Higher-level illusions

Most of us have seen optical illusions, and witnessed firsthand how a simple but specially crafted illustration can completely trick our brain, whether it’s an illusion involving depth perception, motion perception, color perception, etc.  One of my favorites is this illusion involving checkered squares with alternating shades of gray (Is square A darker than square B?):

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When I first saw the above illusion, I found it unfathomable that squares A and B are actually the same color, and yet it’s true. The illusion is so powerful, I had to open the image in Photoshop and literally look at the pixel color values of the squares to convince myself that they are the same.

But actually, we don’t even need to resort to any specially contrived images to fool our visual circuits, since our eyes themselves have a built-in defect — a consequence of the eye’s evolutionary history — a blind spot that gets patched over in real time by the software of our consciousness.  This allows us to go on with our lives being completely oblivious of this defect (unless we consciously look for it), but it basically means that we experience this genuine illusion during every waking moment.

These kinds of illusions powerfully illustrate how a simple misfire of our sensory perceptions can send our understanding of the world completely astray, and how our consciousness has adapted to compensate for the laughable fallibility of our senses.

My question is the following:  If it’s this easy to fool our visual processing circuits, what kinds of illusions might be at work at higher levels of our consciousness?  What other blind spots are auto-filled by the software of our brain, making us oblivious to their true nature?

The key to uncovering and understanding illusions, I think, is cognitive effort.  It takes cognitive effort to realize that the illustration at the top of this article is, in fact, an illusion.  It takes cognitive effort to expose and become aware of the blind spot in your own eyes. What other illusions might we uncover if we keep building up the muscles of cognitive effort?

Perhaps we might discover that the Earth, instead of being a flat plane with a dome covering it, is actually a spheroidal mass that orbits the Sun, contrary to all of our intuition.

Perhaps we’ll discover that the Sun is actually one of billions of other suns, and is by no means unique among them, and that our galaxy is one of billions of other galaxies, with similarly little uniqueness about it.

We might also discover that the folk tales and mythologies of our ancestors are not literally true, but are merely expressions of the fears, aspirations, ideals, and desires that we all share, especially the desire to find meaning and purpose in a world that doesn’t grant us purpose on its own.

And perhaps we’ll discover that free will itself, far from being a gift bestowed on us by a creator or even a self-evident property that emerges from our consciousness, is actually the grandest illusion of all:  that all of our thoughts and actions are consequences of deterministic physical laws.

But all of these realizations need not lead us towards fatalism or nihilism, for these too are illusions.  If the universe doesn’t grant us a purpose ex nihilo, it shouldn’t stop us from being able to create our own purpose.  And if it really is true that the laws of physics underlie all of our choices, it doesn’t make our choices any less meaningful or consequential, and it doesn’t mean that we should stop striving to make better choices that improve the lives of current and future generations.

And of course, none of this takes into account the illusions of higher and higher order that we’re bound to uncover in the future, and all the consequences of those discoveries that we can’t even fathom in the present.  The one thing we must not stop doing is exerting our cognitive effort to keep discovering and untangling illusions, wherever we might find them. The immortal words of Stephen Jay Gould come to mind:

We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes — one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.

But do they believe it themselves?

I’ve been wanting to articulate some more thoughts about a question that’s been on my mind for a while:  do practitioners of alternative medicine really believe what they practice themselves?  I am in fact growing more and more convinced that, not only do they not believe in what they sell, but that it’s also better for their business that they don’t believe it!

In a perfect world, here’s all that needs to be said about this:  Who but a con artist could claim that he can heal people over the phone (or over the internet), or that a dose of water with a single molecule of duck liver can cure diseases, or that the positions of distant celestial bodies have an impact on our daily lives, etc., and then have the nerve to charge money for any of the above?

Unfortunately this is not a perfect world, and there are people who establish entire careers around selling these ideas to anyone who’s willing to buy them.

To begin, it’s worth noting that the modus operandi of alternative medicine focuses mostly on sales and marketing, and glosses over such minutiae as scientific substantiation, unbiased testing, or peer review.

It’s interesting to browse the marketing materials for a particular alternative medicine product, and notice a pattern that repeats itself in all “modalities” of alternative medicine:  The marketing materials begin with grandiose claims of the effectiveness of the product and the universality of its effectiveness, continues with a few (if any) hand-waving theoretical “explanations” of how the product is actually supposed to work, and ends with a brief disclaimer that the product isn’t actually intended to treat any disease, and hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA.

