Sunday, April 29, 2012

Are We All Just Soda Cans Fizzing A Particular Way?

There have been many theists advancing the argument that if materialism is true, in that everything is ultimately just atoms and molecules, then killing, maiming and torturing people, is just the mere rearranging of matter. So if a bomb went off killing 20 people it’s just the rearrangement of atoms, if you smashed someone’s head open with a club, it is just alteration of the atoms in their head. In other words, why should anyone care about the rearrangement of matter if there is no soul embedded within it, and no ultimate consequences? Pastor Doug Wilson in many debates is particularly fond of this argument, and he makes it with such tenacity that one gets the feeling that he really thinks he is making a logical argument. I guess many theists who he preaches to buy into this fatuous argument, but it does not even strike me with any hesitation as to its untenability.

First, I am a materialist in that I believe the physical world is all that exists. I see no evidence to the contrary. All things in the universe, including life, are ultimately made up of atoms. The materialist rejects the existence of the soul that the theist believes is necessary to have morality. Do people like Doug Wilson really not see a difference between something that is alive and something that is inanimate? It is because we are alive, it is because we are conscious, sentient beings, capable of feeling pain, and emotion that makes the difference between us and inanimate matter. Does Doug Wilson really not have the ability to tell life from non-life? Could he tell the difference between a Zebra and a rock, or a Manatee from a boulder? Apparently to him, it’s all just matter, no difference there at all. I hate to be blunt, but I really wonder if he is that stupid.

If I were to smash a rock with a hammer, there is a huge difference between doing that and smashing open the head of a person or animal. We know the rock is not alive, we know it doesn’t think, reproduce, have any kind of dreams or hopes for the future, or have any kind of sensitivity to pain or emotion. If rocks were capable of such properties, then we surely would want to reconsider our treatment of them. But notice that none of these aforementioned properties sentient beings posses requires the existence of a soul. One doesn’t need a soul to be emotionally conscious or sensitive to pain. All one needs is a brain capable of a certain cognitive level and a nervous system, and evolution by natural selection can produce that without need for appeal to the supernatural.

Regarding the theistic argument that in a materialistic world view, if there are no ultimate consequences for our actions, then there is no reason to be moral, I counter argue that under monotheism such as Christianity and Islam, there is no ultimate justice either. The usual theistic argument is that if someone can get away with evil, and they are never caught and reprimanded for their actions, they can die and essentially get away with their deeds unrevenged. Hitler is often cited as a prime example, in that he orchestrated so much unnecessary suffering and had such little disregard for it, and never faced the consequences for his actions. His suicide stole away society’s retribution unto him.

Now it is true that under materialism, Hitler got away with his acts. There is no ultimate cosmic justice, and no ultimate cosmic judge. But I still have reasons to think materialism has a slight edge in terms of justice. Under Christianity and Islam, all one needs to do to be wiped of their sins is simply to convert and accept the correct prophets. Recognizing Jesus as the son of god and your savior, or that there is no god but allah and Mohammad is his prophet, immediately absolves you of your moral responsibility for all your sins, at least until that point. So, the serial killer who spends decades enjoying the torment and death of his victims need only to come to god before he is executed on death row, and all his sins are forgiven. But if some of victims happened to have been Hindu, Buddhist, pagan or atheist, not only are they brutally tormented and murdered under the will of a sadist in this world, when they die, they will then be tormented in unimaginably worse ways, at the will of god. Eternal conscious torment, what a loving idea. And so under monotheisms like Christianity and Islam, the murdering sociopath gets eternal paradise and his victims can get eternal torment. I have to scratch my head and in wonder and how anyone can truly believe this is an accurate description not only of justice, but perfect justice under a perfect god. Justice is synonymous with fairness and equality, and under the monotheistic world view, I see no such qualities in their perverted concept of it.

So the argument that we are all just soda cans fizzing in certain ways, and that it makes no difference which way we fizz because ultimately we are all just fizzing matter, is nothing more than theological rubbish. Once you have life capable of pain and emotion, and consciousness, you do have a difference between the atoms that make up such beings, and atoms that make up non living objects. Sure the atoms themselves are the same, but it is what they make up that makes the difference. Failure to see this I believe is the failure to use logic in the way necessary for our survival.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thoughts on My Blog...

