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So, I could do with keeping fit, and I think I should incorporate some more exercise into my life.

This is the sort of person I am now. I’ve got a wife and a career and a mortgage and a cat and a beard and a packet of sherbet lemons. I’m an actual grown-up. I’m also just the right sort of middle-class twat to want to start working out.

The sherbet lemons aren’t a grown-up or middle-class signifier, to my knowledge. They’re just on my desk as I type this, and so sprung to mind as another example of the wonderful things my life is full of these days.

Anyway. I’m not joining a gym or buying any more expensive and pointless equipment. Despite my brain’s better efforts, I’m determined to learn about my limitations from past experience, so I know that’s not the way to go. I’ll have much more success if I start getting active first, train myself to build up the motivation and drive on my own steam, make some kind of physical exercise a part of my routine, and then consider any external aids once I’m likely to use them, rather than getting the shiny gadgets first and expecting them to inspire me.

The problem is, I tend to get discouraged from doing any particular kind of exercise if I suspect it’s not the optimal thing I could be doing.

I mean, even though the basic fact that exercise tends to be good for your health is straight-forward, the health industry is at least as littered with misinformation and dodgy advice as any other. There are no doubt plenty of really effective ways to do yourself a great deal of benefit, but they’re vying for space with a bunch of crappy ideas that will mostly just waste your time.

The usefulness or otherwise of vitamin supplements and protein shakes and whatnot may not be so tricky to unravel if you know what you’re doing, but I’m coming up short when trying to figure out how to exercise effectively. If you add words like “scientific” or “skeptic” to an internet search for workout-related terms, you mostly end up reading about stuff like that “Evidence-based 7 Minute Fitness” thing the media was fawning over a little while ago, which, if even a modicum of scrutiny is applied, turns out, yeah, not so much.

I am at a particular loss as to how to separate out the good advice from the bad in this field.

Chances are I’ll just end up doing some running. It’s hard to go too wrong there, I suspect, and there are plenty of apps I like the look of to keep you organised and give it some structure. If I can get past the bewildering clusterfuckmare of acquiring the right sort of footwear, that is. Ugh, just thinking about going shopping for running shoes makes me want to give up on the 5k part and just stay on the couch.

Anyway. Advice or thoughts appreciated. I’ll let you know if and when I decide to give this “going outside” thing a shot. I hear it’s full of something called “fresh air”. Can’t possibly be good for you.

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A brief rationalist take on yesterday’s glurge:

A lot of it comes down to fundamental attribution error, of course. When I make a mistake, or do something that might seem rude or insensitive or otherwise negative, I’m aware of all the extenuating circumstances. I let myself off because I was tired or stressed from dealing with so much other shit, or because the blame can be pinned on something else in the world… any excuse as to why it doesn’t really count.

But when someone else cocks up, obviously they’re an incompetent asshole.

We don’t live in other people’s heads, so we aren’t naturally inclined to make all the same excuses for them as we do for ourselves. And we don’t feel their emotions to anything like the same extent they do, either.

When somebody else is suffering, or delighted, or in pain, or giddy with adulation, I might experience a surge of the same emotion on their behalf. My mirror neurons will start flapping away (neurons totally flap, ask any scientonomer) and encouraging me to empathise and bond with my fellow species-member.

But when there’s especially intense emotion, that just can’t come close to matching the experience of actually going through it. Even if you’ve seen either people in profound emotional highs or lows, it doesn’t intuitively feel like what they’re going through is really real. Your friend’s drama only impacted on you a little, nothing like what you’re experiencing now, so yours must be more real, more deep and profound. They were just moping and wailing, they can’t have felt it as strongly as you are now.

Except there’s every reason to suppose that they do. And your intensity of experience is just as inaccessible to them, but no less real for it.

Now that I’ve written all that, I’m not sure it adds very much.

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I’d like you to imagine two hypothetical scenarios.

In the first, a child is suffering. He’s in an extremely disadvantaged part of the third world. He’s six years old, and has depended on his mother all his life for food and nurturing and basic care. She’s now dead of malaria. He’s lost, and tired, and the hunger that’s accompanied him all his life is gnawing at him stronger than ever and there’s nobody to look after him.

