “mere armchair speculation.” And yet we give a whole category of Nobels to theoretical physicists, who use the deductive power of mathematics (yes, of course, informed by previously available empirical evidence) to do just that. Or — even better — take mathematics itself, a splendid example of how having one’s butt firmly planted on a chair (and nowhere near any laboratory) produces both interesting intellectual artifacts in their own right and an immense amount of very practical aid to science. No, I’m not saying that philosophy is just like mathematics or theoretical physics. I’m saying that one needs to do better than dismiss a field of inquiry on the grounds that it is not wedded to a laboratory setting, or that its practitioners like comfortable chairs.

Yes, but as Pigliucci admits, the work of theoretical physicists is informed by previously available empirical evidence.  Part of how science works is that it is predictive.  When Einstein predicted the existence of black holes, for example, we had no way of proving that they actually existed.  We didn’t get our first actual evidence for the existence of black holes until 1972 with the work of Louise Webster, Charles Thomas Bolton and Paul Murdin on Cygnus X-1, more than half a century after Einstein made the prediction and almost 20 years after Einstein died.

Pigliucci also says that nobody argues against history.  Yes, that’s because history only tells us what happened in the past, it doesn’t try to make a case for what we ought to do in the future.  History is also based on evidence, archaeology, anthropology, books that have been written, etc.  It doesn’t just surmise that something must have been true because they can construct an argument in the heads of historians that it might have.  There may be things to criticize about history from time to time, but the results it produces more often than not come from hard facts, not an unleashed imagination

So my question is, what has philosophy done, other than play watchdog over science?

So much of modern-day philosophy is little more than navel noodling nonsense, it is ideas without limit, but also without application.  It really is no different than religion.  It’s ideas that appeal to the individual philosopher expanded into positions that can be neither objectively verified or justified.  It is, in the purest sense of the term, mental masturbation.  It claims to be truth but gets nowhere near demonstrable fact.

In fact, let me address that for a moment.  Every single modern-day apologetic argument is philosophical in nature.  Every single one.  There are none that are based on evidence, they are all based on building a logical syllogism in it’s proper form and going to town, even if the argument itself doesn’t actually prove anything.  The Kalam Cosmological argument, the Ontological argument, the Teleological argument, all come from philosophy and not from reality.  They don’t prove a damn thing and that’s their problem.  They do not provide any evidence that their conclusion is factually accurate.  They just assert that it is!

That’s the biggest problem.  You can construct a syllogism that says anything you want.  Sure, looking at logical forms can help you to identify ideas that are bad, but it can’t help you identify ideas that are  good.  It can say that your argument fails here, but it can never say that your argument accurately reflects the way things actually happen in the real world.

Even when it comes to ethics, philosophy doesn’t actually prove one system is better than another, it just makes assertions, based largely on the individual philosopher’s presuppositions, that they can build into a system that they personally like.  If philosophy had anything substantive to say about ethics, then there wouldn’t be a million and one different ethical systems, each with their own philosophical proponents.  In that, philosophy is little more than opinions with college degrees.  It might propose solutions to problems but it doesn’t actually solve the problems.  It might set you on the path but it doesn’t actually get you anywhere.

Thinking is good. Thinking without any real-world application is not.  I’m all for a system which teaches us how to think rationally and critically about things, but not a system that does not produce demonstrable and verifiable results.  I’m entirely cool with certain disciplines of philosophy keeping an eye on science and keeping it honest. I think Tyson had it right when he observed that a lot of philosophy devolves into debating meanings and not about advancing knowledge.  That’s because there’s no actual knowledge to be had from philosophy, no knowledge generated by philosophy, just ideas and not necessarily good, useful or worthwhile ideas at that.  Maybe we ought to do away with the concept of thinking for a living in a bubble that produces no demonstrable results.

When Cultures Disappear

let them dieOn an episode of The Atheist Experience, I’m hesitant to say “recent” and certainly not “most recent” because by the time anyone reads this, that won’t be remotely true, but on episode #866, a caller wanted to argue that people should pay attention to various cultures that may fail, especially in this case Mexican cultures, but I think the idea applies to any culture anywhere.

