Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Defending My Atheism

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – this statement is hard to fault when used in the right context, however it resolutely does not work as an argument against atheism, or a means to shift the burden of proof. Why is this so? Because my assertion as an atheist is not “the absence of evidence for God is evidence of God’s absence”, rather it is; “the absence of evidence for God is all the justification I need not to believe in it”. In other words, I don’t have to prove that there is not a God because I do not make that assertion.

 

I’ve spoken in recent posts about the null hypothesis – which is the default position on any claim. When postulating the existence of a God, the null hypothesis is as follows; God does not exist. This is not a dogmatic statement, it is the starting block for any claim, a statement which you seek to disprove under experiment or observation. As yet, no one has provided any credible evidence to refute the statement God does not exist so my atheism is perfectly justified. It’s that simple.

 

Apologists of various stripes will claim that their arguments resolutely do refute the null hypothesis, however their arguments do not meet the standards of evidence required to falsify a scientific hypothesis. Logical arguments cannot be enough to disprove a null hypothesis. Take the Higgs Boson for example, there is quite a sound and reasonable argument that says; in order to make sense of everything we know about particle physics something with the properties of the Higgs particle must exist. This is not enough to prove that it does exist however. Scientists at CERN didn’t hear this then switch off their particle accelerators satisfied that their job was done. This is because no matter how sound, the argument itself cannot prove the existence of the particle, and so the search goes on (which is heating up of late incidentally). Furthermore, the argument for the Higgs particle is far better than any argument put forth in favour of the existence of God. There are no logical arguments for the existence of God which are not contestable or flawed in their premises or conclusions.

 

So having said all that, I am perfectly justified to disbelieve in the existence of God. I am not asserting that the null hypothesis has been proven correct (that can’t happen), what I am asserting is that the lack of convincing refutation of the null hypothesis is all the justification I need for my atheism. I don’t use absence of evidence as evidence of absence, I use the absence of evidence as a good enough reason not to believe. If you say that you have a pet elephant in your garden – the absence of any convincing evidence does not prove with any certainty that you do not have an elephant in your garden, but it is good enough justification for my not believing you…

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A Bias Toward Naturalism?

In my own personal discussions with theists, and in those I have observed involving others, one accusation that seems to come up frequently is that atheism presupposes or is biased towards naturalism, and averse to the supernatural. This accusation is made so that the atheist will appear to have made a closed-minded and dogmatic denial of the supernatural based only on their commitment to naturalism. This portrayal is inaccurate and deliberately misleading, and in this post I shall attempt to explain why.

 

One thing which I do presuppose is the null hypothesis – which is the default position. When testing a treatment for example, the hypothesis would state that ‘this treatment will have an effect’ whereas the null hypothesis would state that ‘this treatment will have no effect’ (an analogous concept would be ‘innocent until proven guilty’). Why should I be justified in presupposing the null hypothesis? Because it’s important to start at the default position and seeing whether that is falsified before drawing conclusions. You assume a defendant is innocent until the evidence presented in the trail falsifies that hypothesis. It would be completely unworkable if you assumed their guilt before seeing the evidence, just as it would be dangerous to assume that a treatment works before testing it.

 

From this perspective naturalism can be redefined as that which has been shown to falsify the null hypothesis. I don’t presuppose that, I can demonstrate that. Supernaturalism on the other hand has not falsified the null hypothesis – there has not been any evidence put forth to demonstrate that the assumption ‘supernatural phenomena do not occur’ is false. For that reason I maintain the default position. Not out of presupposition or bias, but because there is no good reason not to.

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Sceptical Thinking 2 : The Scientific Method

In my introductory post, I explained a couple of reasons why I think that we could all benefit from being sceptical. In this post I shall begin to look at one of the main ways you can begin to engage in sceptical thinking. Being a sceptic isn’t something that you can do a degree in (at least not that I’m aware of), its something that you have to teach yourself. It’s not something that becomes instantly apparent either; I am a self professed sceptic, yet I still catch myself thinking irrationally and believing things on insufficient evidence. Learning to be a sceptic is not about instantly purging your mind of all false beliefs, it merely provides a good means of spotting them, and examining them.

One of the cornerstones of scepticism is the scientific method. Learning about what science is and how it works, familiarizing yourself with what is and what is not scientific will automatically give you some valuable methods of sceptical thinking. So without further a do, I shall introduce the scientific method, and explain how science works.

Hypotheses/Null Hypotheses

When a scientist has an idea they begin by formulating a hypothesis. A hypothesis gives a concise statement of what you should expect to find if your idea is true. They follow a simple formula – which you’d do well to memorize – a hypothesis is an ‘if…..then….’ statement.  For example you might think that pH levels will affect the growth of plants, so in order to make this idea a hypothesis, you’d write it as follows: if pH levels affect the growth of plants then plants grown in soil of a different pH will show differences in growth.  A null hypothesis is quite simply the opposite of the hypothesis, so in this case the null hypothesis would be: if pH levels do not affect the growth of plants then plants grown in soil of a different pH will show no significant differences in growth.

Hypotheses help us think sceptically because it helps us to understand what kinds of evidence we might expect to find for a particular claim. Its a useful starting point when thinking about claims. If you formulate them into hypotheses then you can start to get an idea of the kinds of evidence you’d need to support them. Try it out for yourself, take a sheet of paper and write various claims on it, ‘if aliens really are abducting humans then… (followed by what you’d expect to find if this were true)’ for example (you can come up with more than one hypothesis for the same claim) – this is a good exercise in both scientific and sceptical thinking.

Experiments

The hypothesis/null hypothesis form the backbone of one of the most important aspects of science; the experiment. Once you have come up with your hypotheses (you can test more than one in the same experiment) you can then use them to build an experiment. Continuing with with example of the effect of pH on plant growth you could take a number of different plant pots, fill them with a range of different soils all with a different pH level (making sure to record them!), then grow a plant in each of them. Now you need to make sure that all of the plants are the same, and that they are grown under the same conditions (the same levels of light and so on) – this is important because you are only measuring the effect of pH, so you don’t want any other variables effecting your results. Keeping the conditions the same, apart from the thing that you are measuring the effect of is important – and it is something you need to bear in mind when analysing evidence. Did they conduct their experiment accurately? Is there some other factor that might influence the results?

Once you’ve conducted your experiment, you collect your results, in this case measurements of leaf area, and plant height/width and so on. You then conduct various analyses on your results, such as making graphs to show any trends, or performing statistical analyses (which I shall not bore you with here, although it is useful to know a bit about stats as a sceptic).

Once you’ve analysed your results you should be able to see whether your experiment disproved (or falsified) the null hypothesis. Why do we attempt to falsify the null hypothesis rather than prove the hypothesis correct? Because there is no way to conclusively prove something right, you can only ever say that it hasn’t yet been proven wrong, you can prove something wrong however, so therefore, your experiment (if you do notice that pH affects how plants grow) will have falsified the null hypothesis (if pH levels do not affect the growth of plants then plants grown in soil of a different pH will show no significant differences in growth) and provided evidential support to your hypothesis.

We learn from how experiments are set up, the ways in which we control them teach us about how we should meticulously scrutinize all the factors which might affect an outcome, the ways in which we analyse the results tell us what is and what is not a reasonable deduction from a certain set of data. Scientific experiments are a way of putting our ideas to the test – which is what scepticism is all about. If your experiment fails to support your hypothesis then it’s back to the drawing board.

