Hanlon’s Razor and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Christopher-Schaeffer takes oath of office

Christopher Schaeffer Takes Oath of Office

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an allegedly satirical religion which encourages its members to show their commitment to the values of logic and rationality by wearing  colanders on their heads. This action is in general accord with the opinion that Jonathan Swift had of human rationality.

Christopher Schaeffer was elected on to the town council of Pomfret, New York and last January  took his oath of office wearing the aforementioned colander.  There are those that would regard this as a deliberate mockery of the religious and cultural practices of other people.  I would like to refer those people to Hanlon’s Razor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Hanlon’s Razor is a variation on Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony, that says don’t give a complex explanation for something where a less complex explanation fits the known facts. Intentionality is a more complex explanation than non-intentionality, and to interpret an act as malicious is to interpret the harm or offence given as intentional.

Note that Hanlon’s Razor can never lead to certainty, it merely leads to the same place as a kinder law: give others the benefit of the doubt.

Christopher Schaeffer, at least as he explained his beliefs to Hemant Mehta who blogs as The Friendly Atheist,  understood himself to be acting in defense of religious freedom, and wished the same freedom to be extended to those who held different religious beliefs from his own. And in this I am  prepared to believe him.  A satiric belief system is entirely consistent with free speech and if not respect for the views of others, at least respect for their right to hold those views.

Mockery and satire are to a casual glance very similar, but they have very different outcomes. Mockery requires no understanding of the views of the other, and functions to dehumanize and deny voice to those perceived as being different.

The Church of  the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is based on a letter that Bobby Henderson wrote to the Kansas School Board in 2005 protesting against a proposal to teach Intelligent Design as an alternative scientific theory to evolution by natural selection.

He concluded his letter with the following three wishes:

I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (Pastafarianism), and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.

Open Letter to Kansas School Board   Bobby Henderson 2005

I think equal time is too big an allowance for the first and second of these wishes, but apart from that little quibble, I think this is a brilliant idea.

Evidence for the Flying Spaghetti Monster ?

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Pastafarian Holey Scripture represents the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a trickster, operating to deceive the credulous.

What these people don’t understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.

Open Letter to Kansas School Board   Bobby Henderson 2005

And it does require an explanation when a scientist is naive enough to infer, that because carbon dating shows that it is probable that the organic material from which an artefact is made, came from an organism or organisms that died 10,000 years ago; that the artefact is itself 10,000 years old.

In this case  I think it is unreasonable to blame the Noodly  Appendaged  One.  This claim can be dealt with effectively by reference to Hanlon’s Razor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

There is no need to postulate a malicious intentional act by the Spaghetti Monster, this mistake can be understood as a failure on the part of the hypothetical scientist to understand the nature of the process in which he is engaging.

Situations where people systematically interpret or ignore evidence in a way that supports their prior beliefs can be harder to attribute to stupidity; given that the arguments that people make in support of their bias can frequently, although not always, show evidence of a high level of sophistication and intelligence.

Calling this widespread effect Confirmation Bias merely confirms that it happens, it doesn’t explain the mechanism behind it. Neither of course does invoking the Flying Spaghetti Monster as the cause.

The objective of science is to create the simplest possible model of reality consistent with the observable evidence.  This is not because the simplest model is necessarily the most accurate.  It is because it gives a firm base for making predictions, and including greater complexity within the model when evidence arises that this is necessary.

A non-intentional explanation for a phenomenon is a less complex explanation than is an intentional one, therefore these are the kind of explanations that scientists guided by the heuristic mechanism that is Occam’s razor will look for first.  If these mechanisms are potentially sufficient to provide a satisfactory explanation then other more complex explanations will not be sought.

I know that this can cause distress to some Pastafarians who believe that the historical and experimental evidence contained in their ancient scriptures contains sufficient evidence to prove the real existence of His Noodliness.  The problem here is that because Pastifarians have up until recently  been so secretive about their beliefs the provenance of these scriptures is hard to establish, and scientists taking Occam’s Razor as their guide have therefore felt that the simplest explanation is that they are a modern hoax.

The same cannot be said for the Scripture  of the Scientific Creationists.  There is no doubt that their Scriptures are old, and were written by many authors over a significant period of time.  Scientific Creationists are insistent that they  are inerrant and literally true, and that the first  two chapters of their Scriptures contain a scientifically accurate account of how the earth and its inhabitants came into being.

Reading the first two chapters of their Holy Book, the Bible will alert you to the problem.  Genesis 1 and Genesis 2  tell  two different  creation stories, which should be enough you would think to clue in most readers to the fact that they cannot both be literally true.  Stunningly enough it doesn’t. Vast numbers of people are able to affirm their commitment to the literal truth of these two very different accounts.

The ability of Scientific Creationists to read their Scriptures regularly, and not notice that what their dogma tells them the Bible says is inconsistent with what is written on the pages, has been proclaimed by noodologians as evidence for the very real existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his noodly appendage.

Noodologians argue that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a pastopomorphic projection of a materially caused spiritual reality – that which scientists call Confirmation Bias  They argue that the scientific term Confirmation Bias, acts to disguise the true all invasive noodliness, that parasitizes our consciousness and acts to twist not our observational skills, but our rationality. The parasite that makes us rationalizing not rational animals.

