Saturday, May 05, 2007

Skeptic

I've been looking for a way to transition into a review of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, which I just finished. It's much too ambitious and encompassing of a book to try and summarize or trivialize with a one page review. So, I thought I'd tackle it a little different. Instead of doing a review per se, I'm instead going to post one passage a day from his book for about the next 4 or 5 days (starting Monday) and will give my thoughts on that particular point and hope you guys do the same. I did like the book and believe he is a talented (and funny) writer. I don't think it should only be read by atheists. I think Christians could get a lot from it also. Despite the controversial title, I don't believe it is meant to be overly confrontational or disrespectful, just thought-provoking.

But before I did that, I wanted to set the scene a little bit and let you know where my head was at prior to reading the book. Before the last year or two, I had always considered myself an agnostic or a skeptic. I was led to believe that considering oneself an "atheist" required the same level of fundamentalism as some religions. I truly did (and do) not believe in God but thought to call myself an atheist would mean I had to know there was not a God. As a logical and scientific person, I could not know this absolutely. Of course, I don't know there is no Santa Claus either but everything I am would indicate to me that there is not. They are both convenient and comforting constructs of our brains to allow us to grasp the complex world in which we live. Personally, it is more comforting for me to believe that I am not a puppet.

The dictionary definition of atheist -- "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods" -- is one I'm not afraid to claim. Through most of the blogs I link to on my site, I've learned a lot from those that consider themselves atheists. They are anything but fundamentalist or dogmatic and I would be proud to consider myself an atheist in the manner in which they do. What I had previously considered myself, an agnostic, -- "one who believes it impossible to know anything about God or about the creation of the universe" -- seems kinda pussy in comparison now. I don't know there is not a God but I don't believe there is one. I believe no knowledge is beyond our reach whether it is about God or the origins of the universe. Just because we don't understand it now doesn't mean we won't at a future time. I'm open to the possibility that there may be a God. But you have to prove it to me. I don't take anything on faith.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what we call ourselves, but what we do and believe. I was hunting around online the other day researching one of my other posts. I was looking for a proper description of the word "skeptic". To be honest, I wasn't completed positive on the official definition of it.

I found an article on Free Inquiry that talks about someone who considers himself a skeptic. And it is through his description that I found something fairly closely descriptive of myself. For the complete article:

Musings of a Closet Skeptic: Opening the door a little wider to share some thoughts by Arthur L. Kohl

The following are what the author considers the main beliefs of a skeptic:
Of course, even a skeptic must have some beliefs that can act as a framework for evaluating his or her own and others’ ideas. These are some of the key beliefs and assumptions of my philosophy:

1. The universe actually exists. This is an important assumption. If it is all a dream, all bets are off with regard to any attempt to understand it. Furthermore, there is a unified reality; what is true for me is also true for you.

2. There are natural laws that govern all physical processes, and there is only one set of these laws, not one for science and one for religion. Several, such as the first and second laws of thermodynamics and the law of gravity, are well established, although, of course, they are always subject to modification as our understanding of the universe expands. A very important function of science is to verify and upgrade the known laws and develop new ones as required to explain new observations.

3. As far as I know, the theory of evolution has not yet acquired the status of a natural law; however, I am quite convinced of its validity. Certainly changes do occur in successive generations of living organisms. There is ample evidence that this has happened in the recent past in isolated communities, and it appears to be happening now to produce insecticide-resistant pests and bactericide-resistant bacteria. It is inconceivable to me that changes that result in a survival advantage would not eventually become the dominant form.

4. If two statements are mutually contradictory, they cannot both be correct. This may seem obvious, but is often ignored, particularly by those religious believers who would like to display their tolerance of other religions by stating that every religion represents the truth for its adherents. Unfortunately, in many cases this is not possible, e.g. either Jesus Christ was the divine son of God or he was not. In a logical world, both positions cannot be true. Orthodox believers tend to be more in tune with the law of contradictions by stating that their belief system represents the only real truth while all others are false. Unfortunately, the laws of probability are against them; e.g., if there are ten equally plausible religions, there is, at best, only a 10 percent probability that any one of them is exactly correct. Of course, there is a very real possibility that none of them is.

5. For every effect there is a cause. No exceptions to this law of cause and effect have been observed to date. However, it is not clear how this law could have operated in the very beginning. Assigning creation to a supernatural being avoids the need to face this extremely difficult question. In fact, a strict interpretation of this law leads to the conclusion that the universe has no beginning, because before the beginning there would be nothing, and absolute nothingness could hardly generate a cause for anything. Of course, even if a God is assumed to be the creator, a true skeptic would want to know what caused God to exist.

6. The laws of probability are alive and well. How often do we hear that some observed occurrence must be supernatural because the odds of it being pure coincidence are extremely low? (e.g. one house left standing when all others in the area are demolished by a hurricane, or one cancer patient recovering after the doctor says the case is terminal). In fact, even if the probability is only one in a million, these odds indicate that one house (or patient) will be spared out of every million affected, and no supernatural intervention is needed. One probability law that is particularly difficult to accept is that the dice (or coins, etc.) have no memory. It is hard to believe that, after one hundred rolls of the dice with no 7 appearing, the odds of getting 7 on the next roll are no better (or worse) than before.

7. Honesty is the best policy. This is not a law of nature or logic, but it is a belief that leads to the conclusion that it is O.K. to admit that you do not know (or understand) something. The apparent human need to know the cause of all observed phenomena has probably been a major factor in the development of religions and other belief systems. Throughout history and in various societies, stories have been made up to explain the unknown. Many of these are highly imaginative and fanciful, but become a liability when people refuse to give them up in the face of well-substantiated explanations, or refuse to admit that, in all honesty, they do not know the answer.

8. The brain is not a perfect computer. It has many weaknesses, including a tendency to fill in the blanks in order to generate a complete picture or story from a sketchy one and a strong resistance to giving up beliefs even when presented with irrefutable evidence of their inaccuracy. Furthermore, it is very susceptible to suggestion and is subject to the influence of illogical emotions. Of course, it has many wondrous attributes including the ability to examine its own weaknesses.

The following are what he considers non-laws. The first is a point that CK, to his credit, makes frequently.
Just as the laws of nature, logic, and probability provide a reasonable basis for skeptical analysis, it is important to note that some other commonly accepted perceptions are not covered by known laws. For example:

1. Although every occurrence must have a cause, it is not required to have a meaning. This is difficult to accept, because most of us would like to believe that everything that occurs does have a meaning or at least a purpose. It may be a relief not to have to worry about the meaning of life, but it is very disconcerting to think that there may actually not be one. Of course, we cannot say that there is no meaning, only that there is no current law of nature that requires one.

2. There may not be justice. Again, most of us would like to believe that misdeeds are eventually punished in this world or somewhere else, and that good deeds are rewarded. Unfortunately there is no natural law that requires this to be true, and there is a vast amount of evidence indicating that, in this world at least, true justice is quite rare.

And he closes with:
Being a skeptic is not being negative. It is being absolutely honest and willing to face the hard facts. It is a willingness to accept new concepts that are adequately proven even when they require the abandonment of old beliefs, and, of course it is a willingness to admit it when we do not know or understand something.

If the characteristic of accepting unproven beliefs is genetic, it must have been an important survival tool, because so many people have it. Certainly more people believe in some kind of religion than in none at all. In fact, I would not be surprised if more people believe in astrology than do not. If most people are believers in unproven dogmas, then believing can be considered to be normal and being skeptical not normal, which probably explains any tendency of skeptics to remain in the closet. (Who wants to be considered abnormal?)

As pointed out earlier, one of my conclusions is that it is O.K. to admit that you do not know something. However this does not prevent one from being awestruck by the vastness and complexity of the universe. A skeptic may forgo the security of a firm belief system, but enjoys the privileges of questioning accepted concepts, and changing his theories to fit the latest factual information. He can always hope to add some small increment of understanding to the fund of human knowledge.

That's not far off from my beliefs. I think the author of the article considers himself more of an agnostic than anything, but, again, it's just semantics. I'm reluctant to use that term any more, in large part, because of some of the points that Dawkins makes in his book. But we'll attack that later.

"The existence of a world without God seems to me less absurd than the presence of a God, existing in all his perfection, creating an imperfect man in order to make him run the risk of Hell." -- Armand Salacrou, "Certitudes et incertitudes," 1943

13 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Superb post. [looks impressed].

I look forward to your sliding 'review' of The God Delusion.

I *really* must get around to reading it soon. So little time *so* many books [grin].

dbackdad said...

Thanks. You guys impress me and give me confidence to try and put the digital pen to paper.

A book that I would like to read is God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. I knew of him but have never read any of his stuff. I just saw him on The Daily Show and found him fairly entertaining. I've heard criticisms of him before, but I'd like the opportunity to read his stuff first before making a judgement on him. He seemed pretty intelligent and funny to me.

CyberKitten said...

I don't like Hitchens - at least what I've seen of him on TV. His book *is* on my Wish List though [grin].