There are so many thoughts and ideas going through my mind but I can't seem to put them into words. It seems that I have been trying to write the same thing over and over again on my blog, and each time I have perfected the words just slightly so. I have written many times on god and its implications, I have criticized religion from several different angles, and I have made moral arguments from the atheistic and humanist perspectives. Yet still, I have this urge to write about these subjects ever more articulately. It's as if all my blogs on these subjects have been nothing more than just a dry run leading up to what I hope to be an excellently worded manuscript on my critic of religion in favor of atheism.

The general purpose of my blog is to act as a conduit for me to express my thoughts and opinions on the areas of interest to me. I occasionally tell stories from my personal experiences but my blog is not really intended to be a diary of sorts of my week-to-week activities. It is centered around my atheism, my philosophy and life in New York. My blog is not full of colorful and provocative pictures, nor is it full of links to them. At the surface my blog is quite dull looking, but it does have substance. I am not necessarily trying to get the largest audience possible, but I have reconsidered the idea of stylizing by blog to pretty it up. I just do not want to sacrifice any substantive argument in favor of glossy pictures described by a few lines of hyperbole.

So as I sit here in my apartment with the shade pulled down, trying hard to escape the harsh light trying to penetrate in from the outside, I am conjuring up possible future blogs. I definitely want to continue my critic of William Lane Craig's arguments for theism. I have only as of now written part 1 of my critic of his moral arguments in favor of god. Part 2 will follow hopefully sooner rather than later. I had an idea that I proposed to my friends about having a written debate that I can put on my blog. We will each make our arguments in 3 shots, none longer than a thousand words. It would be great...if only my friends would follow through. I have sent one friend of mine an argument in favor of absolutism but have not gotten a response back. He is a relativist and I as an absolutist of coarse disagree with his beliefs. My challenge so far remains unrevenged, but my blog will go on.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Determinism

The area of philosophy that I am most concerned with is ethics and morality, but recently I have been obsessed with the idea of determinism. Determinism is not just a philosophical belief, but a metaphysical claim on the nature of the universe, and if true, has many philosophical, religious and ethical implications. Bluntly put, determinism is the idea that the movement of all physical matter, from the stars and planets, to every animal and human, has its fate already determined in the moment of the creation of our universe, the Big Bang. So just as we can predict the movement of every billiard ball on a pool table when smashed with a cue ball from a certain angle, if determinism is true, every atom in the universe behaves in much to same way.

The implications of determinism could have profound effects on the idea of free will. There are those that call themselves compatibilists who believe that determinism does not cancel the idea of free will, and that notions of free will and determinism can coexist. One example given, is the idea that you are in a long corridor lined with several doors each containing a letter of the alphabet. You can choose to open any door you like.You decide to open door A and do so. What you didn't know, is that the laws of deterministic physics made you open door A and that all the other doors would have been locked to you. So doors B through Z were unable to be opened, but you did not know that, and so from your perspective you think you were making a free choice. In other words, what ever we choose to do has already been determined for us, but since we don't know the future, we are under the impression that when we make decisions we are making them out of free choice.

If determinism is true, then the notion of fate is true. Each and every one of us would have our future known in antecedent quantum events. I've always rejected the idea of fate, because I felt that it removes my free will. I like the idea that I am making decisions with my rational brain everyday, and that these decisions are not the result of a quantum chain reaction. I am not a determinist, largely because of quantum unpredictability, like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I believe that determinism's existence in reality is largely a question of physics and not a philosophical one. And as such, if determinism were to be true, I guess I would fall among the compatibilists, who believe that we can still operate under the guise of free will existing, even though it wouldn't really exist, because we cannot know the future. But the thing about determinism is that, if enough information about the quantum world could be obtained, then every event in the future could be predicted and known, and we would therefore know the future. But I've often wondered that if we could do that, wouldn't we then be able to deviate from what the laws of physics have already determined we will do? It seems more likely that, the universe would never allow us to know such a thing because it would in a way, just like the time traveler who alters the past, open a paradox.

