Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | June 24, 2010

Why I Do What I Do

I’ve been spending time arguing with atheists on a discussion forum recently. When I mention this to people, they respond with a slight “there he goes again” roll of their eyes. Ah well, they love me anyway. But in the interest of a little more understanding and slightly less arc to future rolling of eyes, I thought I’d share the gist of something I wrote by way of introduction to that forum recently. I think it explains what I’m about pretty well.

I’m no different. Like anyone, I like being understood.

OK, now that you know that this is completely self-serving, don’t you roll your eyes, too! I promise I’m gonna make you think in this one.

I can go ’round and ’round with people, sometimes to their dismay and often to the amazement of onlookers. I make no bones: I can drive people crazy. There’s actually a method to my madness, though.

I am interested in the assumptions that we build our thinking on, especially the ones that we don’t realize we have. Getting people to talk about them is a prickly proposition. The extreme case is when we treat our assumptions as givens. We use signals to indicate that we are doing this, by saying things like, “Everybody knows that,” “It’s so obvious,” or, “How can you disagree?” If someone like yours truly keeps at it, questioning those “givens,” things quickly go south and get personal. That’s how you know that you’re onto one of them.

The best way that I know of to ferret them out is to make a really good opposing case which beads right down on a “given.” When I stump or seriously challenge someone on something that they care about, and it turns out that this isn’t too hard to do with “givens,” they do one of two things. They get irrational (emotional, personal, etc.) or they take a step back and realize that they have a weak spot in their thinking. Guess which happens more often. That’s my method, as uncomfortable as it can sometimes get, of opening the kinds of discussions that I’m interested in. I’m all ears to suggestions for a better way that still actually yields the discussion. So far, it’s all I’ve got.

These aren’t “polite company” discussions, of course. I like Edie Carey’s lyrics in a song written to her father, “If I Start To Cry,” which starts:

I got so much to ask you
It’s never the time
Why would I spoil a perfect evening?
We’ve gotten this far on being polite
Besides, I know you’re proud of me

Politeness is important, but it’s not a good excuse for long-term ignorance on important questions. And sorry, I don’t think that answers will just come wafting in to us on the night air like so many ghosts. We actually need to ask the questions. Out loud. And then we need to answer them. Out loud. What can I say? There are parties that I just don’t get invited to.

Back to the atheists. My sole purpose in going to them on that forum was truly to understand: understand their positions and understand my position. Actually, for me it’s more about figuring out my own position. I am truly position-less on a number of things, on so many things that it surprises people. They tend not to believe me. Remember Harry Nilsson’s The Point? Yeah, I’m Oblio, the only round-headed person in the Pointed Village, where by law everyone and everything has to have a point, except that in my case I’m supposed to have a position. The atheists didn’t believe me, either. They are used to more of a fight. When they didn’t get one from me, they got suspicious. Short story: I think we’re getting over it.

My sole purpose in life, likewise, is truly to understand and foster understanding. Put that on my gravestone some day. Beside the fact that it’s a compulsion, I have a vested interest in figuring things out for a number of reasons. First, for my own sanity. Well, I guess that’s the compulsive part, isn’t it? Second, I have six amazing sons in whose lives I figure prominently. I raised them to think for themselves. I don’t presume to tell them what is “true” or what they should think, but I do tell them as clearly as I can what I think. There are things that I still can’t understand, things that they are grappling with or will soon grapple with. I want to have something to tell them. In the meantime I tell them, “I don’t know,” and wish I didn’t have to.

Like anyone, I have at times wanted to strangle someone or simply walk away. Fortunately, I never considered either as a viable strategy for the long haul. So, that left learning to communicate. Uphill struggle if ever there was one, just ask those who know me. In struggling with this, I wondered why. Why do people cling to things when letting them go would actually serve their causes? Why do people disregard the dearly held values of others, their precious babies so to speak, and insist on throwing them out with the proverbial bathwater? Don’t they care? Or can’t they tell the difference?

Several times in my life, I’ve started from scratch. I did this in high school once I discovered philosophy. I did it again when I discovered religion. I did it again when I came to care about people who had different religions than mine and discovered that they had the same reasons for believing theirs as I did for believing mine, so I doubted everything. I started from scratch again when I came back to religion, but this time to a group of people who told me that everything I had believed before was wrong and that the truth was very different. I believed what they said because they seemed to walk their talk, which certainly was very different. I did it again when they rejected me as if I were something evil and infected. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to rationalize the craziness that I’ve experienced. As I figure things out, my wondering about why and how people engage in conflict gets more and more general.

