Friday, March 31, 2006

More On Sagan's Skepticism - A Real World Example

Here’s a real-world example of what I was writing about earlier concerning Carl Sagan’s brand of skepticism. I’m afraid I didn’t help the cause much, but maybe someone else can learn from my mistakes.

It didn’t take me as long as I had thought it would, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I’ve pushed my lab partner too far. I claim full responsibility. I pushed too hard and apparently didn’t make it clear enough to him that he can always tell me to back off before anyone gets pissed. He didn’t.

Now, he’s pissed and I’m sad. I was enjoying our philosophical discussions, but I’d say those are pretty much over. Here’s the story, to the best of my ability:

I asked him a pretty standard question about predetermination, just to see what argument he had against it, because I guessed from things he’d said before that he would have one. We went around and around, with me trying to make him actually understand my point. BTW, that point would be “if God already knows what you’re going to do, then you have to do it, and thus have no choice in the matter”. Like I said, pretty standard fair. He, on the other hand, kept prevaricating and equivocating, making jokes and intentionally misunderstanding me. That should been the clue right there that this wasn’t going to come out well. If you can’t get at the beginnings of a straight answer right off the bat, then you can pretty much forget getting any kind of reason out of a True Believer. Alas, I didn’t pay any attention to this, and just kept on barreling through, relying on his “good faith” attempt to have a decent discussion.

When I finally got a straight answer out of him, it was this: you still have free will because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and thus are free to make a choice. Now, all those words on their own make sense to me, but string them together like that, and they become gibberish. That just makes no sense to me. None whatsoever. I kept trying to reiterate my point, using different examples to explain my position, thinking that since I was getting garbage out, I had to be putting garbage in. My second mistake.

Every time I tried a different example, up to and including a magician’s force using my fingers as the choices (allowing me to flip him the bird several times in good conscience). He still stuck to his guns that as long as he has the “perception of choice” then he has free will. I just didn’t understand. So, I asked him to explain his point. “Explain how the “perception of choice” and “choice” are the same thing,” I said. When he started to just restate his argument, using the exact same wording, yet again, I just held up my hand, fingers extended, implying that perception of choice and actual choice are different. That pissed him off. I suppose that was mistake number three.

I kept asking him to explain himself, and he kept restating the argument. We were at an impasse. I told him so, and inadvertently implied that he was being childish. I didn’t think he was being childish, just vexing. He, however, was already pissed, and thus took it wrong. I guess waving my fists in the air and telling him that all he was doing was saying “I’m right! I’m right!” over and over again was a poor communications tool.

Yup, mistake number four.

This conversation went downhill from here, and he eventually said that they were the same because God has the power to make it so because he’s supernatural. Yup, hours of conversation, frustration and skull sweat down the tubes because I backed him into a corner and didn’t let him come to his own conclusions. He shut down and threw out the S-word as the ultimate trump card. When I pointed out, quite heatedly, that saying “God can do it because He’s God” is not a logical, rational explanation, he cut me off and said that he didn’t want to talk to me anymore. I can’t say that I blame him. I’d flipped him off multiple times, implied he was childish and immature, told him that he couldn’t adequately explain himself and then accused him of being irrational. If someone had done all that to me, I’d be pissed. Especially if it were true.

This conversation should have been broken up into more bite-sized, easier-to-swallow chunks. My partner’s a good guy, smart, thoughtful and conscientious. There was a chance that I could have made some headway in explaining the secular humanist perspective to this young Catholic man. Only through such understanding on the part of the True Believers will we ever make a difference in the culture wars. As Carl Sagan repeatedly pointed out in DHW, science is unpalatable to many people because it’s not sold to them very well, not because it’s inherently distasteful. I didn’t sell my viewpoints very well, taking a hammer and tongs approach to a guy who was willing to listen. He isn’t Hovind, Robertson or Dembski, spouting bullshit despite it being explained to them at length in words of one syllable. He was willing to discourse, and I screwed that up royally.

Idiotic leadership should be pounded on, mercilessly. But that alienates the rank and file, and we should be aware of that. Which is more important: scoring points off of Pat Robertson when he doesn’t care and probably won’t even know or convincing your lab partner that maybe he should rethink some of his positions?

I know what my answer would be. What’s yours?


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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain


Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu