Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Extraordinary Claims of Statists

Carl Sagan popularized the phrase, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Skeptics of pseudoscience, paranormal activity, deities, snake-oil salesmen, psychics, Loch Ness Monster, and leprechauns often use it to explain to people that the onus is on the person making a claim so extraordinary that it exceeds everything we know of the natural world and the universe. So a person claiming, “I have a dog” requires far less evidence than a person claiming “I have a dragon.” In the former claim we all know people who own dogs, we know that dogs exist empirically and so when Bob shows us a picture of a dog we can justifiably believe him. The latter claim requires more evidence because there has never been evidence for dragons existing and it is incredibly likely that a fire breathing monster would have been seen and reported at some point in the past century if it exists, so when Bob shows us a picture of his dragon we cannot justifiably believe he's telling the truth knowing that photos are easy to photoshop.

Theists are people who believe that a god or god(s) exist. There are many theists and there is no evidence for a magical man in the sky. Any good Christian apologist will rightly tell you, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Of course the problem with this logic is that it does not justify a belief. There is also no evidence of absence for every imaginary thing including leprechauns, unicorns, Santa, Elvis escaping death and fairies and yet even though these entities cannot be disproven people who take these claims seriously are largely considered naive children. I’m going to skip technical philosophical details here and assume that you intuitively get why belief in every made-up claim is not justified even though it may be impossible to disprove the claim. Many beliefs that we consider ridiculous and far-fetched today were at one time taken as reasonable stories and explanations to explain the natural world, and there are many beliefs that are commonly accepted today that will be looked at with equal scorn and ridicule as future generations wonder how we could be so ignorant. Is there a way to predict which beliefs are congruent with reality and which beliefs are simply made up stories to be scoffed at by future humans? Yes there is.

Science has yielded incredible results because it is a method for aligning beliefs with reality. When beliefs are aligned with reality amazing innovation, creativity, and flourishing occur. One of the ways that science works is that it sets up a process to destroy dogma. A scientist starts with a set of beliefs, a hypothesis, and figures out what evidence would destroy that belief and then sets up experiments to try and destroy that belief. If the scientist is unable to find a way to falsify his hypothesis and other scientists are likewise unable to falsify their hypothesis then the hypothesis becomes absorbed as a rational belief about the natural world. One way to tell if you have any dogma in your life is to examine a cherished set of beliefs and ask yourself the scientific question, "What evidence could be presented that would falsify my beliefs and cause me to revise or discard them?" If you can't think of any evidence that would change your mind about a belief then you have likely discovered and area of dogma in your life and are in danger of being judged by future generations as just one more of the ignorant herd.

Beliefs matter because they inform behavior and not all irrational beliefs are created equal, some lead to empirically more destructive behavior than others. Jainism for example has non-violence as a central tenant of their religion to the point where they strain water with cheese cloth to avoid accidentally drinking tiny insects. Jihad on the other hand is a violent tenant of Islam and the results speak for themselves. Steve Weinberg once said, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I would argue that there is a far more insidious and dangerous religion than Islam that the large majority of the world still subscribe to and that is Statism.

Statism is the belief that governments should govern individuals and the result of this belief system has resulted in a staggering death toll in the past century. Statists make a number of extraordinary implicit claims whether they realize it or not. My goal here is to  outline some of the claims and the evidence that could be presented to support those beliefs and what evidence actually exists that falsify those beliefs.

Political Borders 

Some borders do exist in material reality; the beach is a border between land and ocean, skin is a border between a human and his environment, a ploughed field has a border where churned dirt meets undisturbed soil etc. When statists say something like, "We need to control immigration" they are making a series of implicit claims about the nature of reality. 1) That there exists a line that is real or imaginary that separates 'us' and 'them', and 2) that by virtue of birth or citizenship process they have an ownership claim over territory enclosed by this line that allows them, among other things, to use force to prohibit individuals born on the other side of the line from moving across that line.

Consequences of this belief:
Men in costumes with guns and badges stand guard at this imaginary line ready to kill those who would cross without permission of the owners. Papers are issued to identify those that are allowed to cross the imaginary line from those that aren't. Individuals are required to submit to all manner of indecent search and interrogation while crossing these lines. Individuals looking to acquire or homestead property on the other side of the imaginary line are controlled by the use of force supported by the opinion of others living inside the imaginary line. Most individuals within this imaginary line consider themselves 'us' and people outside the line 'them' allowing depersonalization of violence to the point where dropping bombs and staging military invasions against 'them' evokes no reaction or even a positive reaction, the opposite of how these same people would feel if a military dropped a bomb killing women and children within their imaginary lines. People within these borders believe they have some ownership claim over each others property and virgin undisturbed resources that reside within these borders by virtue of being born.

Evidence that would support belief in political borders: 
Empirical evidence such as visual, satellite or arial imagery that reveals this line as a physical line in material reality. Preferably multiple lines of empirical evidence by eyewitnesses, documents, photography, or videography etc. that show the line to be the edge of property obtained by an individual or group of individuals through biological means by mixing labour and virgin resources to create something that did not exist before and that nobody else can make a legitimate ownership claim too. That the owner of this piece of land did voluntarily transfer ownership of this property through trade or agreement or contract to the people who now make claim over it. If all this evidence exists then people who live on this land may have a legitimate moral claim to use force to prohibit other people from damaging or stealing their property, but they still have all their work ahead of them explaining how they are justified in using violence to prohibit travel from point A to point B.

