October 12, 2009

Why believe anything? The reasons I'm a skeptic

This is really probably the most important post I could make, and it will involve really just two concepts coherence and evidence. The reason to believe something is reliant on how well something fits in with what else is you know, and also on how strong the evidence there is for that thing being true. There is a sliding scale that goes along with that type of thinking as well. Something that makes sense and is complimentary with what you already know requires only a minimum standard of evidence, while a belief that goes agianst many of the things you know has to meet a much higher standard of evidence. An example of this would be that it would only take one article, from a reliable source, for me to come to believe that chimpanzee's are self aware and has culture, but it would take many many articles and even a scientific consensus to convince me that coral is self aware and has culture. I don't want to get in any Rority and the argument that the truth doesn't really exist, this is just meant to understand how I come to believe in something.
There can be second hand evidence where someone tells you something, and the knowledge of that source can attribute to the strength of the level of belief you can have in something being true. There is also knowledge that is gained from first hand experience where you do something or sense something and create an understanding of what went on. However, those two ways of understanding how something is true, while sometimes helpful, are just as easily wrong.

More dependable truths can be formed on the basis of scientific testing. When people here that all you believe in is 'science' then science is somehow lessened to them and becomes a dirty word; Then 'science' is a religion to you is often claimed. This may be true if all you are talking about is a system of belief, but science is a religion without faith. No one is asking anyone to believe anything that can't in some way be demonstrated. A likely retort would be that you have faith in science being right, but this isn't faith in science itself, but faith in evidence given derived from something repeatable.
While this first part of truth, as a reliance in repeatable demonstration, seems to be pretty simple, it has very dire consequences for a number of things. First is God, there is no test for god, no proof of his/her/it's existence, and no proof of any link between god and any holy book. Scientific evidence of god is nil, which may not be a problem if God was a simple matter like which steak tastes the best, but when something is telling you how to live, what is right, who is wrong, and various other things, the level of the importance of evidence increases. This is really just a bastardization of Hume's view on miracles, which is that great things that defy belief and the ordinary require a higher level of proof.
Another area where the reliance on evidence has cause some tension with other people is when people speculate something like, "Well the Russians could have landed on the moon before the United States", or "The Romans could have had gunpowder before the Chinese."  Bertrand Russell deals exactly with this type line of thinking with a thought experiment about a teapot. It starts by postulating that there could be a teapot between here and Mars floating in space, but it is too small to see through a telescope. Now by saying this, he intentionally created a situation where there is no proof of something, but the problem is that there is also no way to disprove it. No one can be sure if there is or there isn't a teapot between here and Mars. That's fine though, because there weight of the argument should be on the other side, someone has to provide some evidence for the existence of the teapot in space between here and mars before there is any reason to disprove such a thing. So when someone makes any could have suggestion or might have been suggestion with no evidence to provide for that thing being such a way, they are really saying nothing at all, of course something could have been different, but the real topic comes in providing evidence for why that is the case, rather than an appeal to ignorance.
Well this post ran a little longer than expected, so I'll pick up my next  post with a coherence style of truth and probably touch on where real truth is and how useful it actually is.

Thanks for reading,

The Moral Skeptic

October 7, 2009

History and Morallity

The subject for this post came up recently when I was talking to someone, and I had the chance to develop this posting mainly from that conversation. For that reason I hope this post flows a little better than the posts previous to this. Yet before getting into the topic itself some information has to be provided. For my argument to have any bearing morals have to exist in a somewhat permanent way. Anyone who proclaims to be a moral relativist will not be persuaded in the least by what I have to say later, but I will attempt to show first that there is some evidence for moral semi-permanence.

To start I'll use the description semi-permanence because many things fall into the category of morality that seem to exist in an nearly universal fashion. Not long ago it was proper to use the terms, 'white meat' and 'dark meat' because the use of the words breast and thigh were considered taboo. What language is considered offensive, what people are supposed to wear, and even some things like suicide are dealt with a constantly changing cultural morality. That cultural morality is a great thing and allows for much of the moral progress that has happened in the past few centuries, but there is a morality long ingrained within our species because we are social animals.

That ingrained morality is where the more permanent morality exists. The best way this morality can be seen is by what doesn't happen in almost any society. The people of a society aren't killed openly by people of that society unless there is a good reason to do so, or at minimum an attempt for the justification for committing an act like that. Of course there are people who die in those societies for no good reason, but when this is done the society is offended when it happens, it collectively knows that something wrong has happened. This line of reasoning can be extended to theft (among non-collectivist societies), and anything that really causes an unjustified great damage to someone else, and I'd like to be able to extend it to slavery and racism, but I don't think it's possible, but that's the subject of a different post.

