Things I don’t get

I think this post has something for all the classes of people that I know have ever read my blog.

1) Why free speech advocates reject the “but it will offend Muslims!” argument as if it were clearly not worth considering.

Personally, I preferred the bear suit.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the idea that you should not be able to draw a picture or write an article about something because somebody might find it offensive really is inherently stupid. I think blasphemy laws suck, that they’re a disgrace to a civilised world and that they’re taking us back to the dark ages. But the idea that some things can offend us simply by existing is not in fact particularly new or unconventional, as much as it might go against my libertarian principles. Few people demand the categorical repeal of obscenity laws, which are essentially just that. Here is a Less Wrong article asking a similar question.

My theory is that this is a problem that inevitably arises in heterogenous societies. Most of us don’t object to a law that bans public masturbation because we share the same instinctual reaction to it, and we don’t share the reaction of an observant Muslim faced with a cartoon of Mohammed. Of course, I still say the offended Muslim can go poke his/her eyes out if he cares that much, but then I’m also perfectly comfortable to generally push “enlightenment values” and secular traditions in the face of local cultures everywhere.

2) Why people cried for Steve Jobs

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Steve Jobs and a device people now identify with Steve Jobs.

Which is an entirely different question from why people exhibit such strong emotions for their Apple devices. Because let’s be fair, Apple makes a lot of good products. They have great designs and generally trouble-free, marvelously smooth interfaces, and the customer support in Apple stores is wonderful (or so I’m told).  But Jobs himself was never the most savoury of characters. The man was horrible to work for, stole ideas all over the place, never gave significantly to charity despite his vast wealth, promoted quack medicine until it almost killed him, and cared little for how his subcontractors treated workers.

Of course he was smart. And of course he had a good eye for design and had vision and was a good executor and gave good speeches. If I owned a tech company-ok, pretty much any company- and Zombie Jobs offered to run it I would jump at the chance. But since when does any of that lead people to care so deeply about a total stranger?

My answer is a combination of the media’s increasing tendency towards hagiographic obituaries, the fact that he had very consciously developed a personality cult and tied the company and its products strongly to himself, and the simple truth that he was a very well-known figure and there will be someone who cries for just about any celebrity, just because it means a change in their world. I remain unsatisfied at the idea that so many people the world over chose him as the only corporate titan to connect to in such an emotional way, though.

3) Why people care about the US elections

Like the first one, this is a bit of a tease, because I find myself reading a fair bit about it and I’ll probably continue to, if only because I won’t be able to escape it. But from a purely utilitarian viewpoint it’s a pointless exercise.

I mean, look at him.

“But Nikhil!” , you protest. “Perry’s a whore, Santorum’s santorum, and Gingrich is such an obvious prick: wouldn’t it be horrible if one of them won?” And I say: it won’t, because they won’t. The truth is that none of them have a real shot, let alone the gallery of buffoons (Cain, Bachman, and oh God, Palin) that have sprung up and dropped out one by one. Mitt Romney is the only real Republican candidate who has a chance- sorry, Ron Paul- and no matter what he says in the primary to appease the raving horde, his actions as president are unlikely to be significantly different from Obama’s. Of course he’ll be a little to Obama’s right but on most things we would care about-foreign policy, Internet regulation, general IP regulations/agreements, free trade agreements- that isn’t saying much. As long as he isn’t stupid enough to start a new war-and however much you might despise his views, he shows all signs of being a rather intelligent man- the rest of the world could easily close their eyes to this entire circus.

More Stats from okcupid

These people are awesome…I don’t think I’ve linked to their previous few posts on the blog before, although I have shared their results before on Google Reader and/or Twitter. This is the latest, the real stuff white people like, on Gizmodo. Obviously even though this is for a bunch of races this is all (or almost all) Americans of those races. The writers have commented on the results for white, black, Latinos and Asians (which does not include Indians), so I’ll leave that alone, but here are some random points I thought were interesting:

  • Indian women, for some reason, refer to their passports and couches a lot more often than anyone else.
  • Asians, Middle Eastern people and Indians all seem to think “I’m a simple guy/girl” is a major selling point. This I will confess to being mystified by. The statement is basically signaling that they’re low maintenance, right? Or have low expectations? Are none of these groups “in demand” or at least “at par” on the dating market? Crap. Thankfully, it comes up a lot less for Indian men than for Asian/Middle Eastern men, and it’s not even on the list for Indian/Middle Eastern women.
  • Indian men like cricket and Indian women like bhangra. Also most of the men are software engineers or traders. I guess that’s not really surprising, but it’s always interesting to see stereotypes borne out.
  • Middle Eastern women have “different cultures” as their single most favourite thing. I feel there’s a joke to be made somewhere here, but… 🙂 . They are also far more likely to describe themselves as petite. They also like Darjeeling I guess they’re referring to the tea – which doesn’t come up for any other group, not even the Indians.
  • Pacific Islanders seem like pretty cool people 🙂 .

But of course, the real reason I’m linking is just so I have some excuse to share this:

Sidenote: reading level

Since we were parsing all this text anyway, we thought it would be cool to do some basic reading-level analysis on what people had written about themselves. We used the Coleman-Liau Index, and when we partitioned the essays by the race of the writers, we found this:

The Real 'Stuff White People Like’

Before anyone gets too charged-up about this, we also ran reading level by religion and found this:

The Real 'Stuff White People Like’

Is there a Comic Sans version of the Bible? There really should be. We subdivided this chart further, by how serious each person was about their beliefs:

The Real 'Stuff White People Like’

It’s interesting to note that for each of the faith-based belief systems I’ve listed, the people who are the least serious about them write at the highest level. On the other hand, the people who are most serious about not having faith (i.e. the “very serious” agnostics and atheists) score higher than any religious groups.

Interesting, right? Although it must be said that a higher grade level is not necessarily a good thing. It isn’t on most blogs, for instance. However, assuming you want to signal intelligence, a higher grade level for your profile is probably desirable. So if nothing else this at least signifies that more religious people don’t want to signal intelligence as much, which is also interesting

A Small Miracle; Or, an Improbable Chain of Events

Here’s a little story that happened last night:

I had just spent an extended weekend at home and just before I had to leave, I realized that I had lost my key ring, which had the keys to my room and cycle. I usually place it in a small pouch in the back pocket of my bag when I come home. This time, for some reason, I had tossed it right into the back pocket, as far as I remembered. I had only bothered to check for it 20 minutes before the train back to Madras was scheduled to arrive (just as I was leaving from home) so it was a rather frantic search… in the bag, on my desk at home, in all the million pockets of the cargoes I was wearing on the train that da… but in vain. Once we got to the station and discovered that the train was late by 15 minutes-confirmed it, rather, because this train is always late- I checked all over the bag again, and so did my father. I was rather careful and it felt like a thorough search*.

Almost exactly like my own key-ring, if you remove the black one at the bottom.

Anyway. I had made a very glum peace with it- wondering how I would go about breaking my lock, deciding to call one of my more able-bodied friends for help, etc- and was just settling down to bed-to berth, I guess? No, too weird- when I realized that I no longer had my earphones, either. This, interestingly enough, did not affect me much at all, despite the fact that I usually rely on music to help me sleep on the train. After searching everywhere else,  I wondered if I might have put it in the bag, for some reason, and decided to check.

So I thought to myself, if I open the bag and see the keys right now, that would be a real miracle, because by now I had convinced myself that I had lost it on the train from Madras, last Friday.  And because my father had been telling me to pray even if I thought it was pointless, because it would help me worry less about things- and because this is “the age of blind reason”, till my mid-20s, and I will learn the subtleties of faith later, or something- I sort of looked up and thought in a snarky voice:** “You hear that, God? A miracle. That’s how desperate I am”. Then I opened the back  pouch.

And-ha, like you didn’t know this was coming- there it was, lying right in front of me in the middle of the pouch.

Yeah, I know. It wasn’t that much of a coincidence. The bag was tilted somewhat this time, so maybe it had been stuck in some very tiny, hard to reach place- all searches were conducted by opening it wide and groping around with my hands (but more carefully than that expression suggests), not pulling it upside down and shaking it- and I had just pulled it loose by throwing the bag to the upper berth and tilting it. Or something. Natural explanations a-plenty. But, even so, I would have felt quite intellectually dishonest if I hadn’t blogged about this.

Thoughts? I have a rather large number (proportion, rather, because my numbers aren’t large at all :))of atheist readers… would something like this happening to you cause a substantial change in your probability of God existing? Would it cause any change at all? From a purely Bayesian point of view it is obvious that it should cause an almost insignificantly small change, but the impact it has in a visceral sense is quite a bit stronger: that is to say, several events of this sort would still only cause a relatively small change for a strict Bayesian, but your average human it is much more liable to shift the balance of probability entirely. And I will confess to not being a very strict Bayesian.

PS: I never did find the earphones, in case anyone was wondering. They were pretty old, but still in quite decent condition. And although I really don’t understand why, I’m still very relaxed about that.

*I’m only going into detail on this to show that at least at the time, I was fairly sure the keys weren’t in the bag.

**I swear I did this, I wrote this down on my phone soon after I got the keys. I don’t know if this is a thing “normal” people (whoever they are) do, but I tend to talk to myself a lot, and I often use  several entirely different voices in my head. I had this rather “unrealistic” British accent that I used when I read Shakespeare- most of my English textbooks, actually- back in school. There are a bunch of others, but I really don’t want to go into detail here 🙂 .

[Insert Scientology Joke Here]

I think this is a pretty ridiculous assertion overall, but it’s still interesting.

Why there is no Jewish Narnia:

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.

Via MR.

In Defence of Mini skirts

A friend of mine had commented on this post as yet another example of the “miniskirt theory of modernity”(“Afghan women not only attended Kabul University, they did so in miniskirts”). (For those not familiar with the term, it’s not considered to be a particularly valid theory.) And I thought, hey. Why not?  Knowing fully well the subjective definitions of most of the terms I use below, I postulate that:

  1. One of the fundamental aspects of “modern” or just “good” society is education. (Fairly commonly accepted fact, isn’t it?)
  2. Education, at least what most of us consider the “right” kind of education,  is usually highly correlated with tolerance. Of course, there are examples of highly educated but still highly intolerant/caste-ist (better word?) Brahmins, to name just one, but generally speaking, I think the logic works fine (i.e. more often) in the tolerance–>(because of) education direction, if not in the education–>(leads to) tolerance direction.
  3. In an Islamic country, tolerating mini-skirts really is a pretty big deal. (No first-hand knowledge, but again, seems about right.)
  4. From points 2 and 3, an Islamic society that tolerates mini-skirts is at least more likely to be somewhat better educated.
  5. From point 1, a better-educated society is a more modern or at least a better society

Makes sense, no? Of course, there is the fact that even in this “golden age” said miniskirts were worn only by the elite minorities in the cities, which partially proves (because those minorities, at least, were educated) my theory.

Since I Can’t Write My Professional Ethics exam anyway…

A friend of mine asked for my opinion on this article, and since I ended up writing so much, I felt I ought to share. Essentially, it is a Christian response to the “How can there be a God if there is so much evil in the world!?” question. My own opinion is that the question is rather irrelevant to whether there is a God or not-if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter, and if there is, I can find explanations that are not constrained by the specific attributes of the christian God.

The “problem of evil” has a lot of problems of its own. It’s a favorite of atheists and other people who argue against the God of Christianity, and it generally runs something like “if God is all good, and all powerful, then why is there suffering (or evil; or, why do bad things happen to good people)?” The implication, of course, is that God is either not all good, or not all powerful — either of which would destroy the Christian God’s exclusive claim to deity.

