On Deepities

I love language. I also love, to borrow from Lois Lowry’s The Giver, precision of language. I have no issue with big words or even long sentences, but I do have a problem when people use big words and long sentences as a means to confound, and inexplicably impress, their target audiences.

Skeptics like Daniel Dennett and Peter Boghossian have charitably called these phrases, “deepities.” Others might just call them bullshit, but for this post we’ll stick with Dennett’s original word, “deepity!”

A deepity is a string of meaningless, often high-sounding words that have no precise meaning whatsoever, but boy do they sound impressive!

There are certain domains of human pursuit where deepities are offered as explanations all the time. Religion and to a lesser extent, philosophy are two such domains. Deepak Chopra is legendary for his ability to weave mysticism and physics terms in to rambling, incoherent nonsense that his fans absolutely eat up!

Below is the tweet Deepak currently has pinned to his twitter feed:

What the heck does that even mean? Consciousness is the constant of all constants? I can almost guarantee that if you asked Deepak to provide operational definitions for his idea of “consciousness” and his idea of “constants,” you would be drawn in to a thirty-minute lecture on quantum consciousness and quasi-God enlightenment paradigms, the conclusion of which would leave you wanting either a cheeseburger or a lobotomy.

Deepities are not limited to the professionals either. Here’s a twitter exchange I had just yesterday. You’ll notice that I use the Socratic method. It’s a very effective technique to cut through deepities.

The C.S. Lewis quote wasn’t a deepity insomuch as it was a claim to knowledge that has no evidence. So I simply responded with a question that targeted the more general question around, “why should we believe him,” rather than target the claim about God and Satan itself.

The deepity came in the answer I received:

“Lewis expressed truths of Scripture uniquely. It’s true.”

Never mind the discussion about what exactly does Pressing On Ed mean by a “truth of Scripture,” and why he thinks it’s a good thing to have to be unique about making sense of something that’s allegedly true? In other words, for something allegedly so important, shouldn’t we all be able to conclude whether or not it’s true without needing a unique translation of English in to English?

But rather than go down that road, I was more curious about how one determines a “truth of Scripture.”

“Personal faith & study by comparing what the Bible says about truth w/ what really happens.”

The next answer I received was a bit more straightforward. We were cutting through the deepities. There were still some nonsensical phrases like “personal faith,” but it sounded like we might be getting somewhere with a testable claim!  Comparing something that the Bible says is true, with what actually occurs in reality, sounds like something we can actually do!

Alas, my request for Pressing On Ed to provide an example of this test has gone unanswered. Maybe he is researching and will get back to me.

Until then, be on guard for deepities and happy critical thinking!

Climate Change Denial Hypothesis and Social Media

I think there’s an underlying psychology that each climate change denier displays. It is composed of classic anti-intellectual distrust of expertise and an over-amplified belief in intuition over data and evidence. This results in a huge range of conspiratorial thinking grounded in a devaluing of reason and evidence as good epistemology.

Facebook and to a lesser degree Twitter are two of the few avenues I’ve found that actually lets those of us who promote critical thinking, punch some holes in the confirmatory echo-chambers within which most science deniers live.

For example, a couple of times lately I’ve seen statements to the effect of, “the climate has changed in the past” as if that somehow obviates the fact that humans are causing the current change:

I’ve blurred Brad’s face and picture because he’s an old friend of mine but Twitter is an open forum so I’ve left that profile unobscured:

That the climate has changed before does not mean that humans haven’t pumped enough CO2 in to the atmosphere over the last century to cause more heat to be trapped (the Greenhouse Effect) which in turn causes the global mean temperature to rise (global warming) which in turn causes the climate to change. This is not a difficult concept.

But nothing beats a face-to-face “intervention.”

Happy critical thinking!

Apologetics and Presuppositional Circular Arguments

Diagram of a Presuppositional Argument

First, I want to know things that are true. To this end, I have been chatting with folks about a number of different God beliefs lately. I have seen quite a few very interesting, if not sometimes contortionist, arguments.  One such argument that I am running in to among certain, I will call them extreme apologetics practitioners, takes the form of the following:

X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real.

It is a presuppositional argument, which basically means that it posits the belief ahead of any subsequent dialogue that seeks to discover the veracity of the belief. Its circular nature if granted makes the argument impenetrable to reasonable scrutiny. Which means that it is unfalsibable and therefore unhelpful for determining what is actually true.

Watch:

X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real because…

By writing the argument this way, we see that it is a linguistic trick, not an intellectually honest attempt to support a claim. If you still do not believe me, just plug in anything for X.

Billy the Cosmic Gnome must be real because Billy the Cosmic Gnome is required to know if Billy the Cosmic Gnome is real or not, therefore by claiming Billy the Cosmic Gnome is not real, you are confirming Billy the Cosmic Gnome must be real.

Go Billy the Cosmic Gnome! This is of course, silly. Beliefs are true to the degree that they comport with what is demonstrably real. And like I said, I want to know things that are true.

Happy critical thinking!

It Is Good To Get Gobsmacked!

“Learning to Value Reason and Evidence, and Recognizing When That’s Just Not Enough.”

Listen to the audio version

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I grew up going to church, and not just any church, mind you, but a Southern Baptist church. Not just any Southern Baptist church, but a small church planted firmly in the then relatively rural American South.

Every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember, I’d rise from my slumber, make my way downstairs in my pajamas to my Mom’s breakfast of cream of wheat, and tune in to a syndicated episode of “Lost in Space” on our tiny, black-and-white kitchen TV. Then I would head back upstairs for a quick transformation into semi-formal Sunday clothes – which basically meant an outfit that landed somewhere between school clothes and a suit with a clip-on tie. I would then bid adieu to the Robinsons and the Robot, and, with my little King James Bible in hand, be whisked off to Sunday school.

I have fond memories of that church. Memories of me waiting for my parents to arrive for the main Sunday service, sitting alone in the pews after attending my Sunday school class. This was what one might call an old-time Southern Baptist church full of old-time religion. Old songs were sung from old hymnals by an old choir and to a fairly old congregation. We sang “How Great Thou Art,” “Old-Time Religion,” “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” and of course, “Amazing Grace.” The pulpit was book-ended by an organist and a pianist and the preacher would always start low and end high with the zeal one would expect from a preacher with some of that old-time religion! For better or worse, whether it was that this church was only a few miles from where I grew up or whether it was some “spiritual” connection my parents felt, this was our church.

I had ridden the peaks and valleys of weekly salvation and damnation for years. The whole emotional enterprise seemed to be going along just fine, but then something interesting happened. One Sunday when I was around twelve years old, I was given a Xerox copy of a list of bands and songs that I was, from that point forward, to consider as “devil” music. Yes, devil music. According to my church, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was blasphemy. Anything by Black Sabbath was a one-way ticket to hell. Even Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” meant that I was astral projecting and thus opening a door for The Enemy! As a child of the seventies, I had been jamming to this music for nearly as long as I could remember. I had a KISS t-shirt when I was in the first grade for crying out loud! I adored most of the music on this sheet. It didn’t make any sense. My young brain was set into analytical motion. I thought the whole thing was preposterous. I was not worshipping the devil. Regardless, getting this message from my quaint, bucolic church was a shock to my pious young system.

Looking back, it was around that time that I really started questioning the validity of what people in authority were telling me. I began comparing claims that did not rely on evidence with those that did. I was told that Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark were true stories, yet I watched documentaries about Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis on PBS’ Nature. I was told that my god created the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants in six literal days, yet I watched Carl Sagan explain the evidence for Big Bang cosmology on Cosmos. I began to compare each claim I was told to believe without question to what could be supported using reason and evidence. I no longer relied on the earnestness or the authority of the person doing the telling; I wanted proof!

Fast-forward to today, and it occurs to me that I have promoted critical thinking by valuing reason and evidence my entire adult life. I have argued, debated, chatted, typed, tweeted, and talked about a whole host of beliefs that people maintain based on unreliable methods. Invariably, at the conclusion of many of these discussions, just when I thought I had hit a logic home run or a made an evidence slam dunk, my interlocutor would leave the conversation with even more resolve. But why?

If you are reading this on the Street Epistemology blog then of course you already know why.

