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Archive for April, 2013

When I get around to it, anyway. And after I’ve done enough housework and drunk all the tea that needs drinking. So, these questions you asked ages ago before I got lazy – or busy, let’s go with busy – again:

Internally, I self identify as agnostic, although socially, I tend to self identify as atheist in those settings in which I think someone would be more pissed off by atheism than by agnosticism. Are you of the view that agnostics are simply atheists in denial, or do you see us as a distinct flavor of unbelief?

I like your style in going for whatever will agitate people more. Outside of the capacity to be annoying, though, I think a lot of the debate over whether someone is “really” an atheist or an agnostic is pretty fruitless.

It’s not that there can’t be meaningfully different positions, or that there’s nothing worth debating and disagreeing on here. But when your language is starting to obscure the subjects it should be elucidating, or when your discussion is getting sidetracked into an argument about what words mean, or what they should mean, or what you mean by them never mind what anyone else means by them, then it may be time to change tack.

Let’s taboo the words “atheist”, “agnostic”, and any obvious derivatives for a couple of paragraphs. Now I can’t fixate on my own interpretation of those words and assume everyone else is just using them wrong. So, what do I actually believe?

Well, I believe it’s very unlikely that any god actually exists. It’s possible that some such being, by some reasonable standard of “god”, is actually real and part of the world, just like it’s possible that an elephant wandered into the garden a minute ago and is about to trample over our guinea pigs. I can’t offer an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that’s not the case, but for all practical purposes I can get so close that it’s not a situation I spare even a moment seriously considering.

Any particular named deity – Yahweh, Zeus, all the rest – I give about the same probability of being non-fictional as I do to Spiderman, to within a negligible degree. Does that make me a “strong atheist”? Could my position be summed up by positively asserting “I believe that God does not exist”? I think so.

You might argue that, unless I think God’s non-existence can be proven to 100% certainty, then that remaining shred of doubt makes me an agnostic, not an atheist – but if that’s the way you’re using words, I’d be amazed if the word “atheist” is ever remotely useful to you. It seems linguistically unhelpful to set the bar that high.

If I’m actually engaging in a discussion with someone, and they care to hear an explanation of my views longer than a single word, then I’ll explain something like the above, without simply relying on the tabooed words. They can decide whether they think I’m an atheist, or an agnostic, or something else – it doesn’t really matter how they use language, or what ideas they associate with those words, so long as they understand what I actually think.

But if I’m just looking for a succinct, approximate label – something to identify myself with as a shorthand, which doesn’t need to be nuanced or precise – then “atheist” is probably my best shot at giving the largest number of people the most accurate impression of what’s going on in my head. Many of them will still be way off, but that’ll always be the case in a conversation about something complicated where you rely on individual words with no single uncontroversial definition to carry a large amount of information.

Does that help? I sort of forgot the question for the last couple of hundred words and just kept typing.

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Why do atheists spend so much time attacking a god who they say doesn’t exist?

I wasn’t asked this one in the comments of my blog post soliciting questions a few days ago, but it came up in a Twitter discussion, and it is something a lot of theists seem to have trouble getting their head around. Just why do atheists care? If God’s not real, why do they get so angry with him, and go out of their way trying to prove he’s not there? If God isn’t real, how does he manage to bother them so much?

This is a very easy one. So easy that I’m baffled as to how any theist can keep asking it after hearing even the most cursory explanation, and yet they do seem to persist. I don’t imagine it’ll sink in for many of them with yet another iteration, but here goes anyway.

God doesn’t exist. Religion sure as hell does.

What many atheists oppose, and are angered by, isn’t God, but religion. It’s the massively popular worldwide belief systems, which require uncritical acceptance of implausible and unsupported claims, exacerbate and encourage failures of critical thinking, and relegate compassion and morality as secondary to obedience and monomaniacal worship.

The God of Islam doesn’t have to exist for the 9/11 hijackers to be motivated by thoughts of him, and to bring immense grief and suffering into the world as a direct result of their irrational beliefs. Whatever god you believe in probably has his fair share of crazy shit done in his name too, which has done real damage to real people in the world I live in.

