Thursday, 14 July 2011

Oxford Skeptics in the Pub - Stephen Law

Philosopher Stephen Law made another visit to Oxford on Wednesday evening to talk about "Believing Bullshit" - which happens to be the title of his new book.

The room was well filled with people between their 20s and 60s - and certainly not the all white, male, middle-aged demography that you might expected of a group of skeptics only a few years ago.  (OK - as it happens all were whitish.)

The aim of the talk was to examine why 'true believers' (in anything from religions to conspiracy theories) can consider - in spite of all the evidence - that they are the ones with the reasonable attitude and that everyone else is deluded.  Law introduced the concept of the 'intellectual black hole' (IBH) as an analogy for a belief system which it is impossible to escape from.  He suggests that the IBH tends to encourage people to adopt methods of thought that confirm the illusion of reason.

He suggested that there are 8 aspects of the IBH scenario, which we can learn to spot when we are talking to the people caught in them.

  1. The mystery card
  2. But it fits
  3. Moving the semantic goalposts
  4. Going nuclear (an example below)
  5. I just know
  6. Pseudo profundity
  7. Piling up the anecdotes
  8. Pressing your buttons

Buy the book to find out exactly what these mean and to see interesting examples of all of them.

As one version of 'going nuclear' he gave an example that is common to 'new age thinkers', although less common with theists.  When confronted with an argument that they are going to lose, the people in the IBH might say "That's true for you but its not true for me".  By saying that though, they have made all truths equally valid, however preposterous.  In doing so they have undermined their own argument as effectively as those of their opponent.  (Now you can see why theists do not like to use it.  They like their own version of the truth too much to risk it.)  Law suggested that the best thing to do when someone 'goes nuclear' is to suggest that 'my truth is neither more nor less reasonable than yours' and then leave, and never to get drawn into the argument.

In the questions and answers, he mentioned the work of Justin Barrett who has been working on the concept of 'invisible agents' and who has a new book out soon.  He has developed the Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD) hypothesis to explain the need that humans seem to have to believe in the supernatural.  His new work suggests that atheists have to work hard to suppress this tendency and that we are hard wired for religiosity.  (That is not to suggest that this is evidence for god though - just of a need for a god.)

An excellent evening!  I must get round to ordering a copy of the book at the weekend.

Related posts:
From Oxford Think Week
The Moral Landscape (introduced by Stephen Law)

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