Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Giving Up Ridicule

One of the things I care about a lot is to see a naturalistic worldview gain more ground over religious worldviews. For a long time, I’ve been having doubts on whether ridicule is effective in that endeavor. The first time I had doubts was when I started reading the naturalism.org website. I quite easily accepted that we are fully caused beings and are a product of our genetic makeup and the environment we grew up in. But I found it hard to accept the conclusions that follow from the premises:

The New Atheism has been roundly criticized by some supernaturalists and naturalists for its contempt of faith-based religion, see here for a recent example. Whether or not these charges have merit, it’s worth mentioning that naturalism, at least as advanced by the Center for Naturalism, tends to militate against such attitudes. Although we make a strong, unapologetic and rational case for sticking with science as the basis for belief, by our lights contempt for those who don’t is fundamentally unwarranted. Anti-naturalists and naturalists, equally, end up with their worldviews as a function of the vagaries of genetics and life experience. Some individuals are more inclined than others to want certainty, others are more open to new experience, and we are all heavily influenced by the beliefs and mores of our culture and peers. Understanding the contingency of our worldview – that we could have grown up to be the theist, not the naturalist – makes it more difficult to feel contempt for our ideological adversaries.

So I pushed it to the back of my mind. Ridicule was way too much fun to give up.

The doubts came back with full force when I started reading up on the elevator-gate incident. I was surprised at the amount of nastiness it generated. How can people who live by science, reason, and logic fail so badly in understanding a contrary viewpoint and as a result talk past, and ridicule each other? In retrospect it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

Ridicule works very well within the in-group, with people who already share some of beliefs. But it doesn’t work so well when you want to get others to see your point of view. It puts them on the defensive, and may even drive them to hold onto to the contrary view even more strongly. The aggressive tone of some of the discussions in elevator-gate is no different than what I use on this blog and elsewhere.

I still tried to convince myself that ridicule does work, citing the influence of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. It is undeniable that their approach worked. Atheism has gained a lot of visibility because of that. But the question is does ridicule cause someone to abandon their beliefs? I feel the answer is no most of the time. People like Dawkins and Hitchens tapped into an audience who were already skeptical of religious worldviews. So their approach worked in that respect. But I don't think it will work when you want to make religious people understand why their beliefs are wrong.

Apart from tapping into the anger at religious worldviews, there is another way by which ridicule works. It can create an environment where people don't feel comfortable in professing to some beliefs. When applied to religion, that seems like a good goal to achieve. But changed beliefs are better than suppressed beliefs, which have a tendency to prop up when the conditions are more favorable to them. So using that as a reason to stick to ridicule is also ruled out.

In conclusion, I’ve decided to give up ridicule. This doesn’t mean I will give up on criticizing religion, superstition and pseudoscience because it will be offensive to someone. No matter how delicately I put something, there will always be people who will find it offensive and feel that I am ridiculing them. But what I am giving up is the criticism that has a deliberate intent to ridicule beliefs and the vindictive arguments that are meant to get even. I don’t know how successful I will be in giving up those things. I’m hoping that this post will serve as a shaming device when I do resort to ridicule, no matter how repulsive a belief I come across and have to criticize it.


Ramesh said...

Dear Lije,

Sorry, I could not continue my critical reasoning with you on other blog for hard pressed time. Any way I love you for your scientific (?) approach, reasoning and thinking. So a simple question which will counter most of your blog posts.

Energy cannot be created nor can be destroyed it ever. How is that universe ever come into being then? You may refer me any links which discusses it well and satisfactorily arrives at a final conclusion.

Either you will answer all my questions or I will answer all of your questions. I draw my all understanding from ‘Vedanta’ which alone is the science for me and the rest just ‘Maya’ [Ref: http://www.archive.org/details/themetaphysicsof00sreeuoft And if interested http://sabhlokcity.com/2011/05/the-metaphysics-of-the-upanishads-vichar-sagar-by-nischal-das-1/]

But note that we have to base ourselves purely on critical, scientific, solid and valid reasoning otherwise it will be waste of time, energy. But at the same time you have to forgive me for delayed replies if any for I am too hard pressed for time.

Look forward to you with your scientific approach.


Lije said...

"How the Universe came into being" is a question nobody knows the answer to. You can, however, assume that something is the answer. So I don't see how that question counters anything at all.