Evidence that actually exists:
Multiple historical accounts exist that explain how borders came to be in the imagination of people that live within them. A group of men a long time ago used violence to stake an illegitimate claim of ownership over that which was not theirs and settlers in this territory who were used to rulers making ownership claims readily bought into the new paradigm of democracy where the illusion of control gave them the idea that they had an ownership stake in that which did not belong to them. This narrative was passed down through generations and so now it is accepted by all who live within the imaginary line that it belongs to them and that they have a legitimate ownership claim over territory that is hundreds or thousands of miles removed from where they live and actually own property.

Democracy

This is the belief that engaging in activities like popularity contests (voting for political representatives) gives an individual the right to impose their opinion through force on other peoples body and their property. To support democracy one must have the belief that those individuals that win these popularity contests have the right to initiate force against individuals, a right which other individuals do no possess. Belief in democracy requires holding two seemingly contradictory principles; 1) that politicians get their right to initiate force delegated to them from voters and 2) that citizens do not have the right to initiate force. Note that belief in democracy also carries a requisite belief in borders, in that individuals who do not live on the 'us' side of the imaginary line do not have binding opinions.

Consequences of belief in democracy:
The consequences of this belief are broad and far reaching. Billions of people worldwide participate in the religious sacraments of democracy including voting and rallying in ecstatic congregations, singing hymns to the state (national anthems), learning obedience to power and reverence for the state in state run schools (public schools), worshiping sacred symbols (ie saluting flags), quoting sacred documents (ie. constitutions and charters). Individuals are coerced through threat of kidnapping and forcible confinement, or death if they resist with equal and opposite force, to hand over a large portion of the product of their labor to individuals representing the state as well they are prohibited from using their bodies and their own property in ways that harm no other person based solely on the rules imposed by individuals who have won popularity contests. Euphemistic language twists brains into thinking up is down, taxation is different than theft, immigration is different than a person moving from one place to another, national defence is invading and bombing backwater countries, the state is something that exists in material reality.

Evidence that would support the belief in democracy: 
That political borders exist and are legitimate.  Empirical evidence that winning a popularity contest colloquially referred to as 'the vote' physically/biologically creates changes in the winner that makes them something other than a human ape, something better with an exempt moral status akin to a deity. That the opinion of a tipping point of people changes an individual persons biology (a politician, or state enforcer) to something extra-human allowing them to be excluded from the very moral prohibitions they hold all humans too such as; violence, theft, forcible confinement, kidnapping, and counterfeiting. FMRI's images of brain changes, DNA sequencing, EEG tracings, are all lines of evidence that could be presented to demonstrate that a politician or state enforcer has deistic properties that would elevate their moral status. Once deistic status is confirmed, however, the state apologists still have all their work ahead of them explaining how deities imposing an involuntary relationship on people is ethical. Are gods exempt from ethics? Is everything they do considered ethical?

Evidence that exists in reality:
No documented cases of extra-human physiological changes occurring to popularity contest winners have been reported at the time of this writing. All biological evidence seems to point out that politicians and state enforcers are still in fact human apes; they use the washroom, eat food, get sick, die etc. Further evidence that they are human apes comes from the psychological sciences that predict what will happen when an individual human is recognized by a social group as having extra-human status; corruption, delusions of grandeur, megalomania, psychopathy, increased use of violence to solve problems etc.

Non-Belief

Atheism is simply non-belief in the claims that theists make. It is the position that theists have the burden of proof. Anarchism is essentially non-belief in violence and human ownership. It is the position that those who would make claims of power have the burden of proof. The onus is not on the non-believer to disprove extraordinary claims, the onus is on the claimant to provide evidence. The religious often confuse this point and ask the non-believer to explain how the universe came to be without a magical man or how the roads are going to be built without creating magical moral exemptions that allow certain people to steal what is not theirs. The intellectually honest answer is, "I don't know and it doesn't matter." It doesn't matter because atheists and anarchists are not proposing anything other than non-belief we don't have to provide evidence for our non-belief in extraordinary claims.

Everybody is a non-believer in most extraordinary claims. Just think of the sheer number of claims and stories people have concocted over the millennia. There have been tens of thousands of gods and other supernatural and magical entities made up over the years and nobody believes in all of them. We are usually able to apply some amount of rational thinking when it comes to all the extraordinary claims present in other cultures and we don't often adopt beliefs from outside our culture, on the other hand we are all relatively blind to the irrationality inherent in our own culture and have no problem adopting irrational beliefs that comfort us.

Finding yourself unable to believe the things that keep you connected with community, family, and identity leaves one feeling adrift and isolated. I was once a Christian with dreams of becoming a pastor and when I came out as an atheist I lost the community I had once found connection and comfort in. Pursuing the truth is not for cowards and it is the only way to leave the world a better place for our children. Those who are brave enough to confront truth in their own lives have a duty to help others go through this emotionally painful process. It is time for us to mature past the superstitions handed down from our more primitive ancestors.

More than convincing people to discard irrational belief in god(s) and government my hope is to convince people to discover truth in their own life. Congruence with reality is necessary for growth and virtue to be unleashed and learning the process is of aligning ones beliefs with reality is far more important than simply subscribing to somebody else's conclusions even if they are atheism or anarchism. My experience is that beyond the pain, isolation and withdrawal symptoms of discarding comforting beliefs is incredible beauty, fulfillment, health and flourishing. The questions I continually ask myself are: Why do I believe what I believe? What evidence would cause me to discard or revise my beliefs?

I know what evidence will cause me to believe in god(s) and government and Santa Claus. Do you know what evidence will change your mind?


Further Reading


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