I started wondering why Darwinists and creationists all use the same argumentation devices, tricks and all. Darwinists find arguments based on “faith” to be laughable, and creationists tout their faith as something that they are proud of. They are actually talking about the same thing, not two different things. I’ve talked to them, and the Darwinists actually do understand what the creationists mean by “faith.” So, the source of the conflict can’t be a misunderstanding on that point, anyway. Many creationists, especially the militant ones, believe something evil or malicious is up with the Darwinists, who not only won’t listen to faith, they laugh at it. No, the Darwinists aren’t evil or malicious. They are laughing because “faith” makes no sense to them, and they don’t think that it should to anyone. The Darwinists dismiss what is precious to creationsts: their faith. The creationists dismiss what is precious to the Darwinists: their intellectual integrity, even their moral integrity.

I was trying to figure out where the source of the conflict in this argument really was. I started realizing that there was something wrong with the argument itself. I ended up realizing that the argument really makes no sense. Darwinism is not mutually exclusive from creationism, as both parties would have everybody believe. When you get down into the details that actually have evidential support, those details can be interpreted pretty well from either philosophical standpoint. So why the conflict? I suspected that it might be philosophical. Duh. At this point, I lost interest in the details, so I don’t know much about the other player in the fray, Intelligent Design.

To cut to the chase, I concluded that the disagreement that fuels the Darwinists’ argument with creationism (and maybe with Intelligent Design too) is the result of pre-scientific, pre-evidential, even pre-rational decisions made by both sides prior to and without regard for either the argument or the evidence, and that it concerns precisely the question of God. I have a label for such pre-scientific, pre-evidential, and pre-rational decisions: beliefs. Beliefs are no less prevalent on the Darwinist side than they are on the opposing sides. Darwinist beliefs just have scientific face paint on.

Coming to that conclusion made me wonder whether the atheist/theist argument itself was the same type of phenomenon: people arguing at one level when their argument and its inevitable outcome were already cast at a completely different level, one that they were ignoring or even trying to avoid. Thus my current obsession with assumptions.

So, the question that everybody who meets me wonders but hardly anyone asks: why would I put this kind of effort into a pursuit guaranteed to curtail cash flow? Like I said, it’s a compulsion. I’ve worked in information technology and I’ve worked in construction, back and forth a bit, since the early 1970s. To me, earning money has always been a necessary evil that stole time away from what I really wanted to do. In this I don’t think that I’m much different than a lot of people.

For the last 15 or so years, I tried to push the earn-me-the-money ball up the hill and over, so that I would have the means and leisure to do what I wanted to do. My goal was to fund my own research and writing. That didn’t materialize. I admit that, given the circumstances, it was a long shot. So, last year I was led by circumstances to consider the alternative: embrace material frugality in order to generate obscene quantities of leisure. I’ve been writing and discussing ever since with no end in sight. This is my kinda heaven!

I am now here on this earth to do what I always wanted to do:

  1. understand
  2. test out ideas
  3. find ways to express my ideas that can be understood by others, especially by those who disagree with me, because preaching to the choir just isn’t that much fun
  4. maybe one day over the rainbow, publish something

The best way that I know how to accomplish objectives 1-3 is to talk to people who are inclined to disagree, erect straw men for them to knock down, and learn from the experience. If a straw man stands, I get interested. And as I go along, my straw men get a little sturdier each time I erect them. At some point, they are sturdy enough that I’m tempted to rely on them. If someone then succeeds in knocking one down, I don’t see that as a problem. It shows me that there was a weakness in my thinking that I didn’t notice. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put reliance on that idea. I then try to understand the weakness, kick myself for not noticing it, and put a better, faster, stronger straw man back up for the next knock-down.

I truly am a skeptic, particularly about my own thinking. I am a thorough-going, equal opportunity, comprehensive skeptic. I only have a few things that I’m sure about. Everything else is fair game. Oddly enough, this seems to threaten people. Or maybe what threatens them is that I subject their thinking to the same level of skeptical scrutiny that I subject my own thinking to. It seems silly to me if that’s what threatens them, frankly. After all, I could always be wrong.

Q: What’s the difference between straw men and idols?
A: Nothing. Yet, straw men fall down to men, while men fall down to idols.

I’m not vested in much when it concerns ideas. When it concerns people, that’s a different matter. But as far as ideas go, I started with a simple, incontrovertible position: something exists. Something is. It’s an incontrovertible position unless you are willing to shoot yourself in the foot with whatever bullet you try to shoot it down with. Give it a try. By observation, (which to me means personal experience, since even science MUST come down to SOMEBODY’S personal experience SOMEWHERE,) by rational thought, and with the help of other people committed to observation and rational thought, I am betting my life (it’s that serious to me, isn’t it to everyone?) that we can build all that we need from there. My emphasis is on the “we.” Thus my interest in communication and conflict resolution.