In addition, God exists.

That’s scenario the first, okay? Don’t worry about the implications of that last bit, or think anything through in too much detail. A child is starving, as many children truly are, and also there is a god. The Christian one if you prefer, but whatever. Okay? Keep that hypothetical in mind.

Now imagine the same child, same suffering, same anguish and confusion and despair. Another human being in the same desperately miserable situation as described a few moments ago, in the same cruel, uncaring world.

And there is no god.

That’s the second scenario.

Now, you might have an idea as to which of these two pictures paints a bleaker view. That’s an interesting discussion – is it worse knowing there’s no-one to turn to for help, or seeing the one you could turn to allowing this to happen? – but not for today.

Here’s my question: When imagining the plight of the kid in each scenario described above, did you find yourself only giving a shit about one of them?

Did you feel saddened and motivated to help one of the children described above, and feel a strong compassion for him and desire to act morally by him – and find that the other just left you cold and unbothered, with no particular incentive to do anything about it?

Do you, in other words, only care about suffering and want to alleviate it if God exists? Is your compassion for other humans contingent on an all-powerful third party? Does the truth of one particular religion or another have any bearing on whether the plight of such a child sickens you and makes you determined to change it?

I expect your answer is no.

If I’m right, congratulations: you now understand how atheists can have morals.

But if I’m wrong… then, well, you have an odd system of deciding what is and isn’t a moral outrage, and I entirely fail to understand your process of thought.

I’d love to know what it is you’re using to decide whether or not a suffering child is “a bad thing”. For me, and many others, it’s pretty straight-forward, and can be judged largely in isolation. Whether or not we believe in God doesn’t really come into it. We just witness suffering and are moved by it. We want children not to be starving to death, scared and alone in a harsh world. Saving innocents from that fate is a sufficient end in itself.

God might be important to you, but I’m not sure why his opinion is the only one you care about when there are kids suffering and dying right in front of you.

You really are allowed to just love people and care what happens to them, you know. Even if there is no god and no afterlife and it’s all finite and bounded and there’s no ultimate arbiter to reward or punish you for getting it right or wrong.

It’s a pretty feeble kind of love that isn’t worth your effort any more without those conditions.

Yes, I’ve been finding theists to chat with on Twitter again. Some of them continue to baffle me.

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Why does God get to be the one thing you have to believe in before you’re allowed to see any evidence?

I’m getting bogged down in that thing about “believing is seeing” again. Have faith and the way will be shown to you. Put your trust in the Lord and you’ll feel the truth in your heart. Even atheists can find God if they just open their hearts to him and accept his presence.

In other words, if you start believing now, for no reason whatever, then you’ll be provided with a reason to.

What’s struck me recently is that I can’t think of a single other question, in any other field of study, where this kind of excuse-making is necessary.

If you drop something and watch it fall, it doesn’t matter what you believe about the laws that govern the force of gravity. Your object will act in accordance with those laws, and in so doing will give you hints as to what they are.

Reality’s good like that. It doesn’t care what you think. It just gets on with its own business. It just is. Reality doesn’t wait and hide, until you agree to have blind trust in it, and only then agree to give a demonstration of E = mc2 in action.

And yet God is often claimed to be a special case. Again and again, atheists are advised that if they just believe as hard as they can, by force of will, then in a complete reversal of the rules of cause and effect and basic logic, they will become aware of the reasons to believe as a result of their belief.

Which is kinda weird, isn’t it?

I mean, I suppose it could just be a fact about the character of this all-powerful tyrant demanding our fealty. It may be that God’s personality is such that he deliberately chooses to hide from anyone being rational, and reveals himself only to those who’ve already bought into his claims based on no evidence at all.

That could be the kind of dick your god is, I guess, though that claim itself doesn’t seem to have much supporting evidence. At least, none he’s chosen to share with me.

But the way some Christians make it sound, knowledge of God is in an entirely different category of information than literally any other kind of thought processes humans are capable of having. Despite God’s omnipotence, and despite all the dramatic healing and sea-parting and genocide he used to demonstrate his presence with, the responsibility is apparently on us to set the bar much, much lower for him than any other human endeavour.

If you want to know about reality, you go and test it, and base your beliefs on what the evidence indicates. But with God? You have to believe first, and then you get the evidence. Or not, if you weren’t believing properly. Or something.

(Even Christians who use the above arguments would, I suspect, have problems with applying the same approach to any gods other than their own. But guys, if you could suspend your faith in Yahweh for a sec and just believe in Ganesha real hard and let him into your heart, you’d finally have a chance to see all the evidence that you’ve been blind to all this time. C’mon, what’s stopping you? Is it maybe the same thing stopping me from “just believing” in your god? D’ya think?)

Doubting Thomas is an example of a religion explicitly rejecting the whole notion of basing your beliefs on what really exists. He takes a position antithetical to faith in the Bible, and is denigrated for it, despite his methods basically being that of rigorous science: he’s skeptical of an outlandish proposition, investigates the evidence, and updates his position based on new data. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is really back from the dead after crucifiction, but then has a poke at the guy’s hand-holes, and changes his mind.

But then Jesus completely fucks up the moral, by saithing unto him:

Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Repent of your common sense, foolish mortals. Accept improbable claims at face value before there’s any evidence for them. That’s how to make Jesus love you.

Of course, there’s one simple way to explain all this, one reason why the evidence for God’s existence might depend on your own expectations and beliefs at the time – besides God being a malevolent ass, I mean.

The observer effect is a real thing, after all. People behave differently in experiments when they know they’re being scrutinised, and researchers’ reports of their observations is demonstrably affected if they’re told what result they’re meant to be looking for. If you’re primed to see a particular result, or to view some aspect of the world through the lens of God’s work, then you’re more likely to encounter evidence that seems to support your idea, than if you didn’t have this pre-existing “belief”. This could explain why the observations might depend on the observer’s state of mind.

But that would imply that God is just a set of psychological conditions inside people’s heads. And he’s got to be more than that if he’s so powerful and worth all this worship, right?

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See, the thing is, religion isn’t all bad.

*FIRST PARAGRAPH CONTROVERSY KLAXON*

It’s not, though. But it’s still a long, long way from the best we can do.

The Skeptics with a K framed some ideas interestingly in a recent episode of the podcast. They were talking about the classically bullshit-ridden debate over whether religion or atheism has directly caused more historical death and suffering, and which is therefore “worse”.

The first thing to remember is that this is entirely disconnected from the question of whether God exists, or whether any religious ideas are reasonable to believe based on the available evidence.

But, even while there have certainly been religiously motivated murders numbering well into the millions, and also genocidal regimes led by atheists, I’m increasingly of the view that there’s nothing useful to be gained by trying to determine any sort of comparative body count.

As I think Mike pointed out on the show, the idea of atheism being responsible for murder seems ridiculous on its face; there’s no way to logically get from “there is no god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

But then, theism doesn’t directly result in or endorse killing anyone either. There’s no more a logical way to get from “there is a god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without also adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

Unfortunately, adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle is precisely what religion tends to do. Hence “I believe in God” leads, blunderingly and meanderingly and by way of numerous distortions and corruptions, to the Crusades, the lynching of homosexuals, and all the rest.

And on the flipside, you have religious charities, and the unavoidable fact that belief in God, however mistaken, often engenders a kindness and desire to do good works in people of faith.

Atheists are always quick to point out various things when this is brought up – that historic religious institutions are in a much stronger position to provide infrastructure and funding for charitable organisation, that organised atheism hasn’t had centuries to establish a similar community that can embark on charitable projects, the name of the biggest lending community on Kiva, and so forth – all of which is quite correct. The idea we’re rushing to counter, in these cases, is the common claim that believing in God makes you a more compassionate, more generous, better person, than being an atheist. We’ve been told often enough that we all have no reason to be moral, and so that’s the bullshit we most easily react against.

But there are other things to be taken from the observed association between religion and charity. It’s not a condemnation of atheism to note that some forms of religion, as a system, are pretty good at arranging, organising, and motivating people to do good things, behave kindly and compassionately, and strive to alleviate suffering.

It’s also pretty good at helping people justify and rationalise the most grossly inhumane atrocities of which humanity is capable.

So it’s a mixed bag. Racist genocide and feeding the hungry are two things people are entirely capable of, with or without religion – but which religion often exacerbates and supports.

So, can’t we have one without the other?

It’s not that hard to conceive of a better system, which does more of the good things, and less of the bad. We could identify the parts of religion (or any other system) that are beneficial, separate out the ones that are harmful, and organise ourselves in a way that promotes and encourages charity without also helping people rationalise and justify tyranny and cruelty.

It should be possible. It doesn’t seem likely that, if you want everyone to be better at sheltering the homeless and not passing by on the other side when someone’s in need, you have no choice but to accept the corresponding tendency to lead armies against anyone else who’s basically trying to do the same thing as you but gives it a different name. We can surely have compassion without religiously inspired evil.

Atheism isn’t this system. (Though I suspect, and urge, that many people acting this way would be atheists.) Humanism might be it, or at least might be a few steps down the right path. It doesn’t need to be any more formal than that, nothing with an official hierarchy and rules and whatnot. Just a set of ideas, picked and chosen to help us do the best we can.

Skepticism and critical thinking are also positive things, and any belief systems we have in place should encourage and nurture these things. Religion often tends to be hostile to genuinely honest and open questioning of ideas – not always, but it throws up some serious roadblocks. So let’s see if we can’t do better.

The claim that religion is never any good for anything doesn’t hold up, but atheists shouldn’t feel they’re conceding anything important by abandoning it. Many people cling to their faith as a source of comfort and reassurance, in times of difficulty and pain. It does them some good, in a situation where simply removing it and replacing it with non-belief would not be better for them.

What’s important, though, is that religion is not the best we can do. Not by a long way. The comfort it provides comes only at the expense of a rational approach to the real world. It lets you feel better, but only by believing false things.

Can we improve on that? Can we come up with an approach which helps and supports and comforts people, and allows us to help and support and comfort each other, while remaining grounded in the real world, letting both compassion and rationality drive what we believe?

Christ, I hope so.

It’s unhelpful to focus too fixedly on whether “religion” or “atheism” is responsible for any of history’s great mass slaughters, because nothing’s that simple. But there are things to be learned about different approaches one can take to the world, and what kind of institutionalised behaviour these approaches tend to engender. Authoritarianism and inflexible thinking are strongly connected with cruelty and tyranny, and religion is by no means the best way we have of avoiding authoritarianism and inflexible thinking.

The demonstrable falseness of religious claims is ample reason to reject them; the regularity with which bigotry, hatred, and aggression are backed up by religious motivation should be ample to strongly compel us toward a more optimal system of organising ourselves to do good things.

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The short answer, I think, is “yes, but”.

Actually no, that’s too short. Even the short answer’s fairly long, by normal short-answer standards.

Let’s just dive right into the long answer, then.

Hayley Stevens wrote something recently, in which she takes serious umbrage with some of the mockery directed by many skeptics toward those who believe in irrational things.

Despite a stereotypical affiliation with old white men – and perhaps a preponderance filling that demographic which justifies the stereotype somewhat – the skeptical movement is a pretty diverse thing, with people from various different backgrounds and walks of life. Hayley has spent more time firmly embedded in “woo” than many, having started involving herself with research into the paranormal as a believer in various weird things. She spent a significant part of her life on that side of matters, and has lingering sympathies to people who still feel as she once did.

As a result, it’s clearer to her than most that – although she doesn’t phrase it as such – being skeptically active sometimes looks a lot like being a dick.

Before it sounds like I’m doing that obnoxiously smug thing of claiming some sort of moral high ground, over all those other nasty skeptics out there who just aren’t as sensitive and caring as me (or that I’m asserting that Hayley is doing any such thing either), it’s worth remembering the status that skeptics tend to hold in discussions with the rest of the world. They’re used to being decidedly in the minority. Everyone has some kind of critical thinking skills, and employs some level of skepticism in their day-to-day lives, but the basic things the skeptical movement focuses on – logical fallacies and so forth – don’t have much of a place in mainstream discussion. And some of the results of people’s skepticism – such as atheism – are deeply unpopular in many parts of the world.

