Truths to be Self Evident

Ten things which I think are screamingly obvious, but which other people think are outrageous.

1) Science is a reliable guide to reality and action. Authority, tradition and habit are not.

2) The claims of religion are mostly meaningless or empirically false. Believing them does not make you a better person.

3) If you have a word for something, that doesn't mean it exists. And giving a name to something you haven't defined doesn't qualify as a definition.

4) Reductionism misses the point. "Explaining" behavior in terms of brain states or genetics is useless for the same reason
explaining poverty in terms of string theory is useless.

5) Psychoactive drugs, sensibly used, add value to life and are not dangerous. This includes alcohol. There is nothing inevitable about addiction.

6) Sexuality is not a moral issue. Almost no sexuality has anything to do with breeding or genital pleasure. It pervades thought and culture.

7) Race is a fiction. Like any falsehood commonly believed, it gains a kind of reality.

8) "Common Sense" is a self-contradictory mish-mash of beliefs which the ruling class found it useful to propagandise at some point. The beliefs can endure and mutate unpredictably for centuries.

9) Competition produces cheating, inevitably. Co-operation produces better results.

10) There are no limits to hypocrisy, hand waving, double standards, willful blindness and rationalisation. All beliefs are possible, in all combinations.


  1. These are very interesting.

    1) Science is a reliable guide to reality and action. Authority, tradition and habit are not.

    I like some traditions because they're fun--like getting free candy on Halloween just because I'm all dressed up in a fun costume.

    And science can't explain everything yet, so some traditions serve to guide actions when there are no other solutions. Science may have found ways to keep people living longer, but that doesn't mean we ought to do it. I'd like to think that people are free to make their own choices.

    Some traditions serve an important function that science cannot. Do I believe that having a Xmas tree is about the celebrating the rebirth of the sun? It doesn't matter. It reminds me of happier times growing up. What I do like is that it's pretty and colorful with the decorations and lights. It makes me smile.

    2) The claims of religion are mostly meaningless or empirically false. Believing them does not make you a better person.

    I'm not a religious person, but I do feel that religion is a formalized form of philosophy, a structured mode of thinking that can be useful.

    Sure, I've experienced some f*cked up stuff from fanatics, but I've also met some really wonderful people who were kind and generous because that is what their religion teaches: Compassion, love, understanding.

    Do I believe in an afterlife? It doesn't matter, so long as it brings comfort and strength to those who're experiencing the painful loss of a loved one.

    Religion is really just a guideline to approaching life. Religion is just ideas and beliefs, and it's how people apply those ideas that define whether they're better people or not.

    9) Competition produces cheating, inevitably. Co-operation produces better results.

    I don't think all competition produces cheating. I think competition can sometimes motivate people to do their best (or their worst).

    I'm a competitive person by nature--comes from growing up in a big family with a whole lotta siblings. But I've learned to channel that energy, that drive into making myself better, motivating me to try harder, endure more, hang on just a little bit longer, just so I can be the best that I can be. Sometimes, my biggest competitor is me!

    And I think competition also pushes people to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to problems. Competition are Cooperation are great ways to meet challenges and learn new things.

  2. @Eroswings: religion is a formalized form of philosophy

    I'd put it differently. Philosophy is proto-science - it's a matter of asking questions and trying to find answers before (a) the questions are sufficiently well formulated and (b) the investigative tools are sufficiently advanced to find the answers properly. A philosophical field is what a science is before it's a science - you could call it a nursery for the sciences.

    Religion is the laziest, least useful form of philosophy.

    Q: Why does rain fall?
    A: Because the gods make it fall.

    Q: Why should I obey the law?
    A: Because god will burn you forever if you don't.

    Q: What is the value of Pi?
    A: Whatever the bible says it is - exactly 3.

    There's no way to develop these answers into something better - no way to begin to turn them into something rational, scientific and helpful. They've got to be broken before progress can be made.

    And science can't explain everything yet, so some traditions serve to guide actions when there are no other solutions.

    Fair enough. Except:
    (1) Some of these traditions are very bad solutions. Sacrificing children to make the winter go away is not notably effective, aside from any other problems it may have.
    (2) Some of them may once have been useful for a given people at a given time (eg. the levitical ban on shellfish), but they hang around for centuries after that time.
    (3) Even after it's abundantly clear that a tradition achieves nothing and actually hurts the people it's supposed to help, and even when there are plenty of better still hangs around because it's bound up with the authority structures of the society.

    I've also met some really wonderful people who were kind and generous because that is what their religion teaches

    ...and we've both met some psychotic fuckwits who belonged to the same church and claimed to be following the same teachings.

    No, I don't think people take their personality from their holy books. I think they project their personalities onto their holy books, then miraculously find their own beliefs read back to them in the texts.

    In other words, christians aren't good people or bad people because of the bible - the bible just provides the excuses they want to be what they were going to be anyway.

    Do I believe in an afterlife? It doesn't matter, so long as it brings comfort and strength to those who're experiencing the painful loss of a loved one.

    Belief in an afterlife is a harmless lie if all it does is give a comforting delusion to someone who wants comfort. People do tend to join churches after bereavement, and drift away when they don't need the support anymore.

    But a belief in an afterlife isn't harmless for a suicide bomber. Or indeed to someone who refuses medical treatment partly because they think they're going to heaven.

    Religion is really just a guideline to approaching life.

    There's no need for a god in such a guideline. Nor is there a need for a priesthood, or a legal system caught up in mystical nonsense from thousands of years ago.

    Traditions, even useful ones, don't actually need theology. Christmas doesn't need christianity, and you don't need to believe the biblical creation story to relax in Sunday.

  3. Your point 4 is unconvincing, for a number of reasons.

    Unless you believe in a supernatural animating force (i.e. a 'soul'), then you must accept that behaviour results from the physical structure of the brain, and the electo-chemical processes occuring within it. If behaviour isn't produced by the brain, what is it produced by?

    Behaviour is incontrovertibly influenced by brain states; electrodes introduced into parts of the brain generate specific, repeatable behavioural effects (with an electrode in the right part of your brain, for example, you can be induced to feel so happy you laugh, or so sad you cry). When an electrode is used to stimulate a part of the brain, this is an alteration of the electro-chemical state of the brain, and this alteration affects behaviour. This is scientific proof that brain state affects behaviour. As you say yourself, in point one: Science is a reliable guide to reality and action. Authority, tradition and habit are not.

    Every aspect of every living thing on the planet is the result of the interaction of genes and environment. This includes the brain. As we have seen, behaviour is produced by the brain, and the brain is produced by the interaction of genes and the environment. This means it is wholly appropriate to discuss behaviour in terms of genetics, just not exclusively in terms of genetics.

    Reductionism doesn't 'miss the point', it is, as the name suggests, reductive: taking complex phenomena and explaining them in simple terms. It is worth remembering that science is reductionist. Evolution is a very reductive explanation for the proliferation of varieties of living things on the surface of the planet, but it is no less true because of that. In fact, the whole physical universe is amenable to explanation in terms of simple 'laws'. Since we exist only as an aspect of the physical universe - unless, that is, you believe in the supernatural - there is no reason to suppose that we are immune from simple explanations. The problem is not with reductionism per se, but rather with poor implementations of it.

    There are very many crude and unsubtle attempts to explain behaviour in terms of genetics and brain states. These need to be seen for what they are: first attempts at explaining something that is difficult to understand. It would certainly be naive to assume that the current explanations framed in these terms are correct. It would be no less naive to assume this means that all future attempts to explain behaviour in terms of genetics and brain states will 'miss the point'.

    But the rest of your points i like... ;o)

  4. Having recently left the church I am struggling to find a new identity outside the boundaries of the doctrines I lived under for more than 3 decades.

    I think there is a vast difference between "religion" and "spirituality". Although I no longer practice a religion, I continue to have a strong sense of spirituality, of being connected to things far greater than myself.

  5. @Aethelread:

    The point I'm making is very simple, but it's not what you think it is. Here's a metaphor:

    No pattern of red tiles, no matter how complex, can make a green shape. You can have as many tiles as you like, in whatever pattern you like - but there's no change in number, arrangement, complexity or anything else that can make for green.

    But you can make a lot of shapes with them that you can't make with just one - say a portrait of Einstein. Now you can say things about the portrait that you could never say about one tile - is it a recognisable likeness, is the hair right, is it more of a cartoon than a faithful image etc.

    The portrait is made up entirely of the tiles and their arrangement, and it's shape can be entirely described by logging each tile and its place. But it's meaningless to talk about a single square tile having frizziness or having a facial expression - things which the portrait's hair and face do have.

    You may think this is splitting hairs, so to speak. But I think there is a pervasive habit in a lot of writing about science towards, so to speak, trying to find the "basis", "template" or "origin" of the portrait in the individual square, instead of in the pattern of many squares.

    Richard Dawkins says humans are "lumbering robots" (his words) whose only purpose is to be suitcases carrying their DNA - though it's a rather strange idea if taken literally, having blueprints for the design of a suitcase whose only purpose is to carry those same blueprints. Though perhaps not as strange as suitcases splicing up their blueprints to make new suitcases :-).

    Now, obviously I can't have a thought which the neurons in my brain can't coalesce to produce. But equally obviously an individual neuron doesn't have thoughts at all. Your hormones don't have mood swings, your hippocampus doesn't forget things, your neurotransmitters don't get high - you do.

    This isn't just a matter of quibbling semantics. A person's happiness is in a certain sense reducible to "having happy brain states", but it's vaccuous to say that a person is happy because their brain is happy - in the same way it explains nothing to say a sleeping pill makes you sleeping because it's a soporific drug.

    A person is happy because good things happen in their life, and in all but a very few cases, depression is a matter not of your brain slipping out of allignment and making too many of one chemical and not enough of another, like a machine with a bug. Depressed people are, amazingly, people with depressing lives. Axons and dendrites don't have lives.

    In parentheses, treating depression with drugs is like treating a knife wound to the leg by making the leg numb. It stops the pain - and also removes most of the use of the leg, which makes it a rather crude medicine. But it doesn't treat the wound at all.

    But thanks for taking the time to read my first comment, and not disagreeing with the other points.

  6. @Anonymous Female:

    I'm reminded of the line by Douglas Adams, that what we want is just stuff that works, but what we get is technology. It's like what we want is spirituality, but what we get is religion.

    You make me think of that Jem Hadar in that DS9 episode, who'd spent his entire life believing he was addicted to a drug provided by the founders...but then found his own body made the drug itself.

    Maybe all faithful people are like that - that make their own spirituality, but the church tells them they couldn't find it without them.

    Personally I always deny having any spirituality at all - just music, chocolate, and 70s science fiction.

  7. Hi again Kapitano,

    Well, you will no doubt be shocked, apalled and horrified to learn that i still don't quite agree with you... ;o) In fact, i'd written an absurdly long comment to that effect, but decided not to post it on the grounds that i don't want to turn into the online equivalent of a barroom bore. (What's that? Too late, you say...) Maybe i'll work it up into a blog post some time.

    Anyway, thank you for a very interesting discussion (and sorry if this seems like a desperate attempt to have the last word). :o)

    Take care,

  8. @Aethelread:

    Last word? I'm having the last word! Bwahaha!

    Unless you want it. Post your comment, I'll read it with interest and promise not to argue.

  9. Ya know, I actually had a paragraph about religion and spirituality, the difference between the two, and their significance to the human existence, but I cut it out because my comment was getting too long :)

    I was also going to write that Science is like religion sometimes, esp. when it comes to theories that have yet to be proven but are widely accepted based on limited evidence. I mean, take the whole Clovis first theory. For decades it was believed that the Clovis people, who came from Asia into Alaska via an ice bridge, where the first humans to settle the Western Hemisphere. And people still cling on to this theory when new evidence is suggesting that there were other people who settled here first, and they came through a coastal route. But you don't hear about the coastal route much; but everybody still assumes that it's the ice/land bridge that led the first humans to cross over into the Western Hemisphere.

    And let's not forget that scientists are people, too. Their own prejudices often color their findings. Look at all those anthropologists, like Margaret Meade, whose findings often doom an entire people to stereotypes in the eyes of a Western world that does not share the same world view. Marie Curie was the first person to win 2 Nobel Prizes, each in a different field, but was denied admission to a the French Academy of Sciences because she was a woman.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that science, like religion or any human pursuit, is either beneficial or detrimental depending on how people use it. Mengele was a scientist, and he sure was an evil bastard who experimented on defenseless people. The current (and previous) Pope protect child molesting priests.

    I think you've raised some interesting points. And I like a good debate, because it involves the exchange and the evolution of ideas!

    Suffice it to say that I was going to end my comment by saying that we are all connected, that we are made of the same stuff as stars!

    P.S. I always crack up when people insist that I obey the commandments and go to church on Sunday. It's Saturday! Saturday is the Sabbath! The 7th Day Adventists and Jews have it right!

  10. Depressed people are, amazingly, people with depressing lives.

    At the risk of oversimplifying things, by and large this is true. As soon as I got away from the oppressive environment of the church, I stopped thinking about killing myself.

    A person is happy because good things happen in their life

    To me happiness is a choice. If I'm only happy when the fates are kind, then I'm miserable most of the time. But I can choose to be happy even if things aren't going the way I'd like.

    We are not merely prisioners of our DNA, doomed to a lifetime of kneejerk reactions. We can choose to respond in any number of ways, some beneficial, others harmful.

    To me, anything that tries to remove free choice is, at least to some degree, corrupt and evil. This would include religion and government. I have abandoned the one, now I shall work to overthrow the other. :-)

    My own spirituality is a combination of sex, yoga, tai chi, nature, music and science fiction. I am much more liberal than you - I'll take sci-fi from any decade.

  11. I'm going to need an extra hour in the day just to read the comments!