Saturday, January 22, 2011

Choose Determinism!

Apparently atheism is just a pile of “meh,” and I have missed that memo. It would seem that life is wonderful when I am helping my little girl with her homework, or playing on the floor with my son. It is wondrous when simply coming home to my gorgeous wife and family can instantly bring a smile to my face. But alas, our own feelings can be deceiving.

“I'd ask you at this point: given naturalism, why would you believe that ANYthing is compelling, given that you're merely matter in motion, receiving and reacting on neural impulses over which you (since "you" don't exist; matter exists and you're a material machine) have no external control?” -Rhology

I will start by stating that I am not a philosopher, and some of what I say is probably false, simply because I do not know everything, nor do I have all the answers. The following is me trying to illuminate my thoughts on the matter.

The view questioned here is determinism: the idea that all of the decisions available to us are based on prior events and decisions. This would mean that all choices are not available to everyone. IE: The choice to “work hard and save money” is not available to someone who has never been taught the value of hard work and fiscal responsibility. I am not sure I have ever claimed determinism in my conversations with Rhology, however it is somewhat implied under a naturalistic world view. I am not what some would call a “hard” determinist (meaning everything is determined and we have no control at all). I would consider myself a “causal” determinist or compatibilist (we have some sense of choice, resulting from our prior states). As an aside, I am not completely sold on the compatibilist stance. If different data becomes apparent, I will go with the best theory. There is still a LOT of work to be done in the world of experimental psychology and cognitive neural science.

Now to the questions at hand: “Why would you believe ANYthing is compelling?”
The obvious answer is: I am genetically predisposed, and causally situated, to find facts about our natural universe riveting. Of course this could be a correct answer, but not very satisfying to the Calvinist trying to undermine my love of existence. So why then? I must admit I had never really contemplated “why?” until this question was posed. I am left to wonder: what about determinism inherently makes the world less compelling? Why would it follow that our universe is less intriguing without free will? Does going to an upscale restaurant and not being able to order uranium stew detract from the experience of the eatery? Let's use an example; imagine you are on a train. There are some friends, and there are people you find yourself less akin to. Now you can move about the train, talk to people, meet new friends, eat food, enjoy the view, or many other things. On the other hand, you could be a psychopath, manipulating and murdering your way to the caboose. Does it really matter to either of the characters that they cannot steer the train off the track? Is it of consequence that this train to Paris cannot leave earth and land on the moon? Now let's enlarge the example to a cruise ship. Imagine the plethora of food and selections of things to do. Do vacationers writhe in apathetic distress at the fact they cannot ride the cruise ship on a tour of Saturn's moons? Look at the earth; we have little say in our position in the galaxy. We are orbiting a star that is itself moving in one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way. Does not having ultimate freedom of movement make moving about the surface of the earth pointless and mundane? So what then should we do? We make the best of what we have and where we are. We enjoy the cup of tea on the way to Paris. We revel in buffets of food that could feed an entire third world country. We live our lives each day working and playing, oblivious to the fact we have no control over our position in the universe. Looking at data from experimental psychology and research in the fields of sociology, it would seem we only have a selection of choices. Our selection is based on chemistry, social status, upbringing, and scents surrounding us, etc. We make decisions every day with these things pulling and pushing us subconsciously. Does this somehow undermine your experience? I would argue the opposite. After all, life is short, and this is all we have. If there is no afterlife, it gives more reason to make EVERYTHING compelling and important.

“...given that you're merely matter in motion”

“Merely matter in motion?” Do you understand what that means? Can you fathom the neural process with which you are comprehending this text? Do you really understand what matter actually is? Can you grapple with the processes required just to move your hand? I surely can not. When you grasp even a little bit the scale of these things, and the inter-connectivity, this realization leads away from: “We have the answer.” and much more to: “We don't have answers, that's why we are looking.”

The Fable, and Morality

As for your fable, it would seem to further enhance the importance of our short existence here. The fact that there is no ultimate meaning of life makes our relationships and actions much more important. Many people have lived in ways that still affect us today. Bell, Einstein, Lewis are all names that, in well read circles, invoke thoughts of greatness and purpose. Are their lives less influential/important by their inescapable death?

I suppose at this point it would be prudent to explain what I mean by terms like “good” and “bad.” The fact that there is no good basis(including divine character) for moral realism does not make it less pragmatic. For instance, you stated yourself there may not be a basis for logic. Does that make logic less effective? Do our computers function erratically as a result of the unfounded use of logic? What then of morality? Does the lack of philosophical foundation prevent us from utilizing morality? To answer these questions, we need definitions for “good” or “bad.” Harris starts with a definition of “bad” as the depths of suffering for conscious creatures, then projects “good” as getting incrementally less “bad.” Therefore there are multiple ways of constructing “good” societies. Now one might ask: “Why is the suffering of conscious creatures bad?” Evidence can be presented of brain scans and the apparent health benefits from certain choices, but what makes physical health “good?” This can lead to a nonsensical infinite regress not unlike the one brought with theistic ethics. What is good? God's character. How do we know God's character is good? Because God is the only way goodness makes sense... You asked me to just accept “God” as the standard all propositions are weighed against. I would ask you to do the same with “bad.” The point is: even without ultimate definitions, there are ways of conducting your life that are better than others. The distinction is not always clear, but that is why we have debates and discussions on said topics. These debates lead to an even better understanding of what is moral. Just a few hundred years ago, lynching in the name of God was considered moral. Thankfully, we have developed beyond such ignorance. The point remains: the way to discuss these things is not to accept absolute roots, which are irrefutable, but honest discussion.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

I know you are, but what am I?

Old, but still wonderful.

