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Hunt and Ye Shall Find – Pt. 1

June 8, 2010

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Romans 1:20

One of my role models, the awe-inspiring Christopher Hitchens, has said on more than one occasion that one doesn’t become an atheist but rather that a lack of faith is something one discovers about oneself. This would seem to parallel Stephen King’s idea that a writer doesn’t create a story, but discovers it. I’m in no way opposed to this process of establishing facts and ideas. In fact, I totally subscribe to it as one of several valid ways of learning. But in the case of my own skepticism, it doesn’t apply. I didn’t learn that I already was a skeptic, but rather, was saved.

This doesn’t exclude my being predisposed in a skeptical manner. Indeed, I was often skeptical even as a child, intuitively feeling truths that I could not begin to argue at that age. But there was much bullshit and credulity also, which I really had no way of identifying. I had no method of inquiry, and knew nothing about epistemology. But then, a few years ago, came the pivotal moment in the development of my thought process. It wasn’t an epiphany, or some sort of hard-won wisdom from extended meditation. It was more simple than that: a gorilla walked on stage. Or rather, didn’t.

Though there are many people I admire and will often emulate when my own mental resources are found lacking, it was the great Michael Shermer who first managed to straighten me out. In one of his TED Talks he played an ingenious, and slightly cruel, trick on the audience and those of us watching through the TED website. He set the stage by saying that he was going to show the audience a video clip of people passing basket balls to one another. Furthermore, the people passing the basket balls would be divided into two teams; one wearing white shirts and the other wearing black shirts. The goal of the audience was, if I recall correctly, to count the number of times the ball was passed from one person wearing a white shirt to another person wearing a white shirt. He also upped the stakes by saying that one sex did better than the other, which made the misogynist in me squirm and want to focus that much harder. The video started and I proceeded to count. Turns out, the passing of the ball was not the point. The point was that while the video was playing, and the balls were passed around, a guy in a body-sized gorilla suit walked onto the set, danced a bit in front of the camera, and then walked off. When the video was played back again (and oh, it seems like the gorilla bit has since been excised from the TED talk, possibly because it was likely to make the trick useless in the future if it got too viral) and the red herring exposed for what it was, people applauded. I, however was shocked.

It was almost as if I could feel how my brain physically changed with the realisation that my senses, my skills of observation, my assumed skepticism, were useless against what was essentially a totally transparent magic trick. There was a guy in a friggin’ gorilla suit in the middle of my 17″ screen dancing among the white-shirts and I missed him! I didn’t even want to consider the implications of this. So much of my world view fell apart all at once. I started to realise, again through gut-feeling rather than method, that maybe one’s own senses and intuition are the first things one should doubt.

Needless to say, I got the book. And then more books, by writers such as Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins – in no small part thanks to their rise in popularity that, interestingly and completely coincidentally, started around that same time. I learned about the pattern-seeking nature of humans, of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. I also learned that Johnny Walker Black Label is an awesome breakfast, and then quickly unlearned it again when my stomach disagreed (thanks Hitch – I’ll be the first fan to first thank you for changing my life and then punch you in the face tell you off).

I hadn’t been on this road to enlightenment for very long before I had my new-found knowledge and skills put to the test. And I realise now that I’m writing all of this down that if it hadn’t been for the crucial moment of stumbling onto Michael’s TED talk, and my subsequent reading up on and scouring of the web for discussions about these very important issues, then what was to come would have not have gone as well as it did. But, as luck would have it, I was fully prepared for my own forthcoming case-study. And after making theHunter, no argument about watches found in forests or “irreducible complexity” or perceived design/purpose would ever again fail to make me smile. Smugly.

(Continued in Pt. 2)

  1. I’ve been meaning to ask if there ever was a “turning point” like this, but obviously you beat me to the punch. Shermer is on my shelf, and I thought I might continue with him (him or Darwin) after finishing God Is Not Great. Most of all though, I’m glad you’re WRITING again buddy! Big ups.

    • Thanks dude, glad to be writing… I’m afraid this stuff might be a bit too heavy for the average blog reader, but hey, as long as teh smarty people like yourselves read it, I’m glad.

  2. Anders Elfgren permalink

    It started similiarly to me, although for me I think it was the two hour debate between Shermer and Kent Hovind about evolution versus creationism. I couldn’t pinpoint *why* Hovind was wrong at the time, just that his arguments were really silly for some reason.

    Richard Wiseman’s blog posts a lot of interesting illusions. The guy behind the gorilla trick recently did a new version of it, it’s worth trying out.

    I also like this cardtrick:

  3. David Andersson permalink

    The defining moment of the Shermer/Hovind debate is during the Q&A when the question is put to Hovind which single piece of evidence is the most convincing of his theory, and the answer given by Hovind is “the absurdity of the alternative” – essentially admitting there is no evidence. Shermer can rest his case, and the “debate” is over.

    I believe there is a basic difference between people to whom critical thinking comes natural, and those who have to struggle for it. Daniel Dennett talks often and well of how being a good thinker has little to do with being intelligent, as the word is most commonly perceived, or with being logical. Highly educated and obviously very intelligent men can do very stupid things based on nothing but logical reasoning – if the chain of logic is built on a faulty premise. If the reward is believed to outweigh the sacrifice, any act is justified.

    More focus needs to be placed on helping people help themselves, when it comes to thinking. Realizing that you can be fooled is essential. I like to say that being naive is defined as not knowing that you don’t know.

  4. Knut permalink

    This read is probably the best proof of itself. How belief strengthens one’s own perception and believe in what are considered facts. Thanks for sharing, even if that wasn’t the way it was intended.

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  1. Hunt and Ye Shall Find – Pt. 2 « Odious Repeater

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