I don’t hate God. I’m not angry with him. He’s just not there. But religion, I object to. The things that do exist and cause harm to people are worth fighting against, and the notion of God is often tied up in that.

I will admit that, if he existed, any god guilty of such dereliction of duty as to allow the kind of suffering evident in the world to continue unabated for millennia, without stepping in to help or offering any reason or excuse – let alone one that would permit such an infinite, unjustifiable evil as Hell – would unquestionably be my enemy. I would defy and despise such a being with all my strength, right up until the point where I started cowering in terror and doing every pitiful and obsequious thing I could not to piss the Supreme Fascist off and suffer the consequences. Which would probably be instantaneous, if I’m honest – I don’t imagine I’d have the courage of my convictions to actually stand up against an omnipotent tyrant of such casual malice.

In principle, though, I maintain my conviction that such a god would be an unimaginable bastard. But it’s much simpler, and hugely reassuring, to assume there’s no such bastard there. I’m no more angry with Yahweh than I am with Sauron.

And I think most people understand this, even those who keep asking the question, if they’d stop having fun scoring what feels like an easy point against atheists for long enough to actually think about it. Some of them have also decried terrorists acts by extremist Muslims, casting aspersions on the whole of the Islamic faith, even while the non-existence of Allah is just as obvious to them as it is to me.

I suspect, too, that there’s a non-trivial crossover between people who profess bemusement as to why atheists spend so much time attacking a god they don’t believe in, and people who are unconvinced by the argument of “If you don’t like abortions, don’t have one”. When it’s something you care about, it becomes obvious why your concern should stretch beyond your own immediate experience.

So, another brief and unhelpful rant accomplished. I’ve got a couple more brewing, at least one of which may be presented in an interestingly different format… Stay tuned.

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If you’re arrested in the USA, you’re entitled to certain rights.

Being arrested’s not the same as being formally found guilty, after all. Once you’ve been convicted, you become a convict; if they just suspect you’ve committed a crime, you’re a suspect.

I’m tempted to embark on an etymological tangent about how the noun forms of those two words both have the emphasis on the first syllable, but the verb forms place it on the second, but that’s beside my point.

Closer to my point: When the authorities are still trying to figure out whether there’s any evidence that you’ve done anything wrong, they can’t just start throwing you in jail for as long as they like, or treating you like inhuman terrorist scum. You’re still just a person who they suspect.

If you don’t want every suspect to have full access to all these basic rights until the point of conviction, then you’re granting the police and the criminal justice system a large amount of power over literally everyone. Being arrested isn’t just for the guilty. Even convictions are often overturned when it later becomes clear they got the wrong person; merely suspecting some totally innocent people is, even more regularly, a necessary step on the path to investigating a crime and finding a guilty party.

If you want to start taking away people’s rights as soon as they’re a suspect, before any due process has found them guilty, then you want to give police the power to arrest anyone they like, on suspicion of a crime, without having to prove that they’re guilty of anything, and start refusing them the rights specifically granted them under the law and the Constitution. You basically want a police state.

If you only want to save that kind of thing for the worst offenders, the terrorists who want to destroy your whole freedom-loving country (and maybe the child molesters too because they’re terrible and frightening and definitely not human), then you still want the police to be able to decide, before any kind of trial or impartial assessment, who those worst offenders are, and how guilty are the people they’ve taken into custody. You still want to give the unelected guys with guns and badges a police-state level of power to take other people’s rights away.

And that is not a good thing to do.

This really isn’t that hard. I get that finding deep compassion for people and understanding their humanity after you’ve confirmed with certainty that they’ve done terrible things is a bigger pill to swallow, but “don’t call down the lynch mob on the first guy you slap handcuffs on, before there’s been any kind of hearing or arraignment let alone a fucking trial” is Basic Humanity 101, people. This stuff almost comes in the same lesson as the thing about not throwing bricks through paediatrician’s windows.