So if you did write a list of hypotheses, underneath them try to devise a way in which you might be able to test them with an experiment (you don’t actually have to do the experiment, so it can be as wild and expensive as you like) bearing in mind what it is you’re trying to test, and how you’d account for and eliminate other factors which might affect your results. If you really struggle with some then you might well have posited an un-testable claim – which isn’t a bad thing it’s really handy to know what one of those looks like. If a claim cannot be tested scientifically then it is essentially worthless, and the best you can say of it is ‘it might be true, or it might not, there is no way of finding out’.

Peer Review

Once you’ve conducted your experiment and you wish to publish it, the publisher will send your paper off to be scrutinized by experts in the relevant fields. So in our case it might be sent to a botanist, a soil expert, a biochemist etc. They would then meticulously go through your paper looking for mistakes and errors which you may have overlooked. You may for example, have chosen a species of  plant which is unusually sensitive to pH, or overly insensitive to it, or perhaps you missed off an important part of your method which may have affected your results; such as neglecting to mention how you watered the plants, and whether it was done at the same time for all the plants, with the same amount of water.  The purpose of peer review is to spot things that you may have missed, to look for errors etc.

This teaches us two important lessons. Firstly you should be very weary of people putting forth scientific papers that have not gone through peer review, go and check out the journal and see whether or not they are peer reviewed, if not then there is reason to doubt the legitimacy of the paper. Secondly, you should always remember that a second opinion is extremely valuable, and that you should welcome open critiques of your ideas, if you don’t do so, you might overlook something rather important.

Theories

Once many papers have been published on a particular subject – in this instance the effect of pH on plant growth, the evidence in these papers can be used to formulate a theory. Data might come from biochemists analysing the effect of pH on plant cells, from ecologists studying the pH of soils out in the field, etc. Once this data is collected, scientists start to think of a theory for how pH affects plants. A theory is a coherent explanation of a set of related facts and observations.

A theory will then provide a framework for future experiments because they make certain predictions which can be tested with new hypotheses. A theory’s strength is tested by how consistently it meets predictions. The theory of evolution by natural selection for example, has been tested by new evidence for over 150 years now, and it has consistently met all it’s major predictions. A theory of this stature is as close as we can come to truth in science.

When people state ‘that’s just a theory’ in relation to some scientific idea or other, they simply do not understand, or rather are dishonestly mistaking the meaning of theory in a scientific context. Whilst it is true that ‘theory’ in a colloquial sense implies a guess, a scientific theory is anything but. The theory of evolution was not dreamed up as a vague guess, it is an extremely coherent explanation of all the facts that we have so far encountered in biology. Swapping the scientific definition of theory with the colloquial definition is a fallacy of equivocation and does not hold any weight as an argument.

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So in summary what can we learn from science? Firstly we learn how to put claims to the test – getting an idea of how to find out if something is true or not is very important as a sceptic. We also learn to be meticulous, thinking about all the different kinds of variables which may affect outcomes. We learn what conclusions are reasonable to draw from a certain set of data, the importance of opening your ideas up to scrutiny.

Science is not completely perfect, but it is the best means we have for finding things out. As a sceptic you should try to think about the world as a scientist. Rather than believing things because it would be nice if they were true, try to examine all things and reject those hypotheses that do not stand up to scrutiny.

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Let’s Talk About Kony

As most of you are probably aware there is a propaganda film circulating the internet at the moment, with the aim of making Joseph Kony famous (although I think ‘infamous’ would have been a much more appropriate term for the film makers to have used). Unless you’ve been living underneath a rock for the last week or so, you probably by now know a bit about what Kony has done, and why there is such a fuss about him, so I won’t go into much depth about who he is and what he has done.

 

The film appears to advocate peaceful action, which suggests that the aim is to capture rather than kill Kony, however no mention of how this might be achieved is put forth. I think it is safe to say that someone as corrupt and evil as Kony would not give himself up without a fight, and thus the first problem – which is left completely unanswered by the film – is how would you go about capturing Kony whilst he is using his child soldiers to fend off his would-be captors? He is unlikely to want to turn himself in, given his track record, so what is one to do other than attack him along with his child bodyguards? This difficult problem is completely abandoned in the film, in favour of over simplifications and appeals to emotion.