A question that I consider more valid and will be of help is, how will Vedanta answer the question that Dawkins answers here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vueDC69jRjE#t=08m42s (From 8:42 on). This is in line with the link I gave you in my last comment.

Ramesh said...

Dear Lije,

Here is Vedanta's answer to the said question.

There is no such a thing like universe. All our perception about the same is a property of ignorance. e.g. In a dim light a rope can be taken for snake. During the period of the illusion Snake is a reality. Exactly the universe is an illusion during the period of ignorance. This is explained in detail countering every critical, scientific argument against it in Vichar Sagar as per my above link.

If Vedanta can answer such a basic question to the full satisfaction all the answers will follow for any questions including to that of your reference.

Next question should be reasoned well.

Lije said...

Far from answering my question, you have proved that Vedanta is essentially a cop out and is useless except for filling in gaps of knowledge that we presently have. It might satisfy you, but not me. Also using the logic of the snake, the following argument can be made:

1. According to Vedanta Universe is an illusion.
2. Evolution is a part of the Universe.
3. I am a part of Evolution.

I am an illusion to you.

Better not waste your time on illusions.

Of course you will then object to premises 2 and 3 and say only 1 is valid. I however will not concede that 2 and 3 are not valid. And so we come a full circle.

Ramesh said...

Your conclusion is obvious and agreed.

But inference is not justified.

Our pain is our curiosity. It can be rested only after satisfaction. so long curiosity is not settled it is no wastage of time.

Note that it is an illusion during the the period of ignorance only. There is nothing like illusion for the outsider during the period of same ignorance. So at present universe can't be illusion but only the truth till the light is shed on the rope and we become aware of the true knowledge.

there is nothing like full circle. Is any?

Here are Answers to questions by Vedanta to your first references.
0:06—What are your thoughts on Sam Harris’s idea that we can eventually use neuroscience to quantify human well-being and use that information to empircally evalutate ethics?
- It is impossible. In a circle there can’t be such a thing like beginning point. There is no such a thing like bad or good. Hence scientific ethics is a meaningless thing.
1:22—What is your most scientifically unsubstantiated personal belief?
- Science asks for proofs always. It is in the form of mass, time, distance etc. However problem is that it can only define these things and not prove. It is the failure of the science.
2:29—Schools in America seem to be mute on evolution so as not to pick a fight with intelligent designers. So why aren’t American scientists more vocal about this and what can be done?
- Vedanta irrelevant.
4:25—Where do you see religious fundamentalism in 5, 10, 50 years? And where do you see science in 5, 10, 50 years?
- Religious fundamentalism is far away from the true religions and devoid of scientific spirit. Science is infinitely away from the advancements it can still make.
6:40—What can atheists do, particularly in countries dominated by religion, to reduce the influence of religion and to move toward a more secular atheist society?
- People need to be educated or relevant system need to be established.
8:17—In your opinion, what are the three most important unanswered questions in biology?
- As in 1.22
8:46—Out of all the evidence used to support the theory of evolution, what would you say is the strongest, most irrefutable single piece of evidence in support of the theory?
- Everything.
11:35—Would you please be so kind as to read some of your hate mail…?
- Always.

Thus in the absence of full circle only logical question should follow!

Ramesh said...

Request repeat the precise question which is left unanswered explicitly.


Lije said...

I meant the question on evolution which starts at 8:42 in the Video.

As this artilce notes, I'm only interested in beliefs that pay rent. Science pays big (with things like computers, Internet, OCR software etc..). Vedanta does not, except for when you have faith that it can. My curiosity can be satiated only from within a naturalistic framework.

Ramesh said...

I have answered that question as 'Everything'.

It seems that you have taken the Vedanta as opposing to materialistic science. It has never been so. It never contradicts it instead complements it. In my simile of rope and snake they aren't contradictory. That is why universe has been called as ‘Mithya’ and not either as false or true.

Here is how Vedanta pays more rent than science.

Having complemented the science it promotes the technology or science like computers, Internet, OCR software etc.. Moreover it diverts that energy of modern science which is being wasted now in finding the ultimate secret of universe, social, political solutions, moral dilemma etc which stand solved long ago in Vedanta but are denied by the present misconceived science.

