Critical Thinking and Expert Consensus

Here’s a problem: how to you know what is right if you don’t explore the question for yourself?

While we should strive to only accept those things which we can verify for ourselves, that is simply impossible to do in all things. We can’t all do our own cancer treatment studies, for example. Doing just one such study takes huge amounts of time, money, effort, and knowledge in getting results and interpreting them. And that would be just one study. What about food safety, or discoveries in modern physics? It’s implausible that you will be trying to double-check that you can create your own superconductor at higher temperatures.

So either you have to be ignorant about so much that is important in the modern world, or you need to accept the work done by others. But how reliable can that be? We know individuals lie or are mistaken all the time, and being an expert or well-experienced in a field doesn’t stop that from happening. It’s easy to point to examples in recent times, such as scientists paid to argue against the connection between smoking and lung cancer as well as other examples detailed in Merchants of Doubt. However, one of the authors of that book, Naomi Oreskes, argues that we should still trust the scientific enterprise as she details well in this TED talk.

Simple summary of why we trust science.

In particular, Oreskes says we should put our trust not in individuals experts but scientific consensus, a wisdom of the crowd of experts in a subject. And the reason that the scientific consensus should be given weight rather than, say, the consensus of astrologers on their subject, is because of the nature and values of science, especially its organized skepticism. So, if there is a group of people with expertise in a subject, and if that community of experts evaluates a claim and it goes through debate and is analyzed with good data and skeptical inquiry, and that group comes to a consensus, those of us outside of that group have good reason to trust the results of that group; at the very least, it is much more likely that they are right than wrong, and you are unable to determine otherwise.

Or are you?

The question now arises as to when might you have reason to doubt the consensus? Perhaps now those outside of the group doing the research can evaluate the claims because so much of the data and analysis papers are online we can go figure it out for ourselves. The problem is, that is much harder than one thinks. That point is made well in Harry Collins’s book Are We all Scientific Experts Now? With the particular example of so-called Climategate, we see what happens when emails by the researchers are cherry-picked and misunderstood to mean something dastardly. Additionally, Collins shows the healthcare disaster in South Africa when the president of that country did his research online and then denied the use of anti-retroviral drugs to alleviate the spread of HIV to newborn children. Doubting the consensus to go with the minority report or fringe view tends to lead to misunderstanding and even suffering.

But why do people outside of the expert researchers fail to examine the evidence properly? And are we doomed to just trust the consensus no matter what? What can a regular person do to make sure that they have justified reason to trust any or all given consensuses? About two months ago, Richard Carrier posted a blog entry on that subject on how to evaluate an argument from consensus, and since then he has discussed the question in a few different places, in particular this video chat on Inspiring Doubt.

Carrier does make good points about when a consensus may not be a reliable consensus (if the experts haven’t evaluated the methods critically or having considered the opposing arguments, which is why astrologers cannot be trusted when they state astrology works), but one thing in particular comes up in that blog post and his interview: our use of critical thinking skills to evaluate the arguments of the experts, especially if against a fringe view. And while it is true that if you can see someone continuously using fallacious arguments you have reason to doubt the strength of that person’s position, there is trouble with using critical thinking. This is in part to something echoed by Chris Hallquist, Julia Galef, and Luke Muehlhauser, and in part it is related to the talk I will be giving at the upcoming SSA East conference next weekend.

So, what is wrong with critical thinking?  Continue reading


The Hidden God is a False God

Perhaps the easiest sorts of religious beliefs to critique are those that are the easiest to go and check if they are true. When such believers say something about the natural world, then all the tools of science can potentially come into play to see if they are right and if some other explanation is viable. Because of that, things like Young Earth Creationism are easily disprovable and has been for over a century. Same with anyone that is a geocentrist or flat-earther.

But not everyone believes in god-like beings that are so obviously wrong, and there are often clever beliefs out there that are in fact designed to not be detectable by the sciences.

Original Face-Palm?

Enter into the recent venture by the BioLogos Institute. With a LOT of funding by the Temptleton Foundation (on the order of $2 million), these groups want to find ways to make sure the sciences, namely evolution, can be consistent with Christian beliefs. They have to deal with things like original sin if there wasn’t an original couple (i.e. Adam and Eve), among other things.

