Thoughts on Intelligence from watching Election Results.

“If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.” Proverbs 29:9

“A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool.” – Proverbs 17:10

One of the advantages of living in east Asia is that election results I’d have to stay up late to hear when I was back in Canada, come in at pretty regular intervals during my waking hours in Korea. It’s even better when it’s during a US election, which tends to have interesting commentaries, and honestly has very little to do with me, a Canadian expatriate.

That said, it also gives me an opportunity to see the opinions of friends of mine as they express their own understanding of the situation in the US. To be blunt, very few wind up agreeing with me on much of anything when it comes to politics, which is honestly okay, because I’m not too worried about being silenced for my difference of opinion quite yet.

That said, I have been noticing a very troubling trend in public discourse over the last little while. I don’t think it’s a new thing, just something I’ve only noticed recently.

Political satire can cause us to question cherished beliefs, but it can also harden prejudice. The ability to laugh at something does not mean you are more correct than those you laugh at.

It has become common to make moral judgements about people who come to different conclusions than you do. I noticed this first when I expressed my right wing proclivities to a friend of a friend, who said that the only person who could be right wing was either evil or stupid, and I was forced to ask which he thought me to be. Of course, he stammered for a while, since previous to this, he had had no reason to doubt either my love for my fellow man, or my intellect. I never really got an answer.

The reason he had made his statement, however, seems to me a rather common set of assumptions in modern western dialogue, and I think stems from a mixture of pride and a misunderstanding about intelligence. Quite simply, people want to be seen as smart, because in the modern technological age, it’s seen as very important to be intelligent, and to be seen as intelligent. You can see this most readily in the way people denigrate opposing positions (as my friend did) as “stupid”. Note that the problem isn’t that the opposing position is incorrect or dangerous or immoral, rather, the opposing position is seen as lacking in intellect, meaning that the person holding the position is also seen as stupid.

The problem is that this shows a fundamental failure to understand the nature of intellect. While it is true that smart people often know a lot of details about things, it is not the knowledge of details that makes one intelligent. Even less is intelligence marked by holding “correct” opinions about given subjects. The simple fact is that there  are many very intelligent people, who for very good reasons, have held incorrect opinions; most commonly due to a lack of pertinent information (or a lack of seeing information that is pertinent as pertinent).

Intelligence is not marked by the ability to hold correct opinions, but rather by the ability to come to correct conclusions. This is NOT the same thing. Anybody can learn correct opinions and not know the reasons behind those opinions (which means they cannot adequately critique their own opinions). An intelligent person is one who, once given the necessary information, will be able to synthesize that data into valid conclusions based on the data.

Unfortunately, finding out about that takes a great deal of work. To know if a person’s opinions are intelligent based on that kind of synthesizing of information, you need to look at the information, and the person’s reasoning, not just the conclusion. It is far easier to simply look at the concluding opinion and make a judgement on that. Unfortunately, the result is that people who do that often then label conclusions that are different from their own as stupid without actually looking at the evidence and reasoning, meaning that the opposing position cannot do any work to correct errors in our own thinking.

This is compounded by a level of pride in society that wishes for us to see ourselves as intelligent. Being corrected is hard, and often not comfortable. It can lead to the questioning of cherished beliefs, or to isolation from a majority position, and is almost always a blow to pride. Thus it is often much easier to insulate our own opinions from critique, by grading opposing positions based on the conclusions rather than on the reasoning that got there.

This is why it is important to know, not just correct opinions, but the reasons behind correct opinion.

I think that is also why in the recent political movements in the United States, denigration of the opposition as unthinking or stupid became the norm, with statements themselves seen as being stupid without looking at the reasoning behind them (why do Keynsean economists think that government spending can stimulate an economy, why did a failed senate candidate think that the first amendment did not contain “the separation of Church and state”, etc.).

The question then is simple. Will we take the easy road of acceptable opinion, or the much harder road of humility and examination? Will we do the work of finding out why an opinion is correct or incorrect, or simply rest on the perceived intelligence of our own conclusions?

I fear in my own heart, I often do not answer that question well.

The Discipline of Letting Go

I like to be busy.

There are a lot of reasons for this. It makes me feel like I’m needed, as if the world can’t function without me. It means that I do not have to think about future and plans and vision and such, because I’m wrapped up in the now, and of course this is only compounded by the fact that I’m single.

If I spend the day busy, I don’t need to worry about my own questions and insecurities, that I am somehow now too old to start a family, or that I may be failing in part of what God calls me to in not actually finding a family. That’s not to say that I believe I am a lesser pastor or a lesser Christian guy because I’m single, but it’s easier to ignore my doubts when I’m too busy to face them.