Noodled

Pastafarians believe that their religion is very old. We in Ireland have evidence that supports this.  Our passage tombs are older than the pyramids of Egypt, and on the walls of these you will  find many noodly graven images; but perhaps none  more clearly relevant than this one from Carrowkeel, County Sligo.

It was probably not the existence of these ancient relics that enlightened, the New Noodlian Seer, Bobby Henderson, to the pastopomorphic form that best projected the metaphysical reality of His Noodliness; but rather the rationalizing skills of Scientific Creationists such as Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham.

There are many people who have had the privilege of listening to Ken Ham, and if you are one of them and didn’t find yourself thinking that he was speaking the plain and simple truth, you may have found yourself believing that he was so clearly noodled that he would be impossible to satirize. If so try this post from Peter Enns.

I was first introduced to Scientific Creationism as a teenager. I did what I had been taught to do, I checked what I was being told against what the Bible said.  They didn’t match. I spent years being fascinated and terrified by the fact that so many others could read the same texts, and still conclude that they were consistent with the teachings of Scientific Creationism.

When I first heard Ken Ham I thought he was deliberately twisting the truth, and that he therefore no more believed what he said than I believe in the existence of the Ancient Noodlians.  So I understand why Richard Dawkins has labelled him a conman. This is in fact a possible explanation for what  Mr Ham is doing.  It isn’t the only one:

  • There is for instance the possibility that he is being intentionally deceived by a consciousness other than his own; not the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose mythical state of inebriation precludes him from the accusation that he is the metaphorical projection of a conscious intentional metaphysical reality.
  • Or that he is being deceived by an unconscious and probably instinctive bias, that enables him to ignore or manipulate all evidence to confirm the beliefs that he already holds, while perceiving himself as a morally righteous seeker after truth. That is, he is the victim of  the misleadingly innocuous sounding Confirmation Bias.

Intentional actions are more complex than non-intentional actions, so if you analyse the situation scientifically, i.e. using Occam’s Razor, then you are left with the working hypothesis that Ken Ham is not a conman, but a victim of Confirmation Bias. Of course as a working hypothesis, this is open to falsification, but the burden of proof lies with those who would accuse Ham of intentional dishonesty.

The Prophet

At one stage it was held that the complex functionality found in living organisms, could only be explained by intentional design.   Then Charles Darwin realized that, a mechanism that people already knew about, natural selection could provide a non-intentional explanation for the evolution of biological complexity.  Because science progresses by forming the simplest model possible consistent with the available evidence, evolution by natural selection became the accepted  scientific theory. The working hypothesis is that any biological adaptation can be explained by  the operation of non-intentional forces.

Richard Dawkins while strongly advocating the validity of Occam’s Razor when it comes to rejecting the possibility of the involvement of an extra-universal intentionality in the creation of life, does not apply the instrument when it comes to Selfish Gene Theory.

Selfish Genes are presented as intentionally motivated entities.

Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes.  I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour.  However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals.

Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

Now I hear you cry, it’s a metaphor, the gangstapomorphic projection of an underlying material reality.  And I agree with you, but the alleged material reality that Richard Dawkins is referring to is one where small pieces of DNA can be understood to be operating with intentionality.

Clear evidence for this can be found in a Royal Institute Christmas lecture, The Ultra-Violet Garden, that he gave in 1991.

He starts by describing how he asked a 6 year old girl what flowers are for.  There are only two sensible  non-religious ways to answer that question that I know of: either they aren’t for anything – they just are; or to do as the child did and  list the uses that flowers have for conscious entities whom it is reasonable to interpret as having purposes.  In this case  to make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us.

Dawkins told her that she was wrong.

Both the possible answers are emotionally unsatisfying.  Flowers have a clear functionality that is there independently of human purposes. And it is very hard to look at this level of functionality and understand that all you have evidence for is  just that, functionality, all that is can be explained without  purpose.  This is the genius of Darwin’s Original Theory, and why it is so hard to understand, it explains how there can be complex functionality where there is no purpose.

This central plank of Darwin’s Theory, the existence of functionality in a system without intentionality  has escaped Richard Dawkins.

About 27 minutes into the lecture he explains the purpose of flowers and people.

“We are machines made by DNA, whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA.”

Richard Dawkins The Ultra-Violet Garden, 1991

Right at the centre of this very intelligent man’s worldview is this stunning piece of magical thinking.  The assigning of intention and purpose where  there is no need for anything other than functionality.

The hypothesis that genes are intentional entities, is very far from being a parsimonious explanation for apparent design in nature, and just like his invisible magical unicorns it isn’t falsifiable.

Truly as the Book of the Ancient Noodlian saith not:

A Prophet will arise in Albion. He will lead the children of  men in the way of the Pasta Fairies; the tiny yet powerful Djinn, who brought us into being  to serve their own  nefarious ends.

Then will men overturn the sieve of rationality; that which letteth through only the simple and the falsifiable. And wear it as a symbol  of true religion upon their heads. The  image of the Trickster, the Noodly Appendaged One, will  once again be manifested upon the earth.

The Children of Ham and the enlightened of the Prophet will each see His Image in the eye of the other.  And they will remain wise in their own conceits.

Related articles:

  1. Denis Noble’s answer to The Selfish Gene @ The Music of Life.co.uk
  2. The Worst Argument Against Intelligent Design Randal Rauser @The Tentative Apologist
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