Revelations from The Laughing Ghod in the Corner

The Laughing Ghod in the Corner was revealed to me in a fit of enlightenment while I was sorting out the various schismatic variations on Last Thursdayism. I was about to enter the false path of next-Tuesdayism (the belief that the Universe has not yet been created, but will be next Tuesday, if only god can manage the time) when I turned to stare into the corner of the room, and there it was, laughing.

It may have been a combination of high fever and the pharmaceuticals I was using to combat it, but I think it was divine revelation. The Laughing Ghod in the Corner agrees.

The Laughing Ghod is sitting in the corner wondering when we’ll realize that since it exists outside of time there’s no reason why it couldn’t create the universe at the end of time, rewind it, and then let us play it forward. It is sitting in the corner giggling.

Here are the revelations of the Laughing Ghod in the Corner to date.

The Laughing Ghod in the Corner

The Laughing Ghod in the Corner
(c) 2017 Martin Fouts

The Laughing Ghod in the Corner says

  • it is an atheist.
  • it has no gender, having felt no need to reproduce, although it may change its mind about that.
  • it has disproved the existence of an infinite number of gods. But it won’t tell me the cardinality.
  • all the gods are the same as far as it can tell.
  • it is on good terms with the Flying Spaghetti Monster and that they often dine with the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Dude.
  • your god won’t return its calls.
  • there could be as many gods as it wants to create, since it could always create the minor gods incapable of changing the laws of physics.
  • it hasn’t gotten around to creating the universe yet, but when it does, it will have had enjoyed doing so very much.
  • when it gets around to having invented the universe, it is going to be one where at least some of the laws of physics change over time.
  • it hasn’t created the universe yet, but when it does, you’re all going to have been very happy because it will have a very twisted imagination by the time it remember to get to it.
  • if it ever gets around to creating the universe it will definitely have been most amused by those who make a religion out of science.
  • it wants to have created the universe and then let it run but that people keep dragging it back into the universe.
  • when it gets around to creating the universe it will have made sure that The Laughing Ghod in the Corner is only subjective truth.
  • the sayings of The Laughing God in the Corner are not proof that it has created the universe yet.
  • it has a strange sense of humor, and likes to add the occasional whimsical touch to its designs.
  • it will be comprehensible whenever it speaks.
  • it doesn’t care whether you deny its existence or not.
  • it is not the uncaused cause.
  • it will invent life shortly after the universe ends, and insert it in time where it was most needed.
  • everything is a shared consensual hallucination, even the gods.
  • it rejects the law of the excluded middle, since Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive, even after Schrödinger peaked in the box.

The Laughing Ghod in the Corner says that some gods are worth listening to. Today The Laughing Ghod in the Corner overheard Joyce Carol Oates report that “Catgod says, My indifference to your suffering does not (necessarily) mean that I do not exist but only that I am indifferent.”

The Laughing Ghod in the Corner says it will consider saying that first, if it ever gets around to creating the universe.

Online Tools that Aid Thinking Skeptically

Introduction

realclearscience.com posted a short piece“Rethinking Critical Thinking With the Help of Carl Sagan”. They mentioned Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World”. The alluded to Sagan’s “baloney detection kit” from the section “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”.  One good summary can be found at the rationalwiki entry. Sagan wrote his nine tools using the language of science. I propose some reformulations in the context of social media, criticize some tools in the context of social media, propose some others and discuss online tools.

The essay spends some time discussing how to detect bad logic in arguments. It is a restatement of rules of rhetoric that any critical thinker should utilize. I will not discuss them here.

Rules restated and tools mentioned.

Each rule is presented in Italic. If the rule is in quote marks it is a direct quote. Otheres are restatements.

Doubt claims until they are verified. Rumors are often reported as facts. Unnamed sources are cited. Quotes are taken out of context or are incorrect.

  1. Find sources that are careful to distinguish what is known from what is assumed.
  2. Find independent confirmation of claims. Claims are widely repeated, often without mentioning the source. Especially with claims about ongoing events, it is important to not trust a claim if it only has one source.
  3. Find the original quote. Al Gore is often ridiculed for claiming he invented the internet. His statement was “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” His language is sloppy but he did take the lead in supporting the modern widely available internet.
  4. Find the original context. Gore made the statement “When asked to describe what distinguished him from his challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination” during an interview.

There are tools that will help you do that. Two of my favorites are Snopes, the source of the quote in the last item above, and Politifact. They do the heavy lifting in debunking bogus claims. Your favorite search engine is another good tool.

“Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.” Probably the most common interaction in social media is arguments. The problem is determining who is knowledgeable. Most of the arguments are exchanges of assertions and insults. Debates will feature references that support or refute claims. Often the same exchange will involve both argument and debate. It is frustrating to weed through the exchange and discover the debate.

Determining if a proponent is knowledgeable can be difficult. In a recent exchange I saw someone who claimed to have a law degree argue with someone who wrote the standard textbook on the field of the debate. I am unaware of internet specific tools that help you determine how knowledgeable is a person. Sometimes searching for the person will turn up evidence; but often they are using a pseudonym and can’t be tracked.

“Arguments from authority carry little weight”  Douglas Adams wrote

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

It is the quality of the argument that matters, not the role of the proponent.

Consider alternatives. It is easy to assume that there is only one choice. This is rarely true. Always ask yourself whether there is a better choice.

Don’t put more weight on an idea because you thought of it. Avoid thinking that it must be better because it’s yours.

The rest of the toolkit is specific to science and doesn’t seem relevant to thinking critically about other things.

An aside about Occam’s razor

Sagan lists it as one of his tools, but I omit it. The version most frequently taught to people is confusing resulting that it is often misapplied. It is not a law, it is a rule-of-thumb. It seems to me that it is more likely to be unusable.

Other tools

Cultivate trustworthy sources. We don’t always have time to do all of the steps.  Sometimes we must rely on sources that are consistently accurate and do the heavy lifting. Evaluate potential sources using critical reasoning, but pay attention to how often they are credible. Rely on those that have a history of being routinely credible over time.

Avoid confirmation bias. Apply critical reasoning to information that would confirm your own position.

Avoid the echo chamber. “Repeating A Lie Does Not Make It True” has a good discussion of this. Filter out any repetition of a claim.

Seek out knowledgeable people with a different point of view than yours. They are a good source of alternatives to consider. They don’t always have to hold a position contrary to yous. They do provide you an opportunity to improve your understanding.

Update: Further reading

Thanks to Sarah Kendzior on twitter for pointing me to “Some Comments on Critical Thinking and Expertise, Part 1: How Not to Approach RussiaGate on Social Media” by Christopher Stroop.

 

 

What is Science?

Just before the turn  of the century, I participated in a Usenet discussion newsgroup, talk.origins, that is dedicated to discussing origins, both cosmological and, mostly, of our species. Since the scientific explanation of the origin of our species is evolutionary biology, much of the discussion is take up between those who hold to science and those who don’t. Many of the later, and a surprising number of the former, appear not to know what science is. From that observation was born an attempt to develop a FAQ for talk.origins called “What is Science?”

I drifted away from the discussion having not addressed all of the concerns of the keepers of the talk.origins web site, most notably, having not addressed the relationship between science and religion further. Here I resurrect that document, do some word smithing and present it for discussion.

What is science?

Science is a term that describes three things:

  • The history of the human curiosity about how the universe operates.
  • A wide range of methods used to observe, describe, predict, and explain the measurable interactions of the observable universe.
  • The body of knowledge gained by using those methods.

What is the scientific method?

Although much has been made of the scientific method, there is not a single method, Scientific methods overlap those of other human endeavors, and few, if any, scientists are concerned with all areas of science.

Scientists at various times engage in observation, description, prediction, and explanation. A scientific method is a method of performing those four tasks in such a way as to be objective and accurate. Different subject matter requires somewhat different methods.

It is not unusual to lump together the methods of observation and description under the heading of experiment and the methods of prediction and explanation under the heading of theory, although this division is problematic.

What makes a method scientific?

The principle contribution of science to the human quest for knowledge is in objectifying the four categories of method.

An objective approach to knowledge is one in which two observers using the same methods will arrive at the same knowledge, since the knowledge depends only on the observation and not on the observer. Clearly there are no purely objective methods, although scientific methods strive to be as objective as humanly possible.

