Sunday, October 28, 2012

publicity and "Reason"

It may be presumptuous of me to critique the publicity efforts of other atheists, for two reasons. First, I'm not involved in any of it. Second, I'm a newcomer; I didn't successfully admit my atheism (not even to myself!) until a few years ago. I doubt that groups who sometimes call themselves free-thinkers could question my right or permission to criticize, but they could question my credibility. On the other hand, perhaps I can bring a fresh perspective as someone who has recently been on both "sides".

So let me point out the problem with one specific totem of atheistic publicists: the repeated word "Reason". To theists, an exclusive claim on a mental ability like reason sounds as laughable, the attempt of theists to make an exclusive claim on moral conscience. ("If you're an atheist, then why aren't you constantly cheating and stealing and murdering?") A theist, such as me a few years ago, simply responds by saying that they employ correct reason all the time, but in questions about the supernatural, they start with different premises than atheists. And reason plays an indispensable role when theists proceed to argue, like lawyers, about complicated far-fetched intepretations of the same set of sacred texts. Indeed, "deep" introspective theists are philosophical cousins to traditional rationalists; they pride themselves on their intricate logical abstractions and otherworldly mental ideals, all of which are supposedly more "real" than temporary stuff that sullies the senses.

Therefore, it may be worthwhile to consider complementary alternatives to the prevalence of "Reason" in atheistic publicity efforts. Please note what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that the theists are as reasonable as they suppose they are. No matter what else theists say in praise of reason, they're still individuals who by definition grant credence to a number of poorly-supported ideas. The task of effective atheistic publicity isn't to encourage more reason but to hint at the theistic misuse of reason. Just encouraging more reason produces the off-putting stereotype of atheists who assume that everyone other than them is unintelligent, insane, or lazy. Then theists are likelier to conclude that the message amounts to an elaborate insult instead of a provocative insight about the true weaknesses of unquestioned faith. The significant difference is the emphasis. Rather than portray their overall mindset as contradicting reason, draw their attention to the details of the real "blind spots" which they don't normally scrutinize closely enough.

Purely for inspiration, here are some examples of groan-inducing alternatives to "Reason" slogans. Brainstorming!
  • Have you checked the data behind your opinion lately?
  • Which experts are you asking for advice?
  • When faith supports beliefs, what supports faith?
  • How do you prove that other religions are false...but yours is the exception?
  • Why does a gut feeling often fail to detect minor facts...yet is also the best way to answer Big Questions?
  • What tests do your beliefs pass?
  • Who becomes trustworthy by commanding trust upfront?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

my atheism is not a faith

...But I should first address the obvious retort. By the minimal categorical definition of "a complete set of beliefs related to religion", my atheism qualifies as a faith. That's not my point.

Although this categorization might be necessary for entirely practical reasons, it can produce the wrong impression. It tempts incorrect comparisons. Both before and after my deconversion, I've encountered statements on this subject which are simply wrong. "Like any other religion, atheism requires the suppression of doubt." "Like anyone else, atheists have their own fundamental unfalsifiable axioms to serve as the basis of logical thought." "Like the existence of the supernatural, the non-existence of the supernatural amounts to a huge assumption."

However, the way that I consider it, atheism can't be yet-another-faith. It's a different type of belief than my former religiosity. That's the rationale behind the unwieldy term "deconversion". For me at least, atheism wasn't acceptance of a differing conglomerate of notions. It was dismissal of all of my religious notions. I reapplied my Pragmatic standard of meaning to the religious domain and judged it too shaky to continue believing.

Thus the deconversion to atheism did not require an equal or greater number of doubt-suppressed assumptions. It required fewer. It lowered the cognitive difficulty. I gave myself the freedom to stop strenuously separating the privileged religious domain from the normal processes of skepticism and critical thinking. I no longer had the weighty burden of either resolving or ignoring all the inconsistencies between discovered reality and the propositions of my parents' religion.

Having said that, I should also acknowledge that I still make assumptions. It seems to me that everyone does all the time. Assumptions are Pragmatic planning tools. The pivotal question is which assumptions to make. Not every assumption is well-grounded. Human inventiveness can supply assumptions at a faster rate than the rate of possible verification. It's worthwhile to be choosy with assumptions. For instance, does an assumption fit with a great number of confirmed ideas? Can it be used and tested? Does it depend on a multitude of other assumptions? Distrust of a particular assumption doesn't consist of a second assumption. Since humans swim in an ocean of free-floating assumptions, distrust of each assumption's underpinnings is the sensible default!

Moreover, I confess to a handful of "fundamental axioms". The essential distinction is that my boring axioms are mostly about methods and are not universally applicable. For example, reality has patterns. A given change usually happens at approximately the same speed. Senses yield consistent results under normal circumstances. Not everything that the human brain computes corresponds to stuff outside it. Evidence that passes a greater number of checks is more reliable than evidence that passes a fewer number of checks.

A Pragmatic atheism isn't comparable to many faiths. It's not an alternative dogma for Truth. It's a side-effect of a methodical and careful search for truths (plural, lower-case).

Friday, October 12, 2012

code word: genre

When "genre" is applied as an adjective, not a noun, what does it mean? Genre movie, genre television, genre genres...

Speaking as someone who isn't in any way part of the entertainment industry, my impression is that it's a code word for "nerdy". The undertone is that labeling media as "nerdy" is too embarrassing. Much better to use the code word whenever possible. As a nerd, I can't help feeling a little offended by this.

Part of my issue is that this practice raises more questions than it answers. I've read that this usage of "genre" is taken directly from the book publishing terminology "genre fiction". According to the Wikipedia entry for genre fiction, crime, mystery, and romance are all identifiable media genres that fiction creators intentionally target. Doesn't this indicate that Breaking Bad is "genre" (crime)? NCIS (mystery)? Rom-coms (romance)? These appear to be genre fiction according to the established definition. If someone objects to calling these genre fiction, then that objection is an indication that the genre adjective is really a code word now, and not short for "genre fiction".

I suppose that there are alternatives to both "genre" and "nerdy". These alternatives emphasize the divergence of these genre genres from prosaic contemporary life: speculative, imaginative, alternate-reality. I'm generally unimpressed by the blatant substitution of code words, but at least these alternatives positively emphasize common characteristics of the works rather than negatively emphasize what the works are not (i.e., Not Literary).

Monday, October 08, 2012

atheism is narrow-minded?

Surprises keep life interesting. Not too long ago I experienced a surprising description of my perspective of atheism: "narrow-minded". The objector explained that atheism is too dismissive of competing beliefs and too arrogant in its expression of certainty. Then they repeated a well-known quote from Hamlet. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Since I find myself existing in a complicated reality, my first reaction is to recognize the partial accuracy of these statements. If truths are defined through a Pragmatic-like approach, then it must be much more narrow-minded than the mindset that "all dogmas are equally valid". That's the advantage of it; it disqualifies incorrect/irrelevant ideas. Exclusivity is the rationale and the goal. Rather than debate the merits of abstract notions with unclear meanings, Pragmatists attempt to anchor the notions in pieces of practical reality. Notions that can't withstand this process are dropped from consideration, on purpose, with good reason.

Moreover, exclusivity is indispensable. Otherwise, disproved or unproved statements are too numerous to accept. Human inventiveness is the supplier. If the standard is lowered, then which of the contradictory statements in the growing pile shall be truths? And why should there be special treatment for proposed statements with a supernatural topic? When supernatural reality doesn't disprove any statements which humans propose, it is literally meaningless. When "X" can take any form whatsoever and confirm any statement, communication about "X" is effectively futile. It's sensible to not assume that most human statements are wholly correct. It's more arrogant to assume.

However, the "narrow-minded" aspect isn't synonymous with "close-minded". That is, I won't claim that my knowledge is either complete or inviolate. My approach simply cannot permit me to assert that prepackaged truths reached my brain via a direct conduit to a singular omniscient infallible Source. Instead I can merely cite the real sources for what I believe, i.e. the bases of my thoughts and actions. Those real sources of old information are judged relative to the real sources of new information. I'm extremely critical, i.e. "close-minded", of alleged violations of physical principles with thousands of past confirmations. I'm receptive, i.e. "open-minded", of alternative data which overturns a temporary hasty conclusion of mine. Tell me that my wristwatch is wrong, including how you know that, and I reset my wristwatch. Tell me that my soul is under inspection by Mr. Infinity, and I elevate my right eyebrow.