What in the world is the brain necessarily up to?

Some simple reflections on ‘necessariness’

How we consciously experience the world is not necessarily a reflection of what the brain is doing. While it is fully possible to assume that the brain does a bunch of things, I find it a better way of going about things to notassume that the brain does more than necessary. Is it possible that we internalize the world and represent it in our mind? Yes. Is it necessarily so? No. What then are the most basic abilities our brain necessarily has in order for us to function successfully in the world? In my perspective, it is necessary for our brain to perceive change in a meaningful way across all sensory modalities, inform each other and produce motor-movement.

·         Change here is defined as whatever is discernible to our senses from something else.

·         Meaningful here is defined as; Experiments where we do not see change, it is often in situations where change would not matter for our safety or well-being. Changing words in a text when someone isn’t looking and other change-blindness experiments, is non-threatening and not a part of the current goal of the situation, thus, non-meaningful. Even in repeating a pattern of coloured blocks, and changing the colour of completed blocks, is non-meaningful in the sense that, in a first person perspective a part turns non-meaningful when it has been completed (but obviously not in an objective sense, where the overarching goal is to create the same pattern of colour for all parts of the picture).

Change is something that could be universal within the brain and wherever our sensory organs connect with the brain, enables cells to activate on change, as well as connect to all other modalities. Detecting change is necessary, because without it we could not navigate through the environment. This all necessarily needs to be connected to motor-movement of our bodies, because without it we couldn’t respond to these changes. Why then aren’t representations necessary? Because of the simple fact that we do not need to internalize the world in order to successfully navigate in it. The Portia spider and Webb’s crickets in Louise Barrett’s Beyond the Brain exemplifies this. Does all of this mean that we don’t internalize the world and create “representations”? No. However, in order for us to conduct science, we need to criticize and reflect upon the assumptions we make about ourselves –even the ones that seem to make sense in regard to conscious experience as well as the concepts standing for invisible inner processing.
I believe it too indulgent to see the brain as an infinitely complex organ, I just do not believe it to be the pinnacle of evolution. We just make far too many mistakes. I also believe that internalizing every single object that exist through our contact with them makes little sense too. The amount of cognitive load that this requires, in terms of representations, computation, memory and other concepts created by traditional cognitive literature, seems to me to be all too overwhelming. While it is true our brain allows us to act in ways afforded to few other animals, we are still animals and we are not too different from other animals either. In my mind then, it is simply more probable that our brain evolved to sufficiently solve navigating our environment in a cost-effective way, rather than overkill with extreme specialisation. Evolution should have selected for the simplest possible way to achieve, shouldn’t it?

Subjective experience of embodied cognition

Two examples in handball and rugby enabling me to subjectively understand continuous reciprocal interaction with one’s environment, without a need to invoke representations.

Handball (large sport in northern, central and eastern European countries)
Playing handball as an outfielder, when I receive the ball in an attacking position, in my visual field are three or so opponents, number doesn’t really matter. What I perceive is a wall with gaps in it, I begin moving towards one of the gaps and as I do it minimizes as a consequence of two defenders moving closer together. I need to get to the gap that I perceive opening up to the side instead and take a quick step towards it sideways and perceive the gap to still be there so I take two steps forward, altering my bodily posture to further avoid the wall I had just stepped past. When thinking about this sequence, there is no real thought, I simply perceive the environment in front of me, attempt to navigate in it, react bodily to the environmental changes occurring. It signifies to me a dynamically reciprocal relationship between the environment and my body, where my brain fills the task of perceiving the changes in the environment and as a consequence alters my motor-movement in response to those changes. I know which movement-possibilities I am able to employ because through training very similar situations, very many times, I have narrowed down which affordances are available to me in other similar situations. If I perceive, in the second instant in the situation that the second gap also is closing in front of me, the only two alternative motor-movements are to either pass the ball on to a teammate or find myself pacified by a defender holding me down. (The second alternative here being non-desirable because it means the energy spent on the previous movements were in vain and I will have to start over from a still-standing position.)

