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Archive for the ‘skepticism’ Category

This is kinda interesting – how much are you swayed on matters of scientific fact, by your biases about what should be true according to your political ideology?

In my case, reassuringly little. In fact slightly more of my mistakes were caused by attempting to deliberately steer away from politically motivated thinking than my prejudices themselves.

Still, 39% seems like a worrying low score for total correct answers, and I don’t know whether to be reassured or concerned that 60% of people did even worse.

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Murder is illegal in this country.

But I couldn’t tell you where it says that in the statute-books without doing a bit of research. I can’t cite the exact law off the top of my head, or provide the precise codified wording which strictly speaking makes it illegal to murder another person.

But it’s definitely illegal. I could look all that up if I wanted to. But even if I don’t want to, I’m still justified in believing that murder is illegal. My indirect observations have led me to place a very high probability of truth on that statement, and I don’t think that’s an indicator of poor calibration.

This is relevant to yesterday’s discussion of how homeopathy doesn’t work.

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Will Storr wrote a book really worth reading called The Heretics. It’s about people with beliefs on the fringes of mainstream or accepted scientific thought, and it’s about the skeptical movement that challenges and calls them out. In particular, it’s about how the author has failed to find a comfortable place for himself within the latter, despite sharing so many of their ideals and principles.

I read this book last year and scribbled lots of notes about it, and am only now getting around to putting those notes together into a coherent article. Knowing me, “coherent” will probably be aiming too high and this will likely end up rather scattershot and disordered. [Update from the future: Yep.]

At times the book feels a little uncharitable in its depictions of the characters involved, and a little unfair in its conclusions. But although it felt that way for me to read it, I know a lot of that feeling comes from defensiveness about a perceived attack on my own tribe, who I’m reluctant to allow to be criticised on any point that feels like it touches something personal. That doesn’t explain all that I wasn’t comfortable with – I think there are times when he does miss the mark in his final judgments – but nailing down which of my objections are reasonable and which are more emotionally driven is really difficult.

This difficulty is, in fact, a large part of his point in writing the book.

A lot of what he’s talking about is what he sees as a kind of skeptical tribalism, especially at certain gatherings like QED or Skeptics in the Pub. Many of the folk at these events have a very firm idea of what specific club they’ve joined, and exactly who the out-group are. They know very well what sort of person someone must be if they’re found in the pigeonhole labelled “homeopaths”. Not that it should be a surprise, but many self-identifying skeptics’ own beliefs and positions rely to a large extent on tribal in-group coherence, rather than the purely rational objective evaluation of data which they at least have the good sense to value and espouse.

The refrain that “There’s no evidence for homeopathy”, for instance, is a common one, even though for any reasonable interpretation of “evidence” it’s clearly untrue. Scientific research and evidence is what we fall back on as justifying our position, but several skeptics Will talked to couldn’t name or usefully cite a single study or meta-analysis that supported their position on homeopathy, and bristled when the question was asked.

Off the top of my head, I can’t accurately cite in detail the research which supports my ideas on homeopathy either. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there are good reasons to think the things I think, all the same. But if my justifications for my beliefs aren’t truly what I think they are, that’s something worth identifying.

There are ways that general expert opinion can be judged by the layman, tools one can aquire to assess the proponderance of evidence usefully (if not impeccably) which doesn’t require us to each pick through hundreds of complicated technical papers before reaching a conclusion. This kind of direct observation isn’t the only way to learn things, and there can be sound reasons to believe things that appear to be based more on hearsay and second-hand reporting. For instance, if the average punter were tasked with writing a medium-length blog post on why they believe that the world is round – and that anyone who believe it’s flat is drastically, bewilderingly wrong – they could probably come up with something reasonable, despite not having been to space to admire the curvature of the earth directly, or personally circumnavigated it just to check.