As a pastor, it is easy to remain sinfully busy. Yes, I mean that. Sometimes we can be so busy it’s sinful, and as a pastor, it’s actually much worse.

Personally, from what I’ve just admitted about my own doubts and questions and needs, and the desire to avoid them, I’m making my busyness my salvation. Instead of bringing my requests before the Lord, or facing the problems I have squarely, thinking and praying on them, and repenting of where my opinions are sinful, I instead focus on preparing too many Bible studies.

Worse, as the busyness becomes where I get  my value, I place my value less and less in the person and work of Christ. As what I do becomes the measure of my own importance, I am placing less value on God, and that is a form of idolatry. My work, even godly work, becomes the measure of who I am rather than my status as beloved of God, an heir of Christ, and fearfully and wonderfully made by a good God.

And in each of these things, I am training those who watch me to think the same.

So today I’m seeking to let go.

I’m going to do less “churchy” work, and spend more time reflecting and getting to know the God I serve. I’m going to place some responsibility in the gifts of people in my congregation, gifts that God has drawn here in His own sovereign will.

Hopefully, dear readers, this also means I’ll get back to semi-regular postings.  We’ll see how this goes. You’re welcome to call me to account, by asking me if my posts again become too sporadic. :-)

Can government funded media be impartial?

I ask the question because when I debate funding with my Canadian family for the Canadian public broadcasting service (the CBC), it’s often asserted that the government should fund public broadcasting so that it can give the people impartial information.

Now, for the moment we’ll assume that it is possible to have impartial information. Even with that, however, I’m not sure how the government funded broadcaster can be impartial when dealing with the parties to political disputes in Canada, when at least one of the parties to political disputes has as its basis, a belief that public broadcasting should have lesser (or in the case of radical conservatives like myself, eliminated) public funding. Will the publicly funded media be able to treat impartially those who advocate against their existence as an entity? It seems that in such an instance, they become a party to the political disagreement.

Of course it is possible to be impartial in that instance, but not very likely. This is especially true when one realizes that the majority of those working in Public broadcasting believe strongly in public broadcasting… that’s one of the reasons they work there.

Public broadcasting, in the sense of a broadcaster funded by the government, it seems, cannot be impartial to political disputes because they are themselves a party. They may not be officially part of a given political party, but they are an entity with a large vested interest in whatever decisions are made by Canada’s general public, and a vested interest that lies directly with the fact that they are (about 75%) taxpayer funded.

To me, this means that public broadcasting cannot meet its stated goal of providing impartial information to inform an electorate, not because the public broadcaster is evil, but just because they are a public broadcaster.

At this point, my opponents usually switch gears and tell me that the corporate media are no better. To be honest, I agree. Corporations are also biased and will not usually provide impartial information. That said, there is one benefit that the private news media has over the public one from my perspective.

Canadians aren’t forced to pay for the private media.

Watermelon on the Brain (or why Atheism is NOT a lack of belief in God)

*This is a cross-post with Truth seekers, where I am also known to post from time to time*

So. Someone tells me they are an atheist, and I say they need to back up the positive claim that God does not exist, and then they tell me “oh, I’m a weak atheist, I just lack the belief in God… I haven’t seen enough reason to say that God exists.”

Poppycock.

The above statement assumes that the epistemic default is disbelief in God, when in fact the default is a lack of knowledge. We have a name for that, but it isn’t atheism (weak or otherwise); it’s agnosticism.

Allow me an example. If I say that my head is a watermelon, you can do one of three things with that information. i) You can believe me, ii) you can disbelieve me, or iii) you can suspend judgement. This is true whether the assertion I make is a believable one or a largely dubious  one (like say, my head is a watermelon). Once the statement is made, there are only 3 possible responses to the truth of that statement.

If you choose to believe me, because I’m a nice guy and the picture on this blog is of a guy with a watermelon for a head, then you are assenting. We can call you a “watermelonist”. You need to get out more.

If you choose to suspend judgement, believing that you do not have the information to make a decision, then you are agnostic (you literally don’t know). You also may need to spend some time away from your computer.

You can also believe that since people do not usually have watermelons for heads, and I have provided scant evidence that I am the exception to that rule, my head is not in fact a watermelon. You are an “awatermelonist”. You think that it is

more rational to believe that my head is NOT in fact, a watermelon. While most of your support for that belief doesn’t need to be enunciated (few will challenge you on the truth claim you’re making), there does need to be support.

“your head is not a watermelon” is a positive statement. You are saying that I am incorrect, you are not saying that my belief in the watermelony goodness of my cerebellum is “unfounded” or “lacks evidence” alone (that is agnosticism). You are saying that because my claim is unfounded and lacks evidence, it is only reasonable to believe that it is false. This may

be a well founded belief (that my claim of having a watermelon for a head is false), but it is a positive one (statement X, where X is “Steve’s head is a watermelon”, is not true, because I have no reason to believe it is and many reasons to believe it is not), and as such, needs every bit as much support as the claim that I have watermelon rind for brains. That support

may be easier to find, but it is still necessary.

The same is true of “weak” atheism. It is a statement that the claims of theists lack support, and that as a result the assumption of atheism is more rational. This is NOT an absence of belief in God, but a statement of the disbelief in God. It is a positive statement, and like all statements, must be supported if challenged.

Is it really beautiful?

One of the problems I’ve tended to have with materialism is how it seems to place into my own (subjective) mind (actually brain… and hence render them largely delusional as it relate to the universe itself). This isn’t only the case with my religious ideas, but also the ideas I have of good and evil, and even the idea of me.

How do I get there? After all, I don’t doubt that some materialists have every bit as high a moral code that they live by as I do, and even arch-materialists can work to do great things in the social sphere based on what they seem to think is a call to justice that is demanded of all of us. Heck, when Christopher Hitchens subtitles his book “How Religion Poisons Everything”, I think he is claiming that religion is, objectively and independent of subjective opinions on the matter, a bad thing.

The problem is, ironically, best exemplified by the use of Occam’s razor in materialism to deny the supernatural. Occam’s razor (which nicely trims Plato’s beard) is the principle that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct one. The result is that since science is more than capable of coming up with material explanations for most things, that it is rational to assume that science will come up with material explanations for all things.

What then of ideas and concepts that do not seem to be solely material, such as the existence of subjects other than me, or transcendent morality, aesthetics, or even the idea of “me”? Materialism would claim that all of these are simply the result of material processes in the brain reacting to external stimuli. ie. whatever these things are, they exist only in brains, and any seeming transcendence is simply the commonality of human experience.

This means that a painting is not itself beautiful, but instead makes me feel good (whatever “me” is). It means that torture is not independently wrong, but simply something that I find abhorrent. It also means that my most directly experienced object, since it cannot be materially experienced (namely the “I”), is simply something “I” mistake for a person when in fact it is noting more than the collocation of atoms. (at this point, if “you’re” following me, you might be giggling, as “I” am…”I”‘m guessing most people rightly find this silly).

In any case, not taking it all the way, and assuming “I” exist, which is a properly basic idea if ever there was one. The

materialist conception seems to eliminate transcendent morality and beauty because those concepts exist only in human brains.

and were human minds to cease to be, so would those concepts. The result is that nothing is evil in itself, and nothing is in itself beautiful. There is no contrast in reality between the beautiful and the ugly (just personal psychology) or between the good and the evil (just personal taste).

Thus we come to a statement someone recently used on me to try to claim the rationality of his belief structure:

“Can’t we just say the garden is beautiful, without attributing faeries to it?”

He apparently wanted to mean that there was no need to credit a ground to the beauty of the garden, just the bare fact of it. But my response is that he has already appealed to “faeries” in claiming that beauty is a proper descriptor of the garden rather than simply his experiences of the garden. That I choose to think about that ground, and indeed have a name for it (God), has already been assumed in the statement.

Of course, no one needs to take my route. Maybe morality, beauty, subjectivity (and if you think about it, logic, mathematics, reason and even knowledge itself) really are just modes of human thought that are not true of the universe itself, but only categories we humans find useful. Maybe Occam’s razor really should be used as a law of reason, rather

than simply a priciple. Humanity has had large groups already in that camp (many forms of Zen Budddhism for example).

Such a route seems unlikely to further science or society, however, since the simplest explanation of the universe is still (as it was in first year philosophy) solipsism. In this case Occam’s razor seems to be instead a guillotine.

In the end, I think that our experiences should only be attributed wholly to delusion with evidence that it is, in fact, delusional.

It is for that reason that I would say that Handel’s “Messiah” really is beautiful, that evil really is fundamentally wrong, that reason really talks about the universe and not simply the categories of data that enters my sense receptors, and that there is real good in the world (not just things that are good on opinion).

Humility and the Triumph of (Over)Confidence

So this morning I again ran into the issue of fan death in Korea through a facebook comment, and I had a chance to reflect on my experience…

A quick explanation: Fan death is the belief that if a person on a hot day closes off their room and falls asleep with a fan pointed at him, there is a chance that he will die.

