Friday, 25 November 2011

Dunning and Kruger

Many of you will already have heard of the "Dunning and Kruger Effect", a piece of psychological research which has made its way into the popular consciousness.  In summary it suggests that those who are more incompetent at a particular task are also more likely to overrate their competence, since their ignorance prevents them from realising just how bad they are.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the article, "Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessments", by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, Vol 77, No 6.  Much of it is not scintillating reading, being after all an academic research paper filled with statistical jargon.  However, it is more comprehensible than many similar articles and shot through with flashes of psychologist humour.

The paper reports a series of four linked studies.  All were carried out on undergraduate psychology students, coerced or bribed into being experimental subjects as they are the world over.  Psychology is the study of first year psychology students.  In each experiment, the students were asked to perform a test - one on assessing the quality of jokes, one on grammar, and two using tests of logical reasoning.  In each case they were asked to rate their own performance in relation to their peers, and where it was possible to estimate their own score.  The result - the students who scored the lowest were the ones who most overestimated their ability.  Those who did best, on the other hand, tended to underestimate their scores.

In a follow-up, students who did either very well or very poorly were asked to come back a couple of weeks later and assess a sample of the work of their peers, being handed a set of papers of varying standard.  After marking these papers as best they could, students were asked again how they thought they had gone compared to everyone else.  The least competent showed no change - they still thought they had gone really well because, of course, they didn't know enough to make a proper assessment of the papers they had been asked to examine.  The most competent, on the other hand, revised their assessment of their skills upwards - because they realised they had done a lot better than most of the tests they had marked.

The third activity involved training people, then asking them to reassess.  Prior to rating some of their peers' performance on a logic test, some of the poorest performing students were given a short education module on logical processes.  Unsurprisingly, after this brief presentation, they were much more realistic about their own performance, because they now understood a little more about the subject.

When you think about it, none of this should be a surprise.  Some people don't know enough to be aware of their own ignorance, and pronounce confidently on subjects about which they know absolutely nothing.  Often such people end up running whole countries.  A little exposure to the discipline in question, whether it be logic or grammar or the relative funniness of jokes, makes us aware of the yawning gaps in our knowledge and we suddenly become more circumspect.  Someone, however, has to be game to point out our ignorance.  This is usually easier for people to  do before you become Prime Minister - say, perhaps, when you're a first year psychology student who hasn't yet grasped the basics of grammar and logical thinking.  What to they teach them in those schools?

The conclusion to Kruger and Dunning's article is a classic, worth reading to the end for.

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish.  That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.

Yes folks.  Kruger and Dunning fear that they may have
painted a fake.  Join the club, boys.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Faith and Doubt

To make sure I don't just get trapped in a single viewpoint, I've been reading John Ortberg's Faith and Doubt.  Ortberg is an American Presbyterian pastor and also coincidentally a former clinical psychologist.  His overall outlook seems to be basically orthodox, conservative Protestantism but he is not really in the "fundamentalist" camp in that he is not a believer in the literal seven day creation, nor in premillenialism. 

He has written this book to deal with the question of doubt.  Why do Christians doubt, what should they do about it, and how does doubt relate to faith?  He deals with the issue in a chatty, anecdotal style, keeping it light and easy and leaping from story to story, topic to topic, with the agility of a grasshopper.  Although he doesn't say so, I suspect that the material in this book started out as a set of sermons, and it still sounds like something meant to be spoken, peppered with jokes that are often quite funny but also distracting and at times beside the point.  You can hear the congregation laughing, relieving the tension on what could otherwise be a rather stressful subject.

To my mind, he takes a while to get to the point, beginning with an outline of what he believes is important in the Christian faith and why it attracts him.  It's not until over half way through the book that he starts to get to grips with doubt.  He does so by summarising what he sees as the three main reasons for doubt.  The first is intellectual - why is there not more evidence for God?  Why does he not show himself clearly, if it is so important that we believe in him?  The second is moral - why are God's followers not better people?  Many former believers, or potential believers, are driven away by the poor behaviour of God's people and the church institution.  Then the third is the classic question of theodicy - why does a loving God allow so much suffering?  Although he discusses all three, it seems to be the last which affects him most personally and to which he returns a number of times. 

So what should we do when we doubt?  First of all, he makes it very clear that he doesn't think doubt is a bad thing.  In fact he sees it as essential and inevitable.  Doubt helps us to learn and grow (since it drives us to seek the truth) it makes us humble, and it drives us to trust.  He urges his readers to cultivate the gift of doubt.  However, he wants to keep this doubt within limits.  He urges us to avoid the traps of skepticism, which he sees as persistent failure to decide (Michael Shermer would certainly disagree with this definition!) and a negative force typified by the apostle Thomas; of cynicism, a constantly negative attitude driven by fear of loss; and of rebellion, a deliberately oppositional attitude to everything.  I found this part of the book perplexing, and his dismissals of these viewpoints a little too glib.

However, the weakest point of this book was its apologetic framework.  He identifies a number reasons to believe, but in the end they amount to variations on the same theme - our sense that the universe has meaning, that there is a standard of right and wrong, that individuals have significance, are sure pointers that there is a god.  His reasons for belief are heavily intuitive and emotional.  He believes because he feels things make sense.  Shermer would have a field day. 

The ease with which he slips into these arguments makes me wonder just how seriously he has doubted himself. His doubts seem to just scratch the surface, mere ripples on the still silent pool of his belief.  Because if his arguments are at all convincing (and I don't find them very strong myself) they only lead you to a general theism.  It is a long step from there to Christianity in any form, and an even longer one to Christian orthodoxy.  The rest he asks us to take on trust, like a trapeze artist letting go of the swing and relying on the catcher to arrest our fall at the right time.  For him the catcher is God, and Jesus points unambiguously to this God and gives us courage to believe.  He would get a big surprise if he looked up and found Brahma on the end of the trapeze, or perhaps the trickster Anansi pretending to drop him before snatching him by the hair at the last minute and laughing uproariously.

In a sense he's right about this.  Our belief is a choice, it is a free act in a universe which is not so determined that we have no options.  We choose to believe every day, relying on our trust in those around us or our intuition, on matters as mundane as whether it is safe to eat our dinner or as momentous as the guiding principles of our life.  Yet it is not a binary choice.  At each point, and on each issue, we need to choose over and over again.  And we have at least three choices, not two.  We can say "Yes, I believe, despite my doubts".  We can say "no, I don't believe that".  Or we can say "I'm just not sure, we'll have to wait and see".

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Once and Future Bible

Courtesy of my friend Kay I've been reading a book by Gregory Jenks called The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives.  Jenks is Academic Dean of St Francis Theological College, the Anglican seminary here in Brisbane.  He is also strongly connected with the "progressive" Christian movement in the USA as a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and a friend of the radical former Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, to whom he refers as a kind of mentor.

Despite his association with Spong, Jenks is very much his own person.  Spong's comparable book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, is combative and quixotic, leaping unpredictably between mainstream scholarship like the source theory of the Gospels, and fringe ideas like the notion of the Apostle Paul as a repressed gay man.  By contrast, Jenks is calm and sober, providing a concise lay person's summary of what he sees as the current state of Biblical scholarship.  Yet he identifies very closely with what Spong calls "believers in exile" - those people (in the church or outside it) who retain a Christian faith but no longer feel at home in the church and within the framework of traditional belief.  These people are his intended audience.

A lot of what he says is not particularly contentious.  His book follows the basic outlines of the Old and New Testaments, summarising what bible scholars see as their likely dating and process of composition, and its relationship to history.  Certainly, he is "progressive".  This means that when he has an alternative between a traditional interpretation and a more radical one, he generally chooses the more radical.  Where there is a choice between an earlier and later date of composition, he usually chooses the later.  However, he does so within a framework of scholarship, acknowledging alternative views and avoiding fringe or speculative theories.  Lots of people will disagree with his conclusions but you would have to be a little oversensitive to find them offensive or provocative.

The most interesting parts of the book are the third chapter and the final one.  In the third, after setting the scene by explaining why many people find the Bible problematic, he outlines a threefold framework for studying it.  The first is to understand the world behind the text - that is, the historical circumstances of its composition, the likely identity of its authors and their purpose, its place in the historical context that it describes and in which is was created.  This is largely the work of the various disciplines of biblical criticism and history - source criticism and archaeology, for example.

The second is to understand the world of the text - that is, what it is actually saying.  What is it saying about the nature of humans, God, history and so on?  This is the work of Biblical exegesis, and raises plenty of problems for him and other progressive Christians as well as more traditional believers.  How do you account, for instance, for the prevalence of what he calls "sacred violence" - the urgings to war and genocide found in so many places in the Old Testament, the idea of eternal condemnation of sinners found in parts of the New?  How do you account for the subjugation of women, and the toleration of slavery?  These are real problems which have driven many people from Bible, as you can see from a quick read of Sam Harris or Michel Onfray.

The final aspect of his approach is to understand the world before the Bible - that is, the world of the reader, the questions to which the reader is seeking answers.  What will a feminist, an environmentalist, or a person from a particular theological background, make of any particular text?  Because Jenks sees the Bible as a sacred text but not an infallible one, he is quite comfortable with the idea that someone might create a variant reading of a text, or offer a critique of it from a modern perspective, so that the Bible becomes part of a dialogue about how we should live now, rather than providing the final word.

Which brings us to his final chapter and what appears to me to be the crux of this whole book.  If we take his view of Scripture (and on the whole, it seems close enough to the mark) and see it is a faithful but fallible human witness to God, how should we use it, and what kind of faith will result?  His answer is tantalisingly brief, covering no more than a few pages.  I wish he had gone into more detail.  What he says is that we will read the bible with our eyes wide open.  We will be fully aware of its history and the way it was composed, rather than reading with the illusion of divine infallibility or complete harmony.  We will also bring to it our knowledge from other fields - our learnings from other spiritual traditions, from science and history, from our engagement with the issues of the day.  We will not so much be looking to the Bible to answer all our questionsas as making it part of them.

He sees the Bible as giving us four things - an openness to the sacred, a world-affirming attitude to life, a vision of inclusive community and a passion for justice and reconciliation.  There is no compulsion in his view of this, nothing to say you must read it.  Nonetheless, he and his fellow Christian progressives, and others of us too, come from a Christian background.  This background provides us with a rich history and tradition, the wisdom of ages from which we can draw to help us deal with the pressing issues of our day.  This won't be enough for some of my readers, I know.  For others it will be too much.  He walks the fine line between the fundamentalisms of Christianity and atheism, and tries to live in the tension between them.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

James and Paul

Here's a little something that Crossan and Reed's Excavating Jesus has got me thinking about.  They open their book with a discussion of an artefact called the "James Ossuary" - a bone box inscribed with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".  Their analysis of this relic, sold in the antiquities market with no indication of its origin, is fascinating.  Apparently even if the inscription is genuine there is only a one in 20 chance it actually contains the bones of James, the brother of Jesus Christ as worshipped by Christians.  All three names were incredibly common in first century Palestine.

Be that as it may, it leads them into a reflection on the role of James in the early church, and the origin of Christianity as a Jewish reform movement.  Here is my version of it, inspired by theirs but a little different.

James the brother of Jesus (as opposed to James the son of Zebedee, brother of John) is only mentioned once by name in the gospels, a passing reference in Matthew 13:55.  The context is Jesus' visit to his home town of Nazareth, where the locals apparently express the contempt of familiarity.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?"  An earlier story in Matthew 12 appears to suggest Jesus is just as dismissive of his family.

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Be that as it may, James appears to have played a prominent role in the early church, of which we only catch a glimpse in the New Testament through the story recorded in Acts 15 and its alternative telling by Paul in Galatians 2.  The context for this story is the early success of Paul's mission to the Gentiles.  Prior to this mission the church had been almost exclusively Jewish.  How should these Gentile converts be integrated into the Christian community?

Some (identified as Pharisees in Acts) believed they should become fully Jewish.  They should be circumcised and required to submit fully to the law of Moses.  They saw Christianity as a movement within Judaism.  Paul, of course, saw things differently, and was commissioned by his church at Antioch - the first mixed church - to take the question to the apostles in Jerusalem. 

What happened there is something of a surprise.  Throughout the early chapters of Acts, Peter is portrayed as the leader and spokesperson of the apostles in Jerusalem.  He plays a prominent role here too, alluding to his earlier call from God to preach the gospel to the Roman Centurion Corneleius and using this to argue that God accepted Gentiles without any expectation they would follow the law.  However it is James, making his first and only appearance in Acts, who appears firmly in charge and who finally rules on the question.  Luke is silent on this change.  Why is James, and not Peter, chairing this meeting?  And from where does he get the authority to deliver the final ruling?