Rugby
In rugby, much the same type of situation can occur, holding the ball on any given spot on the field, running forward, you perceive the obstacles that you have to move around. Just that, everything in this situation is dynamic because the environment changes depending on your movement and your movement changes the way the environment changes (not unlike the Watt governor). By that, you have to continuously rearrange your movements according to real-time demands. In the subjective experience there is simply no time to even begin explaining complex action-perception movements like this in representationalist terms. Now, this obviously doesn’t mean we don’t have representations at all, or that you can’t express it in those terms, but the point is that I don’t need to invoke them in the subjective experience of the situation, nor do I need to use them in a verbal explanation of it. While they may exist, it is an extra assumption about the world and can we do without extra assumptions, I believe we are getting a better explanation of the world.

While subjective experience itself may be misleading, what I am trying to get across is what a dynamic situation may look like. The type of continuously reciprocal relationship between environment, body and brain, all acting on each other and changing in response to each other, all in real-time. Tim van Gelder in What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computation? provides an elaborate explanation however of systems that do not even seem to make sense to put in computational terms. It goes far deeper than the simple idea that I am trying to get across here and is worth a read.

Embodied emotion?

A quick note on EC and the lack of discussion on emotion. Becoming fascinated by the Embodied Cognition approach championed by, amongst many others, Barrett (2011), Wilson & Golonka (2012) and Nöe (2009) I find the embodied approach to enable explanation of behaviour without the use of representations. As taught through philosophy, the less assumptions a theory makes about the world, still being able to explain the phenomenon, the better science we are producing. While there are personal and emotional resistances to the idea that cognition belongs more so in the dynamic reciprocal relationship with the environment, body and brain rather than solely in the brain, I have found one area of discussion lacking. That of emotion.

[Edit 22/02/2013] Semin och Smith’s ‘Embodied grounding…’ has a few chapters on affect. Still emotion seem hard to account for under env-body-brain…

I have long wondered if not our [subjective] experience of emotion may just be the consequence of brain activity [in a horribly general sense, as it obviously does not hold scientifically]. We happen to pay attention to some of it as it blends into the collected sensory experience [and their reciprocal relationship] we call consciousness. This [simplistic] view is not entirely coherent with representationlistic ideas and cognitive research seem to want to put the initiating processes of our inner workings down to cognition, not emotion (however, on occasion emotion is defined within the cognition concept). Where does an embodied cognitive approach consider emotion?

I have, as of yet, not touched upon literature discussing the topic on embodied cognitive terms. I can accept that cognition is not in the brain, or perhaps rather, not solely in the brain. I can accept that perception of our environment is enough to have us experience the world such as that we think it is inside us -because- all we really need in a brain is an elaborate change-detector for all sensory modalities, the ability to form connections between these systems (as if they are separate or “geographically” determined biologically from the start anyways -ferret example in Barrett comes to mind) and the ability to guide motor-movement of our bodies [in relation to what we perceive in our environment and vice versa] (cricket or spider example here) [also connecting this to modalities throughout the brain and body].

However, when it comes to emotion, accepting it as a stimuli-response mechanism, follow representationalist assumptions. Although, some literature would have it that arousal could be enough to place within the brain, then the act of determining what type of arousal (what am I feeling?) would be dependent on the situational, environmental and bodily factors. This is however slightly unsatisfactory since it still seems to rely on representation.

I will thus, for now, await further literature in the embodied cognition perspective that will deal with emotion. If not I get to it first (just have a master thesis in EC to take care of). Suggested literature more than welcome.

Psychology unite! 1.1 (decoder rings almost sold out)

Recently, PsyPost reports on ‘Universal’ personality traits not necessarily applying to isolated indigenous people (new window on click). They report that studying an isolated Bolivian society researchers found that the Tsimane culture not necessarily exhibited the five broad dimensions of personality, they also found more support for the “Big Two”.

Had personality been a concept belonging to the realm of positivism this is quite obviously not what one would find out observing the world. In a social constructionist realm though, this fits nicely with how SCism is defined. In a society with little to no contact with other more dominant societies, it is not necessarily so that you would find non-similar or other “personality-traits” than those belonging to the “Big Five”. There is just a higher probability, since the society has had the opportunity to ‘evolve’ under its own parameters that it has others. An obvious probability within this is that some or even all of the “personality-traits” found in larger or more dominant cultures actually will be found here too; we are all humans after all and over the earth we have a similar type of environmental demand on us as individuals -or perhaps rather, we have a finite number of demands on us. “Socially beneficial behaviour” and “industriousness”, as they claim have been found, well, look, we are most probably going to define any, one, behaviour as socially beneficial (odds are pretty high we will find at least one of these behaviours within a society, since there would be strange demands on a society to actually hold up if there are no socially beneficial behaviours). Finding that people actually behave beneficially towards one another within a cohesive group of people has very little utility.