But we don’t always think naturally in these terms, and so we often don’t summarise our positions on skeptical issues this way either. A more natural inclincation, if you’re a fairly representative skeptical blogger, might be to say “homeopathy doesn’t work, there’s no evidence for it”, and to get twitchy with anyone who starts asking you to cite papers from memory, because you’ve met people who ask questions like that before, and you think know where this is going. Your tribal integrity is under threat from someone suspected of being from the out-group.

It’s an entirely natural human tendency, when faced with such opposition, to assume the worst, close ranks, and awkwardly throw up defenses around one’s cherished beliefs to protect our ego from the perceived threat. The question worth asking for me is: are skeptics actually any better than anyone else at recognising this tendency in ourselves and working around it?

It’s not that it’s wrong to bristle at the question. It’s that it’s really important, for skeptics especially, to recognise both why it’s not a wholly rational response to bristle, and also why it’s utterly human, and completely understandable – and something we have in common with just about every “true believer” we’ve ever had a heated/feisty/empassioned conversation with. Because if we’re not better than average at recognising that kind of faulty thinking and deploying techniques to avoid it, then being right about the things we’re right about is only going to be of partial help.

I imagine it’s deeply unoriginal and quite tiresome for all involved to draw comparisons between The Heretics and any of Jon Ronson’s books, but that’s not going to stop me. One thing I remember about Jon’s approach to visiting the depths of close-knit tribal alien gatherings and reporting on them as an outsider, is that I don’t recall ever simply disliking anyone he wrote about. Which sounds bizarre, given the amount of time he’s spent with neo-Nazis and profoundly hateful religious fanatics. But either there was something affable in their quirkiness and perhaps Jon’s own affection seeped through, or there was something humanising he’d found about them, which went some way toward hinting at an underlying explanation for what was otherwise unappealing about them, in a way that caught the interest just enough that we weren’t leaving with the idea that they’re simply the antagonist to this piece and we’re supposed to take against them.

It could be that my hazy memory is giving Jon a little too much credit. I may be unfairly searching for an unfavourable comparison by which to downplay Will’s attacks on my tribe. But it feels like he doesn’t always acknowledge that same level of individual humanisation, while recounting certain remarks by certain skeptics in a way that insinuates a disapproving tone over the whole enterprise.

Is that reasonable? Am I being unjustifiably tribalistic, to expect him to tilt the balance even further toward acquiescence to my team? Or is it fair to suggest that his own personal biases might have led his own narrative into the kind of judgmentally prejudiced thinking he’s identifying in so many others?

Either way, it’d be petty to reject or condemn the whole book based on differences like this, however strongly I might feel about them. I’ve read and enjoyed numerous well-argued atheistic and skeptical tomes and essays which would no doubt be at least as grating to anyone not already on my side of the aisle who was trying to engage with it. (Most of the history of this blog is probably included in that as well.)

Actually, that paranthetical deserves more of a digression than that, as I felt particularly strongly in the chapter on James Randi. Various defences and objections to Will’s assessment formed in my head as I read, most of which he recapped and considered fairly a few paragraphs later. And a lot of my protests about his overly harsh insinuations would apply equally well to many other out-group people I’ve been critical of in the past, and of whom I’ve read far more damning accounts. If I want critics to go easy on someone I admire, I do not have a great track record of extending the same courtesy.

But it’s hard, because the things that feel like they’re of basic fundamental importance to us, like that homeopathy is bunk, are things that skeptics are generally right about. It’s important not to let that get lost in the fair and even-handed discussion of how both sides have things to learn and both sides are often swayed by irrational tribal urges and both sides have tendencies to make assumptions that unfairly privilege their own team and both sides etc etc. There is also often a crucial matter on which one side is also completely wrong. Will’s not denying that last point, and he’s got a lot to say about the earlier ones which isn’t easily dismissed with phrases like “tone policing”.

He looks into issues such as false memories, audio hallucinations, and Morgellons syndrome, and determines that the people involved with these issues generally aren’t “crazy”, and deserve to be granted a sympathetic ear – but this isn’t the direct counterpoint to the skeptical position that he seems to think. Most of what I know about the fragility of human memory, the fallibility of perception, and the need for compassion and understanding toward anyone who’s fallen prey to some of the myriad cognitive errors that afflict every one of us, I learned from the skeptical movement.

The section on David Irving was particularly good. It really got into the man’s head, explored and humanised him and all his irrationality, found a deep understanding and compassion for this person, without ever risking letting you think that he might be onto something with any of his utterly false notions.

In the end, even if there are potential complaints with the representation of cherished movements, and if the ratio of interesting questions raised to insightful answers proposed is sometimes higher than I’d like, there’s a lot in The Heretics that’s enjoyable to read, and which provides some level of intellectual challenge to anyone with any kind of investment on either side of any sort of discussion about “belief”.

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One thing I’ve been doing, in all that not-blogging time you may have noticed recently, is becoming something of a Scott Alexander fan-boy. So here’s a bunch of things he’s written which I’ve enjoyed and would recommend reading, which I made brief notes on at the time but which in practice I’m unlikely to write about myself at much length.

1. I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup

Putting this one up front because it’s possibly the most important and worth reading. It’s long. Read it all.

2. Social Justice And Words, Words, Words

3. Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor

4. Fifty Swifties

If you’re not familiar with the format, Tom Swifties are pretty straight-forward, and can be fantastically pleasing when well crafted. I’d particularly like to draw your attention to: “Satan is the original source of evil,” Tom said urbanely.

My own contribution: “I used to go out with that girl with a balloon stuck to her hair,” Tom said ecstatically.

5. Radicalizing The Romanceless

Pull-quote: “As usual with gender issues, this can be best explained through a story from ancient Chinese military history.”

This one’s really interesting, and the sort of thing I could burble for a few thousand words about myself, covering most of the same ground but with different emphases and disclaimers added, in part to make sure I’m also not inadvertently signalling allegiance with the manosphere, or whatever.

One thing to note is that I don’t think I do envy Henry what he has, in terms of emotional relationships. He might “get women” for a certain meaning of the phrase, but not in any way I’m interested in replicating. When I was single, I wouldn’t have envied him in the way that someone who works hard for low pay would envy the financial security of the richly rewarded.

But it’s an interesting exploration of the core idea: expressing frustration at your basic human animal needs not being met is totally okay when it comes to earning enough money to look after yourself, but completely unacceptable when it comes to engaging in human social interaction and sexual congress. Hard work is good and noble, but we’ll understand and be sympathetic if you’re just in it for the paycheck – whereas yearning for more of a human connection, or simply being horny and wanting to get laid, is treated as shameful, and not granted much serious consideration as to how much of a basic human need our sexuality can be.

There are sensible reasons why these two scenarios might garner differing reactions, of course – the historical societal relationships between men and women and between capitalist employers and workers are in many ways divergent – but not necessarily enough to justify such a split in how we treat people who are lacking in one area of life or the other.

In particular, feeling entitled to this thing from someone else is intolerable in one instance in particular. Which may be related to how things have historically tended to work out when men’s sense of “entitlement” to women hasn’t been stifled and tabooed.

This follow-up from Jai is also especially worth reading.

6. Book Review: Red Plenty, a “semi-fictionalized account of the history of socialist economic planning”.

It turns out that the concentration of centralised political authority was the not-that-hard-to-identify main problem with Stalinism (or one of them, anyway). I’m still optimistic about eventually orchestrating some way of maximising the benefits of both communist and capitalist systems while minimising the downsides that have tended to come with either in practice, so far.

But it also strikes me that whatever political system ought to work for us – whether it’s some variant on communism, capitalism, or something else – we shouldn’t expect that its fundamental philosophy can be summed up in any single pithy phrase. The history of communism-in-practice might seem like an object lesson in the value of letting people enjoy the direct profits of the work they do, but even that’s not a simple concept, and there’s no reason to suppose anything like this can be summed up simply, in a way that’s unambiguous to everyone. If you start insisting it can, you’re in danger of convincing yourself that your ideological slogan is more important than the real-world practical results of our efforts to organise ourselves efficiently and fairly.

7. The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories

8. The Toxoplasma Of Rage

9. Untitled

This is not the first ten-thousand word rant about feminism by Scott Alexander that I’ve read, and so far they’ve all been worth it.

10. Book Review: The Machinery Of Freedom

The thing about advocating libertarian/anarchist principles, though, is that it tends to be more about living by those principles in your personal life and allowing their beneficial influence to infuse the culture around you and spread that way, than about setting up a small nation-state somewhere to test them out immediately on a huge scale working from scratch.

It’s clear we need some sort of system of working collectively to achieve the things we want to achieve as a society, but whether that system involves a “government” in the sense that anarchists would have no truck with isn’t the most interesting or important point. It’s allowed to be blurry around the edges and not easily summed up. Like I was saying earlier, it’s unlikely that adopting a single unifying idea like the non-aggression principle will make things all fall into place, or that a statement of political philosophy brief enough for an elevator pitch will provide us with any clue how to actually do stuff in the real world. But so long as we’re keeping track of the ideas and not getting too hung up on how to label things, we can always be aiming for utopia, and creating something with more associated benefits and fewer costs than whatever we have now.

11. Extremism In Thought Experiment Is No Vice

I mean, I’d suggest that the “spirit in which it’s conceived” is not anything as noble as intellectually curious moral philosophical investigation in the Duck Dynasty guy’s case, but this is still interesting.

12. Against Tulip Subsidies

There’s so much more where all that came from, but those are some of the highlights.

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At any time of year, it bears repeating.

I’m going to go eat too much and be happy with my family and stuff now. Merry Christmas.

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I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious.

Sarah Silverman is right. Atheists are totally obnoxious.

You know who’s especially bad though? Anyone who refuses point-blank to even consider sacrificing their only child on the altar of an unknowable deity. I mean, it’s probably not something I’d do myself – in fact, murdering children because of religious beliefs is something of a bugbear of mine – but the people who claim to know with absolute certainty that it’s wrong? They can be equally annoying.

Also, does anyone else get a little freaked out when chemists keep talking about carbon and calcium and aluminium and so forth, and just presume that those are all actual things? They seem pretty damn sure about that big table with all those elements on it, don’t they? I’m not saying that whole “air, earth, fire, water” thing didn’t have its problems, or couldn’t use some updating, but the extent to which some modern extremists so totally dismiss it in favour of their new paradigm doesn’t sit right with me.

And hey, here’s another bunch who wind me up: heliocentrists. Not all of them, by any means, just the hardcore contingent who put me off wanting to identify with the term myself. Sure, I go along with the claim that the Sun’s at the centre of the solar system with the Earth revolving around it, but is it so hard to even admit that it might be the other way around? That maybe this infinite and incomprehensible universe is stranger than we mere mortal humans can comprehend? The arrogance with which some people just tell flat-earthers that they’re “flat-out” wrong really grates on my nerves.

As if that kind of certainty were really possible within the limits of our human perception. It just comes across as narrow-minded.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Can you think of any other completely one-sided debates where it might be fun to occupy a smug middle ground?

2. How reasonable might it actually be that some people have come to this sort of conclusion about atheists?

3. Is this webcomic ever going to stop being relevant?

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Sylvia Browne has died.

Spend more than a few minutes looking into the kind of thing she devoted her life to, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was pretty much one of the worst people it’s possible to be, driven by only the ugliest of human faculties and emotions.

We don’t need to forget or ignore this fact now that she’s gone, but neither is there any need to take joy in the news. Wishing suffering or vengeance on any part of the world only makes it darker and less lovely to be in. And death is still a far greater enemy than Sylvia Browne ever was, no matter how much she twisted it to her advantage over the course of a long and horrid career.

Some people will be personally saddened by Sylvia’s passing; they have my sympathies, even if I can’t honestly join them in their mourning.

For many, the news is a prompt to remind the world at large about this woman’s utter lack of psychic abilities, and the importance of learning how to avoid being taken in by obvious scams, swindles, and other misrepresentations of reality. I’m all for this, but I hope one thing that doesn’t get lost is the point that not everyone with the “wrong” belief in psychic powers is like this.

