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MetaCognitions | Proportioning Belief to the Evidence


I think that it’s necessary that we question within reason those claims extraordinary or important to us, and especially when those claims unfairly support our own or others’ ideology and belief-systems, however ill-suited we may feel at the time to bother with it.

Given the power and pervasiveness of human bias (my own included), we should not be too credulous or too obstinate regarding what we accept as true when our personal affirmation or denial of a claim speaks too clearly to our own prejudices and inner narrative and not to evidence and reason or the lack of such for the claim.

Carl Sagan popularized the phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and Christopher Hitchens is credited with his dictum, “What may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence,” both noting that the burden of proof for a claim lies always with the one making it.

This is because it is rationally impossible to definitively prove a particular claim false with a limited data set. There is always going to be data we don’t currently have available to us, as we simply cannot gather infinite data in a finite span of time.

There is a balance that must be struck in effectively arriving at more reliable knowledge claims, and so we must satisfy ourselves with the best evidence we can get at the moment, recognizing that we shall always overlook much of what data can possibly exist no matter how diligent we are.

What do I mean by questioning within reason? Nothing arcane or obscurely philosophical; merely that when it’s brought to our attention that there exist good or poor reasons to accept or reject a claim, to consider those reasons, and to weigh them in balance with the claims they are intended to support and, to paraphrase David Hume, “…proportion our belief to that evidence.”

It’s something I struggle with daily, as my own…psychology…makes me somewhat impressionable despite seven years of identification and development as a skeptic. I don’t always win these struggles, but even if perfect, consistent skepticism is unattainable in practice, I think it’s an ideal worth striving for and approaching ever closer.

What’s at the end of the journey? When should I laud myself for finally arriving at it?

Never…

…Never, because there is no final destination, just a road that winds ever onward. But things have gone far better than I’d have expected in late 2006 through mid-2007, and that’s something to be thankful for.

I don’t need magic. I don’t need to supplement reality with anything outside of it to make it “better.” There is magic enough in the real world.

I have that real word, no, a universe, perhaps even a multiverse, and all of you to be thankful for as well, and that resonates deeply with me, the part of me which stirred our species’ ancestors on the plains of Africa millions of years ago, the part which survives in our species still.

It is the spirit I believe in(…and the only one I may partake of, without medical complications! 😉 ): the human spirit.

Thank you, my friends and readers, whatever you believe.

So very, very much!

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MetaCognitions: Respect of a Deeper Sort


Polar bear males frequently play-fight. During...

Polar bear males frequently play-fight. During the mating season, actual fighting is intense and often leaves scars or broken teeth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a skeptic for the last seven years or so, I see a need to view those I find inspiring as human beings, including their shortcomings. That goes also for people I genuinely like. I generally like those I respect, but that is not a necessary condition of respect. I’m of the view that you cannot look to any one person or source of information as a font of wisdom, or as any sort of infallible guide to Truth™.

It’s important to avoid an uncritical and dangerous respect for authority that the unscrupulous are all too willing to exploit.

Far better to recognize that everyone harbors at least a few false beliefs, even those they may not know they believe. That definitely includes me. And there are even beliefs we don’t even know we have until they are brought to our attention, true and false alike.

You might believe that polar bears do not use smartphones to talk over long distances, even if you didn’t know that before now. Not that anyone’s ever given a really good reason for believing that they do, Internet memes notwithstanding. This belief may be connected to other beliefs you might also have about polar bears; about their known lack of technological savvy; the problems with effectively using such small devices with their massive paws; that no polar bear has ever been known to be a customer to any wireless service provider, or have had such devices made to order for their aforementioned paws. There’s also the known lack of complex spoken language skills of polar bears compared with primates — that last is hardly a compelling reason, I’ll admit, given that many humans who do use smartphones also seem to lack such skills 😉

*Ahem*

While most of us generally believe things about the world which are true, there are many false claims we accept as well. All of us. That includes even prominent rationalists, who may hold opinions and views that should be rightly and roundly criticised when brought to light.

It’s perfectly normal to like and sometimes venerate those we respect, and to celebrate those who’ve passed on. But I think that a genuine, deep, and abiding respect means respect in knowing them as fallible however we may look up to them, with flaws, warts, and all.

Goodbye, Sir Christopher


Yesterday, I received the news of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee after his long life of 93 years…and a life well-lived it was! I saw him in his Hammer film roles, recently in the title role in a televising of Horror of Dracula, and as the wizard Saruman in the Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit films.

I remember him as Sith lord Darth Tyrannus — Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels — seeing the priceless look on his face when Palpatine orders the future Darth Vader to kill him. He was a James Bond villain, a real-life Allied agent in WWII, played both Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, and even had his own heavy-metal band! How kick-ass is that?

Here’s a clip of his appearance on This is Your Life:

The world is made a poorer place with his passing, but brighter by his legacy. May he rest peacefully in the endless, dreamless night. Peace out, Sir Christopher.

MetaCognitions 2015.01.20


Bharata Natyam a traditional dance of the Tamils

Bharata Natyam a traditional dance of the Tamils (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One with a fondness for things English would be an Anglophile, one who likes things French, a Francophile. One with a love of good sound quality in recorded music playback and maybe some gullibility about their ability to judge superior sound quality would be an audiophile.

I might be called an Indophile. What’s that?

I’ve a strong bias for things Indian—but not just Indian—anything to do with the Indian subcontinent and nearby regions, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, to name a few.

This bias of mine is an interest that goes back a few years, a drive to learn what I can on matters pertaining to the region; it’s history; it peoples; its many cultures; some its languages, and as of last year, that last has led me to take up the study of three of those; Bengali, Hindi, and of particular interest, Tamil.

That last is in part because of Tamil classical literature and because of a local performance of South Indian classical dance in my home town some years ago. I’ll make no secret of the fact that I consider the subcontinent and the nearby region to be the homeland(s) of many of the most strikingly beautiful women on the planet.

*ahem*

The historical legacies of the subcontinent are many. Great empires and kingdoms now part of history were some of the most extensive of their times, the civilizations originating there among the most ancient known to history and even before.

There’s the prehistoric and advanced Indus Valley civilization with its mysterious script and knowledge of city planning, there are the Dravidian kingdoms of South India, there is the vast Maurya empire before the common era, and in the centuries C.E. there was the Gupta empire of northern and central India, considered by many to be the seat of India’s golden age.

There was the great mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhata I, who wrote his work the Aryabhatiya, at the age of only 23. It was in India that the same base-ten arithmetic, and the concept of the zero, used in Western mathematics ever since Leonardo of Pisa brought them to the West via Islamic scholars, were developed.

Magnificent architecture dots the region, testaments to the power of human engineering know-how, no space-aliens needed. Genius exists in any era, and among all peoples. Never underestimate the capacity of people to dream and accomplish great things without outside help.

There were seminal advances in science; in the arts; again in mathematics; in music and dance; and in a diverse literature of the finest grade.

India is the home of several of the great religions, of great works of poetry—great epics like the Ramayana—and along with the rest of the surrounding region is a place of ceaseless change and sometimes strife and great struggle as well.

To me, it is also a place of beauty.

I cannot offer an airtight, perfectly logical reason for interest in the region, though I do not think that I need to. It is enough that my interest simply is, with no attempt at justifying it required nor desired.

My knowledge is only partial, my grasp of the languages still at a novice’s level, but here and there, there is progress. I don’t like showing off, so until I’m pretty sure of using proper syntax and spelling in the languages, you won’t see much of that on these blogs beyond mnemonics I use for study. But this is an interest that will consume my attention for many years. I’ve extended my language studies to several more years of each one. No room for fudging on this.

As I type this, I’m listening to music on a Tamil internet radio station with my iPod, to help my grasp of that language’s sounds when I study. Glorious stuff, including the instrumentals of the piece I’m listening to.

I’m not Indian myself, but that matters little to me. What matters to me is that I pursue this interest until I can do so no more. That would be enough. I can stop once I’m gone.

…and not until then.

Confusing the Possible with the Actual


A lot of people confuse what’s merely possible for what’s actually true, thinking that the first has the same worth in an argument as the second.

I see this often and I think it is mistaken. I also notice frequent confusion between our wants and what’s possible. That’s a step further out from the first error. This is often the result of our own subjective biases, our ideologies, whatever narrative our brains currently operate under, and it’s unavoidable if you’re human and know nothing of these as they pertain to you. So there is good reason to think that many of our imaginings, while fun to think of, may not only be imaginative, but also imaginary and not reflect anything existing outside our heads.

