Friday, August 18, 2006

On Complexity, Fear mongering and Critical Thinking

Brad Feld has a post up on Critical Thinking, and why he thinks we don’t see too many instances of it nowadays. He points to the transcript of this speech by Michael Crichton, at Washington Center of Complexity and Public Policy. I have been a fan of Michael Crichton since I read State of Fear. I have written a brief review here. The amount of research that goes into his books is amazing, although the story is sometimes lame. He talks about the pitfalls of linear thinking and blind belief when we are dealing with complex systems, essentially everything around us. He provides convincing arguments for a change in the media propaganda, and of discouraging fear mongering and doom prophecies. Must read for anyone trying to make sense of things around him/her.

Meanwhile Atanu is having an argument over at his blog, on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (of The Art of Living Faith, or is it the other way round?). Atanu essentially asserts that SSRS is a brilliant marketer who is packaging and selling ancient Indian Wisdom to whose who want it. So how does this fit in with them topic of the moment? Well, there are a hordwe of followers of SSRS (Atanu calls it his cult) who are offended by his non-belief in SSRS’ divinity. Blind Faith. Atanu’s opinion should not matter to someone who truly believes in SSRS’ qualities, he is of course entitled to having and sharing his opinion. We had a huge uproar on the release of the Da Vinci Code ( a movie) in India. Essentially, the author tries to put forth the thought that Jesus might have been human. His followers did not like that, and mayhem ensued. Ultimately, it made for a hugely anticipated movie. Blind faith at work again.

I think that religion, blind belief, cults are all mechanisms we humans have invented to explain things (complex systems) that we can’t understand, much less explain. Linear thinking, as Michael Crichton points out, also has a part to play. Well, all questions have to have one right answer, doesn’t it? Problems have one solution, don’t they? Well, we keep forgetting the “at least” part, and hence the militant defense of our way of thinking. If I am right, surely you must be wrong if you are taking a different way? That is what makes us intolerant, hard headed, egotistic. Humans are complex systems, groups of humans increase the complexity, sometimes exponentially. And, we are all looking for simple answers. In isolation. Out of context. For very complex problems. What results?

Well, on the matter of religion, and belief, I can’t resist posting this excerpt from an interview by Douglas Adams. He really articulates it well:

Q: Mr. Adams, you have been described as a “radical Atheist.” Is this accurate?

Adams: Yes. I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god - in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted from vague wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague wishy-washy Agnosticism - both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.

People will then often say “But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?” This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.)

Other people will ask how I can possibly claim to know? Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say no for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.

I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me “Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” - then I can’t even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

{emphasis mine}

Two points for clear, unconventional (critical?) thinking…

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