Sounds kinda strange, especially coming from a country with an extremely high level of scientific education. There is no shortage of people who think this is a very stupid belief, and to be honest, I used to be one of them. But then, I actually got past my immediate dismissiveness and looked into it a bit. Now, I’m still not sure I’m fully convinced of the need for timers on fans (which are standard in Korea), but I do have to agree with some climatologists and the American EPA (see appendix B)  that there is at least something to this.

So what happened here? Why was I so convinced that people who believed something that was easily checkable were wrong simply because their belief did not fit into my preconceived ideas. I had forgotten the fact that it is best to not just know THAT something is incorrect, but do the work of finding out why it is incorrect. I think this is one of the reasons

behind the Biblical statement that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. (Ps 111:10, Pr 1:7; 9:10) That is to say, you will be strikingly unable to learn if you believe yourself to be the apex of knowledge and truth (thus have no fear of God).

I think this is common in society at large as well. Reading opinion pieces in the world’s newspapers, you will often find them full of confident assertions (some true, some less so) with little basis in either argumentation or reference to some place where I can go check myself. It seems to be part of almost all debates (climate change, capitalism/socialism, religion, politics, and on and on).

The upshot is that I wonder if the dominant culture has trained people to be so confident of their own beliefs, that very few people are even listening to opposing positions anymore, and even fewer are learning anything.

Theories, Facts, and Truth

“Yeah, well, evolution is only a theory”

“Yeah, well, so is gravity”

I’m sure many people have heard an exchange similar to this one at some point in the past. It is one of the most common, and most misleading exchanges possible in debates about scientific ideas.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t have a dog in this fight. There are conservative Christians I agree with on many things who also support some form of evolutionary theory, and Christians who I agree with on many other issues who are opposed to any form of evolutionary theory. To be honest, my background is not in the biological sciences, so I simply do not have enough understanding of the raw data.

My problem with the above exchange is that it is at best misleading, and at worst betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of theories.

Both statements are, however, true (as far as they go).

A theory (at least as I understand it), is a useful (often predictive) reasoned explanation for the factual data which can be observed in the world. That is to say, the theory is a method of interpretation of experience. While such things ARE open to debate, the way to disabuse a theory is to provide a competing theory that deals with observable data (facts) in a better way.

An example is the copernican model of the universe. Some said that the earth was the centre of the universe, Copernicus said the sun was. Copernicus had a simpler theoretical model to deal with the data, and so his theory was seen to be closer to the truth. Unfortunately, neither theory is true, as thanks to further observation, we now believe that our entire solar system (including both sun and earth) to be on the outer edge of a galaxy speeding away from a central point that was “the big bang”. The facts that were observed at the time, though, led to the conclusions Copernicus made.

The problem with the statement “well, it’s only a theory” is that it is often used to say that it’s okay to attack the theory in its entirety simply because it’s a theory. It’s as if the speaker believes that a theory is nothing more than an opinion, rather like the preference for classical music over jazz. That is not what any scientific theory is, and so the statement that it is “just a theory” is misleading.

One would think that the main question is to get to truth. We want to know if the theory accords to reality; we want to know if the theory is true.

So the best response would be something akin to “yeah, it is. So what? Is it true?”

However, misunderstanding in the popular imagination is often compounded by the response, “yeah, so is gravity.” The intended implication here being that disagreeing with evolutionary theory is somehow akin to denying that things fall down.  In case I miss the point, one person I was speaking to added the phrase “things still fall down”.

We would all say, “of course”. The problem is that the fact that things fall down is not technically the theory of gravity. Stuff falling down(or rather, bodies of mass tending towards one another) is a FACT . Gravity is the theory used to explain that fact.

When applied to evolution, we see how this parallel is misleading. Evolutionary theory is a theory designed to deal with the fact that we presently have many species of life that to greater or lesser extents, resemble one another. Given that that resemblance is aided by similar evidences in the fossil record of species of apparently increasing complexity over time, and that extinctions seem to follow a pattern, the theory (or theories) of evolution get proposed to account for the facts we have. Evolution is, I am told, a very good theory that has a mass of predictive power. That said, the theory of common descent of species diversified mainly through the engine of natural selection is a theory, it is not a fact. It is an interpretation of the observed data, not the observation itself.

Again the question is one of truth, not of fact. Does the theory resemble reality? Does the theory make sense of the facts?

The person who advocates for evolution is not necessarily claiming a simple opinion, nor is the person questioning evolution necessarily questioning facts.