Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2011

Perhaps, dear reader, you can tell me whether Michael Shermer applies the concepts in his new book to his own ideas. Essentially, The Believing Brain (2011) says that we create beliefs and then find evidence to reinforce those beliefs. On those terms, Shermer’s statement is also a belief, and Shermer is merely finding evidence that supports his idea and ignoring other possibilities. I want to know if Michael Shermer raises this problem and answers it.

Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book.

However, I’d like your help, because I simply don’t have time to read The Believing Brain in its entirety yet and I have to return it to the library in two weeks. In that two weeks I have to finish writing about 10,000 words so reading Shermer in depth just ain’t going to happen yet. The problem: If our brains create beliefs, and then we find the evidence to support these beliefs how does Shermer know his idea is true? He may simply “want to believe” that his ideas are correct and conveniently only look at evidence that supports him. Even the idea of “looking for evidence” is a belief itself, a belief about how one best discovers “knowledge”. I don’t think– from my brief look so far– that Shermer addresses this. I may be wrong. Can you tell me if Shermer talks about this?

believe

If he doesn’t, I think it might undercut much of what he says, because deciding how we find truth and know truth is not a simple question. And some people don’t even think there is a “truth” to be found. The epilogue is where Shermer talks about what he thinks is the best method to find the truth, which he says is science. He writes, “What makes science so potent is that there is a well-defined method for getting at the answers to questions about the world – a world that is real and knowable.” Notice the assumption that the world is both real and knowable – this is philosophy, not science. He continues, “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism.”

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems Shermer doesn’t like philosophy much. This is sad, because as I pointed out above, he doesn’t seem to realise how much of his own point of view actually depends on philosophy, not science. I was surprised to find no mention of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, let alone Bruno Latour’s or even Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” even though I suspect the model of science Shermer is using is based on the latter. This is a constant surprise to me: Scientists who seem to have absolutely no awareness of the philosophy or sociology of science which their discipline is based on.

Let me say at this point, that I love science. I trained in it in my undergrad degree, and I’m so grateful to live in a world where we have things like cars, medicine, and the computer on which I’m typing this. What I don’t love is scientism, the view that almost turns science into a religion. Scientism says that science can solve anything, including things which science just isn’t built to solve. Shermer concludes his book with the statement that the truth is out there and that “science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.” I will conclude by quoting him with a small modification: “In the end, I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is one of the best tools we have for uncovering it.”

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Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Philosophy, Science, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

My Avatar Spiritual Experience

Posted by spritzophrenia on January 3, 2010

Susan suggested I write about personal stuff. She thought you’d like to hear about practical experiences, ways to connect with g0d. Well… there’s movies?

I’m sure a billion other bloggers are writing about Avatar as we speak. There’s good reason for this: It’s a great film. By “great”, I am not so much talking about plot, acting, dialogue, direction – though I don’t think it’s too shabby here either. I say Avatar is great because it’s rejuvenated the movie experience. It’s the first of the next gen cinema experience, imo [1].

Avatar, rated SAO (Spoiler Alert OK: Only contains minor spoilers). I took my 11 year-old son to Avatar, it’s a great age for this movie and I wanted to share the experience with him. It’s been quite some time since I walked into a movie theatre. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing film on the big screen. It’s a function of my recent poverty that has restricted me. It wasn’t unusual for me to see two films in the theatre per week at one point. I still watch around 4 films per week at home. (Thankyou BitTorrent.)

I knew very little about Avatar aside from the basic premise, I wanted to surprise myself. And surprised I was. Tears fell freely down my face at some points. Tears can be a sign of a spiritual experience I think. At this point my fellow agnostics and hardened atheists will be rolling their eyes. Yes I know we can put this down to emotionalism, and psychology. But this raises a very important question:

Just what IS a spiritual experience anyway? How would I know if I had one?

You’ve probably read of the recent studies of brains having religious experiences, specifically under deep meditation or prayer. At the very least, a spiritual experience would be something that activates that part of the brain. If spiritual experiences are merely a particular kind of brain experience akin to an emotion, then atheists can sleep easily at night. But this doesn’t cover all religious experiences. For example, a miraculous healing might affect my body but not activate that part of my brain. This would be because the external ‘spirit’ would be acting on my body, rather than me experiencing the numinous through prayer. I think we’ll have to return to this question in future posts, would you agree?

Why was I feeling this way in the cinema? Some feelings were romantic feelings – I’ve recently broken up with someone I love. She was special to me, and I was a fool. It made me yearn for something I’ve lost, something I hope for. Yeah, I’ll confess I’m hoping the alien sex scene is included in the DVD. Incidentally, having only seen Zoe Saldana as her N’avi character I didn’t realise – she’s hawt! I suspect the loss of something important and profound is a theme in many religions. Certainly this is so in the churchianity I grew up in: The loss of innocence, the breaking of the world, the loss of connection with a creator. More mystical churchians could also point to the divine romance between g0d and ourselves.

I had feelings of hope, of inspiration, feelings of injustice and pleasure at seeing justice restored. Can you “feel” spiritual experiences in a different way to emotions?

Avatar also hints at the possibility that some kind of “god” is real. Any human being with a heart not too bruised by cynicism would surely weep at that? The interesting thing in Avatar is there’s a non-supernatural explanation for the goddess. It evolves out of a kind of natural neural net covering the surface of the planet via tree roots. Once again, a ‘supernatural’ being that atheists could see as a pal. In a way it was kinda like Jung’s theory of the universal unconscious, but with a practical mechanism.

Another test: If it was a true spiritual experience, should it motivate me to social justice? This is indicated in the Christian New Testament

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

and by the Buddhist Monk I quote here

The ‘insights’ claimed by some who [allege spiritual experiences] should be tested against the difference which these experiences make to the forces of greed, aversion and delusion in their hearts and conduct.

I think Avatar reinforced my ideas around justice for minorities and native peoples, although I haven’t had that tested yet. Intriguingly, this is an area where there’s been criticism of Avatar. A New Zealand Maori academic says Avatar repeats “negative stereotypes” about indigenous people:

The head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury, Rawiri Taonui, said Avatar addressed the impact of colonisation on indigenous people in an entertaining way, but relied on stereotypes.

“It was a great movie and had some progressive themes, but did it in a way that still repeated some stereotypes,” he said.

Taonui said the “rhythmic body swaying” of the indigenous people during a ceremony only appeared in “B-grade movies” and “just doesn’t happen in any indigenous population”.

There’s more at Stuff

Feminists with Disabilities makes some good points, and links to other criticisms of racism:

This is a movie which is not only racist as all getout, but also centers around a Miracle Cure! Which, of course, means that the disabled character will be played by an actor in crip drag. And, of course, this story automatically assumes that having paraplegia and being a wheelchair user is a tragedy which would make one bitter and furious at the world, and that, of course, everyone would want a cure.

Contra this, in their comments Anna says “I’m a wheelchair user and not only did I not find it offensive, I thought it was a much more accurate, positive portrayal of disability than any other film in recent times.”

I don’t think all spiritual experiences would necessarily drive one directly towards justice; I can conceive of valid experiences that are only internal. If you’re seeking a spiritual experience; perhaps a movie could be a gateway for you? I’ve already blogged a list of movies you can try. Completely off topic, but I can’t resist throwing in the very funny making of Avatar the bootleg. Anyone seen a bad, 2D version with camera shake yet?

It’s not just the liberals hating on Avatar either – Patrick Goldstein in The LA Times asks “Why do conservatives hate the most popular movie in years?”

As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can’t-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits — and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan.

To say that the film has evoked a storm of ire on the right would be an understatement. Big Hollywood’s John Nolte, one of my favorite outspoken right-wing film essayists, blasted the film, calling it “a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC cliches that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises…. Think of ‘Avatar’ as ‘Death Wish’ for leftists, a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin’ hate the bad guys (America) you’re able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all.”

There you go people, have at it. Meanwhile, I’m gonna be over here with the popcorn enjoying the movie, and possibly finding g0d.

Someone else took his 11 year-old son to the movies and came out with a Buddhist perspective on Avatar. “My 11 year old son … watched the movie with me and we both talked and talked about the movie. ‘Little Anthony’ said, “Dad this movie was just like Buddhism”. Not surprising, considering Mr Elmore is Buddhist. Everyone wants a piece of Avatar. (It seems appropriate to plug my article on the dark side of Buddhism here.)

Avatar also raises the question of the consciousness surviving death, and of soul transfer. The same day I saw Avatar I found out a high-school friend is dying of leukaemia. Coincidentally, he’s my own age, a born-again christian and a pastor. I visited him the day after, I hope to report back soon.

What do you think? Criticisms? Has there ever been a movie that spiritually moved you?

Here’s my follow up post.
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listening to The Electric Six | Antisocial Sex Boy Hit Machine, Pitch Black (The New Zealand One!) | Ape to Angel (Blutech remix), Apoptygma Bezerk | Soultaker, Arch Enemy | God Dethroned
tful [2] A fun and funny way to help the planet
reading Appignanesi & Garratt | Introducing Postmodernism

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[1] Yeah yeah, I know we can all point to similar films plot and genre-wise, and earlier 3D efforts. It’s because Avatar has done it so well, that I suggest it’s the first of the new generation cinema experience. The archetype, perhaps.

[2] Today’s Fun Unrelated Link

Posted in agnostic, atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, New Age, personal development | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments »