Movie Friday: James Randi at TED

There’s maybe 5 of you who read this blog who don’t know who James Randi is. This explanation is for those of you who think he’s just a guy with really high pants (really high pants… WTF James?) James “The Amazing” Randi is a former magician who has devoted his life to promoting rationality and exposing claims of supernatural ability. He has an educational foundation that, among many other things, offers a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate their supernatural abilities under controlled conditions. So far, no takers.

But since I talked about what we did with John Edward, pseudo-psychic vampire ghoul fraud, when he visited Vancouver last week, I thought I’d show you some of James:

For fun, he also takes on homeopathy. CFI Vancouver is starting to talk about how we can address the issue of homeopathy being sold as real medicine in the coming weeks.

So there you go, you 5 people. The Amazing Randi.

Okay, okay, okay, let’s see Randi bust some asshole in front of a live studio audience:

Being creative without a Creator

A friend sent me a link to a 20-minute talk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the novel Eat, Pray, Love. I’m not a big fan of the book (I got through about 25 eye-rolling pages before giving up and reaching for the remote), but I am a big fan of (my friend) Claire, so I gave it a chance. I was right with her up until 8:30 when she started in on “creative mystery” and an external, supernatural source for creativity, and then the rest was invocations of magic and self-indulgent privileged pap, the likes to which Jim Carrey would be a fervent subscriber.

I do not know if Claire’s intent was to murder my neurons; I doubt that she was trying to lobotomize me through the intarwebz. She did ask me to write about some of my thoughts on the creative process from the perspective of an atheist. I suppose I have some claims to qualifications in this regard, given that I do spend the non-science half of my life playing and creating music. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this subject, but first I want to address some of the themes that came up in Ms. Gilbert’s talk, which is available below:

Is suffering necessary for creativity?

A commenter on my strangely-popular “I am not my ideas” post from a few months ago brought this up. Some of the greatest artists of all time (think Van Gogh, Beethoven, Vonnegut, the list goes on) have suffered, and from their suffering came their genius. The image of the tormented artist is so common as to have become almost completely cliché. Douglas Adams satirized this phenomenon in his Hitchhiker’s Guide series, in which time travel inadvertently robs the galaxy of one of its greatest works of art by making the artist happy. Of course, we have to remember that Douglas Adams was a creative genius, and was not particularly unhappy. Nor, by all accounts, were Bach, Shakespeare, da Vinci, John Lennon, this list goes on as well. While suffering can yield insight that can bring creativity forth (and in my experience it is much easier to write albums when you’re sad than when everything’s awesome – just ask Matthew Sweet), it is not necessary to suffer in order to bring forth great works.

Is the supernatural the source of creativity?

Ms. Gilbert spends some time talking about daemons or geniuses, supernatural embodiments of inspiration that are the conduits between the artist and the divine. As with all supernatural agents of causality, there’s no evidence for the existence of faeries (which, to her credit, Gilbert admits). Being a musician, I can testify that inspiration does seem to come from nowhere. I’m sure that other artists and musicians have a much more palpable experience of inspiration than I do (things kind of just pop into my head, rather than being overcome by a ghost that demands me to have a pencil in my hand). However, given the diversity of ways in which inspiration strikes people, and the fact that it hits some people more often than others, and that to all appearances it strikes at random, it’s safe to say that inspiration is not likely caused by a supernatural force for which there is no evidence.

Subjective experience vs. objective reality

Our brains make a fundamental error when it comes to subjective and psychosomatic experiences. Because we interpret the outside world through our senses, we confuse sensory experiences with reality. So when, after meditating for an hour, we feel connected to an external loving presence, that does not constitute evidence that that presence exists in reality. Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of value in subjective experience. Feeling connected to the world, or to nature, or to your fellow human beings can bring you a sense of happiness and motivate you to be a better person. However, to make the leap from feeling something and then assuming that it exists requires non-subjective proof. To wit, just because artists feel an external force driving them to create doesn’t mean that there are muses or daemons or disembodied geniuses that explain it.

Gilbert would like us to return to the days of magical thinking, in which we attribute inspiration to outside ethereal forces. Reality is all well and good, she seems to say, but we’d feel a lot better if we pretended there were invisible spirits whispering in our ears. If we screw up, well it’s the fault of the spirits. When we succeed, attribution to the spirits will prevent us from getting swollen egos. Who cares if it’s all a lie if it makes us feel good? You can probably tell I’m not a big fan of self-deception, even when it’s practical. It might comfort us to lie to ourselves, but the truth is important. It enables us to deal with each other in a way that reflects the world around us, and prevents us from endangering each other through misinterpretations of reality.

So where do I think inspiration comes from?

There’s a common criticism of skeptics and scientific skepticism that we want to strip the majesty and beauty out of life. Apparently, to some people, understanding how something works makes it less beautiful. Of course, having no idea how something works makes you sound like a complete moron, but that may not be the worst thing in the world. That being said, I still reject the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. I’ve known that stars were inconceivably large nuclear reactions happening in space billions of kilometers away since I was a little kid – none of that makes a starlit night any less beautiful. I’ve known that music is caused by vibrations in air resonating tiny bones within the inner ear causing neuron activity since I was in elementary school – none of that makes me enjoy Beethoven’s 6th symphony any less. I’ve known that there are evolutionary roots for familial love since I was in university – none of that makes me love my parents any less. Understanding the processes behind the world around us can lead to deeper and more beautiful understanding of reality.

