The Granularity Inherent to Language

“I love you.”

This phrase is said millions of times a minute around the world in various languages.

But when you look at the phrase, it is very binary. It would appear from the phrase that either you love someone or you don’t. We know that is not true. We understand that, while the phrase “I love you” is binary, the underlying concept of love lies on a gradient. We love someone in degrees. We usually ignore the inadequacy of language, and simply accept the fact that the person who tells us they love us loves us to a degree that warrants a confession of that love.

It becomes a bit trickier when making statements of belief.

We often make statements such as “It will rain today”, knowing full well there is at least a small change it may not. We don’t apologize for our slight doubt, and people don’t normally shame us if it turns out that there was no rain. We could always preface our statements with “There is an extremely high probability that…”, but most people in the language community do not require this outside of scientific contexts where precision is of importance.

So language is granular while many of the concepts for which it is employed to reflect are gradient.

Recently there have been some pointing to my statements and calling them “truth claims”. It appears that truth claims, in their minds, constitute statements of absolute certainty. The problem is, I don’t have absolute certainty in anything I say. I may have logical certainty (based on my confidence in the reliability of logic) or physical certainty (based on my confidence in the reliability in the laws of physics), but I don’t have absolute certainty about anything. Some suppose this to be a weakness, claiming that, what is not held with absolute certainty is not knowledge. If so, knowledge is not available to fallible humans. But to say I am not rational to have a high degree of certainty in any proposition that I don’t hold with absolute certainty is clearly wrong and just plain silly. This silly attempt to do away with the gradient of certainty inherent to the honest attempt to map belief to the degree of the evidence is usually promoted by those who have a method of distilling truth inferior to science, and who want to even the chess game by bumping the table. This is childish.

Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the evidence. Belief is not inherently binary. Rational belief is inherently gradient since most inductively assessed propositions add confirming/dis-confirming evidence incrementally along the continuum of probability. The fact that the language I employ to reflect my beliefs does not precisely reflect my epistemic position on a particular proposition is not my attempt to misrepresent my position, but merely a natural result of the granularity of language. If you would like a more granularity concerning my actual degree of certainty, please ask for that. But to state that I have made a “truth claim” upon which I have absolute certainty is dishonesty on your part.

So I may make statements such as “The god of the bible is imaginary”. If you disagree, don’t tell me that my statement is arrogant and requires omniscience. Get about the business of demonstrating that I’m wrong. If you demonstrate that, I’ll concede. My high expectation you will fail at that is justified by a long history of asking many other Christians for a defense of their brand of theism, only to have them offer feeble arguments upon which no god-belief is rationally justified. But my dogmatism is not the absolute dogmatism of theism. I’d be happy to follow the truth wherever the evidence leads. But playing word games with language to misrepresent my actual position is dishonest, and reflects poorly on your proposed god.

Where’s the fun in that?

Extracting the Meaning of Life

Imagine a friend asks you to explain the essence of a basketball game. So you 1) carefully explain there are 2 teams of 5 players, each attempting to acquire the most points by tossing a ball into a hoop, 2) provide the dimensions of the basketball court, then 3) list all the rules of the game.

Imagine that friend coming back to you to in anger, claiming that, they have been to a basketball game, that that a real basketball game does not seem anything like you’ve described. There was excitement, and passion, and disappointment and euphoria! How can you claim that a basketball game is merely what you’ve described! Where’s the fun in the dry physical description of the game? There must also be some special magic that make the basketball game become what it feels like!

This is the same type of protestation made by theists who believe in a spiritual realm. How can our essence be based on a merely material composition when we experience life as so much more? What about the joys and sorrows and love we experience? There must be a spiritual realm above our material realm!

Let’s dig deeper into this apparent problem.

According to your friend, the essence of a basketball game had to be one of 2 things.

  1. A rigorous, dispassionate and mechanical explanation of the objectives
  2. A special magic that transcends the physical aspect of the game mentioned above

According to theists, the essence of a human life had to be one of 2 things.

