the tyranny of lazy-mindedness

I cannot abide lazy-mindedness. This makes me a really, really lousy tech support person (or really good, depending on how you look at it.) I tend to answer questions by alluding vaguely to how such a thing might be figured out, rather than, you know, give an actual answer. Godlizard helps those who help themselves, in other words. If questions persist after I’ve suggested a number of avenues for figuring it out, I generally refer the asker to this, or possibly this, because the only reason I would know the answer would be from doing those things and figuring it out, so I can’t help but think you’d be better off if you also figured it out.

But figuring it out isn’t immediate, and it does not carry with it the same air of authority as knowledge that you receive from asking someone you consider an expert (whether they are or not). In order to believe something you are told without figuring at least some of it out yourself, you must invest a significant amount of mental energy in that belief in order to own the knowledge, thereby making it your own. The price of not engaging in any search for knowledge beyond accepting what you’re told can be quite high; lazy-mindedness doesn’t relieve you of the need to think, it just changes the nature of those thoughts from a search for rational answers to a search for rationalizations.

Humankind is by nature fiercely curious, and terribly impatient. In a discussion not too long ago, this argument in support of religion was put forth:

Throughout all history, through every age, as long as we know of, people have believed in something supernatural, and in almost every culture, tribe and group apart from in the West, people still do. They even claim to talk to their gods, their spirits and their deities. So I ask the question; may our “enlightened” scientific mentality prevent us from understanding something other people always have understood? A world without the people believing in the supernatural has never existed, so how is it possible to imagine one? You don’t know what it is!

My answer to that has to do with curiosity, and impatience. The variety of supernatural beliefs is as diverse as the cultures who embrace them, but the source is always the same: the desire to know why, and the need to know it right now. The intensity of this desire is, for the most part, unbearable. It drives the quest for knowledge, but it also drives the blind acceptance of answers presented as absolute, unassailable, and derived from a higher authority. It creates a willingness which religion was designed to exploit in order to satiate this curiosity and, in doing so, establish itself as that authority.

In order to achieve this blind acceptance, it is necessary to accept on principle that absolute knowledge is somehow a requirement, and that anything less is unacceptable. You hear this again and again in creationists’ arguments, the petulant (and ultimately impossible) demand that science provide definitive, complete answers that wrap everything up in a neat little package. Once an impossible standard like this has been accepted as a reasonable thing to demand, the only acceptable response must include a degree of certainty which is impossible. Once relieved of the burden of existing with in the realm of possibility, this opens up a limitless array of potential answers, each of which represents an end to exploration. Once an absolute solution is presented, one can safely stop wondering and do whatever it is one does when one stops wondering. One can, for instance, take up the hobby of interpreting everyday events as evidence of the correctness of one’s beliefs, which, in spite of the certainty with which they are presented, cause most people who accept them to engage in a constant search for reinforcement. I suppose this search is what takes the place of wonder; rather than trying to find answers to questions, one must search for questions to which their beliefs are at least one possible answer.

In the above-quoted discussion, another argument was presented which claimed that blind faith was not necessarily blind, since it often came out of life experiences that were identified as miracles:

Of course there might be a high probability that the miracle is just a trick, but shouldn’t he also be open to the possibility that it actually is from God? If a person actually takes his religion seriously he usually doesn’t do this in blind faith. Take the situation in Nepal for example where I work. Approximately 60% of those who become Christians choose this new belief because either they themselves or somebody close to them get healed (or so it is claimed).

When humans experience an improbable event or outcome of a situation, there is an overwhelming tendency to interpret it as a miracle, and call it evidence of the supernatural. This tendency tends to annoy me greatly, and by way of explanation I will offer this video, because it explains things so much better than I could:

Between 1914 and 1998, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences showed a marked decline in the percentage of members believed in a personal god, or in immortality. So, any time you cite the predominance of religion throughout ancient history, you need to consider that modern science has only had a small fraction of that time to dispel the primitive superstitions and myths. Looking at the progress of science in the past century, it’s obvious the pace of the advancement of knowledge is picking up, and among those who are paying the most attention to this, religous beliefs are becoming more and more rare.

    BELIEF IN PERSONAL GOD          1914   1933    1998
    Personal belief                 27.7    15       7.0
    Personal disbelief              52.7    68      72.2
    Doubt or agnosticism            20.9    17      20.8
    BELIEF IN IMMORTALITY           1914    1933    1998
    Personal belief                 35.2    18       7.9
    Personal disbelief              25.4    53      76.7
    Doubt or agnosticism            43.7    29      23.3

It’s about patience, and not being lazy-minded. It’s about not making irrational demands that an answer be provided right now, or that it must be absolutely 100% complete with no margin for error. But mostly, it’s about not being lazy-minded.

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frighetning statistics

In Michael Shermer‘s opinion piece on CNN, he makes the case that evolution and religion can coexist peacefully. I’d love to agree with this, since it agrees with my general philosophy to avoid taking a militant stance whenever possible, and you just don’t see many eventual meetings-of-minds during a militant action — it becomes win/lose, and while winning does mean prevailing, it does nothing to stop the conflicts that existed in the first place. I’m idealistic that way, I want to convince people, not just get my way. And I do agree with this, Shermer’s point about the Warfare Model of Science and Religion,  that “The belief that there is a war between science and religion where one is right and the other wrong, and that one must choose one over the other” is the cause of these disturbing statistics:

A 2001 Gallup Poll found that 45 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” while 37 percent preferred a blended belief that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,” and a paltry 12 percent accepted the standard scientific theory that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

(more…)

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