I just don’t agree with the caller, I think that cultures that fail and disappear is a good thing.  It’s the same thing with evolution, those creatures that are more fit to survive, do. Those cultures that are less fit to survive, don’t.  Let them die.  If our goal is to improve, to get better, to do more and to do it more efficiently, then cultures which fail those tests ought not survive.  It doesn’t matter if people get emotionally attached to those cultures, it doesn’t matter if these cultures make people feel good despite their failure, they’re still less worthy of continuing than others and thus, into the waste can of history they ought to go.

This goes back to liberal multiculturalism, they think that all cultures are equally important and equally valid. They’re wrong.  We ought to be trying to maintain the best cultural elements and get rid of those that don’t work. Sure, there are some things that are neither a positive benefit or a negative detriment and like neutral biological mutations, they can stick around or go extinct as the culture determines.  However, when you have a negative element, something that harms the society more than helps it, that’s a different story.

Russell and Tracie brought up a really good point, there are those primitive cultures that don’t like western medicine and discourage their members from using it.  We see the same thing with anti-vaccers or faith healers and the like.  Those are not something to be encouraged, they are demonstrably harmful to the society and individuals within the society in general.  Advanced medical treatment is something to be encouraged, not ignored.

Therefore, we need to start looking at the cultures and sub-cultures that are problematic and trying to move those that live in them to a better system.  I’ve talked many times about the various downsides of the black ghetto sub-culture and while I’m sure there are some elements that may be worthwhile, the majority harm those who live within the sub-culture and stop them from being self-sufficient and upwardly mobile.  I’d honestly say the same thing about many of the numerous Native American sub-cultures.  The reservation is a ridiculous idea today and while some Native American tribes have moved on, building fantastically successful casinos and tourist attractions, there are still those who remain tied to their parcel of land, living under their ridiculous religious beliefs, refusing to go live life like the “white man” and those are the people who make nothing of themselves because they’re unwilling to deal with the real world.  Those people need to either do something with their lands or sell it off and move to the cities or anywhere else that they can get an education, make a living and be successful.  If their cultures vanish from the face of the planet, so be it.  So what?  The idea that these cultures deserve to be preserved for future generations is absurd.  They may have been successful once, then something better came along and they were supplanted.  It happens.  The mainstream American culture of 50 years ago largely doesn’t exist anymore.  So be it.  The culture we have today will almost certainly be gone in another 50 years.  So be it.  People who only care about tradition and emotion, over function and success, need a swift kick in the side of the head.  We don’t need change for the sake of change but we do need change when it leads to better outcomes.

Too bad most people don’t understand that.

Tired of Liberal Privilege Whines

White Liberal GuiltThis is another of those constant drones that we see on the Internet, liberals pointing fingers and accusing others of being privileged, therefore they should keep their damn mouths shut and let everyone else talk because anything that anyone who actually isn’t living in destitution isn’t worth listening to.  They think that liberal privilege should make everyone feel guilty.

Fuck you.

So much of this comes from liberal guilt and yes, that really is a thing.  Liberals feel bad that they have things that other people do not, so instead of wondering why other people have not achieved the things they have, they blame themselves because somehow, it must be their fault.  There’s a distinct self-loathing thread that runs through progressive political thought.  They desperately want to be able to personally identify with the downtrodden, if only they didn’t live in a first world nation!  Damn their parents for actually being financially stable and successful, it keeps them from feeling as bad as those that they seemingly idolize!  If they could just get rid of their damnable white skin and middle class exterior, they’d be able to feel the pure ecstasy of poverty and hatred that they imagine must be going on at all time!