So many skeptics are kinda accustomed to being a fringe group, and they do many of the things fringe groups do, to try and maintain group solidarity and security. This can include banding together, tending to be wary of outsiders, and using satire, mockery, and ridicule against those they deem to be an oppressive majority, whose acceptance they never feel they’ve had, and have now decided they neither need nor want.

I don’t say any of this to criticise; I’ve been an active part of everything I’ve just described for years. Elements such as mockery and acerbic humour make total sense, and in many cases are justified and necessary parts of pushing a reason-based agenda.

Around half of people in the USA are young-earth creationists, including the last President and many major public figures and commentators. This religiously inspired fiction is a big, bold, mainstream view with widespread support and respect and long-established kudos. And whatever it’s based on, it sure as hell ain’t reason or science or things that make a lick of sense.

Beliefs like this, and the misunderstanding and contempt of science that they both depend on and exacerbate, are worth opposing, and sometimes ridicule and mockery is justified. In many hard-fought battles, skeptics have been the little guy punching up rather than down. Making powerful, establishment ideas look silly is a useful tool for undermining their authority, and for spreading the idea that they don’t need to be taken so seriously after all.

But it gets tricky. Rational assessment of the evidence leads us to conclude that the Earth is rather older than a few thousand years; it also brings us to many other conclusions that, while not 100% guaranteed, are pretty solidly reliable – for instance, that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, with this same flavour of rational assessment, you also often get the same flavour of mockery and disdain for people who get it wrong.

In many cases, we’re not punching up any more. We’re not taking a brave stand against a wide-reaching and dangerously misguided establishment that can take a few hits. The targets of our piss-taking end up being huge crowds of regular people who, with the best will in the world and no hate in their hearts at all, just don’t think the way we do about something.

That’s not great, you guys.

I’m not going to go trawling the history of this very blog, to look for examples of when I’ve done exactly this. I know there are a bunch of things back there that I wouldn’t say now, now that I’ve studied a little more rationality and cognitive bias, grown up a little more, and essentially tried to become more patient and compassionate (as often happens when you grow up and start understanding more things).

Already, as I mentioned the other day, my rationality has bolstered my compassion. Meanwhile, on the other loop of the virtuous circle, adopting a position of compassion and understanding helps my rationality along too. To see how that works, it’s worth briefly analysing my immediate reaction on reading Hayley’s post – in what direction my lizard hindbrain flinched, before any actual thinking started going on.

Remember a while ago, I talked about noticing myself get a bit huffy over an entirely un-huff-worthy remark by Jon Ronson on Twitter? Some irrational, reactive part of me took his comment as an assault on reason, which was then interpreted as a personal attack on me. I started automatically running through all sorts of defensive arguments, for a belief that hadn’t actually been argued against in the slightest. And something similar happened in an unhelpful corner of my head on reading Hayley’s dismay at some skeptical mockery.

I don’t think the problem was that I’ve mocked believers in the past, and I was resisting being told that I was personally wrong or mean-spirited to do that. I think that I was leaping to defend the notion of ridicule as a legitimate tactic, and to fight the idea that any instance of careless or disrespectful language is a sign of a cruel and unsympathetic character (which, like in Jon’s case, isn’t at all what Hayley said).

So I started rehearsing my cached thoughts about comedy being an important part of a robust discussion, the history of satire’s influence on dangerously wrong-headed thinking… All the things which require taking the least charitable interpretation of Hayley’s words possible, and the grandest sense of personal righteousness, for them to make any sense at all.

Whereas, if I actually think about it, and grant her any reasonable benefit of the doubt, it’s not hard to see that her intentions are surely far more benevolent than my involuntary, instinctive, superficial judgment of them. I can stop to examine what arguments she’s actually making, and what ideas and feelings are at their source. And it becomes quite clear that she has a point.