I deal with this issue daily myself, and I think it’s important to reflect on.

Possibility comes in different levels and different categorical domains. But what is actual in any argument, no matter how airtight the reasoning, carries much more weight than what is only, even barely possible if at all.

What we can fallibly but reliably know to be the case has much greater impact on our endeavors than what might or might not be. There is a real universe that constrains us, our lives and our deeds, and cares not about what we speculate, hope, or wish, until through our own efforts, we work within the possible to discover what else is possible and work to make that possibility into actuality.

We ignore or dismiss that real universe at our peril, for reality can be a cosmic bitch hellbent on vengeance when spurned.

MetaCognitions: 2014.11.27


9754486464I think that it’s necessary that we question within reason those claims extraordinary or important to us, and especially when those claims unfairly support our own or others’ ideology and belief-systems, however ill-suited we may feel at the time to bother with it.

Given the power and pervasiveness of human bias (my own included), we should not be too credulous or too obstinate regarding what we accept as true when our personal affirmation or denial of a claim speaks too clearly to our own prejudices and inner narrative and not to evidence and reason or the lack of such for the claim.

Carl Sagan popularized the phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and Christopher Hitchens is credited with his dictum, “What may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence,” both noting that the burden of proof for a claim lies always with the one making it.

This is because it is rationally impossible to definitively prove a particular claim false with a limited data set. There is always going to be data we don’t currently have available to us, as we simply cannot gather infinite data in a finite span of time.

There is a balance that must be struck in effectively arriving at more reliable knowledge claims, and so we must satisfy ourselves with the best evidence we can get at the moment, recognizing that we shall always overlook much of what data can possibly exist no matter how diligent we are.

What do I mean by questioning within reason? Nothing arcane or obscurely philosophical; merely that when it’s brought to our attention that there exist good or poor reasons to accept or reject a claim, to consider those reasons, and to weigh them in balance with the claims they are intended to support and, to paraphrase David Hume, “…proportion our belief to that evidence.”

It’s something I struggle with daily, as my own…psychology…makes me somewhat impressionable despite seven years of identification and development as a skeptic. I don’t always win these struggles, but even if perfect, consistent skepticism is unattainable in practice, I think it’s an ideal worth striving for and approaching ever closer.

What’s at the end of the journey? When should I laud myself for finally arriving at it?

Never…

…Never, because there is no final destination, just a road that winds ever onward. But things have gone far better than I’d have expected in late 2006 through mid-2007, and that’s something to be thankful for.

I don’t need magic. I don’t need to supplement reality with anything outside of it to make it “better.” There is magic enough in the real world.

I have that real word, no, a universe, perhaps even a multiverse, and all of you to be thankful for as well, and that resonates deeply with me, the part of me which stirred our species’ ancestors on the plains of Africa millions of years ago, the part which survives in our species still.

It is the spirit I believe in(…and the only one I may partake of, without medical complications! 😉 ): the human spirit.

Thank you, my friends and readers, whatever you believe.

So very, very much!

MetaCognitions: 2014.11.04


I think that our views of reality are more like a photographic camera than they are the things we photograph. You can use the different lenses and built-in functions or accessories the camera has to take whatever sort of image you wish, in any wavelength permitted by the equipment.

But if the camera is poorly designed, or damaged, or you are unfamiliar with its use, your pictures will come out with artifacts, otherwise flawed, or perhaps not at all. The photograph is not the thing photographed, and a flawed image does not accurately represent what it is meant to despite the photographer’s intent.

I think that we should all have the freedom to hold whatever opinions we wish, but that it’s also important to ensure that the claims we accept are actually true.

I do not think that criticism necessarily implies a narrowminded or heavyhanded approach, and while I’m all for the freedom of each of us to hold our own views (I’m aware that not all share that sentiment), I think that we should also be open to valid criticism and rigorous self-questioning of those same views.

To best succeed in our efforts, we must accommodate an implacable reality outside as well as inside of ourselves. Like models and makes of cameras, there are many ways to view that reality, but there is only one reality, and not all views of it are equally valid, though many are certainly useful.