Friday, September 21, 2012

Will the Origin of the Universe Elude us Forever?

What are the limits of human knowledge? Will we, mankind, one day have in our possession, all the knowledge of our universe? Or, are there some things that man will never understand? And if there is knowledge man can never understand, will this be due to the limitations of our instruments to obtain this knowledge, or is there some knowledge that itself is so complex, that the human mind will never be able to process, similar to how a software program today cannot run on a Windows 95 PC? Is the origin of the universe within the realm of this theorized limit to knowledge, along with the existence of god?

Some of the objections that atheists like me have with religions is that they misrepresent the origin and age of the cosmos, the origin and diversification of life, human nature and sexuality, and finally many of the most popular religions implant a false human-centered perspective of the universe, leading to among other things, an impediment of scientific understanding and research. To say that something is unknowable is to confess ignorance, but not at all in the negative sense. It is more ignorant to assert divinity into what is not known than to plead ignorance.

We do not know currently what, if any, limitations to human knowledge there are. If one claims that god lies outside of the scope of knowledge mankind can posses, it is in a way like pushing god out of the light of scrutiny when we momentarily have our backs turned. It is precisely because god and the supernatural rest comfortably outside the scrutiny of the scientific domain that atheists like me are not willing for god's existence to be seriously considered. The atheist incorporates into their belief system that which can be known empirically, as well as that which can be known theoretically through the window of scientific understanding, and god doesn't make the cut.

It has long been said that science answers the "how" question, and religion answers the "why" question. But as Dr. Lawrence Krauss iterates, the why questions presupposes a creator, it presupposes intention from some intelligence. What if life happens and we know how, and it happens for reasons absent of an intelligent designer, much how evolution works? And what if universes happen absent of a creator? In these cases, the "why" question becomes irrelevant. But by asking the "why" question, theists are creating for themselves, their justification for the need to have a deity.

I do not know myself what man's limitations are in his search for knowledge. It seems that in recent years we have made some significant strides towards a great deal of understanding about our universe, but they have as a consequence, allowed us to know just how much more there is that we do not yet know. In other words, we now know that we know a great deal less than we previously thought we knew as result of recent discoveries. That means that we have a great wealth of knowledge ahead of us yet to be obtained and we should look at this as an opportunity. Not knowing, is exactly what makes science so interesting.

I have the persuasion, that one day, perhaps long after I'm dead, our scientific knowledge will encompass all there is to know about the universe, including its origins. Science will eventually destroy religion, it's only a matter of time. That is not to say that there won't be millions that cling to religious faith; I never suspect religion dying out altogether. I imagine science having the clear upper-hand making the case for all the mysteries that remain in our universe, not unlike how it does with evolution today, but with a much larger consensus in its favor. As more people adopt scientific knowledge and reasoning through education, they tend to be less and less inclined to insert religion and faith as an explanation to that which they did not previously know, and this can't happen too soon.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Is Atheism a Religion?

Atheists are often accused by theists that we are just as religious in our disbelief in the supernatural as theists are to their belief in the supernatural. I've always countered that atheism is precisely not a religion; it is just the negation of the supernatural. Atheism's relationship to evolution and science is by no means dogmatic. We do not worship any one philosophical or political creed. The job of science is to discover objective facts, and once it has, atheists along with many theists will believe it as such. But belief in the truth of an objective, empirical fact, is not a dogma. Therefore an atheist's reverence for Darwin, or Einstein, or strict belief in evolution is not our replacement for the religions we reject.

The problem is that religious people have such a hard time imagining a world view free from dogma that they assume that anyone who is without religion in their life, must dogmatically follow whatever beliefs that fills the void made by the rejection of religion. So the theist thinks that the atheist's religion is Darwinism and that Charles Darwin is seen as a god to the atheist, secretly worshiped at dark and dingy makeshift shrines. But au contraire, I don't know of any atheist ever, who has worshiped any historical figure as a god or any philosophy or political view as a religion. The "atheists" in North Korea for example, who are worshiping their Dear Leader as a god are brainwashed by a state religion, and you can say that North Korea is the most religious country in the world. It is true however, that some people that have left traditional religions have worshiped rocks, or trees, or fallen into some type of "spiritual" nonsense, but in a sense they are religious.

Religion is defined as "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods." So however dogmatic an atheist follows Communism or Darwinism or String Theory, there is no supernatural figurehead(s) to be worshiped. But the definition of religion is actually not that clear cut. What about a group of people who believe in reincarnation with out any god or gods overseeing the process? Would it be a religion? I'd say yes, if you can stretch religion's definition to include any belief in an intervening supernatural process. In this case, the deist would not be religious because their god never intervenes or needs worship.

If one strictly adheres to a philosophical creed, such as utilitarianism, you could say that he or she is behaving religiously, if you use the term very loosely. An extreme sports fanatic might be said to religiously follow and worship their favorite team. All uses of the words religion or religious here are not being used in their definitive sense, but are instead stretched to mean what they do not define. So when theists accuse atheists of being religious in some sense, they are not using the term correctly, and therefore atheism is not a religion.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Understanding Zen and its Practical Applications Part 2

Where there is peace, there is happiness. Inner peace of the mind, distilled in tranquility, is perhaps the greatest source of happiness. When I am tense, and anxiety ridden, it is often because I lack inner peace of the mind. There is a blockage somewhere preventing me from the calm and ease I yearn for. Zen is the art of unblocking that tension, through a sort of mind-based training. Meditation is one of its key exercises, designed to distill the mind of what Buddhists call "mara".

Is it not true that happiness comes from within? But what is inner happiness worth if there is nothing but difficulty elsewhere? What I mean is, let's say someone's life is by all objective opinions, depressing. Let's say for example, that someone with no home, no loved ones, declining health, and no foreseeable way to improve this in the future, has mastered the art of meditation and finds himself experiencing an inner bliss that no amounts of fortune or fame could reproduce. I ask myself seriously, if I would trade places with him. I have to be honest and say "no", I wouldn't. For all my problems, and lack of happiness that the blissful man had found, I do not think I would want the problems he must eventually face.

The inner peace he experiences through meditation is only a temporary experience in his presence. He will eventually have to face the reality of his situation like a drunk who sobered up in a jail cell. So I guess what I am saying, is that inner bliss through the practice of meditation, as good as it is, is not the only bliss that I want. I want the kind of inner peace that comes from knowing my life is something tolerable, and that it is populated with things in it that give me happiness in and of itself. I want to be living the life that gives me happiness, and not have to meditate in order to escape any kind of hell I find myself in.

If one can find inner happiness irrespective of the condition of their life, then couldn't that also prevent that person from improving their situation since they are content with having less than optimal conditions?

Deeper than meditation is the zen way of looking at things so that in the long run, a dire situation can be perceived in a new light. Therefore what bothers the mind can be soothed not just momentarily. I am no Zen master that is for sure. My realistic understanding of Zen is only months old and surely I have a lot to learn. I just thought I'd mention this inner conflict I have with some of the practical applications of Zen.

The Islamic War on Free Speech

Once again the forces of radical Islam are waging war on the expression of free speech. On this passed September the 11th, several Americans including a diplomat were murdered at the U.S. Embassy in Bengazi Libya. Let's not forget that the U.S. has just helped rebels overthrow the dictator Muammar Gaddafi who ruled the country with an iron fist for 40 years. The murder of the Americans was allegedly sparked by an anti-Muslim film made in the U.S. Sources say that there have been attacks towards American embassies in several other Arab countries.

We have seen this type of reaction from the Islamic world over Western expressions of free speech in years past. There was the 1980s Salmon Rushdie affair over The Satanic Verses; the Danish Cartoon Controversy in 2006; and the recent accidental book burning of Qur'ans in Afghanistan, to name a few. It is incidents like these that better help me make my argument that the Western world, who cherishes free speech, and the Islamic world, who clearly does not, are not capable of living side by side with out inevitable conflict.