While mockery may be an important and useful part of the broader public debate – used in carefully chosen moments, directed more at the ideas themselves than the people espousing them – it’s an extremely rare case when it’s actually employed with such precision tactics. Much more often, it’s just because it feels good to vent some of that frustration at those other people who are just such idiots you guys, like, ugh.

And we can do better than that. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and I’m not decrying some terrible rift in the skeptical movement because of how mean some people are. But we all spend a lot of time believing irrational things, and skeptics are the one group who should’ve studied enough psychology to know that there is literally not a single exception to that generalisation, in the entire global set of “people who are awake”. There are people like us, who are mistaken, and we can do better than to punch down at them.

Hayley explains the way she feels some of this ridicule personally:

If you laugh at people because they believe in stupid things you’re laughing at me six years ago…

When skeptics mock believers, they’re mocking my people.

Which is simply what empathy is.

Hayley’s experiences have broadened her innate conception of how her “in-group” is defined. But we can broaden it even further, and do even better.

If you laugh at someone for the human failing of believing something unreasonable, you demean what it is to be human. When people are cruel to people, they’re being cruel to my people, because all the people are my people.

That’s the stance I’m aiming for. I’m not there yet, by a long way, but it’s worth the effort.

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There’s two things we need more of:

  1. Rationality
  2. Compassion

Those are the big two, anyway. Not a revelation in itself, but my ideas crystallise interestingly now and then. In particular, my mind keeps wandering back to a point JT Eberhard made a while ago.

The sum of the battle between reason and faith can be reduced to this: both compassion and reason can be terrible without the other.

Reason without compassion gives us nuclear bombs instead of nuclear energy.

Compassion without reason produces loving parents who watch their children die of easily curable diseases, because the parents think prayer is a better tonic than medicine.

I think maybe the reason my brain keeps prodding me to explore this some more, is that it’s been working through its own related thoughts, and has finally got somewhere with it.

The idea that compassion and rationality are, in essence, the two most vital aspects of life, and the two areas in which the most valuable world-saving work can be done, isn’t that new to me.

And I think what I want to talk about is how they aren’t just non-overlapping magisteria, but can both feed into each other. There’s a virtuous circle to fall into there, between a scientifically skeptical approach to the world, and a love for humanity, if you try.

I’m currently in the midst of reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This is a well overdue development, because I’ve been reading other books and blogs about cognitive biases, which cite Kahneman’s work constantly, for years. But if his name isn’t abundantly familiar to you, this book will properly blow your mind.

Even if you’re well up on much of the skeptical literature about logical fallacies, and can spot people using straw-men or ad hominems a mile away, there’s a whole other realm of how your own thinking will mislead you. You can read about so many brilliant experiments into the way people’s intuitions and assumptions lead them awry, and ought to feel a little creeped out knowing that you are in no way immune from any of this mental blundering which you can see leading other people into palpably misguided decisions.

There’s also research showing how hard it is to admit that this stuff really does apply to you as much as anyone, and not keep seeing yourself as a special case, whose thinking really is as clear and unbiased as it feels like. But I’m starting to get sidetracked.

The point is, the more you know about the unreliable processes of human thinking, the easier it is to not hate people when their thought processes fail them in very human ways. To study and embrace rationality, you have to learn to identify and work around your own flaws; once you know a bit about what they are and how difficult they are to avoid, you’ll be more inclined to understand them in others, and realise that it’s these artefacts of human cognition which make people they way they are, not just an inherently evil countenance. You’ll also learn to examine your own anger toward others more critically, and trust it less.

And the reinforcement can work the other way, too. The more compassionately you feel toward other people, the better chance you have of taking on board new arguments, hearing and listening to alternative viewpoints, and absorbing information that might change your mind. If you stick with your natural instincts, and let your brain define anyone not already firmly in your camp as an “other” whose heretical ideas need to be defended against, then you’ll find it incredibly hard to admit, to yourself or anyone else, that you might not have been lucky enough to be perfectly correct about something the first time.

Compassion helps you avoid the cognitive fallacies and biases that come from tribalism and defensiveness. Rationality helps you see the humanity in everyone else, by recognising their proneness to cognitive error as a part of yourself.

