Thursday, July 27, 2006

Skeptical Chat at Work

E-mail chat at work today evolved on its own into some very interesting conversation. Looking back on it, some of the discussions are too good to let fester on my computer, so I'm copying them here.

As before, I'll be protecting the anonymity of others by using pseudonyms (Woman A, Man B, etc.)


Aha, I was hoping somebody would catch that I never specifically said I “believe” in anything. First of all, you might want to check out A Flawed Quiz About Belief for some interesting discussion on it, but note that I don’t agree with the definition of belief used there. My definition is more along the lines of “Accept as true.” If we take the strict 100% certainty measure, then all I truly believe in is (in a Descartes manner) that I exist. The reason I can use 100% certainty here is that if I actually don’t exist in some logical twist, the belief doesn’t exist either, so it can never be wrong. Any belief beyond that is subject to The Matrix-style questions of whether we’re truly perceive reality.

Now, if we take another step, we could define it a bit more loosely as “Accept as almost definitely true.” So, using this definition, I believe in:

-The Scientific Method
-Evolution and many other scientific theories.
-A complete lack of “supernatural” events. Why? Because if they were real, they’d be natural.
-Many mundane details about the world and everyday life
-That pleasure is pleasurable and pain is painful. These provide their own impetus for “moral” actions

I don’t believe in:

-A lack of a god-like being
-The existence of any particular god-like being (I have both of these as there is absolutely no way to rule out the existence of a god, nor is there any proof that there is)
-Most “alternative” medicine
-Any innate “Good” and “Evil” or “Moral” and “Immoral” to the universe
-That there actually is a meaning to life

Me again:

One little follow-up I just remembered: While I don’t believe in the absence of a god, it does seem to be the most reasonable interpretation of all the evidence available. If there’s absolutely no evidence for A, and A has been searched for for millennia, is it more reasonable to assume that A does not exist, or that A exists, but does not interact with us and always stays out of measurement? By Occam’s razor, the nonexistence of A is the simpler, and therefore probably the better, assumption.

Woman A:
What about documented miracles?

You mean anecdotal miracles? I haven’t heard of any well-documented miracles.

And as for anecdotal evidence, well, the most common fallacy is the fallacy of lying. Beyond that, there’s pareidolia and the confirmation bias. Plus there’s simply dramaticization where people will exaggerate a story until it sounds like a miracle. Give me an example of a “documented miracle” as you’re thinking of it, and we can discuss.

(But in general, no, I don’t believe in miracles.)

Woman B:
But you say that you don’t believe in the supernatural, which means that you interpret all things that can’t be explained to be real, though you can’t prove that something ‘real’ caused an unexplained event to occur. So in that sense, you’re believing that something is real though you have no proof of it being so…

Frankly, my opinion of faith and the supernatural changed when my sister was inches from death in the ICU of Lutheran General with spinal/neural meningitis. She had lost her sight completely and after days of being unconscious, she opened her eyes and smiled. My dad was sitting with her, turned around to look where she was looking, and saw nothing. When my dad asked her what she was smiling at, she said, “An angel… she’s smiling at me.” And frankly, I cannot and won’t dispute that it happened. My sister was lucid the entire time she was in the hospital (and conscious), she didn’t have a fever and wasn’t on hallucinogenic medication. By the way, after the doctors telling us that she would die in about a week, she has made a full recovery. The doctors have never found an explanation.

Ah, but this is the beauty of believing in science. Science admits that it doesn’t know everything, but it’s always learning more. Yes, it’s unexplained today. Tomorrow, it might not be. Science’s answer to the unknown is “We’ll get to it.” Religion’s answer is “God did it.” Somehow, science’s answer is more satisfying for me.

I can see why that event might lead you to spiritual beliefs. If that happened to me, however, it would instead lead me to an even greater respect for the natural results of evolution that allow the human body to repair itself so well (and had my doubts that it was an actual angel).