An issue here is however that this may be used as a ‘universal’ claim from the side of personality. I claim the opposite. A behaviour, is going to be defined on a vastly grey scale, to be good, neutral or bad if we see to the consequences of that behaviour. The behaviour will first of all be placed on this scale wholly dependent on the situation it is in. Even killing another human being is sometimes considered appropriate in some cultures (and throughout history, we can see it has been appropriate in all cultures at one time or another). The issue is on the ‘beneficial’ part in this specific example, something being good or bad or neither is a value judgment that humans place on the world and that is not naturally existent. Another point being, it is not an inherent property of the behaviour to be ‘socially beneficial’ -and this argument can be extended to ‘industriousness’, not mixing in the good-bad grey scale argument. ‘Industriousness’ is a property we interpret a behaviour to have -it does not belong to the behaviour intrinsically -it depends on what socially constructed determinants define the behaviour to be.

In any case, I should also mention that supportive arguments and empirical observations do much less for a perspective or theory (like this post for my perspective) than does a non-falsified argument and empirical observation. It does however inform my previous post on (one of) the things I believe needs to be done in psychology to gain it the credibility it deserves. The previous post also has consequences for clinical psychology and psychiatry -something I am currently writing a post on and will publish soon on here.

Psychology unite! (decoder rings sold separately)

I’ve always had issues with personality as a scientific concept. Especially when it is taught by lecturers and professors as if it, and it’s subconcepts, are naturally existing. I should already clarify that “naturally existing” is a classification saved for concepts tied to things that would exist even without a conscious/independent mind (it will depend on your choice of favourite philosophy which you prefer, and it is unfortunately beyond this post to go too far into the philosophy on which it is based, which is a reason for me to stick to three main realms of knowledge, social constructionism, critical realism and positivism). I should also mention that I find it non-productive to discuss the point of view that all concepts tied to human activity as wholly socially constructed. The reason being that under that definition we ignore both vast amounts of unconscious processes, most often those shared with other animals, as well as our biological ancestry. If we developed from animals without (or lesser) capacity for conscious and lingual processing into animals with a greater capacity for those, then it would be foolish to ignore that those capacities developed on top of structures that, under a social construction definition, most likely would not pass its criteria for what exists and not. Personality is such a concept that I very much doubt to exist other than in the socially constructive realm. The correlations found in support of its existence are not smoke screens but are solely held up by virtue of social interaction itself. You can talk about behaviours belonging to a concept called extroversion, but, in my opinion, they are called upon by situational factors more so than an internally set characteristic. I base this opinion much so on the fact that I can behave very extrovertly in some situations and very introvertly in others and a better prediction of my behaviour is going to be based on the actual situational factors rather than what a personality test would say I am (disregard the fact that I am not convinced that the self actually exists or not.. yet.. see Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion for a thought-provoking perspective). At best, tests of personality tell the tester that this is the image/properties that the testee thinks he/she has and/or wishes to project to others. Even under this charitable definition there are considerable validity issues. For example, at its most general level, the image we wish to project to others and/or think we are is not equal to how we actually behave. One instance of this comes from that we are far less congruent in cognition and behaviour than we like to think. It is thus a real issue with personality that it only lives in the realm of social constructionism, it has no existence, necessarily, in a critical realist or positivist sense. In other words, there is no reflection in the part of reality existent without a conscious/independent mind. Because this concept has no reference point existentially, it will never be verified beyond its self-defined mechanism (which is inherent in anything denoted as a “concept”). So, why care about the ramblings of a mere master student of psychology in a country far far away? Because it has consequences beyond the war-torn concept of personality. It says something incredibly important about everything psychology has ever produced. “Is psychology a science?” and “Which departments within psychology are sciences and which are not?” are questions belonging to the infancy of the debate. It is futile and non-productive. All it does is to divide and create unnecessary conflict within a subject area that will hold the most important discoveries in the near future.

