Uncommon Sense

December 3, 2022

Science and Truth

I was reading a work of philosophy and the author objected to the categories of writing: fiction and nonfiction, in that “fiction” implied imaginary and so not true and non-fiction implies fact-based and therefore true. He had many interesting things to say, but they were mostly based upon this false interpretation.

When I read a work of non-fiction, I accept that the author tried to get the facts straight but I know how bleeding hard that is, so I don’t expect it to be 100% “factual” and certainly not a “true account” whatever that is. Writers of fiction often display more insight into things like the human condition than “fact-based” writers. When I read a work of fiction, I don’t expect it to be fact-based, so if a dragon shows up, I am okay with that. The two categories say something about how the authors went about creating their work, but nothing whatsoever about their veracity.

The problem here is with the word “truth.”

Truths are absolutes, and therefore, as far as I am concerned, they are mythical. I have written about absolutes before, so I won’t dwell on that topic, just to say they are extensions of things we see beyond any evidence for their existence.

I have often read that science cannot discover “the truth,” often by religious apologists, and this is obviously true as a statement. Science, in fact, is not looking for truths and never pronounces things as truths. We are smarter than that because what we think might be true today can be found to be false tomorrow. This is why all scientific findings are provisional. Scientists know this as it is beaten into them, but the lay public, looking over scientists shoulders, is often disturbed when scientists change their minds. What scientists think is a virtue, adapting to new data, the public finds alarming. This is because the public believes in the existence of absolutes, like truths, and when scientists announce a “discovery” the public think it is pronouncement of a new truth.

The best thing we could do educationally is to drum this into the minds of all citizens. Scientists are looking for what might work now so that they can continue to learn things, even though those new things may contradict what they have found previously. We in science call that progress. Religionists call that heresy. The public needs to learn to distinguish their religions from scientific “reality.”

As to what is “real,” just don’t get me started.

October 30, 2022


Filed under: Philosophy,Social Commentary — Steve Ruis @ 9:28 am
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I once had a goal of dying with no regrets. It sounded almost like a definition of having lead a good life. I am closer and closer to the dying by not so much on the no regrets part. I certainly have them and I suspect you do, too. But, to get from X regrets to 0, how does one get rid of a regret?

And when one entertains a question one often sees or hears an answer. I read this one less than two minutes after typing the question!

Specifically, the act of examining what could have been, and our foregone opportunities — is a chief, and irrational driver of regret. Why is it irrational? Because we tend to assign improbable values to what could have been.” Sean Kernan

(Some say that the “Universe” responded to my question, which I think is silly. I think it is instead a manifestation of the “green car effect,” which is when you buy a green car, you tend to notice all of the other green cars on the road and you will hear people comment, “I never knew there were so many green cars on the road.” The reason you didn’t notice them was because your attention function wasn’t primed with that concept.)

Okay, back on topic. Sean may have a real handle on these things. Regrets are based upon “woulda, coulda, shouldas.” If only I had done Y instead of Z, then . . . is the formula. Sean’s point is we automatically assume the alternative, the thing not done, the road not traveled, would have been better, usually much better. But, would it have been?

The approach I am taking is admitting I made a mistake in the past and accepting that I am a human being who makes mistakes, just like all of the other human beings. Actually, any number of things that I later thought “Gee, maybe I shouldn’t have done that” turned out quite well. To think otherwise, I now think, is to be looking for certainty in our lives, which is a fool’s errand. If we don’t do things that do not turn out was we expected, or don’t turn out “well,” then we aren’t taking chances, we aren’t trying unknown things, we are living a very timid life.

My goal now is to have processed all of the things I consider to be regrets before I die. I don’t want to leave them on the table, as it were.

October 27, 2022

Whenever Faced with a Choice of Two Things Always Take the Third

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason — Steve Ruis @ 1:37 pm
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The title of this piece was a bit of supposed wisdom from a Grandmother of a specific ethic group (and I am not going there, so we will just refer to her as “Grandma”). The proverb is illustrated by the story of Grandma going to the Greengrocers and asking “How much are the cantaloupes?” The Grocer replied “Two for 89 cents.” Grandma asks, “How much for just one? And the Grocer replied “One? Just 45 cents.” Grandma says “I’ll take the other one.”