I’m not going to present a specific scientific hypothesis on why she thought she saw an angel or why she healed, mostly just out of a feeling that I shouldn’t. I’m not out to tear down personal beliefs here.

I'll explain here what I believe happened there. Often when I wake up in the morning, it happens in stages. Sometimes I'll have periods where I appear to be lucid but register no memories. Other times my brain will just go crazy as if it's still trying to dream while I'm awake. In a case like that, it's quite possible that it was something similar to the latter experience, where her brain was experiencing aspects of a dream and reality at the same time.

Woman A:
Yea, my dad needed a bone marrow transplant. And two of my aunts were perfect matches. Now, bone marrow matches have very little to do with genetic matches. And I know a family from St. James where the little boy needed a transplant (he had it almost 10 years ago I think) and all of his brothers matched to a certain extent. And his parents. His parents could have been matches for each other if need be. The likelihood of that happening is pretty much nill.

How many events do you experience in your entire life? Millions, most likely. So, wouldn’t it be expected that you’d experience some events that have a ridiculously low chance of occurring, such as one in a million?

Then, multiply your number of events by the population of the world that ever existed (around 100 billion). Some even more ridiculously unlikely events are bound to happen.

Man A:
Well that’s because you are one of those doubting Thomas kinda of people you need to see or read something to believe it is there…its how you are…every time someone has said something you have a source..not saying there is something wrong with that but I could have easily inferred you hold strong in science

Exactly, all I know of the world is what I see. I can make a ton of inferences from that, such as believing in China even though I’ve never seen it. Science has been working for us, and producing immense progress in the world. I follow it because it works. Religion and paranormal studies have, in general, made zero progress. I don’t follow them because they don’t work.

Man A:
So where did all of it come from? Those things don’t work because its Belief not fact

If by “all of it” you mean the entire universe, then it’s simply there. No reason, it just is. Time is simply another dimension, albeit with a few different rules, so however you look at it, in the end things just exist. It’s the same with the natural laws of the universe, you can simplify them a lot and get to really fundamental theories, but you’ll eventually hit a bottom where they just are.

It’s the same if you try a religious approach. In the end, it’s God who simply exists. I just stop one step earlier by saying it’s the universe that simply exists.

Man A:
Everything needs to start and everything needs end…it will never go on forever..proven by the fact there is life and death at every level of every single thing on this planet or in space so something has to create it..i’m not saying its my catholic God but I’m not saying it isn’t…I am merely stating that things exist in between ya but they need to start existing and finish existing too

From a temporal perspective, yes, things start and end. From one step above temporal, things just are. This doesn’t prove that everything starts and ends. It’s like the line of argument:

All A’s we’ve perceived are B.

Therefore, all A’s in existence are B.

If you’ve perceived a lot of A’s, this might be reasonable, but it’s not a proof.

But if we accept what you said, would you then accept the assumption that God must start and end, too, if he exists? Because this is not the position of the church. They claim that he always was and always will be, and that time is just a property he created for the universe.

Woman B:
Conservation of matter… conservation of energy… and so on and so forth. These are all accepted postulates of modern-day science. So where does the obviously-present energy that exists in a human go when they die? (And I don’t mean energy as in nutrients that a buried, dead body provides for growing plants.) I mean the indefineable energy that goes beyond simple biological processes and allows us to have personalities, lives, etc. How do you explain that you can reanimate a dead body with electrical impulses, but never bring back that person? Just another thing that leads me to believe that the supernatural and the spiritual have a place in this ‘world’.

Just because a human is animate doesn’t imply some extra energy. All the energy is actually conserved. The reason you can’t bring someone back, I believe, is that brain cells degrade within a matter of seconds after receiving no blood, and so the mind gets destroyed quickly upon death.

After that, the conversation on these matters faded into a discussion on the morality of drugs, excepting one quick reference to Snopes about a lingering comment. I hope you found this interesting. I always have fun explaining these things to non-Skeptics, and it's good to get out of the Ivory Tower every once in a while.

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