Friday, April 30, 2010

Some Things I've Changed My Mind About

I argue that the defining characteristic of someone dedicated to the sceptical paradigm is the singular ability to change one's mind and opinions based on the presentation of new evidence. As soon as you're bound to a particular conclusion, you're no longer acting sceptically, and have become an ideologue.

It's the process of scepticism that's important, not the conclusions it leads you to. The "truths" about the world that scepticism reveals must, necessarily, be secondary - because they're always provisional, and should, ideally, constantly be re-evaluated based on new information.

With that in mind, I think it's a valuable exercise, as a sceptic, to pat oneself on the back from time to time, by identifying some of the things you've changed your mind about, based on new evidence or arguments coming to light. I hope to make this a regular series, but since this is the first instalment, I'm going to look at some of the biggest issues I've changed my mind about in my life.


I've always been fascinated by space. Before I knew how to spell the word, I wanted to be an Astronomer (either that or a Paleontologist, which I also couldn't spell at the time). I was mesmerised by Saturday night presentations of Star Trek and Space 1999 (even though I barely understood them at the time). I was also transfixed by Carl Sagan's haunting speeches in the Cosmos series about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial civilisations, and the hope that we might someday communicate with them.

Somehow or other (probably through my school library) I came across the notion of UFOs and alleged encounters with extra-terrestrial beings. Being the credulous lad I was, I bought it. I was thrilled and terrified at the prospect that visitors from other planets were visiting us, and I eagerly awaited the day official First Contact would happen.

It never did.

One day, while looking for awesome pictures of Star Trek ships online, I stumbled across a website that astounded me: Phil Plait's simple, elegant and humourous explanations exposing the flawed assumptions, innaccurate information and simple logical refutations of the things I had believed were overpoweringly persuasive. After only a few days' worth of reading, I had no choice but to reverse my belief in UFOs. The evidence and logic where too clear not to.

Alternative Therapies

In my early twenties, one of my first full-time jobs was for a company planning a health and fitness expo. It was my job to cold-call possible exhibitors and then meet with them to try and get them to buy some floor-space at the expo.

I was terrible at it.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged to seek out anyone and everyone selling something relating to the pursuit of health. Since I didn't know any better at the time, I basically opened up the Yellow Pages to "H" and started calling. On the whole, I found the purveyors of alternative therapies to be far more willing to meet with me, and to buy floor space. During those few months I met with a bevvy of homeopaths, naturopaths, massage therapists, acupuncturists, iridologists and assorted other well-dressed people with fancy-sounding titles (including one lady who informed me with a giggle that she enjoyed sitting in her hyperbaric chamber between appointments with her "patients")

Like this. Seriously.

I recall being taken aback when I met with one man, an actual MD, who asked what sort of other exhibitors would be present. He was outraged when I mentioned the word "homeopath", and the sales call ended then and there. I hadn't the foggiest idea why at the time.

It would be years before I learned about the distinction between medicine and alternative medicine (aka: not medicine), and finally came to understand that doctor's reaction. I learned that the faith I had placed in advertising was misplaced... a faith that even three years of studying advertising at college hadn't shaken. I learned to mistrust people claiming to be authorities, and instead evaluate the claims on their own merit.


I was raised a Christian. Not the evangelical, biblical literalist kind. I was raised in a traditional presbytarian church. I didn't resist my religious indoctrination at all - I trusted my parents and other elders to give me the right information. I went to church every Sunday. I sang in the choir. In my late teens, I even qualified and practiced as a Sunday School teacher for a while. I bought it.

A likely contributing factor to why I bought it was the somewhat moderate nature of the doctrine I was fed. I was simultaneously taught about the scientific explanation of the origins of the world and about the biblical account of creation in Genesis. I was told that there was no contradiction between the two, since the former was scientifically accurate, and the latter was more of a metaphor, used by God to explain to bronze-age people the fact that he created the universe, not so much how he did so.

After my introduction to organised scepticism via Bad Astronomy, I did a lot of reading. It was a lengthy process in which I systematically evaluated and then abandoned a lot of my former beliefs. The last big one to go was God. For the better part of a year I remained ambivalent on the question of God. I wasn't a Christian anymore (although I still called myself a "Philosophical Christian", whatever that means"), but I wasn't ready to abandon the whole idea. I couldn't bring myself to adopt the label "atheist" or even "agnostic".

Only after reading The God Delusion was I able to shake off the invisible sky daddy once and for all. There was no magic bullet - no single problem that I wasn't able to reconcile. But if I had to choose the argument that I found most persuasive, it was Russel's Cosmic Teapot.

Jesus (twice)

After adopting the label of 'atheist', I wasn't sure what to do with my ideas around the historicity of the bible as a whole, and Jesus in particular. Just how fictionalised were the accounts contained therein? How much was metaphor, exaggeration, copy-error and pure fabrication?

The first person who helped me to answer this question was Robert M. Price, in his appearances in the Bible Geek episodes of the Infidel Guy Show podcast. Through Price I learned that whole sections of the bible had been copied from other, pre-existing documents; that there's little to no archaeological evidence supporting any of the "historical" narrative in its pages, and that at least a few serious biblical scholars doubt that there ever was a historical Jesus.

I found his arguments persuasive, and came to conclude that there likely was no historical Jesus. Or, at the very least, the one described in the bible had been so distorted that he likely bore no resemblance to any actual, one person.

Not an actual person

More recently, I've read some of Bart Ehrmans' work. In Jesus, Interrupted he argues that a substantial portion of the biblical account of Jesus' life was likely fictionalised, but that with careful scrutiny quite a lot of it can be determined to likely be historically accurate - suggesting that Jesus probably was an actual guy, a teacher of sorts who started some shit in ancient Palestine.