It is a foundational issue for psychology that it is rather easy to construct concepts from collections of behaviours, emotions and cognitions. You just need a pragmatic reason to do so, it need not reflect naturally occurring collected/related items. This type of critique is not usually limited to psychology but other subject areas have more rigorous checks and easier-to-spot red flags. In physics or chemistry, there is most often other ideas and knowledge that the new information needs to fit within. Because the objects of study are less ambiguous and more concretely defined, it is easier to understand if an idea is worth pursuing or not. In psychology, concepts are not as specifically defined because, among other reasons, the same behaviour (for example) in different contexts mean different things but can still be difficult to separate. Or, if looking at emotions it may sometimes be more useful to look at antecedents or consequences than the emotion itself (this specific example depends on your definition of emotion however, and I will refrain to delve deeper into it here). Also, the parts of reality psychological concepts are trying to cover usually contain yet other concepts and their definitions or parts of other concepts. Imagining circles partly covering eachother, even for distinctly defined concepts, there will be empty space covered or wanted information excluded). We, or perhaps you (since I don’t have a doctorate yet), need to be more careful, as scientists, when we posit things to exist. Because ultimately, coming from another discipline, even with the most rudimentary psychological knowledge, you are going to question the actual existence of some theories and concepts just by their face validity. Especially coming from disciplines where it is more natural to think of the concepts under study as naturally existing anyways. Psychology is the most difficult discipline to live within because it contains all the different types of existences that exists (ha!). At the moment, we don’t have this perspective on psychological concepts, we don’t have this perspective on everything psychological. I believe we will do ourselves and others a favour if  we begin defining (and accepting) the concepts as socially constructed or whatever else. Because here is another important point, noting something as belonging to social construction, critical realism and positivism says very little about the value these concepts have for our understanding of the world. Rather, we can be honest with what we are working with, come to terms with that it is not psychology or any subdiscipline within the subject which is at fault, rather, it is all the information that psychological researchers have as their pet theories and want to naturally exist. This just is not the case and we would do ourselves a grand gesture to be clear to everyone else not doing psychological research if we were clearer in what realm we posit something to exist. Because it doesn’t matter for the information’s value. Also, it doesn’t safeguard the more positivist or critical realist existing concepts from falsehood. Intellectual honesty is a virtue, in the sense that we should not pretend about how things exist in the world, and the more we all stand up together for it, the greater understanding will come from others too. So what about the practical aspects?

Well, unfortunately, @GrahamCLDavey reminds me of all the consequences that comes with that the word scientific carries with it an unfortunate amount of credit (read his post). It is important for gaining economic means if we define something as scientific or not, for practically anything we wish to research. Maybe we would do ourselves a disservice if we start calling things by their names, since the consequence could be that socially constructed theories get less funding than more critical realist or positivist ones. Here, however, we could unite the psychological discipline, stand strong together and argue the value information has does not depend on which realm it exists in, but rather, what the theories actually can predict and not, their pragmatic value, their functional value. Also, even if it has the unfortunate consequence mentioned above, it will in the long run give ourselves a more solid platform to stand on. To know that I am not positing something to actually exist naturally in the world, gives us a framework to put those ideas in, it gains us information and understanding about the concept we otherwise would be ignorant of and lastly we will know how this knowledge will be affected by newer information once that comes along. It may just safeguard us from making the mistake of seeing our knowledge and pet theories as something static and it may just gain psychology the honest credibility it deserves in everyone’s eyes -not just our own.

*Update 07:48 5/1-13, full name on author of The Self Illusion.

If a Realist tree falls in an Idealist forest…

This age old question has indeed puzzled me since I first heard it when I was around 10 years old. I found it fascinating to be stumped by such a simple question because it seemed to intuitively contain both a yes and no answer. 15 years later I understood why.

I have been mentoring Master students in Psychology over the past month in Philosophy of Science and Psychology. We have covered the basics of Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, Positivism, Social Constructivism and all there is and more to these and other concepts. The most important question they’ve asked of me so far is probably ‘Why do we have to know this?’. I give my explanation to this in a quite simple manner, we get better at research and in life in general. Then I realised something else.

Most people I have ever met, has heard the question ‘If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to witness it, does it still make a sound? And how?’. I have never heard a satisfying answer, until I stumbled upon one myself (and I sure do hope I haven’t read it somewhere, forgot, and now commit to the attribution error).