Up late this morning aren't you? Or is that early?

dbackdad said...

He did seem a little bit pompous. But I wasn't sure if that was just how a lot of Americans perceive Brits' natural nature. lol (just kidding)

But your response would indicate to me that Brits consider him pompous too.

I was up a bit too late last night but just got on a roll and didn't notice the time.

Sadie Lou said...

hmmmm...
Interesting stuff. I wonder if you can shed some light on something for me:
With all you smart & verbal atheists out there--why haven't you guys been able to secure a popular talk radio show?
I spend some time in my car during my busier days and I always listen to talk radio but I must admit that I get a little bored listening to shows I agree with. You guys know me, I like to hear the other side a lot too.
Any thoughts as to the failure?

shrimplate said...

Hitchens was drunk, as usual, on TDS, but was in pretty good form on Charlie Rose where the longer format allows host and guest time to stretch out.

Though I hardly agree with many of Hitchens' views on the Iraq war, I always find him interesting. His indictment of Kissinger I consider essential. I'm looking forward to the release of his new book.

I'm reading Dennett's Breaking the Spell now. Dawkins' The God Delusion was more entertaining and a quicker read for me.

Here is the Dawkins/Haggard clip. Scary.

dbackdad said...

"why haven't you guys been able to secure a popular talk radio show" -- It's not really what we're interested in. I don't think most atheists want to be confined to such a narrow field. Atheism is really only a response to a specific thing -- the existence of God. And talk radio is really at the bottom of the totem pole as far as enlightened discussion on anything. It's rarely about getting to the truth.

Plus, ultimately, they are going to put stuff on the radio that sells (or gets advertising). It's a fairly exclusive audience that it would be targeting and I doubt that atheists would be interested in "preaching to the choir", as it were.

Sadie Lou said...

Wait--that's hardly a response--because we don't want to? That's the answer?
Is that the answer for liberals too? Even though they've tried?
Air America pretty much tanked despite the statistics that there was going to be a "huge audience".
The only thing out there is conservative, right wing talk radio shows, self help shows, relationship advice and religious shows. There's no shows that combat any of it--or anything popular, I should say. I look at the atheist blogs that are popular and they are like atheist country clubs with hundreds of different users yakkity-yak-yakking it away about all sorts of anti-religion topics. You'd think with that much interest in it--atheists could find a real niche in talk radio. You can't say atheists don't want to preach to the choir because they (you) do it every day on your blogs.

James said...

I'm in the middle of TGD right now and I like how Dawkins described his level of Atheism. He doesn't know for sure that there isn't a "God" but is pretty sure there isn't one and lives his life as such. That's where I am too.

To put my beliefs bluntly I am an Atheist Buddhist. Which is kind of redundant as nearly all Buddhists are Atheists I guess. Pure Land Buddhism is the closest that Buddhists get to believing in a "God."

dbackdad said...

Sadie,
I didn't mean for that to sound as confrontational (or elitist) as I know it did. I should have re-read it before posting it.

I agree that Air America has tanked. I don't even listen to it myself any more. I guess that's the point I'm trying to make. Getting liberals or skeptics or atheists to listen or watch only one thing will just not work. It's like herding cats. They are much more interested (or at least I am) in watching a wide range of things and things that are more even-handed or that at least don't have a horse in the race, as it were. Like NPR, BBC, international newspapers, etc. Or things that may lean one way but are not afraid to make fun or be critical of both sides (Daily Show, Colbert). Talk radio from either side is unapologetic about actively pushing one particular viewpoint and eviscerating any others. That's just not healthy.

Eric said...

"let me ask you a question, with all your smart & verbal atheists out there--why haven't you guys been able to secure a popular talk radio show?"

Since when is the combination of smart and verbal a prerequisite for a popular talk radio show? It seems you only need the latter, and that in great abundance, whereas the former seems notably absent from popular talk radio.

The popularity of an idea is no proof of it's correctness.

dbackdad said...

"The popularity of an idea is no proof of it's correctness." - The O'Reilly Factor in a nutshell.

Sadie Lou said...

dback--
I did think your response was coming across a little heavy handed but you clarified your position well. I guess I'm having trouble with the popularity of some atheist blogs as an example of how much atheists really do *love* to congratulate each other, laugh about common enemies, slap each other on the back, and other displays of such that mimic exactly what talk radio has to offer.
Just given the example of some atheist blogs--it would seem that a radio show of the same kind would attract a loyal audience. I'm just surprised there is such a big difference between typing out some thoughts compaired to putting them to words...