So, why do I call myself a naturalist? Because that is what I am: circular. I am a collection of atoms, arranged in a quite small, not so intelligent package. These tiny, tiny, particles are from times and places so far removed from me, I cannot accurately fathom their origins. I do get to make use of them for a short time. Afterwards they decay, out of my form and into something else. Perhaps, some become a part of a fungi in a few years or stretch over an event horizon in a few billion. I say all this in attempt to rationalize my circularity, and also to give some context.

When asked, I give a variety of answers defining my belief structure. Naturalist, agnostic and atheist have all been in the rotation, mostly in that order. Naturalism is defined here as:
The view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.
So naturalism as a world view is atheistic, and rejecting of dualistic metaphysical world views. That said, I do not completely rule out the possibility of the "supernatural." Many things we once thought supernatural, have been shown to have a natural cause. I prefer the term "naturalist" because it has the word natural in it, and I am enamored with the natural universe. Plus, it gets odd looks when people incorrectly interpret it as "nudist." In addition, it does not carry the stigma that the term "atheist" does. At least, not until you explain it, as Damion correctly pointed out.

What of atheism? In the comments of one of my previous posts, Thomas asked my thoughts on the re-branding of atheism. I do not think we need to throw out the term "atheism." The "New Atheists" have put us in the spotlight, and now we have the chance step up and define who we are. Atheists are quite diverse, as is population in general. However, what needs to be focused on is our similarity. We are a part of the same communities. We live, love and give.

We also need to push the immense wonder of the universe to the forefront. So much exists that religious world views sweep under the rug. These facts are inching out and begging to be understood. We are past the time of easy answers and cheap wonder. The universe does not need myth to be amazing. The reality illuminated by science is quite incredible all on its own.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

“...He made the stars also.” Genesis 1:16 kjv

Image credit. Nasa

The heavens are an ever-evolving symphony, with movements and sonatas dating back aeons, and stretching forward longer than we can fathom. We are just a piece, a single note, among trillions. The fact that you are here, and can even comprehend the tiniest bit of cosmology is incredible, the fact that you are one of many results of all of the cosmos is wonderful. We are links, tied together, in a multidimensional chain stretching out through time and space farther than any eye can see, and on the fringes of what our mathematics and scientific investigation can tell us. These are facts that exist, facts that invoke an emotion deeper than anything I can accurately describe. It is something deeper than anything I have felt during my short existence.

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?" Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths."
— Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Genesis 1-3

So I found a blog, where some people from different backgrounds have decided to read the KJV Bible throughout the year. I decided I will cross post some of my thoughts throughout this process here as well. These will most likely be sort, and riddled with errors, the result of me typing on the fly as I read.

It is difficult to understand, and really digest a text, without going back to the original language it was written in. Though I guess most Christian churches don't really go into it at this depth. However, if you see a problem with something I have written, and know the original words and their context, PLEASE point it out to me.

One thing that bugged me when I was a Christian, and still makes me wonder: Why did God create the Earth first to be "void and without form?"

"1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: [he made] the stars also."

This is the first thing I see, that is directly at odds with science, as well as evidence for earthly authors. The moon is not a light.

"1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

I don't like this verse. I guess in mythology it is common for man to be the pinnacle of creation. Though I would argue that the laws of physics have much more control over every living thing, including us.

Chapter two seems to review a bit of chapter one, and elaborate. Perhaps an afterthought? The description of the location of Eden does not lend itself to the theory that the Bible can be used as a geographical text. We also have the bits about where women came from (man).

So from chapter three we learn that God does not want us to have knowledge of good and evil. I still don't understand why that is. I tend to like the allegorical theory, put forth in “Ishmael.” Where's it is an adaptation of a cultural story. Though I wholly accept that is a work of fiction.

So mankind is given to the world, with Eve being the “mother of all living.” Which leads to a bit of an incestuous family tree when taken literally. When I was a Christian, I took this mostly as allegorical. There was no Adam or Eve, there was a culture, and eventually they sinned, and were kicked out. I think the Catholic church takes a similar view.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A simple response

This will be the first of "What is Atheism?" posts. Though I mostly intend to use this blog to post positive and inspiring aspects of our natural world, examining atheism/naturalism and its opposition is also something I find interesting.

A response to to Terry Mirll:

Judging from Terry's Mirll's letter, there seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding surrounding atheistic world views. I will attempt to correct this distorted characterization, not in a defense, but rather to educate.

Getting past the somewhat sardonic introductory paragraph, we get to the first assertion, and what can ultimately be defined as the thesis. “Philosophically, atheism is founded on a contradiction.” He then goes on to defend his premise by proposing that the “standard” atheist will defend his/her self using the problem of evil. Mirll then goes on to tie this back to the thesis, suggesting that the problem of evil depends on the existence of a god.

The first problem is Mirll is taking a hypothetical example, and asserting it as universal. Not all atheists come to their disbelief the same way, nor do they hold the same reasons for their atheism. The same is true of religion. If I asked a certain type of theist why is theism true, I could get the response: “Because Joseph Smith's writings are true.” It would be not only false, but also disingenuous of me to suggest I could disprove all theism simply by showing that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Anecdotal evidence, and straw man arguments are not great ways to contend worldviews.

The second issue is Mirll's explanation of the problem of evil itself. The problem of evil is for the 'omnigod' of Christianity. It goes as such:
If an all powerful, loving god exists it would, by nature, prevent evil.
Evil exists.
Therefore an all powerful, loving god must not exist.
It supposes the existence of a god to determine a true/false result, it doesn't hinge on it. It is also not an issue for an evil or indifferent god, which is why it is generally not used as an argument for atheism, but rather an argument against Christianity. It has some shortfalls, and strengths which are discussed at length many other places. If it were self contradictory, Plantinga would not have had to formulate his free-will defense.

Therefore, his conclusion is ultimately false. Atheism is not faith-based, nor is it a religion.