The continuation ....

This post is actually taking an interesting comment from the post "Things I learnt I rather wish I hadn't" and writing more about it. The comments section has a limit to the amount of words and I felt it deserved a proper answer :)

The comment reads:

Debates like the kind you describe really frustrate me. It's really pointless. The discussion starts out as if everybody is speaking the same language, but they aren't.

The problem lies not in a difference of opinion, but a difference of premises. When people disagree on the premises, it's very hard to have the conversation make any sense.

These kinds of disagreements usually go unsaid. You might think it's about science and religion, but really it's about values. You value deductive reasoning. You value statistical analysis. These values are the reasons that you give science so much credence, and your arguments are made with these values in mind. Ultimately, when you follow any argument back to its origins, you find values which are simply believed without any further proof.

But if the person on the other side of the discussion has different values, they won't follow your arguments. Your arguments will sound as nonsensical to them as their arguments sound to you. It's almost as if the two sides are employing different logical systems.

Now that I think about it, perhaps they are.
 I've thought a lot about this before replying as I really understand what Keith is getting at, but I also have some reactions to certain parts of it.  So... here is my reply.


Hmm... I understand your point though I don't necessarily agree with all of it. I completely agree that in many cases (as evidenced on the forum quite often) people with opposing views will never be able to have a discussion because they do not share certain common premises or values. It's not just arguments about this sort of thing - you see it at work, in families, in politics etc.  I don't think that means we still shouldn't have the discussion though. For example, there are a large number of theists who have become rational thinkers saying that talking with people (who did not aggressively ram atheism at them but helped them to look at things from a new perspective) made a huge difference. Reason enough to keep the debates going I think ;)

As far as the example we're talking about though, and how you have described it - I think that is getting into cultural relativism. I'd like to quote Richard Dawkins here:

It is often thought clever to say that science is no more than our modern origin myth. The Jews had their Adam and Eve, the Sumerians their Marduk and Gilgamesh, the Greeks Zeus and the Olympians, the Norsemen their Valhalla. What is evolution, some smart people say, but our modern equivalent of gods and epic heroes, neither better nor worse, neither truer nor falser? There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds, in its extreme form, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just the mythology favored by our modern Western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: Suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an old calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the treetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth — that the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the Earth — is no more true than the tribe's calabash? “Yes,” the anthropologist said. “We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in a scientific way. They are brought up to see the world in another way. Neither way is more true than the other.”

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't.* If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there — the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field — is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right. Western science, acting on good evidence that the moon orbits the Earth a quarter of a million miles away, using Western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing that the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams.

I seldom give a public lecture without a member of the audience brightly coming up with something along the same lines as my anthropologist colleague, and it usually elicits a murmuration of approving nods. No doubt the nodders feel good and liberal and unracist. An even more reliable nod-provoker is “Fundamentally, your belief in evolution comes down to faith, and therefore it's no better than somebody else's belief in the Garden of Eden.”

Every tribe has had its origin myth — its story to account for the universe, life and humanity. There is a sense in which science does indeed provide the equivalent of this, at least for the educated section of our modern society. Science may even be described as a religion, and I have, not entirely facetiously, published a brief case for science as an appropriate subject for religious-education classes. (In Britain, religious education is a compulsory part of the school curriculum, unlike in the United States, where it is banned for fear of offending any of the plethora of mutually incompatible faiths.) Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.


Perhaps this is not being said, but there is the suggestion the two sides were employing two logical systems (do we want to say 'logic' instead of 'logical' here, perhaps?). The implication that because we value science is why we choose to give it credence, is what I have a problem with. Whether or not I value it doesn't actually matter - science works. I could choose to follow the flying Spaghetti Monster (bless his noodley appendage) and science would still work.

Anyway,  I think it is actually two issues - one that some people with opposing ideas may never be able to communicate because of an inability to share common premises, and the other a discussion on how science and belief systems interact (or not).

Never tell me the Odds

I love maths. I'm no good at it mind you, but I love the idea of a very pure and ordered form of science that can describe the world around us, even the natural world in all its chaotic beauty.  But you know, sometimes there might be a time when you want to leave the text books at home.

A 31 year old, advanced grad student in Economics at the University of Warwick made the dismaying discovery that his chances of finding love were rather small.  Not just unlikely.... but... well, astronomically infinitesimal. He doesn't have particularly tough criteria either, he's not a picky lad.  She just needs to be based in London, aged between 24-34, and have a university education. That's not much really, is it?...   no 'blonde with big tits', or 'must have read all the volumes of Shakespeare as well as be a 34D'.  I think that should be doable, don't you?  

Being very realistic, he estimates he would be attracted to about 5% of the women that meet this criteria. Fair enough. That seems pretty true to life... after all, you have to have that spark of chemistry don't you?  Anyway - with that in mind he calculated that leaves 10,500 women in Britain that fit the bill.... just 0.14 percent of Londoners in fact.

In my experience women are usually much more picky than men, but if the women are the only the same as he is, that means his chances of meeting this dream girl is now down to 0.00034 percent, according to our lovelorn teaching fellow. Oh dear.  What are the chances he might meet one of those 26 women on a night down at the local over a pint then? It's best we walk away now and don't look back. This is stuff of poetry and country music, my friends.

So - in cases of the heart, my advice is, don't over analyse these things. After all, even people who are simply looking for someone with a heartbeat, and believe they have found 'it', can still end up on the emotional scrapheap. As Han Solo said 'never tell me the odds'.

p.s.  If you'd like to find out what happens to our Romeo - read the end of the story

Things I learnt I rather wish I hadn't

Spending so much time on the Richard Dawkins forum, I come across a plethora of varied topics. I read all sorts of things - science, philosophy, poetry, humour, and a lot of discussions and arguments about religion.  The other day I was *glued* to the most distasteful thread that went on for 15 pages. It was split from another one and had turned into a discussion on child brides - specifically based around Islamic belief.

The basis of it was that one guy who appeared to be a muslim convert from the West, was fiercely defending the right of modern muslim men to marry children based on the teachings of the Quran.  He wrote in great detail about the prophet Mohammed marrying one of his wives Aisha when she was 6 years old. That's right people... 6!!  But he didn't have sex with her. No no... as clearly written in the Quran "he placed his member between her thighs and massaged it softly", the wonderful pedophile he was, and waited until she got her period at age 9, to then truly violate the young girl. Beautiful eh?

According to that lovely holy book, she was given a choice about whether she wanted the marriage, and decided she did (of course she didn't feel under any pressure - nah course not). They say she was a mature girl - more mature than girls nowadays (which is also why she had her period earlier than we do now) and hence was able to make such a decision. All this is by the by, however.

There is no doubt that moral standards in ancient times were very different than now. Romans were porking young boys and thought is was an acceptable thing to do. You don't have to be too smart to see we have changed our idea of acceptable and 'moral' - and to imagine that those morals are divinely given is ignorant, uneducated and yet still widely believed ;) After all - if morals were given to us by a god, then wouldn't they be unchanging across time - be the same for all people? What about the Euthyphro dilemma?  Anyway... I digress. We now have way too much scientific, physiological and psychological information to back up a moral decision that tells us that a 6 or 9 (or 13) year old girl is not capable of choosing to marry, let alone should not be having sex with a man old enough to be her grandfather.

Our wonderful forum chappie fought so valiantly for the right of a muslim man in our modern world to marry a child, regardless of whether the law states it is illegal, based on two distinct and clear reasons. Firstly, as long as she has had her period, this means she is ripe for the picking.  As was pointed out many times with irrefutable science and documents, just because menses has begun does not mean a girl is capable of giving birth.  A 9 year old girl's body would have to grow a lot in order for that to happen and she could easily die if she tried.  He was not listening.

Secondly, he said a marriage would not take place without the girl's guardian assessing whether she had agreed. Now... just imagine. She is told this is the man we would like you to marry, it's a male dominated society (e.g. Saudi Arabia) and she is just a little girl. Exactly how much she understands the implications of marriage or what she is being asked - well, what did you know when you were a child?  When an authority figure comes and asks you if you are sure, you will probably say yes. This is not exactly the kind of situation you would imagine a small girl saying 'I don't want to do this'.  How can *anyone* believe that a guardian is able to determine her consent. Are they going to tell her what this man is going to do to her? I highly doubt it.  But anyway... it's all there in the Quran, so it must be right, right?

The problem I have with it all, apart from the sheer rage and disgust, is that this ancient, outdated and clearly immoral text would be used as any kind of guideline for living.  No doubt muslims have to do just what the christians do - quote mine from their ancient and idiotic book for the parts that are not clearly reprehensible and immoral to find things that resonate with their lives.  It's rather like statistics... sure there are some good things in there, but you have to ignore the rest of it to find it.  Children are sacrificed, women raped, daughters sold off, Jesus says some very questionable things about forsaking your family in order to love him, and *somehow* two of even the largest dinosaurs fitted onto the ark with food for a year ... all of that is just overlooked.  People are very willing to turn on, tune in and drop out when it comes to belief. 

