listen to your enemies

Family Forgiveness

Dear Russell & Friends,

A brief companion to yesterday’s reflection on how a family must sometimes fight to preserve itself and maintain integrity.  Families also don’t leave.  They don’t stop when members do painful things.  They love deeply, especially in the context of disagreement and disappointment.  That is not acquiescence to wrong.  It is the decision to love someone even if her opinion is wrong.  It is the decision to love when you just can’t like.  It is patient and kind, neither envying nor boasting.  It is not arrogant, rude, irritable or resentful.  It rejoices in truth, not wrongdoing.  It does not insist on its own way.  It bears, believes, hopes and endures and never ends.  This is the love of a family in a fight and it is so damn hard.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.  John 13:35

Even when you’re wrong family, I love you and will not leave.

Pascal – – 1:16

Compassion for Terrorists?

Hello friends,

There is a problem in all of us. For every in-group, there is an out-group. We are each rejected by many people in some way and we likely reject others whether or not we know it, just by the nature of the identities we adhere to. Neuroscience shows that each of us subconsciously values some groups of people more and others less in some ways. The problem is, when we don’t learn about this and take real and regular action to fight against that tendency, it can lead us to dehumanize others. Unchecked it very often leads many of us to devalue some groups of humans so much that the moral laws we normally follow regarding how we treat other humans no longer apply. One key weapon that exacerbates this is propaganda. In this time of terrorism and racial divide, we all need to be vigilant. We need to examine ourselves every day with every news article, Facebook post, Tweet, comment from a friend or family member, political debate and media report. Each bit of information that comes in has the ability to shift the needle of our heart away from the humanity of a group that isn’t our own. When this goes unchecked long enough, we believe the lie that “they” aren’t as valuable as “us.” Then… death.

I’m going to ask you do something. Please, watch this video. It starts slow, but it is so good and relevant to the recent events that I’m willing to beg you to engage with these ideas. If it helps even one person realize that we’re all capable of dehumanizing and withholding normal morality towards other groups, and you and I are not exempt to this – I’ll gladly beg. Please, watch it.

That was just a clip that wasn’t very explanatory of the video. Please see the full episode called “Why Do I Need You? from David Eagleman’s series on PBS called The Brain.

I’m not writing about this solely because of the deep sorrow we now feel about what happened in Paris. A friend recently posted these links along with the statement, “It is estimated that around 100 people, many being innocent men, women, and children, die in Syria EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. What happened in France is tragic. So is the murder of ANY human.” Here’s the death toll count and a wikipedia article about the casualties. This is about human nature. And I don’t mean to universalize it. It’s about my nature. It’s about your nature. We each need to understand how you and I work and how to combat the things about us humans that lead to suffering – in us and those around us. I’m working on it as well. It’s about raising the bell curve, and we can only do that collectively – as a collective of individuals.

Compassion fatigue. That’s a term my wife used last night and I love it on so many levels. But for some groups, the phrase falls short of the deep bias that we don’t see because so many of our neighbors share it. I’ve heard about the “blue eyes–brown eyes experiment” from the video several times before and found it extremely useful for helping people visualize the injustice and irrationality of prejudice. In today’s racially divided world full of terrorism, I think we all need to consider what it means and find a way to convey that meaning to others.

Identifying with terrorists

I just saw an article saying “Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents.”

I, like many of you, am now seen by some others as a terrorist. It doesn’t matter that, in my case, my “atheism” isn’t a belief that no God exists. I much prefer weak agnostic weak atheist possibilian, with a big focus on the possibilian part. Technically, I’m as much of a theist as an atheist since much of the time I think some causal prior intelligence is as likely as no prior intelligence. Some moments I think it’s even more likely. Just owning the atheist label has marked many of us, as most labels do, with a misrepresentation of our actual views.

The last thing I want to do is write about events of suffering and pain and death. When I experience activation of the pain matrix (see the video for what the means), I’m not drawn to writing about it. I usually suffer in silence. If it’s about the loss or pain of another that I cannot affect, I want to hug my children and my wife. I want to hit the pavement, the trail, or the gym. I want to spend time in quiet contemplation, identifying and grieving with the families, those suffering in the hospital, and the families of those who caused such devastation, and yes I even offer up prayers. Where I’m drawn though, is to the terrorists themselves. Always to them. I don’t know if this is normal and I understand that many will disagree. I did not lose my child to the actions of a terrorist, so I cannot possible imagine how I would feel or judge those who default to hatred. I only know that my heart gravitates to those who are committing or have committed the atrocities. Christians may find themselves unconsciously whispering, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I identify with the notion I’ve repeated many times on this blog.

  1. We should be both humble and allow some uncertainty in our ideas about the universe and God because statistically some of our ideas must be false, especially some closely held ones since those are, on average, the least objectively examined ones.
  2. We cannot know for certain that – if we were born in someone else’s environment with their DNA (neither of which any of us have any control over) and shared their exact experiences – that we would be any different from them.

These are both relevant to everything I write on this blog as they are central to my philosophy and why I respect those who disagree. Part of my goal is to illuminate the first point (1) so that all cultures can exercise some caution and expand their understanding of the flawed reasoning that plagues us all (cognitive biases and logical fallacies).