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

This is clearly a compromise. They are not asked to take on the whole Jewish law, but an abbreviated version which includes food laws and sexual morality.

Paul's account in Galatians 2 contains no hint of this compromise.

6 As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message....They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

He then goes on to record a sequel in which Peter comes to Antioch.

12 ... before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy....

Paul's answer is unequivocal as he publicly rebukes Peter.

21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

What's going on here?  Three aspects of the law are under discussion - circumcision, food laws and sexual morality.  There seem to be at least four basic positions on this set of issues in the early church.  There is the position of the "pharisees" who believe Gentile Christians should submit to the whole Jewish law, including circumcision.  At the other extreme, although not mentioned in either of these accounts, there appear to be those who believe that none of these laws apply.

Both James and Paul occupy middle positions.  In their writings, both argue against the idea that morality can be dispensed with altogether - James in his sole letter preserved in the New Testament, Paul for example in Romans 6.  Both also agree that laws about sexual morality should apply to Gentile Christians.  What they disagree about is food laws, and even here their disagreement does not appear, in one sense, to be that great.  Paul does not believe in food laws himself, but in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10 he asks his followers to be considerate of one another in these matters.

Yet behind these details there seems to be something more fundamental which arouses Paul's passions.  Despite the nuance of his position in other places, his stance in Galatians is very black and white.  The "men who came from James" seem to be equated with the "circumcision group", so that Paul seems to understand James's position as advocating circumcision, contrary to Luke's account.  A further implication is that circumcised believers - full Jews, whether by birth or conversion - needed to maintain their purity by seperating themselves from Gentile believers, particularly at meal times which were such important communal events in the early church.  The result is a divided community - a Jewish church, and a Gentile one.  This seems to be what has raised Paul's ire.  His vision is for a united church, as shown in Ephesians 2.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Crossan and Reed speculate that we are seeing a divide between two churches - an essentially Jewish church based in Jerusalem and led by James; and a mixed church led by Paul and others, made up of Jewish and Gentile converts from outside Judea.  Peter seems to have moved between these two churches, although not without some difficulties as shown in Galatians. 

Although the relationship between the two was obviously a little uneasy they seem to have been able to co-exist, and later in Acts we see Paul making efforts to keep the lines of communication open, visiting Jerusalem and going through certain Jewish rites despite the danger to himself. 

However, the Jewish war of 66-73 CE, as well as putting an end to Jewish temple worship, killed off the Jerusalem Jewish church and limited James' influence on subsequent Christianity.  From here on, Paul's model of church prevailed.  Converted Jews became indistinguishable from converted Gentiles and in time Jews came to be seen not as partners of the church but as its enemies.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Decisive Moment

So Roo said to me that after reading Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain I should read Jonah Lehrer's The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind.  I always aim to please and I did enjoy Shermer.

Lehrer is one of those annoying people who seem good at lots of things.  He has a degree in neuroscience, studied literature and theology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and writes for a number of different publications.  Where Shermer is a scientist who writes, Lehrer appears to be a writer who does science.  He is less technical than Shermer, more journalistic and accessible.

The Decisive Moment (apparently marketed in some countries as How We Decide) covers a lot of the same territory as The Believing Brain, including reporting many of the same experiments.  However, Lehrer asks a different question to Shermer and so of course he gets a different answer.  Shermer is interested in belief, and his conclusion is that we should reject the emotional, unconscious part of our mind and form our beliefs using our capacity for rationality, aided by the stringent methodologies of western science. 

Instead of the "big" questions posed by Shermer, Lehrer is interested in a practical issue - what is the best way for us to make decisons?  He talks about the model of rationality first outlined by Plato, in which our reason is the charioteer, driving and guiding the horses (often wild and difficult to direct) of our emotions and impulses.  This ideal has influenced Western thought from Plato onwards (including, obviously, Shermer), but according to Lehrer it is a mistake.

To illustrate the point he tells the story of a man who has his orbito-frontal cortex - one of the key brain areas processing our emotions - destroyed by a brain tumour.  Although his intelligence is unaffected, he is almost completely unable to make even the most simple decisons, like what to have for dinner or where to park his car.  He intensely compares and analyses his options, but never reaches a conclusion.