Just like Qualia, the answer depends on how you believe things exist.

If you believe that there does exist a world independent of your mind (roughly, Realism), you can define ‘sound’ as air compressing and decompressing, and, that this is the only necessary characteristic of ‘sound’ to allow its existence. Then yes. It does make a sound. We can ‘know’ this because the conclusion logically and necessarily follows both from the premise of our definition of sound as well as with the laws of physics.

If you however believe that there does not exist a world independent of your mind (roughly, Idealism), you can define ‘sound’ as sense data, and, that this is a necessary characteristic of ‘sound’ to allow its existence. Then no. It does not make a sound. We can ‘know’ this because the necessary condition following from our premise of our definition of sound is not met.

Or so I, amongst other examples, exemplify how philosophy can solve conundrums -let alone find and define logical and practical issues and weaknesses in our cognitive efforts in research and real life. Then I go on to say, but if the esteemed lecturers or the book says any different, then you should trust them (and not only for obvious reasons, but) -if philosophy teaches me anything, then it teaches me how little I can know (so if you are holding non-truths about the world -don’t blame me!).

Between science(s) and (a) hard place(s)

Was reading a post on Psychology Today by Jonathan Wai and was displeased to note the stereotypic view coming from a physics major, alias ‘Order’. While I shared my opinion on his comment, I decided I would like to share a simplistic view on this. Anyone more interested in the dividing of the sciences should take a course/read up on philosophy of science -very interesting indeed!

Why does the hierarchy exist at all? Well, the first reason would be chronological order of fields introduced in Western universities (an arbitrary reason). The second, comes from the philosophical viewpoint of Positivism -something that has been central to research within (mainly) Physics, Chemistry and Biology. When psychology started establishing itself as a solitary field, (around the 1880s/90s with Wundt/James/Hall establishing psychology laboratories) the view of a “researcher” as a general concept, was one of high dignification, as well as the rigor and high regard for positivistic science. Already here psychology decided to borrow from existing sciences to increase its credibility. Psychology copied its philosophical underpinnings (positivism), physical look (for example, introducing white lab coats for psychologists/experimenters to mimic MDs), calling participants subjects (because they were being ‘subject’ed to a process, as well as, creating a power-relation between researchER and researchEE) and other (what would seem like) details in procedure and analysis. This, I believe was a misstep like no other, because, in my opinion psychology does not strictly live up to all the positivist ideals. I can go into this in excruciating detail, but will refrain unless asked [Or see my post ‘Nonsense.’ for a short intro].

I do not believe you can force a numerical structure on something that we can barely define yet. How is ’emotion’ defined? Differently in nearly every research report about it (yes, yes, there are two general ideas about the concept, but I’m keeping this simple). The point is that it does not have a generally agreed upon experimental definition. Then how are we supposed to measure quantitatively its properties? Here, hard sciences usually lobby the; “ha! Told you they weren’t a real science, they don’t even know what they are studying!”. And this is where I claim psychology is misunderstood. What is science? Exploring the physical world, gaining an understanding of how it works. So just because psychology hasn’t yet defined all the properties within its field, it isn’t a science? Isn’t the argument the opposite? _Because_ we are, probably more so than most fields, trying to get to definitions, experimenting on flawed existing ones to make them better, and so on, should Psychology not be seen as a frontier for science?

Method. We have a hard time controlling for extraneous variables, indeed we do. Randomisation is a good help but it doesn’t cover every single bias in every single experiment published. This is in my opinion, one of the most important flaws to be aware of in psychological science. Not too seldomly, the most pressing biases for the given experiment isn’t controlled for, isn’t discussed or in any other way documented. This gives rise to the retrospective, I-got-a-significant-result-with-a-decent-effect-but-was-it-really-the-intervention-that-caused-it, question.. (..yes that was a terribly worded and awkward sentence). It is right of everyone, from any field, to critici{s/z}e psychological experiments on the grounds of bias or uncontrolled for variables -because it leads to better experiments, better defined concepts, more rigorous methods and more reliable results. But. It is wrong to dismiss psychological experimenting like a naughty child _because we can’t do better_! Yes we can! (Bob the Builder, retrieved 10:57, 18th of June 2012)

An example, by the way, of why I call these opinions simplistic. Just within psychology, we have a broad range of subfields, for example neuropsychology, and it is able to and does follow positivistic philosophy more closely than for example social psychology. It more closely resembles biology and chemistry, and often rely on those fields for answering parts of the questions posed. In either case, there are more arguments, more detailed arguments and the issue is far more complex than what the above may make it seem like.