Some of the reaction to the arrest of a suspect in the Boston bombings has made it hard not to start shouting “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT DUE PROCESS IS FUCKING FOR, YOU GODDAMN NUMBSKULLS”. So hard, in fact, that I couldn’t hold back from shouting exactly that, in the sentence immediately preceding this one. The whole point is to put systems in place that rein in those baser instincts in us that call for immediate, eye-for-an-eye vengeance when we are wronged. It’s about recognising that we’re all made of meat, and we all fuck shit up. It’s not about making a token gesture to the ideas of accountability and transparency and individual liberty, and then chucking even that out the window once you’ve got someone who you just know is really bad.

And it’s not just from easily ignored extremists, either. Lindsey Graham’s been in the Senate for a decade, and has declared that letting this particular suspect have his rights is the last thing we may want to do. So, there you go. You can trust the cops to know who’s guilty and doesn’t deserve rights. Hardly even seems worth the hassle of a trial.

Hi again, new followers. You may also notice that, as well as a devout atheist, I’m kind of a crazy libertarian. (And even more of a crazy socialist. But we’ll get to that later.)

Anyway, I’ll be back on atheism tomorrow, in response to some questions from my last post and some other recent Twitter interaction. This is just something that bugged me today.

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So, as even my new followers in this exciting post-Bieber era have probably noticed by now, I’m an atheist.

And there’s this thing called Ask An Atheist Day. It’s more of an occasion on certain campuses and stuff in the States, but it’s noted across the blogosphere too, so here I am.

I’m an atheist. Feel free to ask me stuff. About atheism. Or something else.

It doesn’t really need a special day for it, in my case. The comments section here and my Twitter are pretty much an open invitation to ask me stuff about anything, at any time, with no grammatical or common-sensical obligations. But it’s a handy excuse to not write anything substantial today. Which is good, because I don’t have time. I’ve got to go eat chicken kievs and watch some torture porn. My fiancée’s making me. It’s a hard life.

Have fun.

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Let’s play God for a moment.

You can take a while to get into character, if you like. Feel free to dress up, put on a fake beard, kill some children with bears, whatever helps.

Okay. So you’re God. You’ve got a brand new universe to play with, fresh out of the box. You’re starting small, but you’ve got big plans. You know everything there is to know and your power is unlimited. It’s good to be you.

You’re going to create some people. Other minds, living beings. Tiny and barely significant compared to you, of course, but valuable in their own way. They’ll all be your children, though in a different way from how these life-forms will rear their own offspring eventually. You love them powerfully. You want them to do well and be happy.

You can pretty much fill in the blanks for yourself from here. Plan your cosmos. Think about how you’d populate the natural and supernatural realms that you’re creating entirely so that these beings can live in them, and love you. Feel free to take inspiration from any real-life examples of a deity creating everything that is, was, and ever will be. If you happen to know of any.

Remember: the people you’re creating are living, conscious beings, with wills of their own, and you love every one of them, and want them to love you. This is important.

I won’t pry into the details of how you’d arrange things. This is mostly just a fun little mental exercise.

…I do have one question though. Just something I can’t help but idly speculate about. If you wouldn’t mind indulging my curiosity.

In this universe – the one you’ve created using your infinite power and infinite knowledge, specifically to express your boundless love for your children with every intention of encouraging them to thrive and love you and revel in your glory – among all the worlds and wonders you’ve created, the sights and sounds and smells you’ve put in place to delight the senses, the atoms and galaxies you’ve finely tuned just so – in all the cosmos and beyond, created by you, a god of infinite love…

…is there a bit somewhere in your creation where millions of your children end up in constant endless pain forever and ever with not a single shred of hope for escape or relief?

I’m not saying there should or there shouldn’t be. Don’t let my questions influence your judgment; it’s your universe, you can do what you like with it. I was just wondering.

It’s just… I mean, forgive me for editorialising, I certainly don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but… if I was all-powerful, and all-loving, and had millions of children bumbling imperfectly around, who I want to love me but who I also care for in their own right, above and beyond my own ego, and who I’m amply capable of looking after as an omnipotent being…

…then I probably wouldn’t make it so that there’s this big fiery pit which they might blindly stumble into and scream in anguish for the rest of eternity and which I could let them out from but I never ever will.

It seems like, with all those resources at my disposal, y’know, the omnipotence and all, I could probably – probably – come up with some better way of arranging things than that. Something that didn’t require a one-shot, irreversible turning point in the existence of all my beloved children – at the point of their death, say, or whatever – where, if they’ve let me down in some way, they get sent away into some kind of hellish… well, Hell, with no reprieve under any circumstances, no matter how much they beg and plead and repent for the next trillion years of suffering.

Seems like I could be less of a dick than that to these beings I apparently love so much.

I don’t want to tell you how to do your job. I’m just saying.

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An observation in the wake of happenings in Boston:

I mentioned in passing yesterday that some people immediately started completely making shit up about atheists being responsible for the explosions in Boston. Literally within minutes of the news, a cabal of tragic individuals started ranting and screeching about how all unbelievers are murderers and it’s all Richard Dawkins’ fault and on and on.

It all deserves nothing more than to be ignored. There is no sensible path available to us which disregards that advice. But in the times when I’ve failed to follow it, I’ve invariably found the delusions of these people more offensive, more personally galling, more viscerally disgusting, than the notional terrorist bombings themselves.

Slightly more offensive again, is the way my iPhone’s Twitter app kept crashing while I was trying to keep up with all the news.

Obviously this is insane. I mention it only as an example of the way my hind-brain’s priorities – the ones that arise automatically and emotionally, and which I feel before I’ve had a chance to determine what I think – are unbelievably screwed up. It’s concerning to think where they might take me if I lacked the wherewithal to realise how misleading they are.

It’s all about good ol’ metacognition again, y’see. Important stuff.

Oh, and a secondary observation: give blood. Not just now, in the immediate aftermath of a highly noticeable catastrophe. Whenever you can. There is always someone very close by who needs some of your blood and will die if they don’t get it. Current medical science is such that this is, sadly, literally true – but it is also such that you can save a life just by giving up a half-hour or so of your time and claiming some free biscuits. I started doing it, in part, because they set up a donation centre every few weeks in a hall I walk past every day on my way home from work. I saw one of the ambulances parked outside one day, found out what was going on, and booked myself in for a future visit (with some prompting from a friendly local nurse). Please, find out if there’s anything like that near where you live.

So there’s your pep talk for the day, folks. Save someone’s life, and continue to not feed the trolls.

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Well, this is exciting. I’ve had a whole swarm of new followers and passers-by after my Bieber-blog was some kind of featured Thing Of The Day on WordPress. Huzzah! You’re all very welcome. I appreciate all the feedback – the general opinion in the comments seems to be that I was too easy on Bieber for being self-centred, which is certainly valid, but absolutely nobody declared that I’m worse than Hitler-AIDS for thinking what I did. So that’s very encouraging.

That post was a bit of an outlier, though. I’ve barely mentioned Justin Bieber before, and I don’t expect he’ll come up again anytime soon. Today, I’m getting back to one of the more consistent themes of this place. Feel free to continue joining in, or to quietly wander off again once you’ve realised what I’m actually like.

So, let’s recap the story so far:

God does not exist.

There, that pretty much covers it.

And as well as posting articles about this on my blog, sporadically but at length, I’ve recently been cultivating a new hobby: tweeting at people who are wrong on the internet and being nice to them.

The results to date have been mixed.

I’ve had some long conversations, some short ones. Some have been fun and felt kinda fruitful, some have just been frustrating. Some have taught me that holy balls, going round and round in endless futile circles trying to explain what scientists mean by the word “theory” is a really excellent test of patience.

But none of them has involved shouting. None of them has degenerated into a series of abusive epithets in all-caps. None of them has deviated irretrievably from the point into irrelevant personal matters. None of them has become bitter and spiteful.

None of them has been typical of what can happen to even quite moderate discussions between intelligent people of like mind, in other words. Particularly when you’re trying to cram your own nuanced opinion into 140 characters and don’t go out of your way to give the benefit of the doubt to someone else struggling to do the same.