The idea of independently repeating an experiment to show that the observation is objective is useful, especially in laboratory sciences, but taken alone, it only guarantees that two scientists arrived at the same result. It does not guarantee that the experiment itself is valid.

To reduced the risk of performing bad experiments, scientists describe their experimental procedures to other scientists, who look for errors in the approach. The formal method of doing this is by publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals.

How is science made objective?

Science has objectified the quest for knowledge, in principle, through the application of quantification. To the extent that it can be measured it can be made objective.

Can you sum up scientific method, again, please?

The literature on scientific method, then, can be seen as a discussion of the ways in which scientists attempt to objectify the four activities of science:

  • Observation: through the use of precise measurements, careful experimental design and control, and repeatability. Observation is the basis of science.
  • Description: through the use of comparison to objective standards, most notably, again, measurements. Descriptions are built upon observations.
  • Prediction: through the use of mathematical description of interactions coupled with the design of experiments intended to test predictions. Predictions are attempts to generalize descriptions so that they may be extrapolated to new situations.
  • Explanation: through the use of peer-review and the demand that explanations account for all known observations and make falsifiable predictions that allow them to be differentiated from other explanations.

How do various scientific methods differ?

Some branches of science can rely on laboratory experiments more easily than others, or have more control over the experiments they perform. Physics, for example, can more often do its experiments in a controlled lab, than can anthropology. Some branches can rely more on quantitative descriptions while others rely more on qualitative descriptions. The same is true for predictions.

How does science add to our knowledge?

The branch of philosophy that concerns itself with how we obtain knowledge is called epistemology. One of the concerns of epistemology is determining whether a particular method of obtaining knowledge can obtain certainty by giving us absolute assurance of the truth of the knowledge.

Science does not provide such certainty because it would be be necessary to have observed everything over all time to be able to completely describe all knowledge. To the extent that scientific knowledge is incomplete it must remain uncertain. This is true of any program that wants to be scientific.

The resulting epistemology of western science is similar to the  empirical pragmatism of William James but with a much narrower focus. This philosophy is grounded in the understanding that all scientific knowledge is provisional knowledge and that any scientific knowledge may be rendered obsolete by a future observation. It recognizes that, in order to make any progress at all, science must take as given certain assumptions that can not be validated, but that have been very reliable for a long time, and so, will be used until they are invalidated.

Some key aspects of this epistemology are

  • Objectivity: [needs a good, short, definition]
  • Reductionism: the belief that problems can sometimes be subdivided into smaller problems and the larger problem’s solution can be discovered by solving the smaller problems in turn.
  • Scientific Induction: the belief that a sufficient number of observations of similarity can be used to generalize.
  • Extrapolation: the belief that certain observations that have been true in the past will remain true in the future.

Each of these beliefs has served science well, and each is constantly tested against the known observations.

What is the difference between a theory and a fact?

In science, a fact is an observation or series of observations, or a description of a series of observations. Facts are answers to ‘what is’ kinds of questions, and are the part of science that can be the most objective. A theory is an attempt to explain known facts and usually involves predictions about future observations. Theories are answers to ‘how does’ kinds of questions.

What is the role of falsifiability?

Consider a theory that makes a prediction. By testing such a prediction, we can determine if the theory is accurate or not. A theory that makes testable predictions is said to be falsifiable. It is common among scientists to accept as scientific only those theories that are falsifiable in this sense.

What is the difference between a theory and a law?

A law in science is an empirical relationship between measurable quantities. Newton’s “aw of gravity is such an formulation. Laws often hold only in special cases. Laws are often descriptions. A theory is an attempt to explain and predict. Theories often incorporate laws.

But what about the scientists?

A significant source of confusion in discussions of the philosophy and history of science is to intermix the sociology of scientists with the epistemological method of science. Scientists are humans and suffer from all of the strengths and weaknesses of humans, and so the quest for scientific knowledge has a very human history. But scientific epistemology, which is the theory that results from the practice of science, is an abstraction of human though rather than a sequence of human actions.

Is science a religion?

No. However, many people have made a religion out of a certain set of believes in what science can and can not do. To those people, the use of science has taken a religious role.

Is science the only epistemology necessary?

No. Science tells us what we can do with the universe, it can not tell us what we should do.