  1. A rigorous, dispassionate and mechanical explanation of the material components of the human’s existence
  2. A special spiritual existence that transcends the material components of life mentioned above

What are we missing? Are we forced to choose between only these 2 options? Continue reading

Think before you Leap

The steps in choosing a lover are…
1. find a non-imaginary man/woman
2. carefully assess whether they are worthy of your love
3. chose and love them only if they are real and worthy of your love.

The steps in choosing a god are typically…
1. choose and love some god (commonly the god of your parent and/or geographical region)
2. carefully assess whether that god is real (optional)
3. carefully assess whether they are worthy of your belief/love (optional)

Millions are currently walking around loving an imaginary god. Don’t let that be you.

Here are ways to carefully assess the existence and worthiness of a candidate god BEFORE you believe in that god.

A. Does that god stand by while millions of innocent children suffer?
B. Does knowledge of that god come through direct and unequivocal communication with that god, or through some “holy” book that has led to thousands of sects and mutually exclusive doctrines?
C. Does that god “fulfill” his promises in a way completely in line with what we would expect if that god were imaginary?
D. Is that god so emotionally incontinent it thinks the smallest sin deserves eternal torment?
E. Has that god ever commanded grown adults to slaughter innocent infants or, instead of condemning slavery, provided laws to govern slavery?
F. Do the “miracles” of that god decline as the scrutiny of scientific observation increases?
G. Do the proponents of that god encourage belief in that god by young children before those young children have been taught how to properly assess gods and how to tell the difference between the feeling of certainty and scientific certainty?
H. Does the “holy” book of that god encourage you to believe things to a degree that is not warranted by a corresponding degree of evidence?
I. Does the justifications for that god require the introduction of additional unsubstantiated and unparsimonious entities for balance such as a “devil”, “angels” and “demons”?
M. Is that god “loving”, yet decides the “punishment” for offenses is eternal, in stark contrast to the punishment of actual loving parents?
N. Is that god so mathematically illiterate that he thinks 3 days of death pays for the “deserved” eternal punishment of offenders?
O. Do the defenders of that god wave away legitimate questions about that god’s moral character or potency by invoking the “mysterious” nature of that god?
P. Can the relationship between humans and that god be explained by the natural capability and propensity of humans to self-deceive?
Q. Has the history of belief in that god led to or stifled scientific/medical curiosity and advances?
R. Is the “holy” book of truth of that god written rigorously, or written so vaguely that it has been able to have been used to justify nearly every atrocity under the sun?
S. Do those who believe in that god have any greater self-control as evidence by reduced rates of divorce and obesity?
T. Does the “holy” book of that god absurdly claim that those who have never heard of that god are guilty of rejecting that god?
U. Is there an inverse correlation between followers of that god and those highly educated and skilled in rational thought?
V. Do proponents of that god attempt to insulate believers by banning the exploration of opposing ideas?
W. Is the only way to that god said to be “faith”, yet those who have “faith” can’t agree on what “faith” actually is?
X. Is the presence of that god largely experienced in an emotionally-rich context of singing, ritual, and the closing one’s eyes to recede into one’s own mind rather than a very clear open-eyed viewing of that god?
Y. Is that god “unchanging”, yet has a history of ordering the killing of infants, the taking of female virgins by theocratic soldiers, and the endorsement or silence of issues of slavery and polygamy that believers dismiss as irrelevant since they happened when that god was younger?
Z. Is that god extremely powerful, yet need your money?

These are just a few of the questions that should be asked about any candidate god BEFORE deciding to believe in that god. Don’t trust anyone who tries to encourage you to believe without assessing both the existence and worthiness of any god.

The bulk of scientific thinkers do not believe in a personal god. God believers with tell you that this is because they are in rebellion against their pet god. They are liars. Simply befriend a few scientific/rational thinkers. The world becomes a whole lot more beautiful once you understand the power of reason.


The Reliability of Brains

It is quite the oddity for Christians to claim that, if our brains are the products of an unguided process, we must then forever remain uncertain about our brains’ reliability.

You doubt your brain’s reliability? Simply test your brain. We all have goals. Simply divide your goals in half. Then for one half, use your brain. For the other half, don’t use your brain. Which method best accomplished your goals? To what degree did using your brain accomplish your goals? To the degree that your brain worked, to that degree you are justified in believing it will continue to work. Pretty simple.

Consider finding a compass on the ground in the woods. It appears to accurately point north based on its pointing in the same direction that most of the moss on the trees face. Now consider a friend telling you that you can’t ever know whether the compass is reliable unless you know the company that made the compass. Nonsense, right? You simply test the compass. If it reliably gets you home through the woods night after night, it is reliable. Nothing difficult here. Very basic.

Critical Thinking

I‘ve noticed several recent misunderstandings of what is commonly called “critical thinking” or “rational thought”. I’d like to make a few points that I hope will convince you that acquiring and promoting critical thinking will, indeed, have a positive impact on your own life, and on the lives of others.

1. Being critical does not mean doubting things absent reasons for doubt. Instead, being critical is simply not believing everything we hear without first assessing the claims. For example, if a neighbor, with a history of lying, claims something quite possible such as “Billy kissed Sue last night”, we have good reason to doubt Walter. Conversely, if hitherto trustworthy parents tell you a fat man will descend a chimney the day before Christmas, they are also to be doubted due to the absurdity of the claim. Critical thinking includes assessments of a) the track record of the sources of claims, b) the congruence of claims with reality, and c) the actual evidence/argumentation provided.

2. Critical thinking is not an ideology. It is a method of processing claims. It is not ‘what’ to think, but rather ‘how’ to think. It begins with no presuppositions. It honestly starts at the foundation and examines every nut and bolt in the construction of concepts and ideologies. And it welcomes the periodic breakdown and reconstruction of concepts and ideologies. And because arguments are independent of the arguer, it welcomes any contrary argument, no matter the source. Therefore, just as scientists working independently on scientific problems find their results converging on the objective truth of the matter, those who apply critical thinking will find their ideologies converging.

3. Critical thinking is not only logic. It is the acquisition of all knowledge that has been demonstrated to lead to the most reliable conclusions. So while it does include the more logic-based knowledge of valid argument forms and logical fallacies, it also includes the psychology-based knowledge of cognitive biases. In addition, it includes the acquisition of statistics, probabilities, standards of evidence, concepts related to cause/effect and experimental design, and very importantly, basic concepts of linguistics and epistemology. It is an investment, but the rewards are immense.

4. Critical thinking is not just academic. It is less philosophy and more science. It is the very set of tools actual scientists are currently using to understand the reality around us. It is what has lead to the medical advances that have doubled the average human lifespan, and to the technologies that have made our lives much more productive and enjoyable. Critical thinking is essentially the balanced application of all the tools currently employed by science to explain and predict our reality.

5. Critical thinking is not only effective in assessments of politics, religion and general ideologies. It is a toolbox that can be carried into the personal arena, and applied within the smaller scope of romance, career and lifestyle. Critical thinking leads to life becoming more predictable, and as a result, you becoming more confident and mature. Life is often messy. But acquiring a healthy toolbox of critical thinking skills will allow you to cut through the noise, and to discover and employ solutions to any problem you encounter. There is no guarantee critical thinking will rescue you from every jam, but it’s your best chance.

6. Critical thinking is not a formula. It is not an algorithm you can plug in to spit out an optimal result. There are no shortcuts to acquiring critical thinking skills. You’ll have to put in the time to explore it as you would any other subject. But, because it is so foundational to living, there is no other better investment you’ll make than to equip yourself with a healthy critical thinking toolbox.

For a fun introduction to critical thinking, check out the following link. They have an excellent podcast.

http://www.theskepticsguide.org/

Stay rational.

Equivocation on Meaning and Purpose

When you tell a friend “You mean a lot to me”, what are you actually saying? For me, I intend to communicate a deep emotional appreciation for my friend. This “meaning” was not given to me. It is a meaning that emerges from my personal emotions and desires.

Those who don’t believe in a personal god are frequently asked by Christians “If you don’t have a god to give you meaning in your life, why not just commit suicide since you must be miserable?”

Yet, the very Christians talk about a movie being “meaningful” to them, and their friends “meaning” a lot to them. These are “meanings” that are not handed to them by some god. Are these Christians knowingly equivocating on the word “meaning”? I’ll let you decide.

So we have 2 definitions of meaning.

1. Things that are emotionally significant to us.
2. Some purpose handed down to us by a superior.

Now for a couple questions.

Can someone be happy without a purpose being handed to them?

Obviously yes.

Can someone be unhappy after having been handed a purpose by a superior?

If you don’t think so, you’ve had a short career.

There is therefore no necessary causal connection between purpose and happiness.

Those who claim you can’t be happy without some god handing you purpose and “meaning” are either knowingly equivocating on their terms, or are severely confused about what purpose and meaning actually are.

Can you imagine a slave claiming he can not be happy without a master giving him orders? Can you imagine a person unable to find happiness in life because the have no god to guide them? I can’t. I find no evidence for any god, yet I find so many things to be happy about.

Don’t let people fool you by suggesting life without some god is miserable.

Write a comment below if you still don’t believe me. I’ll contact you personally to tell you my story of how I went from being a Christian slave, dependent entirely on the will of the god of my imagination, to a life full of meaning and happiness.

The Devil’s in the Dictionary

One of the most common fallacies in reasoning is the notion that dictionaries reflect what words should mean.

A quick thought experiment will put this to rest.

Someone is asked to write a modern dictionary.

They respond…

Why do we need a new dictionary? What is wrong with the old one?

Languages and words are not static. They evolve over time. Consider the word “suffer” which used to mean “allow”. I’ve actually heard one female preacher claim that when Paul the Apostle said “I suffer not women to speak”, he was saying that women speaking didn’t bother him, when, in fact, Paul was saying that he did not allow women to speak. Another wayward word is “awful” which used to mean “awe inspiring”. A more recent evolving word is “gay” which disturbs some conservatives when they sing “Don we now our gay apparel” during Christmas.

They respond…

But words contain meaning, don’t they?

Words are simply sounds or symbols. You can have the same sound or symbol understood in vastly different ways. Here in Japan, Kinki University decided to change its name for reasons obvious to most English speakers. The word “smart” means “intelligent”, “fashionable” and “slim” in America, Britain and Japan, respectively. Minds contain meaning, and where you have 2 or more persons who have assigned the same referent to the same sound or symbol, there you can have communication. Individuals can communicate to the degree that they share the same mental representations of sounds and symbols.

They respond…

But how can we communicate if the meanings of sounds and symbols are dynamic and based on convention?

Cautiously. Those living in a shared culture can communicate in their shared language quite effectively since the mental concepts they assign to sounds and symbols are highly common due to common experiences and education. The words “proof”, “critical”, “valid” and “theory” have quite different meanings for academics than for the general population. The more technical or more insular a culture is from mainstream culture, the less there will be convergence in the mental concepts that are evoked by various linguistic tags between the 2 cultures. This is why it is important to stipulate the meaning of more vague or ambiguous word with a lengthier definition when speaking cross-culturally.

They respond…

Then how can I produce a quality dictionary?

By considering the current usage of words in the target language community. By querying convention, various current denotations and connotations of words can be detected as standard. The utility of your dictionary will be determined by how closely it reflects the actual current usage in the language community for whom it was written.

They respond…

But doesn’t that mean I’ll have to update the dictionary every few years to accommodate swings in denotation and connotation?

Yup. That’s the inevitable fact of it. No one owns words. No single person defines words. Words may be coined, but their currency depends on their acceptance by the language community.

So sounds and symbols are not obligated to carry a particular meaning. Dictionaries are not the final authority on meaning. Convention is. To place dictionaries above convention is to invert the reality of language.