The reason it hasn’t gone that way is fairly simple: I am in total control of exactly 50% of the conversation. I don’t want meanness, sniping, tribalism, and point-scoring to play any part in that 50%. So they don’t.

It’s a sort of experiment, once I decided I trusted myself not to get carried away and tell people what I actually think of them. I go trawling the Twitterscape for mentions of #atheists, say, find some people with whose opinions I take issue, and send them a message. Something I think they might understand, and be able to respond to in turn.

I don’t want to make them feel bad for what they think. I don’t want to try forcing my correctness on them (even though some of them are really, truly, crashingly wrong). There’s no point attempting to browbeat someone like that when a) you’re hoping they might change their mind in your favour, and b) you’re a few impotent pixels of text on a screen on their phone, easily ignored and dismissed with a casual flick of a thumb. If I try being like that, they’ll probably just call me a dick, and they may not be wrong. So I try to find a way to make a point that they’ll be able to absorb.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I do a lot of swearing about how ridiculous these people are, but I do it in my brain and under my breath. Why would I also type it into the internet? We’re back to “me as total cock” territory there. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. It’s very often the latter. (I very briefly attempted to engage with some of the crowd of lunatics who, apparently within minutes of hearing about the horrific explosions in Boston today, decided that atheists were responsible and Richard Dawkins has blood on his hands. I quickly realised this to be a Serious Mistake, and shouldn’t even have needed reminding of what a pointless endeavour it was. Still, no caps, and no calling anybody a fucking shitsack, so a moral victory.)

Sometimes it does work. At least, as much as such an experiment can possibly work. Some people have said they’ve enjoyed talking to me, after I’ve spent a while strongly disagreeing with them about everything that matters. Some people have given the impression of having heard a new perspective, and being given something new to think about. I haven’t deconverted any Christians yet, but how often does that happen in the course of a single conversation? That’s not the aim. The overall tone of the global conversation has shifted in some small way toward the positive. Which is about all I can do.

And sometimes people are just so wrong – about, say, to pick a topic not remotely at random, the Christian notion of Hell – that it gives me material for another lengthy bloggish ramble. Coming soon to a browser near you. (Possibly tomorrow. Watch this space.)

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Today, the usual simmering resentment and anger the internet feels for Justin Bieber came to a roaring boil and bubbled over. And all it took was a few well meant words.

Let’s go back in time seventy-odd years for a brief recap. Anne Frank was a young German girl, who lived mostly in Amsterdam, who was hunted down by the Nazis during World War II because they were Jewish. Eventually she and her family were caught and taken to a concentration camp, where she died at the age of 15. She’s become famous for the diary that she kept, for much of the last few years of her short life.

The building in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from invading Nazi forces is now the Anne Frank House, a museum dedicated to her memory. Recently, Justin Bieber went there to visit the place, as the museum reported on their Facebook page. The message he left in the guestbook read:

Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

A brief look at the bottom half of the internet will give you a flavour of the outraged response that followed.

One commonly recurring theme seems to be about “respect”, and the idea that Bieber should have shown more of it. This is Anne Frank, after all, a tragic victim of a brutally murderous regime; she deserves better than to have her memory trivialised by some pop star with an over-inflated ego.

And, well. There’s certainly a case to be made that Anne Frank, her memory, and the museum that bears her name, represent a profoundly human and humane response to forces of persecution and hate, on a scale of monumental historic significance – and that it demeans her to try associating her with fans of a 21st-century singer.

But I don’t think Justin Bieber had any intention of being so demeaning, and I think some people expect too much of him to be able to appropriately memorialise her legacy in a brief note written in a book at the end of an hour-long tour.

Not least because, for many people these days, the atrocities of the Nazi regime are dim and distant history to which it’s not easy to relate. They’re lucky like that, the young’uns of today. Anne Frank died in 1945; Justin Bieber was born in 1994. I find it near impossible to fathom the enormity of the 1940s global conflict, or to begin doing justice to the memory of a young Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp, and I’m a well read guy nearing 30. A 19-year-old kid who’s had little opportunity to do anything with his time but be a pop sensation for the last five years doesn’t have a chance.