The second point (2) is an explanation for why I respect all people, even when I do not share their conclusions or opinions. They are me. I am you. I’m not saying that things are completely deterministic. Quantum uncertainty affects some percentage of our decisions in some ways, but we are still bound up in our DNA and experiences. Everyone’s beliefs are rational and justified to them at the time. There’s another level at we each judge another’s beliefs or actions, and we form groups and collectively judge them. That is necessary for societies to function and we all understand it. The point in this post is to explain that I, personally, may disagree with you but I don’t judge your beliefs too harshly, because I can see myself in your actions and in your beliefs. I did not choose to be me and not to be you when I was born. Can you offer me the same courtesy and recognize that you could have been me? Can you do the same for the victims? My father once said that there is a fine line between being willing to die for a belief and being willing to kill for one. Can you see yourself in the beliefs and actions of terrorists, were your birth in accordance with theirs? Can you love them? And not because you feel God commands it, but because you identify with them as a human. Not a sub-human. A person… just like you.

I am certainly not advocating that we justify their actions. Because I understand someone does not mean I lay down my objections to the consequences of the beliefs and actions they impose on others. Nor would I want you do allow me to trample another. But we all already know how to hate, and rage, and seek death, and prosecute, and yearn for revenge. I know of few who will benefit from a post encourage such a response to the perpetrators of violence. That’s built into being human. I do believe we need to fight against the ideology that leads to terrorism, but terrorism is just one example of those on the other side of the bell curve. The best way to do it may not be involve being completely devoid of understanding and compassion for those engaged in the extremist beliefs (potential terrorist are one example). This post isn’t about how to hate jihadists (if you aren’t one) because that’s natural. It’s about the part we don’t often see through the rage – the subtly shifting compass needle of compassion that eventually prevents us from caring about those whose views we see as extreme.

I’ll be picking up Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism to help me understand the culture that creates beliefs that would lead to terrorism. I think if we’re serious about loving others who disagree with us then beginning to identify with the hardest-to-relate-to will move us a long way in that direction. Things like – certainty that God calls you to some beliefs and actions towards other groups, witnessing genocide of your people caused by these “other” groups, belief of a reward in the afterlife for certain faith and actions, continual “anti-other-group” propaganda poured into you from your in-group throughout life – these things and more continually reinforce that belief that the “other” group is sub-human. We could be them. I hope they can look at you and see the same of you. They may hate you, but if they only knew they could be you, and that you have reasons for you beliefs that make sense to you, if only they’d take the time to get to know you.

I disagree with terrorists, but I respect them as people just like I respect you. I don’t want them to dehumanize me, and I want to be careful not to dehumanize them. For the sake of our shared existence, and our shared humanity, I pray for them. If there’s a God listening, perhaps it may help on some level. But ultimately, I pray because it helps me synchronize my heart with theirs. Wars, and the fear of them, will rob us of our humanity as we blow past compassion fatigue and into red hatred. Our only hope is to actively and intellectually carve off the calluses that our nature secretly encases around our heart. Cling to the message of Jesus, or Buddha or the scientific rationality that our similarities outnumber or differences. Let us build on those similarities. Maybe, in time, as we try to understand one another, our similarities will diffuse the power of the ideologies that lead to human-human suffering and death.

Conclusion

As we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves, but we also dehumanize a version of us that we could have easily been (and in some real sense, a version of you that is). We are all biased against other groups in our subconscious. We can only prevent that bias from growing and resulting in dehumanization by consciously fighting against it through attempting to understand those with whom with differ. That’s the point of 1 and 2 above and the recent posts on raising the bell curve. David Eagleman’s video is immensely useful in understanding the complexities we’re talking about.

As a final effort to let this resound, I want to share a story with you that, if it were believe to be true by a society, would lead to the most moral behavior of any society I can imagine. It’s like the Veil of Ignorance but with narrative and a compelling call that echoes for long after the end of the story. It was written by Andy Weir who wrote the very excellent book that just became a blockbuster movie, The Martian…

Please read The Egg and let me know if it moves you. I may put the full contents of that story in a future post.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Love & Friendship

Pictofigo_Friendship

Dear Russell and Friends,

I’m back a week now and so happy to be so.  The cobwebs of jetlag are clearing.  I’m so appreciative of Russell’s Paean to a Peon in the last post.  I thought I would add my perspective.  When will I speak of the impact of visiting Israel?  Not for some time.  There is so much to digest before I’m ready to synthesize and share.

Last night we drove the 1.5 hours needed to pick up our oldest son at his dorm and take him out to dinner with his brothers.  We met two friends of his from high school out on a dinner date and discreetly enquired as to their social status.  He said they said they were friends.  They looked happy, compatible and able to enjoy each others company.  P1 said it with a twinkle in his eye.  “Yeah – – we’ve tried to tell them there’s more to it.”

Perhaps our young friends are discovering what the older crowd knows.  ‘Just friends’ is a middle school perspective.  Friendship lasts when passion fades.  What then is the difference between love and friendship and how does it relate to my friend Russell and me?

Love is a decision.  For a follower of Christ it is a command.  Love God.  Love others.  It has a description:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  1 Corinthians 13: 4-7

It is hard.  At least for me.  Despite Russell’s insistence, I’m not kind by nature.  I actually enjoy sarcasm and that can be quite rude.  I am irritable and prone to resentment.  I don’t bear all things, don’t hope in all things.  Don’t endure.  Love is hard.  But to love and be loved brooks no description.  It is air and you only notice it when it isn’t there. Loving Russell was a choice.  I loved him because God loved him and I honestly admired him for the way he served his wife and daughters and cared deeply about the effects of his deconversion for them.