Some folk believe (incorrectly, sure) that they have some kind of power or gift, and are moved to try to help people, feeling a deep and sincere concern for the well-being of their fellow humans, rather than simply emulating the flimsiest charade of humanity. There is absolutely a non-null intersection between compassion and supernaturalism.

Sylvia Browne was not one of the good ones, by any measure. We can do better than to let any further cruelty and unfair judgment become part of her legacy.

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Too long ago for it to still be topical, Greta Christina asked for some ideas on how the atheist and skeptical communities can “take on social justice”.

It’s a less intensely important question to me than it might once have been. I’ve been drifting a little from the “community” part of atheism and skepticism online lately, more through a reordering of my priorities and time management than any fading of my passion for the subjects themselves. But I’m going to chip in with an idea of what might benefit a lot of online communities, all the same. It’s not a specific suggestion for something which can directly be put into place (which is what Greta was asking for); it’s just where my mind went on giving the question some thought.

Don’t expect everyone to speak with one voice.

On anything.

There needs to be room for genuine, deep, fundamental differences of opinion to be expressed, among people who coexist in a community and share some common goals and interests. That really needs to be a thing that’s okay. Otherwise disputes and disagreements will still be inevitable, but they’ll also be needlessly divisive.

And we need to be very selective in what assertions someone can make which render them persona non grata to us. We need to be very slow and cautious in deciding that somebody’s differences make them such a hostile, destructive outsider that their collegiality absolutely cannot be tolerated, and they must be either forcefully and vehemently corrected or simply cast out.

We spend a lot of time telling religious people that, even though we think they’re completely, empirically wrong about things they strongly believe, and that our beliefs might offend them personally on a visceral level that makes them recoil from our very existence, we’re still people, and we deserve respect. Well, some of the ideological and personal gaps between atheists are at least as wide and chasmic as those between myself and any given god-botherer, so the same logic deserves to be turned inward, too.

To take a completely arbitrary and uncontroversial example: some atheists think that Rebecca Watson was right in the advice she offered after being approached by a man in an elevator in a way she found inappropriate. Other atheists think that she overreacted in a way that was unjustified and sexist.

Now, there are unquestionably some terrible human beings who’ve taken hardline positions on both sides of this argument. But neither of these viewpoints is enough to make somebody a bad atheist. Neither of these viewpoints alone should make someone unbearable for you to be in the same room with. If the single fact you know about someone is that they disagree with you on “elevatorgate”, it’d be a real shame if that meant you could never swap any stories about your experiences of religious persecution with them, or share thoughts on how to discuss your godlessness with deeply religious relatives, or in some other way engage with each other on a topic that’s meaningful to both of you.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about Rebecca Watson’s courageous feminist activism and/or feminazi misandrist histrionics. If you think the implications of that whole clusterfuffle are important, then of course you should keep talking about it and explaining why it matters. But it’s not a great idea to use a simple yes/no analysis of “Are they on the right side?” as a litmus test for whether somebody really counts as a part of your group.

Now, if you do manage to give up on expecting your tribe-members to all agree on anything, this may make it harder to define exactly what it is that unites you all. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to maintain unity among the group even on important matters. Maybe you might have some positive interactions with folk who, for whatever reason, fail to see the heroic/evil Rebecca Watson for who she really is. Maybe, if we try to see people as still being part of our community even when they’re painfully misguided and wrong about some really obvious and important things, then our efforts toward “social justice” could – and bear with me, because this may sound crazy – benefit from an atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity.

So that ended up being less a practical suggestion, and more another restating of my tiresomely idealist philosophies. I make no apology for feeling compelled to repeat myself.

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I’ve started following some people I disagree with on Twitter.

Listening to people you disagree with is really quite important. I mean, I talk to hypothetical people I disagree with on this blog all the time, and I act like I’m expecting them to listen. So it’s only polite.