From here Lehrer spins a vivid tale of how our brains make decisions.  To summarise what is a complex and absorbing tale (or set of tales), it goes something like this.  Our rational brains are good at computing.  They do numbers and measurements, and compare objective elements of our various choices.  They keep a check on our emotions, and allow us to avoid obvious, silly mistakes.  However, these same rational brains are easily deceived.  They are only able to deal with about seven variables at once, and get easily overloaded.  They are also not good at aesthetic decisions.  Thus, people asked to rate a set of posters - some with classic artworks, some with funny cats - will almost always choose the classic art.  Yet if they are asked to explain the reasons for their choice before choosing, many more of them will choose the funny cats, even though they regret it later.  Their reason gets in the way of their better judgement.

So what to do?  Well, for Lerher the brain is something like a committee meeting.  Our rational mind will add up figures and caution us about factuality.  The pleasure centres of the brain will flood us with dopamine when we consider a choice that appeals to us - even though there may be no obvious rational explanation.  The pain avoidance centres will likewise flood us with apprehension when we consider things that appear unpleasant.  We need to listen to all of these things to make good decisions.  Counter-intuitively, the more complex a decision, the more we need to trust our emotions and the less we can rely on our rationality.  We can reason our way to choosing the right vegetable peeler, but if we are buying a house or a car we need to trust our emotions.

So if Lehrer and Shermer were in a room together and discussing how to decide what belief system to follow, what would they say to each other?  I can't find that this scenario has ever been played out, at least not in public, but perhaps it would go like this.  Shermer would say that our emotions and our unconscious impulses are not to be trusted because they are biased.  Therefore they need to be overridden by evidence.  Lehrer might reply that the matters under consideration are so complex that our rational minds can't cope with the number of variables, and that listening to our emotions will help us to make better decisions about these things. 

Shermer would respond, perhaps, that our emotions are tutored by our environment and our upbringing, so that if we have consistently been taught something that is factually incorrect, hearing it will produce pleasure. Lehrer would agree that the debate in our brains needs to involve all parties and that sometimes our fear at abandoning treasured ideas needs to be overridden by rationality.  But at other times, when the answer that appears so rational nevertheless makes us feel sick in the stomach, then perhaps our emotions are pointing us to something beyond the comprehension of our reason, and we would be foolish to ignore it.

Aristotle apparently described humanity as a "rational animal".  Jonathan Swift begged to differ, describing us as "an animal capable of reason".  Lehrer seems to suggests it's not so simple.  We are indeed capable of reason, but reason may not be all its cracked up to be.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Believing Brain

William James is supposed to have said, "Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."  Courtesy of a tip from Roo and the friendly folk at the Brisbane City Council library service, I've finally got my hands on Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain, which explains this aphorism in a lot more detail.

I previously encountered Shermer through his Why People Believe Weird Things, a fun journey through a set of beliefs on the edge of the intellectual world like Holocaust denial, alien abduction, Ayn Rand's Objectivism and the psi quotient.  Shermer revealed himself as an intensely curious, sympathetic but highly skeptical observer, constantly on the hunt for evidence. 

The Believing Brain covers some of the same territory but it's a much more technical book dealing with the question from the point of view of Shermer's own specialist field, neuro-psychology.  What it is about our brains, Shermer wants us to know, that makes us so prone to belief, of whatever kind?

There's a lot of detail about the operation of neurons and brain chemicals, the functions of different parts of the brain, and the way our brains respond to certain stimuli.  What it comes down to, though, is three things - patternicity, agenticity and bias. 

Patternicity: Our brains have evolved to seek and recognise patterns in their surrounding environment.  A primitive hominid, wandering in the jungles of Africa, hears the rustling of leaves.  It could be a lion about to turn him or her into dinner.  It could also just be the wind in the leaves.  The hominid has to make an instant decision.  The one who assumes it is a lion and runs away is likely to survive, irrespective of whether there actually is a lion.  The one that doesn't is likely to be eaten.  The one that runs away is our ancestor.  Hence, an inability to see patterns where they actually exist is fatal, but a tendency to percieve non-existent patterns has no evolutionary cost, so it is likely to persist.

Agenticity: Part of the reason our ancestors were so successful in doing this is that they were able to perceive the intentions of other creatures - both people and animals.  "That lion plans to eat me".  A peculiar characteristic of our species is that we attribute agency to all sorts of things, including things like rocks, trees, the sky and so on which actually have no intentions. 

