Thursday, May 14, 2009

Happy Stephanie Z Day!!! (or Why Creationism and Faith are often Arational)

Greg has declared yesterday Stephanie Zyvan day and since I don't have something of hers to repost (Lucky Greg), I will have to write a smart blogpost. I haven't been terribly motivated lately, choosing instead to get some posts I am going to write outlined, while also trying to frantically get some paying jobs done before classes start Monday.

Actually, that for some reason reminded me of something Scicurious (it was also Sciday!!!) inspired me to mention...Not that I'm trying to hint or anything, but man do I love getting books in the mail. I mean I really love getting books - and if they happen to come from the author of the book - maybe with the authors signature, why I would have to write up the book and tell everyone how much it rocks...

And apparently today is Jason Thibeault day...I think that that calls for some cake - some inappropriate, even naughty cakes...(as in, don't click that link at work, or in front of your grandma (unless you have a really cool grandma))

And because I can, I love her and she did actually contribute to this post, by discussing the topic with me for quite a while, I will declare this Juniper month. She really deserves more than a day. I mean hell, she puts up with me, loves me and as an atheist, I can't put her up for sainthood.

So onward to the heart of it...

John Wilkins is possibly the very smartest ape the world has ever seen. Either that, or he's just better at expressing himself than most members of his species. In any case, he recently had a very interesting paper published about creationism and rationality. I think that it is quite reasonable to extend the logic of his position to Faith in general, rather than limiting it to a single facet of that faith.

But for my purposes, creationism is actually a very good example, because arational creationism has a counterpart amongst those who accept evolution...Yes, yes it does and I am actually going to start with that counterpart...

There are a lot of people who have very interesting ideas about evolution and they're not all creationists. There are, for example, a lot of folks who pretty much assume that On the Origin of the Species is basically the best explanation of how evolution occurs. Survival of the fittest is basically how many, if not most people would characterize the theory of evolution. While we can give such people kudos for not buying into the idea that some god zapped everything into being, they are in fact wrong and difference in their ignorance of origins is only a matter of degrees of difference from the ignorance of creationists.

Does this ignorance make such people irrational? I would argue that it does not, it merely makes them ignorant. And I would also argue that the same is true of many creationists. The fact is that most people really don't spend much, if any time thinking about human origins or science in general. I would daresay that more people think about politics than science and in the U.S. at least, most people don't seem to think much about politics either. Most people struggle to focus enough on work and their interpersonal relationships - politics is barely on their radar if it is at all and science is nothing more than a peripheral concern I.e. "how does current science affect me?"

Even today, in the twenty first century, science education is abysmal in the U.S., especially when it comes to talking about evolution. There are many locations where the teaching about evolution is minimal or ignored altogether - whether because the teacher is afraid of dealing with pissed off parents or school boards, or because the teacher doesn't believe evolution explains where we come from. And your average fundamentalist is having their Faith and dogma constantly reinforced, while any discussion about evolution is dismissed as liberal, atheistic propaganda, or even the work of Satan.

So it works out as really easy for people to grow up believing what their Faith and the dogma of their faith has to say about origins and dismissing the little they may have heard about evolution as evil lies. About the only creationists who are really likely to change, are those who have a casual interest in understanding how the world works and who aren't ready to believe that Satan makes it appear that evolution happened.

But is it really reasonable to expect them too? Like I said, most non-creationists have little, if any understanding of how evolution happens because it simply doesn't really matter to them. Why would creationists be a whole lot different. They know how the world came into being - they learned it when they were young, had it reinforced throughout their lives and had people they trust explaining why evolution is really evilution. About their only hope is to have a science class with a teacher who actually understands evolution, isn't afraid to teach it, has a smart-ass in their class who wants to throw creationism out there and a teacher who isn't afraid to address the smart-ass's comments - oh, and said student would also need to be paying attention...

Most people are simply not going to go looking into this on their own. They aren't going to really look into anything that might contradict what they have believed their whole life. They aren't doing it maliciously either - nor are they attempting to wallow in ignorance. They are mostly just living their lives like anyone else - not really giving a shit about anything outside their cosy little world.

They are no more irrational than people who believe that evolution is survival of the fittest, that evolution means we descended from apes or monkeys that are just like the ones we can see at the zoo. It is not particularly rational, rather it is neither rational nor irrational - ignorant is a considerably more accurate label. And there are even cases where not believing in creationism would be highly irrational - especially when we are talking about children, who truly know nothing else. When you know nothing else, is it remotely rational to decide what you know to be true isn't? There was a time in my own life when it would have been pretty irrational for me to deny the Genesis story of creation.

Given the prevalence of religion in the U.S., unless you are young or non-American, odds are that there was such a time for you as well...


Toaster Sunshine said...

Perhaps it would really help if we stop using the "Tree of Evolution" from Darwin's treatise that places humans at the pinnacle of the evolution of all life on Earth as if everything is slowly going to become more humanish. I find the Phylogenetic Bush of Evolution based on 16S rRNA sequencing to be far more compelling and humbling. It is also much more intuitive in showing that evolution is a stochastic mechanism instead of linear, which we humans seem to default to in process thinking.

scicurious said...

Thanks for making it Sciday!!!!

Also, about getting books in the mail: I basically started out reviewing science books that I bought and read that were new. After a while, I got a publishing house that read my stuff, and offered me a catalog, to receive free books from them. I've only ever had one author actually OFFER to send me a book. So perhaps if you start reviewing, things will come. :)

Abby Normal said...

I'd like to better understand what you mean by rational and irrational. You gave a child accepting what he'd been told as an example of rational. But I don't see it. It's understandable, acceptable, and perhaps a few other positive words ending in -able. But that doesn't make the belief a result of reason or logic, which is how I would define rational.

You seem to be using rational as "respectable" and irrational as "dismissible" or at least something close to that. But I'm putting words in your mouth. What do you think?

Where I'm coming from, I'm of the opinion that the overwhelming majority of our beliefs are irrational and that is fine, even good. It certainly seems to be unavoidable. It's just not possible to sit down and rationally examine every aspect of one's existence. Nor do I think it would be a good thing if we did.

Take Juniper as an example. You say she loves you. Did you come to that belief only after rationally examining the facts, or did you just know and accept it. Moreover, if you did set about examining and testing that belief, would that negatively impact not just the belief, but the relationship?

I would say that if someone takes the time to logically examine a situation, even if their information is limited, then they are being rational. Otherwise it they are being irrational. Neither one indicates on it's own whether they are objectively right or wrong. And neither one is the best way to approach every situation.

Note also that a belief arrived at through a rational process can become irrational when someone ignores new information. When one decides they're right and emotionally invests in protecting that, then they have become irrational about their rationally arrived at conclusion. So, as new information is constantly coming in, beliefs tend to drift toward irrational over time. Again, it's just not possible to do the constant examination and reexamination a completely rational life would require. Nor is it desirable that we should try.

But it does bring me to what I see as the real problem, conviction. When someone is convinced that they are absolutely right about a belief, however they arrived at it, then that is an issue. That's the problem I see with most creationist. It's not that they're irrational per se that's the problem. It's the refusal to accept they might be wrong that holds them back.

I guess what I'm saying is that all absolute convictions are irrational, but not all irrational beliefs are held absolutely. It's the conviction, not the irrationality that is the problem.

To quote Socrates, "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."

DuWayne Brayton said...

Toaster -

I think that would probably be a grand idea...

Thanks Sci, I'll try that. I may be getting a free e-cig from the company I got the one I have from and another company asked me to write about theirs, which I told them I would be happy to do if I had one. So that makes a lot of sense to me...

Abby -

No, that's not at all where I am going.

I define rational as believing something because that is what the best evidence suggests, but being open to changing that belief should better evidence come to light that shows said belief was wrong. Irrational is believing something in the face of evidence that proves it is completely wrong.

Arational, on the other hand, is simply the implication that something is neither rational or irrational.

Take Juniper as an example. You say she loves you. Did you come to that belief only after rationally examining the facts, or did you just know and accept it.I totally came by that belief by considering the evidence and finding that it supported her assertion that she loves me. I would consider that totally rational. Also, my feelings are something that I came to realize were of a depth that I had not only never experienced before, but believed that I was simply not capable of - I came to know and accept it. Again, I would consider my belief that I love her to be rational.

On the other hand, I would consider the feelings themselves to be arational. They are something that we really have no control over, though we can control how we express them.

To make it clearer, I think that about the time one has to start coming up with explanations for why the evidence that contradicts their beliefs either doesn't or is false, one starts to go from rational or arational, to irrational. It's one thing for a creationist to just not care and let others explain the evidence for them - never seeing what the actual evidence for evolution consists of. But when they have seen the evidence and start coming up with new ways to explain it away, they move from arational to irrational.

Likewise, if someone who has a very misguided understanding of evolution learns otherwise, yet still clings to their mistaken understanding - they too have moved from arational to irrational.

Abby Normal said...

I've never heard of arational. Fess up, you just made that up! ;-)

You said:
Irrational is believing something in the face of evidence that proves it is completely wrong.This is kind of what I was getting at. While you provided an example of one type of irrational thought, typically the word also covers what you've defined as arational. I think it was that automatic association between irrational and ignoring evidence that I was keying into.

I don't mind differentiating between what you call irrational and arational. What you're calling irrational is right in alignment with the absolute conviction I was talking about. And I see utility in the distinction you've drawn. But seriously, was arational a word before today?

DuWayne Brayton said...

I only wish I could be that fucking cool. But I am not and I doubt that John Wilkins is either (not that he doesn't totally rock), though the abstract to the paper he wrote (see link) is the first time I noted it used.

The distinction between arational and irrational, is not a matter of the substance of the belief, action or feeling, it is the context.

An example is my old pastor, who is far from stupid and thus he found it important to understand what it was that contradicted his dogma. He actually has a pretty firm grasp of the mechanisms and evidence for evolution and I suspect found it mighty compelling. So his response to said evidence, is literally that Satan did it. Satan, being the master deceiver, planted that evidence to make it appear that evolution happened and that the universe is billions upon billions of years old (he's an old earth creationist).

I would call him irrational. Mainly because he admits that had I brought up that same discussion a few years before that, he would have had a very different response, which would have been canned apologetics for young earth creationism.

On the other hand, there was our mutual friend and someone I went to bible study with. He is a blue collar, several adopted children (after their natural children grew up) and way too damned busy to muck around with much else kind of guy. He's also a OEC, but that is mostly because intellectuals he trusts are and because it really isn't important to him. All he cares about, is living his life by biblical principles, to the best of his ability and understanding and taking care of his family. He hasn't the time or energy to waste on investigating and studying things that contradict his dogmatic foundation, merely so he can say that he has. He listens to others who have and whom he trusts understand what they studied.

He is, in my opinion, arational - even though he is in his mid to late fifties and in spite of the fact that he and pastor have the same beliefs.

Unfortunately, I think the importance of that distinction, is as much as anything, about who one should focus on. There are very few, if any arational people out there who are going to be swayed by anything that anyone says, that contradicts their dogma. Because not only don't they understand the evidence in support of the contradicting factor, they generally haven't given much thought to the apologetics response to said evidence. They simply don't care and are not likely to suddenly decide that they should give the contrarian any creedence now.

Which is about where I am at with this fucking spellchecker add-on. Apologetics, contrarian, creedance and even misandry are all apparently non-words...

Jason Thibeault said...

More semantics? Okay... maybe I AM a bit prescriptivist. But I think you hit both words dead-on -- being misinformed does not make your beliefs irrational, even if the beliefs themselves are irrational should one try to suss them out.

Your old pastor is obviously irrational in his belief, despite being intelligent, since he's inserting an extra entity counter to Occam's Razor (e.g., Satan) in order to reconcile his belief that evolution couldn't have happened, with the evidence that obviously proves it did.

It annoys me that misandry is underlined by most spell checkers, so I added it to Firefox's and no longer have to worry about it. Oh, and speaking of mis/mis, I've thought about it more, and am willing to concede that perhaps we should have a stronger word, like panmisogyny to describe people like Meme who have a grudge against all women.

Jason Thibeault said...

Oh, and yes, arational exists. Most spell checkers don't look for it though, probably because it's so poorly known that most people who type it are actually making a typo.

"Creedance" however is spelled "credence". :)

Juniper Shoemaker said...

I now have difficulty responding to this post and its comment thread, because I suspect that the discussion may have become a semantic debate. Due to my Philosophy of Science course, in which I learned to think of language as governed by both explicit and cryptic rules, I am no longer concerned about language "purity". There really is no "right" way to coin a word. Technically, there isn't a "right" definition for most of the words in our everyday language; there's merely consensus within whichever population happens to be using it.

So now I'm going to be distracted and say silly things. Nevertheless. I'll give it a try.

While we can give such people kudos for not buying into the idea that some god zapped everything into beingActually, I disagree. If someone buys into the idea of evolution merely because they've decided to defer to the authority of scientists instead of clergymembers, then they're still equally guilty of arriving at a conclusion about the world by a logical fallacy. It doesn't matter that the conclusion itself is one for which there is much empirical evidence. Their reasoning is still an example of uncritical thinking.

(I am now reminded of why Ayn Rand wasn't really an atheist . . . but that's a discussion for a another day . . .)

In 2004, I went to dinner with a mathematician and an engineer, and we wound up having a discussion about evolution. I discovered three things:

1) They both defined "evolution" as a teleological phenomenon.
2) They both defined "evolution" as "survival of the fittest".
3) They both assumed that they couldn't be wrong because they were "scientists" and therefore too smart to have "misunderstood" a scientific theory.

'Course, I was also guilty of 1 and 2. I probably would have remained so for awhile longer, had I not been so secretly cheesed by Assumption 3. Shortly after this interaction, I developed a pressing urge to learn how biologists actually defined evolution-- I wanted to know how evolution really worked. I understood (however shamefully and self-doubtingly) that understanding evolution had little to do with "smartness" as you'd arbitrarily defined it and whether or not you'd been an English major or a math major a billion years ago. Either you'd studied enough biology to understand, or you hadn't.

(We could've used the Phylogenetic Bush of Evolution with regard to Assumption 1. That's where the argument got heated. I don't remember even seeing phylogenetic tree models of species evolution until 2005. You just don't learn to conceive of evolution that way in high school, and it's a damn shame.)

It is interesting to think of judging the rationality of someone's given assumptions about the world from their point of view. If I do that, I can accept the idea of "arationality". It's also interesting to think of rationality as a function of someone's native curiosity-- "if someone accepts a conclusion about the world because everyone around them has made the same conclusion, and if it never occurs to them to try to verify the claim, then we can say that they are thinking neither irrationally nor rationally". Maybe that's even useful.

At the very least, it may keep my temper a little more in check. I am getting too old to combat nutty creationist claims exclusively by furiously railing against them.

DuWayne, I am heartily glad you've bestowed a month instead of sainthood on me, since, as another atheist, I cannot magically intercede on your behalf in the case of your shameless petition for more books. Besides, I'm not a very nice person. Haven't you figured that out yet? ;)

Who wants to eat a stark white penis with rainbow sprinkles?! This is why I think Cake Wrecks is such a hilarious blog-- featuring people in an endless quest to concoct edible representations of vaginas and bathwater and yellowing toenails and dog dung and all sorts of other things I never want to bite into.

P.S. Hi, Abby! It's nice to "meet" you to. I'd seen you before on Ed's blog, though, on which I often lurk.

I hope you don't think I've been ignoring you. I just haven't been blogging. At all. Ask DuWayne. :)

Juniper Shoemaker said...

Damn it. I'd only seen Comments 1-5, and now I've just been repetitious.