Science is a huge part of all this. However, science is appropriate for some things and is not all that we need. I call bullshit when people apply science beyond what it is appropriate for. Sometimes I’m wrong to do so. Sometimes I find out that I didn’t properly understand what the domain of science is. More often, though, I call bullshit when people have unscientific reasons for making science do more than it was intended to do.

I also call bullshit when people invoke faith in God to enable them to get around scientific fact or what they (often wrongly) think are the ramifications of scientific fact on their faiths. Atheists call that kind of argument many things. Among some of the less offensive terms, they call them “sky hooks” and “airy nothings.” This is where the atheists know exactly what the believers are talking about. A sky hook is an argument that is just sitting there, hanging mid-air with no logic or evidence to support it. Airy nothings are pretty much what they sound like. When your truth gets pulled out of thin air, it tends to resemble its point of origin. Just listen to believers explain their reasons for adopting “faith.” Ask them why they believe. Then ask them how they are sure that their answer is correct. Then ask them how they know that answer. Eventually you’ll get down to something like, “because I just do,” or, “because I just know.” Sorry. Wrong answer.

After a fair amount of equal opportunity investigating and, as you might glean, a little equal opportunity bashing, I found out something interesting about all this. When I managed to get down to the reasons why science adherents pushed science too far, they turned out looking very much like the reasons why believers invoke sky hooks and airy nothings. Odd. I thought that they had a fundamental disagreement.

I keep seeing the same behavior over and over, regardless what the context is or what the argument is. Both sides of any long-standing controversy insist and defend their right to insist on throwing the opposition’s babies out with their dirty bathwater. I like babies. I don’t care whether they are “your” babies or “our” babies or “their” babies. The fact that they are precious to someone makes them worth trying to save. Even if we don’t succeed, at least we tried, and what’s the down side of trying? We already know what the down side of throwing them out is.

Maybe that’s what truly distinguishes our species from others: our unique ability to perpetuate, even institutionalize, conflict. Predators kill because they are hungry. Humans kill because… ???

That’s the tragedy: everybody has an answer, even many answers, and for all our “answers” the killing goes on. What that really means is that we remain clueless after all this time and all this killing. World peace? An end to crime? Step right up with your solutions, folks. But no one does, because we are clueless. If we weren’t clueless, it would mean that the killing and crime continue even though we could stop them. Clueless or monsters, take your choice.

But we’re talking about conflict before it gets that far. I’m looking for ways to re-frame controversies so that both sides can distinguish babies from bathwater. Once people get rational, they normally don’t want to preserve their own dirty bathwater, nor do they want to throw out babies, even if they belong to the opposition. And speaking from personal experience, in the process that it takes to tell the babies from the bathwater, they start seeing the other side a little less like opposition. Bottom line, I’m not here to change anybody’s mind except in places where they decide that they want to change them.

I get all kinds of reactions to my agenda, usually ranging from the negative to the condescendingly sympathetic. I sometimes find support, but rarely without a little eye-rolling. I think that this very interesting. After a while, after people around you roll their eyes long enough, you tend to wonder if you might be crazy. But wait! I’ve gotten that I-just-might-be-crazy feeling before. It came from listening to all kinds of people (not just my ex!) who claimed that I was chasing unicorns and jousting with wind mills and had delusions of grandeur. These were people who wanted me to stop. It might have been out of concern for my own good, but here’s what I would like to know: if it’s all so impossible, why did they put so much energy into convincing me to stop? Why not just let me find out for myself? Maybe they didn’t want me to take that hard knock. Or maybe they didn’t want to find out that hard knocks were not what I’d actually get.

I decided not to listen to them or give in to that feeling. I have yet to regret that decision.

Besides, I have history on my side. Every good idea large or small got similar reactions from people who didn’t recognize it. It’s been quite consistent. The more important ideas got those reactions all the more once people realized that there actually was something to the ideas, often from those who were pissed off that they hadn’t thought of them first. The rest of the reactions ranged from the ultimatums of Thou-Shalt-Not-Rock-The-Boat authorities who feared for their offices and their incomes to the baaing of don’t-rock-the-boat sheep who feared the authorities.

For another thing, I have statistics on my side. Statistically, those who claim “Impossible!” end up wrong 100% of the time. Think about it. Aside from the truly preposterous, somebody eventually manages to do the “impossible” almost 100% of the time. Doing that fraction short of 100% at any point in time is just a matter of time. Alchemy might be the notable exception to the rule, but if Garrett Lisi gets his way, that box might open up to us, too. Seriously. He is trying to prove a theory of matter and energy at a scale so much smaller than the atom that it’s conceivable. After all, lead and gold are only 3 steps apart. Remove three electrons, three protons, and three neutrons, and lead becomes gold. It’s that simple. Remove one more and you get platinum. It’s the same story with tin: it’s just three steps away from silver. Whachya think that would do for the economic crisis?

Besides, sometimes people even manage to pull off the truly preposterous. And once they do, it suddenly stops being preposterous. Einstein and his cronies did it. H. G. Wells took time travel seriously, just like he took travel to the moon seriously. Time travel? Preposterous? Thanks in part to general relativity, now look who’s talking about time travel: everyone’s favorite, Stephen Hawking. Still preposterous?

Looking back at what happens to us over and over, it makes you wonder why we so doggedly insist on being wrong. I think it has to do with an imagination deficit (one side of the coin) and an obsession with intellectual (maybe egotistical?) security (the other side of the same coin.) It’s even more amazing when you stop and think that we insist on being wrong when we are working with so little. Knowledge, I mean. For all the knowledge we got, we ain’t got much, not nearly enough. Either that or we’re monsters. Don’t deny the magnitude of our ignorance. It’s our last sanctuary from which to claim innocence.

The time that elapses between someone making claims of impossibility and someone utterly destroying those claims is shrinking as we go along. Is there anything that Jules Verne wrote about that we haven’t actually done, except maybe for putting a human being on a comet? You watch, that will come. We’re watching “science fiction” increasingly morph into science prognostication. As science and technology advance, the distance between imagination and reality becomes shorter and shorter. At some point imagination will become our primary concern in everything we think about doing. The question will stop being, “Can we do it?” and will become, “Is there anything that we can’t do?” At that point our humility will be tested in a way that hasn’t been possible since the Tower of Babel.

I think that we live in an incredible period of history. Impossibility is being radically redefined right before our very eyes. More power to the scientists and technologists! My concern is the fact that none of these new capabilities have helped us one whit to answer basic questions that we’ve had for thousands of years. Questions like, “Why am I here?” or, “What should I do?” or, “What does it all mean?” Gods’ sakes, we can’t even teach our children how to tell if the person they met last night is the “right one” or not! Shouldn’t we at least be able to do that? And when our children tell us that they have found the right one, shouldn’t we be able to tell them how to keep it together? Apparently not. A lot of our kids have no expectation of keeping a relationship together long-term. Some of them don’t think that doing so is healthy. Our own behavior screamed at them so loudly that it drowned out what remained of our excuses.

Many people seem content to fiddle while Rome burns or dance as the Titanic sinks. I don’t get it. Am I being melodramatic? Well, let me answer that with a question. Are you so sure that I haven’t hit the nail squarely on the head? I’d say that we have more riding on the second question.

For all our self-touted excellence in other matters, there is one thing that could stop it all: our inability to resolve conflict. Our conflict resolution “expertise” isn’t much better than what it was in the Paleolithic era if we judge ourselves based on outcomes:

You… No… Say? Me… Club… You… Hit.

Except that now we have more words to threaten each other with and our “clubs” can exterminate all of us, not just raise bumps on our noggins. Now that I think about it, what with genocides and such, I wonder if we really do any better than cavemen. I could argue that we do much, much worse.

From the 3rd Century through the 17th Century, an estimated 207 million people were killed in major wars and atrocities. That’s about 14 million killed on average every hundred years, or 140,000 a year.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, an estimated 49 million people were killed. Now we’re up to almost 25 million per century, or 250,000 per year.

In the first half of the 20th Century alone, there were an estimated 142 million people killed in major wars and atrocities, an average of almost 3 million per year. Things cooled down a bit in the second half of the century, so the century’s average killed per year was closer to 1.2 million. That’s still more than an 850% increase in less than a thousand years. And that doesn’t count all the people who lost their lives every day to preventable starvation and disease or as a result of all the wonderful technology we came up with, particularly in auto accidents.

(Sources include Matthew White’s (Possibly) The Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other and The Worst Genocides of the 20th Century.)

Still think that we’re better off than cavemen? Well, the lucky among us are. It would seem that the rest of humanity is just a little less remote than cavemen to us lucky ones, for all we’ve done about their plight.

I believe that we can do better than that. If we can’t, then shame, shame, shame on us and curses too. Call me old-fashioned, but there has to be something better than this.

I’m going to find it. Wish me luck. Any fool can roll his eyes.

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