This grossly disproportionate emphasis on marketing should be a cause for suspicion.  If the product actually works, then why does it need such a loud and obnoxious sales pitch? If there was even a grain of possible effectiveness in the product, then it would become readily adopted and welcomed into mainstream medicine, and would no longer need to be called alternative.

Indeed, the one unifying quality of all the alternative healing products I’ve seen is how aggressively commercial they are.  For all their talk about transcending the material world, they sure don’t mind making a physical buck!

Tellingly, the practitioners of these methods are usually very charismatic, and skilled in showmanship and salesmanship, another indication that these qualities take priority over the actual product.

They’re never too embarrassed to hijack the latest buzzwords from quantum physics, and they don’t hesitate to register trademarks on their terminology to make it sound as official as possible.

They don’t bat an eye at the idea of charging four-figure sums to attend their seminars or obtain their certifications, of which there are usually multiple “levels”. Just like any other industry, they organize trade shows and expos — orgies of mind-numbing irony where the practitioners sell the latest brand of nonsense to each other and to passers-by.

Revealingly, many of them retain the idea of a “God”, and infuse it into their treatment. We can guess that this is for the purpose of appealing to the widest possible audience, and reassuring them that they can retain their god, while piling on just one more belief (who’s counting?), since they’re already in for a penny.

What’s also impressive is how expertly they navigate the gray area of almost pitching their treatments as official medical advice. Impressive, yet a bit disappointing:  even the most grandiose claims and the most earth-shattering treatments are followed by the usual fine print disclaimer that it’s merely a supplement to traditional medical care.  What a downer. Fortunately the fine print isn’t legally required to be as large as the promotional text, nor is it required to be at the top of the promotional text;  most visitors won’t read that far before clicking “Purchase.”

All of this leads me to suspect that there must be some level of awareness on the part of the practitioner that what they’re doing doesn’t fully square with reality, and that their primary motive is a financial one.  If the practitioner was as oblivious as his customers, then he would eventually go “too far” with his claims, and make a career-ending mistake, such as submitting his product for testing in a lab, or passing it off as official medical advice.

Many practitioners of alternative medicine complain that scientists refuse to debate them, and use this to promote a narrative that the scientific establishment is conspiring to suppress their work.  But the reality is that most scientists are smart enough to understand how futile it is to debate with such practitioners.  It’s futile because the practitioner’s misunderstanding of science is so complete that the practitioner will spout off nonsensical statements at a faster rate than the scientist can correct them.  It’s also futile because the practitioner has only one goal:  he has a product to sell, and the bigger the audience, the better.  The scientist will therefore do well to limit the practitioner’s potential audience, and the best solution is to have no debate at all.

Refuting the Fine-Tuning Argument

During a recent friendly debate with some religious acquaintances, I was asked if I could name any arguments for the existence of a god that actually seem “plausible” to me on any level.  Suffice it to say that none of the standard religious arguments are in any way convincing, given a moment’s thought. However, there is a relatively recent argument that’s been gaining popularity over the last few years, and it requires more than a trivial amount of effort to dismiss. This is the argument from fine-tuning.

In case you’re not aware of the argument, it takes the following form:

Take any physical constant that we know of (e.g. the coupling constant of the strong nuclear force, the cosmological constant governing the expansion of the universe, etc).  If that constant had been a fraction of a percent different, then life wouldn’t exist (or star formation wouldn’t be possible, or the universe would collapse back in on itself, etc).  Therefore, there must have been some intelligent agent who created the universe with the precise physical constants needed for stars and planets to form, and for life to eventually arise.

There’s no denying that it sounds like an interesting, even powerful argument. In fact, some people with whom I’ve recently spoken claim this as the most compelling argument for their continued belief in a god.

Well, let’s carefully analyze this argument, and see why it, too, ends up being less than convincing.

To begin, the universe isn’t exactly overflowing with life.  The universe is more than 99.99% empty space. Most of our solar system is completely uninhabitable, except for a small rocky planet that is on a constant knife-edge of environmental stability, and is just one asteroid away from mass extinction.  It certainly doesn’t appear like the universe was created with us “in mind.” If anything, our presence in the universe is an infinitesimal smear polluting a stupefyingly vast nothingness.  Some “design,” wouldn’t you say?

