Last Copenhagen update

Note: there will be pictures to go with this, but I’m using my dad’s computer and internet right now, which can’t handle uploading images. As soon as I’m back in Germany, I’ll add the photos. Until then, the text will have to suffice, hehe.

When writing the previous whole-day descriptions, I realized I wanted to talk a bit longer about a few of the speakers and the stuff they talked about, but that would have made the other posts way too long, so I saved that for a separate post. I just didn’t think it would take me three weeks to write it. Vacationing makes me lazy, I guess.

The first speaker who really pleasantly surprised me was AC Grayling. Last time I cared about philosophy, I was in High-School, and the philosophy class was basically a meatspace version of Pharyngula with people arguing about everything. Afterwards, all philosophy I encountered was the sort of mental masturbation best exemplified by Christian apologists: building extensive rhetorical and highly hypothetical constructs with no connection to the real world. It seemed like a futile exercise in justifying what you already think is true, as well as creating fanciful world-concepts I had no reason to be interested in, much less accept as possible.
So, AC Grayling’s talk was a sort of re-introduction to a subject I’d completely lost interest in a long time ago. Mostly, I think, I liked that what he talked about was a sort of “applied philosophy”, or “how to live a more atheisty life”. And interestingly enough, it didn’t have anything to do with eating babies :-p
He talked about atheism as more than just the disbelief in deities; rather, he talked about it as part of a secular/skeptical/rational ethical framework. The first time I encountered this idea was in a completely different context: a video by Greta Cristina about secular sexual ethics, which boiled down to “we don’t need to accept authoritarian morality/ethics, because there’s no super-being above us; instead, we’re free to construct sexual ethics based on a rational view that focuses on consent and human needs”. AC Grayling’s talk was a broader, wider applicable version of this: making rationality and skeptical thinking the basis for a person’s (and a community’s) entire moral and ethical framework in all situations. And certainly, such a framework is sorely needed, since even atheists and skeptics usually function within the already-present religion-based frameworks, merely with minor modifications.
At first, he talked about the flaws in religious systems of morality & ethics: he mentioned that they were unreflective, which is certainly true, with their emphasis on authority and tradition on the one hand, and personal experience and “common sense” on the other; fostered acceptance of magic, which sort of works like “crank-magnetism”, since accepting one fantastic thing makes it so much easier to accept more and more of them; and in the case of Christianity, it doesn’t provide a framework for planning for the future, since at heart, Christianity has always been an apocalyptic cult (and I’d say that the Rapture fantasies are the single best example of this;. So is AGW and other environmental denialism along the lines of “humans cannot destroy what god created, that’s hubris!”). He then explained how a rational system should look, and how it would avoid and/or correct the flaws of the religious systems. He talked about Popper’s work, but that mostly just made me realize that I finally need to read more about that myself, since all I got out of that was the basic concept of training oneself to only accept testable ideas. More generally, he talked about the ethics of rationality and inquiry, or the “well-considered life”: living in such a way that decisions are made, and ideas accepted, deliberately, after considering options rationally and skeptically, instead of just going with the flow of society (or family, or even personal previously accepted convictions) by following its traditions and traditional authorities mindlessly. It was primarily about moral traditions, but this is highly applicable to politics, economics, and pretty much every other area of public live where “business as usual” and “staying the course” are pretty much inherently wrong. Lastly, he talked about what sort of society is most conductive to fostering this kind of reflective, rational life: a multicultural society that isn’t afraid of foreign, strange ideas and ways of doing things, and where the legal and cultural structure is such that it fosters and protects individual development, thought and expression, while at the same time making an individual’s responsibilities clear, as well.
It was a great talk. The only problem I had was the way he talked about what is actually skepticism, but called it “atheism”. While atheism is certainly a rational conclusion of a rational, skeptical “well-considered” life that only accepts ideas that are testable, and should be accepted as such by the wider skeptical community, it’s not the entirety of skepticism, and this kind of rational, skeptical atheism isn’t the only atheism out there, either. I don’t know whether he was blurring the line, or making the point that atheism should be pushed as much as possible into the position of rational, skeptical atheism, but it seemed a bad idea to treat atheism and skepticism as sort of synonymous.

The second speaker who made a great impression on me was Lone Frank. She’s a journalist and a has a PhD in neurology, so a lot of her talk was about our brains and how/why they “do” religion. She considers religion a mental parasite rather than an adaptation. She described the brain as a “social machine”, with functions highly adapted to primarily understanding the human environment, and that the “understanding how humans work” spills into the non-human environment, which we then tend to understand and interpret the same way we interpret societies: we anthropomorphize it. One effect of this she highlighted was the tendency to look for intent and purpose in everything (that infamous question “why”), while at the same time having a very hard time understanding the concepts of statistics and chance. This “promiscuous teleology” is most visible in young children: the question “what’s this animal for” might look nonsensical to an adult, but a child will likely answer it with an example of what they’d do with that animal (a lion is for visiting at the zoo, a bunny is for petting, a frog is for catching, etc.). Religion uses and reinforces this anthropomorphizing and teleology by giving people a supernatural force that creates (for a purpose), and cares about and reacts to human behavior. And personally, I even suspect that it might cause a sort of “damage” that makes people even more susceptible to these brain-errors: like just said, young children are extremely teleological, but most adults are much less so. But a young child who is told, throughout their childhood, that their teleological way of looking at the world is indeed correct, may not grow out of it, unlike someone who is taught that most things really aren’t “for” anything, and things don’t always happen for a reason (and fundies constantly demonstrate that they haven’t left the childhood stage of promiscuous teleology, be it with their obsession of Gods Will For Your Life; explanation of all events as either “tests”, rewards, or results of rightfulness or sinfulness; their resentment of environmentalism, etc.).
Anyway, because religion prays on those universal, inherent human attributes, Frank thinks that it will probably never go away (and therefore we need containment strategies, rather than hoping for its disappearance). It does however change to fit in with the society it finds itself in. In the West, this is increasingly a more fuzzy, less literal religion. More and more, especially in Europe but also in more secular regions and denominations in the USA, religion “mutates” into a sort an individualized, cherry-picked personal theology. Conversations about this form of religion center on its positive effects on those who have it: religion is good for your health, religion makes people happy, religion creates community, religion provides a base for personal ethics/morals, etc. and in this form remains at the center even of a society that is supposedly secular and non-religious. Even non-religious people often automatically give respect to the religion of fuzzy goodness, accepting the opinions of religious leaders and religious people in general on all sorts of matters of ethics, even in areas they have no expertise and knowledge (bioethics for example), and rarely argue against it because of the perception of religion as good for people, religious leaders as somehow more moral and more knowledgeable about morals, and personal opinions and beliefs being a matter of taste and not really something one should “attack” and argue about.
In reality, lack of expertise in the fields the religious judge, as well as the inherent flaws in religion-based systems of ethics I wrote about above, mean that there is not only no reason to listen to religious leaders’ opinions about ethics, it can be counterproductive and dangerous to do so. I asked Lone Frank about how she thinks this accepting attitude towards fuzzy religiosity, and their infiltration into everything, can be fought. She answered that we need to highlight their lack of expertise, and refuse to give them a place at the table when discussing ethics, refuse to give their words any influence when they give their opinions unasked, and insist that the media stop asking them. IOW, we need to repeatedly and loudly make it clear that their opinions on ethics just aren’t relevant, and treat them as such when we encounter them. And I think that creating the “rational ethics” system that AC Grayling talked about and popularizing it would help immensely in taking back ethics from the religions which have hijacked it and declared themselves experts, since a rational, skeptical system of ethics simply wouldn’t accept their self-declared authority when they demonstrate no understanding or knowledge of, much less a necessary expertise in, the subjects they’re making judgments about.

The last speaker I wanted to highlight here was Richard Wiseman, for reasons that have nothing to do with the last two speakers. His research into human psychology, especially human perception, was very fascinating to me, especially his research into lucky and unlucky, since the results were very familiar to those from studies about depressed people. It seems both unlucky and depressed people create a story-of-their-life that highlights the negative results, even of positive events (most notably, a lottery-winner who considered himself unlucky, because a bunch of others had the same numbers, so he had to share the prize-money), and are also hyperfocused in such a way that they’re more likely to miss things and opportunities that happen on the periphery of their lives. Similarly, the suggestions for how to stop being “unlucky” also work for training oneself to lessen the effects of depression, by changing these thought- and perception-patterns.
He used this example of the lucky and unlucky people and their emotional and subconscious self-perception as an example of the importance of understanding the human mind and its workings to the ability to find ways of changing these perceptions. This being an atheist conference, he focused his talk on changing the mind of theists. Basically, he was saying that many theists won’t simply reason themselves out of a world-view they’re emotionally invested, and that has for a very long time shaped their way of thinking; to change their minds, we need to address this emotional investment in addition to the cold, hard, facts. Unfortunately I don’t remember if he made any specific suggestions as to how to do that, and my notes don’t show anything either. I didn’t get the impression, luckily, that he was suggesting an accomodationist stance of hushing up “uncomfortable” truths to get theists to accept certain facts about the world. But I’ll have to read and watch more of his stuff to get a better idea of whether his “framing” is any good :-p

So, I guess I’ll have to add a book or two by AC Grayling, Lone Frank’s Mindfield, and Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor to my reading list :-)

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4 comments on “Last Copenhagen update

  1. 'Tis Himself says:

    All three talks sound like they were interesting and informative. I’m sorry I couldn’t be in Copenhagen to hear them.

  2. monado says:

    Hi, Jadehawk! I’d suggest Richard Wiseman’s book 59 seconds, in which he discusses using a notebook to capture insights and change your life.

  3. […] Jadehawk has some good comments about A. C. Grayling’s philosophy, in her wrap-up of the Copenhagen Atheists’ Conference. Grayling suggests that we work to build a skeptical, rational, secular framework for ethics based, […]

  4. David Marjanović says:

    So this is why you arrived at the dig a day late! :-D

    politics, economics, and pretty much every other area of public live [sic] where “business as usual” and “staying the course” are pretty much inherently wrong

    I forgot who wrote “…showing that changing horses in midstream is perfectly appropriate if the one you’re flogging is dead”.

    He talked about Popper’s work, but that mostly just made me realize that I finally need to read more about that myself

    Might do wonders for your self-esteem, because most scientists, myself included, have read very little about Popper’s work. :-) Basically, he came up with and/or popularized falsificationism (as in “science cannot prove, only disprove”), and it took him decades to accept that things like paleontology or astrophysics are sciences even though they can’t do experiments (the “experiments” have already happened in nature, and we can observe their results to falsify our predictions).

    She considers religion a mental parasite rather than an adaptation.

    …and illustrated this with a photo of a Japanese toy parasite (a giant plastic or plush mite with big vertebrate eyes and a smile).

    Unfortunately I don’t remember if he made any specific suggestions as to how to do that, and my notes don’t show anything either. I didn’t get the impression, luckily, that he was suggesting an accomodationist stance of hushing up “uncomfortable” truths to get theists to accept certain facts about the world.

    I only remember the same things. :-(

    I’d suggest Richard Wiseman’s book 59 seconds

    So did Wiseman himself :-þ

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