Jerry Coyne gave some highlights, especially one research proposal by John Mullen to make it so a hidden creator is what we would expect. To quote the interesting part:

 The proximate goal is to show that evolutionary biology lends very little evidential support to Philosophical Naturalism over Classical Theism.  To do this, it must be shown that a gradual creation is an expected consequence of Theism.  We may reasonably suppose that God, to accomplish His purposes as we can reasonably perceive them, must remain hidden to us to the point of leaving Naturalism as a “live-option” for us given our publically-accessible evidence.  If so, God has good reasons to create gradually and can reasonably be expected to do so.  This conflicts with a tendency most of us have to think that God would want to make His presence obvious to us.

The hidden-god problem is one that philosophers have looked into, but we don’t even need to go into the depths of philosophy to see how the project by Dr. Mullen is failed before it even starts. Continue reading

Honestly, Atheists Have Meaning in their Lives

I may need to add another atheism book to my library after learning that philosopher AC Grayling is publishing a new book, The God Argument, which has the dual goal of arguing against religion and for a humanistic philosophy of life. I already have his previous book, The Good Book, which tries to be a sort of Bible with chapters and verses, but with modern scientific and philosophical understandings. (PZ Myers also has a book coming out about atheism and being fulfilled/happy, called The Happy Atheist. Oh, and happy birthday, PZ.)

But it looks like the volume is being attacked before it’s even published by Damon Linker (his website here) over at The Week. But with an article title of “Where are the honest atheists”, one already loses patience with his critique. Linker things that the arguments against gods and religion are already worn-out and that atheism already leads to nihilism, and to argue otherwise is dishonest. Yeah, so if you’re an atheist and you’re happy, you’re a hypocrite unless you admit all that gives you meaning and hope is an illusion, I guess.

Then again, it seems that Linker hasn’t really thought this through very well. Hell, he hasn’t even read the book, can’t even get the title right (he calls it “The God Question”), and yet he things any arguments for meaning in life are a moral failure without theism. Unfortunately, his argument consists of a bunch of quotes from various authors, most treated in a very superficial way.

Take his treatment of Nietzsche, who proclaims “God is dead” and that this was an “awe-inspiring catastrophe” for us. So panic(!), because a snippet of a 19th century philosopher’s works means it’s true, especially when you don’t read the rest. There was a book by Nietzsche that argued against the sort of pessimism that Larkin talks about and was supported by Schopenhauer in Nietzsche’s day; that book was The Gay Science (gay as in happy), and it was against the nihilistic/pessimistic view. For example, when Nietzsche talks about God being dead or dying in Europe:

Even we born guessers of riddles who are, as it were, waiting on the mountains, posted between today and tomorrow, stretched in the contradiction between today and tomorrow, we firstlings and premature births of the coming century, to whom the shadows that must soon envelop Europe really should have appeared by now—why is it that even we look forward to the approaching gloom without any real sense of involvement and above all without any worry and fear for ourselves? Are we perhaps still too much under the impression of the initial consequences of this event—and these initial consequences, the consequences for ourselves, are quite the opposite of what one might perhaps expect: They are not at all sad and gloomy but rather like a new and scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn.

Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”—

We are to embrace this brave, new world according to this German thinker. And we are to fill it with our creativity and power. Continue reading

Evil and Soul-Making

I was able to tune into a debate between Richard Carrier and David Marshall last night via a live stream, which unfortunately was probably not the best in taking on the traffic since it froze up a few times during the event. Nonetheless, I was able to hear the main points, the rebuttals, etc., and I’m sure each side with cheer their champion and deride their opponent. Rather, I thought I’d focus on one point, and one that has been a major discussion point for quite some time: the problem of evil/suffering.

Famously articulated millennia ago by the philosopher Epicurus, it has been a difficult thing to explain. Why is there such suffering in the world if there is an all-powerful and all-good super-being controlling the universe? At best I think it can be shown that it is logically possible for there to be suffering in the world yet there be an omnipotent, omniscience god running the show, but there is still the evidential aspect to the problem. In other words, should it not be the case that excess suffering is evidence against such a being? In the debate, Carrier brought up how Jesus (in the gospels) knew nothing about the germ theory of disease, knowledge which would have saved millions and brought down child mortality by orders of magnitude. If you had some knowledge, would you not pass it on to help others? If someone you knew had this knowledge and ability to help without harm to themselves and chose not to, would you consider that person outstanding moral? Marshall admits this is a problem, but says no worldview is perfect (though he seems to grossly underestimate how much of a problem it is), and there are notable responses to the problem.

Marshall doesn’t specify the solutions or responses to the problem of evil, but the most famous as probably that of free will and the soul-making (also called Irenaean) theodicy. The former theodicy requires that the concept of libertarian/contra-causal free will to be in operation, which isn’t popular among philosophers and to me is both incoherent and undesirable (I’ll have to talk about that at a later time). Instead, I want to look at the soul-making version of the defense of god with evil in the universe.

The basic idea is that there is suffering the world to make us better overall, giving a justification to its presence. For example, there is pain during weight-lifting, but the result (if done right) is greater strength. The idea is ultimately that there is a greater good, which is something the free will defense has in common, and perhaps all theodicies (minus the denial of the existence of evil). However, too much suffering isn’t good; in the weight-lifting example, if you tear your muscles in the process you will get a lot of pain and become weaker. So the apologist has to posit that God delivers the correct amount of suffering to bring about the greatest good in the world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides several points that make this theodicy rather weak, notably terminal suffering (such as with cancer or genocides as with the Holocaust), the suffering and death of infants, and animal suffering (what’s the point of harming them). All very good points, but I’m sure they can lead to infinities of apologetic responses.

Instead, I want to look at this a little bit more scientifically. Continue reading

Animal Suffering

It seems that there is an intuitive sense that our pets have some sense of awareness of pain. Dogs do not want to be hit, and when they are in trouble they are reluctant to come to that punishment (which I have seen in my dogs in the past). However, there is the significant theological/philosophical problem of animal suffering, so it’s understandable why many would question if animals other than humans or higher primates can actually suffer rather than be, like the philosopher Rene Descartes thought, they are only responsive like machines are.

Some time ago the famous apologist William Lane Craig argued in a debate (video here) that non-primates do not suffer, in particular saying that those creatures do not have a prefrontal cortex. Which, as was pointed out by everyone that knows about brains, is utter bollocks. One of the best presentation on this and the scientific consensus that animals are aware of pain and do suffer was in this video.

Very thorough and referenced  including talking to the scientists that study this. Also, the video was viewed by the neuroscientists in question for accuracy to make sure it represented the stance of the field correctly. Apparently Bill Craig responded to this video and run in contradiction to what he said before on the subject as well as the science. And so the same producers of the above video beautifully responded.

The take-away message: Craig is wrong, animals do appear to actually suffer, and Craig doesn’t want this to be true and won’t fess up to being wrong about every substantial point.  But another reason I don’t trust apologists when it comes to facts.

All Gods Are Amazingly Improbable

I have been turning over a way of talking about how likely is it that a god of any sort, from the various Christian conceptions, to Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, Polynesian, and many more, including the deistic god, actually exists. Is there a way to effectively talk about all of them?

Considering the amazing diversity of what the god concept is in the real world, that is tough. Even if it is possible to disprove the philosopher’s god that is omni-benevolent, powerful, and knowledgeable, that doesn’t disprove gods that are not so nice, not infinitely powerful, or happen to not know certain things. There are god concepts that do not include such infinities. The Bible certainly doesn’t see all gods as equally powerful.

On the other hand, an agnostic can say that we can’t know a god of some sort doesn’t exist, and that can be either a prelude to saying why they are not an atheist (though they aren’t mutually exclusive concepts) or why they avoid the topic. If you can’t prove it either way, why bother? Perhaps the problem here is what is meant by “knowledge”. If by that you mean 100% certainty, then you have to be agnostic about many things you would normally claim you know, such as the general shape of the earth (all the evidence indicates it’s round, but it could be a conspiracy or illusion, so it’s not 100%), who your parents are, or even the existence of other minds than your own. On the other hand, if you mean that knowledge is just having a high probability, say greater than 99%, then we are talking about evidence and potentially the question could be decided either way.

There are some things we can’t know ahead of time with anything we would call knowledge. For example, I cannot predict ahead of time the side a fair coin will have land up, even if I guess correctly; the chances are 50/50 (or very close). But is the probability of a god of any sort really 50/50? Continue reading

Physics and Intuition

Nicholas Covington over at SkepticBlogs has a post that relates to the borderlands of science and philosophy, intuition and its utility. His observations are done in light of some of the blog posts by Luke Muehlhauser (who more recently went to work at the Singularity Institute and the website Less Wrong).

Philosophers have long worked with what ideas we have in our heads, the primitive notions of things such as the reliability of the senses, our reasoning abilities, that other people have minds, etc. However, there is a continuing body of growing research that shows the limitations of our intuitions and our mental faculties (some I mentioned on my appearance on the Magic Sandwich Show). Nonetheless, Nick is correct that we ought not to go all-out against intuitions having epistemic value. Though we ought to be aware of its limitations (Nick mentions the Monty Hall Problem which drives first-year statistics students and normal people nuts.) Moreover, intuitions should not be beliefs that some have called properly basic, as they can and should be subject to scrutiny. Nick concludes that we have inductive reason to take them as probably true since they seem to work rather often.

But this leaves the question of when are our intuitions untrustworthy? Should be consider evolutionary history? Richard Dawkins had commented that perhaps because we evolved at the macroscopic level we did rather than nanoscopic (extremely small) or megascopic (extremely large) we may not have the mental faculties to understand modern physics like quantum mechanics and special relativity. This implies that we would be better adapted as Newtonian thinkers, since that is the world we live in; Newton’s laws and principles correctly explain most everything material in our day-to-day world, the world our ancestors would have inhabited. So this implies a potential limitation on what we can understand and what we do understand.

Unfortunately, my own research in physics education shows that college students are not Newtonian thinkers, and this has been the conclusion of PER since at least the 1980s. For example, there are the interviews done by McCloskey et al. as summarized in Scientific American back in 1983. They noted that often students seem to have something like the medieval impetus view of motion.

For example, they asked the question of you walking at constant speed in a straight line while holding a ball out and shoulder level. If you continued on an the same speed and on the same path, and you dropped the ball, would you expect to see it fall behind you, in front of you, or at your feet? Before reading the conclusion, think about what the answer is to yourself.

Don’t scroll down unless you have an answer.

Have a guess now?


OK, go ahead and read on.

Well, most of the people asked said the ball would fall behind them. 49% said it would fall over the exact spot the ball was let go, and a small percentage (6%) said it would actually travel backward. Only 45% accounted for the forward velocity of the ball when it was let go. And this was asked of college students, which means students with more education than the average in the US, let alone the world.

What is going on here? Some have noted the students had a general model for how things move. One of the things most people have in their minds is that without a force things don’t move. There is also the notion of a force in the direction which tends to weaken with time (like the impetus dissipating as the object traveled). More recent research argues against most people having a complete model in their minds of how things work, and Andrea diSessa’s idea of p-prims tries to account for what is going on with a collection of primitive ideas about physics (physics primitive ==> p-prims). What the correct model is, I cannot say.

However, the question of where these intuitions come from is one that currently needs more research, and I am glad to be working on that currently. I shan’t say too much of what I have done until publication, but what I can say I did at the AAPT meeting last month. And what I did reveal is that students claim to actually feel the sorts of forces that may account for these anomalies from reality, but those forces simply are not real. At the intuitive level, we seem to believe we are pushed around in ways that simply are not true and at variance to Newtonian (let alone modern physical ) mechanics.

This indicates that Dawkins is wrong about our adaptability to understanding the Newtonian world–we don’t even get that right. Perhaps that should be no surprise since it took near 2000 years of science to come up with Newton’s physics (starting with Aristotle, and then on from there). Physics teachers also have come to learn that the correct ideas are hard to get into their students, and they tend to revert to incorrect views. On the other hand, we tend not to have strong convictions about things at the extremely small level or at super-fast speeds, so perhaps the theories of special relativity and quantum mechanics are easier to learn, if not necessarily understand, since we don’t experience this realm and cannot fall back onto our beliefs of what happened last time.

All this would also imply that we should be very cautious using the intuitions we build up at the level we live and project them into realms we have no experience. If our experience will betray us about moving in a circle, why think they are unquestionable with things beyond our current comprehension, such as the state of the universe before the Big Bang?

I see science as progressing by testing our intuitions and seeing that they fail, and in the process building up new intuitions via the scientific method, thus creating a coherent, tested theory. It has at least been working pretty well.

So when are intuitions trustworthy? Perhaps the best rule of thumb (which is all an intuition can be) is that intuitions are useful in situations you have had significant experience. You don’t need to bring out a piece of paper and a calculator to see if a train is about to hit you based its distance and speed; you can tell you need to move, else you won’t be there to analyze your intuitions!

However, this would be extremely limiting to thought experiments that philosophers use all the time. How to deal with this? That is another avenue of research that needs exploration, and I know there are people on the case. In the mean time, I have a gut feeling that this won’t convince everyone to give up their gut beliefs about how the world works, from politics to morality. Oh, so much work ahead.

Recent Appearance on the Magic Sandwich Show

I had the chance to check out and participate in the BlogTV broadcast of the Magic Sandwich Show, named after a food concoctions “invented” to cure just about anything but really to mock an argument against non-belief. The major topic of the show was a look at sophisticated theology, in particular mentioning the famous and respected philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga has come out with an argument that suggests there is a inconsistency between naturalism/materialism and the theory of evolution. Basically, if evolution made our brains and sense organs (and this is something Plantinga has doubted at least in the past), it may not have made them such that they will give us correct beliefs. Thus naturalism cannot account for our ability to reason and perceive correctly. He then suggests that God/supernaturalism can provide the reason we can trust our cognitive faculties. The Wikipedia page on the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) summarizes it well.

I got to participate a bit on that subject as seen in this bit of the video (jump to time 33:14):

I’ll summarize my point here. One of the major premises of Plantinga’s argument is the idea that our reasoning and sensory faculties are reliable. However, they often do fail us. We know there are many different cognitive biases, and we do tend to see and hear things that aren’t there, even if we aren’t chronic hallucinators or on drugs. We see patterns where none are, and even more-so when we are stressed. There is a lack of correlation between vividness of a memory and its accuracy, and we do mis-remember things. I also gave the example of the Stroop effect (or test) where we misread color words when the color is different than the word itself. Some of this stuff about our non-so-great minds and senses are discussed in books such as Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain and V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain. These points also seem to be made by William Ramsey is his essay about EAAN.

So we know that our faculties are not completely reliable. And more interestingly, the sorts of issues our brains have can be explained by our evolutionary history. For example, making false-positives with patterns had an evolutionary advantage as opposed to the opposite error: mistake that there is a tiger and run, no harm done; mistake that there isn’t a tiger, and you’re dead. Thus we have a selective pressure to make us more likely to see what isn’t there. But according to Plantinga, God ensures the proper functioning of our minds.

That leads to two possibilities: the supernatural hypothesis has this evidence against it, or a faulty mind is consistent with the supernatural. The first one obviously isn’t good for the case against naturalism, and it means that in fact the argument is for naturalism. So perhaps the God hypothesis can be compatible with faulty thinking faculties. However, this is made initially unlikely because we expected otherwise (Plantinga certainly did). But let’s just be favorable and say supernaturalism is 50/50 on whether we would have reliable cognitive faculties. Nonetheless, on naturalism with evolution we expect to have some limitations in the reliability of our ability to perceive and reason, so the probability here is greater than 50%, and closer to 100% (if not exactly 100%). That means on either of the possibilities, the probability of naturalism goes up and supernaturalism down (using a Bayesian inference method).

So that means Plantinga’s argument goes against his beliefs. That he uses the argument for his position is the definition of delusional: held with conviction, not significantly changing with counter-evidence (even after years of philosophers showing him errors), and implausible (i.e. the reliability of our faculties; supernatural beings and powers).

And considering how Plantinga is considered (rightly) as one of the best in philosophy of religion yet his arguments have such scientific flaws and similar to bad street preachers (as pointed out by the hosts of the Magic Sandwich Show), it really should indicate how bad the arguments for the supernatural are, at least using armchair philosophy. It’s why I’d rather talk about evidence.

The other topic that unfortunately I didn’t get to delve into enough was that theology has a huge amount of intellectual capital to use for its cause. Astrology and other pseudo-science and history doesn’t have anywhere near the resources of intellectuals to defend them. Astrology used to be that way with support from scientists and church figures, but not so anymore, and their arguments are thus very bad. Religion, on the other hand, has an industry of defending the faith or finding new interpretations. So I am impugning both liberal and conservative religious folk with this; both camps have a lot of power to either defend their dogma with endless apologetics, and liberals have a significant “phase space” of what to focus on in their beliefs or holy books to come up with some more rational position without having to admit their belief or book is no more worthy of being called sacred or inspired than any other of the same type. Again, astrology and astrologers don’t have the same luxury of ways to interpret their practices or defend them that stand up to much critical scrutiny; very few have a science or philosophy background in this day and age.

Then again, being a philosopher doesn’t mean you won’t get the science wrong and think there are no transitional fossils or that irreducible complexity is evidence against evolution.