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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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Be Reasonable continues to establish itself as one of my most looked-forward-to podcasts. It still only airs monthly, but I hope it sets the standard for some more similar content in the future.

This latest show was the first one where I was entirely unfamiliar with the fringe claim being examined. It’s about a particularly niche bit of folklore from 12th century England, and one man who’s almost entirely alone in thinking it a true tale of two extra-terrestrial human children visiting our planet. You should hear the full story.

One thing that’s fascinating to analyse, and hear the hosts attempt to unravel, is the way in which minor oddities and gaps in our knowledge are inflated and exaggerated, to make room for massive assumptions and leaps of imagination – while those same gaps and leaps are minimised, and outlandish fantasies are treated as if plausible, even necessary, conclusions from a paucity of evidence.

Here’s the kind of thing I mean: part of the mystery of the origins of these two children who turned up in Suffolk surrounds the language they spoke. It wasn’t recognised by the people in the town where they were brought, and the interviewee, Duncan Lunan, is convinced it was the language of an alien world. One mainstream hypothesis is that the children were speaking Flemish, which is possible given the circumstances, but Lunan dismisses the notion that Flemish wouldn’t have been recognisable to the people in the area at the time.

You can follow his logic, as far as it goes. He’s done his historical research, and it may well be that Flemish should have been familiar to at least some of the people who interacted with the children; it’s a curiosity, an anomaly, something odd, if it apparently wasn’t.

But to resolve this by postulating a far more improbable anomaly, such as human children living on another planet and beaming to Earth through a matter transporter which malfunctioned because of sunspots (as he later discusses), is no solution at all. It’s a perfect example of “Conclusion: Dinosaurs“, and if that’s not the formal name for the logical fallacy at play here then it should be.

I had planned to go into the faulty reasoning exhibited by the subjects of this podcast in more depth, but it’s not really necessary; the claims are so baseless that my rehashing the numerous and obvious refutations wouldn’t particularly add anything. But what’s worth noting is how easy it is to start to forget that fact, when listening to these people talk about things that interest them.

The show’s second guest was Michael Wilmore of the Flat Earth Society, a group dedicated to being about as fantastically and comprehensively wrong in a single field of study as it’s possible to be. The conversation was, on both sides, friendly, charming, informative, lucid, well informed, engaging, and educational.

Michael Wilmore and the others have conclusively demonstrated that, when it comes to examining how people arrive at beliefs so out of kilter with reality, and continue to maintain them in the face of all evidence for quite so long, “they’re crazy” is a wholly inadequate explanation.

The belief systems in question are utterly vacuous. They are based on hot air and undiluted piffle. But these are functioning human beings who’ve got there via an entirely human series of experiences and thought processes. Every bizarre rationalisation or illogical justification they need to use to prop up their tower of bullshit is something we’re all potentially capable of, and all call upon more often than we’d like to admit in the course of making it through another day.

It’s hard to always feel this way. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know how agitated I get at people daring to have a differing opinion during a certain BBC1 Sunday morning programme. Those people are terrible at believing kooky things.

Or, it’s a format specifically tailored to encourage conflict and argument. And it’s nice to just hear people who believe completely different things, having a chat and trying to understand each other once in a while.

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This Guardian article by Martin Robbins isn’t mainly about the irrationality of religion, but I thought one paragraph was delicious enough to be worth quoting. In a recent poll organised by the Church of England, whose results they subsequently represented in a decidedly misleading fashion:

31% of respondents said they would pray for peace in the world. Given the noticeable absence of world peace, there are only a few ways this plays out. Either nobody has got around to praying yet, in which case people are callous bastards; or God has ignored them all, in which case God is a callous bastard; or prayer doesn’t work, in which case the Christian movement is the equivalent of a town full of people still trying to call the number of their local Papa John’s 2,000 years after it closed down and the phone was disconnected, speaking at the error tone even though nobody has picked up, then spotting a pizza in the supermarket two days later and insisting that it must have arrived by the grace of Papa John’s.

Christians: pick one.

(Martin’s on good form today – read this one about Richard Littlejohn and the problems of press regulation as well.)

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