Now, the clever Grandma saved a penny, so you can tell how old the story is but the proverb is basically to never let someone else restrict your choices unnecessarily.

My topic here and now is Free Will and Determinism.

These two concepts are presented as absolute opposites and we must choose one or the other. Either our actions are all determined by outside events or are determined by some mysterious interior “will.” You can only take one. Either the universe, as a whole, is deterministic, or it’s not. Choose.

Not so fast, Bubba. Why can we not have both?

Under some circumstance the universe is deterministic. For example, a sniper has taken a bead on your head from 1000 yards away. When he pulls the trigger, a 2400fps bullet will fly from his rifle to your head, which will take about 1.25 seconds. Half way to its target, I think your future is determined as you can’t move fast enough to dodge that bullet. Determinism in action!

But there are many cases in which you make choices that have nothing to do with external physical factors. You go out to dinner and you order a kale salad even though you do not like salad, and kale even less, because your girlfriend will approve. How can that not be a free choice? (And, please, this is not social conditioning, Machiavellian, maybe.)

Are our absolutist tendencies getting us to argue from nonsensical positions? Free Choice! Determinism! All or nothing!

Seems as if it may be so.

October 22, 2022

Humanity’s Achilles’ Heel: Absolutism

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy,Social Commentary — Steve Ruis @ 12:13 pm
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The term “absolutism” tends to be hijacked by political scientists who reserve the word for political systems with an absolute monarch or other absolute entity at the top. But the word has a broader definition, still standing for a belief in and support of absolute positions.

Humans are “all or nothing” believers. Other people are either “bad” or “good,” there is no nuanced position. Obviously everyone has their good and bad points, even Hitler did. But as absolutists, we don’t want to acknowledge Hitler’s good points, we want him to be “all bad.”

And our god cannot be just really, really powerful but all-powerful and not just the creator of the Earth, but the creator of a universe consisting of many trillions of galaxies. Sheesh.

This tendency toward absolutes is often ascribed to our unwillingness to embrace ambiguity and complexity, but I find that argument unsatisfactory. Listen to any sports nut talk about the statistics of their sport or, better, the odds of sports bets now open to them. Baseball Sabermetricians give the lie to this idea. Afraid of complexity, no way!

It seems to me that women are often obsessed with family dynamics. They keep track of every family member’s relationships and have stories to tell about all of them. Men’s eyes tend to glaze over when they get into details but not because of an avoidance of complexity, but from a lack of interest. Similarly when men get into the details of a construction project, women tend to drift away, again from a lack of interest, not because they cannot handle complexity.

Our being wedded to absolutes may be an outcome of our social behavior. Because we are a social species, we interact with members of our social families and on occasion are asked to contribute to decisions. When one approaches such discussions with nuanced positions, one sounds wishy-washy. When one has a firm, simple position, people sound convicted and more truthful. In our current political environment I hear things like “Joe Biden is evil” and “Democrats want to destroy Christianity.” In our current religious environment I hear “atheists are evil” quite a bit. All of this stems from pushes to the extreme to make an absolutist argument. But once you get to such an absolutist position, there is almost no road back, away from that position. This is why Christians insist that Christians who become atheists must not have been “True Christians™.” In their minds, once you get to that absolute position: “He is a Christian and he is saved,” it is impossible in their minds that he could move away from those positions. So, religiously and politically, the discourse is pushing, pushing people to these absolutist positions. (Insisting “You can’t be a Christian and vote Democrat” . . . even though the majority of Democrat voters are Christians.)

And since we are all absolutists, it is oh so easy for us to move that way. Unscrupulous people use lies and deceit to achieve their goals because they are absolutely convinced the ends justify the means. There is even a meme in circulation: “Liars for Jesus,” which tags people who just make stuff up and pass on known lies to push people where they want them to go.

So, the only end point to this progression is two groups of people in opposite corners of a room with a freshly painted floor in between, and no doors out. The only way to resolve such extreme positions is to fight it out and there are already many, many calls for having a civil war. (Hey, gang, I have an idea! Let’s put on a war!)

Of course, the call for another civil war is yet another absolutist position. Do those calling for such a war feel that the last civil war really cleared the air and resolved all of the problems that caused it in the first place? I wonder.

And of course, organized religion has prepared the fields of discourse by training people to believe in absolute absurdities.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (Anonymous)

October 11, 2022

Different Ways of Knowing

When you are interested in many similar topics occasionally you get a convergence. I just did, this time because of a statistic. The statistic is that despite our modern educational system about 30% of us are illiterate. It was claimed that this number has held quite steady for a long time. Now the author was British so I thought I would check on the U.S. statistics (yes, we actually track literacy). Here in the U.S., currently, nationwide, on average, 79% of U.S. adults are literate in 2022. 21% of adults in the US are illiterate in 2022. 54% of adults have a literacy below 6th grade level. So, instead of being just under a third of all adults, it is just above a fifth of all adults here. In any case it is a sizable fraction of our society.

You need to be aware when discussing this topic that the definition of being “literate” has changed a great deal over the years. In Colonial times, if you could “make your mark” (basically hold a pen and make an X or other symbol) you were considered literate; not so much today.

Now the reason that this is important is you need to be able to read to avail yourself of the wisdom in books (although audiobooks are available) and the Internet. (Wow, maybe I just figured out why cat videos are so popular—no reading required!) And I am going to equate illiterate with “non-reader.” And I want to add to those non-readers, the myriad others who read neither for pleasure nor edification. For example, Pew Research Center’s data tells us that 50% of American adults read four books or fewer per year. Now I don’t know how many people who can read but don’t read there are, but when added to the illiterate folks, we are talking about a sizable fraction of American society.

Okay, take a deep breath now.

Shifting gears, I want to compare the use of reason to make decisions versus the use of non-reason to make such decisions. Many people use the word “emotion” instead of non-reason, but I don’t want to get into that particular nest of snakes.

The point I want to make is that reasoning is difficult and time consuming. It is hard to learn. The first steps in learning to reason seem obvious and easy but soon things get complicated and arduous. If evolution demanded that we make all of our decisions via reason, well we wouldn’t have survived. So, we needed a non-reasoning path to decisions that was accurate enough and quicker certainly and evolution so equipped us.

Now, the non-reading segment of society is highly unlikely to have learned reasoning at all well, and probably find it arduous and opaque. (I don’t think you will be surprised that even a few corporation executives were found to be members of this group.) And, these folks do not want to feel as if they were second-class citizens compared to their reasoning brethren. So, they elevated and then exalted non-reasoned decision making. They even refer to “different ways of knowing” even though they haven’t the reasoning skills to evaluate that claim as to its truth. They know things “in their heart” or “in their gut” or “I just know. . . .”

So, how well has it been going, just ignoring these folks? Has reasoned decision making been on a long, inexorable rise? No? Donald J. Trump, you say? Our first illiterate president?

It seems to me that our academic philosophers need to pull their heads out of their asses and address this issue. We all need to make reasoned decisions from time to time as well as rapid decisions for which the tool of reason is ill-suited. But what about the folks who can’t reason at all? The Flat Earthers? The astrologers? The homeopathic medical people? Leaving them out of the fray only leads to increasing isolation. Are there ways to convince them that certain beliefs are false using their own “different ways of knowing”?

Postscript Yes, yes this applies to religious beliefs but I do not want to go there at the moment.

October 9, 2022

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

I have written more than a few times about what I call “ordinary beliefs” and “religious beliefs.” More needs to be said.

I suggest that all beliefs are based upon evidence, and quite a number of people agree.

He that believes without having any Reason for believing, may be in love with his own Fancies.” (John Locke, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” 1690, p. 687)

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” (David Hume, “On Miracles,” Part I)

On the other hand, William James, a pragmatist, stated that sometimes it’s fine to form beliefs when we don’t have sufficient evidence, and indeed, in some occasions we are actually obliged to do so.

Too many people are arguing from some idea that there are beliefs with evidence and beliefs without evidence when in fact there is a range of evidentiary support for all our beliefs. So, if you would imagine a line segment. At the left end write 100% and on the right end write 0%. All beliefs can be placed upon on this line based upon their support. So, right next to the 100% end we could place the belief that the “Sun will come up tomorrow.” It has for thousands of years, so the odds are really, really high, right? A little farther away would be “When I turn the key in my car in the morning, it will start.” You have lots of evidence for this belief but there are more reasons that it might not than that the Sun will not come up tomorrow, e.g. you could have left your headlights on and the battery became drained (there is a reason that many cars now automatically turn off the headlights for us).

All of the beliefs on the line next to the left end are “reasonable” or “supported,” what I call “ordinary beliefs.”

Now, you may also believe that your son is “a good kid,” or some such thing, even though you know of a few suspect activities he has engaged in. Some of these beliefs are wishful thinking, some are ego-protecting or self-serving (if you don’t believe your son is doing anything wrong, you do not have to confront him over those actions). And most of our general beliefs are closer to the middle, e.g. “education is a good thing,” “all politicians are liars,” etc.

And way toward the other end, the 0% end, are delusions and other beliefs for which you have next to no evidence, yet insist on those beliefs, e.g. the New York Knicks could win the NBA Championship this year!

Now religious beliefs only overlap a little of the 0% end of the line as those beliefs are based upon faith and exist even in the face of contradictory evidence, that is evidence to the contrary. (Maybe we should extend the line to the right and label it with negative values.)

If at the left end of this line are trustworthy, well-supported beliefs, these are . . . what?

If you are someone who claims that religious beliefs are harmless so people should butt out about them, well that is not entirely true. If someone believes without evidence in one case that may very well lead to a lowering of their standards of evidence in general, with adverse practical consequences. In addition, such beliefs are an indulgence that is easily enough characterized as an emotional vice. Desiring life everlasting is a selfish desire, but never labeled as such, at least by the religious. In addition there is experimental evidence that if someone believes in one hypothetical conspiracy theory, they are more likely to believe in others, for example.

As one philosopher puts it “if there is only one reality out there (as I believe to be the case) then there is one set of true propositions accurately describing such reality. And an infinite set of propositions that do not describe it. Which implies that if we decide to assent to a proposition that we don’t have sufficient reason to think is true we run against infinitely high odds of making a mistake.” (Sorry Blaise!)

Ordinary people evaluate how much faith to put in their beliefs based upon where on that line their belief is. If it is to the left, they will trust that a great deal. If it is way over to the right, they will know that having faith in that belief is shaky at best (Hey, do you want to place a bet that the Knicks will win it all this year? How much?). Religious beliefs should be the shakiest, but the religious are taught to have great faith in those beliefs, which is dangerous, as history proves.

October 4, 2022

Can You Spell Hubris, Boys and Girls?

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 9:33 am
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There seems to be a fair amount of interest in pantheism lately, at least amongst philosophy geeks like me. Pantheism is a doctrine that the universe conceived of as a whole is God and, conversely, that there is no God but the combined substance, forces, and laws that are manifested in the existing universe. A consequence of this belief is that there is no god within the universe, so you can see a certain lack of attractiveness to the “I worship a personal god crowd.”

There is a subset of pantheism in which it is claimed that human consciousness is a mechanism by which the universe becomes aware of itself.

Now, I guess one could insist that there are myriad conscious species within our galaxy and within the trillions of other galaxies as well, but allow me to debunk this bit of nonsense before we get too carried away.

This suggestion that human consciousness is also the consciousness of the universe (and therefore “God” if you are a pantheist) is just a bit of human hubris to which, it seems, there is no limit.

So, our consciousness is the universe’s consciousness. Hmm, why such a grandiose claim, I wonder? I think it is so because we are more than a bit too full of ourselves, and we have practiced being that for so long that it now comes easy to us. Why equate our consciousness to the universe’s consciousness? Why not equate it to a wart on the toe of the universe?

This idea is ludicrous and it is so because of a basic limitation woven into the universe and that is the speed limit of the speed of light. No object and no information can travel faster than the speed of light. So, let us assume that the nearest star to us has also planets upon which conscious beings have evolved (and pantheists can truly say “created by god” because well, figure it out, and so all pantheists are creationists). But that star is 4.2465 light-years away, so any information we would share with that other little bit of universal consciousness would take 4.2465 years to get there and then, if a response was desirable on that other consciousness’s part, 4.2465 years to get back to us. Our nerve impulses travel at about 200 miles per hour and our heads are a small fraction of a mile in extent, so our thoughts can rattle around in our brains at immense rates. Such would not be the case of any “universal” consciousness consisting of blobs of consciousness scattered here and there throughout our galaxy and the other galaxies (the galaxies are millions of light-years apart, so communication between them is nigh impossible). Consciousness may evolve in many, many places but these are not to be combined into some sort of consciousness of the whole, except possibly in our inflated imaginings.

If you believe that that human consciousness is a mechanism by which the universe becomes aware of itself, I think you need to sit down with a cup of tea and get over yourself. If you puff yourself up any more, you may pop.

October 3, 2022

The Ur-Father of the GOP

I was reading a post on the Vridar web site about the linkage between the Genesis account in the Bible and Greek philosophy when I encountered this:

Plato taught that in an ideal government philosophers should rule and oversee all aspects of education from infancy to adulthood. The curriculum for the young had to consist of myths that fostered “good” behaviour. These myths needed to be attractive to all ages, especially the young, and hence were to be relayed in songs, poems, theatrical performances and public readings at festivals. Existing myths that told of gods were useful but first had to be censored by the philosopher rulers to remove from them every negative and immoral act of the gods. Nothing bad about the gods was to enter the minds of the citizens. Education was to encompass the whole society, from mothers telling infants nursery rhymes to entertaining performances (singing, reading, acting) for the young and adults.”

Plato . . . the Father of the GOP.

All of the GOP’s education statements and actions are based on getting control of our education system so as to shape it exactly along the lines that Plato recommends.

“Some natural philosophers taught that the sun, moon and stars were inanimate bodies of rock or fire and moved according to physical processes. Plato saw those teachings as a threat to morality because they were the first step on the slippery slope towards atheism.”

Neil Godfrey, the author of this post went on to state:

For more formal education in the home and school settings Plato permitted the teaching of astronomy but with a caveat. Some natural philosophers taught that the sun, moon and stars were inanimate bodies of rock or fire and moved according to physical processes. Plato saw those teachings as a threat to morality because they were the first step on the slippery slope towards atheism. The general population needed to be taught that these heavenly bodies were divine and moved as divinities would — in perfect circles. The sphere was the perfect shape befitting a deity because it could move while remaining in the same place. The detailed philosophical reasoning behind this astronomical knowledge would only be taught to those able to attend higher education. For most people all that was necessary is that they be taught “the facts” without the rational arguments for them. The proposed curriculum was thus an ancient form of “creation science”. Instructors were to possess the authority that came with a reputation for high morals and deep knowledge and above all to learn to teach with persuasive eloquence.

Sound familiar? I didn’t know the Repubs were so erudite, so versed in ancient Greek philosophy, or maybe it is just their drive for power leading them.

September 5, 2022

Some Thoughts on the Consciousness Debates

My primary point is we know way too little at this point in time to make any conclusions. Having said that some points seem obvious.

One of the major lines in the debates between philosophers, scientists, and interested onlookers involve whether consciousness is an illusion or not. I think this claim is a red herring, here’s why.

Let’s assume consciousness is an illusion. One of the “facts” we do know is that consciousness is local. I have mine and you have yours and we can’t seem to share them. So, if my consciousness is an illusion, what is responsible for generating that illusion? In the absence of the Matrix universe, I have to conclude that the illusion is made by my brain. But what does that mean “an illusion made by my brain.” For example, the colors we perceive are illusions made by our brains. The colors we see aren’t “real” per se, they are based upon a color mapping code created by evolution. Other animals have other codes. Dragonflies, for example, are able to see millions of different colors, apparently. Other animals see only in black and white. Our brains also take vibrations in the air around us, aka noises, and words, and music, and interpret those as having particular meanings. People who do not speak our language do not have the brain code to decipher our sounds, but they can be taught to do so.

And, if consciousness is such an “illusion,” then it is a physical phenomenon.

The problem is that we associate the word illusion with trickery. If you are told that what you see is an illusion, you feel tricked, no? And there needs be a perpetrator of that illusion, an Illusionist, no? (“God gave you consciousness” is a basic claim that Yahweh is a Trickster God.)

The physical link between brains and consciousness is very strongly supported. Those who are claiming the Earth is conscious, or the galaxy, or even the universe . . . well, I wonder what they are smoking.

Consciousness seems like an adaption, an adaption made by big brained animals, and if so, it is subject to evolution and is, a physical phenomenon.

I think the “gift from god people” have been given way too much free rein.

August 31, 2022

Straightforward Answers to the So-Called “Big Questions” in Life

Many claim that religion is the only source of answers to the so-called “Big Questions” of life, including, “Where did we come from,” “Why are we here,” and “What happens to us after we die.”

Actually answers to these questions are available at hand and they do not involve religion. So, taking these one at a time, we proceed.

What happens to us after we die?
This one is easy and so is good to start with. The answer is straightforward: we decompose. Our atoms go back into nature to be taken up by other natural processes (see the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the oxygen cycle, etc.) There is much evidence of this all around us. If we encounter a dead animal, even inside our houses or apartments, they tend to be desiccated and decomposing. They have a certain odor to them they didn’t have while alive, provided by some of the decomposition chemicals. The soft tissues are the first to go and then the skeletons. Out in raw nature, the skeletons, antlers, etc. get eaten as sources of calcium and other nutrients. As a child I wondered why the woods weren’t just full of deer antlers (they shed them annually). Actually antlers are hard to find because rodents tend to eat them, along with other animals.

Where did we come from?
You came from your mother’s womb, just alike all other mammals, not just human beings. There are other ways to get born, for example being hatched from an egg, but us mammals, we like live births. If you want to expand your search, you can go to Ancestry.com and find out where your mother came from, and then your mother’s mother, etc. This goes back many, many generations, before we note that some distant ancestor of ours came from another subspecies, then farther back an entirely different species, and then back, back, back to multicellular organisms, which didn’t give birth but reproduced by cell division. All of this goes back billions of years.

Oh, you want to have been created by a special being to make you special in turn? Seems a little selfish, that you want a different beginning from all of the other mammals on the planet, and you are willing to make up fictional stories to back up your claim. Sad, it is.

Why are we here?
You and me specifically? Well, we both got our start from a gleam in your father’s or mother’s eye, that lead to them having sexual intercourse and our moms getting pregnant. Oh, you want there to be a special reason for why all human beings are here? Lot’s of luck with that idea. All living beings evolve and an evolutionary trail leading to you is littered with accidents, mistakes, and chance occurrences. There is no point at which some special being could intervene so that you, in particular, were created. There is also no mechanism by which any special being could intervene. (Calling it a miracle is just labeling it. That is not a description of how it occurred.)

In Conclusion
It seems that all of the religions are trying desperately to make you special without you having to do much at all. I hate to break it to you but, if you want to be special, there is a simple recipe: be special. If you want your memory to linger, be special to a great many people. Do something that benefits them or at least a large group of others. They will be grateful and remember you. For how long? Well, not forever, remember subduction of the crust is the great eraser. But books have allowed us to retain memories of people who lived thousands of years. Statues and monuments, too. If you want to join that group, you need to do something . . . something special. The more widespread you want that gratitude or memory to be, the more special the things you need to do. Easy peasy.

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