Sunday, April 15, 2012

Would You Vote For a Half-Alien Town Councilor?

Whitby, England Town Councillor Simon Parkes a) was just elected and b) has a nine-foot-tall alien mother.

Says Parkes: "It's a personal matter and it doesn't affect my work. I'm more interested in fixing someone's leaking roof or potholes. People don't want me to talk about aliens."

There are a lot of great things to unpack here: if it doesn't affect his work, why would anyone care? Or are we right to be concerned about someone who believes this because who knows what else he'll have a problem thinking clearly about? In which case, why is the alien mother such a problem, versus, say...historical claims made by any religion, ever? Or, if you're religious, such claims made by any religion but your branch of your own? Why give the alien mother guy such a hard time? If he convinces a few hundred thousand people that he has an alien mother, does it become less of a problem?

Simon's mom in her younger wilder days.

For instance, what about someone who believes in talking snakes, virgin births, people who come back to life after being dead for three days and magic underwear? Would you vote for that person for, I don't know, president of the United States? Or would you vote for the guy currently in office, who does not believe in the magic underwear, but does believe in the guy walking around three days after he died? Or, as many of my fellow atheists insist, you might think the guy currently in office doesn't really believe any of that, but only says he does, and has lied continuously about this for years and sought out new churches to join, just so he could get elected in the current climate. (Neither option there should give you warm fuzzies.)

What's interesting is that many people who profess beliefs that most of us believe are false or incoherent seem to cope by only holding beliefs that don't affect their actions, like Mr. Parkes - in which case, why bother holding them? This is especially interesting in light of the fact that religious and non-religious people often give similar or exactly the same answers when asked to think through moral problems.

It's worth pointing out that having a fixed false belief that you got from the people around you is different from having one that you made up yourself - and in fact, the DSM makes this distinction, disqualifying in its definition of "delusion" any belief that is shared by others in the community. At first I thought this was an outrageous invasion of medicine by political correctness, but the context does in fact give us information about the person holding the belief (not the belief itself.) That is to say, it doesn't mean 9-foot-tall-alien-mother guy is any more wrong than walking-around-3-days-after-death people, but 9-foot-tall-alien-mother-guy had to make it up on his own, whereas walking-around-3-days-after-death people were told that was true when they were children by people they trusted, and have since been surrounded by other people who seem just as sure. Were all the Flat Earthers throughout history delusional? Certainly they were wrong, but delusional misses the point of that distinction.

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