Bias: These tendencies are far from superficial - they lie at the basis of our brain function, encoded in the way our brains work, in the electrical impulses and interplay of brain chemicals that accompany thought.  The result, says Shermer, is that our beliefs are seldom formed through a rational examination of the evidence.  Belief comes first, evidence follows, and we automatically look for evidence which supports our pre-existing beliefs, noticing the supporting facts and screening out the contradictory ones.

From this basis, he moves on to discuss various beliefs, especially focusing on alien visitations, belief in God, political ideology and conspiracy theories.  I found his discussion of visitations (whether by aliens, ghosts, spirits or angels) fascinating.  Our brain, he says, creates an image of our body, repeated in each brain hemisphere.  Perhaps, he says, if these mirror images get out of sync, as they are prone to under pressure - for instance, for solo climbers in the Himalayas, or in the early morning hours of a stressful period in someone's life - the brain will have two rival body images.  Because it knows there should only be one, it seeks a pattern to explain the other and lights on something from memory or culture - an alien, an angel, the ghost of a parent.  He describes how such hallucinations can be reproduced in the laboratory by electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain.  The patterns we find match what we expect to find, but don't correspond to any objective reality.

What is the answer to this sea of irrationality?  Of course you guessed it, it's Science.  The scientific method provides a methodology of controlled experimentation to collect objective evidence, statistical techniques to analyse this evidence, and a system of peer review in which rival scientists will gleefully pull your conclusions to bits if they don't match the evidence.  He doesn't claim perfection for this system, or that scientists are immune from the processes that drive belief, but what he does assert is that it's the best way to arrive at reliable knowledge and to test these beliefs.

One of the things I enjoy about Shermer is the fact that he doesn't overclaim on his evidence.  There is a lot that we know about the functioning of our brains, but also a lot we don't, and words like "might" and "perhaps" appear a lot in this book.  Shermer is happy to speculate but it is generally clear when he is.  He is also clear what his analysis does not prove.

Explaining why someone believes in democracy does not explain away democracy; explaining why someone holds liberal or conservative values within a democracy does not explain away those values.

Indeed.  One thing Shermer skates over, although I am sure he is aware of it, is the distinction between correlation and causality.  It is possible to track what is happening electrically and chemically in our brains as we perform certain types of thought or respond to certain stimuli.  Does this mean the chemical and electronic activity causes the thoughts, or do the thoughts cause the activity?  If you produce hallucinations by electrically stimulating parts of the brain, these hallucinations are not caused by the brain's electrical activity, but by the experimenter's stimulation of it.  In the absence of such artificial stimulation, what else causes these things?  Are the causes always the same?  Shermer is forced back on "might" and "perhaps". 

This is where his own biases are clearly on show, and he makes no attempt to hide them.  He is a materialist, believing that everything has a "natural" cause.  Humans are purely physical - when our body dies, there is nothing else of us to continue on.  There is no god.  This is not the result of his examination of the evidence - he himself is clear that there is no evidence - it is his own philosophical position.  He believes that the burden of proof lies with those who claim otherwise, since something which cannot be proven to exist probably doesn't.  Yet this assumption means that he sees the evidence in a particular way.  All his "perhapses" are naturalistic explanations.  He never says "perhaps some of them really did see angels". 

Shermer devotes the first three chapters of his book to outlining three different world views.  The first is that of a self-taught former bricklayer who once heard a disembodied voice speaking to him, and has built his life around what it said.  The third is devoted to explaining his own world view - converted to fundamentalist Christianity in his teens before drifting towards atheism as the scientific evidence against his version of belief piled up.  Yet he balances his journey from fundamentalism to skepticism with the journey in the opposite direction of distinguished geneticist Dr Francis Collins, who converted to evangelical Christianity in his 20s and has retained this belief alongside considerable scientific eminence.  Shermer is not just being polite when he says that his reasoning does not disprove God's existence - there are enough believers with high level scientific training to show this is an established fact.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Abortion debate in 28 words

Some of my rellies, along with various other people, are currently involved in an attempt to break the world record for the longest Facebook thread.  The subject is, of course, abortion.  The thread is currently up to 380 comments plus various likes and dislikes.  They would have broken the record by now except that the host deleted the original thread in a valiant attempt to enforce some minimum standards of courtesy.

