Hanlon’s Razor and Hyperskepticism

This week we’re talking about conspiracy theories! I have two points to make, from opposite sides of this argument.

The first of these is a handy little rule that I feel should be applied whenever you feel like there might be something sinister afoot. Hanlon’s razor states:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

It’s been attributed to various people, but I like the “cock up before conspiracy” version attributed to Sir Bernard Ingham;

Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.

To be sure, conspiracies are something that occur. The one that sprang immediately to mind for me is the Gunpowder Plot that resulted in failure and, ultimately, an excuse to throw a party and have gigantic bonfires. However, that might just be because there are rhymes associated. I can quote the one from V for Vendetta from memory. But real conspiracies occur in small, tightly knit groups with small, focused aims. Larger conspiracies – “climate change is a hoax!” – just aren’t feasible because all it takes is one honest (or, if you’re cynical, careless) person to expose it.

The other, contrasting point has to do with hyperskepticism – the position of needing absolute proof of every claim before being willing to entertain it. I myself am fond of the maxim that “anecdote is not data”, but we need to remember that in the murky Real World data is not always easy to gather. Hyperskepticism is an often used tool to dismiss challenges of comfortable world views, and it’s something every skeptically minded person needs to guard against doing.

In some cases, the question being asked has been examined over, and over, and over again, and we have good data, and we can feel pretty good about dismissing truth claims. For example, I actually had a great-aunt who was part of the original Flat Earth Society. Despite having flown from Canada to England to visit her the conversation about the shape of the earth was like running over and over into a large brick wall – but the part I remember best is her characterizing the dismissal of her views as “close-minded”. She was a sweet, gentle person, so I still feel a bit bad about how much grief she got over it, but in some cases, well, it’s not a bad thing to be close-minded, if only because it allows you to direct your attention elsewhere. But a lot of the time, especially when claims have to do with messy, squishy, human societies, it’s best to keep an open mind. And anecdote, while not enough, can sometimes be a warning flag telling you: pay attention, here, this could be important.

And sometimes they’re just because squishy humans glitch a lot.


Stories about Belief: Part 1

So this week’s meeting is all about personal stories – why you’re an atheist, agnostic, secular or (I know there are a few of you who come to the meetings!) religious person. So I’m going to share my story here, or at least part of it – the part where I realized religion was a thing, and I didn’t have one. Part 2 (where I stumble around desperately looking for a religion of my own) is coming after the meeting, so I have at least something to talk about while I’m there.

I’m hoping that other people will also want to share their own stories; if you want to write for what I’m hoping will be a series, please let us know. Or indeed, if you want to write about anything, please let me know.

Without further adieu, part one of my story.

I’m not sure of the exact timing, but sometime during the most awkward stages of adolescence – I’d say thirteen or so – I noticed something strange about the world around me I’d never before noticed: religion. Religion was everywhere! There were churches and faiths and people prayed and had meetings and were just everywhere I looked.

And the question you’re asking yourself right now – how the hell did she manage to get to thirteen without noticing most of the world is religious – is answered in two ways.

First, is that I was never raised in any kind of faith. I wouldn’t call my parents atheists, certainly not then even if they are now. But they were firmly dedicated to the idea that, once I was old enough, if I cared, I’d make up my own mind.

And there’s the second reason – I wasn’t interested. I’m still guilty of being vastly more interested in what’s going on in the inside of my own head than outside in the world around me, although I try my best these days to not spend all my time reading fantasy novels and playing video games. I simply didn’t notice, because it wasn’t part of my world, wasn’t something I had ever seriously considered or even put any thought at all into.

But lo, the time had come – religion was everywhere, and I was an awkward adolescent, and clearly, by not providing me with some form of religious belief, my parents were deeply warping my development as a person. I had been cheated, I had been wronged! Everyone had a religion but me.

If you’re noting at this point the similarity between this argument and almost any form of teenage entitled whining, well, you’re not wrong. Everyone also had a much bigger allowance than I did, and they all got to stay up much later on weeknights.

My mother, wily woman that she is, responded to this passionate accusation by telling me that my religious views were, of course, my choice, and she would fully respect my decision and support me in any religious undertaking I chose to engage in. Assuming you’re going to be Christian, here’s a bible to explore that option, feel free to read it once your homework is done. Joining a church would be possible – historically speaking your family is Anglican, would you like to join an Anglican church? You’d have to be baptized, of course, and take courses on your proposed religion, and get up early every Sunday to go to church…

At this point I realized that having a religion was going to be an awful lot of work, and went back to my fantasy novels as the more enjoyable option.