Without Vedanta mere science (which knows very little about the universe) may prove to be disastrous for the mankind by putting the disastrous bombs in the hands of reckless man as is being witnessed everywhere.

Why don't you still think that Vedanta pays far far more rent than science can pay?

Ramesh said...

Why the above answer is not within 'naturalistic framework? Which part is uncritical?

Lije said...

Vedanta does oppose science (which is materialistic by definition. Non-material entities do not belong in science).

Science by itself cannot determine morality as you seem to think. But it is a hypothesis that Sam Harris has put forward. A critical examination of the hypothesis is here.

But science can inform about facts like - Is there life after death? (No). From there follow moral conclusions. For example, karma based morality is based on a false belief (life after death) and hence leads to faulty ethics. That is how science enhances morality. So the arguments you present about bombs et al are non-sequiturs.

Vedanta far from having solved any moral, social or political issues everything falls woefully short in answering present day moral issues. Here's a good example. It also fails in other aspects - The Vichar Sagar you refer to would be considered as a male chauvinistic when compared with humanistic moral philosophy. Any text which says that ejaculating semen will reduce the vitality of a man is begging to be not taken seriously.

Why don't you still think that Vedanta pays far far more rent than science can pay?

Because Vedanta is a semantic stop sign, provides fake explanations (Why do our cells have mitohondira? Maya) and it is a belief that fails to anticipate (will a realization of Maya cure cancer?)

Why the above answer is not within 'naturalistic framework? Which part is uncritical?

Vedanta is unempirical. That's why. This should have been obvious, since in a past comment, I mentioned Popper's falsifiability criterion, which Vedanta fails to meet.

Ramesh said...

You are missing the basic point again and again. There is nothing like truth in the Mayic world of universe, Gods, karma, birth of death, Ramayana, and the Vedas itself as long as light is not shed upon the rope. Once the light is shed there is only Brahman (rope). Therefore Hindu world of Davita including the modern science has truth as long as one is under the illusion. There are not absolute truths. Once the light is shed upon the rope (i.e. awakening) snake vanishes i.e. all the karmakand, birth after death and all that pertains to universe vanishes and only rope (Brahman) remains to be left with.
Nowhere in Hinduism is stated that karmkand, life after death, Gods, ethics etc are truth. Instead it says they are all Mithya. Understand the concept of mithya.
However it has developed the Dvaita world just for the sake of order [Welfare] of the less intelligent people who do not understand the essence and are always prone to sorrow. Modern science is the latest feature of Dvaita World. In Dvaita nothing is permanent. Everything has to be defined as per the desh and kal which is being done today in science. Isn’t it part of Dvaita which base it itself on Advaita.
You fail to realise the contribution of Vedanta to todays moral, social, political life just because all are thinking it to be imaginary without ever understanding what exactly it stands for. Aren’t you still thinking it opposes science whereas it actually promotes it as above?
It meets all modern criteria. Just lack of exact understanding keeps the Vedanta away.
May I know which criteria exactly it fails to meet given the fact that it requires no belief to understand the Vedanta and only pure, sharp curiosity can alone understand the Vedanta?

Ramesh said...


Why the simile of rope and snake is not an empirical one? Doesn't all experience it?

Ramesh said...


When such a thing like cancer, cure, body etc are themselves Mithya [maya] how is that such a question could ever arise for him? It means that cancer has to be dealt the way body is dealt with i.e. as per the empirical knowledge (modern science) Jnani may suffer from all the diseases. Jnana has nothing to do with the universe leave alone the body. This in no way means he should neglect his body nor does it mean that he would ever be benefited by such a cure. since there won't be such a thing like benefit for him. No confusion. View point of Jnani and rest should not be mingled. This has played a havoc with the Hindu Religion as of now because of misunderstanding and confusion.

Ramesh said...


Re: Any text which says that ejaculating semen will reduce the vitality of a man is begging to be not taken seriously

There is a serious problem with the understanding. A text which proves a ejaculation, semen, vitality, man etc just a Mithya things how authentic can a statement be which connects all these together in a statement as referred above?

Therefore the purpose of such a statement is to arouse the curiosity of the reader (Jidnasu)so that he questions and questions till he is ultimately satisfied.

By very nature Vedanta is understood by questioning alone. A text (like Vichar Sagar, Vedas etc) which states innumerable ways by which universe is created how is it going to state a statement like above as truth?

Essence: Such Dvaita statements are meant for less intelligent people whose welfare is sought. The moment such statements cease to represent their welfare characteristics they stop to be truths and need to be modified as per dvaita (modern science) rules.

Isn't there a serious problem with the understanding?

Lije said...

You are missing the basic point again and again.

No. I'm not. I know full well that the issue is of incompatible epistemic standards. The numerous links I gave show quite lucidly why it is so. You wanted a discussion, so I humored it, but I'm afraid it is going in circles since there is no common ground.

I have nothing new to say and will stop here.

Ramesh said...

Discussion can go in circles only when one of us is without logic or critical reasoning. Vedanta alone breaks the circle. Science has no explanation as is evident in your first comment.

I feel sorry you stopped without convincing me or asking me a question whereas I answered all of your answers.

Wished you to be more critical and scientific in approach.

Anyway pray give me an appropriate link in nirmukta.net where I can raise or challenge this topic and may satisfy the rest OR get satisfied myself with views like yours.

Ramesh said...

I also did not understand 'since there is no common ground.'

Aren't we discussing 'original of universe' ab initio?

Ramesh said...

Dear Lije,

I repeat,

"Anyway pray give me an appropriate link in nirmukta.net where I can raise or challenge this topic and may satisfy the rest OR get satisfied myself with views like yours."

Since you are more familiar with nirmukta.net I expect from you a proper link than I can find myself

Hope you would respond.

Lije said...


The Nirmukta forums are primarily for freethinkers. Debates of this sort aren't encouraged because seldom do they get resolved. For such discussions, there is a facebook group that you can join.

Arvind Iyer said...

Here are some recent reads relevant to the discussion on giving up ridicule and reducing rudeness:
'Why is Everyone on the Internet so Angry?' (SciAm article) and a followup on Jerry Coyne's blog.

Arvind Iyer said...

Now, Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers has followed it up too, with this post.

Captain Mandrake said...

Paul Krugman says that letting go of civility in debates may be needed when dealing with bad faith arguments.


Aravindh said...

There is another page where they discuss the case against contempt and ridicule in detail, check it out here: http://www.naturalism.org/Against_contempt.htm

I too had a bit of a tough time giving up ridicule and blame, but when all was said and done, it was much for the better. I realized that there are ways to deal with things tactfully instead of going explosive.

Captain Mandrake said...


This is an awesome blog. Came across this just a couple of days ago.

This is an interesting topic. Though I read your post I have not read all the links in the comments section. Before doing that let add my two cents. There are times when ridicule is justified, for instance when the people you are arguing with are acting in bad faith. Paul Krugman makes the same point here. Relevant parts qouted below.

If someone says the sky is green, you prove that it’s actually blue, and the next day he comes back once again insisting that the sky is green, and this happens repeatedly, you eventually have to acknowledge that mannerly debate about the color of the sky just isn’t enough; you have to go meta, and talk about the fact that this guy and his friends just aren’t in the business of honest discussion.

Inevitably, there are some people trying to turn the conversation meta in a different direction, and make it all about civility. But bad-faith arguments don’t deserve a civil response, and if the attempt to be civil gets in the way of exposing the bad faith, civility itself becomes part of the problem.

Lije said...

Captain, glad that you liked my blog!

Aravindh Chidambaram, thanks for the link.

Since the time I posted this entry, I've had a bit of change of mind on how I view the elevator-gate incident, the trigger for writing this post.

I used to think that "both sides" are being nasty and that the reason is because of their tendency to ridicule each other. However, I've done some more reading on feminism, on the concept of privilege, on how civility can be used as a silencing tactic.

I've also seen that a the elevator incident has galvanized a group of people into obsessively sniping at feminists and using bullying tactics.

That lead me to realize that ridicule isn't necessarily bad. What needs to be considered are its consequences. You can ridicule an organization like the church. But if a person says you are causing them hurt by your ridicule, you stop the ridicule. If someone is bullying you and you ridicule the bullies, I wouldn't say that such ridicule is bad.

That is the general idea and what makes ridicule appropriate or not will be heavily dependent on context. The crux is that I no longer think ridicule is always bad. I will try to stay away from it as much as possible because I have the luxury to do so. Some people might not.