Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dogmatism - there is a good kind...

I seem to get into a recurring argument with another blogger regarding my distain for religion -- and 'faith' in particular. It seems this person considers my advocation of reason and logical deduction to simply be another form of dogmatism.

Maybe it is...

But there's a simply fact that I think such people overlook: there are good beliefs (dogmas?), and bad ones. Good beliefs have a demonstrable connection to the world we live in... they attempt to explain and/or model reality in a useful fashion that - for all we can tell - appears to reflect external reality. From such deductions we can usually plan our interactions with the world in a logical way: i.e. - we can reason that walking off a cliff is not going to end well; we can use our insights into fluids, gravity, friction and energy to build an airplane. We can also use the process to deduce behaviors that will make us happy (e.g. - forming congenial bonds with one another is more likely to lead to 'happiness' than starting a feud).

Bad beliefs on the other hand aren't grounded in demonstrable reality. They may appear to serve a useful purpose - and that in itself isn't "bad" for society or the individual. For instance, believing in Santa Claus doesn't necessarily harm children. However, a life-long belief in Santa is considered to be abnormal behavior. Why? It isn't harmful right?

Such a belief is not supported by evidence and isn't "rational" given what we know about the universe we inhabit. Sustaining such a belief indicates that the belief holder really doesn't have a grasp on the mapping between what he observes (day-to-day) and what is fanciful (i.e. - imagined and maybe pleasant, but not supported by observation or logical deduction). What does that mean? It means he is failing to apply the experience and input from his life and formulate it in a consistent way. None of us are have perfectly consistent world views. But the hallmark of a rational/sane person is that he tries to reconcile the two - using (again) reason and evidence based logic. Those who don't do this are most often labeled "insane".

Anyway, if this Santa-believing-behavior exhibits itself not only in a 'self-delusional' way -- but informs the persons public interaction we quickly discount this person from positions of authority in our society: e.g. - Imagine electing someone to public office who thought Elvis is alive and well...

Hence we arrive at the crux of my problem with religion -- it not only propagates "bad" ideas, it does so in a way that informs public policy and enters our public debate. That's fine, but when you try to call people who have such ideas 'irrational' or simply 'stupid' you get your hand slapped. Somehow bad ideas that have been around for a long while under the banner of "faith" have become protected. Sam Harris put it better than I:
Now, it just so happens that religion has more than its fair share of bad ideas. And it remains the only system of thought, where the process of maintaining bad ideas in perpetual immunity from criticism is considered a sacred act. This is the act of faith. And I remain convinced that religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised. So we will, inevitably, continue to criticize religious thinking.
This is the crux of my argument: religion has more than it share of bad ideas and we should openly criticize them -- esp when they are informing public policy.

Lets recount a few of these bad ideas:

1- Condom use is a sin - even in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV is rampant.
2- The Jews have a god-given right to a patch of land in the middle-east.
3- A ball of 150 or so undifferentiated cells in a petri dish is a Human being and its interests must be protected.
4- The Earth is about 6000 years old and god created all of the species that now inhabit it.
5- Slavery is ordained by god.
6- Drugs (certain ones) are evil and must be banned.

All these religiously motivated ideas impact each of us to a degree: some more than others. None of them are good ideas. None of them are supported by ANY evidence what-so-ever. Yet many many people in our society (and elsewhere) use these "facts" to inform their decisions -- including a LARGE percentage of our elected leaders.

In rebuttal some say that religion and faith can also be used to refute these very positions. That is true: when you start with arbitrary belief you can bend it to whatever purpose you desire. Besides that being the problem, there is a simpler way: a straightforward analysis (where you imagine a loved one or family member in the slaves shoes) yields the conclusion that slavery is bad. Of course, some proffer other irrational and unsubstantiated beliefs (like black people are not really people) to justify their position... but again, asking for evidence and reasons for a conclusion is always the answer to such arguments.

It boils down to demanding intellectual honesty from people. How can you argue with that?


Intellectual Insurgent said...

Ok, let's have some fun.

You presumably think, as a devout secularist, that Darwin's theories are gospel. That they are the height of "reason".

What I would like to know is how you rationally reconcile homosexuality and Darwinism.

You see, Darwin's theory of evolution is based on the premise of natural selection - i.e. that nature selects for survival only those traits that lead to REPRODUCTION OF THE SPECIES. Quite amorally, Darwin's theory unapologetically accepts that traits that do not promote reproduction should be filtered out of the gene pool. Right?

Well, since homosexuals cannot reproduce and, for whatever reason, suffer from some horrifying life-threatening diseases, one would assume that such a trait would not rationally be tolerated, accepted or promoted in society, correct?

That if one were to find himself in the position of possibly being a member of that group, wouldn't he think twice about the course of conduct if he is a devout Darwinist?

At least with religion, you get the get-out-of-jail free card of "we're all sinners and will be forgiven".

Some religious people call AIDS a punishment from God but, from a Darwinian perspective, it is a mechanism to filter out traits that do not lead to reproduction. It's completely amoral and without judgment.

Rick said...

First, I would never argue Darwin is "gospel". That implies a level of 'faith' that isn't required by the science/data that underlies it.

Please see


for a very good primmer on the evolutionary theory.

I don't think you understand the real concepts behind evolution either...

Firstly, a phenotype (whether fitness-inducing or note) doesn't have a direct genetic basis. I.e. - genotype and phenotype are not one-to-one maps. Phenotypes are complex interactions of genes, the environment, etc... While a behavior may be linked to a set of genes, they are seldom responsible for any but the more primitive behaviors.

Second, phenotypes can be side-effects of other fitness-inducing genotypes.

Rick said...

make that "note" --> "not"

Intellectual Insurgent said...

You still haven't answered the question.

Rick said...

"You see, Darwin's theory of evolution is based on the premise of natural selection - i.e. that nature selects for survival only those traits that lead to REPRODUCTION OF THE SPECIES. Quite amorally, Darwin's theory unapologetically accepts that traits that do not promote reproduction should be filtered out of the gene pool. Right?"

No -- it is not that simple.

"Well, since homosexuals cannot reproduce and, for whatever reason, suffer from some horrifying life-threatening diseases, one would assume that such a trait would not rationally be tolerated, accepted or promoted in society, correct?"

Again - you are confusing many (albeit interconnected) concepts here: behavior, phenotype, genetics, sociology.

There are MANY instances of genetically motivated behaviors that society shuns... we are not finished evolving as social animals. ... conversely, there are many behaviors that society promotes that run against genetic predisposition (e.g. - the male urge to spread his seed among many women). Such pressures influence future "fitness" and therefore evolution. Your oversimplification makes the question irrelevant.

Intellectual Insurgent said...

Puh-leez. Talk about intellectual dishonesty. Let me make this simple for you - did the colon evolve to be a 1-way or 2-way street?

Rick said...

LOL... you make me laugh.

Yes - it did evolve to be a two way street...

Again, you are completely mis-characterizing evolutionary theory. You are talking about a BEHAVIOR .. a PHENOTYPE. They are not directly coded for in genes.

Homosexual relationships abound in nature... There are gay primates, birds, sheep, etc. etc. etc. How do you think animal "gayness" propagates and persists? Since you think you have a grasp on evolutionary theory, I'll let you try and answer... In the process you're MAY see the silliness of your question.

Intellectual Insurgent said...

The colon evolved to be a 2-way street? LOL!! Now you're just being funny because you know that's a crock of shit (pun intended).

How does evolution not relate to behavior? If certain behaviors are likely to get your genetic line killed, then under Darwinian theory, off you go.

With regard to "abounding" gayness in nature, that's nonsense. There might be 10 horses, sheep or whatever with a genetic anomaly that repels them from mating with the opposite sex.

But the epidemic of homosexuality in America and Europe in this generation is a devolution and we are already seeing the decline in reproduction as a result.

And herein lies the fundamental contradiction of secularism - all traits that threaten survival of the species should be eliminated according to Darwin. It is only religious babble about "my brother's keeper" that mankind continues to interfere with natural selection.

Rick said...

"And herein lies the fundamental contradiction of secularism - all traits that threaten survival of the species should be eliminated according to Darwin."

Sorry II... you are simply wrong. That statement represents your superficial understanding of the theory.

I suggest you pick up a few good texts on the theory. Seriously...

Literally thousands of animal species exhibit persistent homosexual behavior. How can that be?

Sexuality isn't a binary condition - it isn't directly coded for in a series of genes. Sexual urges may be… but homosexuality is no more "hard-wired" than your husbands preference for "breasts" or "legs" or blonds or brunettes or any in a series of other 'titillations'. Sexual behavior is a gradient (remember Kinsey’s scale?)-- and genes that tend to cause an individual to gravitate toward a same sex relationship may give other advantages that are (as yet unknown and) completely unrelated.

A single example: the sickle-cell trait in Africans. Sickle cell anemia causes many "ailments" -- pain, organ damage, arterial clotting, reduced physical endurance even shortened life expectancy. Yet the genetic condition persists. Why? It was discovered that the trait provides limited protection against malaria.

This type of inherited trait is obviously genetic: the sickle cell is coded for in genes.

However, again, complex behaviors are not completely analogous to this example – you have to recognize that a trait that "should" be selected against often imparts unseen advantages to the individual (at some cost). There are countless examples in nature… this is where the argument from design also falters: many living (sub)systems are POORLY designed.

So, there are likely benefits to the genetic basis for tending to be more attracted to the same sex that (at least) I haven't read about.

But more importantly, when you are talking about behavior -- well, you understanding/application of evolutionary theory is just plain wrong.

Last point: It's a statistical fact that about 50% of the time, if one twin is gay, the other will be gay. If homosexuality was purely (or very very strongly) genetic, you'd expect a far higher percentage: they share the exact same genes.

Why? Because the genetic basis of homosexuality is influenced by many factors: hormone levels in-uturo, environmental factors, experience, diet, etc. Your genes predispose you to behave one way or the other but they are not the whole story when it comes to complex behaviors.

Not to be rude, but it obvious your level of understanding of evolutionary theory is superficial... Do some reading if you want to discuss it.

Rick said...

After a bit of searching, I found this for you...


One excerpt from Dawkin's "The extended phenotype":

One feature of life in this world which, like sex, we have taken for granted and maybe should not, is that living matter comes in discrete packages called organisms. In particular, biologists interested in functional explanation usually assume that the appropriate unit for discussion is the individual organism. To us,'conflict' usually means conflict between organisms, each one striving to maximize its own individual 'fitness'. We recognize smaller units such as cells and genes, and larger units such as populations, societies and ecosystems, but there is no doubt that the individual body, as a discrete unit of action, exerts a powerful hold over the minds of zoologists, especially those interested in the adaptive significance of animal behaviour. One of my aims in this book is to break that hold. I want to switch emphasis from the individual body as focal unit of functional discussion. At the very least I want to make us aware of how much we take for granted when we look at life as a collection of discrete individual organisms.

The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptations as being 'for the benefit of' something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism. It is a smaller unit which I call the active, germ-line replicator. The most important kind of replicator is the 'gene' or small genetic fragment. Replicators are not, of course, selected directly, but by proxy; they are judged by their phenotypic effects. Although for some purposes it is convenient to think of these phenotypic effects as being packaged together in discrete 'vehicles' such as individual organisms, this is not fundamentally necessary. Rather, the replicator should be thought of as having extended phenotypic effects, consisting of all its effects on the world at large, not just its effects on the individual body in which it happens to be sitting.