Monday, 28 December 2009

2009 (Part II)

2009 began, for Rachel and I, in a five star mansion house in the Brecon Beacons, snow all around, the world's most exciting shower in the bathroom. It was a peaceful, relaxing start to the year, but it was really a calm sandwiched between a large amount of discontent. I was in a job I wasn't enjoying and, as a result, I wasn't enjoying living in London. This upset me greatly, as moving to London was supposed to be a big adventure, a big step up in life. It backfired and I felt stuck. Every weekend I was leaving the city because I wasn't happy there. But not spending time in the area I had adopted also upset me, as it meant I wasn't meeting and befriending people or making the most of local facilities. This obviously made things worse. It wasn't long before I was commuting on a Monday morning from Birmingham to Kings Cross. It was surprisingly easy and far preferable.

I didn't write much early this year, certainly little that was personal. Anything I did tried to be positive, but mostly I didn't write about me because I didn't feel I had anything of any interest to say. Instead, I wrote about other topics and bigger things - the Simon Singh libel case, for example. But in doing so, and because I was largely unhappy, these causes came across more as rants. I was told this, and also realised it myself, and tried to back off. Besides, other people were doing a better job than I was. These causes haven't gone away, and I still appreciate their importance, but now that I feel happier I can hopefully approach them differently. I set up a second blog to provide a platform for this. The Sense About Science campaign that began as a result of Singh's (and others') case has since expanded, combining with English PEN and Index on Censorship to form the National Petition for Libel Reform ("Free Speech Is Not For Sale"). I support it, but I shan't rant or push you to sign. If you are interested I simply refer you to, which explains what is going on, and why it is felt that action is needed.

Meanwhile, I distanced myself from the Skeptic community that introduced me to the campaign. The idea is that Skeptics think rationally, so they are wary of woo therapies and claims, and this is an important skill. But the Skeptic crowd, intentionally or not, seems, in my view, to have latched on to the 'science=atheism' fallacy, and displays more than a little arrogance about certain causes, often before looking at any evidence. The appropriateness of scepticism is also context-specific, as we have seen with Climategate. I felt uneasy with the impression given that Skeptics ought to be atheists. I am not one, and I'd rather disassociate myself from a crowd that assumes this of me. The problems with Skeptics are being discussed at several interesting websites and blogs (see here, here and here), and I direct you to those. I believe that it is important to adopt a rational viewpoint, but that it is equally acceptable to have a faith. There are different philosophies in this world, and it is wrong to use one exclusively and dismiss the others, especially if we don't understand them. Science and religion, for example, are not mutually exclusive, but the philosophy of one cannot be used to explain the other.

While all this was happening I was making big decisions about the future. It prompted some self-evaluation and made me post some surprisingly candid posts (for example, Encore une fois). The big decisions all happened at once. I had to leave London and my job. I had to go to somewhere where I was more comfortable. At the same time, I realised more than anything that I wanted to marry Rachel, my rock in those hard times. So I handed in my notice, bought a plane ticket to Australia, went on holiday for 7 weeks and, while there, got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. I've not told this story or any anecdotes around it because I'm saving it for the wedding speech, but suffice to say, she said yes.

Things since then have been a whole other realm of contentedness. We both live in Birmingham, although not together. I've started a PhD, which is obviously not an easy thing to do, but the atmosphere, topic, team and work style suits me far better than before. My boss complimented me the other day, even though I haven't got an experiment to work yet. In fact, much has gone wrong - in the first week alone I cut myself, burnt myself, grated myelf and came into unnervingly close proximity with a notorious carcinogen. But that positivity from my boss was not something I had been used to in the past year and a half, and it meant a tremendous deal.

My happiness is, I think, starting to show here, in the style in which I have been writing. So I'm sure that 2010 will see this site flourish with stupid anecdotes and whimsy, in the way that it was always intended.

I wish you a happy New Year and hope that whatever problems you are having will be resolved in the immediate future.


Anonymous said...

On the skeptic/atheist point, yes a number of skeptics are atheist but it isn't a prerequisite. A number of respected scientists and philosophers (Descartes, Bacon, Galileo and Newton to name but some) have held religious beliefs. One is certainly sympathetic to the other but the two can be compatible to some degree.

Skepticism concerns the pursuit of evidence, rather than immediate doubt. It involves the suspension of judgement until a claim or evidence can be assessed, rather than denial or refusal. It is a method of thought which reduces subjectivity and bias in belief, much like the scientific method is a method of investigation which hopefully reduces of subjectivity and bias in discovery. Both methods require enquiry and criticism, and in that sense, skepticism is a natural corollary of science.

The skeptical method of thought assists in the formation of schemata which define our cognition and behaviour, so a skeptical method of thought tends to skepticism as a belief system. The way in which skeptical and theistic beliefs are reconciled, depends on the reasons an individual holds those beliefs. It could be interesting to question how your beliefs evolved and examine why you believe skepticism or theistic belief are important.

I'm particularly intrigued by your statement that “I believe that it is important to adopt a rational viewpoint, but that it is equally acceptable to have a faith”. You suggest that rationalism is important but write about faith in terms of acceptability. Both are equally important and should be equally acceptable. I agree that dogmatic skepticism is unpleasant and destructive. There are always individuals who hold particularly aggressive and dogmatic views within any field of thought, and the London skeptical scene is no exception. A respected agnostic speaker gave a talk at a popular London meeting a couple of years ago and was met with one of the most surprisingly aggressive Q&A sessions I can recall from any of those meetings. I'm quite involved with the London/UK skeptical groups and self-identify as a skeptic and an atheist, but I understand your reservation. The method of thought and the social aspects are distinct, though.

Ultimately, the thoughts we create and the facts we uncover are based upon assumptions at a fundamental level. We observe and experience the world and its properties in qualia, never directly. In essence, all cognition, belief and experience involves faith, so to deny the role of faith within skepticism or science is arrogant.

Anonymous said...

And congratulations for the engagement. Forget scepticism, love matters.

Simon said...

Hi, thanks for your comments and apologies for the delay in replying.

I take heart with you saying "you suggest that rationalism is important but write about faith in terms of acceptability. Both are equally important and should be equally acceptable." I think that's a great way of looking at it and I hope to follow your approach.

I understand your argument, and agree with your definitions of what scepticism is. But my impression has been, and maybe this is influenced by my beliefs (and therefore bias), that in real life the skeptic community is instead erring on the side of cynicism, rather than skepticism, at the moment. It may just be that that is the impression given by certain figureheads, who have more influence than others, whereas the community as a whole is much more open. It is hard to tell, but for whatever reason, despite how scepticism should present itself, I felt uneasy and typecast.

I suppose there are two recent examples in which I feel the community has done itself harm in this regard: one is the 10:23 mass 'overdose', which I consider to be an exercise in preaching to the converted, i.e. to satisfy fellow skeptics. I predict that to those outside of the movement, such an act was perceived as, at best, a folly and at worst a display of arrogance. Second was the 'Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People', talks which I am fascinated by and would very much like to see. But, despite the content of the shows, that title really does scream something rotten and I wouldn't be surprised if it pissed off a few people.

I very much like your conclusion "In essence, all cognition, belief and experience involves faith, so to deny the role of faith within skepticism or science is arrogant."

I loved being part of the skeptics crowd. I hope that I am wrong with how I feel it has changed. Here's hoping for a sensible 2010!

And thank you for the congratulations. Much appreciated. Be sure to revisit where I'll undoubtedly be writing more on the topic!