So when he comes to the end of this lengthy exploration of some of the darkest times in humanity’s history, and the way in which the human spirit can struggle through even such terrors without being wholly extinguished, maybe some of it’s sunk in a little. Maybe he’s learned something. He still can’t say anything appropriate for the occasion, because who the hell could, but he has a go. He tries to relate. And he offers that perhaps “she would have been a belieber”.

Many of Justin Bieber’s most devoted fans identify themselves as “beliebers” – a merging of “believer” with his own name, to signify their loyalty to him and to each other in the face of considerable hostility, forming a cohesive unit of support and admiration. It might often be driven more by teenage hormones than sophisticated musical appreciation, and you might not find the guy himself all that admirable – but being a belieber doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us outsiders.

I can only speculate as to the role they play in Bieber’s own life, but given the numbers in which they tweet their affection for him to the world, cheer him on at every turn, and band together to share and encourage each other’s Bieberholic fanaticism, I imagine they form a massively significant part of his world, and seem like a strong, formidable, positive thing to be a part of. It wasn’t just self-centred for him to link Anne Frank’s memory with his own career; I suspect that it’s literally the most generous and open-hearted thing he can think to wish for somebody else, that they could be part of the swarm that surrounds him, and find friends and mutual support among an accepting, like-minded crowd.

Clumsy and inarticulate though it may be, this is how he shows respect.

And hey, maybe he’s right.

There’s a thing I never would have thought I’d suggest. Maybe, under different circumstances, Anne Frank would have been a belieber. She was a 13-year-old girl when she got the diary, 15 when she last wrote in it. Did she enjoy music? Did she ever start to have any young, adolescent, romantic feelings for a pretty boy with a nice smile? Or were these things denied her, aspects of her life which might have flourished if she’d had the chance to fully grow into herself and experience the world before all her opportunities were cut cruelly short?

I’ve no idea. I’ve not read her diary, as I suspect many of Bieber’s harshest critics haven’t, so I don’t know whether she wrote about such things at all. But the suggestion that she might have had certain things in common with many other teenage girls is a long way from being the most offensive thing ever said about Anne Frank.

Although, having said all of which…

Dear beliebers, and anyone else, who have been responding to criticism of Justin Bieber for his comments on Anne Frank, and standing up for his right to free expression, by making any comparison whatsoever between abusive online messages directed toward a millionaire global superstar, and the persecution and genocide of Jews in twentieth century Europe:

No.

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(Just clearing up any hashtag confusion there.)

Let’s not get het up about that “speaking ill of the dead” stuff. She was a hugely significant political figure; it’s never not a good time to discuss her influence and legacy, especially while we’re still living in its wake. Her fans and devotees are, of course, mourning and extolling her at abundant length, as is their every right. But the demands some of them are making for the right to monopolise the conversation are unreasonable.

The opinions she espoused and the actions she took were massively controversial, and unloved by many. There’s no reason the details of this shouldn’t be discussed in a manner rigorous yet sensitive to the memory of a human being with a family.

Honestly, if the distinction between personal attack and political criticism isn’t obvious, then we’re not intellectually equipped for any kind of political discussion, whether or not one of the central figures to it is recently deceased.

So who was Margaret Thatcher?

Was she fanatically devoted to a doomed ideology of privatisation?

Did she lay the groundwork for the recent financial crisis, which only began in earnest 18 years after her departure from office?

Did she poison the country to an extent from which we’re yet to recover?

Is her mythology riddled with myths? Was she less right-wing and more honest about it than any of today’s crowd? Was her record more mixed than many will acknowledge?

Who can say?

Not me. I’m concentrating much more at the moment on my novel about a zombie and a vampire who run a detective agency together than I am on this blog.