I might be willing to believe in the fine-tuning argument if we had discovered that there was no universe beyond the Earth, and that the sky was just a canopy above the Earth with the stars being points of light on the canopy.  This should sound familiar:  it’s what we believed two thousand years ago, before we learned better.

So it seems like the desire to believe in the fine-tuning argument is a throwback to the pre-scientific need to feel special, and to cling on to the infantile philosophy that the universe is made specially for us. But we know that every lesson that we’ve had from science over the last 500 years has been a lesson in humility. With each discovery in physics or astronomy, we find that we’re less and less special.

It’s a bit of a straw man argument, as well, and it also smells of the “god of the gaps” fallacy. It’s saying that just because physicists don’t yet understand where Constant X comes from, it must have been designed by a supreme designer.

Just because an “unexplained” constant exists in physics doesn’t mean that it’s free to be adjusted. No one brings up an argument like, “if pi (π) was 3.15 instead of 3.14…, then mathematics wouldn’t be possible.”  It’s meaningless to change the value of pi, because pi simply represents a geometric relationship between circles and diameters. In other words, the value of pi is not a degree of freedom for the universe.  The same could very well be true for many of the physical constants which we haven’t explained yet.

At the same time, it’s possible that there are many other universes apart from this one, where physical constants are in fact different, and we’ve simply won a lottery of universes by being born in this one, just like we’ve won a lottery of planets by being born on this planet, and not another similar planet in a distant star system.

The more basic point I’m approaching here is that physicists don’t yet have an explanation for a great many things. We’ve only had quantum mechanics for less than 100 years. We don’t have an explanation for the expansion of the universe. We haven’t unified all the forces yet. We’ve only unified electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force 40 years ago.  So it’s extremely premature to say that we know anything about these constants in any deeper sense than “they exist.”  And it’s absolutely presumptuous and unwarranted to say that not only do you have a deeper understanding of the physical constants than all physicists in the world, but that you have specific knowledge that a designer-god tweaked some knobs to make the constants the way they are.

We’re in no position to make any judgment about this, given the state of our current knowledge of actual physics.  And anyone who claims to have special knowledge about where the physical constants come from deserves suspicion by default.

Lastly, even if we suppose that the fine-tuning argument suggests some kind of god, the only type of god it can possibly be is a sort of Deistic god;  a god who might have “created” the universe and left it alone.  In no way does it suggest a god who intervenes in people’s lives or answers prayers, and it’s certainly not an argument for the god of the Bible.  It takes just as much work to go from a Deistic god to a prayer-answering god than it does from no god at all.

So, to summarize, we don’t know where some of our physical constants come from, or why their values are what they are.  Or rather, we don’t know yet.  But the point is that it’s okay not to know!  Not knowing is the driving force behind every facet of human inquiry.   Perhaps one day we might discover that the universe really was built by an intelligent designer. But that discovery will be made with the same scientific rigor as all discoveries before it, instead of being built upon holes in our current knowledge.

The fine-tuning argument is therefore precisely that:  an argument that depends on lack of knowledge.  I submit that this realization by itself should disqualify the argument from honest use in debates. It should also disqualify the argument from being a plausible reason for belief in a god.

Atheism as a religion

It annoys me to no end when religious people claim that atheism is “a religion” or that atheism is just as “dogmatic” as religious beliefs. This will be the subject of a much longer article at some point, but until then, let me share a quick aside on this topic.

Here’s a key difference between atheists and religious people:

Atheists don’t need any mechanism of reinforcement for their beliefs. Since we draw our beliefs from the natural world, we don’t need to appeal to imaginary beings and reassure ourselves that they exist, despite overwhelming evidence that they don’t. We don’t need to speak empty words into empty air every day, while banging our heads against the floor. We don’t need to congregate in a large room for a session of mutual emotional masturbation where a charismatic leader (who actually refers to us as a “flock”) assures us that our beliefs are infallible and questioning them is pointless or even dangerous.

We never need to switch off our rational minds, or even put them in the back seat for the purpose of indulging ourselves in believing things that our ignorant barbaric ancestors tell us to believe. Perhaps the words “ignorant” and “barbaric” are too harsh; our ancestors did the best they could. The point is, the ignorance of our ancestors is forgivable. What’s unforgivable is clinging on to that same ignorance in our modern world. Even less forgivable is considering it a virtue to perpetuate such ignorance.

We are capable of drawing feelings of spirituality from the grandeur and complexity of the natural world. Instead of using our imagination to invent more intricate ways of deluding ourselves, we use our imagination to improve the quality of life for current and future generations, since we know that this life is the only one we get, which makes it all the more precious and fragile.

Accommodation vs. confrontation

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at a roundtable debate hosted by the Cleveland Freethinkers. The theme of the debate revolved around how atheists should present themselves in public discourse: should atheists be “accommodating” of their religious colleagues and acquaintances, or should they actively confront such acquaintances and directly challenge their beliefs at any reasonable opportunity? I was on the “confrontationalist” side, and the following is an approximate dump of some of my statements during the debate.

A case against accommodation

The biggest problem with religion seems to be that, no matter how moderately religious a society is, it inevitably creates a slippery slope towards extremism for those few adherents who take it a bit too literally; and there will always be those few. The reason for this is that religious moderates are basically the same as religious extremists, except that the moderates have (thankfully) allowed themselves to be tempered by the secular social norms of our time. By default, religious moderates are tolerant of extremists, because after all, the extremists actually believe what they say they believe, unlike the moderates who water down their religion to make it more palatable in the modern world.

And it seems to me that, from the atheist perspective, being an “accommodationist” would only help perpetuate that same kind of slippery slope that’s already made abundant by the religious moderate majority.

My rhetorical question to the accommodationists would be, “To what end?” Surely there must be some extreme forms of religion that you’re not willing to accommodate? If you’re willing to accommodate some forms of moderate Christianity, or moderate Islam, but not the more extreme forms of the two, then that would be just as hypocritical as the moderate Christians who cherry-pick which verses of the Bible to take literally, and which ones to take metaphorically. Religion should be an all-or-nothing deal. When it’s not all-or-nothing, there’s always some hypocrisy to be found.

Speaking of hypocrisy, it feels like we have a certain amount of intellectual integrity at stake here. We atheists are, to a reasonable extent, certain about the truth of our convictions. I don’t mean to speak for everybody, but that’s generally the case; we arrive at certain conclusions with some amount of certainty, and we consider these conclusions “true,” or at least tentatively true, insofar as the scientific method allows us to define truth. We don’t “believe” in things in the same sense that religious people believe in things, because our conclusions are backed up by evidence and observations, which makes the truth of our beliefs that much more meaningful and convincing.

So, taking all of that into consideration, why on earth should we be accommodating toward beliefs that are clearly false, or beliefs that are clearly lies, or beliefs that are demonstrably harmful to the well-being of their adherents? What does it say about our intellectual integrity when we allow falsehoods to be perpetuated, no matter how much false hope or false happiness they might bring to the people who believe them? I would think that we should be doing our best to expose such beliefs for what they are, and uproot them from the consciousness of our society using tools like education, debate, and scrutiny.

There’s a theory of why religious people get so offended when their faith is questioned. And the theory is that religious people are actually embarrassed by the things they believe, but they just don’t consciously realize it, which is why they get so defensive when their beliefs are put under the microscope. It’s embarrassing to believe the Earth is 6000 years old; it’s embarrassing to believe that a woman can give birth to a child without a man’s contribution to the zygote.

If I put myself in the mindset of a religious person, I can see how it would be embarrassing when science explains yet another thing that used to be attributed to God, and having my God demoted again and again, to the point where the very definition of “God” becomes so nebulous that it loses all meaning. And all I’m left with is profundities like “god is the universe,” or “god is beyond human logic,” or “god exists outside of space and time” — that’s my favorite.

The thing is, for truly religious people, that kind of embarrassment is buried deep down in their unconscious mind. Instinctively they’re perfectly aware that it’s all nonsense. But those instincts have been repressed by their conscious religious training, or indoctrination, or whatever. So when those beliefs are questioned, the conscious mind has no answer, so it turns to the unconscious mind, which says that it’s all nonsense, which directly butts heads with the conscious indoctrination, and that’s where the defensiveness and the anger comes from.

That’s only a theory, anyway. But my whole point here is that our goal as responsible atheists should be to bring that unconscious embarrassment to the foreground of consciousness. Not just the consciousness of religious individuals, but the foreground of our social consciousness. It should become outwardly embarrassing to keep believing in an all-powerful creator god. It should become embarrassing to keep believing in prayer, or believing in hell or heaven.

Believing in a god is on the same theoretical footing as believing any other figment of imagination for which you would otherwise be called crazy. It just so happened that this particular god was the one that got ingrained into the fabric of our society. But aside from that, there’s absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t attach the same kind of negative stigma to people who believe in the Abrahamic god, or the literal truth of ancient folk tales.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to believe whatever they like; of course they should. What I am saying is, we should work towards creating a society where the moment someone considers taking religion literally, it should be readily apparent to that person how embarrassing, counterproductive, and unwise that would be. So, in that kind of society, no one would have a reason anymore to turn to religion for any purpose, so therefore no one would have a reason to go down the slippery slope toward extremism.

That’s the kind of state we should be striving for; a state where it’s just as embarrassing to believe in the god of Abraham as it is to believe in Zeus or Poseidon or Xenu; because they are all on the same footing of pre-scientific wishful thinking. And I don’t see how accommodation will help us get there. Theism in general belongs in the Bronze Age, because it’s based on Bronze-age thinking, and because the Bronze Age is already the resting place for all other gods ever invented by men. There’s just one more to go!

When people who promote the merits of religion run out of arguments, they usually retreat to the last-resort argument, which is something like, “Well, at least religion gives people comfort, or hope, or a sense of purpose…” Well, that might be true; but the problem is that all those good things are for the wrong reasons, and all those things only happen when religion is at its very best. That’s more like an idealization of religion; that’s the infomercial promise of religion. The reality is quite different. In reality, when religion is not at its best, the same religion that brings the hope and the comfort will also bring fear, shame, intolerance, and guilt. And we know all too well what happens when religion is at its worst… it makes otherwise decent people commit unspeakably evil acts, for those very same reasons!

The other problem with that argument is that it’s rather condescending towards religious people. It assumes that religious people are too weak-minded to cope with the real world without religion, and I don’t think that’s true at all. I’m fully confident that even the most devoutly religious people will be able to find their moral bearings without a god telling them what’s right and wrong. I think people might be afraid to let go of religion, because religion has been pretty much the only option for thousands of years. But the solution to all of that, as with anything else, is education; not just education, but actively combating ignorance.

A proper education should start at the very beginning. Religion’s biggest offense is the indoctrination of young children. Nobody should have any kind of opinion or dogma forced onto them from birth, and yet this happens every day, in many millions of households, in the form of religious upbringing. I wish more of us would recoil when we hear parents label their young children as “Protestant” or “Jewish” or anything else, before the children are capable of objectively evaluating the implications of such a label.

That’s why I’m not advocating forcing atheism onto anyone. What I’m talking about is subtracting the forcing of religion (which is pretty much the definition of atheism anyway)! Atheism isn’t a viewpoint that can be forced onto someone. Atheism is a natural, “clean slate” state of mind, and children should be raised with a “clean slate” until they’re ready (and educated enough) to decide which ancient Babylonian deity to worship.

To put it plainly, we simply cannot afford to accommodate irrational beliefs anymore. It would be great to accommodate them, in theory, if only people’s irrational beliefs didn’t influence their actions, and if only people with irrational beliefs didn’t get elected to public offices, and didn’t allow their irrational beliefs to influence their policies. If that were the kind of world we lived in, then, by all means, accommodation would be very fitting and reasonable.

But we live in a country where half of the population refuses to accept basic facts about biology, and half of the population can’t tell you how long it takes for the Earth to make an orbit around the Sun. And we live in a world where we have an explosive growth of a religion that has a doctrine of military conquest literally built into it, and a growing minority of that religion that’s plotting our destruction as we speak.

We cannot afford to accommodate religions that are inherently anti-human, which all three of the world’s “great monotheisms” absolutely are. The moment when a religion places more value on things that are supposed to happen after we die, rather than focusing on doing good deeds in this life for its own sake, is a warning sign that such a religion needs to be eradicated, and fast.

Our battle is nearly vertically uphill, and the last thing we should be doing is pretending that there’s any good to be found in letting people cling on to their irrational beliefs just a bit longer. Religion’s function has been to divide people, divide communities, and stifle scientific and intellectual achievement. We should be doing our best to phase it out, instead of accommodating it. To put it as charitably as I can, religion has been the training wheels of our morality. And at some point, training wheels become more of a hindrance than a benefit. Our civilization is long overdue to take the training wheels off, and throw them away.