Is it really a favourite of atheists? I’ve heard more apologetics trying to do their thing with this question than I’ve heard atheists seriously offering it up as a proof of their beliefs. But moving on…

There are quite a few interesting things about this idea. First, of course, is the obvious assumption on the part of our atheist, that suffering is evil and therefore wrong. Usually it’s a good idea to start by taking this apart. What is wrong with suffering? What is evil as opposed to good? This separates the men from the boys right away, because the atheist has to realize that he is mounting an internal critique of Christianity.

Er. Not really. Good and evil maybe predominantly christian concepts, but are neither uniquely nor originally (I think; not sure, though) christian concepts, and can in any case be phrased more appropriately in terms of a more comprehensive moral framework. Why not consider a simple “do no harm” utilitarianism? Events caused by unconscious or non-volitional(is there a better word?) systems (like natural disasters) are arguably outside the realm of good and evil. I don’t believe even most christians would argue otherwise.

An external critique on this basis is hard to justify, because in a naturalistic world of survival of the fittest and the pretensions of meat machines to higher function, “good” and “evil” are either meaningless, or to be defined in terms of what is best for (a) me, or (b) my offspring.

Or c) everyone. Which brings us back to utilitarianism*.

And nobody can deny that suffering and “evil” are powerful applications of nature to cull the weak and encourage the ongoing life and multiplication of the strong. Let’s not fight straw men, though; some atheists believe that they have a workable system of ethics without religion. Whether they actually do isn’t part of the scope of this post.

See above.

So, our atheist is trying to mount an internal critique of Christianity.

Why, if he admits that some atheists (believe they) have a workable non-religious system of ethics, is he going back to this “internal critique”? Why would one confine oneself to a single, not necessarily coherent, unproven set of postulates when the answers may quite possibly lie beyond them?
What happened to “let’s not fight straw men”???

Perhaps we should rephrase the problem for him: if God is good by His own (revealed) standards, and all powerful, then why is there evil in the world? If God really loved His creation, then would He allow crack-addicted babies to be born, or six million Jews to be brutally murdered in a space of a few short years, or people to go to eternal conscious torment? The obvious answer to the atheist is usually that He cannot be good and allow those things, and therefore Christianity is either a religion of horrors serving a God Who delights in misery, or an inconsistent system of beliefs.

Actually, I don’t think I know any atheists who say the former. Seems like something fundamentalists from another religion could try, though.

Bahnsen points out that the syllogism need not end like this. He recommends that we actually try to grasp this internally, like so: God is good. God is all powerful. There is evil in the world. Therefore God has a morally sufficient reason for the existence of evil. This is consistent with the Scriptures, and logical.

This might be rephrased without too much exaggeration: There’s a reason, but we’re not going to tell you until you’re old enough to know. If then. Hey, maybe never! (Do christian scriptures, in general, place the same emphasis on “enlightenment” as Buddhist or Hindu scriptures? Some emphasis is given, I think, so “maybe never” is probably unfair. This comment could be appreciated more if the reader understands that I’m trying to neutralize the sermon with an equal amount of snark.)

However, the atheist has a problem with that, because he does not see how there can be a morally sufficient reason for crack babies, holocausts, or hell. And generally speaking, the Bible does not provide direct answers for such things, beyond the glory of God (doubly repugnant to somebody who is already disinclined to glorify Him). So, the atheist judges God’s standard of goodness, and finds it wanting…

And at this point, the atheist’s attempt at an internal critique fails, because he had to step outside the critique to come to his conclusion (that God is not good).

Again. What is with this insistence on an “internal critique”? If a flat-earther came and demanded an “internal critique” of his arguments, how many would oblige?

How can I say this?

Consider: the internal critique begins with the premise that God is good. Everything that God does is good; one might say that good is defined by the character and action of God. Under the circumstances, the God of the Bible is in fact the only One capable of judging the goodness of a thing, but nobody is good except for Him. And anything He does, and anything He chooses, is good. When the atheist decides that something God has ordained or allowed is not good, he is effectively taking God’s place as the judge of what is good, and setting himself above God. The atheist is on the bench, and God is in the dock once again. That is usually where the atheist chooses to be, but we must point out that there can be no internal critique anymore, because internally, the system of Christian theology presupposes that God is good, and the atheist must declare that, no, he will be the judge of what is good, effectively switching places with God, and breaking any hope of consistency.

While some of us are still troubled and hoping for some sort of consistency (with christian doctrine, that is; consistency with the observable world is considered an absolute criterion), I think it should be clear from even a cursory examination of any New Atheist book that most atheists want nothing to do with it, so offering it as some sort of reward isn’t really going to accomplish much. The attempt to frighten the blasphemers with that last bit of rhetorical flourish-“effectively switching places with God”- is subject to the same argument. (Although more likely to succeed; fear is usually more effective.)

To put it simply, the atheist is not comparing himself to the Christian God if he thinks that he can judge God. The Christian God, and the revelation that He has delivered, exclude any possibility of that fact.

I would imagine that the atheist, by definition, is (if (s)he considers at all) considering the existence of some supernatural being with as-yet-unidentified attributes, not some “precisely imprecisely” drawn out picture of a “Christian God”.

Once the atheist is outside the paradigm of Christian ethics again, he has the same problem we outlined above; he must defend his concept of good and evil without God. Inside the paradigm, the atheist finds himself begging the question of God’s transcendental goodness.

A dilemma indeed, until one bothers to consider seriously everything philosophers have written for centuries about a non-theistic system of ethics. “Defending the concept of good and evil without God” is really not that hard! Such a moral framework might consider “good and evil” in a more clinical fashion than most believers, but it should still prove comprehensive. I think.

Truly, though, we have a point of contact with the atheist at this stage. He can’t get away from the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil. Now it is only a matter of proclaiming to him the truth of the God Whose ethical system he is borrowing in ignorance.

I wonder if the author would concede that it could possibly work the other way around?

Do check out the comments on the page, specifically this link, which has arguments that most of us will already have seen about altruism and morality in a non-theistic sense.

* I should probably explain that I prefer my utilitarianism garnished with some virtue ethics, and maybe a little deontology on the side, too. I haven’t worked out if this is merely because of an instinctive prejudice that pure utilitarianism/consequentialism is “meaninglessly” hedonistic, or what implications that has. There are refinements galore to all these theories which make them more acceptable to me than in their standard forms, but most are outside the scope of this post.

In Which I Rant

A vast amount of blog posts and articles and even one best selling novel has been written on “Life in IIT”. Just about every student here has attempted at least one, and nearly all of them are half-baked and incomplete descriptions that spew forth during their periodic existential crises. But for the last few days*, my personal experience of “IIT life” can be fully described by a few choice phrases:

  1. chronic sleep-deprivation
  2. a leaky nose
  3. an aching head
  4. blaring temple music
  5. uninspired writing (@Lays: hopefully, I will resolve this before I actually start working 🙂 )
  6. swine flu scare
  7. total clueless-ness
  8. self-sabotage
  9. tangential (and mostly counterproductive to my real needs) motivation
  10. the joy of rediscovery (True Blood. Is awesome. Watch. Anna Paquin gets naked! And when I say that’s not the reason I really watch it, you KNOW it has to be something special.)

The music seems to have stopped temporarily, but I know better than to think that that is anything but a brief, tantalizing window into a world of silence, a world where one can be free to open one’s window and feel the breeze without being blasted by the same 6 songs on an hourly loop all day, every day. Yesterday, the power went off at a little after 3 AM.  This being Chennai, as soon as the fan stopped spinning, I woke up. After attempting to go back to sleep for another 20 minutes, and after discovering that the mosquitoes were rather more attracted to my newly sweat-slicked body, I decided to open all the windows. With predictable results. I tried holding a pillow over my head to drown it out, but I’m not sure that I wasn’t just trying to suffocate myself.