So, what is friendship?  I’m not sure that it is as much a decision.  It is actually harder to build than love in my opinion.  Friendship is aided by such things as common interests and disinterests.  Much of what Russell and I enjoy is spawned from the common interest of science.  Do our interests diverge?  Of course. Even in science my competency tends towards psychology & biology and his towards physics, math, engineering, computer science, formal logic … (you get the idea).

Friendship requires – – time.  I used to say that time was the currency of love.  That is true as far as it goes, but it is likely more true of friendship.  I can love someone out of respect for God and his commands or out of respect for a fellow human and her intrinsic worth as a co-member of the race.  I need not know her to treat her with love.  I only need the work of:  patience, kindness, humility, pliability, and selflessness. Only that.  Easy, right?  But friendship takes time.

So what if you start with friendship?  That is what happened with my wife.  We talked, walked, listened, wrote letters and realized that we enjoyed each other’s company.  We were teens and next enjoyed each other’s embrace then married and enjoyed sharing more and more of life.  But we were friends.  Still are. In marital love, friendship is an antibody to despair and divorce.

Russell and I inverted the process – – we started with a brotherly love.  The friendship has been building.

I’m curious as to the advice you might give another – – friendship, love, both?  How does it work for you?

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit:  By Pictofigo (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Challenge for Atheists and Believers – Will You Accept?

Hello friends,

I am inspired by Pascal. While I do not share all his strengths, I do recognize his character is an image that my best self desires to reflect. If that sounds like high-praise, it is. As an oncologist, his compassion is regularly exercised and deepened by his engagement with others in their time of suffering. He fights for them and his hope and solicitude are a bedrock in the face of their own mortality. If you’re on the fence about Pascal, please get down and embrace him. Even in his disagreement, he’s respectful because his understanding of other people and their reasoning is immense. The genetic parts of his personality have been cultivated by years of actively struggling to learn about those who differ from him – and that foresight and sacrifice is what I value so deeply.

A model to follow

A few years ago, Pascal invited my family into his home. When he found that my faith did not match his own, he invited me to breakfast. When I couldn’t afford to go, he paid for my egg and cheese burrito. When I avoided faith conversations, he waited patiently, week after week, growing a friendship over hours spent in the enthusiasm of shared interests. The bond formed quickly because he’d already taken the time to strengthen his knowledge in areas that I enjoy, and he continued to do so over time. It took months, but eventually I opened up to him about my lack of faith and he accepted me. He challenged me, he listened, and we communicated. I read some books he like, and he read some books I liked so we could understand how we each think. Through the investment of time and the effort to understand one another’s point of view – especially where we didn’t share it – we grew from our opposing poles and related to one another in a stronger way. That transition was easier to the degree that we already respected each other. He had that respect from me from the beginning, because he’s a human just like me. This blog is a continuation of some of those discussions in a way that encourages others to join in the respect we already share.

Pascal and I still meet for breakfast, but we rarely spend much time on shallow things. Our topics often meander, but they’re usually quite deep and earnest. This isn’t a recipe that will work in every situation for every set of two individuals with opposing views – but it worked for us. My point is, it wasn’t easy, but he hasn’t given up yet and I’m much better for it. His actions are the inspiration for the challenge to come. I believe that everyone needs at least one person like Pascal in their life, and needs to be a Pascal for others. Ultimate, that will raise the bell curve. So…

The challenge

1) Think of someone who disagrees with you on some world-view issue (especially if they do so strongly) and schedule a time and place to meet with them this week.

Right now, give them a phone call, voice mail, text, email, Facebook message, Tweet, or something, and let them know you want to meet over a meal in your home or at a restaurant this week or next (include some dates/times). Confirm the meeting and then leave a comment letting us know your meeting is scheduled and anything you want to discuss with us before you meet with them (don’t forget to use good judgment if it’s someone of your gender-attraction).

2) Meet with them and work on your friendship (don’t try to convert or de-convert or tackle the issue(s) you see as extreme right away).

Try to understand them and see the world through their eyes. Find some shared interests to work on for next time. Feel free to refer them to this blog (or a specific post) or any other blog or information that may lead to mutual respectful conversation. Try to talk about something deep before you leave to set that precedent. Be honest, authentic and humble with them when you do, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers and that at least some of your closely held beliefs, statistically, must be false in some way. Their position is worthy of respect because they’ve had different experiences than you. If you were born in their circumstances with their parents and environment and DNA you might believe exactly as they do. If you see their view as extreme, they probably see yours the same way, so try to get to understand theirs in the same way that you would want them to try to understand the legitimacy of your own. So try to understand their views that you think are extreme, but don’t force the topic at the first meeting if the timing isn’t right. Schedule another and another until your friendship builds the needed respect. If you’re a believer, pray for them. Also, whether you’re a believer or not, spend time thinking about how you can prioritize friendship and respect with them rather than the issue you want to understand. That will come with time.

Remember that your goal through all this is to genuinely understand your opposition by seeing the world through their eyes. Don’t count what your group says about people who think the way they do as “knowledge” about how they actually think. There are likely more straw men than true representations of your opponents arguments in the impassioned cries of your in-group, because straw men are easier to knock down. Go with an open mind and a heart that seeks to connect with the heart of a friend.

Don’t wait to respect them until what you hear what they have to say. Respect them now, because they are you in a different set of circumstances, and you are them. As they speak, listen to how your life might have been if, outside of your control, you were born in their circumstances instead of yours. Find a way to legitimize them as a person and to help them grow through your shared time and your shared humanity. Love them as yourself. It’s likely that meeting them on this level, with this heart, will bring them closer to you as well. If so, encourage them to use this model as they engage others.

