Thursday, August 25, 2016

Thoughts about "The Irrational Atheist" by Vox Day

I'm an agnostic. I don't believe in the God of any human religion, but I don't know what's outside the universe, so I can't assert that there's no "creator of the Universe," or God, as it's commonly called, there.

But your God? It might just be Steve. Because Steve is a powerful, yet mischievous alien.

The Book Of Hours [of reading]

"Here's a book I think you might like, but don't tell anyone I was the one who gave it to you; I don't want people to know I read Vox Day" --- how I came across The Irrational Atheist. Via he/she/xe/it who shall remain anonymous. But why?

Vox Day. Supreme Dark Lord. Leader of the Evil Legion of Evil. He who shall not be named.

Ok, I can see how his politics may be abhorrent to some. I don't care about politics. I know that politics cares about me, but I understand the commons problem, so I don't do politics.

I had promised myself that I wouldn't do any more commentary on "atheists" (especially e-atheists) and "skeptics" (especially e-skeptics). I had said all I had to say. This blog was going to be all positive all the time about science, engineering, math, business, and management.

My ideal science popularization

Still, a book with a title of The Irrational Atheist, about Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens... That's worth a look.

This is that look; 3000-words worth.

I. The Three Horse's-Asses Of The Atheist Apocalypse

That's what they call themselves, I believe, though it's four, not three. It's something like that, my memory may be failing me, lexically but not semantically (if we exclude Daniel Dennett).

VD prefaces the discussion with two important observations:
"This trio of New Atheists, this Unholy Trinity, is a collection of faux-intellectual frauds utilizing pseudo-scientific sleight of hand in order to falsely claim that religious faith is inherently dangerous and has no place in the modern world." This is one side of the error, that made by the Unholy Trinity; but as I show below, there a mirror-image version of this error, made by VD and coreligionists. (Corrected, Sep 11, 2016: Not VD, but some of his coreligionists.)
"Agnostics so often regard theists with puzzled bemusement while viewing their godless cousins, with whom they superficially appear to have far more in common, with a mix of embarrassment and unadulterated horror." Yes, this is me.
I'll present my views on the Unholy Trinity, noting where they deviate from VD's.

I.1. Richard Dawkins

Dawkins's The Selfish Gene was one of the first books I read that explained evolution in detail.* (I was a teenager then, more interested in electronics, chemistry, space exploration, and teenage girls, not necessarily in that order.) It was a good book for its time.

Sadly, that seems to have been the high point in Dawkins's opus, and also the time when his model of evolution was frozen. Time didn't improve Dawkins's material: his books have made up for the increasingly outdated model of evolution by pumping up the anti-religion sentiment.

(Anyone wishing to argue Dawkins's model of evolution will first have to pass a short test: three or four questions picked at random from Molecular Biology of the Gene --- a book I've read for leisure; several times, to make up for its price. I've had it with people who "love" science but only if they don't have to learn any. It's embarrassing!)

Interestingly, the most one can say from understanding evolution is that there's no need for a God to guide the process of creation of different species. VD and I disagree here, but that has more to do with the difference between algorithmic complexity and computational complexity than with any argument Dawkins has ever made --- another drawback of having a 1970s-vintage model of evolution.

In retrospect, Carl Sagan (the late great Carl Sagan, I should say) made a much better job explaining evolution in The Dragons of Eden than the entire Dawkins opus.

I.2. Sam "reincarnation might be possible" Harris

I remember Sam Harris saying something along the lines of that quoted phrase at a conference. He really seems to believe a lot of mysticism and superstition. But his audiences forgive him those small trespasses, as long as he continues to attack the religious, under the guise of attacking religion.

I did read one of Harris's books; it made me want to relapse into the Catholic faith of my upbringing. (I didn't.) That's how biased, poorly thought-out, poorly researched, supercilious, and absurd it was. I thought that was the worst possible case for atheism one could make.

Then I watched Harris in a conference and realized that a worse case was possible. If I had any doubts regarding my agnosticism, I would have become a young-Earth creationist speaking in tongues and handling snakes right then and there.

If anything, VD's takedown of Harris is too kind.

Paraphrasing an earlier essayist, Harris's books aren't to be tossed aside lightly; they should be thrown with great force.

I.3. Christopher Hitchens

Great wordsmith, and that's why I've read every one of his books. But terrible thinker, more interested in scoring debating points than actually constructing an argument. On these two points, VD and I are in agreement.

Possibly Hitchens's most quoted line (and a derivative of a similar Carl Sagan epigraph), "that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence" reflects a self-absorption and blindness to other points of view that is shared by many other atheists and skeptics.

As shown in this numerical example, what counts as "asserted without evidence" depends critically on the beliefs of the person who's supposed to do the "dismissing without evidence."  Namely, their a-priori beliefs and how they interpret evidence (what one thinks of as dispositive evidence is non-evidence to another).

The aggressive attitude that Hitchens brought to the atheist community --- a community which includes many whose only reason to participate is the desire to belong to a group that looks down upon others --- was one of the biggest steps back for atheism since Carl Sagan died and his guerrilla warfare on behalf of reason was superseded by direct confrontation.

Direct confrontation may play well with the echo chamber, but it's an ineffectual way to change other people's minds.

I.4. Analysis

VD calls Dawkins "The Ironic Atheist," Harris "The Incompetent Atheist," and Hitchens "The Irrelevant Atheist." No contest on Dawkins or Harris. But Hitchens, with his contagious pugnaciousness isn't irrelevant; he's relevant, like a contaminant in a chemical reactor.

That contamination contributed to increasing polarization of atheists, leading to their various schisms and fights, and the rise of the strident "atheists" whose Patreon feed requires the production of video after video substituting snark for thought or knowledge. (Look past the high-quality writing of Hitchens and what you find is mostly snark. Good quality, quasi-Waughian snark, but snark nonetheless.)

One (me) wonders whether the whole atheist "project" since the late 1990s hasn't simply been an attempt by opportunists to monetize their echo chamber by feeding the prejudices of those who want to feel superior to others without actually having to do anything that would test that superiority.

My opinion of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens is captured, by revealed preference, in how difficult it was to dispose of their books during the great decluttering of 2013: while I agonized over old scifi paperbacks for which I already had kindle versions, God is Not Great, The God Delusion, and The End Of Faith went into the 'donate' bin without a thought.

II. The Fundamentally Flawed Equivalence: God's Existence And Goodness Of Religion

When VD positions the book with "this trio of New Atheists, this Unholy Trinity, is a collection of faux-intellectual frauds utilizing pseudo-scientific sleight of hand in order to falsely claim that religious faith is inherently dangerous and has no place in the modern world," he describes one type of error,

[Science $\Rightarrow$] Non-existence of God $\Rightarrow$ Badness of religion

while not noticing that in parts of his argument in the book, and in some of his writings that I perused on his blog, he makes a mirror-image of that error:

Goodness of religion $\Rightarrow$ Existence of God [of that religion].

Correction (Sep 11, 2016): the Supreme Dark Lord doesn't argue for this. My mistake, caused by over-exposure to this type of error by well-meaning religious people. (Unlike some science popularizers and skeptic/atheists I could mention, I own up to and  correct my mistakes.)

Neither implication is axiomatic; religion, taken as part of a culture, can be evaluated separately from its divine origins. If Chicagoans' belief that the Cubs are a real baseball team keeps them happy, is the patent falseness of that belief a justification for creating unhappiness and social unrest? And does that happiness of the believers/fans, in itself, make the Cubs a real baseball team, despite their performance? (Memo to self: avoid Illinois in the future.)

(I already said all I have to say about religion, but I'll tl;dr it here: religion can be evaluated as every other facet of culture, by its values and the actions of the members.)

Unfortunately there's a lot of ignorant caterwauling about this religion and that religion and this religious leader and those religious followers; as if it all amounted to anything other than "It's God's fault," an abdication of responsibility by the responsible humans, thinly covered.

I swear to Feynman, the next time someone starts saying that religion is a force for evil tout-court, I'll tie them down, Clockwork Orange-style, and make them watch this episode of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation:

Note that a decoupling of religion from the existence of God (which I believe is the theological foundation of the Church of England, at least according to Yes Prime Minister's "The Bishop's Gambit" episode) solves the morality question: morality comes from religion (as culture); people who want to think more deeply about morality can debate the finer points of mechanism design (in the game-theoretic sense), the rest can treat morality as any other component of the culture: a screening device for the group, a signaling tool for the individual.

(While making arguments for morality, VD uses the outdated version of the golden rule: treat others as you'd want them to treat you. He's apparently unaware of the modern version: those who have the gold make the rules.)

And a final note, inspired by Sir Kenneth's video: the second stupidest thing I've ever heard Richard Dawkins say was, paraphrasing, that "we'd still have all the art without religion," something that would be a surprise to Johann Sebastian Bach, who used to write "Glory To God Alone" at the end of his compositions, including many of the secular ones.**

III. A Not-Quite-Missed Opportunity: the Kardashian of Science, spared

No, You're What's Wrong With The World!

I didn't come up with the Kardashian index; it was in Genome Biology, "The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists" by Neil Hall (2014); Science (yes, that Science) wrote about it and computed the Kardashian index for 50 popular Twitter science popularizers and scientists. The index is simply the number of Twitter followers divided by the citation count (a rough measure of influence in the field).

Surprising no one, the highest Kardashian index goes to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who, with 150 citations and 2.4 million followers has a K-index of 11,129. For scale, Brian Cox at 1188 and Richard Dawkins at 740 are second and third, respectively.

(Did I read that right? 150 citations? Career total? One hundred and fifty?)

Neil is certainly worthy of the Kardashian umbrella brand, with insightful tweets like

String theorist Lubos Motl has some kind and warm words for Neil Kardashian on the occasion of his debate with [real scientist] Brian Greene, where Neil Kardashian used that wonderful new modern scientific technique of switching off Greene's remote and then summarizing the arguments giving himself the victory.

(150 citations? Career total? Seriously?)

Given his prominence in the {skeptic, atheist,  I "love" science} talk circuit and his invasion of PBS airtime (plus an attempt at riding on Carl Sagan's coattails), I was surprised Neil Kardashian wasn't in VD's book.

The Supreme Dark Lord took some time from directing the flaying of his enemies by the Evil Legion of Evil to respond:

Apparently, neither have the other scientists, at least not in a scientific capacity. 150 citations. One-hundred and fifty citations, career total. The go-to "scientist" in the media. One hundred and fifty freaking citations, career total.

IV. Where Vox Day And Vox Mea Part Company

Obviously an agnostic (atheist with respect to all earthly religions) and an evangelic christian are going to have a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life.

Putting that aside, there are some other points of discord:

1. "Many, if not most, of the great scientists in history were religious men" [and a well thought-out argument for science evolving faster then] 

Granting ad arguendum the premise that science was moving faster in the early days of religious scientists, one possible explanation (one quite likely explanation, considering the history of the places where this science happened) is that there's a mediating factor: call it civilization. (Yes, I'm cribbing from Sir Kenneth.)

Religion contributed to the creation of a set of values that we can call, for short,  civilization. That set of values formed an  intellectual ecosystem that allowed science to flourish --- in certain locations. (That suggests that there were other, also important, parts of the ecosystem.)

The question then becomes, once there's the ecosystem, do the scientists themselves benefit from being religious? That's an empirical question, and given the large number of endogenous covariates, a very difficult one.

Simplistic analysis of the beliefs of scientists and the evolution of a number of metrics would suggest that modern scientists do well without religion. But it would take more than simplistic analysis to make a strong case. (I guesstimate that the effect would be negligible, simply because most modern people, even most religious people, live lives more or less orthogonal from their religion. Now, if we treat unfounded beliefs from funding agencies, secular as they may be, as a religion, that's clearly impactful on scientific production.)

Also, as the number of scientists and their influence in society increases (at least relative to what it was), the ecosystem itself mutates to accommodate and mold the progress of science. Which brings us to VD's discussion of some confounding factors:

2. [Confounding factors for why fewer 'great scientists' today, including:] "Religious scientists of the past had it easy, working with a relatively blank slate, and have left only the most difficult tasks for their secular successors."

The change from open peer review (where the peers reviewed by writing signed public rejoinders) to pre-publication anonymous veto was probably the biggest change to science quality. This institutional change creates incentives to comply and begets a winner-take-all system, particularly when combined with up-or-out career ladders that preclude deviations from orthodoxy in early career, when most researchers have more energy.

This confounding factor is orthogonal to religion in itself, being born of a desire to manage scientists (especially academics) like other human resources, with "objective" metrics and structured incentive systems. But it coincided with a decrease in the religiosity of scientists, so it would be very difficult to separate the effects empirically without having some instrumental variables.

3. "But the ultimate atheist irrationality is the idea that Man himself is rational."

Perhaps some atheists do believe that, but there are those like me, whose agnosticism is precisely an acknowledgment of the limitations of human reason: I know that I have in the past believed things that eventually I learned to be false, hence I don't trust a belief without a failure criterion (that is, a test).

4. "While the atheist may be Godless, he isn't without faith [JCS summary: in science and technology]"

First, let's concede the obvious point that most people, including most atheists in my experience, know very little of the science and technology that modern life depends on. There's an orthogonal issue of many people using science as an identity product, something that bothers a few of us others quite a lot. These are distractions from the main point.

There's a fundamental difference between science and faith:

It's possible to dig deep into most scientific results and engineering techniques to get to a point where pragmatically we can say "this is where it comes from, and as you can see, it passes an independent test." When one digs down religious belief, there's a point where the foundation is authority or self-experience ("revealed truth"); neither is a good foundation for building a technological society.

For example, practical limitations to computing power (measured in frames per second on Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare) are a lot more important and visible than the abstract fundamental limitation of computation found by Turing/Church/Post. So, saying that a computer is an incomplete logical system because of incomputable functions is a true limitation, but one that doesn't apply to what people care about in their daily use of computers.

People "believe" in computers because computers take them to Facebook. But they can learn how transistors work, then logic gates, then microprocessors, then operating systems, then network protocols, then distributed systems programming. At that point, they don't "believe" in the computer taking them to Facebook, they know how the computer takes them to Facebook.

People's trust in science is earned by the availability of explanations that rely on observation; the farther science gets from those observations, the less trust people put into it. (Conditional on their interest in understanding the science; as noted above, most people don't care or care only about the identity, not the knowledge.)

(This is one of the reasons why "trust us we're experts" is precisely the wrong attitude for scientists and science popularizers to have.)

Science is the substance of things to be delivered by technology, the evidence of things seen everywhere. To crib from a famous letter.

5. "The Earth is a disc mounted on the back of a very large turtle"

This point is obviously wrong. It’s a disk supported by four elephants standing on the back of the Great A’Tuin. Requiescat In Pace, Sir Terry Pratchett, satirist extraordinaire.

V. Final thoughts

In the words of Al Pacino, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Ok, ok, in the words of Michael Corleone. The book was well worth the time to read it, which given my very limited time (between work and the pile of other books to read), is a glowing endorsement.

I disagree with Vox Day on many things, like the nature of reality and the meaning of life, but his book was a good way to stress-test my own thoughts. They came out stronger for the task.

Pity that most "atheists" will never read it; they never read anything that might make them think. They would much rather be sure of their intellectual superiority over those that they deem inferior, the majority of the world.

That always ends well.

-- -- -- --

* Yes, it's Dawkins's, Hitchens's, and Harris's. The possessive "'s" is appended to singular nouns ending in "s"; it's replaced by a single apostrophe only for plural nouns ending in "s". If you don't believe me, check Strunk and White or The Chicago Manual of Style.

** This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard Dawkins say: That someone would "guide him through an LSD trip by taking half a dose." That's not how the brain works, professor Dawkins. Each brain would hallucinate independently.

Thanks to Timothy Michael Devinney on Facebook for telling me about the Kardashian Index. 150 freaking citations, career total. Unbelievable.