My interest in the bible and the origins of the Christian religion is ongoing. One of the things I'm particularly interested in is evaluating the claims about certain traits that Christians claims are unique to them. Are they unique to Christians? Where do they come from? Are the useful or not? Fascinating stuff.

Free Will (twice)

A tough pill to swallow has been the existence of free will. I think we all assume, probably automatically, that we have a will of our own, that is somehow independent of our circumstances and environment.

But in a deterministic universe (as I now believe to be the one I live in) it simply can't be so. Decisions are made in the brain, which is a physical structure that conforms to deterministic physical laws - it can't do otherwise. Even in a quantum universe, where randomness is always a factor, randomness isn't the same as free will. Free will, so defined, is a persistent illusion.

Don't think about a yellow beetle.

I've recently called this conclusion into question. Not so much because I think my assumptions about it are wrong, but rather because I think I've been defining the terms incorrectly. If, instead, I consider free will to be my own ability to make decisions free of imposition from other causal agents (in other words: other people) I'm happy that it's free enough to be considered 'free'.

Assuming I'm not under the influence of another person's manipulations, my decisions are effectively free. That's not to say that my brain isn't still a deterministic machine, subject to environmental influences - it's more of a metaphysical redefinition of 'freedom' in this context.

I can live with the fact that my brain will do what it does, because it can't do otherwise. But when I feel that my choices are being manipulated or forced by another person who is deliberately limiting my options, I start to get annoyed. That's when my 'free will' is being compromised.

It's because of this, that I'm starting to re-evaluate my long-held position in favour of some form of communism. I'll keep you posted on where I get to on that one.


  1. The reality is from a cause. That is how we see everything work around us. The theory of randomness is just that. Because we don't correctly or incompletely understand everything is arguing from ignorance. There was not a Jzeus but there was a Torah observant Jewish teacher and judge who has had his reputation maligned so much that without careful study, it is difficult to find him. The teachings of Ribi Yehoshua ben Yoseph are worth finding though. He taught that the instruction of HaSheim does matter in this life and forever.

  2. Hey Owen. Thank you for the great post! It gets me to thinking about all of the "beliefs" I have given up over the years.

  3. Very nice, very nice indeed.

    This kind of exercise is extremely useful, I think. I've been meaning to write about my deconversion from the Moon Hoax nonsense (also via Dr. Plait).

    I'm not so sure you've changed your mind about free will. Sure, if you first redefine what "free will" means, you can square some definitions of it with reality. But you can do that with anything. I can say, quite correctly, that "God" exists if I first redefine the word to mean "my feet" or something. Free will in the traditional sense of causal sui generis - metaphysical libertarianism - cannot exist in any possible universe. (See Radcliffe-Richards' Human Nature After Darwin on this point. I've been using this book with my 3rd years for a couple of years - it's fantastic). The sense of free will you've convinced yourself CAN exist - and I agree - is best referred to as liberty. As always the (rigorously peer-reviewed) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a useful resource on the wider debate: For a somewhat different view, see Dennett's compatiblisist works Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. (Dennett doesn't defend metaphysical libertarianism, though). Oh... and a beautiful introduction to the whole debate (in addition to philosophy itself) is Simon Blackburn's Think.

    Communism is bollocks - there's just no reason to think it's a good idea. Hayek's Road to Serfdom, Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies and Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty" (an essay - it should be online) are all worth a look. Also check out Rummer's Death By Government (online here - ignore the dodgy html, the guy's a proper academic).

  4. MOAR.....

    EO Wilson: "Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species"

    And I forgot to mention Francis Fukuyama. He's widely misunderstood, but The End of History and the Last Man is fantastic. (It's hard though. I recommend quite a bit of philosophy before digging into it).

  5. Free Will vs Liberty: Yeah. I should have mentioned originally that I didn't derive my revised definition of free will by myself. I happened across it in some or other podcast (probably Point of Inquiry), and didn't find the guest's argument very persuasive at the time (probably why I didn't commit his name to memory). Sounds like I've got plenty more reading to do on the subject... thanks for the suggestions!

    Communism: Actually my belief in the value of communism has been compatible with Wilson's quote for some time now :) See a later post for my mental adventures when it comes to communism, transhumanism and Star Trek.

  6. It seems that one sheds supernatural beliefs as you go along, in gradual increments. Changing one’s mind is a lifelong endeavour and one that I find requires some pretty hard core commitment. Those that know me will know how much I love being right about stuff. I have found that to be true of many sceptics so we have to put in that extra bit of effort to be wrong sometimes. I am often surprised to discover that a cherished view point or even a casual assumption of mine is not supported by any evidence, is misinformed or ideological without me even realising it.

    The last one I shed was the soul. When you think about it, really think about it the idea of a homunculus is actually kind of silly. I can still remember hearing that term for the first time (thank you Radiolab) and marvelling at how funny the idea of the little guy in my head pulling the levers is, Men in Black Style. Like you Owen I must take my hat off to all the dedicated sceptical podcasters who keep me on my toes with almost no reward for themselves but the truth.

    Questioning the idea of a soul up to that point had been shoved, unconsciously, to the back of my mind as too difficult to deal with until further notice. So it snuck up on me and caught me by surprise. A difficult surprise but one that rewarded me with hours of red wine drinking, staring at the horizon, somewhat pompous, happy internal philosophising.

    And that’s one of the great things about being a sceptic. The opportunities, and well, joys of changing your mind based on new evidence or further examination of a subject are pretty awesome. I am paraphrasing but Dawkins describes a quasi spiritual experience of nature that many scientists have and as sceptics we are all scientists of one form or another from amateurs to published professionals. I really look forward to those moments and hope that my wonder at the world never gets forgotten in the daily grind.