When people chose to follow one of my blogs I take a look at theirs and I’m not particularly discriminatory regarding who I follow. They may appear a little more into flower photography or describing their train journeys or taking us on a quest to discover the meaning of existence than I, and that’s all okay with me.
If, however, the theme of the blog is an evangelical exuberance about someone’s personal relationship with the heavenly Jesus, or a detailed, point by point account of exactly how the world is wrong, including a handy cut out and keep list of what action must be taken to remedy the horrors that are about to unfold, thank you for your interest, but you won’t be getting followed by me. Don’t get me wrong, you believe what you want, we don’t have to agree on anything for me to follow you. My problem here is answers. You think you’ve found them. I don’t think you have.
I know, I know!
It’s nothing against your beliefs, in fact there are also a bunch of climate change denying libertarians who also receive the same reaction regardless of their chosen mystical associations. It’s the sense that you know what it’s all about that’s the problem here.
I don’t know about much. One thing of which I’m sure is that things are pretty complicated. I see that in particle physics, I see that in astronomy, I see that in biology, paleontology, etymology, chemistry, epidemiology, and in fact everywhere where people actually keep asking questions and don’t settle for one answer. Complexity is all around us and it makes sense to me to try and grasp as much of it as we can while we’re here.
The unifying theory of nonsense
There’s always a temptation to try and look for an overarching pattern, some key to it all, some kind of big answer. Well, from what I understand of the universe, beyond certain theories within physics that have exactly zero effect on our daily lives, the idea of there being an answer to the question “what’s it all about?” seems trite.
But I really, really know it!
So if you are convinced that you have the answer to the big one, if you’re certain that you’re grasping the teleological key in your metaphysical hand, why not tuck it safely away in your pocket of wisdom. I don’t want it. If you’re so sure of everything, good. Well done! And I hope understand that my skepticism towards your simplified view of the world is not based on fear, or hate, or anger. No matter what your religion or ideology is, I’m just not that into it. There’s too much to learn about for one lifetime, too much to try and understand, too much to experience with eyes wide open, with a grounding in reality, with a basis in evidence. Far too much to spend time on fantasies, myths and traditions that tell us what we want to here, and not what we have truly discovered.
Magical mystery tour
Of course, I’m happy that people are certain about things. Sometimes I’m even a little jealous. But then I look a little closer, and I see a child on a bus journey, clutching her ticket with its destination neatly printed, eyes tightly closed, muttering with excitement about the wonderful place we’re heading to, or another child in a rage because the driver has taken a perceived wrong turn. This teleological certainty seems unproductive to me. So I look out the window, count the houses, note changes in the landscape, and most of all, enjoy the ride.
I like arguing. I love a good verbal altercation. I like talking to people who disagree with me, not for the sake of disagreeing, but for the thrill of being challenged, being confronted with an alternative world view, being forced to think differently. The Internet is a wonderful place for such interactions. You can easily search out a favorite topic, knock out a (what you think is) thoughtful opinion, respond to the reactions, get in a little fight, all without having to shout over music in a bar, with no danger of getting a drink thrown in your face when you get a little cheeky, no need for a taxi home at the end of the night. All great stuff.
The problem arises, however, when you find yourself arguing by different rules, resulting in misunderstandings, hurt feelings (not mine, usually, as I am, at times, embarrassingly thick-skinned), and a general lowering of the tone *straightens tie disdainfully*, so, for the delight of my many readers and contributors (hey, you two), I shall now attempt to lay out a few guidelines on how best to engage with me on such hot topics as: “where are ethics from?”, “why are scientists all evil?”, and “what are the chances of teleology being a measurable reality?” (One or more of those may not actually be a very hot topic) –
- even if the subject matter gets heavy, keep the tone reasonably playful and light. I believe you can make even more pointed criticism of someone’s opinion when it’s done with a smile (of course, this could be perceived as being glib, smug, or patronizing, but it’s a risk worth taking if we can avoid gloomy grumpiness).
- if your opponent has made a worthwhile and thoughtful point, take the time to acknowledge it, even if you still don’t agree.
- try and remain open to the possibility that you may be wrong. If you don’t do this, it’s hard to get the other person’s point.
- are you arguing from a logically consistent position? If you’re unsure, admitting that doubt is no bad thing.
- focus on what you have in common with your opponent. Establishing common ground should help move things along.
- ask yourself honestly what your goals are in the debate. Is it true intellectual curiosity or are you just trying to win? If it’s the latter, it may not be the best use of your time.
Okay, that’s it. I fully acknowledge that I don’t manage to stick to any of these for longer than the first few nanoseconds of kerfuffle, but my intentions are good. Anything I’ve missed?
Having butted into a discussion on another blog about morals and god and stuff, I became embroiled in a tricky argument with a nice fella who was some kind of Christian, and who took the position that science was a religion. I’m not sure I equipped myself very well, not being particularly clear and certainly far too longwinded, but in the end I managed to summarize my argument like this:
Where I step in is when people suggest that there is no way that evolution can account for certain behaviors. I’ve yet to find any evidence to support that position, and considering there is no evidence that the behavior of every animal on the planet has been shaped by *anything* other than evolution through natural selection, evolution is not even competing with serious alternative hypotheses. The construction of the origin myths and various deities are endlessly fascinating, producing a wonderfully rich texture to the history of our species, but the claim that without some of them we would somehow behave less morally is, to me, ridiculous. If the claim is that the Christian myth gives us superior morals compared with, say, Norse mythology, I see no evidence for that. The people of Scandinavia developed a complex society with social codes, restrictions, expectations, legends and guiding stories passed down generations. To claim that they lacked a morality (with the inference that they still do, as most of the Nordic nations are only nominally Christian) is just silly, but if this claim is not made, that leaves the whole validity of Christian morality hanging, imho.
So, to conclude, if people take inspiration from supposedly wise words written down a long long time ago, great! Do we need any of those words to live a good life? Probably not.
Give a child an understanding of the world around them through science, give them language skills, the gift of communication for them to share ideas and grow intellectually, independent of those around them, and give them the confidence to question, everyone and everything, to take nothing at face value, and to keep exploring until they form their own picture, do these things, and you’ll find you’ve done a pretty good job equipping that child with what they need.
So finally I felt that I got to sum up my main point, probably far too late in the day, but there you are. If you’re interested in such philosophical musings, the blog Love and Heretics is a lovely place to dip into.