Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"You just have to believe!"

We've all heard it, right? You just have to believe, then everything will be okay.

Well, duh.

Can someone please tell people that the "just" in that sentence is completely misplaced? There is even a certain amount of condescension in it sometimes, when it comes from someone who does believe, has always believed, and has already achieved a certain goal.

But seriously. Has anyone here ever tried to convince themselves that the earth is flat? Sure, most of the time we're talking about subjective perceptions about oneself - "I can write a novel, I will get that girl". But who is to say that convictions in that regard are any less deeply rooted than convictions about the objective facts of our world?

Sure, when you believe in your goals, that will make them a lot easier to achieve. But it's not like you can make yourself believe anything, on command. In my experience, any attempt at such an abrupt change only results in unsurmountable resistance popping up, straight out of nowhere.

I think that, most of the time, especially when the notion I'm talking about is uttered by a motivational speaker or self-help author, it's nothing but a sales pitch. It's not like those people actually know what they're talking about - it's just an easy sell.

For all of those reasons, I rather believe in gradual, incremental change.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Dalai Lama Debates

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is just now visiting my country.

In light of this, I watched one of his speeches, and also one of the speeches of his precious few western opponents, Colin Goldner.

I won't go into the details here. Goldner, to me, comes across as intensely missionary, rigidly in search of anything he can criticize. I was rather shocked when I googled him to find that he's actually 59 years old. To me, he seemed like the archetypical young rebel. Especially when I compare him to the 70-something year old Dalai Lama. In a direct confrontation, Goldner wouldn't last a minute against the always wisecracking world-renowned uberdaddy with his constant smile and self-irony.

As for what he says, I guess he has a point here and there, while most of it is somewhat contrived and far-fetched.

But anyway. This is not so much about whether Goldner is right or not.

I think that the debate about the Dalai Lama and tibetan buddhism suffers tremendously from polarisation and confusion.

In short, I think that three rather distinct topics are constantly being whipped together in one large swoop:

  1. Tibetan buddhism as a religious and political system
  2. Chinese politics regarding Tibet
  3. The person of Tenzin Gyatso

Sadly, His Holiness' followers fall into the same trap as his opponents.

In order to have a useful debate, we need to learn to keep those factors apart. Only then can we hope to discover their interrelations and contribute something useful to the debate.

Psychoanalytical Apologetics

I happen to know a psychotherapist, Sabine Bösel, who works with the imago method. Recently, she had a public debate with local psychoanalyst Walter Hoffmann, which was printed in a national newspaper.

If you speak german, you can read the discussion here.

Mr Hoffmann, at one point, denounced the Imago method as "infantile parroting" and claimed that "all people lie in therapy". That doesn't come across as very friendly and philanthropic to me, and it's certainly not a good way to get positive PR, but anyway.

He also said that Imago can not work because "it contains no knowledge about the unconscious". He went on to say that Mrs Bösel "tends to the religious needs of the clients and their wishful thinking", and basically accused her of being a religious fraud. Again, not very friendly. No good mojo.

It is also somewhat ironic, coming from an Official of the Church of the Holy Trinity of Id, Ego, Superego, whose therapies last forever and cost all kinds of money.

But mostly, this is a severe case of religious apologetics.

See, there is no such thing as "the unconscious". If it were an actual physical entity, you'd be able to measure its diameter, and its related theory would be falsifiable. It isn't, and you're not.

"The unconscious" is really just a more-or-less useful metaphor, a chiffre for "things we don't quite understand, but need a short handy label for". The human mind is still a black-box to a large degree, and everything we say about it amounts to little more than a guessing game. Somewhat educated guesses, in the best case. In that regard, the unconscious behaves much like god, personality types, or qi.

And, also much like god or qi, this is perfectly okay in and of itself. We don't know everything, and sometimes it is useful to make assumptions. Everyone can check out a few of those theories for himorherself, gain a little experience here and there, find what suits them, and that's it.

Except it's not.

As I've probably already mentioned, and most assuredly will keep on repeating as long as apologists run wild on this planet, problems arise when people forget that their concepts are just concepts, and start treating them as actual things. People start investing emotions in those "things", and they get rather defensive when these concepts are challenged.

Such is the stuff that wars are made of. It's silly, and it's senseless, but that's how it is.

I'm currently reading a highly commendable book about medieval social history. Now, medieval doctors had no idea about germs and contagion. Instead, they assumed that illnesses were, among other things, the result of the four "bodily fluids" being out of balance. Of course, there was no empirical evidence for any of those fluids, and much less so for said balance being off. But they still went on treating people based on that wacky hypothesis. They didn't realize that it was just speculation. They took their own speculation for fact. And that's highly dangerous business. As in, people died of their cuppings and baths and other supposed remedies. Granted, at the time there was no useful alternative, so it didn't make that much difference anyway, but clinging less to those concepts might have sped up the process of finding one.

Now, Mr Hoffmann acted like a complete douchebag in that debate. That's deplorable, and I'm sure it is a reflection of his personal vulnerabilities and traumata - but it should not reflect negatively on psychoanalysis, just as Mrs Bösel's friendliness shouldn't reflect positively on imago therapy.

See, I'm not defending imago here. I have nothing invested in it. I've personally experienced it, and found it highly useful in a highly specific problem domain. But that doesn't mean that it's "true", or even that it's useful to just everyone. People may or may not respond to it. It is every bit as metaphysical as psychoanalysis, and I'm sure that therapists working with it are as much prone to falling for their own speculation. I'm sure there are advocates of imago who are every bit as apologetic and douchebaggy as Mr Hoffmann.

(In fact, they're probably not QUITE as much at risk, because analysis is much older and more established, and because it is firmly based on a much more intricate system of metaphysical concepts. Ever talked to an analyst? They seem to have an answer to, a name for everything, just like the Hare Krishnas, or Jehova's Witnesses. It's somewhat frightening, actually.)

So, instead of advocating one method over the other, I advocate taking your speculations for what they really are - more or less useful abbreviations for highly complex and mostly unexplained processes - and focusing much more on the practices of any method, than on its theory.

The other challenge, of course, is how potential clients are supposed to find out how metaphysically challenged their potential therapist is. And that, I admit, is an issue that I cannot answer. It would be interesting, at any rate, to get an answer to that question from the pros. Maybe Mr Hoffmann or Mrs Bösel is up to responding to that challenge?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand? We long to be here for a purpose - even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. [...] But knowledge is preferable to ignorance: better, by far, to embrace a harsh truth, than a reassuring faith." - Carl Sagan

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Really, the only way to innovate is to do so accidentally." (Prog21 Blog by James Hague)

Hear, hear.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Another excellent resource for skeptics

Weekly blogs from Michael Shermer and the likes of him. Very interesting reads there!

For one example, I find the idea that you can not make an improbability argument after the fact, made at, very interesting. Probabilities and statistics are a general human blind spot, in my opinion; the argument he makes is totally obvious, but still one probably wouldn't have come up with it on the spot...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Naturalistic Explanations For Religion

The goal of this article is, quite simply, to explain how religion came to be. This is, of course, a completely unachievable task for a humble little blogger such as yours truly. So, to be more realistic, my goal is to try and offer some thoughts on the subject, and hopefully provoke some debate amongst my readers.

Definitions, Definitions...

Of course, as is always the case, our definition of our subject will strongly affect the results. In order to avoid delving into a lengthy debate on definitions, I will simply use a rather broad definition here: Religion is any belief in a supernatural entity. (Whether or not reason itself is an entity like that, is past the scope of this article.) I am favouring this broad definition because I believe that the critique of any one specific religion is extremely likely to turn into a veiled apologetics for yet another religious endeavour: My explanation for religion has to potentially encompass my own religious convictions, past, present or future -- or it is not very convincing at all.

The Challenge

When we try to come up with an explanation for religion, we're facing a few obstacles that we cannot simply ignore.

The most important issue, in my opinion, is that we cannot reliably find a human being who is completely unaffected by religiosity. Even if it is true that more children are being brought up in decidedly nonreligious households today than, say, 100 year ago, they are still exposed to a culture that is informed by religion in several major ways: if you forgive my abuse of a somewhat trivial example, "Oh my god" is a widely accepted idiom in media productions to express strong emotion - indicating the terrors of the nuclear holocaust as much as the tremors of the very first orgasm. It is a nearly impossible task to determine to what degree Western ethics are influenced by 2000 years of Abrahamic domination, simply because we have nothing to compare it against. The best we can do is state that the Eastern religions have codified astoundingly similar principles, as have practically all known cultures, and then speculate that they must refer to something they all have in common.

A culture without any religious affiliations is simply unknown to us.  So whatever hypotheses we favour, can not be tested against any "control group". They will not have any predictive capabilities. They will always, necessarily, be somewhat circular and thus never have the explanative power of the theories of natural science.

Ironically, this is the same problem that the biblical authors had to solve when they tried to explain how evil came into the world (and that Freud faced when trying to explain the first patricide): We're trying to work our way back from the current state to an imagined paradisiac past state, in order to determine how one came to become the other.

