In which we learn that Franklin is disrespectful

A short time ago, a lengthy and near-incoherent ramble about the dawning of a new age of divine government appeared in my inbox. This email was posted on an email list to which I belong, though not, to be fair, by choice–I was subscribed to the list by its owners without my knowledge. Anyway, I posted a rather lengthy reply poking fun at the original message, which was laced with absurdities galore.

One of the people on the email list responded quite angrily. She does not subscribe to the same…ahh, peculiar beliefs as the original poster, nor does she much seem inclined to believe in the coming of the Divine Government, but she was very angry nonetheless. She called me a long list of names, in fact, while saying that all beliefs should be treated with respect.

The list of names itself is not particularly interesting. Nor is the unconscious irony in the notion of a belief system that says all ideas should be treated with respect, and anyone who disagrees with this idea should be called names. Nor, really, is her apparent inability to distinguish between mocking an idea and mocking a person; many people have difficulty differentiating the two, and will often respond to an attack on their ideas as though they had personally been attacked.

What is interesting, though, is one of the names she called me. In with the list of other names was one that is absolutely on the mark. “Disrespectful,” she called me. And she’s right; I am.

The notion that all ideas deserve respect doesn’t hold much value to me. Even the notion that all spiritual ideas deserve respect doesn’t much agree with me; there are many spiritual ideas–for example, the notion that the world is hollow and populated by a race of aliens or superbeings (depending on the particular theory being presented) who will once again rise to reassert the primacy of the Aryan race…and no, I’m not making this up…doesn’t command much respect from me. Nor do spiritual beliefs such as the more extreme flavors of Christian Dominionism (some of which assert that whites are God’s chosen people) particularly deserve respect.

Now, does that mean spirituality as a whole is open to ridicule?

Not necessarily. The fact that human beings are spiritual animals sems written into our genes. Spiritual beliefs, properly applied, are not falsifiable; they make assertions which can not be tested, and which are impossible either to prove or to disprove. I don’t necessarily find all nontstable assertions absurd. For instance, the observation that certain constants (such as the speed of light, Planck’s constant, and so on) appear written into the fundamental laws of physics, and that if these constants were to change by even the tiniest amount the physical universe would not be possible, has led some people to assert that these constants were set by a creator divinity. This is a fundamentally untestable assertion, and I don’t spend any time ridiculing it; I’m actually neutral on whether or not it’s true, and have no opinion one way or the other on the existance of such a creator divinity.

But here’s the thing. Assertions of empirical fact are notthe same as assertions of spiritual belief, and when you make an assertion of empirical fact, now you’re playing with the big boys.

When you play with the big boys, you play by big-boy rules. When you make an assertion of empirical fact, now everything changes. Assertions of empirical fact do not get or deserve automatic respect. Assertions of empirical fact are evaluated by a ruthless meritocracy. They live or die by only one criterion–how closely they match the physical universe. All assertions of empirical fact start with zero credibility; they gain respect by matching observations of the physical universe, and lose respect by failing to match observations of the physical universe.

Some assertions of empirical fact are rooted in, or motivated by, spiritual beliefs. And sometimes, those who hold spiritual beliefs seek to have it both ways.

In the article Snake Oil and Holy Water, Richard Dawkins (a hero of mine) lays it out pretty succintly. Religion and spirituality, we’re told, inhabits one sphere of human thought, and observation of the physical world occupies another; you can not judge spiritual beliefs by scientific principles. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But what happens is that people who advocate spiritual beliefs make assertions about the physical world–assertions which, quite often, turn out to be wrong–and then when called on it, retreat into “You can’t judge me! You can’t tell me I’m wrong! You must respect my beliefs; spirituality is not the same thing as science!”

You can’t have it both ways. If you want to talk about spiritual beliefs, you can’t make assertions of empirical fact. If you do make assertions of empirical fact, you can’t then retreat into spirituality when you are called on any errors or fallacies in those assertions of empirical fact. If you want to play with the big boys, you have to play by big-boy rules.