3) After your first meeting, comment back here in a response to your first comment and let us know how it went. Try to set a follow-up meeting if possible and appropriate.

I’m immensely grateful that we have the ability and privilege to unite together in this blog and others to discuss theology and world-views, but if those ideas never turn into action, we’re stopping short of achieving the level of potential improvement we seek in the lives of our friends and perceived enemies. If we rise above differences and focus on humanity, and if we commit together to act in the world, we really can raise the bell curve.

I’ll start the challenge in a comment below. If anyone else joins me I’ll do something unique for them in a future post. 🙂

Have a great week!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Challenge Extremism by Raising the Bell Curve

Hi Pascal and friends!

This post is a set-up for the following one which will be a challenge to atheists, christians and everyone in between.

I often mention my desire to make the bell curve taller. Some may understand that intuitively while others may benefit from a bit of an explanation. I’ll try not to let this get too dry for too long. 🙂

A bell curve is a statistical model that can be representative of most sets of sufficient complexity and size, be it a set of heights in a population, grades on a mid-term in English class, or political ideologies. If you’ve had statistical training you’ll be thinking of standard deviations from the mean, but the specifics of that terminology are more advanced than we need for this illustration. What we’re focusing on is the ends of the curve (at the tails or the poles – “polarization”) which represent the less common entities in the set being modeled – the outliers, the extremes. When we talk about extremism, this is literally what we mean. Here’s an example of a bell curve…

bell_curve

The existence of extremes is a statistical certainty in most types of data of sufficient size. In things like height or grades, there’s little or no harm to the population as a whole due to the presence of the extremes. In things like world-views, political ideologies, or most germane to this topic, religious ideologies where a percentage of the population believes a divine agent wants them to act a certain way towards the general population – extremism can be very bad for humanity. It can quickly lead to impassioned conflict, loss of dignity, injustice, inequality, violence, war, and death. Gone are the days when the most harm a person with extreme views could do is the actions he or she could perform under his or her own power. Today we have unlocked many powers in nature (biological and atomic to name a few) that can greatly augment an extremist’s ability to affect a wide percentage of the population as their views dictate. This is one of the greatest threats to humanity today and in the foreseeable future.

But aren’t differences in opinion inevitable? Yes, but there is a difference between a disagreement and an extreme disagreement. That’s when those standard deviations from the mean are relevant. I’ll skip that and just say that some topics lead to wider bell-curves than others. Consider legalizing marijuana vs abortion rights. Also, in reality the threshold between healthy argument and extreme disagreement is often much more fuzzy when it comes to ideological issues.

So who decides what’s an “extreme view”? We each do. We believe things that, given our experience and way of reasoning, we think are most rational. Therefore, when we evaluate the beliefs of others, we tend to place ourselves in the middle of the bell curve and place their views somewhere in relationship to ours at the middle. What I see as extreme, you may not, and vice versa.

Sometimes this tendency to compare other’s beliefs to our own “right ones” leads us to place theirs at a wrong place on the curve. For example, if you’re an LGBT-equality proponent and you hear that Pascal is a Christian from the south, that may lead you to wrongly assume he’s anti-LGBT rights (thus holding a potentially extreme view in your opinion). Similarly, if you’re a believer, there may be some beliefs you think I hold that, to you, may border on extreme. If I admit that I’m an atheist you may naturally think I believe that God does not exist (I do not think that). That assumption may force you, consciously or subconsciously, to place me into an area of the bell curve concerning “how we got here” or “why we exist” that is “extreme” in your view (given Romans 1:19-21). Such cases are often the result of a misunderstanding based on the frequent reliance upon assumptions when information is lacking. Assumptions are often necessary, but we should remember to recognize assumptions and hold them in low confidence, since they can easily be false – driving a wedge between us unnecessarily.

The further tendency to draw lines around those we see as different from us in some vital way and then to view them as less (less logical, rational, moral, compassionate, educated, etc. – less fully human) is really an “us vs them” survival mechanism to help us justify using means we normally object to (e.g. hatred and/or violence) to dominate what we rationalize as a “lesser being.” Seeing others as sub-human is how we justify wars and every other injustice. There is a tool we can use to fight these tendencies, and Pascal wields it well.

So what can we do? We can follow Pascal’s example of making an effort to understand our opponents. Pascal and I have long realized and embraced the lesson from Ender’s Game that knowing your enemies makes them your enemies no more (knowledge often turns into compassion and love). I tend to think in sweeping mathematical abstractions, so I summarize all this as “making the bell curve taller” or “raising the bell curve.”

Making the bell curve taller (a buffer against extremism and a bridge to understanding and love)

raise_the_bell_curve

What does it mean to make the bell curve taller? It allows actual information directly from another person to supplant the often faulty assumptions we’ve made. It also lets people connect, relate to one another, empathize, de-propagandize, and generally care about another person, which makes them seem less extreme to you and you to them. It humanizes our opponents and breaks down the stereotypes our monkey-brain erects for our protection. It involves individuals investing time and interest into the concerns of other individuals with whom they have a fundamental disagreement, to the point that they can understand that person deeply enough that they respect them, despite their differing opinions.

The more often this happens in the society, the fewer people on average are assumed to belong (and over time, the fewer actually do belong) in the extreme ends, or tails, of the bell curve. As people see their former ideological enemies as fellow humans worthy of respect, the society begins to move in towards the mean (the center, tall part of the curve) but the number of people under the curve doesn’t change. As a results, the curve gets narrower and taller. That’s raising the bell curve (see the image I just made above).

