Posts Tagged ‘Rationalism’

Why I like this Harry Potter fan fiction novel

June 9, 2018

I never read the original Harry Potter novels, but I have been completely engrossed in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fan fiction novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky published on-line, chapter by chapter as it was written, from 2010 to 2015.

The premise is that Harry Potter’s foster-father was not the vile Vernon Dursley, as in the original novels, but Michael Verres-Evans, an intelligent and kindly Oxford biochemistry professor, who encouraged Harry to read science and science fiction.

Consequently young Harry is a committed rationalist, who regards the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft not as a refuge from an unkind Muggle world, but as a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be overcome.

He also is a genius, with the intellect of a Richard Feynman and the ambition of a Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the emotional maturity of an 11-year-old boy.

His plan is to use the methods of science to unlock the secrets of magic, then to combine the powers of both to “optimize” the world on rational principles  As a character remarks, this is not far from wanting to become a Dark Lord.

Young Harry escapes the control of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall and allows himself to be mentored by the cynical Professor Quirinus Quirrell, while trying to wean fellow student Draco Malfoy from unthinking malice and Hermione Granger from unthinking goodness.

There are many adventures, in which young Harry seemingly triumphs by applying his intelligence and the rational method.  He becomes impatient with Hogwarts’ witches and wizards for failing to understand cognitive bias, Bayes’s Theorem, game theory, effective altruism and the other principles of rationality.

Then, in the end, he discovers that he has completely misunderstood his situation and brought himself, Hogwarts and Magical Britain to the brink of doom.  But he thinks his way out of his plight at the very last minute and saves the day, although not without cost.


The passing scene – October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015

Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us by Cass R. Sunstein for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

The TPP has a provision that many will love to hate: ISDS.  What is it, and why does it matter? by Todd Tucker for the Washington Post.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

Hillary Clinton says she does not support Trans Pacific Partnership by the PBS Newshour.

Q: Is the Obama Administration Complicit With Slavery? A: Yes by Eric Loomis for Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Slavery in Malaysia is overlooked for the sake of the TPP.

Houston is a lot more tolerant of immigrants than Copenhagen is on Science Codex.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Science Saves: The Young Iraqis Promoting Evolutionary Theory and Rational Thought to Save Iraq by Marwan Jabbar for Niqash: briefings from inside and across Iraq.  (Hat tip to Informed Comment)

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals by Tim Flannery for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Is the chilli pepper friend or foe? by William Kremer for BBC World Service.  (Hat tip to Jack)

On not believing in the supernatural

February 1, 2014

I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits or the occult.   But I thought The Boy Who Was Possessed Remembers and The Devil and Latoya Ammons posts and comment threads from Rod Dreher’s web log were extremely interesting.  They consist of first-person accounts by people, including freethinkers and rationalists, of seemingly supernatural phenomena they couldn’t otherwise explain.  I think Dreher is right to say that paranormal experiences are much more common than most people are willing to let on.

When I encounter something I can’t explain, my reaction is to say that this is something I can’t explain, and suspend judgment.   Some statistician said that a million things happen to the average human being in the course of a month (I don’t know the basis for this) and therefore it would not be surprising if once a month something happened that the odds were a million to one against.  The video above shows that even the highly improbable can be true

Then, too, the ability of human beings to process sensory input into perception of reality is a more complicated process than we realize, and most human cognition takes place below the level of consciousness.  When things emerge into consciousness from our unconscious minds, it can do strange things to our perception.  I have often awakened from strange dreams, and mistaken the dreams for reality until I get my mind together.

Yet, for all this, I admit I don’t have a logical basis for not rejecting the possibility that the supernatural is real.  I believe that everything that happens is either the blind working of natural laws or the actions of sentient beings.   The supernatural, if it exists, would be the working of natural laws and actions of sentient beings that I don’t know about.

The late Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.   Yet what constitutes an extraordinary claim?  And just what kind of extraordinary evidence would satisfy him?  To the vast majority of human beings in history, and billions in the world today, the existence of ghosts and spirits is taken for granted.  Darwin’s theory, quantum theory and string theory would be regarded as the extraordinary claim.

Scientists try to make sense of the universe.  The great wisdom teachers of the world’s great religions try to give meaning to human life.  I think the occult is probably false, and, if true, to be avoided, because, to the extent that the world really is governed by arbitrary and irrational magical forces, it is a waste of time for human beings to try to make sense of life.

A rationalist martyr in India

August 23, 2013

Reason has its martyrs, just as faith does.

Narendra Dabholkar

Narendra Dabholkar

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a brave rationalist who devoted his life to exposing fake faith healers and miracle workers in India, was murdered Tuesday.

His organization, the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Association, offered a prize of 500,000 rupees to any diviner who could prove he or she could summon spirits.

At the time of his death, he was pushing for a law in Maharashtra state outlawing the practice of black magic.  My own belief is that rationalists should restrict themselves to the rational method, and not try to enforce their beliefs through government power.  There is a subtle but important difference between outlawing fraud and outlawing beliefs and practices which can be a mask for fraud.

Dabholkar didn’t see it that way.  He said his proposed law never mentioned God or religion, and did not touch the doctrines of Hinduism or any other religion.  Whatever the merits of that argument, it can be said that he never went outside the law or threatened his opponents with death.

And it also is true that religious believers in India have used the law to suppress rationalist criticism.  Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, fled India to escape arrest for blasphemy because he investigated a weeping statue of Jesus in a Catholic church in Mumbai and concluded it was the result of a plumbing problem.

Dabholkar’s proposed anti-magic law, which was opposed by conservative Hindus, was in fact enacted a few days after his death, but needs approval of Parliament before it can become law.