But the eyes of the mind, once opened, are not easily closed again, and I would spend the next fifteen years wrestling on and off with this problem, religion. Did I want one? Did I have one? And if I didn’t, what did that make me?

Ponderings on SCIENCE

There are a lot of things going into this blog post, I’m afraid. I have a very simple point, but the set up is long, so to avoid tripping myself  up and getting us all confused, I’m going to put them down in list format. Without further adieu, this is a list of Things I Am Pondering:

1. A few auguster personages than I (Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, for one) have responded to  a fairly ugly article written in The Week entitled Where are the honest atheists? I know – cue the groaning. The relevant bit I am pondering is this:

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

If I were to respond to this utterly banal strawman of my atheistic views what I might say is this:

If atheism is true, than we are part of the universe rather than separated from it, no one pulls and pushes us like puppets, the fact that we exist is amazing and improbable, we are part of an amazingly complex tapestry of life that streches back over billions of years, we live on in all the things we have done while we lived, our lives and our loves have exactly as much meaning as we choose, and creating a better society that promotes happiness and health and prevents suffering is up to us.

2. Our meeting topic this week is “Controversial Science”. In our poll we gave two good examples of what we mean by “controversial”; stem cell research and cloning. But I’m pondering the difference between controversy in society and controversy in science, and how often those two are conflated. And every time I hear someone call something like Evolution “controversial” I want to pull an Inigo Montoya and tell them that I don’t think that word means what they think it means.

3. I’m taking a lot of courses on evolution (evolutionary ecology, bioinformatics, etc) and it’s all a) harder than I expected it to be and b) extremely interesting. It’s amazing how much proof we can find for evolution – how quickly traits change, how easily small genetic changes can lead to speciation, and how rich the tapestry of evidence we’ve built is. But at the same time – this is so grand, so broad, so much time. It’s amazing how far we’ve come, but there are so many things we just can’t know for sure – information that is lost to time – and it’s frustrating because we will never be able to say “Aha! Now we have all the answers!” And that seems to be the bar of evidence that is accepted – creationists point to this fossil gap and that mystery and claim they’ve disproved evolution.

4. I was talking the other day about my attitudes towards science and math in high school, and how negative they were. And the more I think about it the more I want a time machine so I can go back in time and shake myself. Science is boring and math is pointless?? Are you insane? Are you high? Can’t you see how interesting and amazing and important this is?

5. I’ve been randomly reading up on various topics relating to women’s suffrage and I wikiwandered my way onto a page that absolutely horrified me. I shit you not: The Alberta Eugenics Board, which served an act that was repealed in 1972. This, my friends, is what we might call A Very Grievous Misuse of Science for Horrific and Immoral Purposes. Let me be clear though; this is not good science put to bad purposes, this is bad science, put to worse purpose.

6. For motivation purposes I have broken out the Symphony of Science playlist. This song perfectly encapsulates my current feelings about science, and my general wonder at the universe:

The list of things turned out rather long and complex. I hope you’re not more confused than I am, but here’s the point of this post;

Science is hard to do, and complex to understand, and it involves uncertainty, and never, ever, ever coddles you and tells you only what you want to hear (if you think that it does, you might want to consider that you’re Doing It Wrong). It’s a process, a tool, a story, and a work of art, and it is my firm belief that the progression of our knowledge of the universe around us is one of the most fundamentally important endeavors of humanity. And it drives me up a tree when it is dismissed, and belittled, and its terms and language are co-opted and misused to justify immoral actions and close minds.

I’m not sure what I can do to stop the world from regularly driving me mental, but I want to believe that if we can only help people to understand what they miss out on when they close their minds they might make me mental less often. And it might make articles as dumb as the one I mentioned up top less annoyingly frequent. So, my secular people, I ask you; let’s not talk just about about the controversy. Let’s ask the fundamental question; how can the secular community help society to stop, take a deep breath, and think?

Counterpoint Review (Gaming): Why I loved Journey, from an atheist perspective

In the following article, I’ll be giving my own review of Journey for the PS3, in response to Susan’s piece from a while back: Review (Gaming): Why I am the only person in the world who hated Journey. Despite both being atheists, we each drew very different conclusions about the game – read both of our reviews to see the comparison.

As before, massive spoilers follow – proceed with caution.