It’s depolarizing humanity (at least the ideological extremes of humanity) to safer levels that are more conducive to peace and shared concern. It’s “bearing one another’s burdens,” “knowing them by their fruits,” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and other such commands, but it transcends religious ties.

Question

It’s likely that there are many specific ways to raise the bell curves in our respective cultures. Do you have any suggestions we can try which will unite hearts across spanning ideological distances?

I want to highlight one approach to honor Pascal’s efforts with me which led to the eventual formation of this blog. I’ll do that in the form of a direct challenge to myself and to you in my next post. Stay tuned…

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Russell Unplugged

2003_Faith_Saturn_electro-acoustic_guitar

 

Dear Russell & Friends,

Good morning.  I’ve been thinking about this post for nearly a week and the coffee is just right.  Perhaps this will serve as useful background for those new to our blog.  It will certainly serve as therapy for me.  Most of the activity on the blog lately has been on Russell’s post The Problem.  It is one of his most important posts.  He might (would) put iMultiverse in the short list too.  A few miles away from here, perhaps in his sleep, Russell just smiled.

The comments have multiplied on The Problem as Russell has found a new interlocutor, unkleE.  I am 43 years old.  Russell is 7 years younger.  unkleE is twice Russell’s age and is doing, I think, what I want to do when I grow up.  He is reading, writing, engaging those who do not share his perspective of belief.  However, he is doing it in a way that I can’t – – from the personality type of INFP (81%) or ISFP (76%).  If I take the former it is only 1 letter away from Russell – – INTP.  So, from the perspective of age and from the perspective of a similar engineering-type personality he can engage Russell in ways that I can’t.

So what happened?  They both went out of their way not to offend.  That’s what I’ve been thinking about.  I have Russell’s permission to share our text stream as some of the comments unfolded.  One thing you’ll notice is that these texts had something I’ve never seen before – – an arrow at the bottom designed to reveal the words incapable of display on the largest of iPhones.  For an introvert, Russell has a lot to say.  That belies one of the misconceptions about introverts.  We have plenty to say.  Its just more comfortable in writing or with people we know well.  Russell has posted some of this in his own reply, but I’d like to give you a flavor of the text stream and what it means to know someone.  Concluding at the beginning, it takes time.  Russell and I are 2 1/2 years into a friendship that I hope will last.  It has not been easy to listen well or to be heard.  But it has been worth it.

 

R:  The unkleE comment was focused on one thing… why I’m not highly convinced that fine-tuning is a problem. He things I haven’t read enough, don’t understand the science, don’t understand large numbers, and am too biased against the evidence. That didn’t seriously hurt my feelings. I responded with more details, that’s his punishment for being critical. Haha. Gotcha’ unkleE! 🙂

P:  you two are quite a pair

R:  Indeed. I think we should Skype and hang out. I bet we’d get along great! That reminds me, are you still interested in trying a podcast, hangout-on-air youtube video with just our logo up, or some other type of audio-only conversation sometime?

P:  I actually am.  I’m interested in more than i’m successfully executing right now which is a deep and constant frustration

R:  I ran it by Howie and he’s interested. He’d join us.

I can see it being huge benefit for me for at least two reasons. Communicating ideas will, once the kinks are worked out, hopefully be done more efficiently. And it’s helpful to communicate tone of voice which adds important inflection and other vital information to the topic being discussed. It’s not very search engine friendly, but most of our hits probably don’t come from that and we have plenty of other written content on the site. I’d really like to see a comment on the blog, hit a button, record a response and paste it as a link. Haha. It would also be great to take someone’s question or point and invite people to a round-table discussion via hangouts-on-air, etc. I’d rather not do it live until we polish up a bit, though. 😊

I think I’ve made a mess of things on The Problem. In my very rushed responses I’ve done a poor job of taking the time to be as gentle as I’d prefer to be while disagreeing. Sigh. This is a rough time for me for multiple reasons. I need to learn to deal with those who challenge and criticize my form of reasoning without helping me understand and improve it by explaining exactly where it’s wrong and why. When I feel criticized with nothing to back it up, apparently, I push to hard to delineate my steps and get them to explain, but the only thing that gets discussed are the irrelevant details that aren’t part of the reasoning. I write so much that it’s hard for anyone to focus and I usually make a mistake or two that gets us further off topic. Then I get behind on work and rush my comments even more and, without taking the time to polish them, they sound more confrontational than I’d like. I now have two people saying what you’ve said (I require too much evidence). It’s not lost on me that more than one should sound alarms. Evidently, this is a hot-button issue for me. Not being told that, but being told that without an example to help me learn from. When I list the steps in my reasoning and show where I doubt and why, those specifics are avoided as if I didn’t say them (at least so far). I’m really looking for the place, exactly where my folly resides, but nobody seems to be pointing to it. I’m really beginning to feel like I’m just a very poor communicator. Maybe I am just blind to it and they’ve been pointing all along. But that doesn’t help me. 😟 I fear this is the central issue of the blog. People in camp A think people in Camp B require too much evidence. People in Camp B think people in Camp A are failing to express that they been aware of and properly considered all the assumptions and counter-evidence (often, like you, they have considered it). I don’t think anyone is believing things that are unjustifiable to them, and very few are believing things that don’t make sense. It’s almost always a communication problem where we don’t see everyone else’s evidence. So when other people think my standards are too high rather than assuming, as I do, that I’ve just seen different evidence, I want to either see what they’re seeing and fix the holes in my reasoning or ask them to tone it down a bit. But getting to the point where they point out flaws that are actually there rather than ones they assume because I didn’t clearly state everything in my comment, or getting to the point where they are willing to say it’s just different evidence rather than a high bar for evidence – both seem equally unachievable. Thousands of words later I don’t feel much closer to a resolution and I’ve likely offended people, which is the opposite of what I want. I have learned how to better express my argument for why I don’t have high confidence in fine-tuning, but I don’t think it’s helped. I think I’ve learned a lot of things not to do. No argument or point is worth being anything less than gentle and respectful, even when I feel continually misrepresented and as though almost all my key arguments are ignored, and even when time is short. This was a great lesson. Sigh. Thanks for the advice here. This helped a lot! 😊