See, I know this is going to shock liberals, but blacks are no different than whites.  They have the same abilities, the same opportunities and the same capacity to make something of themselves.  It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian, you can make your life better if you try.  The problem is, especially in the ghetto community, blacks have been told for generations that they’re just not good enough, that the world owes them a living, that they don’t actually have to try, they don’t actually have to get an education or make good choices in life, in fact, if you do that and try to get out of the ghetto, you’re told by your black brethren that you’re a race traitor or an Uncle Tom.

But it’s not just blacks, if you look at white trailer trash in the Deep South, they have the same thing going on. They have their own white ghetto culture that tells them that they don’t have to work hard, get an education, make good choices, etc.  They think they deserve a living because they bothered to get out of bed in the morning too. Stupid is stupid, no matter the skin color.  But that’s not something that liberals tend to talk about, except wherein these trailer trash idiots say something racist, then they’re all over it.  Of course, when the ghetto blacks say something racist, the liberals are only too eager to commend them on it. Blacks can’t be racist, after all, and whites must have done something to deserve the hate.

Okay, I will say that blacks in the distant past were downtrodden.  That was then, this is now.  Get over it.  I don’t care if you were abused yesterday, this is today and you’d  better pick yourself up and get back on the horse.

People shouldn’t guilty about things that they, themselves, didn’t do.  I have not been racist toward anyone, therefore I have no need to feel bad about racism.  I also haven’t been sexist, haven’t opposed equality for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, etc.  I have no guilt for things I didn’t do.  So why do liberals?  I suspect that a lot of it stems from a feeling of powerlessness.  They don’t want to feel like they’re not in control and when faced with things that they can’t arbitrarily fix, they feel guilty because “fixing things” is their cup of tea, or so they think.  However, they’re also fundamentally lazy, they don’t want to propose actual solutions, they just want to play word games and pretend that they can wave their magical liberal wand and make everything all better without actually having to do anything to make things better.  Now I want to improve things too but my solutions are real.  They revolve around actually getting people off their asses and making the world a better place, at least as much as is possible.  There are some things we can’t fix, especially things where the people who are actually responsible refuse to work on the solutions.  Blacks will continue to have problems getting out of poverty so long as they embrace the ghetto black culture that tells them they can’t make it on their own.  If the changes that are necessary never take place, it’s not my fault, it’s theirs.  I will oppose actual racism when it rears it’s ugly head, regardless of where it comes from, but I won’t feel guilty because some whites are racist, any more than I will because some blacks are racist.  I’m not racist.  I have nothing to be personally guilty over.

And maybe that’s something everyone ought to understand.  Your life is your responsibility.  What other people do is not.

Not Predictably Irrational

irrational2It’s somewhat rare when I get to sit down and read a book, especially a heavy-duty, intellectual book.  I might manage to muddle through the latest Richard Dawkins tome, usually many months after it comes out, but that’s not a common occurrence.  I did have someone recommend to me that I pick up Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, specifically because I am often extremely critical of the ability of most people to act in rational, intellectual ways.  However, I don’t think I’m getting the lesson from it that I was expected to.  Please note, I’m writing this as I’m reading the book and therefore, it might feel a bit disconnected, but please try to muddle through.

Ariely notes that people’s reactions are typically not rational, they will make decisions based on emotional responses and social pressures that really, if they had stopped to think about it for a moment, make no sense at all and are often the worst choice of those available.  He describes numerous social experiments that have been performed that show that people will pay more money overall, buying things they don’t even want, to get “free shipping” than they would have paid just for the product they wanted and shipping alone.  I tested myself on every single example he gave and honestly, I’d be the guy who broke their test model because I do act rationally on every decision I make.  I would never have bought things I didn’t want in order to get free shipping.

In fact, I think there are some cases where he didn’t think out the test parameters very carefully.  In one, he offered an expensive brand of French chocolate vs. a Hershey’s Kiss and showed that the rational choice would have been to get the more expensive chocolate and bypass the cheaper (or even free) Kiss.  That’s not what would be going through my mind. I’m diabetic.  I can’t have either chocolate.  If I was going to be picking one, I’d be doing it to give to someone else, thus I’d choose something based on what I know they like, not any kind of financial motivation.  But to be honest, I think there is something he wasn’t considering at all in his free vs. pay scenarios. People are much more likely to take something for free, even if they have no interest in it, simply because it’s available.  That’s why people who hand out flyers and coupons get so many people taking them, even if they have no interest whatsoever in the subject matter and why most of those coupons end up deposited in trashcans nearby.  It’s a matter of convenience, not a matter of cost.  But I digress.

There was a bit on the division between social norms and financial norms, how the expectations and actions of people who are being paid for a task differ from the expectations and actions of people who are asked to do something in a social setting, “as a favor”.  The conclusions were that most people would work harder, the more money they got paid, but people doing it out of perceived social expectations would work harder still.  However, I don’t look at it that way at all.  If I give my word that I will do a thing, whether I get paid or not and no matter how much I get paid, I will give it my all and perform my best regardless.  Even with no financial gain and no potential for any social advance at all, after all, I’m almost certainly never going to see these people doing the test again, if I am willing to perform the task, it will be performed to the highest standard of which I am capable.  I am neither motivated by financial gain or social status.  I am motivated by dignity and self-respect.

Likewise, when he spoke of the “Running of the Brides”, where brides-to-be will fight each other over drastically discounted designer wedding gowns, I see no use in that at all either.  It’s like the Black Friday sales, where people will give up dinner with their families at Thanksgiving to stand in a line at a store and hopefully score some cheap booty.  I’d never do that.  I don’t care what’s being given away.  I simply don’t have that mentality.  I’d rather pay full price and maintain my dignity than run around like an animal, punching and kicking other people to save a couple of bucks.  He describes how most people in a given situation would screw over their neighbors in a heartbeat but I don’t understand that kind of thought process.  I pay the fair rate and I take no more than I need, regardless of the situation, because I am not an evil or cruel person.  In fact, I’m more likely to take less than I might want, just to leave things for others, even complete strangers.  I don’t get why so many people are dicks.

In another experiment, he told his class that they had to turn in three papers over the course of the semester, they could select any date they wanted for those papers to be due, but once chosen, they could not change the dates, nor be late. The most rational choice, of course, is to pick the last day of the semester for all of them since you could turn them in early without penalty, this was a study on people’s willingness to procrastinate.  I don’t procrastinate.  I get things done early, not just early in fact, but absurdly early.  The idea of leaving anything for the last minute is anathema to me.  I’ve been in situations like the above, where I could decide when my work was due and invariably, I turn it in virtually immediately.  Just knowing that I have work to do is enough to spur me to finish it right away.  I’d have had all three papers turned in within the first two weeks, had I been in his class.

Now it’s not my intention to go through this book, experiment by experiment, study by study, and say I have nothing in common with the conclusions because that much is true.  Whether you’re talking about self-control (I have it), the influence emotion has on decisions (it doesn’t affect me), etc., I simply do not line up with any of the test groups that he describes.  Why?  Because I’m a rational individual.  No matter how many experiments and studies Mr. Ariely describes, I always fall on the rational side.  I evaluate claims fairly, I neither fall for dishonest ideas, nor am unjustifiably critical.  I think logically about claims and do not allow emotion to run away with me. I see things as they actually are but apparently, I am virtually alone in this, if Ariely’s results are to be believed and I have no reason to doubt them.  It seems that when a person can get away with lying for a reward, far too many people will do it.  I will not.  For me, character counts.  I am an inherently honest person.  Even if nobody else knows I’m lying, I know and I simply won’t do it.  He argues that most people would steal a pencil from work but I won’t.  It’s not mine.  There are no circumstances whatsoever under which I would steal from my employer or take someone else’s food from a refrigerator or abscond with an abandoned piece of property.  It’s just  not right, yet his findings show that most people will do so without a second thought.  What’s wrong with people?

And before anyone says anything, I’m not trying to claim to be special.  I’m not.  I honestly don’t understand the actions of people in any of these studies.  I cannot relate to them at all.  Apparently, most people will happily steal, screw others over, rip off their employers, make bad decisions and do just about anything you ask them to if you get them horny first.  What the actual fuck?  Maybe the human species is more screwed up than even I thought.  I don’t think any of this comes from upbringing either.  While I think my parents were good people, I don’t think they had any special tricks or secrets to childrearing.  They taught me the importance of being honest and the importance of hard work.  They didn’t necessarily push me to be rational and critical, I grew up in a very religious household and asking questions, especially about religion, is frowned upon, yet I picked that up somewhere along the line and that’s what caused me to jettison religion.  So please, I don’t see how the people in most of Ariely’s studies qualify as decent human beings, at least not the ones who cheated, stole, etc.  These are not things to be lauded, they’re things to be punished and maybe, with the lax liberal ideals on punishment, that explains a lot of what we see, after all, the majority of the studies were conducted on college students.

Oh, there are a few things that I had to question in general of course.  He wrote of an experience he had at Burning Man, where no one exchanged money, they just traded gifts and services as payment for everything they needed and he seemed genuinely surprised how it worked.  Why?  The barter system is how every economy gets started.  If you have a goat and you want grain, you trade your goat to the farmer and he milks the goat or slaughters it for meat.  Money is simply a unit of transfer that represents some undefined barter property.  It has an agreed upon value so that when deciding whether or not to trade, you can weigh the intrinsic value of the property against the artificial value of the paper to see if it makes sense.  This isn’t something new, this is something tremendously old. It’s just an observation that I thought should be pointed out.

Now I honestly don’t know what to think.  This was an interesting books, I’m neither telling people to go buy it or not, it’s available from the Amazon link at the top if you want to check it out but I get nothing one way or the other.  Clearly, people don’t have to be the dicks that I see in these studies.  People can choose to be moral, rational, intellectual individuals.  I did it.  I know others who have done it.  Why can’t everyone?  That’s the real question and we need a good answer to it.  Why has humanity failed so miserably?  Chime in if you think you know.

Why I’m So Negative

Being NegativeA couple of years ago, I did a post called “Why I’m So Mean” where I explained that I’m not really a mean person, people just take it that way because they don’t like to be told that they’re wrong.  People get so emotionally attached to their opinions, beliefs and ideas that when anyone even suggests that their opinions, beliefs and ideas might not be true, they get pissed and call you names.  Yes, I’m a meanie because I actually care if the things that people believe are actually true and I’m not at all concerned whether or not their false beliefs make them feel good.  I get similar criticism for being negative, I’m always so down on the world, pointing out all of the things that are going wrong and being incessantly pessimistic.

It is my job to be negative, to find problems, locate weaknesses, examine issues and come up with ways to correct them in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness.  It’s what I do.  Even if it wasn’t something I was paid to do, I’d do it anyhow because there is nothing out there that couldn’t benefit from correcting issues.  Nothing is perfect, no way of thinking, no way of working, no way of believing, all of them have problems that ought to be located, evaluated, studied and corrected.  We may never achieve perfection but it’s an admirable goal regardless.  We should all be willing to look at the things that we do objectively and seek out the downsides so that we can improve our interests.  We should want to improve the things around us, we should constantly be on the lookout for ways to make things better, more efficient, more rational, etc.  I may criticize things but I also offer suggestions on how to fix the negatives.  I’m not all doom and gloom, I’m trying to make this planet a better place to live for all of us.

It doesn’t make sense to me for people to be so overwhelmingly positive all the time.  It’s like saying “oh look, the Muslims are strapping bombs to children and blowing them up, isn’t that great?”  It’s like people are terrified that if they acknowledge that anything bad is going on, they’ll just make it worse.  That’s ridiculous, you can’t fix the bad things until you admit they’re really there and are willing to roll up your sleeves and attack the issue head on. Maybe that’s the thing, people are lazy and don’t want to recognize the problems because they’ll feel obligated to do something about them. It’s much easier to link arms and sing kumbayah and wish the bad things away into the corn field.  I’m sorry, problems don’t go away just because we want them to.  There are tons of people out there who only want to look at the good and pretend the bad doesn’t exist.  I want to look at the bad and fix it so that the good is the only thing left.  I don’t hide my head in the sand and pretend everything is great.  It’s not.  We know it’s not.  There are massive, massive problems with religion that have to be addressed.  There are huge issues with politics that we need to correct.  We can’t do that without opening an honest dialogue and being willing to come to conclusions based on the evidence, logic and reason.  So why will so few people actually talk about the issues?  I don’t know but I’m going to keep being “negative” if that’s what’s required, whacking people over the head with the bad parts until they are willing to take part in the solution.

At least I’m being realistic which is more than I can say for many others.

Suicide Part Deux

SuicideA while back, I talked about suicide and why I think many people have a very bad view of it.  Well, maybe not a bad view but at least a very self-centered view.  Lots of people have an irrational fear of death and because they are afraid to die, they impose that on others and want to force everyone to live as long as they can conceivably be kept breathing, whether they want to do so or not.

Now, I’m seeing people who want to force anyone who wants to kill themselves to be considered flawed or broken because they have an emotional fear of death.  Even the thought of ending one’s own life means that they are mentally insane and somehow unable to make decisions for themselves, regardless of the circumstances.

I think that’s just dumb.  I can think of lots and lots of situations where I think suicide is not only a valid response, but maybe the most valid response one can give and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with them when they make the decision.  Unfortunately, those people who are terrified of the concept of death can’t seem to wrap their heads around anyone, no matter how much pain they might  be in, no matter how much they might hate life, might just not want to go on.  In their minds, insanity or mental deficiency is the only possible explanation because, as far as they’re concerned, desperately clinging to life is the only possible rational reaction.

Whether people like it or not, human life is not magically and objectively precious.  We’re just animals on this planet, no different in any objective way from any other.  Sure, we have the ability to reason, but what if someone reasons to a conclusion that someone doesn’t like?  Does that give the person who has a negative emotional reaction to that decision the right to over-ride the individual’s choice?  It seems that a lot of people think that it does.  This is funny when you talk to people who would otherwise rule that people’s bodily autonomy gives them the right to do most things, but when it comes to suicide, they quickly reverse their decision.

Now I don’t want to commit suicide, I have a wonderful life with a fantastic family that loves me, but if I ever did make that decision, why shouldn’t I be permitted to exercise it?  Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do with my body what I want to do with my body?  After all, isn’t that the exact same argument made by feminists with regard to abortion?  It’s the woman’s body, she gets to decide?  Well, it’s my body, why don’t I get to decide?  Because it makes people uncomfortable?  So what?  Where do you think you get the authority to control what I do to my body, yet I don’t have the authority to control what you do with yours?  Hypocritical much?

I hate to keep harping on the absurd over-use of unrestrained emotion, but this seems like another case of people, uncomfortable with the idea of dying, forcing their vested emotional desires on everyone around them. How dare anyone’s actions make you feel bad!  That works right up until someone tries to do the same to you. Then you get to scream bloody murder, how dare someone step on your rights to self-determination.

Pot.  Kettle.  Black.

When is Censorship Not Censorship?

internet-censorshipI’ve seen this going around the web a lot these past few weeks so I thought I’d take a moment to comment on it all because pretty much everyone has been getting it all completely wrong.  Now I don’t want to point fingers but it seems that a lot of people think that they have a right to speak using the forum of any company, or for that matter, individual on the Internet and nobody can tell them no.

They are mistaken.

The only group that cannot censor you is the government and even then it’s not an absolute right.  Try telling state secrets to our enemies, see how long it takes the government to “censor” you.  For anyone who thinks that’s a bad thing, you’re just wrong.