The reason why ‘I’m Christian unless you’re gay” sets a new standard. 2 Extended Thoughts

This is my opinion, my reason, why I choose to accept the assumptions proposed by science, as opposed to any other method of understanding the world.

We the people have different methods of dealing with the world, importance, I believe, is not to be put on _which type_ of method is chosen, but rather _the consequence_ of which one we choose. My choice of method is dependent on its predictability and utility, for others it may be a sense of being taken care of or a sense of safety. No reason is better or worse, true or false, they are merely different depending on what we need and perhaps, what we are raised to/have a disposition for/through experience develops a need for.

We thus choose method depending on what we need to rely on to give us the most compelling reasons for believing in it in the first place. In turn, the most compelling reason is the one that satisfies whatever need we have to be satisfied. Circular arguments do not get more circular than this, allow me to explicate.

Choices on method are varied and great in number, one may choose Religion A, B or C, a modified version A’, B’ or C’, an individually modified one A”, B” or C”, various forms of pseudosciences or sciences. Even within pseudoscience and science we tend to form smaller groups, similar to the previous contention that religion subdivides to a whole range of different methods of dealing with the world.

It comes down to that Individual A and Individual B are both as compelled to believe what its community tells them. Or, are as compelled to believe the conclusions they come to themselves when reviewing the canons of their method. Even justification for the individual is of the same valence. I.e. subjective feeling about one’s chosen method, I believe for psychological reasons, differs little between Individual A and Individual B.

My assertion is that science is a better method of dealing with the world because it has enormous predictive capability compared to any other method. It allows me to understand the world in a rhetoric and structure that satisfies my need for knowledge and stability. This is what is important to me personally.

Utility can be discussed endlessly, especially from a utilitarian perspective and the issue when discussed in folk tongue usually comes down to that of source. Who came up with what? Religion is the source vs Science is the source.

I can understand an argument for religion which states that people with a religion have been behind discoveries as well as atheists. However, this to me is a misconception, the purpose is not to deny religion, but what is to be discussed is not which method the individual relies on but the canons upon which the discoveries have stemmed from. A religious/atheist/XYZ person, relying on the canons of science to find information, uses science to direct the subject matter of his research.

Very few groundbreaking discoveries can be made from the bible, especially since it is not to be added to or explicitly changed -because it would not be God’s word (sorry, interpretation of God’s word). The same sentences are reinterpreted to fit our everchanging societies, which I think is good and well. Issues evolve however when there are clear contradictions, such as homosexuality being explicitly condemned in the bible but increasingly accepted in society. As a consequence, Individual B has a choice to modify her private belief to that of C or modify her method by changing it to B’ or B” so as to fit her private beliefs more congruently.

On the side of Science, its canons are rarely stable. In between revolutions, which change the fundamental foundations of our understanding of the world around us, we have the incremental progress within those foundations with additions, refinements and revokements. The best part is, even the lenses we use to see the structure of science through are subject to this process. Also, it matters little what one believes in science in respect to what is found in research. I may not like or believe that Theory A is false but I do not get to have an opinion unless it is backed up with value-free experiments/data (in which case it ceases to be opinion). This, to a certain extent, safeguards experiments from being entangled with what we _want_ the world to contain as opposed to what it _does_ contain. It doesn’t matter that people believe or not in the theory of evolution, as of yet thousands of experiments support it, and not one has been able to falsify it. I am thus forced to accept the assumptions of evolution regardless of how I subjectively see it, unless I can think of an even more compelling account of how to explain how life evolved from single-cell organisms to the variet of flora and fauna we see around us today.

These arguments persuade me to use the methods given by science to deal with the world around me. Just as a Christian, Muslim or any other religiously affiliated person would agree upon; the world (and indeed universe) is an absolutely stunning, awe-inspiring and mesmerising environment to be allowed to be a part of.

The reason why “I’m Christian unless you’re gay” sets a new standard.