P:Talk to your wife and ask her opinion.  She knows your heart better than anyone and will have insight here.  I think you are right about the central issue.  I can’t process the cognitive burden of 5,000 word comments and I accept different evidence in addition to empiric evidence.  The Hume quote bothered me because it was simplistic.  How much of your text do I have permission quote in a post of my own?

R:  Good advice. You can quote anything. I feel misunderstood when people think I only accept empirical evidence. Another sigh. I read interpreted his quote differently, as proportioning the level of certainty we hold to the level of evidence (pro and con). Non-empirical evidence counts, but empirical often should count more, so it’s a balance thing. I think most people agree with this, but we all tend to interpret things, at least initially, the way we’re primed for. That’s why I think the real difference tends to be that some people are comfortable staying in their beliefs if they seem right and feel good. Others have more of a tendency to actively seek out other potential explanations that could also account for the evidence (all kinds) and then hold back certainty a bit in the hopes that they don’t confidently believe false things. That’s why I try to learn about the assumptions and biases and examine them all for most claims. I can see that it’s unusual. But that seems to be the real difference. I don’t require empirical evidence or more evidence for confidence. But if I see other potentially equal or better explanations after actively examining everything, I’ll withhold certainly that my favored or initial explanation is definitely the right one. Does any of that make sense?

Also, I think the more someone is aware of and understands other alternate explanations and is aware of and fearful of their own biases (fear they made lead them confidently away from truth), the more they tend to reserve certainty in more things.  If someone has a personality that isn’t interested in such things, or hasn’t been made aware of both the flaws in our reasoning and alternative explanations, they tend to see people like me as being too critical. They just don’t think the same way. So I completely get where they’re coming from, I just think that sometimes they assume I just require too much evidence so that science won’t even lead me to confidence. What I really do is balance my confidence against all the factors I see, which isn’t usually what everyone else sees, because more than wanting to be right, I really don’t want to be confidently wrong. I think you and unkleE are somewhere in the middle on that spectrum (believe what feels right vs actively search for better alternative explanations and the modifying weight of our own biases) and I’m just closer to one end. I don’t like being on the end. 😦 Making the bell curve taller is my goal in all of this.

Wait, there are some people who do require empirical evidence and hold strong beliefs against the supernatural, etc., so am a little closer to the middle than I feared. 🙂 I need to be emphasizing caution to them more. We don’t see many. Instead I spend my time taunting biases and other possible explanations to well behaving believers in faith. Anytime I mention bias or MR I cringe. I really don’t like my position. There are very few situations one can feel like they’re being accused of bias and not feel criticized and defensive. It’s like you’re position of discussing sin. It has to start with us. I am biased too, etc. Everything on your side rests on our sin and need for a savior. Everything on mine rests on the flaws in our reasoning and alternative explanations that should keep us cautious of too much certainty. At the same time, you seem to get by just fine without talking about the points that offend people (sin) nearly as much as I talk about my offensive points. Of course, that’s largely because much of your audience doesn’t believe in it. 🙂 Some don’t believe bias applies to them either. Still, I need to learn from you. I feel my position is the more critical. 😦

P:  Wow.  Just read the last comment exchange.  IMO it would not have hurt your position to wait before responding.  IYO there were compelling reasons to respond promptly and perhaps the processing was already complete.  Hmmm…

R:  Haha. I know. I would have liked to have waited. 😦 On the other hand, I’m with family this weekend and have to drive tonight and get an early start tomorrow. I’m so far behind on everything that I really need to not have this dragging out during the week. If I didn’t respond this week I fear I may never respond. Losing momentum would have made it much harder to get back into the process and I likely would choose that over a post or two. I know you think he thinks like me, and in some sense he does because he can be technical, but in many other major areas I can’t see it. He and I process things as differently as you and I do. I wanted him to continue a few posts ago by addressing my responses to the actual argument he had made about fine-tuning rather than his opinion of my reasoning, unless he was willing to provide specifics that were related to the arguments. That’s not what’s been happening. He says it will happen in a future post on his site, but not in these comments, so they’re aren’t very helpful. The current cycle or avoiding those assumptions about his argument has gone through too many loops without being addressed and it’s dragging me down. It’s cut into my workout time more than my work time and that’s eating away at me. I wanted to wait, but more than that I wanted to be done so I can refocus. I caved. 😦 I feel bad about it. There is a lot of pressure from various areas at the moment and it was a huge relief to see something resolve. I realized this morning that what I pasted into the response was not my final draft but my first draft, which wasn’t softened. 😦 I do feel bad that I ended it on that and it was too offensive. Thank you for your follow-up, that helped a lot. 🙂

I just listened to that comment from last night. I wish I could delete it or edited it. But that wouldn’t be right. I really should have waited. 😦

Or at least checked it over to make sure it was the final version I had in the clipboard before I posted it. 😦

I will learn from this. Have a great day, Pascal.
kant_spinoza

R:  The last two points on each seem quite relevant.