In Libya, you cannot say that the enraged Muslims are protesting a military occupation of the country by the U.S.(there is none), or that this is all over the state of Israel. I have a friend who blames every conflict that the U.S. has with the Islamic world to be over the state of Israel. I have acknowledged before that Israel is certainly a part of some conflicts the U.S. has had with the Islamic world, but it is definitely not the only one, and the current American embassy attacks going on now are not.

It seems to me that extremists in Islam want us in the West to compromise our freedom of speech, so as to not offend sensitive aspects of their faith. But I have always insisted that freedom of speech, inscribed in our first amendment, is not negotiable. It is not on the table for discussion. Freedom of speech must come with the license to offend, or else there is no point to it in principle. The idea that we can say whatever we want, as long as it does not offend Muslims, is to bend the constitution to the will of a theocratic fascist ideology. Why should we have to compromise our freedoms to those who want to see it disappear under the flag of Islam?

One of the criticisms of the West by some Muslims, is our anything-goes culture where people can say and do things deemed impious by Islamic standards. But freedom gives you choice. I can live a number of different lifestyles, but no one of them should be imposed on me. A Muslim in the West can refrain from every indulgence offered to them, and live a traditional lifestyle, and they are perfectly in their right to do so--as long as it doesn't impinge on my freedom and lifestyle. But if radical Islamists, like many of those violently protesting outside of U.S. embassies had their way, I would not have the right to life my lifestyle as I choose, which at times calls for a public discourse critical of many religions. This is the objective difference when one asks what are the philosophical underpinnings of my position on free speech against radical Muslims: If I have my way, we all can live our lifestyles as we wish; but if they have their way, I cannot live as I please, while they can. This imbalance is where I hold the moral high ground.

Free speech means being offended is guaranteed. If Muslims cannot stand criticism of Islam, too bad. There are parts of the Qur'an that offend me as a non-believer, that insult my character and status as a human being, but do I have the right to go into a mosque and kill dozens of Muslims when these verses in the Qur'an are read aloud or printed in books or on the internet? What about my feelings after being offended? I do not expect Muslims to be censoring their holy books out of respect for my feelings and others like me any time soon, and I wouldn't expect them to. The Islamic world should be free to criticize any and all aspects of the West as much as they please, and they do. I would not condone an atheist like me burning a mosque or killing Muslims if their feelings were hurt by Islamic doctrine, as I do not condone the violence coming from Muslims in this latest episode of conflict over free speech.

The idea of both of us compromising our freedom of speech, as a compromise, is itself appalling when you consider it: What would be on the table for limitations of criticism and who would decide and enforce it? Who could ever be trusted with the creation of legislation designed to tell us what we can and cannot speak about? It is obvious that large swaths of the Islamic world are no where near ready for a Western-style democracy with freedom of speech as one of its central principles.

In Europe, there is the small Mohammad is a Pedophile movement, designed to educate people on some of Mohammad's wives. The fact that Mohammad married a 6 year old girl is not denied by any Muslim, and this detail is considered part of the commonly believed life of Mohammad and is regarded as truth. So what is wrong with critiquing a historic figure, when that criticism is accurate? Muslims seem to not want truthful aspects of their revered prophet's life even mentioned in public if it is not done with fawning praise. Now I believe that nothing, especial religion, should be off the table for criticism. This is part of having a civil and rational society. The Islamic war on free speech means that we will have conflicts with people of this faith for generations to come.

So what can we do to mitigate conflicts with the Islamic world if we do not compromise our freedom of speech?

I went to a local meeting of atheists the other day and got into a discussion over atheistic evangelism. The question was whether atheists should be vocal and spread our beliefs like the religious do. I say yes, but not in the same annoying, guilt-inducing ways. I think that it is undeniable that the world is locked into a permanent ideological debate over politics, philosophy and religion among other things. If you want to win an argument, you've got to be vocal. There is a sizable population in the Islamic world, sympathetic to Western ideals and they have shown their public support recently countering the anti-U.S. demonstrations. This is due in large part to us in the West making our principles heard in the Islamic world. There is a silent opinion war for the minds of over a billion Muslims that is being waged that we must win. When enough Muslims embrace the types of freedoms that we cherish in the West, there will be a significant reduction in outbursts of violence over exercises in freedom of speech.

I am extremely critical of U.S. foreign policy towards the Islamic world, and want Muslims treated with dignity and their sovereignty respected. The forces of radical Islam will never succeed. It's the death metal of political philosophies--no matter how many people you try to convince to like death metal music, you will never get significant numbers because it's just too extreme. Therefore, the only realistic long term solution for better relations between the West and the Islamic world, is a steady embrace by the Islamic peoples towards Western-style democracies that include freedom of speech.

Friday, September 14, 2012

In Defense of the Pro-Choice Position

I don't often write about abortion, but I had it on my mind recently. I have been clear that my position on the matter is pro-choice and I have given my reasons why. In a big liberal city like New York, my pro-choice ideas are almost never challenged. One attempt to challenge my stance was from a person who asked me whether a person who murders a pregnant woman should be charged with one or two homicides since I believe the fetus is not an independent human being.

Here was my response. First, I do believe that fetuses are human life--they are alive, and they are human, and are not merely collections of cells. Second, when I say that the fetus is not an independent human being capable of constitutional rights, I am not saying that it won't one day become one. It is a temporary condition, and during that condition, the fetus is part of the mother's body, who is the sole determiner of whether that fetus should be brought to term. Therefore, a person who murders a pregnant woman should be charged with two homicides for this reason: the decision to terminate the pregnancy is the woman's and not the murderer's.

We indeed charge murderers with two homicides when they murder pregnant women, as we should. I think that the practical position for those against abortion should be to refrain from doing so themselves, but not to impose their will on others. It's just like how if I don't like hunting animals, I won't do so myself, but I am not going to impose my will on others who like to safely hunt game with in state and federal regulations.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Are We Merely Means to God's End?

Although I have been busy with a particularly party-heavy summer, and I have recently digressed a bit more on somewhat personal matters on this blog, the topics of religion and theism are never too far from my thoughts. This blog is about atheism and the city after all. I have been thinking recently about many ideas close to the hearts of theists that anger me. One in particular is the idea that if we are all god's creation, as theists believe, than we merely means to god's end. In other words, is our whole existence, simply so, so that god can make his point or achieve his objective?

What is the purpose of human beings? As you may know, you'll get a different answer to this question from just about every theist you ask. One common answer is so that we can come to love god as the only being worthy of worship, and embark on an eternal loving relationship with him. I am told that this is what god wants of all of us--us humans that is. So if god created the universe with the intention of populating it with beings made in his image, so that these beings could all come to acknowledge his existence in the recognition that god is the source of life and goodness, and worthy of worship, then this in a way reduces us to a mere prop, a means to god's end for a world populated by a race of beings who loved and worshiped him.

I find this quite insulting, as would a child who learns his existence was merely to please his dad's desire for a rightful heir, or to work as a laborer towards some ruler's monument for the afterlife. In Christianity, humans are supposed to be ends in and of themselves and not a means to anyone else's end. Wouldn't this apply to god as well? Wouldn't god, if he is just and good, not be free of any exemption to this standard?

On Animal Suffrage

Many of the beliefs of theists make me want to puke. On animals for example, atheists have always asked why they suffer as man does when they are guilty of no sin, and cannot be perfected or educated. While reading C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, which is his attempt to explain the existence of suffering through Christian teachings, he explains that animals do not really sense pain to the degree of consciousness or sentience as we humans do. He says that although animals clearly feel pain, they do not posses souls and therefore a series of successive pains will not be recognized. "If you give such a creature two blows with a whip," he writes, "there are, indeed two pains: but there is no coordinating self which can recognize that 'I have two pains'." (P. 136) C.S. Lewis is not biologist as is evident, and he implies that animals do not have memory and awareness of themselves as a self. Modern science has shown just how many higher mammalian species have a concept of themselves in the world, and can recognize successive episodes of pain. At this, C.S. Lewis' case, and those Christians clinging to it, falls to the waste bin.

He proposes that the origin of animal suffering is the work of the devil, after some prehistoric (and now extinct) animal abused its free will long before man later had. As laughable as this explanation is, it makes we wonder about what an imagination C.S. Lewis had. He is after all responsible for The Chronicles of Narnia, a decent fantasy children's tale, and his attempt at an explanation for the origin of animal suffrage sounds like it belongs in one of his fictional writings. At the very least, he doesn't take Genesis literally and acknowledges that many extinct species of animals existed long before us.

Lastly on animals, Lewis asks that if they do suffer, why does a just god permit it? He then goes into the idea of animal immortality, rejecting it as not necessary for a just god. He mentions that if animals were never to die, and were all herbivores with no predators to watch out for, they would eventually over populate and consume all the plant-life that a world could produce. Here he actually makes a bit of scientific sense: carnivores are necessary in keeping the herbivores population in check. This is nature's way of balance, but it also ensures animal suffering. The naturist has no problem accepting this as fact. But as you can see from Lewis' logic and imagination, theists have been struggling with the reconciliation between their notions of a just god, and biological reality, in such ways that nonsense is almost always the result.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Summer 2012

It is mid-September once again and you know what that means: summer is almost over. It seems that every year I feel the urge to announce this and wrap up the summer's events in a blog. So what can I say about the summer of 2012? Well, I can say that it has been somewhat of a more pleasant summer that many of recent past. This summer I had a lot more free time on my hands thanks to unemployment and that has been sort of a blessing considering how overworked I had become in the past 2 years.

I was partying just about every weekend this summer, taking advantage of the hot nights. In the spring me and some of the coworkers I had gotten along with started going out drinking every Friday night in the city and even to Brooklyn a few times. We had a lot of fun I must say, especially taking my friends to some of the hipster hangouts that I frequent. With my friends from outside of work, we did our share of partying, mainly on Saturday night. It is quite fun, I have to say, going out and living the party lifestyle, if only for the weekend. I do enjoy a fair share of the show-off factor in it, and by that I mean going out just to be seen at a cool place, or with cool people. Perhaps that's what summers in New York are for when you're still "young".

I did go camping a few weeks ago too as this has become an annual tradition. This time we had access to a car and drove deeper into the woods than we had gone before and explored some unchartered territory. We set up our tents and made a fire and we always do, and smoked weed and pigged out on our food. One of my friends was camping for the first time since he was a child and it was funny laughing at his inexperience and unique approach to many of its challenges. Like for one thing he bought all of his supplies at the super market right before we left which included a fresh pickle wrapped in plastic.

I started going to more groups this summer with some of the atheist groups I've joined. I met some decent people who are as passionate about atheism as me and it's always interesting to discuss relevant topics. I went to another Mets game for free as I did last year, and I also went to a free concert in Brooklyn to see Antibalas, an afro-cuban funk band that I like whose lyrics are anti-corporate greed.

With my free time I don't think that I have used it as wisely as I could have. I made a list of things to focus on while unemployed which included not to give into apathy, but I haven't always succeeded. Perhaps the time I spend slaving away at work is truly putting my time to good use since without it I might otherwise be wasting it on unproductive nonsense.

I did go on several bike rides that were to places that I had been many times. I think I should be going to explore neighborhoods that are not so no predictable. I hear Prospect Park is quite nice. I wouldn't mind going there while the weather is still conducive to such activity. I have to say that a part of me was wishing for fall-like weather, partly because of the fact that I bought some jackets for the fall that I am wishing to put to use. We had a few cooler than normal days recently and that wish has suddenly dried up when realizing what cooler temperatures actually feel like. I want summer like weather for at least a few more weeks.

So as summer 2012 comes to an end I am again very typically longing for it to last just a bit longer. Summer can never be too long in my book. I can say that I had my share of fun this year, even though most of it now resides in the hazy, inebriated memories of many weekend nights, carousing through the streets and bars of the city. Here's to summer!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Refuting William Lane Craig: The Kalam Cosmological Argument

What we call today the Kalam Cosmological Argument, was first made by Aristotle and then by Islamic scholars in the 9th century. In recent times, Dr. William Lane Craig has refined it to make it the cornerstone of his argument for the existence of the god of Christianity. He argues that if the first two premises are true, then premise three seems to logically conclude a creator, and that creator, Craig argues, is Yahweh.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument generally states like this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

If it can be shown that a universe can be created without the prerequisite of a deity, then the last sanctuary of an ever disappearing god, could be upturned. For millennia, god’s intent was attributed to everything we were without explanation for. When we didn't know what lightning was, we attributed it to a god; when the Earth shook right under our feet and the wind became fierce enough to topple trees and buildings, we attributed it to a god; when children got sick and died, we attributed it to some god’s mysterious ways. God or gods (and their evil counterparts the devil and demons) were how we rationalized away that which could not be explained throughout much of human history. But since the modern scientific era, when we have found natural explanations for all this phenomena, god and the supernatural have found an ever decreasing role to play within nature. And now, after the impact of evolution having hammered the final nail into the coffin of creationism, the role of god has been pushed back, so far, to what is one of the last great mysteries of all time: the origin of the universe itself.

Now I don’t claim to know, with certainty, how the cosmos came to be, and I don’t think there is anyone alive today who does. We may never know the full truth about how and why there is something rather than nothing. But, there are teams of scientists around the world, rolling up their sleeves, and getting to work on what could be, answering the most arduous of conundrums. The atheist does not have to prove empirically that god doesn’t exist no more than he has to prove unicorns and fairies do not exist. All the atheist needs to show, is that a universe can begin to exist without god, just as how Darwin showed us that god wasn't needed to explain the origin and diversity of species.

The Cosmological Argument is therefore, nothing more than a clever god of the gaps argument. It is a surrender to the supernatural, and a forfeiture of the labor that science is forced to endure. It claims that the existence of the universe can best be explained by an intentional designer, namely god, since natural explanations have not been able to posit such existence. And it further claims that since something always comes from something else; god is the necessary predecessor to all. But to me, inserting god today as the party responsible for the creation of the universe, is tantamount to our superstitious ancestors inserting god as the reason for why the earth shook, or why the sky thundered.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Our Problematic Voting Process

As Election Day gets closer, I am reminded of the problems I see in our American election process. I've always had a problem with how we run elections in the U.S. First, why is Election Day on a Tuesday? Why not a Saturday when much more people will be off of work? It seems to make sense that we should have a whole day free to choose our elected representatives, instead of having people jam packed on lines before or after their work. I was a Poll worker for many years and worked on local and national elections and I can tell you that waiting on long lines to vote is nothing to look forward to. This, combined with Republican restrictions on early voting, makes for untold thousands of voters not having the time to exercise their constitutional rights because they also happen to work.

Second, the Electoral College has always bugged me. I believe an election should be decided by, and only decided by, the popular vote. Instead we have a system in which a handful of swing states decide every election. Going only by the popular votes would eliminate that. We should also have a national primary day, called Primary Day, held on a weekend, instead of the week by week media celebration of indulgence that is done today.

This year voter ID laws are the controversy. Since it has been shown that there is no large serious credible threat of voter fraud according to many sources, and that cases of voter fraud amount to a voter fraud rate of 0.00004% in some states, the voter ID laws that have been passed by some states recently is of coarse to curb Democratic voters, so the republicans can win the election.

There are other changes to consider for our voting process that are worth considering, such as being able to choose a second choice candidate during primaries if your first choice doesn't make it. The problems with our current election and voting processes that I've outlined above are what I believe we should change in order to make the United States of America, a better democracy. Unfortunately, the powers that be, makes for such changes long and arduous, and close to impossible.


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