Before I even start, I need to say this. I deliberately use trivial, black/white, crude groupings (religious people, atheists etc.) in this OP. I do it only because it is not the point of this piece to divide and define, it is to illuminate the difficulties and issues they pose to each of us and each other. I am fully aware of that these groups I am about to mention are far from homogenous, again, the point is to illuminate the difficulty in communication between individuals rather than anything else.

Needless to recount, atheists and religious people struggle to get along. The YouTube Chronicles (I made it up, don’t search for it) of atheist/religious videos are always filled with comments from both sides arguing their basis of opinion. Atheist videos usually attract atheists and top comments are usually aimed at religious people and vice versa. So why care? Easy. It doesn’t help. Why? Easy. We do not communicate with equal rhetoric. So? Complicated.. please read on.

I’ve come across thunderf00t (YouTube celeb advocating atheism) and his, to a large extent, opposite, Eric Hovind (YouTube celeb advocating Christianity). Recently, at the 2012 Reason Rally, they attempted to discuss what was what and immediately got stuck in rhetoric cobweb. From an outside perspective it was quite easy to see what was going on. Eric Hovind asked questions stemming from his world view (which, amongst other things, include the belief in a Christian God). The issue from thunderf00t’s perspective was that, the questions posed included assumptions that did not exist in _his_ world view. Let me take you through a thought-experiment.

Forget for a moment everything you have ever heard or experienced. You are now a speck of dust floating around with no reflective-of-the-world thoughts, in fact you have no thoughts at all. About anything. In an instant, you turn into a human being. Now, as you begin to explore the world around you, you have to make assumptions. From one of my first philosophy courses, I remember my professor slowly moving one of his feet forward, tapping the ground in front of him -to make sure it would hold his weight. The point he was making was that, we make assumptions about the most minute things. We assume that the ground in front of us is stable and will carry us -and so we do not hesitate to walk with strong stride from point A to point B. Now, in thunderf00t’s world view, he can concede to that ‘The universe exists’, because it is something we have to _assume_ and probably should because it helps us understand something about everything around us. The important point being, he cannot _know_ if the universe exists, and to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter -it is an assumption we have to make regardless of if it is true or not. Let’s make more assumptions, ‘I exist’, ‘other people exist’ and let me add another two assumptions; I feel and think, others feel and think. Personally, I stop adding assumptions when they have no utility; when an assumption would not gain me a wider perspective of how the world works around me. For example, it is useful to assume that I feel and think, as well as, others feel and think -because it makes social encounters just _that_ much easier. Now, another important thing with assumptions is this; I can make any assumption I like, but, it usually requires me to assume a bunch of other things. For example, the assumption “I think and feel” must be preceded by assumptions such as, physical materia exists, there exist an entity within my physical boundary that I use to be able to think and feel. Assumptions are only accepted if they can help us understand the world, for example, assuming that a spaghetti monster exists is redundant because it doesn’t help me understand the world any better. Ok, enough introduction of assumptions I think, onwards to the mistake religious people make about atheists.

A religious person would say “God exists”. For an atheist, the number of assumptions to be made about the world to accept this assumption are far too many. We must assume that not only does physical materia exist but also non-physical materia, we must not only assume there is an entity that can see/hear/feel etc. everything but also that this entity can decide what to and not to do with us humans -we then must assume creation, maintenance, changes etc.. These assumptions are far from all of the assumptions we have to make in order to accomodate “God exists” in our assumption-structure of the world. Add to this that, in our world view, we are already making a lot of assumptions on how to find things out about the world -assuming that mathematics can say something about the world, assume that physics can say something about the world and so on. The reason we would rather assume that Physics can tell us things about the world instead of a God, is at least binary. One, relying on Physics instead of God involves far fewer assumptions about the world, but more importantly, two; the reliance on Physics has utility in that we can test and see if an assumptions holds up or not. This is what “prediction” or “predictive power” is all about. Assuming that Physics can tell us something about the world, is strengthened by that we can use the tools taught by Physics to answer questions about the world. Why are we stuck on earth? Why does a rock fall down if I drop it instead of float or fall up? Physics teaches us the assumption that there exist something called gravity, a concept we assume to exist. Why would we rely on this information? Well, because it has predictive power; it tells us something about the world that we can use to our advantage. Assuming that gravity exists is something we do everyday -without even doing it! We don’t open a window and walk straight out, because, we assume that gravity will pull us very quickly towards the ground and (depending on height) may kill us. Therefore, questions such as “do you exist?” cannot be answered; it is an assumption we make about the world that helps us live our lives, nothing more, nothing less. It is not true or false and it would not matter if it was true or false -because, _regardless_ if it is true or false, we _have to_ assume it because it is something that helps us live our lives -it has utility to assume it. However, assuming that “God exists”, does not help us understand anything over and above the toolbox that the sciences provide for us. Morals exist without God, love exists without God also hate exists without God. Alright, enough about explaining what religious people often do not understand about atheists. Let me flip the table over.

Unfortunately, these mistakes in understanding people we have in front of us is far from unique to religious people. Atheists do it to a large extent as well, and, it does not help us to understand each other. An atheist usually holds the misconception that ‘you’ believe something that ‘I’ don’t, and imaginary friend that will hold your hand through adulthood -and we say -prove it! Smiling smuggishly, sniggering to ourselves. Well, this is an error exactly mirroring the one religious people make about atheists. The error we make is to assume that the way in which we find out information about the world is the best way for _other world views_ to find out information _about their assumptions_. _This is not true_. We therefore make the same mistake by asking a question that cannot be answered from within a religious person’s world view. I.e. in the same way that “is it true?” is an unanswerable question, so is “prove it”. In conclusion, it is not fair to ask of another world view to do something that can only be done from one of those world views. It involves the assumption that one’s world view is the only ‘true’ one, from which other’s should be judged and hence make the mistake of mistaking assumptions for true or false. Bad atheist!

Apart from these philosophical-specific issues, the psychological and societal specific issues are that these types of discussions _only_ contribute to _one thing_, misunderstanding. Atheists scoffing at the ignorance of religious people and religion devaluing moral character of atheism. I have long tried to ameliorate the difficulties that arise between religious and scientific minded people (no, they are not mutually exclusive groupings). I have tried to explain the above numerous times to both camps without succeeding in building a bridge. Then I read this; I’m Christian unless you’re gay. and realized something absolutely terrible (bar for a moment that that OP contains subject matter far outweighing what mine does).

When having read both that piece and the responses to it, it became abundantly clear that Dan Pearce had succeeded where so many fail. Where Richard Dawkins and other more aggressive atheists have failed. Dan Pearce succeeded in building a bridge between two vastly different world views. It is a feat in itself. Something I know from experience is such an extreme catalyst between religious and atheists, is the matter of homosexuality. I started in much more modest differences and failed miserably, why the #”¤! did Dan Pearce succeed? The reasons are many and he succeeded in combining them in such a way that fostered understanding for the two world-views, separately, but at the same time, with the same words. Dan used ‘simple’ rhetoric, natural, everyday language that everyone understands. He levels himself, first, lower than one thinks of oneself, secondly, he puts himself off of the continuum of where he first places Westboro Baptist Church and then Christians and atheists. He thus ingeniously pushes religious and atheists closer together on the continuum by using an extreme reference point. He abides to universal feelings like love and hate, exemplifies them both and levels you and I down to his level, the level in which we are all human. It is a lesson in humility and we are all in the same boat. We have all made ourselves feel better by beating down on others -regardless of what we have targeted with our hateful comments. He then pushes his point home with powerful conviction; everyone has a right and wrong, but really it doesn’t matter because we cannot change others by hating them. He does not contend to change others by loving them, but changing ourselves by loving others. We don’t have to resort to the trivial and detrimental comment-flinging, it doesn’t help me, myself. Showing others love does not mean one condones a behaviour or disposition that we think is right or wrong. Showing love to someone does not promote or deny something someone is, rather, it promotes ourselves in who we are. Ultimately, he sums it up himself (please read his whole OP by the link provided above);

“Because what you’ll find, and I promise you this, is that the more you put your arm around those that you might naturally look down on, the more you will love yourself. And the more you love yourself, the less need you’ll ever have to find fault or be better than others. And the less we all find fault or have a need to be better than others, the quicker this world becomes a far better place to live.”

Dan Pearce set a new standard in the rhetoric of fostering understanding for fellow human beings.