Saturday, June 28, 2014

“You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.”

That there is only the natural world, which we are a part of, seems to me truth given the evidence. Thus the naturalist like myself realizes that man and nature are the same thing. Mankind is nature becoming conscious of itself. The late Anglo-American philosopher Alan Watts knew this quite well. In recent years he's become one of my favorite philosophers, and although he may not have technically been a naturalist in the strictest sense, his Zen inspired wisdom and metaphysics more often than not fall perfectly in line with the naturalism espoused by many atheists.

There is no doubt that naturalism can seem a lot more appealing when cloaked in the beautiful poetic language of philosophy and analogy. And Watts was incredibly good at doing this. In the Eastern traditions, the universe is not a creation, it's more like an organism. It grows. And as it grows, it peoples, in the same way that an apple tree apples. Thus, human beings are not born into the universe, they're born out of it. Watts thought that existence was fundamentally musical in nature. And so just as music doesn't have a destination, he argued the universe is not heading towards a particular goal. It is the process of the music unfolding over time that is why we enjoy it, just like when we dance we don't aim at a particular spot on the dance floor. The point is not to finish as fast as you can. The enjoyment comes from the dancing itself. Western philosophy however, which is so heavily influenced by Christianity and Judaism, sees the world and man as two separate creations, each created with a teleology in mind, and this Watts observes, is fundamentally at odds with the Eastern traditions and naturalism.

From some perspectives Zen and naturalism go hand in hand. Perhaps naturalism allows us the best explanation why we at times feel one with nature. In my mind, one can easily be a naturalist and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. Now I'm not at all advocating Zen, or claiming myself as one of its followers. I'm just noticing that there is this tendency among too many atheists to reject all of what religion or spirituality has to offer because it is associated with metaphysics which the atheist rejects. I too reject the metaphysical claims of almost all religions, but that does not mean that here and there one cannot find bits of wisdom and insight that offer a far richer view of the natural world than through the lens of a purely scientific epistemology. Life is too colorful and our minds are too philosophical to restrict one's way of thinking in such rigid scientism. Philosophies like the kind held by Alan Watts can offer the naturalist who has jettisoned all forms of religion and spirituality with an enhanced understanding of their place in the universe. And so I leave you with his words:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Exploring The Implications Of Determinism

It took me about 2 years, but I eventually made my way from being a naive believer in free will to a determinist. The road was paved with many bumps along the way and I found myself desperately clinging to the last thread of free will before I finally and inevitably had to let go. Like most people, it is hard to come to grips with the idea that there is no free will. We have this intuitive sense that our thoughts and actions are of our own volition. And a few years ago, if you were to have asked me whether or not I thought I had free will I would have cited that subjective intuition as my primary evidence. Perhaps I also would have thrown up the apparent indeterminacy of quantum mechanics as some scientific scientific evidence for free will. But all in all, I really didn't know what I was talking about.

What lead me to determinism was a greater understanding of quantum mechanics, which is deterministic, coupled with the data from neuroscience that our brain states occur before and determine our conscious mental states. Furthermore, when the very concept of free will is critically examined it doesn't really make sense. How can my mind have free will and disrupt the atoms in my body without a physical trace? How can my mind "choose" to have certain thoughts over others? My "free will" would have to spontaneously arise with no prior causal antecedents and without any explanation, because if there is an explanation, then it's determined. It also seems that if one must retain the belief in free will, then they must accept some kind of substance dualism. Free will must therefore be believed on faith - there is no evidence that we have it.

These questions and more make free will to me seem like something incoherent and unexplainable. So given that determinism is better supported by the evidence, it is not immune from from its own tough questions. If we all are determined beings, then how can we be held morally and legally accountable for our actions? How can anyone take credit for the good they do? And why do we feel so strongly as if we have free will?

Sometimes when I am in the midst of the throngs of commuters on my way to work I reflect with amazement on the idea that they are all determined - every single one of them, and that this drama was to be played out since the very first nanosecond of the big bang. It is mind boggling to think of the world in such a way. I also struggle to cope with the idea that all suffering was also determined. The holocaust, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, every war and disaster, all the suffering endured by every sentient being - it was all determined to happen and could not have been avoided. And I think to myself, why does the universe have to be so cruel? Why couldn't it have been a place with a little less suffering? But of course the answer is that the universe just is; one shouldn't expect it to be one way or the other when it comes to the suffering of sentient life.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Surprising 5% Of Saudi Arabians Claim Atheism

One of the last places on earth you'd expect to see a reasonably sized atheist population is in Saudi Arabia. But many reports have surfaced recently that as many as 5 percent of Saudi Arabians are "convinced atheists."

Amazingly, the country just passed laws declaring atheists as terrorists, so don't expect any reason rallies there anytime soon. But this surprising insight is indicative that atheism has potential to grow in the Islamic world. I actually know one Saudi Arabian man who came to some of the local atheist Meetups here in New York and he told me how brainwashed most of the population in his country is. "It's madness" I remember him telling me over and over again describing the level of religiosity in his country.

The question I have is why are so many Saudi Arabians rejecting Islam and god. Is it because they are rebelling against the government run fundamentalism in their country? Is it because they've been convinced, as I have, that there is no good evidence for the existence of god and plenty of good evidence against it? Unfortunately, we don't have any statistical data as to why the atheists in Saudi Arabia became atheists, but many are blaming the government's hard line fundamentalist approach that imposes sharia law to a degree unmatched even in many other parts of the Islamic world.

I think it is certainly true that religious fundamentalism can spur its antithesis, which can be atheism, but this can make atheism look like it isn't an intellectual position, which it is. This characterization tries to make atheism look like it's nothing more than just an emotional reaction to extremism. I take issue with this. Militant atheism is often a reaction to religious extremism, but many here in the West arrive at atheism for intellectual reasons. To many atheists, religion just doesn't make sense when thoroughly examined, and the reasons why they believed in the first place was often due simply to the fact that they were raised in that religion, and nothing else. I'm sure this is true of many atheist Saudis.

So I can only speculate why so many Saudis are turning their backs on Islam and towards atheism, but they can be assured that there are very good reasons to do so.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Story Of 1543: Why Science Is Better Than Religion

In 1543 two books were written that would later go on to have a significant impact on world history. One was by a Christian motivated by science, the other was by a Christian motivated by religious fanaticism.

Nicolaus Copernicus published his most famous work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) on his death bed, in which he argued that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the center of our solar system, kicking off what many believe to be the birth of the modern scientific revolution. That same year, Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer wrote one of his best known works, On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he argued, among other things, that European Jews were wicked, shouldn't be allowed to own homes, practice their religion, and should be forced into servitude.

Two very different books motivated by very different things. One helped kick off the modern scientific revolution, which enabled Galileo, Newton and eventually Einstein to lay the foundations of our understanding of the universe. The other helped kick off centuries of anti-semitism based on religious obsession and piety, that culminated in the Holocaust. These two works could not have been more different and had the impact they did on society. One is a prime example of the benefits of what can happen when you devote yourself to science and the use of evidence and reason to understand the world around you, and the other is a prime example of how religious fanaticism and superstition poisons the mind.

1543 stands as a stark reminder of what we in the freethinking community should strive for and what we should be motivated to destroy. We need to emphasize a science based education process and understanding of the world around us that promotes thinking with reason and evidence with a healthy dose of skepticism, and we need to work against living by superstition, assumptions, and dogmatic belief in religious claims. Now interestingly, both Copernicus and Luther were Christians, (you pretty much had to be a Christian in 1543 Europe) but one championed using observation and evidence as his way of coming to his understanding of the world, and the other preferring obedience to an ancient book of superstition (Luther was extremely critical of Copernicus' heliocentricism). Many modern day Protestants are unaware that their founder was a raging anti-semitist in is latter years and set the foundation for the persecution of Jews for centuries afterward. They'd much rather blindly blame the Nazis and the holocaust on evolution, which is bullshit.

Let 1543 be a reminder to us all in the freethinking community.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Civil War In the Mind Of Liberals

I usually don't have many nice things to say about Dinesh D'souza, the conservative writer and Christian apologist, known to many atheists as the frequent interlocutor to Christopher Hitchens, but he did make a good point on Real Time with Bill Maher the other week.

They were talking about the attitude liberals have towards Muslims in the West and Dinesh commented that there is a civil war going on in the minds of liberals regarding Islam. On the one hand liberals traditionally stand up for the oppressed minority, and Muslims have gotten their fair share of discrimination in the West. But on the other hand, if you look at many of the values coming out of the Islamic world, they fly in the face of many of the most cherished values your average liberal supports. Things like gender equality, equal rights for gay people, freedom of expression, freedom of speech and so forth are opposed by a disturbingly large percentage of the Islamic world. And so what's happening is that liberals find themselves defending a group of people who if they had the power, would never allow any of the things most liberals stand for.

Dinesh's assessment of the situation is spot on.

I have a confession to make. I'm a liberal. And as a liberal, I can certainly see the difficultly that dealing with Islam causes. I was once tolerant of religion, although I never thought highly of it. Perhaps it's better to say I was indifferent towards religion. But when I started doing research into religion, I became more aware of its harm, and I became convinced with the help of some of the New Atheists that it should be opposed.

The Ontological Argument Again

The Ontological Argument basically states:

1. God is by definition a being that must exist in all possible worlds.
2. It is possible that God exists in some world.
3. Therefore, if God is even possible in some world, he must exist in all possible worlds.

Or to put it another way:

1. God is by definition a being that must exist in all possible worlds.
2. If God is even possible in some world, he must exist in all possible worlds.

I personally take the position that the classical god of monotheism is not even possible, and so I don't have to wrestle with any of the logic after the first premise.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Metaphysical Musings Part 2

A fellow atheist asked me some of these questions about metaphysics and I thought I'd answer them here for good measure.

• What exactly is metaphysics?

As I come to understand it, metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with fundamental ontological claims that we do not have empirical evidence for. Once we have empirical evidence for it, it becomes physics. Until then, it's technically metaphysics. There are ideas for example that theoretical physicists come up with that make claims about reality that we do not have empirical evidence for, such as String Theory. They would technically be metaphysical, although many of them are in principle verifiable. I consider metaphysics to cover ontological claims that are both capable of being verified in principle, but yet haven't, and ones that aren't in principle verifiable. 

• What constitutes a metaphysical claim?

It must be about the fundamental ontological nature of reality, but something we don't have empirical evidence for. So the claim "angels exist" is a metaphysical claim, and the claim, "the multiverse exists" is also a metaphysical claim. The difference between them is that one is derived from empirical evidence, and one is not. 

• What is the methodology for assessing the validity of a metaphysical claim?

By applying logic and rational thought using the best available scientific theories and evidence. 

• In what way is the term 'metaphysics' useful such that commonly accepted, unambiguously defined scientific terminology is not?

Metaphysics is a bit more like an umbrella term that can be used interchangeably with some scientific terminology, like a hypothesis, if it's about fundamental ontology. But metaphysics also covers claims that are far outside the domain of science, like claims about the supernatural. It seems that some atheists want to delegate the term metaphysics to only cover claims about the supernatural/paranormal and not have it overlap in any way with science. But to get rid of metaphysics because there are many different ways to define it, one would also have to get rid of the term "religion" because there are many ways to define it, and no consensus appears in sight. Metaphysics is not supposed to replace scientific terminology, its supposed to coincide with it when their domains overlap. 


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