The rambling New Age missive to which I replied looks like a statement of spirituality, but it’s not. It’s a statement of empirical facts–many of them, in fact. It asserts that on such-and-such a date and time, the world will be exposed to a beam of ultraviolet light, and that this light will originate with “the fifth dimension.” We have detection equipment capable of responding to ultraviolet light; if this assertion is true, it’s easy to test. It asserts that this beam of ultraviolet light is “highly charged,” which betrays a profound ignorance of the nature of ultraviolet light; photons have no rest mass and no charge, and thus a beam of light can not be “highly charged” by definition. It asserts that this beam of light will begin at the same time in all time zones and last for seventeen hours–an impossibility, as wolfger pointed out, because all the time zones span twenty-four hours.

And, most remarkably, it makes assertions about the way this beam of light will affect human beings, claiming that its presence will affect human behavior in very dramatic ways.

I have written before about the tendency of the human brain, when faced with a new idea, to fail open and default to accepting the idea rather than challenging the idea. This is a tendency I think it pays to be aware of, and I have developed the habit of “watchdogging” myself whenever I read an article or hear a story or see a new idea. I’ve sort of set up an informal hierarchy, which I use to determine how much credence should be accorded some new idea.

At the top of the hierarchy are ideas which agree with current theory, are supported by a large amount of empirical evidence, and are consistent with existing models of the way the universe works. Such an idea is not necessarily true, of course; but it is more likely to be true than ideas that don’t meet these criteria. It is true that existing models are incomplete and existing knowledge of the universe does not extend to everything; however, that does not invalidate these criteria. When Einstein came along and constructed new models which seemed to make Newton’s laws of motion obsolete, it’s important to understand that Einstein’s models extended our understanding into situations where Newton’s models don’t apply, but that Einstein’s models and Newton’s models make the same prediction when applied to, say, what happens when you throw a baseball. And they have to, because we already know that Newton’s models are smack-on when applied to baseballs. If someone comes along and proposes new laws of motion, they damn well better agree with Newton about what happens if I throw a baseball, too, because I’ve already seen that Newton gets it right. His model describes reality; any model that disagrees with his, doesn’t.

Next level down comes ideas that seek to extend current ideas or to propose new systems where current ideas don’t apply, but which are unsupported by empirical evidence; or ideas which are consistent with current models and current understanding, but for which evidence does not exist. The notion that there is life on other planets is a great example. It violates no laws of physics, it is consistent with our current working knowledge of the physical world, and indeed it seems quite likely given our current knowledge of the physical world–but it’s unproven.

Working farther and farther down the chain means getting closer and closer to ideas that are absurd or ridiculous on their face. Ideas which are not internally consistent, ideas which disagree radically with current knowledge about the physical world, ideas which make predictions radically at odds with observations of the physical world, and ideas which do not follow from their own premises are all ideas which do not deserve initial respect. The more an idea diverges from empirical observations of the physical world, the more an idea contradicts its own premises or its own assumptions, the harder that idea had better work if it wants to be accepted. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Eventually, an idea becomes so absurd that I feel confident in ridiculing it. And, sensibilities of the woman on the mailing list aside, ideas so absurd, so internally inconsistent, and so far out of line with the physical world as this New Age nonsense about ultraviolet light and divine governments deserve ridicule. This idea made statements of empirical fact that were manifestly untrue, as evidenced by the fact that it is now October 23rd and the world looks pretty much the way it did on October 17th, save for a few small details–the number of people dead in Iraq, the number of days left until George Bush is no longer in office, the number of times I’ve mistakenly left my cell-phone charger somewhere.

Ideas do not deserve automatic respect. There is no shame in calling “bullshit” on bullshit ideas. In fact, I submit that calling bullshit is the duty of anyone anywhere interested in truth. Truth comes only from the open and vigorous competition of ideas, and ideas which do not match reality in this meritocracy give way to ideas that do. We advance as a species by separating wheat from chaff, by testing ideas for weakness and inconsistency and discarding those that don’t measure up. An assertion of empirical fact that matches observed reality is superior to an assertion that does not; respect is earned, not automatic. Spiritual ideas exist in a sandbox, isolated from objective reality and not subject to the same rules as statements of empirical fact–but as soon as they leave that sandbox, they better be prepared to compete on their own merits, and that means being subject to inspection, and to scorn and ridicule.

Disrespectful? You bet. If you want my respect, you have to earn it. Learning about time zones is a good place to start.