 

Therein also lies a major contradiction in this film too, it seems to advocate for a peaceful solution – yet it’s main slogan is ‘stop at nothing’ which presumably translates in to ‘kill him if you have to’. Now I’m not saying that one has to advocate either a peaceful or forceful solution, however I do feel that consistency is important. If you’re for peaceful action then presumably you wouldn’t stop at nothing, you’d stop before it gets violent. Most people are so drawn in by the emotional appeals when they watch this film that they do not see such a glaring contradiction. It’s hard to imagine that the film makers themselves could have over looked such a thing however.

 

The other thing that I find troubling about this film is it’s uncritical support of the UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defence Force) who themselves have the age limit for joining their ranks set as low as 13 years old (condemned by many as being military use of children, precisely the charge levelled against Kony), and are also accused of rape and looting. Now this ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ attitude in this case is misguided, and I think that the film makers are unjustified in supporting the UPDF simply because they are equipped and prepared to take on Kony.

 

There is no explanation of the situation in which Kony adopted his position, there is no real idea put forth as to how we might capture Kony without harming any of his child bodyguards. The whole film hinges on the simplistic idea of Kony being the bad guy – he is bad to be sure – however, it is utterly naive to propose that the problems in Central Africa will cease once the bad guy is finally captured – which is the idea you get from the film. Things are far more complex than this film makes out. What happens after Kony is captured is not even hinted at, other than some idealistic notion that these kid soldiers will be happily reunited with their parents. Personally, I am doubtful that this would put an end to problems in the region. It is put forth rather condescendingly that the situation is so simplistic that even a child ‘gets it’, however this simply is not true, a guy doesn’t just turn up and start kidnapping children for soldiers and sex slaves without some pretty complicated causal factors behind it – none of which are mentioned in the film itself. Any film which treats a complex situation as though it is overly simple should be viewed with caution in my opinion.

 

In conclusion I would urge anyone who reads this not to share this film, and to certainly not give money to these film makers. There are plenty of charities who are dedicated to helping with the problems in Africa, I would urge you to look into those, rather than to put money towards a bunch of film makers.

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Sceptical Thinking 1 : Why Should You Be A Sceptic?

People have a tendency towards believing extraordinary things. It’s a very common occurrence to find friends, family or co-workers talking about how their house is haunted, or advising that you should date a Scorpio because they match your star sign. These people often don’t take someone expressing doubts over their cherished beliefs too kindly. ‘Science can’t explain everything’ they say, or ‘you’re just being closed minded’. People like to have a little magic in their lives, and for that reason scepticism is a hard sell. Why on earth would you want to doubt all those things that make life magical? Hopefully this article will provide a convincing argument as to why we could all benefit from being a sceptic.

To begin with, it is important to quell any misconceptions that people have about what scepticism actually is. Firstly, scepticism is not the dogmatic denial of all propositions. A good sceptic doesn’t doubt the existence of ghosts because they just don’t want to believe it. A sceptic is someone who analyses the evidence in favour of a particular claim before making a judgement as to its validity. All claims have a burden of proof which is directly proportional to the extraordinariness of the claim. Philosopher David Hume once wrote ‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’  which was later transformed into a memorable axiom of scepticism by the great astronomer Carl Sagan:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

            The claim that ghosts exist falls into the category of a rather extraordinary claim. It requires that there is some aspect of a person that survives death, and that this aspect of that person can continue to interact with the world in different ways. Anecdotes of sightings and blurry photographs simply are not enough to prove that this is possible. Anecdotes could be made up, or the person relaying them could be mistaken or delusional, and photographs can be faked or simply misinterpreted. A sceptic hasn’t just arbitrarily decided that ghosts do not exist, and that’s that, a sceptic is saying; I need a bit more evidence than that before I accept what you’re saying. A lot of detractors like to equate scepticism with denialism, however, this simply is not the case, and hopefully that shall become more and more apparent as you read through this series of posts.

Another misrepresentation of scepticism, which I alluded to earlier, is the idea that it is closed minded – an accusation that is linked to the idea that scepticism is somehow dogmatic. In actual fact scepticism is the opposite of closed mindedness. To continue with the example of ghosts, a believer asserts that because they got a cold feeling when they walked into a particular room in a supposedly haunted house, and that they couldn’t explain why a book fell off the shelf, these things must be proof that ghosts exist. This is in actuality the closed minded position, because they have closed their mind off to any explanation of these things that does not involve ghosts. A sceptic on the other hand keeps their mind open to the possibility that the cold feeling might have been due to a draft in that particular room, or down to some other non-paranormal phenomena, and that the book might have been placed precariously on the shelf and fell coincidentally when you happened to be at the house, or that perhaps it was knocked loose by someone brushing past, and slipped off a little while later. You can’t call these explanations closed minded just because you don’t like them. A sceptic actually keeps their mind open to all possibilities, and assesses them based upon their likelihood and the amount of evidence in favour of them. If there is simply not enough evidence to make a judgement, then judgement is suspended until the evidence is in. Scepticism is the antithesis of closed mindedness, in truth it is those who seek to discredit all other possibilities by calling those who put them forth ‘closed minded’ who have the real barriers in their intellect.

So to summarize, a sceptic is a person who judges all claims based upon the evidence put forth in favour of them. If a particular claim has not got enough evidence in favour of it (remembering that the amount of evidence should be proportional to the extraordinariness of the claim) then there is no reason to accept it as being true. It’s worth clarifying that seeing no reason to accept something as being true is not the same as believing that something is not true. Believers and bullshit peddlers are eager to equivocate these two things so that they can retort to scepticism by saying ‘well you can’t prove that it doesn’t work’. However, a sceptic does not necessarily believe that it doesn’t, they just don’t believe that it does.

People tend to see things in black and white. Either a proposition is true, or it isn’t, either it works, or it doesn’t. Scepticism challenges a black and white view of the world, and often sits uneasily with people because of its habit of pointing out the grey areas. Doctor and writer Ben Goldacre provides another great sceptical axiom in his book Bad Science:

 

‘I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that’

Scepticism isn’t easy, because it requires us to do a lot of intellectual footwork, but there are a lot of rewards for doing so. Why should you abandon the simplistic black and white world and enter into the strange, uneasy world of scepticism? Why, in other words should you bother to read this series of posts?

Well, firstly it comes down to what you value as a person. We all value certain things; some of us for example might value their career, whilst others might value their family life etc. There are some values, however that I’d say are more or less universal. I think it would be difficult to find a person who does not value truth. Most people care whether or not something is true before they believe it. So, if you value truth, you should adopt scepticism as your ally. Why? Because scepticism is a mode of thinking that allows you to explore ideas and claims, and tries to evaluate whether or not there is any good reason to accept them as being true.

Of course there is no way anyone could ever align their beliefs perfectly with the truth. However sceptical inquiry provides a compass, it gives us the provisions to ensure that we head in the general direction of truth rather than going the opposite way. It’s not always easy. Sometimes we find that our scepticism might require us to take a U-turn, but if we value truth then we must not be afraid of letting go of cherished beliefs if it turns out that they might be false. It does take a certain degree of courage, but reward is being free from the shackles of false belief.

Another reason that we should be sceptical is because of what we invest in our beliefs. We invest our money, our time, and sometimes our health in beliefs. Wouldn’t you like to know whether or not something is a waste of time and money before it’s too late? Wouldn’t you like to know whether or not a particular treatment is effective before you make health decisions based upon it? In a world full of time consuming, expensive and potentially hazardous bullshit, wouldn’t you like to be able to spot it before some scammer has away with your time, your money and potentially your health?

So if you think that the truth is important, and you care about not wasting time and money on pointless and potentially harmful things then you should be a sceptic. In this series of posts I hope to put forth some ideas that you can incorporate into your sceptics toolkit.

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William Lane Craig and His Probability Nonsense

The odds against William Lane Craig ever being born are so astronomically high, that it cannot possibly ever have happened. There are around 300,000,000 sperm in every ejaculation – the odds that the particular sperm that resulted in Bill one the race are 1 in 300 million, but it doesn’t stop there, what are the odds that his parents would have met each other (and that both his grand father’s sperm would have resulted in his mother and father, again that’s 1 in 300 million)? And their parents before that, and so on all the way back to the dawn of life on this planet. The existence of William Lane Craig requires so many vastly improbable things to occur that the odds against it are astronomical, therefore we can conclude that William Lane Craig cannot ever have come into existence.

This is of course all nonsense. Bill does exist, and you’re quite right not to be impressed with my argument against his existence. The odds of his existence aren’t astronomical, they are precisely 1 to 1. You can construct a silly probability argument like that against lots of things that did actually happen like a particular stone being in a particular place in your driveway, or something equally stupid, but the truth is they all have a probability of precisely 1 in 1. William Lane Craig does the exact same thing when he makes the fine tuning argument. The odds that constants of the universe are such that they permit intelligent life are precisely 1 in 1, they are not astronomically small as Craig would have you believe. When we have a sample size of only one universe, this probability could not be anything other than 1 in 1. We do not even know whether the constants can be altered – without more than one universe to compare this is a completely unfounded assumption.

Probabilities are meaningless when assigned to events that already happened, they can only be used to predict the likelihood of future events. Craig is either completely ignorant of probability or, he is deliberately dishonest with it, in order to deceive people. He is simply using a trick, but as I demonstrated I can use the same trick to make his existence seem astronomically unlikely.

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Atheism and Cohesion

I see some atheists on youtube (cough Thunderf00t cough) and elsewhere on the internet who seem to have the mentality that atheism is or should be some kind of cohesive force, united in the fight against religious tyranny. To an extent I agree, but some people take it to the point of believing that it is bad conduct to criticise or rebuke fellow atheists because they’re shouldn’t be any in-fighting among the ranks (or something like that). This ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ kind of attitude is essentially urging the exact kind of group mentality and ignorance that we aim to criticise among the religious.

I find it ironic that many of these people often criticise the ‘moderate Muslims’ for not speaking out against extremist Islam, whilst expecting atheists to refrain from speaking out against any of their kind. It’s also ironic that they criticise atheists for criticising other atheists…

I’m sorry, but where is the reason in thinking that atheists should refrain from criticising one another? If I hear someone making borderline racist statements, such as referring to Muslims as ‘backwards desert people’, or positing any kind of generalizations, and irrational remarks, I will condemn that person whether they are an atheist or not. This is because I firmly believe that one should use reason to develop one’s world view, and if I see unreason especially among those I identify with, then it should be pointed out and made clear that I do not share the views of that person.

Atheism is not, and should not be viewed as a cohesive group. That is not to say that atheists should not join together to speak out against oppression and injustice, rather that it should be done under the firm understanding that ‘atheism’ is a group made up of individuals united only by beliefs that they don’t have. Being an atheist doesn’t mean agreeing with other atheists blindly, or refraining from speaking out when you do disagree to save the face of the collective. If we don’t want to end up like those religious organizations whom we despise, then we should pride ourselves on a confidence and ability to speak out against members of our own ‘community’ whom we disagree with, as well as being able to support the individuals (not the beliefs) of members of all religions when reason calls for it, and to make sure to avoid generalizations and unreasonable claims about them.

An ‘us’ vs ‘them attitude towards atheism will get you nowhere. There needs to be a good example set, and that example is exemplary critical thinking and reasoning skills.

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