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If you asked me to sum up one of the most important and influential developments in my outlook on life and way of thinking in recent years, the thing which has most changed my view on the world and on myself, and which I’d most love to see more broadly spread among everyone and its importance appreciated, in a single word…

…I’d probably ask who you are and why I should bother paying attention to your long, wordy, and arbitrarily restrained questions, before making some more tea and procrastinating some more of my novel.

But if you caught me in a sharing and succinct mood, my answer would be:

Metacognition.

Which refers, in very brief terms as I best understand it, to “thinking about thinking”; being aware of what goes on inside your own head, of the physical and emotional processes that lead you to certain beliefs and states of mind.

The ability to see one’s thoughts as the product of a cluster of organic matter, moulded into shape by billions of years of competitive evolution, working through its own programming in an often chaotic and messy way – and not as simply the way things are because that’s how you see and feel them and so that’s the way the world is – is massively underrated.

Eventually I’ll explain more what I mean, why I think this, and what it’s meant to me (though in the meantime, as is often the case, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s got it pretty well covered if you want to read some more). But one thing in particular set me on this train of thought recently.

Journalist and nice man Jon Ronson tweeted recently about a new edition of his radio show that’s going to air soon. In his words:

The first episode is about how whenever I look at my clock the time is 11.11.

Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but the ensuing surge of retweets and other Twitter discussion showed that it’s not just some personal oddity, noticing a certain time of day coming up disproportionately often in the course of your clock-watching; many other people reported a similar phenomenon, often with exactly the same time. (I’d actually heard of this before, but with 9:11.)

Why does it happen? Well, various things spring to mind. Once you start noticing when it happens to be 11:11, for instance, it’s probably hard to stop, particularly once it’s in your mind as a cultural event which dozens of people have been tweeting about. I’ve completely lost track of how many times I’ve glanced at some sort of clock today, because none of them has been memorable for more than a few moments; if one particular time had special reason to stick in my mind, then I might start to remember it as if those were the “only” times I looked at a clock.

The lines of 11:11 have an obviously pleasing flat, straight, simple symmetry to them, which make them more interesting to notice than, say, all those occasions when I’ve checked the time and it was 14:53. (That could quite plausibly have happened to me hundreds of times in my life, for all I know, and I don’t remember a single one of them.) And maybe, on a subconscious level, it’s not always accidental; if you notice the time when it’s 11:07, perhaps you’ll be flicking back there every so often over the next few minutes, to see if you can catch 11:11 in the act.

And people regularly exaggerate, misremember, and misinterpret, of course, especially when they’re trying to make sure they have a story to tell that’s at least as good as everyone else’s.

I’d gone some way down this line of reasoning, after reading Jon’s first tweet, when I thought: Wait, why am I starting to get defensive about this? I’m doing some motivated thinking here, as if I needed to defend the idea that coincidences happen without there being some sort of supernatural, paranormal force behind it all.

…When did anyone bring supernatural paranormal forces into this?

Because literally nobody had. The only thing that had happened was someone mentioning a pattern they seemed to have observed. There wasn’t even a hint of an implication that pixies or goblins must be responsible for it (and Jon has a track record for being more grounded than that). But I started reacting as if there were, in the conversation my brain started carrying on with itself.

It’s not hard to understand why I’d do that; those sorts of stories, where an ostensibly improbable occurrence is used to justify belief in something wacky, do go on all the time, and do regularly annoy me. This wasn’t one of those times, but the cached thoughts welled up in my mind anyway, and if I hadn’t been attentive to it, I could’ve started arguing vehemently and digging my heels in to defend a position that wasn’t remotely under attack.

I suppose it’s worth briefly exploring what the trivially obvious arguments against such supernatural bollocks would be – primarily, that any spiritual or divine agent devoting its efforts to influencing when Jon Ronson happens to check the time, but which is continuing to let tens of thousands of children across the world die from starvation, AIDS, and malaria, is irrelevant at best and downright malevolent at worst.

But that’s not my main point here. More interesting right now, is how quickly I began building up mental defences in response to a completely imagined attack on a belief system which I shouldn’t even really be that defensive over anyway.

This has gone on long enough for now. I’ll try to hone in on some interesting parts to this in more detail soon.

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