And I do get probably an unhealthy amount of my reporting on what “the other side” think only when it’s been filtered through someone on “my side” reporting on it, with all the expected disdain and righteous indignation that I find it hard not to share.

So I’ve added a few contrarians to my feed. I’m planning to find more blogs to achieve the same thing, too. Feel free to make suggestions. (I’m a libertarian socialist atheist humanist, in case you need a recap on who I’m likely to find utterly antithetical to every value I hold dear.)

Anyway, there’s a particular thought process some of these oppositional commentators seem to spark in me. It goes something like this.

1. This opinion contradicts my understanding of the way things are!

2. I am more rational than to simply dismiss it out of hand, however. I shall follow the attached link and look a bit more closely into what the assertion actually is, and how well it stands up.

3. Well, it isn’t immediately obvious to me what’s wrong here.

4. But something must be, this person’s a tit and clearly on the wrong side of everything.

5. Okay, that’s definitely not a rational conclusion. Can I actually find any holes in this piece of analysis?

6. …No.

7. But it doesn’t mean this person’s right; really, I just don’t understand the subject well enough to have an opinion either way. It’s quite intricately political in an area I’m not well versed in.

8. Is that a cop-out to avoid admitting that I was wrong about something, because this person made a good point?

9. No, I think I really honestly don’t have a clue one way or the other. This seems like a good point, but so did the other stuff I’d already read from the other side. Apparently I can’t reliably tell which of these two opposing viewpoints is making the best points. I really should conclude that I just don’t know what’s going on.

10. Y’know, I probably should’ve started with that before even deciding I had an opinion worth defending.

I’ve also provided myself with a few examples of how a little intelligence and rationality can be a dangerous thing, if they’re deployed and placed strategically so as to continue reinforcing one’s own biases.

In particular, this comes up in my reactions when somebody not part of my “in-group” makes a claim about a contentious subject, as opposed to when somebody who is identified as being on “my side” makes a similar claim, when I don’t have time to fully examine either of them right now.

The contrast between “Hmm, I should study this more carefully later, and also find an informed rebuttal from someone who disagrees, to make sure I’ve got both sides of the story and can fully and rationally assess the truth of the situation” and “Yep, makes sense!” is quite stark.

So I’ve learned some things about my own rationality, and the way my brain works when confronted with ideas and individuals I tend to find unreasonable and infuriating.

On the other hand, I’ve also been reminded that, sometimes, people whose political opinions happen to differ significantly from mine are also horrible. Just unbearably, viciously, despicably horrible.

So there’s that.

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Let’s talk about not believing in God.

Atheists often frame their position as a simple lack of a belief; they don’t take the active, affirmative, assertive position that theists do, don’t make any direct claim, and simply don’t hold the positive position that “God exists”.

I’ve written before about why the extent to which some atheists take this feels like an unnecessary cop-out.

Atheists should totally be making positive claims. Part of the reason why many are reluctant to do so, is because of an implicit idea that “belief” is a binary thing, something you either have or you don’t.

Christians believe the claim that “God exists”, and atheists don’t. Some atheists might conversely believe the claim “God does not exist”, but many deny holding any such position, and define their own godlessness as a kind of belieflessness. It’s not that they don’t believe in anything – we often have to remind people of our strongly held convictions in favour of love, truth, beauty, cheesecake, and the basic goodness of humanity – but when it comes to God, we simply don’t buy it, and are otherwise keeping out of the argument.

I don’t think this holds up. I think that the usual ways we describe belief are necessarily short-hand for a more complex set of ideas, and that we can afford to start being clearer in our positive declarations.

As an analogue, let’s say I’ve flipped a coin but not yet revealed the result. Do you “believe” that it’s landed on heads?

Assuming you have no improbable insider knowledge about the coin or my tossing abilities (steady), you haven’t a clue which way it’s landed. So, I guess you “lack the belief” that it’s landed heads. And you lack the equivalent belief that it’s fallen on tails. It’s not that you disbelieve either option – they’re both possible, and wouldn’t be especially surprising.

Now let’s say I’ve rolled a fair six-sided die, and am also temporarily hiding the results. What beliefs do you have about the number that’s showing? Presumably you lack each individual belief in its landing on any given number – but it seems like this is true in a different way from the coin-toss. In that first case, if you’d arbitrarily picked one option to guess at, it would’ve been no big deal whether you’d been right or wrong. With the die, if you randomly picked the right one, you’d be a little more impressed. On seeing what number it landed on, you’ve now adopted one particular belief you formerly lacked, just like with the coin – and yet this feels like a bigger deal.

Let’s step it up again. I’ve got a lottery ticket here for last night’s £7,000,000 jackpot. It’s either a winner or a loser, but I’m not telling you any of the numbers on it. Clearly you’d expect some evidence if I wanted to convince you it’s a winning ticket. But do you simply “lack the belief” that I’ve won the lottery, just like you “lacked the belief” that my coin had landed on heads (or tails)? Or are you actually pretty sure I haven’t won?

I’d argue that you’re easily justified in believing I’ve not become a millionaire overnight. The evidence in favour of the idea is so slight, and the odds against it so great, that it seems like a hypothesis worth ignoring. (Even before you consider the odds that I’m lying about having a ticket in the first place. Which I am.)

Now, you might change your mind later, when I invite you round for tea and diamonds in my new gold house, but for now, you’re safe assuming that I haven’t won the lottery. It’s not dogmatic to work with that assumption; it doesn’t imply you’re unwilling to be persuaded by evidence. But come on, clearly I haven’t won the lottery. Frankly, you should be quite content telling me “James, you have not won the lottery”. We’d all understand what you meant. If you can’t make that positive assertion now, then I don’t know when declaring anything to be true is ever going to be possible.

It may seem as if it’s incompatible with acknowledging the possibility that you might be wrong – this possibility can be calculated precisely, after all. But the fact is, we don’t append the phrase “to a reasonably high degree of probability, barring the arrival of any further evidence” to the end of every other sentence we utter. When we have conversations with each other, there’s generally a subtext of “I am not absolutely and immutably 100% certain that this is the case, it is simply the most appropriate conclusion I am able to draw and it seems strongly likely, but I will be willing to reconsider if there’s a good reason why I should do so” to most of what we’re saying.

I don’t “believe” that any given flipped coin has landed on heads or tails. But I can put a probability of 50% on either outcome, which says something more useful than just “I lack belief in any direction”.

With a six-sided die, the probability is 1/6 each way. Is it fair to say “I believe it hasn’t landed on 6”, since I believe the odds are 5/6 against that outcome? Probably not, but I don’t think it matters. If you understand the numbers I’ve placed on each possible outcome, you understand what I believe.

I don’t believe an asteroid is going to crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. Further, I believe an asteroid will not crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. I believe this more strongly then any of the other examples so far. How strongly? It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong somewhere on the scale of increasingly improbable things. In this case, just saying “it’s not going to happen” is a useful short-hand way to get my point across, without going into a lengthy spiel about percentages and Bayesian priors. It gets the gist of my position across in a manner I think most of my audience will understand.

There is no God.

Does that mean I think God’s existence is less probable than, say, flipping a coin and getting ten heads in a row? Would I be more surprised to meet Jesus after I die than to roll a string of double-sixes throughout an entire game of Monopoly? Whether or not I have an exact numerical value for my god-belief, these are the terms we should be thinking in. Not that there’s simply a thing called belief which some people possess and I lack and that’s the end of it.

So can we agree that a flat denial of God’s existence is not dogmatic and unfounded now, please? Can we accept all the implied background understanding that goes along with other conversations about the things we believe? Can we maintain useful phrases like “does not exist” without burying them under a mound of tentative qualifications each and every time, when we all know damn well that Carl Sagan’s garage is a dragon-free zone?

And could we stop acting as if being sure you’re right about certain things makes you an inflexible ideological bad guy, regardless of how reasonable it is to be strongly convinced of your position?

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