While I do not believe this to be completely out of the question and fruitless, I think we can learn something from the bible here: Thine answer shall not be monocausal. A single line of causality, as useful as the metaphor is in many cases, does not apply to social and ecological systems. Those systems are better described as complex arrangements of feedback loops interacting with each other, and rarely does one phenomenon simply pop into existence because of one specific cause, at one single time. Thus, I think it's much more likely that religion developed over time, caused by many different phenomena interacting with each other and causing each other, ultimately leading to the huge organized religions we know today.

In short, I favour an "evolutionary" approach over linear causality. (I do use the word "evolution" with some caution here, though -- we should not thoughtlessly use biological imagery to explain sociological phenomena.)


I will ask the reader to bear in mind that I am not a scientist. I will not offer any scientific citations, but instead refer you to the works of people such as Mircea Eliade (for general comparative study of religion), Niklas Luhmann (for sociology and systems theory), Pascal Boyer (for evolutionary psychology of religion), Hegel (to achieve altered states of consciousness), etc.  Please consider what you read here as somewhat informed speculation, hopefully inspiring further investigation by those interested in the subject. While I enjoy writing this stuff, my daily bread is not given to me by a deity, so I have to earn it in the conventional way, shoulder to the wheel (or fingers to the keyboard, as it were).

Why It Matters

Why should we even bother to explore how religion came to be? Well -- apart from the general notion that the unexamined life is not worth living -- if you are convinced, as I am, that religion may have been a crutch for a while but has to be overcome if we are to survive another century, your strategy for building a better world will heavily depend on how you answer that question. And of course, as an atheist, you have to have an idea why people believe in god.  Only if we understand how humans come to believe in the supernatural, can we avoid falling into the same traps ourselves.

Starting An Explanation

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that religion is simply an outdated worldview. Sitting in their caves, the first humans could not come up with any explanation for thunder and lightning, and therefore attributed them to a fictitious higher being.

This time-honoured hypothesis has a lot going for it: It explains all religion from a common experience that everyone can relate to and that we can assume was present in even the earliest humans: the desire to explain the reason for seemingly inexplicable phenomena.

I don't reject it. In fact, I think that, on one level, this is a very good explanation. However, it is like a door in a labyrinth -- it leads to more doors. For, once we accept it, we have to ask ourselves: Why do humans, those living in caves just as much as those in crowded skyscrapers, favour a supernatural explanation over the accurate and realistic confession of ignorance?

As I said, I'm not a neurologist. Simple reading and experience lead me to believe that certain traits are universal in humans: One being that unsolved riddles make us decidedly anxious. We cannot stand them, and at the same time, we love them. They keep us awake and agonizing at night. It's an obsessive relationship of love and hate. (That's probably why we love crime fiction so much: It tittilates our cognitive palate, and the riddle is certain to be solved on the last few pages.)

Once we have a name for it, we imagine that we are in control in some way. Once we have some kind of causal explanation, things seem easier to handle -- even if the explanation is completely bonkers. It has a soothing effect on us.

Of course, we can -- and we should -- ask a little further: Why do we favour having an irrelevant explanation over having none at all? And why do our supernatural explanations always involve deities? (That's a lie, of course -- but I think it is highly suspicious that the Abrahamic monotheisms completely trump Buddhism, at least in terms of their respective number of adherents.)

This is the point where we enter the shady realm of evolutionary psychology, where all is conjecture and little is fixed. Let me take the time to say goodbye to the most skeptical among our readers. I think that it is a promising field, it just hasn't had enough time to evolve, if you pardon the pun.

For example, there is the suggestion of a Hyperactive Agent Detection Device active in humans: We instinctively try to explain things by animate creatures, rather than anonymous chance, especially when we're under pressure. "For example, if a human came across an indentation in the ground that might be a lion's footprint, it is advantageous to err on the side of caution and assume that the lion is present." (from Wikipedia's article on "Agent Detection")

Anyway, it seems reasonable to suggest that our brains evolved to speculate first, and delay the skeptic anylysis of our speculation until we have ample time. You can't decide on ignorance, therefore any explanation is better than none. And it seems only natural to use already-known paradigms (from within the human social group) to explain the unknown (such as thunderstorms).

Add to that some well-explored cognitive biases, and you have the ingredients for religion: First, you see an unexplained phenomenon, and instinctively attribute it to some unknown intelligence.  Then, you explain it as the result of a being that is just like you. And before you even get to properly examining it (which may well be way beyond your grave, if you're still struggling with the problem of how to make fire), your selection and confirmation bias kick in, along with appeals to audience and, probably, authority -- and bang, you've got yourself a veritable religion. The next step is to declare doubt a grave transgression that will make deity mad and has to be punished by death. From there on, the road leads straight to Golgotha.

(Please recognize that this sounds suspiciously like a monocausal explanation -- first this, then that, leading to that --, but that's not my intention. All factors will most likely have interfered, disturbed, reinforced each other quite a few thousand times before they resulted in something that we moderns would recognize as religion. One turn of the evolutionary screw is rarely ever enough to produce something useful.)

Why Do People Still Believe?

At this point, becoming slightly annoyed with my ramblings, you may ask, why does the guy hammer on about that stuff? Isn't the original explanation totally enough to clear up the issue? We just kindly and patiently explain them kids why rationality doesn't work that way, and over time, we can only win.

Short answer: No. It is not enough.

Long answer: There is yet another phenomenon that our original hypothesis does not account for. It does not explain why people still choose to believe in all kinds of supernatural and self-refuting ideas, long after the Age of Enlightenment.

If religion were nothing but an outdated explanation, then it should be easy to convince people of its irrelevance. You just teach them about Ockham's Razor, and that's it.

If, on the other hand, religious explanations coincide with our deeply rooted intuitions about how the world works, which in turn are based on our neurological shortcomings, then you should expect people to believe in all kinds of supernatural entities, even in the presence of equal or better natural explanations, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, even though they respect the rules of rational thought in every other aspect of their life.

It seems to me that evidence points to that option.

People stubbornly believe that the number two can't show up in the next round of lottery, because it has shown up in this round. They believe that water has memory and that the more diluted a solution becomes, the more potent it is; that dying your hair will make it change its inherent colour after some time, that the Queen is a reptile and that Elvis is alive.  People consult the Tarot, the horoscope, the psychoanalyst and the priest. They believe in the existence of demons and ley lines and world-spanning conspiracies.

In short, people trust their intuitions over their rational capabilities, long after they've learned about how to use rationality. (And, of course, teaching rationality is still a sadly underdeveloped enterprise in our schools.)

And of course, the author of this article is no exception. I am currently unaware of any metaphysical beliefs in my neural network, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not there. Outside the Starbucks where I'm sitting now, just a hundred feet away, a few members of Scientology are eagerly waiting to test my personality. Most probably, I will not give them the chance -- mostly because I've looked through their system and am not interested. But also because I believe that engaging with cults is risky business. We are all vulnerable, we are all susceptible to cognitive biases and wrong intuitions. I probably wouldn't fall for Scientology, right now. But for some guru, for some system that suits my emotional needs, at some point down the line when life deals me gall-spiced lemonade-- who knows. I can't be completely certain.

About 17 years or so ago, I was sitting on my own, in my flat, reading an essay by C.G.Jung on synchronicity. Just then, I thought I heard a noise from my neighbour's flat. That was odd, because my neighbour, a kind old lady, had died a few weeks before. I felt a cold chill running through me, but forced myself to read on. A few minutes later, the lamp on the ceiling started making weird humming noises. This time, I couldn't ignore it -- not with the image of a female patient of Jung's turned into a corpse still lingering in my mind. So I stood up to turn on a CD, in order to soothe me. Guess what -- the CD was broken and started repeating a phrase over and over again. That was the point when I retreated to my bed and hid under the blanket.

A mere coincidence? Well, yes, of course. But it certainly didn't feel like that. I can assure you that the impression of something supernatural and uncanny going on was extremely convincing. It was definitely the vague impression of an intelligent, or at least living agent. Otherwise, what would have been the point of my fear?

I believe that the only way to deal with those mechanisms is to become aware of them, and treat them with respect.

Closing Remarks

Even though this has gotten way longer than I intended, I still have the feeling that I barely scratched the surface. I didn't talk about sociological or economic hypotheses, or about the identity politics attached to religion.

Still, let me give the customary closing remark: If there is something to what I said, then it implies that simply explaining the irrationality of a given religious system will never be enough to convince the True Believer. You are essentially arguing against their intuition, against their experience - many will even confess that, saying, e.g., "christianity is not about teachings, but about a relationship with Jesus". At that point, the conversation becomes a lost cause -- the strong intuition of "some force that's out there" will always be stronger than the strongest logical argument.

I believe that explaining how those intuitions come about may be slightly more productive than the explanation why the content of said intuitions is wrong. After all, one problem of the theist/atheist discourse is that the atheist is always directly attacking the beliefs that are dearest to the believer, so the instinctive reaction is always to block any further thought.  If you get people to think about the shortcomings of the human brain independently of their religion, at least there is a chance that they may apply that knowledge to their own beliefs at some point.

I do admit, that this is just a vague, uncertain hope. But that doesn't mean that nobody else will have better ideas than me.