Child brides exist in many parts of the muslim world. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are scary places to be a little girl. It happens in other religions... you see it in India as well. Ignorance is everywhere.

Some other time I'll write about how easy it is to let moderates off the hook.  Right now I am just rather revolted.  I think Tim sums it up for me.

And as Stephen Fry so aptly put it... So you’re offended. So fucking what?

Faith.. got some?

pope benedict xvi

Creationist Fail

Don't be Stupid

Tim Minchin is really amazing. He manages to say things so clearly, so bluntly and with enough humour to stop us from wanting to cry at how stupid people are.

Thanks Tim. Keep at it :)

Memories... you're talking about Memories

Most of us are pretty certain about who we are as people, what opinions we have and what we believe. Isn't most of that based on memories? We have an experience, react to it, store it away and then pull it out again at a later date to use in relation to some new situation. Obviously, that's how we learn as infants and children, but it doesn't seem to take long to become very sure of our 'certainties'. We know what we know and are ready to argue to defend it.

I used to see things in black and white. My opinions were strong and I would stand up for them pretty vehemently in certain situations. I know where I got that from. My father has always seen things either His way or the Wrong way and you better watch out if you didn't agree. Moody and prone to bouts of explosive and vindictive anger, he is the only person I have known that will argue even if you share the same opinion. Though he was never able to share his childhood with us, he has been a victim of his memories his whole life. Nightmares, conspiracy fears, and bitterly comparing his life under apartheid against our peaceful life meant that he always felt his suffering was worse than anyone else's. It wasn't hard to see that a terrible past had left scars and mental illness. But empathy only goes so far when illness is ignored and danced around, and people get hurt.

Living with fibromyalgia gives you a chance to learn some difficult lessons. When you start to experience inconsistant memory loss along the lines of early alzheimer-style symptoms, it's certainly an opportunity to reflect on the nature of brain function. I might think I am sure of something - remember it as clearly as if it was a moment ago. Then Gagan will point out that I am definitely wrong. I used to fight about it - argue against it, and he would have to patiently work with me until I realised that my so called memory was false and I was fighting for nothing. It's a lot to take in. But I have to say - it's a leap forward. To be released from that strong ownership and vehemence of certainty. How many times in the past have I argued over something and been wrong I wonder? How pointless to argue at all over things based on a memory.

So to get to the nitty gritty, there is some interesting research on all this.

The day after the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident, psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to write down exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the explosion. When he interviewed the students two and a half years later, 25 percent of them gave strikingly different accounts. But when confronted with their original journal entries, many students defended their beliefs. One of them answered, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Neurologist Robert A. Burton has written a fascinating book about the entire subject, from which the above quote comes. How many of us have really strong memories about significant events? I remember my brother and I were watching Space 1999 when the news came across the screen that John Lennon had died and we ran to the kitchen to tell Mum. Is that even remotely what happened, I wonder? Will I continue to remember waking up in my bedroom in Thailand to see that Michael Jackson had died, or will that memory change over time? If things that seemed a bit of a shock at the time may not be correct - how can I be sure of mundane memories at all. Isn't that truly what we are getting at?

Here is a tiny clip showing how easy it is to trick someone into believing they remember something that never happened.

How fascinating. How alarming.

So in light of all this I really try not to argue over things that are memory based any more. I can remember emotions I have had but not details. It's much better to look up facts, learn and be willing to be flexible. Seeing the anger and bitterness of my father, I can't possibly be sure how true his memories are vs. a tortured unwell mind creating its own painful justifications. After all, this is a man who recalls beyond a shadow of a doubt seeing both a cougar and skunk in the wilds of Africa in his youth. Not much you can say to that really. It certainly would rewrite some of the planet's natural history if he had.

It feels like no coincidence I have been mildly obsessed with Blade Runner ever since it came out in 1982. Strangely I can remember every little thing....

New Decade

Well, the Noughties are over and my jetlag is almost wrestled into submission. A surreal and weird trip to Canada is over and life goes on.

I don't have a lot to write about yet... lots to wrap my brain around. But I offer up this rather wonderful moment that really says it all.

Lawrence Krauss, you're my hero :)


The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism