“a nicer fundamentalism”

28 February, 2009

I’ve mentioned here before that I find reading opinions that differ from mine to be stimulating.

Of course, sometimes the thought stimulated is “this person is a fucking idiot”. Such a person is Paul Spinrad.

In a guest blog post on Boing Boing called “Re-engineering fundamentalism“, he notes the following:

It seems to me that every so often, the dominant political and cultural machine grows so large and incestuous that it loses its connection to people and makes them feel powerless and irrelevant. When this happens, in the West anyway, there’s inevitably a revolution of words, of back-to-basics and idealism, against the image-conscious, superficial, wealth-obsessed Babylon. Because it’s based on words, people can place their trust in it fully and spread it, and it will continue to make sense over time. It doesn’t propagate through image, might, or personal influence. This empowers people again– perhaps simply by making them feel empowered.

Big examples are the formation of Christianity and Islam, and the Protestant Reformation. Today we see other fundamentalisms. But the inevitable next one doesn’t have to be intolerant and destructive. If we engage with the task of developing it, rather than avoiding it and leaving it to others, it can be a nice one.

This was my reply:

The last line of this piece is the stupidest thing I have ever read on Boing Boing, and a candidate for the stupidest thing I have ever read online.

The point Mr. Spinrad painfully fails to grasp is that *fundamentalism itself* is a damaging mindset. It doesn’t matter which text or set of ideas – the Bible, the Koran, On The Origin of Species – are taken as inerrant, it’s the act of declaring an idea as absolutely true and trustable which causes the harm.

Fundamentalism stops the questioning part of the mind from working. It is a failure of imagination. It leads the victim to believing those who do not share their beliefs matter less than they do. The results of this are rarely pleasant.

A ‘nicer fundamentalism’ is about as helpful a concept as a cheerful serial killer.

I would also note that at no time does Spinrad attempt to show how fundamentalism can be re-engineered, or even a basic grasp of either the history of thought and belief or any understanding of how fundamentalist belief works. And don’t even get me started on the puerile dualism of “back-to-basics and idealism” versus “the image-conscious, superficial, wealth-obsessed Babylon”.

This is not something I say lightly… actual fundamentalists make more sense than this shite.

(Oh – and anyone considering witty remarks along the lines of “you’re being fundamentalist too” can fuck right off. If I was in a better mood I would explain the difference between a passionately held opinion and an inflexible one. But right now, I’d rather offer you a spoon to eat my sick.)

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The Woo, the How and the Why

13 January, 2009

I’ve long been interested in “Occam’s Razor” — the scientific maxim that maintains that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. But who gets the honor of defining “simple”?
It’s a lot like Carl Sagan’s “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What, exactly, is “extraordinary”? “Extraordinary” to who? Are the criteria subject to change?

Mac Tonnes, ‘Intelligence and the Cosmos’

There are few things more stimulating that reading an intelligent and well-written book whose author you disagree with.

The book in question for me right now is Christopher Brookmyre‘s novel, ‘Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’. It’s a fine tale, which proceeds from the basic principle that paranormal phenomena are not real and the Rationalist paradigm is the only truth – the book is dedicated to James Randi and Richard Dawkins, which gives you an idea. (‘The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ is a Randi term for us poor souls who will never be convinced in the non-existance of the paranormal, no matter how hard our betters try to change our minds…) In the book, Brookmyre does a very good job of showing the arguments of both sides of the debate – though it’s clear that he shares the Rationalist view in the end, he is not too scornful of the Believers of Woo (i.e. not all of us are actual frauds just in it for the money, some are just deluded or too emotionally invested in belief).

The book made me think a lot more about that point of view, and especially why many of those who espouse Rationalism as the One True Truth (not Mr. Brookmyre, I hasten to add) are so very harsh to those in disagreement. And whichever way I look at it, the answer is the same.

They’re Fundamentalists.

Oh I can almost hear their cries right now… “We are not Fundamentalists because that word doesn’t apply to us, because we’re not religious and preaching from a single text and declaring it as perfect and unalterable!”
Well, tough shit.
As Andrew Vachss said so well, ‘behaviour is the truth’. If you act like Fundamentalists, expect to be treated like them.

Here’s what I mean – Do Fundamentalist Rationalists;

Believe in a single inviolable truth?Yes.

(That the modern scientific paradigm is correct in all essential detail and merely requires minor adjustment until it is a perfect description of Reality.)

Insist that those who disagree with their Truth are less important or relevant or capable than them?Oh yes.

(Take, for example, Randi’s finger-poking at the evil proponents of Woo and Dawkins’ declaration that those who agree with him are ‘Brights’ – meaning the rest of us are dim…)

Desire to completely rid the world of opposing beliefs?Yep.

(Rationalist writings of recent years – those penned by Dawkins and Hitchins and such – have explicitly stated that anyone who disagrees with their version of Rationalism is a threat to modern society and strongly express the wish that they cease to do so… admittedly their ‘or else’ is not as unpleasantly explicit as that of Fundamentalist Xtianity or Islam, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they’d be happy bunnies if all us weirdoes vanished overnight.)

Have double standards around what constitutes ‘truth’?Fuck aye.

Consider for example these two looks at the ‘skeptical’ approach and that hallowed tool of scientific ‘objectivity’ the Peer Review. Also consider the amusing results of when the tools of field anthropology are pointed at the environment of a working laboratory, or when an actual skeptical mind looks at the paranormal and tries to share their results with the Rationalist set.

Refuse to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong or having any flaws in their own paradigm? Let’s see, shall we?

Drop in on Randi’s website forum, or the comments on the Bad Astronomy or Pharyngula blogs. There’s a lot of straw-man arguments, insults and ad hominem attacks (not the same thing), plus more than a little scorn, rejection of dissent and emotional manipulation of their followers – but neutral considerations of reported phenomena? Pointing their ‘skepticism’ at their own models? Not so much.

So… if that’s not a fundamentalist attitude, it’s real hard to distinguish it from one.

Here’s an illustration of Rationalist Fundamentalism in action…
A few years ago, neurologist and Rationalist spokesman Stephen Pinker wrote a book called ‘How The Mind Works”.
What colossal arrogance. And what a clever title – two false statements in a mere four words.
1. The book is a pop-science work on modern brain theory and research. It’s not about Mind at all… it merely assumes that Mind is a by-product, an epiphenomenon, of Brain. This is something other researchers would query, and even in some cases say is completely refuted (there is evidence for competing models about consciousness as a whole-body, or even a non-local, phenomenon.)
2. We’re an awful long way from knowing how the brain works – let alone the mind.
For instance, I can offer evidence that pretty much every single model of thought and consciousness which regards the brain as central and essential is incorrect – and I can do it with one word.
Anencephaly.

This is a birth defect where much of the cerebellum or other major brain structures are missing or severely deformed. Normally it’s fatal. But…
There are some people who grow to adulthood with this condition. Sometimes, it’s not even diagnosed until adulthood, due to a MRI for an unrelated condition. In short, there are men and women walking around the planet today who have effectively no brain – just a small bunch or strand of neural tissue and an awful lot of cerebro-spinal fluid in their heads.
(I’ve talked about this before, but the paper I linked to has changed location. Here’s another paper on the subject.)

These people, though rare, are conscious by any reasonable test of same – not imbeciles, they’re capable of thought and speech and movement (and are not, to quote Steve Martin’s classic movie ‘The Man With Two Brains’, “sitting in the corner and going tttthhhppp…”). Yet despite the existence of these people, the standard model of neurology has not, as would be the correct action in a true spirit of scientific enquiry, been binned.

The refusal of scientists as a rule to acknowledge such ‘black swans’ easily (if at all) is understandable to a degree. Their models work pretty well, most of the time. Modern neurology is a damn fine thing, has saved many lives and brought about remarkable understanding. But it’s also incomplete and in many parts contradictory. And its attempts to deal with the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness, with some noble exceptions, mostly consist of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la”. (Best example is Susan Blackmore – who merrily insists that consciousness is basically a delusion, but never quite manages to answer the question, “what’s doing the deluding, then?”, or wonder if her own Buddhist beliefs could possibly colour her views.)

Probably a good time (yet again) to state my views on Science…
I think modern science has made the world, on the whole, a better place. I certainly much prefer to live in this time and place rather than under any fundamentalist religious regime.

But… I don’t think science is complete or wholly accurate. I’m fairly sure it can’t be, by definition.

All science can do is make and test models, theories of how reality functions. (To nick from McLuhan – “The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.” And no amount of insisting will make a menu edible.)  Useful, but not necessarily completely true.
Plus, that which does the modelling is far from infallible.
I know (from working in labs myself, and knowing various professional scientists in fields ranging from neurology to astrophysics to psychology to particle physics) the actual process of scientific research is fraught with nepotism, political manoeuvring, hide-bound attitudes, bad intellectual habits and on occasion outright bribery and fraud… and if you think you’re going to get a Pure Truth that way, you’re more deluded than Randi’s minions would think I am!

There is a method within the scientific world for dealing with contradictions and oddities – it’s called the multi-model approach, was pioneered by Niels Bohr and has a lot going for it.
Trouble is, it pretty much denies the One True Truth idea… and thus is avoided by Fundamentalist Rationalists like the plague. It’s not a favourite of Fundamentalist Religious types either.
And if that’s not a recommendation…

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that science is completely wrong and mystical belief is always right. Or that all models of the world have equal validity. Far from it.

I’m just pointing out that absolute belief in any kind of One True Truth is a trap. As the old Discordian saying goes, ‘convictions cause convicts’. The same habit of thought which leads the likes of Dawkins to insist that modern science proves God doesn’t exist is pretty much the same one that has ‘Intelligent Design’ proponents both ignore all the evidence that contradicts their model and simultaneously miss the point that even if there is evidence for the universe having some kind of Designer, that doesn’t prove that said Designer was their God.

It all comes down, I suspect, to a very human decision. Choosing who to believe, whose word to trust. Who you choose as an authority shapes everything you think.

And we do not always choose wisely.

“Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, Nation

(Special thanks to ‘Dr. Jon‘ for several of the links, and of course to the late Robert Anton Wilson for inspiration.)