We know that the brain is incredibly complex. It adapts to novel stimuli, regulates an incredible number of processes simultaneously, all below the level of what it’s most famous for – conscious thought. It is entirely possible that the way some brains are wired permits a type of lateral thinking that pulls together disperse thought processes that come together to form music. The phenomenon known as synesthesia – wherein sensory input of one type is interpreted as another type (seeing sounds, hearing smells) – certainly supports this conjecture. Some brains might just be better-suited to creativity than others, and ‘inspiration’ may ‘strike’ these brains more often. The arrival of such a strike would be experienced in a variety of different ways. This would also explain why creativity is often (but not necessarily) associated with poor mental health – an atypical brain chemistry and structure will have broad-reaching effects.

Without intending to, Elizabeth Gilbert has paralleled my idea of separating one’s ideas from his/her sense of self worth. I have written songs I’m proud of; I’ve written some stinkers that even I don’t like myself (sadly, far more of the latter than the former). I don’t beat myself up for writing crappy songs, or having crappy performances, in the same way I don’t get a swollen head when something I’ve written makes people cheer. It feels good, but I know that it’s not about me, it’s about the song. I don’t think the song was floating around in the ether, waiting for me to pull it in – that view, if anything, is more arrogant than being glad that my brain popped it into my head. I’m not my ideas in the same way that I’m not my songs – I’m just happy to be able to use my brain to say things in a way that people will listen.

So while I think Ms. Gilbert has the right conclusions in thinking that musicians shouldn’t live and die by their success, and that a rejection of the song or book or painting is not the passage of judgment on who the artist is as a person, she spuriously tries to invoke magic and daemons to make this happen. There are better, non-magical, non-woo-woo ways of accomplishing that goal.

TL;DR – Artistic inspiration can be explained through natural processes, and does not require appeals to woo-woo to exist. The non-magical nature of inspiration doesn’t make it any less wonderful or special.

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Movie Friday: Kavita Ramdas

Since I gave the stage to the ladies yesterday, I thought I’d keep the ball rolling with this excellent talk from Kavita Ramdas at TED:

Kavita masterfully separates cultural traditions from religious reasoning in this talk, in which she highlights three specific contributions that women have made – exploiting cultural expression to enact social change. It’s a sobering reminder to me that while I can rail against sexism and talk about equal rights until I am blue in the face (or, I guess, navy blue), there is another piece that is needed:

“…women make change, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. They have to negotiate; they have to subvert tradition that once silenced them in order to give voice to new aspirations. And they need allies from their community.”

I promise that I will continue to be as much an ally as I can, and I hope that you will join me in helping make positive change for all people, regardless of sex.

Movie Friday: Sam Harris at TED

A common defense of religious belief and practice is that without religion (and the teachings of the holy books), there would be no morality. In a historical, practical sense this is at least partially true. Morals were dictated and enforced by religious authority, and justified on religious grounds – God says not to steal, therefore we will punish stealing. However, it is important to recognize that just because something has worked in the past, that does not make it true, nor does it mean we must continue to use it when we have much better alternatives. As Brian Lychenhaun noted in his presentation that I talked about on Wednesday, not only is it possible to make moral decisions without relying on religious teachings, we do it already. I would argue (and, I think, so would Brian) that it is in fact better to make moral decisions that are informed by critical thinking and logic rather than relying on a mistranslated text written thousands of years ago that invoke, as their reasoning, an entity whose existence cannot be proven.

Author Sam Harris makes a similar argument that science can inform our moral decisions. He does so at TED, which is a lecture series given by prominent scientists, authors and thinkers. If you haven’t watched TED videos before, you should. I promise not to make every Movie Friday a TED lecture, but they will show up with regularity because they’ve got some really fantastic ideas. Anyway, check out the video:

I am with Sam most of the way. I think he fails to make a solidly coherent point – I’m sure he has one, but he seems to dance around it a bit. The central thesis seems to be that values reduce to facts, and we can examine and test the truth of those facts. Knowledge of those facts will help inform the decisions we make. I’m with him only part of the way. He uses “values” in a more colloquial way than I do. He seems to be talking about decisions and policies whereas I see values as the set of emotional and mental prescripts that underpin those decisions – being anti-abortion is not a “value”, it is a position that is driven by the underlying emotional opinion that human beings come into existence at the moment of conception. Of course, that value can be examined by science, but there needs to first be a definition of what a “human” is. However, the take-away message (or at least the one that I took away) is that we can use science and the scientific method (logic applied to agreed-upon first principles, verified by observation) to answer moral questions. We do not need religion, as religious texts are not comprehensive enough to give reliable answers in the face of novel ethical dilemmas.

I also particularly love the section where he throws away the tired liberal doctrine of “who are we to say that another culture/practice/person is wrong?” He turns it right back on its head and asks “who are we not to say?” We can establish standards for what is right and wrong, based on an agreed-upon first principle of ‘good’. We can test the value of that ‘goodness’ through logic and observation – if adherence to scripture is ‘the good’, what effect will that have? Is that a desirable effect for human survival and social stability? Harris offers “human happiness” as an idea for ‘the good’, which is the basic principle held by secular humanists. Sure it has its flaws but it is far superior (for humans, who are the ones making the decisions) to any religious exhortation to please the invisible YahwAlladdha.

I also love the lines that he goes out on:

“We can no more respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well-being than we can respect or tolerate vast differences in the notion of how disease spreads or the safety standards of large buildings or airplanes. We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important questions in human life; and to do that, we have to admit these questions have answers.”

Just fantastic.