There are a great many famous determinists. It was the reconciliation between determinism and indeterminism that nearly drove Einstein mad toward the end of his life. I too am plagued with such a conflict as Einstein was but certainly to a much lesser extent. I sometimes wonder if I can trick nature by purposely doing something different from what I originally intended. But I know such attempts are futile in that all my actions and thoughts, no matter how much I think I can alter them from what I would have done, are all accounted for in the natural order, if determinism is true.

Along with my fascination with determinism, I've reconsidered existentialism once again after having tossed it away to the waste-bin of intellectual rubbish. Existentialism has long been the philosophy of bohemian intellectual types, often with french names. It is a philosophy I have been reluctant to embrace perhaps, because I tend to be more of an empiricist, rather than one who embraces subjectivism. Perhaps I could reconsider?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Manhattan Mini Blues.....A Poem

The lights turn on. Cockroaches scatter towards unlit sanctuaries. Down on the street the rain has stopped. Neon lights reflect in the cold puddles of rain and then suddenly disappear when the Earth shakes. The girls in unison make high pitches noises on their way towards loud venues. The cars and trucks intermittently silence the otherwise peaceful calm. Tonight will be remarkable you think to yourself. But it hasn't even begun. You decide music will be better and put on a favorite tune, and light up a cigg. This'll put you in the mood. Outside various alphabets spell out meaningless nonsense. You make eye contact with various women whose faces you'll never know. You turn left, then right, then across the avenue narrowly avoided death. You take another puff of that cigarette that's almost done. Then you flick it away like so many lost aspirations down into an endless sewer. Tonight you are going to make a scene at the bar, but your friends aren't there yet. "Are there any willing participants?" you think to yourself. Who can blame a few more gazes of hope. The music is loud but the people are louder. You fight through the crowds for a drink like so many animals to a watering hole. It is there that you notice her. Are those reading glasses or is she just trying to look smart? Her lips are full and designed to do more that just recite feminist poetry. "What is she doing in a mad house like this?" you wonder. She looks awfully out of place amid the scores of brutes. But then one embraces her side and you realize she is coupled. Her attention gazes toward him as yours gazes away. Your phone goes off and its your best friend, late as usual. This gives you enough time to one up him on a drink before he arrives. Together you inhale more booze than you should have, you philosophize with strangers on personal topics, make a few witty remarks here and there, single your eyes on a girl that appears not taken, and then realize that you are home, in bed, alone, with a horrible hangover. "What happened tonight?" you ask. Maybe it was just a typical night after all.

Monday, April 2, 2012

On Intellectuals

Unlike most guys my age, whose heroes are over compensated sports figures, my heroes are public intellectuals and scientists. I love the public intellectual. Being a typical left leaning mid-Atlantic resident, I love and respect the stereo typical northeastern liberal intellectual. But don't think for a moment that it is only those on the left that I admire. Some of my current favorite intellectuals are those on the right, and even those who believed in god. What I respect more than anything, is not necessarily the positions of the intellectual, but rather their charisma and style.

Two deceased intellectuals I like are William F. Buckley and Malcolm X. They couldn't have been more different. William F. Buckley was a right-leaning, American conservative, though not of the neo-con stripe that we are more familiar with today. With his proper Mid-Atlantic accent, he was wildly articulate, arrogant, snobby, and in a way came to epitomize the old-school, upper class, North Eastern intellectual. He leaned toward the right politically on issues, he was a believing Catholic, and he often debated on this behalf. Malcolm X on the other hand, found Islam in prison, where he also educated himself, and became the loudest and most militant voice of black dissent towards the unjust racism that permeated through nearly all of American culture in the mid-twentieth century. I have sadly yet to read his auto biography, although that is on the agenda. What originally impressed me about him, was his articulateness and style in debates I saw of him on YouTube, even though he sometimes argued in favor of his faith. Just because I am a left leaning atheist, it certainly does not mean that I cannot recognize intellect when I see it, and these two gentlemen were prime examples.

Then of course there are the public intellectuals who are more in tune with my personal views. There's Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomski, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Danielle Dennett, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Kraus, Chris Hedges, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, A.C. Grayling, Albert Einstein, David Hume, Massimo Pigliucci, and so on. I love intellect and its high profile ambassadors.

One problem I think many Americans seem to have, is with public intellectuals, or intellectual-types, either running for public office, advising those who do, or being a bit to influential in public discourse. There is this perceived disdain by much of "middle America" for the scholarly, educated, ivy-league breed, intellectual types, presumably because they cannot relate to the regular "folks", who go out and earn a living not just be being smart. It also seems that educated intellectuals tend to gravitate to the left politically, and morally, and regard the uneducated in a condescending manner. They feel intellectuals focus on moral and ethical terms too much in theory, and not in practice. Sure to the scholarly intellectuals racial integration might sound good in paper, but its practical implications were another matter altogether.

One reason why I reject hip-hop culture, but not necessarily its music, is because of the glorification by so many in the culture of ignorance, and their rejection of knowledge. I can never be a part of a culture that celebrates and embraces ignorance as if it were a virtue. But that's just me. I consider myself a private intellectual. I have yet to enter the public stage and voice my intellect in favor of me. That can't come soon enough. Until then, I will rejoice in the intellectuals I find stimulating, and enjoy their better merits.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Does Islam Condone Unjustified Violence?

Over drinks a few weeks back, I had a great debate with a friend over the reasons why the West has such a big problem with the Islamic world. He maintained that our problems are all due to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and Western militaries being on Muslim lands committing injustices. While I whole heartedly agree that the Israelis have committed human rights violations in their treatment of the Palestinians, and that the U.S. military's blunders in the Middle East, (usually backed by the needs of U.S multinational corporations in their insatiable thirst for profit), have no doubt contributed to the hatred by some in the Islamic world toward the West. But what I do not agree on, is this notion that these are the sole reasons why we have terrible relations with so many in the Islamic world.

Rather, I argue that the primary reason the West has this "beef" with radicalized Islam, is due to our mutually incompatible cultures. Traditional Islam is so radically different in terms of values when compared to the moral progression and modernity of the West. It is, I argue, the forces of cultural modernity more than anything else, that are at the root of many of our problems with Islam. Even if the Israeli/Palestinian conflict did not exist, and even if the U.S. was not on any "Muslim lands", we would still have conflict, because our cultures are so different.

My friend steadfastly argued that it is all politics at the root of our problems and that religion is not at all a part of it, or at the very least it plays a minor role. He argued that he just cannot imagine, someone killing in the name of their religion. I tried to point out to him, with little success, that people throughout history, have killed in the name of their religion, and that killing in the name of religion is historically something quite common. But he could not believe that when a Muslim blows himself up, that it could be in the name of religion, but is always motivated by personal or political conflict.

I offered several examples that show Muslims can be more than willing to kill in the name of their religion. First, Muslims kill each other all the time. Sunnis and Shites have been killing each other off and on for 1,400 years. These killings have nothing to do with Israel or Westerners being on Muslim soil. Second, Muslims have been on the offensive conquering lands in the name of spreading Islam. They took the whole of the Iberian peninsula beginning in the year 711, and the Ottomans marched their way up to siege upon the city Vienna in Central Europe in 1529 and in 1683 (the latter of which was retaliated on September the 11th). This wasn't over Israel or Westerners on Muslim land, indeed this was before the Western imperial powers had colonized the Middle East and North Africa. But my friend argued that the Muslims were motivated by power, not by religion. Well it is certainly true that empires have economic aspirations for expanding and conquering. The funny thing is, Islam even has a chapter detailing the spoils of war in the Qur'an (Sura Al-Anfal) for those victorious Muslims who fight for its cause. Since Muslims put so much emphasis on the Hereafter, Earthly rewards will always pale in comparison to those awarded by god. And no action is deemed more respectable in honor than dying in the name of Islam. For it is this sacrifice, that the pious Muslim can expect his 72 virgins. Since dying in the name of Islam is its highest honor, we can infer that Muslim sieges onto what was previously non Muslim lands, were very likely motivated primarily by a spread of the faith. But I am not denying that there could have been other reasons too.

I went on arguing further that the recent Danish controversy over the cartoon depictions of Islam's prophet Mohammad, incited riots all over the Islamic world and in Europe resulting in over 100 reported deaths, and setting fire to Danish embassies in several countries. This was a perfect example of how our mutually incompatible cultures will inevitably result in conflict. In the West, we hold freedom of speech dear to our hearts. Under Islam, there is no real freedom of speech. (Muslims in Europe tend to point out the fact that holocaust denial is a crime in many countries, and rightfully so. I believe both should be fair game for public criticism). I didn't know at the time of our debate, but Denmark has been very generous to the Palestinian liberation cause, and is not a major player in occupying Muslim lands. So it cannot have been over Israel, or the war in Iraq that caused this. What caused this is a result of a fanatical religion on the people who believe it. He countered that this was an isolated incident. But it is pretty obvious that the same thing happened when Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s, when the U.S. and U.K. were arming and defending Muslims against Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.

I argue that this violence from radical Islam is due to scriptures in the Qur'an justifying violence against non-believers. This was at the root of our debate. He argued that Islam is essentially a religion of peace that has been perverted by radicals and misused to justify violence. I mentioned by disdain for the typical liberal attitudes sympathetic to Islam, even for those generally against religion. But at the heart of our debate is the question over Islam and its doctrines: Does Islam justify violence towards non-believers.

I read to him my pamphlet The Infidel's Guide to the Islam where I quoted the verses I cite that justify violence. He said that they are all taken out of context, and meant to be grounds for retaliation against enemies in times of war when Muslims are persecuted. He then quoted me a verse from the Qur'an about how Muslims should treat non-believers. Surah 109:6 says "To you be your way, and to me mine." In other words, for those non-believers who will not be converted, after being shown the "truth" about Islam, you can do your thing, and I can do mine. Have I been grossly mistaken on the nature of Islam? Is it really a religion of peace after all? He claims that my quotes from the Qur'an were taken out of context. Well let's look at what I quoted. Surah 9:29 "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the last day." Now Surah 9 in the Qur'an is a particularly violent one. It is suppose to be one of the last of the Surahs revealed by Mohammad. It centers around the Muslim's treatment of pagans who apparently did not meet their obligations with the Muslims and so the Muslims give them 4 months to repent and essentially convert to Islam. At the end of the 4 month grace period, war seems inevitable and so this Surah deals largely with the rules of engagement towards pagans in such contexts. Now we know the Muslims were persecuted in Mecca early on and fled to Medina where they sought and found refuge. To say that I am taking Qur'anic verses out of context, would be to say that the verses in Surah 9, are only suppose to be in self defense against those who are not willing to repent. Muslims were on the offensive in military conquests in the years immediately following Mohammad's death and using Qur'anic verses to justify their actions, though many where converted peacefully.

So in Surah 9, the pagans who have not aided others against the Muslims, and who have an alliance with the Muslims, they are expected to be dealt justly by Muslims if they repent. But after the 4 month grace period, if they do not repent, then Muslims are ordered to "fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers, and pay Zakah [charity], then open the way for them." So there is grace given to those pagans who repent and convert, and death given to those who don't. What is important here is to establish whether or not this verse is for Muslims on the offense or defense. It is one thing to kill in defense, but another to kill in offense. According to, this "verse of the sword" as it is known, is suppose to take place after a peace treaty with the Quraysh tribe in Mecca was violated when one of their allied tribes attacked one of the allied tribes of the Muslims, and that this verse if suppose to be relevant only to that place and time. This is what we are told by many Muslims scholars who try to paint Islam in a peaceful light. There are simply just too many verses in the Qur'an the justify the killing on disbelievers to say that it is all within the context of self defense. There is also the belief that the latter Surahs, abrogate, or rescind the previous verses that they contradict.

It seems to be that one can take from the Qur'an what they want out of it. If you want to justify violence, you will find it, if you seek peace, you will find it. I say that it is verses like these in the Qur'an, justifying the killing of, and subjugation of non-believers, along with the 7th century era morality that is simply not compatible with modernity, that is the main reason why we in the West have, and will continue to have in the future, quite a big problem with Islam.


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