I think Journey is a truly fantastic game. Not just because of the stunning visuals and beautiful score, nor just because of the satisfying gameplay and the groundbreaking style of multiplayer, in which you can be randomly paired up with another player with whom your only method of interaction is little chirps and whose username will not be revealed until you have completed the game. All these things served to really immerse me in the world of the game, setting me up to have a deep emotional response to the ending.

I have a very different interpretation of the final events of the game than Susan, and in fact the frustration I felt at the end is actually something I credit the game for. The game begins with a ball of white light flying across the sky and then zooming across the sand, followed directly by my character coming into frame. From there, I take control and set off. Throughout the course of the game, I kept asking myself, “Where am I going?” and “Why am I going there?”. I was constantly heading towards a column of light at the top of the tallest mountain I could see, simply because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. If I wanted to progress, that’s the direction I needed to head in. Along the way, I saw cave paintings depicting others like me taking the same journey towards the top of the mountain, and I encountered what I later interpreted to be the graves of many of my people who did not make it to the end. As I grew closer and closer to my goal, the harsh winds pushing against me made it harder and harder to press forward, no matter how hard I pushed the left analog stick up in futility and growing despair. Sure enough, I eventually could no longer move at all and finally collapsed to the ground, surely to be lost forever in the snow. Going through this part of the game while connected to another player added immensely to the emotional impact I experienced, as I was forced to watch my companion collapse just before me. We had been through so much and come so far. I wanted to help him or her stand up, but was not strong enough, and I wanted to call out in reassurance, but my chirps had become more and more faint. Ultimately there was no way to succeed; the journey was simply too difficult.

As the screen, my vision, faded to white, I thought, “Is this the end of the game?”. At this point, I felt despair that I was unsuccessful in my quest, especially since I thought I would never know what the point was. Then, after a few agonizingly long seconds, my vision returned. In front of me were 6 figures, similar to me but much taller and clad in all white. Were these the gods of this world? It appeared so, because they seemed to resurrect me and give me a great deal of power, such that I could fly freely the rest of the way to the top. After facing certain death, the brightly lit, waterfall-filled environment atop the mountain was incredibly beautiful, and I was so relieved that I would get to see my goal after all. While it is certainly open to interpretation, I do not think that it was heaven, as this was the very same peak I saw at the beginning of the game – I had not left the physical world. Instead, it seemed to me that the Gods had rewarded my efforts despite my failure and given me a second chance and a helpful push. At first, this made me feel similarly to Susan, and I wished that the game had in fact ended when I collapsed in the snow. After all, didn’t this lessen the significance of all my effort?

As I finally reached the very top and the source of the light I had been following all this time, I was burning with curiosity at what I would find. But as I walked into the light, the screen faded to white again. After a few seconds, my view had zoomed out to show a white ball of light, just like the one I saw at the very beginning of the game. After entering the light at the top of the mountain and then seeing this small ball of light shoot out of it, I believed it to be me, though I no longer had control over my movements. The ball of light travelled back the way I had come, through each environment I had traversed, eventually reaching the desert where I began. In fact, it now seemed to me that it was doing exactly what the first ball of light had done, because when it reached its destination and landed in the sand, obscured from my view by the very same hill I had first seen the mountain from, I was prompted to start a new Journey by pressing the “Start” button. Doing so began the game again, no different than the first time.

What did this mean? It seemed that there was nothing at the top of the mountain after all, at least nothing I was able to see. Instead, reaching there simply sent me back to the beginning to do it all over again, still without a purpose. Worse yet, it was now clear that I had taken this journey before, as the first ball of light must have been me as well, on its way back from the mountain. I was angry, but not at the game or its creators – I was angry at the Gods. The thing is, while I am indeed an atheist, this is a fictional world, and I have no problem with the presence of gods in it, much in the same way that I find stories such as those of Greek mythology highly entertaining. Instead, I was mad that they seemed to have sent me, and countless others of my kind, on a pointless journey, one whose end was merely its own beginning. I followed the path depicted in the cave paintings and toward the beacon they seemed to have set for me, believing that there was a meaning behind it. But by following their plans for me blindly, I ended up stuck in an endless loop of struggle and death, never living for myself. The only way to escape this cycle would be to reject their plan and follow my own; perhaps I would explore the rest of the world, but I would never sacrifice my life to reach the top of that mountain again.