I've carefully refrained from participating.  I've previously tried to bring some ethical nuance to this debate, but I've found it doesn't help much because no-one is listening. 

So my latest idea is that we should dramatise the abortion debate as a kind of Flash Mob event, like this one in a food court, with people popping up from opposite ends of the room to advocate their positions.  In my head it sounds a little like the third section of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Pro-lifer 1: Don't kill babies!

Pro-choicer 1: They're just collections of cells!

Repeat several times and then...

Pro-Choicer 2: It's a woman's right to choose!

Pro-lifer 2: How can you choose to kill babies?

Continue to repeat both couplets before introducing couplet 3.

Pro-lifer 3: All life is sacred!

Pro-choicer 3: What is life?

Further voices could be added to amplify each couplet as the volume rises to cacophonic level.

For those who feel the levity of a Flash Mob is a little inappropriate for such a serious subject, an alternative would be to declaim the different points of view over the backing track to The Doors' Horse Latitudes.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Divided Ethics

For some reason I woke up this morning thinking about a facebook discussion I was part of a while ago over Divided, an American documentary film which argues that "modern youth ministry is contrary to Scripture".  The argument got a little heated (not from me, I was polite).  This morning I woke up thinking about the broader context for it.

The message of Divided is that youth ministry, as in having a youth group as part of your church, is wrong because it divides families.  Proper ministry is ministry to the whole family, together.  Various Bible verses are quoted out of context to support this view and selective stories about youth groups are used to show they corrupt young people and lead to poor outcomes.

So from my description you can already see what I think.  My parents had grown up going to church and had no interest in going back.  At the age of 14 my school friend invited me to a church youth group and I was introduced to both Christianity and to a group of loving, accepting young people who made me feel at home.  36 years later this is still one of the key formative influences in my life.  So of course I think youth groups are a great idea.

But this is all beside the point, as we all talked (and yelled) past each other on this topic.  Let me tell you what I think this is really all about.

For most of my adult life I have been under the influence of Joseph Fletcher's controversial book, Situation Ethics.  Fletcher's view is that there is only one moral absolute, to love, as Paul says in Romans 13:9 - "The commandments...are summed up in this one rule: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"  Our ethical task is to do what is loving in each situation, even if sometimes this contradicts something that seems commanded in the Bible or is mandated in our laws.

This is not an easy ethic to live by.  Our judgements are incredibly fallible, both because we are apt to be selfish and unkind, and because our knowledge is so incomplete.  So Fletcher has been heavily criticised for giving people an "out" in moral choices and promoting anarchistic individualism.  There is some point to the criticisms and it seems to me we can gain a lot of guidance on what it means to love from the Bible and from Christian tradition.  We would be foolish to simply rely on our own judgement.  Yet ultimately I am with Fletcher.  Love is the law, all else is secondary.

Not so the producers of Divided.  They see at least two things as absolute which I see as relative.

First of all, they see the Bible as providing a blueprint for the whole of life.  They believe that they can find in the Bible a whole pattern for the organisation of the church and individual lives.  This means that there can only be one right way to do things.  The task of the Christian is to study the Bible in order to find that right way, and then do it.  Of course since the words "youth group" do not appear in the Bible (either to be praised or criticised) this can be taken to mean such things are not part of God's plan, but they also then bring in various verses about the role of fathers and families to support this view. 

They would claim that this is their only absolute, but I beg to differ.  Their second is the centrality of the family in Christian life, by which they mean the nuclear family - Dad, Mum and the kids.  Anything that strengthens the family is good, anything that might weaken it or bring non-family influences into children's lives is bad.  The Bible is read through this lens.  Youth groups are bad because they are non-family.

Where does this take you morally?  It takes you towards acting like all people, and all families, are the same - or that they should be, and if they are not they need to be fixed.  It makes you absolutise our particular modern Western version of the family as a small, mobile, discreet unit.  It makes you devalue the wider community.  It makes you liable to forget single people and grandparents, and leaves you vulnerable to turning a blind eye to child abuse and domestic violence.  A family is only as good as it is, and plenty of people need protection from their families.

I'm not a proponent of one right way.  I think we should do what helps, and avoid what hurts.  There is no easy guidebook which will tell us what this is.  We need to think carefully and learn compassion - and then relearn it every time we forget.  Love is hard.  Other ways may seem easier, and more certain, but this security is an illusion.