Out of the block quotes and back to the coffee musings.  The last two points didn’t move me as much as the third and fourth bullet of the second section.  When I read how Spinoza handled the work of his predecessors and logical contradictions it resonated.  Did Russell feel the same way about Kant’s views?

So there it is – – a text exchange long enough for a post.  Why?  Because I sit across the breakfast table from this friend of mine and want to understand him better.  I like the way his mind works and want to discuss things on his terms, but I get in my own way.  I’m more like Spinoza (not a theist if I recall).

I do think that unkleE and Russell need to take a break.  I honestly agree more with unkleE in his way of processing.  But I won’t be able to communicate that well in writing.  I’ll need to communicate that in person with body language and tone of voice included.  That should happen Thursday night and in the many breakfast tacos that will follow.

If you have ever had the feeling of talking past someone or being talked past (Russell and I have both done that to each other then reconciled in person) how do you proceed?

Pascal – – 1:16

*photo credit:  By Tim Walker from United Kingdom (2003 Faith Saturn electro-acoustic guitar) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On Evidence and Faith

old fashioned scale

Dear Russell & Friends,

I hope this Saturday morning finds you well.  Yes uncleE and other friends in Australia, I realize it is almost Sunday.  This has been a week like all others.  One fiftieth of another year elapsed.  I do not know what proportion that year represents of my supposed middle aged life.  A treasured work colleague one year younger than me died suddenly yesterday.  His partner, our community, and I grieve.

Because I don’t know if I’m in the middle or a day from the end, the conversation here means more to me.  You mean more to me.  I’m sorry for doubting it.  No — that’s not true.  Doubt is part of who I am and a reason I feel drawn to you.  Reason.  That’s what I’d like to address this morning.  I’m grateful to Mike for his guest post and the respect that he showed in our home here.  He is a thoughtful atheist who is willing to talk.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

Mike quoted this scripture in a dialogue with Eric (uncleE) about evidence and faith.  It started with a comment that Mike offered in his guest post.  I’d like to provide the paragraph before as well for needed context.

I’m all about secularity and think people should be free to choose religion or non-religion. If anyone tried to take religious folks rights away to choose a religion, I would be in the front lines with them.

However, I will not pretend that I agree with religion – Christian or otherwise, and I’m certainly not adverse to sharing my views and doing my best to convince others to embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

The first paragraph is important to me because I need to emulate it.  I need to stand for people whose convictions I do not share.  I live in America, an imperfect place.  But one blessing that I should not take for granted is the ability to speak without being stifled.  How can I realize that blessing without defending it for another?  That was the core of Mike’s first paragraph and I appreciate it.

The second paragraph is important to me because Russell and I have often reached a point of impasse here.  Is the word instead correct?  I feel that it is the pivot of the sentence at least, likely the paragraph, perhaps the thesis.

Back to Mike’s scripture reference.  It is one of my favorites and I chose to use the King James Version because I remember it from childhood and it has the words evidence and faith in close juxtaposition.  As a Christ follower in a scientific vocation, this verse has meant the world to me.

Is faith blind?  Is it always required?  The text in Hebrews says that faith is the substance of things hoped for.  Is faith needed for things already realized?  Probably not.  I do not have faith for a table.  I’m sitting at it.  Is faith the substance of my hope for my children to follow Christ?  It is.  Is faith separated from hard work?  By no means.  My favorite epistle is James.  Martin Luther called it the epistle of straw.  I don’t particularly like Martin Luther.  James said that faith without works is dead.  So, if my faith that my sons will follow Christ is to have life, should I lead an authentic life worthy of imitation?  I argue yes.  I have faith – – belief – – in what I hope for but have not yet realized.  That faith is coupled with effort.  I can not have faith that Mike and I can continue respectful dialogue.  I have to be willing to write letters and to carefully read his.

Faith is the evidence of things not seen.  Allow me to be clear.  I am an old earth creationist.  I believe that God created the universe by authoring natural laws and allowed us to evolve to sentience.  I don’t think he directed every mutation.  He could have, but the scientific evidence does not point that way.  I don’t believe that Genesis is literal.  I do believe it is completely true.  As a student and lover of language, allegory has never bothered me.  In biological science, I have some degree of expertise.  In physical science, I have enough knowledge to plumb the depths of my own ignorance.  In social science, I have compassion, but not Mike’s degree of professional knowledge, expertise and practice.  As an aside, social workers are some of my favorite people on earth.  How is faith evidence?  Did I take on faith the existence of Pluto?  It could have been another light source that we didn’t understand.  In a thin way I did before the photos came back, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I take on faith that my life will continue if it ends tomorrow.  That is a bold claim that I can’t prove.  My personal version of Pascal’s wager is this:  if I’m wrong I won’t know it  — the can’t lose position for an egotist like me.  That is a statement of faith.

Faith is my belief in the things that I have not witnessed, accounting for the fact that even what I witness, experience and remember are constructed in a brain so complicated we barely comprehend it.  Is faith required for history?  To some extent.  Only modern history is recorded verbatim and one first run movie or internet meme will convince you that future generations may believe nothing that we so confidently record.  But I don’t really consider it faith to believe that Jesus Christ existed.  That is a consensus amongst historians just as the existence of the third Roman emperor Caligula is.