Now, I certainly am not saying that my atheism is tied to a rejection of any god’s plan for me, as I do not believe that such a being exists in the first place. Nonetheless, Journey reminded me why I do not seek a diving meaning or purpose to my life, choosing instead to live for my own reasons and strive for my own goals. After all, that is all I can count on. Even if a god or gods do exist, I have no way of knowing with any clarity what their plan for me is, nor could I know if it is worth following. All I can do is live a good life to the best of my ability, and try to make an impact on the world so that I may live on a little longer in people’s memories. I do not claim to know the intentions of the game’s creators, but I do know what my own interpretation of it was, and in art, that can be just as important. Journey made me contemplate life and death, and it put me through an emotional experience which reinforced my views on these subjects. With no dialog or written text, it is up to the player whether or not to question the gods and the journey itself, much in the same way that people on earth must form their own opinions about life and death. While many people may disagree with me or not even consider the game in this way, I think that by encouraging this type of thinking, Journey is a true success.

It’s International Darwin Day!

We all know who Darwin was, of course. He was the guy who gave us the theory of evolution, which really, that seems like enough for us secular students to give him props. After all, up until that point, the origin of the human species was generally ascribed to various creation myths. But we secular students have another reason for celebrating Darwin Day.

Darwin was the guy who said:

“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”

Ichneumonidae are parasitic wasps, of which there are at least 60,000 species, so I’d say Darwin has a point. That seems like a lot of time and attention on a fairly gross form of parasitism – more Alien than influenza. Actually, it’s worse than even Darwin knew – some of those 60 000 wasps are the kind of parasite that controls the mind of its host – something that isn’t actually all that uncommon. We see it in species like ants, snails and mice – and there is even some controversial discussion on whether or not that mouse parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, has a behavioural effect on humans.  In fact, as many as half the species on earth can be defined as parasites.

Seems like a bit much for a kind and loving God, I agree, Darwin.

So today, spare a thought today for the great scientist and thinker, Charles Darwin. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Or, at least, an intellectually fulfilled biologist like me.

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Neil Degrasse Tyson is my hero. Pretty much anyone who engages me in any sort of “big picture” conversation will eventually get a reference back to him, generally in the form of a YouTube video.

So I was having a conversation about the meaning of life (as one does when one should be working on one’s homework) and, as my brain often defaults to “does Neil Degrasse Tyson have anything worthwhile to say on this topic?” I ended up rewatching one of the newer ones, by Minute Physics.

And thus, a meeting topic was born. Because while I agree with the substance of what he says, there’s a step further I think we need to go. If the universe doesn’t have the stated purpose of making us, and supporting us, and being generally awesomely designed for us, then (it has been argued) there is no meaning in anything we do. I disagree.

So for this week’s meeting, I thought we could talk about creating purpose in life. If there is no external goal to existence – if we create all the terms and definitions – then what matters is up to us.

After all, in a sense, we are the universe.

It might also be vaguely possible that some of you don’t agree with Neil Degrasse Tyson (/clutches pearls), in which case (I suppoooose) we can debate that as well.

Review (Gaming): Why I am the only person in the world who hated Journey

One of the things we’re going to be doing is reviewing games/books/movies etc. that either have an atheist slant or can be reviewed from an atheist perspective in some interesting way. This definitely isn’t the first, but I’m hoping it’s the second.

Let’s get a few things out of the way. First, there are spoilers in here, big, fat, in your face spoilers. The game is two hours long, it’s really worthwhile, if you at all think you’re going to play it, go do that, then come back here and see if your seething rage matches mine. It’d be nice to be less alone on this one!

Second, Journey is a really good game. Recipient of various game of the year awards, nominated for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in the 2013 Grammys, and gushed over almost universally, this is a game that manages, in a way few games do, to create a profound and moving experience. People are touched, moved, transported by Journey. Journey invokes a profound emotional response in the people who play it.

Me too! Except my profound emotional response was transmuted in the last five minutes into crushing disappointment and betrayal.

I approached this in the exact perfect way to play it, knowing nothing about it. It’s pretty simple to figure out how to play; you can run, jump, and ‘sing’, you use your scarf to fly, it’s more interesting than it sounds. I’m not going to get into the mechanics, because it’s been done many times before, and because the meat of the game is really the story, and the emotion it invokes.

You start off in the desert. You’re a tall figure, swathed in a red robe, staring at the tall, shining mountain in the distance. That’s your goal; you’re heading toward the mountain, and the story unfolds around you, informed by the landscape you travel through. There are no words, only pictures, and song. The levels move through a vast desert, dotted by ruins, into the ruins, through a frantically gorgeous sunset sequence, down into a dark and scary landscape that transmutes halfway through into a gorgeously strange and then joyful ascent into the final area, the base of the mountain, which is cold and frozen and slowly strips away the soaring ability you’ve built up over the previous sections. Eventually you’re trudging, doggedly, painfully, into a landscape of silent, endless, frozen white.

And then your character stops, falls down, and dies. And goes to heaven.

The reason I hated Journey is that the whole time, I thought I was playing a different game than I was. In hindsight, it’s obvious it’s a metaphor for life. And life, for the vast majority of people, includes God, and heaven, as the source of the awe and wonder and solace that the rest of the game so ably invoked.

I felt all those emotions, but I thought I was playing a different game. The pictographs of the alien figures, I took for, well, actual aliens, or the larger metaphor for society. It was a quest, I thought, to move from ignorance to knowledge, with the awe and wonder and joy that invokes, as well as the fear and danger and sometimes, yes, endless trudging drudgery. I was viewing it through an atheist lens.

Which is why the ending was like a slap in the face. All my wonder, all my joy, all my struggle and hardship and emotional connection, made irrelevant. My character never makes it to the top of the mountain; the only way to reach the light is to die, and then fly through a dreamy, fantastical sequence that utterly destroyed my delusion that this was a metaphor for the ascent of the human species.

And that’s where Journey fails for an atheist like me. It makes the whole thing pointless; not because your character dies in the end, but because, according to the metaphor of the story, dying is the goal. And that cheapens every other step along the way.

Lo, a first post!

Hello, world!

This is our introductory blog post, so a few things out of the way;

  1. Who we are
    This is the blog of Atheos, the non-theist/secular humanist/atheist/agnostic student group at the University of Guelph. But we’ll be having (hopefully!) posts from a lot of different members, so expect to see herein a wide variety of opinions. Generally of the heathen variety.
  2. Comment policy
    Be nice. As of now we aren’t filtering comments. But we ask that posters respect the general ethos of the club; safe, accepted, worthy. Disagreement is fine, but our aim is to engage ideas, not denigrate persons.
  3. What you’ll find here
    Topics of concern to the average atheist/agnostic/non-theist/secular humanist, including but not limited to book and movie reviews, debates on relevant topics, personal stories, links and resources of interest, and posts that flesh out topics we’re discussing in our weekly meetings.
  4. Construction!
    It’s a work in progress, so your patience is much appreciated.
  5. And now… a post!

This week’s topic is “Why Atheism?” (agnosticism/non-theism/secular humanism… you get the idea).

Atheos, our club’s name, is a greek term that means “without god(s).” It’s a category most of us fit in to, but of itself, is simple lack of belief enough? Sitting at our table for club days last week I encountered several times the familiar question; “What do you do at your meetings?” I even got the atheist’s old (annoying) standby, the non-stamp-collector analogy. If all we did all day was sit around and talk about how we didn’t believe, this would be a boring club indeed.

But it isn’t. I would argue that Atheos the club, like the Atheism movement in general, is united by two things; the desire for a community of likeminded people to talk with and support us, and a system of thoughts and ideals that lead us to Atheism in the first place.

I can unpack the first idea easily enough, by imagining a world where atheism would be as boring as non-stamp collecting. In such a world, atheism would have to be as normal a position as not collecting stamps – not subject to suspicion, confusion, derision, and even persecution. Here in Canada we’re fairly lucky; atheism isn’t nearly as perilous or abnormal. But even here I’ve been told by a perfect stranger that I’m going to burn in hell, and, although I’m extremely lucky to have faced zero consequences for my lack of belief in my personal life, many of our members aren’t so lucky. So even if we’re not collecting stamps, we’re organizing because we live in a world where stamp collecting is the norm.

The second idea is more to do with what leads us to atheism than atheism itself. I’ll save the meat of my argument for this week’s meeting, but I’m going to spam a quick list of values here to start the conversation: Science. Truth. Prioritization of evidence for belief. Humanism. The desire to understand. Fairness. That small is not insignificant. That finite is not unimportant. That the universe is really, really cool.

I’m not going to argue that appreciation for science or the importance of evidence is unique to atheism. But I do think these are some of the core ideas that lead us towards atheism, and away from religion.