For years, I had been supporting my positions using reason and evidence, but I was missing the greater contextual picture: epistemology. I remember listening to a Dr. Peter Boghossian lecture on YouTube several years ago where he explained his idea of conducting a sort of “street epistemology.” I was gobsmacked. All these years I had been trying to convince people that their claims were untrue by using methods that would have worked perfectly well on me. I was using reason and evidence on people who had formed beliefs based on something other than reason and evidence! Hence, the outcome was often an impasse, or worse, a doubling down on the mistaken belief. I now know that I was practically cultivating the backfire effect! I am reminded of the famous Thomas Paine quote from The American Crises:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture. Enjoy, sir, your insensibility of feeling and reflecting. It is the prerogative of animals.”

Thomas Paine needed some Street Epistemology! But I can appreciate Paine’s frustration. Decoupling people from beliefs not grounded in reality is not a binary exercise. It’s farming, not hunting. It takes time. It takes patience. I believe it takes practice. I have been deploying the techniques more and more frequently when speaking with people on a whole range of beliefs that do not comport with reality, and I am seeing hints of success.

From global warming deniers to people who believe demons are real, I am now trying to resist the old urge to ridicule as a means of retort and I am even trying to resist my knee-jerk reliance on evidence as the tool that might convince them they are wrong (see Paine above). I am now trying to help people recognize their own epistemic deficiencies. I want them to poke their own holes in the methods they are relying upon for determining what they believe is true. They have to change their own minds. I’m now simply helping them clear the path. I have already noticed an improvement in results.

For example, in a recent Facebook exchange about politics (among the most futile activities one can imagine), and specifically, a conversation about how Donald Trump continues to make claims that are untrue, I was able to deploy a little Socratic SE to help my interlocutor understand the double standard with which he was excusing Trump’s lies. The exchange went something like this. Trump had just tweeted something that was demonstrably untrue.

Me: “Why do you think Trump would tweet something that’s just incorrect?”
IL: “Because he is frustrated because the Dems are using childish tactics to hold up the government because they lost an election and lost seats.”
Me: “Does that mean it’s OK to lie?”
IL: “You mean like every politician?”
Me: “So if I understand you correctly, you’re actually OK with politicians lying because you expect that from them? I don’t recall you making that same excuse for Hillary Clinton.”

My interlocutor disengaged and I did not press. I was not going to change his mind at that moment, but I was hopeful that I had done enough to cause him to reevaluate his own partisan bias. A few days later, he was actually posting criticisms of Donald Trump! I am not sure if I planted the seed of doubt that took root and sprouted into a single sprig of some healthy skepticism, or if it was something else, but I was again gobsmacked given my interlocutor’s history of doubling down on his partisanship.

Interventions on Facebook, while accessible, may not be the most effective. That said, we are all learning as we go. If we can continue to plant seeds of good epistemology, no matter the medium and no matter the conversation, we can make progress. My next goal is to have a face-to-face conversation with a complete stranger. We should all set our own stretch goals that push us to extend critical thinking to those around us. It takes practice.

Fundamentally, I am looking forward to deploying Street Epistemology in conversations anywhere and everywhere, whenever I hear claims being made that are not supported by evidence.

The journey, and hopefully the gobsmacking, continues!

-Ryan

Ryan Bays is a writer, Dungeon Master, free-thinker, truth seeker, and unabashed promoter of critical thinking and scientific literacy.

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Is D&D Demonic, revisited (VIDEO)

A few days ago I uploaded a sort of “tongue in cheek” video tackling the age old question, “Is Dungeons and Dragons demonic?” That video prompted quite a bit of commentary on some of the D&D sub-reddits. I thought some of the commentary was quite thoughtful, which caused me to reflect a bit on the original video.

The result was a “part 2” video which I just uploaded this morning.

Is D&D Demonic
Image via YouTube screengrab

I hope you all enjoy this approach as well and tangentially, it sort of occured to me that this might be a great lead-in question to have a conversation using “street epistemology.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, street epistemology is a “dialectical approach intent on helping people reflect on the reliability of the methods used to arrive at deeply-held beliefs.”

In other words, while in the process of explaining what D&D is so that ones fears are assuaged, you can probe what gives your interlocutor confidence that demons are actually real! Pretty cool huh?

So even though these two videos are a part of my Dungeons and Dragons playlists, they are also the first of a new series of videos I’m cataloguing under the playlist: Critical Thinking. Something for which we seem to be in very short supply!

I’ve built my Twitter following more or less under the umbrella of tackling irrational ideas, so hopefully this cross-pollination will grow some pretty cool fruit.

I hope you enjoy it! And please subscribe to my channel if you haven’t already!