*and with respect to item 4, which is correlated with item 1,for the next week or so as well, I am told.

Objective Reality, Rationalism and the Nature of Belief

I was in the middle of an utterly normal conversation with a friend when it suddenly veered off into a discussion of whether beliefs are a matter of choice. I said, obviously not, and she said, “of course they are!”. And then we quickly got into a tangential discussion which ended with her comparing me to Hitler*. So for the elucidation of anyone who cares to read it, here is my take.

The first question we need to settle is whether there is such a thing as objective reality. This is apparently not a very obvious question, but most of (modern, as in post-Kant) Western philosophy agrees that there is. Quite a lot of Eastern Philosophy doesn’t, I think, but we are sidestepping this question for a moment until more authoritative sources can contribute. Kant himself was cited as an objection, but his point was simply that the “true” reality was unknowable, not that it doesn’t exist in the first place. We will assume that there is such a thing, which I think is a comfortable assumption to make, because this is the assumption that all of modern science depends on. (No references to quantum physics or Fritjof Capra or anyone else will be accepted without substantiation; and I do think that is fair.) There can be no logic without an objective reality, or mathematics(again, any references to Riemann geometry or anything similar must elaborate). For a somewhat quirky “proof”, see here.

Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true, according to wikipedia. When you believe something, you are essentially holding a concept in your head that you “believe” corresponds to The Way Things Are (or Should Be, or Will Be, or Might Be, or Were-we are not particularly concerned about that.) This means that to a rational mind something you believe must be either true or false. “Truth” might be unknowable, as Kant says, or it might just be unknown at present, in which case one can hold no beliefs about what one doesn’t know. This doesn’t mean that one can just believe anything. (It is possible to designate a “current best candidate” to a certain “degree of belief”, as one does in Bayesianism. One then performs “Bayesian updating’ taking into account the strength of new evidence and the prior degree of belief. This is essentially what the true rationalist/Bayesian always does, although it is invariably astoundingly difficult to explain to any “true believers” 🙂 )I can believe something to be true that isn’t, “actually”, but if I realize that it isn’t then I have an unavoidable obligation to change my belief.

This, of course, is only in an ideal situation. People do find it quite easy, in real life, to hold contradictory ideas in their minds. People find it easy to forcibly believe various pieces of dogma that they are “required” to believe, according to their church, their parents, their advisors or the state. I just finished reading 1984 yesterday, and was treated to some fascinating descriptions and explanations of doublethink. I have read, if only in a very amateur capacity, about cognitive dissonance.I know that people can be made to think that 2+2=5. So I fully understand that people are capable of voluntarily believing in things, although to see whether they believe it at all levels of consciousness is a question for psychologists-despite the horrifying, frightening ending of the book, I would like to think that there is some subconscious set of core beliefs that one simply cannot alter. My point is that it is not rational to do so.

(“Why rationality?”, you might ask. I would reply, “What else?” For more eloquent arguments-although I can’t see why, because someone who doesn’t believe in rationality will, by definition, not be swayed by any arguments other than appeals to brute instincts of pleasure and pain-you can check out any number of websites. Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong are comprehensive if tedious places to start, although the first is no longer updated, at least about this. Or just check any number of competent atheist websites.)

Not surprisingly, one of the areas where this question must be dealt with is atheism, or the voluntary “conversion” to atheism(I specifically mention voluntary as a means of excluding those cases where you are simply substituting another piece of dogma, such as communism). This post explains the concept of involutarism and voluntarism in the question of believing in God. It is written by an atheist, and at the end the author confesses that he tends very strongly towards involuntarism.

According to Terence Penelhum, there are two general schools of thought when it comes to how beliefs originate: voluntarist and involuntarist. The voluntarists take the position that belief is a matter of will: we have control over what we believe much in the way we have control over our actions.

Theists often seem to be voluntarists and Christians in particular commonly argue the voluntarist position. Some of history’s most prolific theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard have written that believing — or at least believing religious dogma — is a free act of will. This isn’t surprising, because only if we bear some responsibility for our beliefs can disbelief be considered a sin punishable by sending nonbelievers to hell. Nonbelievers encounter this perspective when evangelists exhort others to “just believe” and to “choose Jesus,” reminding us that our atheism is a sin and a path to damnation.

Involuntarists, on the other hand, argue that we cannot really choose to just believe anything. According to them, a belief is not an action and thus cannot be attained by command. For example, everyone realizes that even after a person has concluded beyond any doubt what they must do, that doesn’t mean that they will automatically do it. Beyond their conclusion is the fact that extra steps must be taken to actually make the action happen.

This post, on the other hand, is written by a Christian, at a site that seeks to answer rationalist skeptics of Christianity (and religion in general, I assume). It , naturally enough, chooses the side of voluntarism. Aside from saying that “The Bible Teaches We Can Choose Our Beliefs”, it attacks the idea that a belief cannot be changed by exertion of will:

As an example, for many years, people held to the belief that those of African descent were somehow less human than other people on the planet and could be bought and sold as property. It was only after a dedicated minority of people such as William Wilberforce began to insist through discourse and argument that beliefs began to change. Even today, I know of many people who had some type of belief or conviction that they were taught but now no longer hold since they thought through the arguments. So, I would see this as proof that a specifically held belief can be changed by the exchange of ideas and some hard thinking on the topic.

Of course, this argument completely misses the point. “Thinking through the arguments”, as he puts it, implies that one is either acquiring additional evidence or better interpreting existing evidence. It is completely rational to change one’s beliefs when one no longer has evidence for them, or has evidence against them. When we say that belief is involuntary, what we mean is that we cannot “choose” to believe something against the evidence. If they hadn’t changed their views, that would be evidence of voluntarism.

In conclusion: I can see no way in which one can rationally argue that belief is a matter of choice. This isn’t as overarching a concept as one might think, however. As I was surprised at having to explain, it does not in any way affect my libertarianism. I do not suggest that some one or some group of people go around correcting all wrong beliefs. All beliefs might have value, or they might not-in an area where we do not have conclusive proof, anything can go. However, this does not mean that one abandons rationality, it just means that one adopts a more sophisticated but equally obvious method of reasoning, such as Bayesianism.

*My theory was wrong, at least according to another site that I visited just now. It was a thought experiment more than anything else, anyway. I was talking out of my ass, as less polite people would call it.

PS: This is certainly one of the best Christian sites that I have seen, I must say, because it accepts a rationalist worldview and concedes the obvious, and then makes Christianity consistent by claiming the facts of the Resurrection:

This same concept holds true in all our beliefs about God and the world. Beliefs make truth claims that can be examined to see if they are internally consistent and externally consistent. An internally inconsistent belief is one where its own claims contradict each other. Logical positivism is a good example of this. Logical Positivists held a principle called the verification principle which said that for a non analytical statement to be meaningful, it must be empirically verifiable.2 Of course, the statement “for a non-analytical statement to be meaningful, it must be empirically verifiable” is neither analytic nor able to be proven empirically3, so it becomes internally inconsistent.

A belief is externally inconsistent if any of its claims contradict what we know to be true. Baha’i beliefs hold that “God has revealed Himself to humanity through a series of divine Messengers, each of Whom has founded a great religion.”4 However, if the fundamental tenants of each of these “great religions” contradicts each other, then their claim that cannot be true.

Jesus held to the concept of a single God, while other faiths like Hinduism hold to multiple gods and yet others like Buddhism don’t believe in a personal God at all. All these views of God are in competition with each other – it is impossible for all of them to be true. Further, Jesus taught that God had a son, whom He called “His only begotten son”, while Muhammad taught that God does not beget nor is He begotten”. Again, these teachings stand in direct opposition to each other, therefore, Baha’ism is externally inconsistent. It makes claims that don’t match the reality of the world.

The concept of consistency is a good way to begin to judge the truthfulness of any belief system, including the one in which a person is raised. If a belief is internally inconsistent, you don’t need to be exposed to any other beliefs to recognize the problems with the inconsistent belief. As an example, look at the way our understanding of medicine and the human body have changed. We no longer believe in blood-letting and such things – and even if we don’t know what the diagnosis is, we wouldn’t resort to treating a patient using those concepts.

Christianity is unique in its challenge to its adherents to test its claims and see if they are true. Paul says that the entire faith if the Christian rests on the historical fact of the resurrection. If that’s not true, then we are liars and we should be rejected. To this end, God has given us our reasoning faculties so that we don’t simply follow whatever we’re taught. To do so doesn’t show maturity and wisdom as a person.

It so happens that they conveniently ignore some of the other parts of christianity, as laid out in the Bible and the guidelines of the church, which call for blind faith. But that is an entirely different issue, and one which I have no interest in going into right now.

An Observation

I have been trying to think of some short, descriptive phrases for myself, and this is what I came up with.

Moderate Nerd:I can code, I can talk basic (and possibly college-level) science*, can understand the general idea behind most technology, and I am interested in a lot of things that other self-confessed geeks are interested in. I am also rather more socially awkward in person than over the internet. However, I don’t code all that well, and I don’t necessarily fit the stereotype in a lot of ways. Not that I’m complaining, exactly.

Moderate Libertarian: I believe that in general people should get to do what they want as long as other people are not directly affected. The adverb (directly) is where things get tricky. I can’t even point to a general rule of thumb that I would use to decide what counts as direct influence and what doesn’t, I just choose where I stand on a case-by-case basis. Although I suppose I tend to prefer not interfering in people’s choices in the vast majority of issues, like gay marriage (or just gay rights, in India) or abortion or marijuana legalization. I’m constantly surprised by how many people don’t.

Moderate Utilitarian-even in the much-vilified “Greatest good for the greatest number” sense, although there are some places where this breaks: “at the margins of rationality”, as a post on Less Wrong put it. This means that my ethical philosophy isn’t quite internally consistent when extrapolated. But it works for most decisions that most people have to make. For the rest, I simply hope I don’t have to choose.

Moderate (a)theist: depending on the definition. I suppose you could say I’m a skeptical agnostic, but according to PZ Myers, if I remember right, atheists are always agnostics who are almost sure that there is no god. See, for instance, the “atheist” bus campaign, which ran the ad saying “There’s probably no god.” Also, while my beliefs tend in this direction, I do agree with one of my friends who once tweeted: “belief in God has high utility value”. For the individual, mainstream, non-sucide bombing believer, that is. Rituals take time but are often valuable focusing tools, and while there’s nothing to say that “community feeling” can only be brought about by a common religion, that does tend to work quite well. Do note that I’m not actually saying anything about the net social value of religion here – that’s an entirely different topic into which you can bring in religious wars and riots as well as solidarity and point to examples of communities like the Jews and the Gujaratis, who tend to flourish in their tight-knit religiosity.

Half-hearted Engineering Student: in the sense that I am not entirely convinced that this was a good idea, overall, although I think this is still better than all or most of the alternative paths I could have taken after I finished school

The immediate common feature to all these is that they are all rather diluted concepts. Overall, I suppose this is a good thing: the world is a large and complex place that is often not captured by any single system of thought, subtlety in views and understanding is a sign of intelligence and thoughtfulness, and so forth. At the same time, it makes me a little uneasy, and I don’t know why.

*Where by basic science I mean both simple science and the “basic sciences”, as in physics and chemistry and biology, although I’m surprisingly ignorant about both biology and chemistry. Majoring in engineering means you know a fair bit of this by default, but it’s not really the same thing as majoring in science.