Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wishy-washy Arguments in Support of Belief. Yawn.

Following a few heated exchanges between us on Twitter, a journalist friend of mine has decided to put up a blogpost defending the ultimate accommodationist position: Why can't we all just make nice-nice and be happy together?

Okay, that was taking a bit of liberty (strictly tongue-in-cheek, of course!) in paraphrasing her position, but basically she is questioning the source of belief and the lack thereof. In particular, she is examining those beliefs that are not evidential/ material/ cogent in nature (Hmmm... Is there any other kind?)

She starts with a valid question:

How do we know these exist, if we choose not to believe that they exist?

Most unfortunately, she considers this as a rhetorical question, and therefore, comes up with a simplistic, outlandishly puerile, answer:

The answer to this is also simple: we know they exist and therefore we believe that they exist.

I can't even begin to describe the logical fallacies in this circular argument, that a seasoned journalist should never have committed IM(NS)HO. When did journalism stop being about fact-checking, objectivity, logical consistency, integrity of reportage and all that jazz? Sigh.

For rational people, the choice to believe is not pulled out of thin air (nor, from one's arse, contrary to popular belief - if I may point out); if a phenomenon exists, then there is empirical evidence for its existence in nature. Rationality requires careful and critical consideration of the body of evidence prior to making the choice. Which is also why I don't believe in Leprechauns, goblins, unicorns, Daddy-Junior-Spook, and the Indian Rail system running on time.

But my friend - such engaging naïveté - claims a priori knowledge of the existence of things she believes in. One wonders, just like the mythical god is considered to have willed this creation into existence, whether my friend, too, has such fabulous superpowers, so that she is able to know things into existence. If so, may I request a Pegasus pony? Low-maintenance, fast travel, zero pollution.

She continues, this time with another priceless whopper:

So, a chair is a chair, because we believe it to be a chair...

Pardonnez-moi, but it's simply not true! A chair is a chair regardless of whether we believe it to be so. We have observed a form and understood its function, and decided to designate it as a 'chair'. Any object, serving the same purpose, such as lump of rock in the middle of a desert or one's living room, one which one can comfortably lower one's posterior for a moment of rest, can be reasonably called a chair.

Predictably perhaps, she veers the discussion towards her pet beliefs, god and religion, and she expresses her frustration at why certain people (Me! Me!) cannot understand her position. She attributes this to egotism.

Huh! Who is the greatest egotist if not the religious believer? Who else does latch onto the weird belief that the known and unknown universe revolves around the lives of bipedal hominids in a tiny planet in a tiny solar system in a tiny galaxy at one insignificant edge of the universe? Who else believed (and some of whom still continue to believe) that the solar system, the sun, the moon, the stars revolved around the earth, the third lump of rock from the sun?

Calling someone out on their ignorant babblings is not egotism.

My friend then moves on to her favorite frustration of all.

If someone believes in God/Spirit/Higher Self/Soul, let them be… If someone does not believe in God/Spirit/Higher Self/Soul, let them be too…

Sadly, her admonitions notwithstanding, that's not how the believer operates. Unless she is blind to contemporary world events (I hope she, as a journalist, is not!), she'd notice that the religious believers take it as a moral imperative to foist their superstition-laden, Dark-Ages-type belief systems on others, forcibly if they deem it necessary. Hidden beneath the silhouette of such beliefs, endless misery and injustice have been wrought upon those that do not share those beliefs. Over thousands of years, institutionalized religion has been responsible for, and complicit in, the most egregious instances of intolerance, bigotry, shameful misogyny, child abuse, and promotion of mind-boggling ignorance even to the point of general detriment. How can anyone, in good conscience and right mind, still continue to defend it?

If you don’t like what others believe in, you can jolly well say so, as we all have a right to our own opinions, but that doesn’t give us the right to mock, dismiss, condescend or patronize what others believe in.

Sayeth who?

The moment privately-held beliefs spill over into the public domain, as they do all the time, anyone has a right to publicly mock, dismiss, point and laugh at any fairy tale, medieval fable, wishy-washy tribal dicta, superstitious kookery and arrant nonsense that is not supported by evidence.

If we can’t deny that our thoughts, ideas, feelings, imagination exist, why do we deny the existence of ethereal concepts like telepathy, psychic clairvoyance, premonitions, ominous dreams?

Beyond the batty1 old fogey types, people who actually hawk such implausible, evidence-free, 'ethereal' concepts do a great disservice to humanity, and anyone has a right to call them out on it. Humankind has not progressed on the strength of battiness, but of evidence-based knowledge and applications thereof.

Sure, I grant you that there have been many times that psychic predictions have not worked out, but then so have many scientific experiments. Similarly, many experiments have worked and so have psychic predictions.

I am afraid she has, most unfortunately, a very flawed understanding of science and the scientific process - and I say that without the least bit of condescension. Scientific experiments are designed to test hypotheses objectively. Success or failure of an experiment depends only upon the meticulous performance of the experiment under carefully controlled conditions, so that the observations can be analyzed critically, giving rise to meaningful conclusions. If the conclusions support the hypothesis, it is accepted. Otherwise, it is summarily rejected. A single datum point of observation is hardly ever relevant; hypotheses, primary and related ones, are tested multiple times, using multiple approaches, to ascertain whether they hold true - not just across space, but across time, too. As our ability to measure and observe phenomena improves, so does the accuracy of our conclusions. It is a continuous process of growth through addition and refinement of a body of knowledge.

... All of which, I must add, is based on empirical evidence, and NOT on random chance, wishful thinking, insincere handwaving or dishonest skulduggery designed to appeal to the deluded and trap the gullible (as the so-called 'psychic predictions' are). So, there.

P.S. I left similar comments after the post, which are held in moderation - I don't know till when. But I do know this absolutely: I detest the practice of comment moderation. It impedes free flow of conversation or discussion, and is usually a prominent tool in the arsenal of those who are insecure in the expression of their opinions.

Color me not surprised.

P.P.S. I have now gotten confirmation that my comments in the blogpost have been trashed. QED.

P.P.P.S. (1) In both WordNet and Merriam-Webster, the word Batty has been defined as "mentally unstable". Apparently, this word is also used in modern(!) Britain as a gay slur, as I was just informed by my friend. If this is indeed so (I haven't checked the veracity of that claim), I apologize profusely. I use the word as originally intended.


  1. "When did journalism stop being about fact-checking, objectivity, logical consistency, integrity of reportage...?"
    For a section, always. Of late, just take the celebrated case of Barkha Dutt. Well, she's a woman too, but that's just coincidental.
    But wait! You poke at the Indian Rail system? That's being run by lady Mamata too! Now I doubt you...

  2. journalism nowadays is only about sensationalism. Here, every channel has breaking news and sansani khabar around the clock!
    Unfortunately, most of the 'faithfull' share these views, and, unfortunately, do not keep them to themselves. So those willing to doubt, or are clear about 'life, the universe, and everything' 'ware the god-fearing! They will make you tear your hair out with their views about you!