How to Think Critically II: Salience

"Just another day in the city. A sidewalk grate, the kind that millions of feet trod upon every day, gives way, sending a woman tumbling into the hole and landing her in the hospital. Downtown, a 15-foot pipe falls off a 40-story skyscraper, crashing through a firehouse nearby, injuring two.In densely packed Manhattan, with so many taxis speeding down the street, so many subways to trip and fall in front of, and of course so many rapes, robberies and murders to contend with, the whole place … [Read more...]

Inducing Superstition

The human brain is a belief-forming machine. It is what defines us as a species: we guide our actions by creating mental models of the world and using those models to hypothesize about what will happen under a given set of circumstances. Our ability to create such models far surpasses that of any other species, and accounts for our unprecedented degree of deliberate technological control over the world.However, though we are intelligent, we are not infallible. Humans of every culture and … [Read more...]

Through a Glass, Brightly

In past posts such as last December's "The Theodicy of Narnia", I've called attention to some of the unintentionally revealing comments that famous theists have made about their own belief systems. C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote whole books to defend the thesis that God's existence is compatible with pain and suffering, but when it came to creating his own fictional world, he took pains to point out that its history was overwhelmingly blissful and peaceful so as not to cast doubt on the goodness … [Read more...]

How to Think Critically I

Extraordinary ClaimsIn the Popular Delusions series, I have explored just a few varieties of the vast number of nonsensical beliefs which afflict humanity. From the belief that astronomical bodies millions of light-years distant control our destiny here on Earth, to the belief that water remembers what substances were once dissolved in it, to the belief that reality is just a construct of the mind and can be altered by wishing hard enough, it seems there is no kind of absurdity a skeptic could … [Read more...]

The Harris-Sullivan Debate: III

In the previous exchange from their debate, Andrew Sullivan has declared that his faith in God is not based on any evidence whatsoever, and no imaginable evidence could cause him to change his mind about it. Sam Harris reacts with bemusement, as well he might:I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket.You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn't come to believe in God by taking any state … [Read more...]

No Oracles

One of the major purposes of religion is and has always been as a way for human beings to seek knowledge about the world they could not otherwise attain. The ancient Greek oracle of Delphi, for example, is said to have foreseen the answers to supplicants' questions while in an ecstatic trance from breathing the vapors of her cave. Comets and other unusual astronomical events were believed to be portents from God presaging events of great earthly significance such as the downfall of kings. … [Read more...]

Initial Inspiration

Most religions that exist today are of ancient origin, and their scriptures and creeds reflect the immoral beliefs of their times. However, social progress in the civilized world has led to widespread recognition of the immorality of those practices, and many churches today are in the awkward position of disavowing such evils while simultaneously maintaining the sacredness and inerrancy of the texts that teach them. The Bible, for example, explicitly states that women must remain silent in the … [Read more...]

Seeking the Hidden Switches

Two juxtaposed articles in the June/July issue of Scientific American Mind offer some intriguing insights into how theistic beliefs may have first developed in the human species. First, an article titled Preschool Determinists:When cognitive scientists Laura E. Schulz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jessica Sommerville of the University of Washington tested preschoolers, they discovered that the kids were thoroughgoing "causal determinists." The children assumed that … [Read more...]

Science is a Way of Knowing

A common accusation leveled against science by its enemies is that it is too closed-minded, too dogmatic, too authoritarian. From creationists to "alternative medicine" advocates to New Agers, the defenders of pseudoscience argue that science is closed to new ideas, set in its ways, unwilling to challenge conventional wisdom. If only science would examine our claims with an open mind, goes the refrain from each fringe community, they would see that they are fully deserving of inclusion.There … [Read more...]

Pulling Back the Curtain

The previous post in the Observatory, "On Presuppositions", discussed a few of the many ways in which bias has been shown to affect our decisions. When we expect or believe something to be true, we very often act as if it is true, and disregard contradictory evidence.Given these undeniable facts, what hope is left for us to know the truth? A cynical interpretation would be that science, the organized quest for truth, has ironically proven that science is hopeless, that every conclusion is too … [Read more...]