Otherwise though, while you are perfectly free to speak, you do not have a right to force others to provide a platform for your speech.  You can stand on a soap box on the street corner and speak your mind but you cannot force TV stations to carry your screed.  You cannot force newspapers to print your manifesto.  You have a right to free speech, you do not have a right to have your free speech heard, especially on someone else’s dime.

holding_breathYet that’s apparently what a lot of people want.  I don’t want to make this partisan, but I can’t think of a single recent post on this topic that didn’t come from the left and it seems they just don’t understand it and I want to be helpful.  See, when you log onto a service like Google or Facebook, you automatically agree to follow their acceptable use policy.  It’s not something you can opt out of.  It’s not something you can get around.  It’s their house, their rules.  If you don’t like their rules, don’t go there.  Find somewhere else more appropriate for your screed.  Don’t bitch about it, it does no good.  This becomes annoying when people whine endlessly that they ought to have the right to post anything they want to a site, just because it’s popular and has a broad reach and, more often than not, is absolutely free to use.  Waah!  They want to post things that everyone gets to see for free and if they can’t do it, they’re going to hold their breath until they turn blue!

Sorry, cry me a river.

Now if you really want to post your opinions to the Internet, go buy yourself a domain, find someone to host it that doesn’t have rules  against whatever you’ll be writing and then you’re free to post whatever you want to post until the cows come home, at least within reason.  There are some things you can’t post at all.  You can’t post kiddy porn.  You can’t post bomb-making instructions.  You can’t harass people or threaten people.  If that’s what you want to do, stick your head in a blender, you’re an idiot.  You simply cannot expect another company or individual to be required to host your dogma when they are paying the bills.  If you want that freedom, you pay the bills.  Then you can make the rules.

I really don’t get where people think the Internet is a democracy.  It’s not.  It never has been.  It never will be. Like everything else, it is a business. Deal with it.  Just like you can’t walk into Macy’s and start ranting at their customers about whatever topic impinges on your little mind, you can’t walk into the Google+ forums and start preaching about things that you’ve agreed, by your very presence there, not to do.  You have no Constitutional right to post to any forum anywhere online.  You just don’t.

So please get over it.

Axiom For The Win!

It seems to me that there are a few topics that lend themselves to axiomatic victories.  People who argue these aren’t really interested in demonstrating that they are true, they simply insist that they are and move on from there.  They start with the conclusion that everything they believe is right and look for evidence, if they bother at all, that supports that foregone conclusion.  By and large, these conclusions are entirely emotional.

So let’s take a look at a couple of these arguments.  This is by no means a complete list, many emotionally-based positions take for granted their own correctness, whether they can actually demonstrate it or not.

Religion:  The granddaddy of them all, religion asserts the existence of an unseen and undetectable god as the basis for everything they believe.  How do they know?  They just do.  They can provide no evidence, they can concoct no rational argument, they just believe without the slightest shred of proof and expect everyone else to do the same.

Presuppositionalism:  It deserves it’s own separate category.  Not only does it suffer from all the weaknesses of religion, but it makes a huge unwarranted assumption on it’s own.  It teaches that everyone knows God is real and that without a belief that God is real, no position can be argued for.  Perhaps more than any other, this is a shining example of the stupidity of the axiomatic win.

Libertarianism:  The central core of libertarian thought is the “natural right”.  They’re absolutely certain that they exist, they just can’t reason their way to them.  They cannot produce evidence for them.  They’re just damn sure they’re real though.  I did have one person, and this is where the title of this article comes from, declare that “natural rights” are a libertarian axiom, therefore he didn’t have to actually demonstrate them, they were simply defined to be true.

Antinatalism:  This is the newcomer to the list but it’s just as nutty as the rest.  It starts with the unjustified claim that all suffering is bad.  Well, not all suffering, just human suffering.  Why just human suffering?  I don’t think they really know, it all comes off like a bunch of emotionally-stunted, hippie-spewing nonsense.  If they were honest, they’d say all suffering was wrong and preach planet-wide Armageddon, but they don’t.

By definition, an axiom is a statement which is universally accepted as true and thus, not under debate.  It can only be an axiom so long as everyone involved accepts it.  If anyone disagrees, then it ceases to be an axiom and it must be defended like any other claim.  These views are not acceptable to the emotionally axiomatic above. These people all approach their beliefs not only wearing their emotions on their sleeve but covered head-to-toe in them.  There is no rational thought in any of these positions, they’ve entirely given up the intellectual high ground for arguments that are little better than “I’m right, so there!”

Anyone who resorts to axioms as a means to an automatic, immediate victory has lost before they begin.  That’s not how the real world works and certainly not how science works.  Could you imagine a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal starting off stating as an axiom that they were right and anyone who disagreed was a Nazi? That’s absurd, yet essentially the same thing that happens with these axiom-rich beliefs.  Certainly these are not all of the ridiculous positions that use this tactic, they exist simply to highlight the absurdity of it all.  You can’t start with an unproven and highly controversial statement and then base your entire argument and belief system off of that statement.  It just doesn’t work that way.

But then again, if these groups were rational, they’d already know that, wouldn’t they?

Presuppositionalism and Philosophy

Philosophy is StupidWith the recent news that Matt Dillahunty will be debating Sye ten Bruggencate on presuppositional apologetics, I took a look at some of the recent debates and discussions around Sye’s claims and found Sye, perhaps even more than before, a laughing stock.  AronRa recently ripped him a new one on a Dogma Debate where Sye was just floundering pathetically, unable to answer any of AronRa’s questions without trying to change the subject.  In fact, Sye refuses to discuss evidence or debate the Bible with non-Christians who don’t share his views, making any possible debate with him utterly pointless.

As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that matters is the evidence.  If the theist has none, the debate is over.  I don’t care how they hem and haw about the Bible and their faith or any of that nonsense, I care if they can produce objective evidence to support their claims or not.  Failure to do so means they have nothing worth talking about left.  That’s exactly why I turned down the invitation from Matt Slick to come on his radio show, I know he’s got jack shit, he’s proven that in every debate I’ve ever seen him in, all he can do is wave his hands around and vomit word salad and pretend that it actually proves a thing.  It  doesn’t.  Saying you talk to God means no more to me than if the Raelians are saying they talk to their alien overlords telepathically.  Both are nonsensical claims until they are backed up by objective evidence and I reject both of them entirely until they are proven correct.

As I thought about it more though, isn’t that what a lot of modern philosophy does?  Is it really any better than presuppositional apologetics when it comes to trying to reason one’s way to reality?  In fact, isn’t presuppositional apologetics just a particularly idiotic form of philosophy?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about all philosophy, just the forms that try to argue for or against things that actually exist in reality.  A thing does not come into existence because you can string together logical arguments in their proper syllogistic forms.  It either exists or it doesn’t exist, you can’t define it into being, yet that’s largely what every religious debate these days is about.  It’s theists making up characteristics for their gods that they simply cannot independently verify and when asked how they actually know any of these things, they say they have faith.  Sorry, faith is not a synonym for knowledge.  It’s sad that so many people view philosophy as a means to get a conclusion, simply because they want a conclusion, but without actually going through the steps to get to an actual conclusion.  Sye ten Bruggencate and Matt Slick and all of their ilk won’t actually prove a god exists by making presuppositional claims and those claims are no better than if I stated, with no evidence given, that the only way to reason is to accept the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn.  There is no fundamental difference between the two, or any other god you can think of or make up.  Logic requires belief in Thor!  You can’t reason without Krishna!  You cannot have a debate unless you have faith in Mickey Mouse! That’s actually the best response to these presuppositional idiots, just pick a god at random and repeat every argument verbatim with your god’s name inserted instead of God.  It works just as well for you as it does for them.

I really wish people would stop thinking that lots of long and complicated words are a substitute for evidence.  It isn’t.  It never will be.  I’m tired of going around and around and around with idiots.  Show me the evidence.  Put up or shut up.  That’s the only thing that’s going to be acceptable.