Friday, 19 August 2011

On balance

Keep an open mind. The slogan of charlatans everywhere. What they mean, of course, is keep an empty mind and most of us are happy to oblige. Purveyors of homeopathy, crystal therapy and religion all understand that humans have a propensity to notice coincidences and imbue them with meaning but to fail to notice the absence of a coincidence. In other words, we are born superstitious.

My Dad was a practicing Christian in his youth but, like most thinking people, harboured his doubts. One day he prayed to God to give him a sign. Just at that moment a minor earthquake struck Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, where he was on his knees at the time. All doubts instantly expunged, Dad fervently implored God to desist. And, amazingly enough, God desisted.

I was close to my Dad and often, as a child, was plagued by nightmares that he had died (he was much older than most of my friends' fathers). The night before he actually died I dreamed of nothing at all. But suppose I had? It's not that unlikely. Let's suppose that I dreamed 100 times during my childhood that Dad had died, when in fact he had not. That's about 1% of the nights between my birth and my father's death. Assuming that the dreams were randomly distributed - not, of course, an accurate assumption but this is just an illustration - there's a 1% chance that I'd have dreamed he'd died the night before the actual event. And yet, if I'd actually had the dream on that night, I guarantee I'd be telling the story to this day. How remarkable, I'd be saying. It really makes you think, doesn't it? Well actually, no. It really makes you not think.

It is not a sign of intelligence or wisdom to insist on considering 'both' sides of every argument. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, we are technically obliged to be agnostic with respect to a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars. No-one can prove its non-existence but that is not a reason to waste time worrying about its potential existence. There are sound independent reasons for doubting that such an orbiting teapot exists and the burden of proof lies with the teapottyists.

The dominant surviving religions are deeply embedded in the societies they have infected. We atheists are often chastised for demonstrating a lack of 'balance'. Surely all those people can't be wrong? Surely, I say, no-one is stupid enough to believe that all those people can't be wrong? Why must we treat with respect imbeciles who preach the existence of a loving creator-god who answers prayers? One wonders what the exploding penis of honey bees (see here) says about the mind of god. One wonders about the problem of evil (we have free will, which lets Big G off the hook). One wonders about the under-reported observation that prayers are not, in fact, answered. One wonders why anyone would treat the claims of advocates of the loving creator-god hypothesis with any less contempt than the claims of teapottyists. Respect, we are rightly taught, must be earned. So must contempt. Believers have earned it in spades.

A balanced view admits opinions that offer evidence for their veracity. It excludes opinions of the teapot-in-orbit-about-Mars variety, that depend for their acceptance solely on an appeal to the unproveability of the contrary viewpoint. I am all for balance. I am all for keeping an open mind. But let us take the advice attributed to many different wise men but perhaps most plausibly to Carl Sagan to keep an open mind but not so open that our brains fall out.

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