Do I need faith to believe that Jesus was God incarnate?  I do.  Scripture claims that he was.  I can question the veracity of that Scripture.  I can rightly question the legitimacy of eye witness accounts.  I can rightly question even the existence of a supernatural.  I can rightly ask why some claims of deity survived and others did not.  There are few active temples of Zeus remaining.  At every point in my chain of logic for belief, there are legitimate questions that skeptics ask.  I don’t have answers for them all.

I’m open to the possibility that I live a dichotomous life – – evidence in my professional pursuits, faith in personal.  But that doesn’t feel quite right.  I see the effects of faith as evidence.  There was a call to comfort when our professional friend was taken so quickly.  There was an impromptu memorial at our place of work.  We remembered his life.  There was an urge to pray – – a hope that there was someone greater who cared about our grief.  Is that urge evidence?  It could be.  All human societies have displayed the behavior of worship.  Is that behavior evidence?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it is an accident of our genes that made the paranoid and delusional more likely to survive.  But it could be.

Time to close this James Joyce style post.  I’m not even sure that I’ve asked or answered any good questions and for that I apologize.  I suppose I just needed to write, and in a time of sudden loss this post took a different flavor than it would have otherwise.  I do have one question that may be useful.

 embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

How would the meaning change if “in addition to” replaced “instead of”?

Pascal – – 1:16

 

photo credit:  “Bascula 9” by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez  – self made, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Bascula_9.jpg.

My Approach to Religious Friends and Acquaintances: A Guest Post

This is a guest post by Mike, my friendly neighbor to the north, at the Godless Cranium.  He graciously invited others to post to his blog and we agreed to exchange posts.  I respect his views and confirm that our correspondence online and off makes him a person I would gladly fellowship with.  I’m glad to see him actively blogging again.  

Mike, thank you for adding value to our home here. – – Pascal

First off, thank you for the opportunity to post a piece on your blog. I’m sorry for the delay. Without getting into too much detail, I was dealing with multiple issues that unfortunately took me away from my blog for some time.

However, I’m glad to be back and I hope you and your readers enjoy my take on how I approach religious friends and acquaintances.

Let Us Begin

Most of my family is religious. My mom talks about my dad being in heaven. She also reminisces about how anything that dies is also up there with my dad, and to be honest I just grin and bear it. My mom is aware of my non-religiosity and she agrees with most of my reasoning but she’s religious and that’s not going to change any time soon. She doesn’t attend church and thinks that organized religion is just there to suck money from you, but overall she believes in God and the bible etc.

I grew up around religion. I live in a culture where Christianity is prominent and I’ve grown fairly used to it. Over the years I’ve created a sort of code of ethics when dealing with religion. Here’s a few examples.

Work

I’m a social worker and I work primarily with the deaf/blind. I avoid religious talk at work. I’ve accompanied clients to church and sat through the sermon. I’ve said a prayer for a client just going to bed. If asked about religion, I deflect because I don’t think it belongs in my professional life. When I’m at work, I’m there to serve my clients and if they find comfort in me praying with them, then I’ll be doing just that.

Functions

At social functions I do not bow my head in prayer. I do not pray. I do not sing hymns. I do not profess faith in a deity I do not believe in.

At functions or in public areas where I’m not working, I do not support religion. I do not actively go out of my way to embarrass people etc., but I also don’t partake in what religion is offering.

Personal Life

If you know me at all, you will probably figure out I’m not a believer. If you ask me about religion in a non-professional atmosphere, I will discuss my views with you. I will try to do so in a polite manner unless pushed to the brink with torture threats (like Hell) or other religious inanities. I’ve been told that I’m the anti-Christ on more than one occasion, for example, and that I have ‘weird views’ on religion as a whole.

That’s fine. I make sure that I don’t actively hide my religious views. I’m openly atheist without being in-your-face about it. But if asked or drawn into a conversation about religion, I will speak my thoughts.

I believe being openly atheist is important, since many, many people can’t be. Some atheists fear for their lives, some fear losing their family and friends etc. I’m lucky enough not to fear those things. I live in a part of the world where I’m free to speak my mind about religion. Sure, I may take a few social consequences, but I’m fine with that.

Family

My wife was a Catholic when I met her and she is very much aware of my atheism. As are my step-kids, kids and close friends. We’ve had religious discussions and they are aware of my reasons for not believing. I never told my kids I was an atheist when they were growing up and I supported their right to choose religion or non-belief as they saw fit. My son believes in God and my daughter doesn’t much care about religion one way or the other. I love my family whether they are religious or not. I’ve even offered to attend church with my wife if it was important to her, as long as she didn’t expect me to bow my head (or kneel) and pray or in any other way compromise my own ethics. I would gladly (well…semi-gladly) sit quietly through a sermon if she wanted me too.

Conclusion

Basically, I try to strike a balance. I don’t pretend to be religious but sometimes I must put my religious and non-religious differences aside to help people I work with or care about. I’m proud of my atheism, because it took me a long time to arrive at. It meant many hours of reading and examining. It meant years of self-discovery, and I’m now comfortable with my non-belief in God.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t challenge that non-belief on a regular basis. I read many religious writings and constantly strive to find good arguments against my position.

I hope you and your readers enjoyed the post and thank you once again for the opportunity to post on your blog. As you probably know, I enjoy your writings very much.