Monday, February 14, 2011

Languange and Gnu Atheism

This is a very good illustrated talk on language, and the purposes of veiled ways of taking that are needed in order to maintain relationships. Talking in a veiled manner is used in order to negotiate an outcome or come to an understanding when an awkwardness exists between the participants in that they may not know what the other knows, and know what they know what the other knows, and so on.

The important bit as far as Gnu Atheism is concerned is in the latter part of the presentation, in which the speaker explains why the little boy speaking his mind in the fable about the emperor with no clothes is so effective and necessary in order to bring about a change in thinking. It also applies to the Gnu Atheist movement advertising that tells people that it is OK to accept that gods do not exist. This example also shows why it is important for New Atheists (and their Gnu cousins) to be vocal, outspoken and public. It is so the other members of the public can feel the sense of social knowledge and have acceptance of non-belief, instead of the sense of awkwardness.

Religious organisations have known or instinctively acted on this. In the past it was blasphemy laws that enforced the limiting of questioning religious authority so that it could not be discussed with anyone, as anyone could inform on you. Totalitarian governments work in the same way. Opposition cannot be organised because you don't know who to trust, or how widespread the same feeling of opposition exists. What is true for all forms of oppression of a social group is that while the knowledge of rejection remains restricted to the individual no progress can be made. This is why the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have been triggered by truth and social media, and why governments suppress them as a matter of course; facebook and twitter have become ways of spreading individual knowledge to the wider group that allows dissenting thought to be socially acceptable.

In these more enlightened days the blasphemy laws are reduced or removed from the state laws, so the religious organisations have to fall back to social pressures in order to keep dissenting voices silent. Religions know that the longer and more widespread the silence exists, the more that people can only go so far as to individually reject religion, but only in their own minds. So the power of religion remains. If one cannot know that one can safely be overtly non-religious, so one also has the social pressure for exhibiting religiousness for external appearances.

This is where the accomodationalism comes in. The accomodationalists want to have a veiled conversation about science and religion or superstition so that they can pretend to remain friends with the religious. The language used by accomodationalists is a veiled language, so the uncritical listeners get the message that they want to hear. The faithful hear that science does not contradict their faith (even though it does in reality) and the scientists hear that it is OK to teach science to the faithful as they are not contradicting the faithful beliefs (even though it does if done properly)

Conversely, Gnu Atheists have no interest in pretending to remain friends with religious persons they don't personally know, and so are quite happy to say that superstitions and myths are silly when there is evidence to show that they are silly. The price that the Gnus pay is they may lose some friends, but maintain their integrity and intellectual honesty. What it also says is that in the case of religions and superstitions Gnus tend to value a friendship based on honesty more than one based on the pretend veiling of conversations.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

An Implausibility of Gnus

According to that great and highly respected reference, Pub Quiz Help the collective noun for Gnus is an "Implausibility or Herd" of which I will ignore herd as it is too mundane :o

As the idea of being a Gnu Atheist is a bit of whimsy, I hope adding a bit of reason as to why it is appropriate to be referred to as an Implausibility of Gnu Atheists isn't too serious. Put simply:
1) Atheism exists as a counter to theism. If theism did not exist, there would be no atheists;
2) New Atheism exists because we are modern enough and have enough science behind us to know that any theism is extremely implausible, as there is no evidence to support it;
3) Gnu Atheism exists because New Atheists are not strident enough; and
4) The need to collect a disparate group of people with widely differing backgrounds together to unite and be strident against the ludicrous notion that adults that indulge in fairy stories and must be taken seriously is well, implausible.

So I put it that an Implausibility of Gnus is very apt, appropriate, and embraceable.

The Rightness of Wrongness

There is the story of a professor at a university that has taught the same theory, with passion, for decades, and one day hears a lecture by a visiting scientist. The contents of this lecture presents the data, reasoning and evidence that the basis of the lessons of the professor, that he had held so dear as part of his teaching, are wrong. The professor, upon the conclusion of the lecture, is said to have stood up and shook the hand of the visitor, thanking him for removing the fallacy and correcting his thinking. From memory, I think this was in one of Richard Dawkins books, I think it was The God Delusion, but I don't have a copy here to check.

In any case it is a nice story, and one that touches the heart. Perhaps it touches because it has the appearance of humility that we can aspire to; the admission of being wrong and being happy to be shown to be wrong. When I consider my feelings as to why this touches me emotionally, it is because I can put myself in that position, but to my internal shame, realise that my own reaction may not be so humble. You see, I have a problem of ego; I want to be considered to be right. Being right is quite a common feeling that humans have and is part of our cognitive makeup. We need to feel right so we can derive some stimulation that promotes the keeping of correct information in our brains.

I don’t like it when I am wrong. Being wrong leaves me with have uncomfortable feelings and emotions. It is hard to admit that I am wrong, and it is a failing that I need to be more aware of and correct so I can be a better person. Hopefully since I am aware of it I can act on it. It takes practice, but detaching the ego from the sense of rightness is a very important step.

Religions tend to have an insistence of having an absolutely infallible model of reality, which is really an old-fashioned dogma that has been whittled away since the enlightenment times of the 17th century. Our meat brains are the product of billions of years of evolution which means they are very good at survival, but not necessarily able to be right all the time about all of reality. Our brains are good at helping us survive, and have allowed us to make a complex, interrelated technological world, but that doesn’t mean we are right all the time. So we must expect that we can be wrong about a great many things. Nothing in human experience is permanent, or immutable; all findings are provisional.

The professional scientist, in fact any professional person, needs to have a sense of “rightness” so they can do their job and function with confidence. It would be quite debilitating to constantly second-guess all of the concepts that we hold in our heads all of the time. So we get comfortable with what we know. However, the thing that distinguishes a professional from the amateur is the ability to accept that when they are wrong they must correct their mistake. It is far more important to be correct than to be considered as right. The social and psychological pressure that resists this correction is that being considered right is one of the ways that a person can have the confidence of their employers, superiors, customers, peers, friends and relations. Having to admit being wrong gives the sense that this confidence has been misplaced, and leaves me feeling disappointed that I was not correct in the first place.

Scientists, like in the example in the first paragraph, have to confront the reality that they will be wrong many times, and learn that there is no shame in this. Being wrong, admitting it, and correcting the erroneous ideas are the way to approach reality in an adult fashion. In the wider society, it is rare for someone to admit they are wrong without getting some social stigma attached, and I would like to see that change. I would like to see a wider acceptance of being allowed to be wrong at some point in the past so it is easier to be correct oneself when new knowledge arises. Acknowledging wrongness and correcting mistakes should not have a significant social cost.

Wilfully remaining wrong, in the face of evidence, on the other hand, should have considerable social cost, although what that cost should be, I do not know.