This argument could go much further, but it doesn't have to for my purposes, because as soon as some moral permanence is given than that moral permanence can be extended over the length of humanities existence and while the morality may seem not to amount to very much, it does have some ability. It allows a person to condemn wrongful killings, genocides, mutilations and thefts in the past.

For instance the context of the society and culture of Nazi Germany doesn't have to be taken into consideration when making a statement such as the, 'The holocaust was a defilement of morality and sullied mankind's moral opinion of itself.' All that really matters in this judgment is that a permanent morality exists and that the act was in violation of that morality.

Yet the killings don't have to be on such a gross scale, they can be as small as single death. Socrates was sentenced to death for being an atheist and corrupting the youth (teaching them how to argue and make their parents look foolish). These scant reasons are unjustifiable to cause the sentence of death, and so long as the reason is insufficient throughout time, than a moral judgment can be made on the issue today with disregard to the context of that particular culture and time. Killing Socrates was always a moral wrong and will always continue to be morally wrong.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

October 5, 2009

Problems in History

The following is my take on a few things about the subject of history that has been on my mind for a while. There are a few problems that I have with the subject, especially pertaining to how it is usually taught, well at least how it was taught to me.

The first problem, is not so much a problem with the subject of history itself, but how with how serious people take revisionist history. People can have great arguments over topics like 'If the United States hadn't joined the Allies in World War 2 than the Axis would have won the War' and while the arguments may be a good exercise in debate and general thinking they cannot be at all taken seriously. No one can say what would have happened if something in the past would have been different, there are just to many variables to account for. To look at revisionist history as anything more than a parlor game is to turn speculation into a quasi-truth. Revisionist history is a total act of the imagination and the further that it is taken turn past events and facts into a slippery slope of causation creating an event where the results couldn't be known.

The second problem comes from the types of essays people are forced to write, the opinion essay on historical events. There are a couple of things wrong with having to write that type of an essay, the first being that peoples opinions and understanding are being shaped by the topics they are forced to choose from. This is especially true when a person hasn't yet formed an opinion about the topic they are writing on. When people are forced to take a side and defend it they, statistically speaking, start to believe that side is correct after they are finished their writing. The act of writing and being forced to take a side has tricked the person into believing something.

Why this happens is easy to understand when the process of writing an opinion essay is examined. A student quickly chooses a side and then cherry picks information for their essay that supports that side. The people forced to write on these topics are only looking for confirming information and if dis-confirming information is going to have any place within their essay it has to be rebuked. It is a process of belief creation, where evidence is being collected in an extremely biased fashion, and it is encouraged at all levels of the education system.

This problem is only further compounded by the fact that if someone has an opinion about something it takes a great amount of information to persuade that person that their opinion is wrong. Sometimes no amount of information is enough. Through forced essay topics people can bend students opinions and beliefs about the world.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

October 1, 2009

Which Came First the Chicken or the Egg?

From former classmates to Ian McShane's character in "Kings" a declaration of the answer to the age-old question of the chicken and the egg has been presented as proof of the answerer's intelligence. The answer is presented as if it was glaringly obvious since the time of Darwin. The egg came first!

Within a few seconds, a complete explanation is given that animals are changed through chance mutation of DNA during the conception part of the formation of the animal.  Also to their point is that animals aren't changed in any lasting way by the environment except through their being less able to reproduce through a lack of fitness to their surroundings. For that reason, the egg that clearly came before the chicken.

While this may look like a totally convincing answer that contains all the fundamental  understandings of Darwinism, there does remain a problem unforeseen by the person giving this type of answer. This problem can be brought to light through asking a few specific questions about the chicken and egg dilemma.

The telling question is if the egg is the answer then what is giving birth to the egg? The egg must come from some creature that is a non-chicken that gives birth to a chicken, but this is not how the process works. Changes from parent to a child produce gradual changes and it takes many generations to cause any great amount of change, even in the state of a punctuated equilibrium.

Verities of chickens could be made from the egg, but the egg is never able to be distinct enough to be called a new species. This is where the chicken or the egg question breaks down into an understanding of how new species are defined.

The problem should now be easy to see. The question of 'What came first the chicken or the egg?' is a false dichotomy. The answer is that it is a process that creates the differences between the parent and offspring where there is no sudden appearance of a new 'thing' being created. The young who are different have to out-compete the other young where those changes did not occur. This may cause the extinction of the unchanged and if that happened, along with enough other changes then possibly there would be the creation of a new species. This new species is then something that could be defined as a 'chicken'.

The question of 'What came first the chicken or the egg?' fails to understand how biology works and anyone who attempts to answer by saying chicken or egg has committed an error even before they state their reasoning. The creation of a new animal doesn't happen overnight, or in one generation, it happens over time.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic