Friday, January 17, 2014

Coming To Grips With Determinism

Relatively recently, I accepted determinism as the way the universe works. It took me several years and I fought tooth and nail to hold onto some notion of free will, but in the end I've had to accept that we are all determined beings and that free will is an illusion. If one accepts a purely materialist universe, which is essentially what atheism is, then one pretty much has to accept the notion that there is no free will. This is an implication of atheism that even many atheists do not even consider.

But consider this:

(1) If the universe is fundamentally material and all material obeys the laws of physics, and
(2) If human beings are fundamentally material, then
(3) Human beings obey the laws of physics, and
(4) Therefore there is no free will

There is no way to squeeze free will into this picture if one accepts materialism. But how then can we reconcile this with our experiences and how can we call ourselves "freethinkers" if we really are just determined organic machines? I've recently been thinking about this after getting into an online debate with a dualist over the data we have from neuroscience and its interpretations.

The data from neuroscience is completely compatible with the idea of determinism. In fact, it is from the data of neuroscience that one can reasonably conclude that we are determined by the laws of physics. Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London says, "As a neuroscientist, you've got to be a determinist. There are physical laws, which the electrical and chemical events in the brain obey. Under identical circumstances, you couldn't have done otherwise; there's no 'I' which can say 'I want to do otherwise'. It's richness of the action that you do make, acting smart rather than acting dumb, which is free will."

The fields of neuroscience and physics are filled with materialists. Given the data we have about how our consciousness is the last thing to show up on a list of brain functionality, I find it hard to see how anyone can still be a dualist, especially since both Cartesian dualism and interactionist dualism do not correspond with the data and have failed to yield any predictive power.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

If You Get The Message, Hang Up

The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington as well as in Uruguay are the early results of a shift in public opinion towards a more liberal approach to the drug. Opinion in the US towards marijuana legalization has been on a near-steady incline from 12 percent in 1969, to over 50 percent in 2013. It finally seems as if reasonable drugs laws are making their way into the legislator and are being passed by the voters. And just like opinions towards gay marriage, younger Americans under 40 overwhelmingly support marijuana legalization. It does seem as if full legalization might be possible, and perhaps inevitable in all 50 states (or at least all of the liberal ones).

I first smoked marijuana when I was just 8 years old. I first drunk beer when I was 16. I first took ecstasy when I was about 21. I first did coke when I was about 22. From my late teens until my mid-twenties I did more than just experiment with many illegal drugs; I had a full on civil union with them. But unlike some of my friends, I never got addicted. I recognized when the time came to stop. I had friends that never got that message. They kept going and going and going. They burned out and became addicts, spending most of their money on drugs; lying, cheating and stealing to get money to get high. I'm not sure what separates the recreational drug user like myself from the addict. I suppose it's a certain personality type. And so when it comes to drugs I agree with the philosopher Alan Watts who said, if you get the message, hang up.

I'm not at all anti-drug. I think many drugs like marijuana, coke and the psychedelic drugs can be helpful, but there are right and wrong ways to use them. Back in my early twenties when I was a pothead, I would get high with my best friend everyday. Our dealer stored some of his weight at my friend's apartment and so in return for that favor he gave us free weed. And so we smoked our brains out. Everyday. We'd smoke more and more until we got to that point where we smoked so much that we just couldn't get any higher and we'd smoke ourselves sober. This went on for years. Then I found an ecstasy dealer and I started popping E every week. I did my first line of coke at a party and a few years later later started doing coke several times a week. The coke I couldn't get for free however, and I soon began to notice that my money was disappearing into thin air right up my nose. That was part of the message.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Robin Hood Fantasy

What if we took 50 percent of the wealth of the top 1 percent of Americans and spread that money out to the bottom 50 percent of Americans?

Think about it. The top 1 percent of Americans owns about 35 percent of the total wealth in the US, and the bottom 80 percent owns a mere 11.1 percent in comparison. If half of the wealth of the top 1 percent were given to the bottom 50 percent it could rejuvenate the economy from the ground up, and that money would trickle back up to all sectors of the economy. Many in the top 1 percent would barely notice that their money decreased by 50 percent. And since they are already earning about a fifth of all earned income, they'd make back their lost wealth easily, especially if the economy were to be injected with trillions in stimulus.

Some will say this is unethical; that it's socialism. Does anyone remember the banks being bailed out a few years ago? This is no different in principle. The only difference we might see is that our economy would recover for more people and more evenly with a greater chance that new wealth wouldn't be distributed mostly to those already rich.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Are You Ready For Total Surveillance?

We all got to learn that the NSA was blatantly spying on the American public last year when one of their contractors, Edward Snowden, became a whistle-blower. Few of us were surprised that the NSA was spying on people, I mean, after all, they are a spying agency. But I was not aware of the extent to which their spying capabilities reached.

A new video of an independent journalist who got his hands on some leaked NSA documents has gotten me a little riled up. According to the documents, the NSA has been able to hack into people's home routers to see all of their internet traffic, as well as hack into unsuspecting American's cell phones where they have the ability to remotely turn on your microphone, enabling them to listen to private conversations you have through your own phone. One of the dirtiest things they are doing, is that once they can see your internet traffic, if you happen to order a computer online, they can intercept the computer on its way to your home, install spyware on it or implant devices onto the motherboard that can collect and transmit data. And they're slick. Some of the spyware they use can be installed right onto the BIOS of the computer, so that even if you reformat your hard drive, the spyware will still be there. According to the video, it also seems as if large American tech corporations like Dell, Cisco, HP, Microsoft and Apple apparently are working with the NSA to allow their devices to enable data collection and transmition to the NSA. Scary.

From these leaked documents we can surmise that the NSA's goal is to have a state of total surveillance, in which everything that everyone does online and on their cell phone - anything that is transmitted digitally in any way - is recorded and monitored by the NSA. And if the NSA can do it, why couldn't a corporation do it, or a foreign government? We know that every country is spying on each other, but this is almost too much to bare. We will in the very near future be living in a world in which our entire digital lives are recorded and stored in giant server farms, so that if at anytime in the future, someone wants to know what you were doing on, say, January 9th, 2014, then all they'd have to do is put a few key words and identifiers into a computer system, and it can query enough data to see what emails you sent, what websites you went to, your phone records for that day, and the geo-location of where your phone went, which is pretty much where you went. In other words, they'd pretty much know everything that you did on that day, and if they were able to hack your phone, they might even have been able to record you.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Atheism Can Help You Get Laid

If you've ever spent time browsing your local singles on OKCupid you will most likely notice one thing immediately: there are tons of self-described atheists on the site.

Two years ago at a friend's request, I joined the free online dating site OKCupid. I'm not a huge fan of online dating personally, and I'd much rather meet someone in person, but since it was free I thought I had nothing to lose (except maybe some pride). Initially, I hesitated about whether I should keep my atheism in the closet and perhaps feign agnosticism as I have sometimes done before. But I figured I might as well try being honest and see what happens. So when I filled out my profile I made it very clear that I was serious about my atheism. Long story short, OkCupid got me several dates but none of them went anywhere. A few months after I joined I started dating a girl I met at a bar and eventually disabled my account. Now I'm back in the game but I browse for ladies mostly for fun.

Browsing the many twenty-something singles in the NY metro area, it is amazing how many report "atheism" under religion. (Atheism is of course not a religion but OKCupid makes you report it as such.) Even OKCupid's blog confirms this and one of its rules for a successful first contact is "Consider becoming an atheist." Interestingly, according OK's trends, mentioning "god" in a first contact is one of the quickest ways to deny yourself getting a response back.

I live in New York, which is a city that attracts a lot of heathens, so the numbers of atheists that I'm seeing may be skewed upwards from the average. But nonetheless, the stats on dating sites like OKCupid confirm my personal experiences talking with young people all over New York (many of whom come from other parts of the country and all over the world). Most of them are either totally indifferent to religion, in that religion is the last thing on their mind and they don't give a shit about it, or they have open disdain for it. I almost never run into a young person who speaks positively about traditional religion. And this is all music to my ears and a trend heading in the right direction.

So it now appears that being an atheist can actually help your love life and ability to get laid. Happy New Year!

Friday, January 3, 2014

What's the Difference Between A Cult And A Religion?

There is no agreed upon definition of what a religion is. Look the word up in a dictionary and you will get about 5 or 6 different possibilities. I personally define "religion" as the belief in and worship of at least one deity. Under that definition, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism would all be religions. However, deism would not, even though deism includes a creator deity. The reason why is because deists do not worship that deity, and they have no dogma or rituals that need to be practiced. A deistic god need not be propitiated in any way. Therefore, I do not consider deism a religion, but rather a worldview. A worldview can be a religion, and all religions are worldviews, but not all worldviews are religions. Naturalism is a worldview for example, but it is not a religion, because it has no deity.

This brings up an interesting question: What's the difference between a religion and a cult? Well to answer such a question, there would need to be a definition of religion given first. If you use my definition of religion (the belief in and worship of at least one deity) then the difference between a cult and a religion would be that in a cult the person, idea or object worshiped is not thought of as a deity but is still highly revered. So for example, if a charismatic person was worshiped but not believed to be a deity by their followers, then that would be a cult. If however, the followers thought of that person as a deity, somehow endowed with supernatural powers, then it is a religion. offers us some definitions of a cult:

1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
3. the object of such devotion.
4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
5. Sociology - a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013 - Year In Review

During 2013 I grew a lot as an atheist. I am a much better atheist now than I was a year ago. And by that I mean that my knowledge of science, philosophy, history and religion has grown tremendously in the past year. I am a much better debater than I was a year ago. I have familiarized myself with more arguments for god and religion, and I have learned a great deal more about how to counter-argue many of them. I have also been interacting with more Christians on a personal level through my local debate club and this gives me the chance to experience those who are opposed to me without the obstacle of a computer screen between us.

I am a lot more mature as an atheist than I was a year ago. I've found a way to calm my militantism and to express myself more civilly. I look back at some of my early posts from 2009 and 2010 and I think how immature and unsophisticated I was back then, and how I would have failed miserably in a real serious debate. This I feel, all contributes into making me a better atheist.

As far as my atheism is concerned, my goal is to increase the numbers of atheists. There are many ways one can do this. One is to be open about my atheism online and in person, and encourage others to do the same. The other is to organize with other atheists online and in person to positively represent our worldview and to fight against discrimination and oppression. I personally tend to focus a lot on counter-apologetics. I want to help arm other atheists with the tools to defend their atheism when it is under attack, and to aide them in launching offensive attacks on other theistic worldviews. This is one area that is perhaps one of the most important resources that every atheist must have because in a country like the US where 74% of the people still believe in god, the moment your atheism becomes public, it is likely going to be challenged by someone who is a theist.


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