Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is Being an Atheist a Choice?

After many debates with people over the issue of whether sexuality is a choice, I recently wondered whether atheism is a choice in the same way. I believe that sexuality is innate in that we are born into our sexuality at a biological level. Gay people are born the way they are and can't help it, and straight people are as well. One cannot alter their sexuality just as one cannot alter their race. Is is because of the fact that people are born into their sexuality and gender that I support equal rights for the LGBT community.

This makes me think whether atheists are born that way too. Atheists have a certain skeptical personality type that appears to be innate. I for example, was always quick to hesitate the acceptance of extraordinary claims on faith, ever since I can remember. Like Hitchens, I am so made that I cannot believe. But was I born this way? Is Atheism a choice? Or, was I born with a skeptical personality, that is more inclined to being an atheist? If so, then it means that atheism for me was almost determined. Considering my secular upbringing, you might think that it was my environment that determined my atheism. But then there are numerous people who are inculcated into one religion or another, and who later follow their hearts, and their minds, to atheism or agnosticism because they cannot go on believing on faith. I think that I would have been one of those people had I been raise with religion.

I am inclined to believe that being an atheist is not really a choice, but a logical conclusion given a certain personality type. But if being an atheist or a theist is a condition of one's own innate personality, does this have any say on the truths of these mutually incompatible beliefs? Could theists just say that atheist are disbelievers because of their genetics, and further conclude that atheism loses its ground on that behalf? I say no, because there are certain personality types unable to grasp scientific claims, and their existence does not render evolution, or relativity false. One of us is correct, and one of our beliefs is true.

I do not think reality is dependent on your inborn personality type, because otherwise, science would be purely subjective and it is not. Rather I think, that most people are theists, because evolution it seems, has determined it to be beneficial. The believing brain makes sense when you consider that false positives are less harmful than false negatives. If our ancestors, living in small isolated tribes heard a rustle in the bushes, and imagined that it could be a saber-toothed tiger and took their guard, but later found out it was just a squirrel, they would live another day. But if they heard that rustle in the bushes, and did nothing and it was a man-eating saber-toothed tiger, then they were history. So it was beneficial for our ancestors to imagine and assume things weren't there. This is, in a nut-shell, how god concepts developed.

So if being an atheist isn't a choice, then I suppose that just like gay people we can have fabulous coming out parties, and must fight against discrimination oppressing our beliefs and lifestyles. If atheists like me cannot sincerely bring themselves to believe on faith, as theists do, then we should be treated as equals. I like to justify my support for equality towards gays and women because they didn't choose to be born that way. Why should someone's very nature, as long as it does not harm others, be grounds for discrimination?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Short Disgression on Moral Epistemology

I have written a lot on many past blogs about the topic of morality. I have affirmed that morality certainly does not come from god, and that I consider divine command theories concerning ethics to be morality repulsive. My favorite argument against this is the Euthyphro Dilemma, and I rest my moral semantics of the second horn of the Euthyphro, that there is an external set of moral standards objective to all of us, including god, if he exists. But I want to explain further, where I get my moral epistemology, or how I acquire my moral understanding. Here I am concerned with ethics and how I decide what is moral and what is not.

There are 3 major branches of ethical philosophy: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Consequentialism evaluates morality based on its consequences. Deontology emphasizes the act itself regardless of the consequences, based on duties, rules and obligations. Emmanuel Kant is considered one of the most widely known deontologists. Virtue ethics on the other hand, puts emphasis on one's inner character on having desirable characteristics. Their actions would therefore not be moral or immoral based on their consequences or intentions. Aristotle was one of the more famous virtue ethicists. Finally, there is a forth branch, utilitarianism, which borrows somewhat from consequentialism. Utilitarianism determines what is moral by whether it produces the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number.

A divine command theorist would probably lay in the school of deontology because it says that there are moral absolutes and duties that one must adhere to regardless of the outcome. So if god says lying is wrong, then it is always wrong even it it will save human lives. After schooling myself in ethical philosophy, not to the level or professionality, but to a level of post-novice understanding, I have arrived closer at my ethical philosophy. Considering how all these branches of ethics contradict each other, no one school of thought is perfect. One must in some way, pick and choose from more than one in order to have a well rounded ethical philosophy. And so it is here that I have arrived closer to where I take my moral epistemology.

I am largely a consequentialist when it comes to ethics. Now I am well aware of the criticisms of consequentialism and I agreed that it has its flaws, but that is the great thing about philosophy-it's not dogma. One is free to pick and choose bits and pieces from each branch as long as they do not heavily contradict each other. With my philosophy I combine a little consequentialism with a little deontology and a little ethical egoism, and perhaps some utilitarianism. Virtue ethics I am not too concerned with, because one's desirable characteristics, in certain societies, can have negative consequences for those in it.

I believe we all consider the consequences of our actions when determining what is ethical to a degree. Torturing and killing people for fun for example, is considered wrong on a near-universal spectrum because of the needless human suffering involved. In other words, it is wrong because it has negative consequences to sentient beings. Kindness and compassion are good actions because they help others in need, and we are all in need of help at times in our lives. Consequentialism's main flaw is that is does not consider the intentions behind the action. One can intend to do good and have negative outcome, or intend to do harm and it could result in positive consequences. A careful balance between the intentions behind and consequences of one's actions, is needed in my view, for a sound moral framework.

But back to consequentialist ethics, we cannot always know the consequences of our actions immediately, and somethings that have negative consequences at first have good consequences in the long run. And somethings that have negative consequences for some, have good consequences for others. The questions then arises: consequences for who? This is where consequentialists must tread carefully. When faced with an innumerable palate of ethical dilemmas, we must often make difficult decisions. One must sometimes be faced with choosing the lesser of two evils. When we do know the true outcome of the consequences of our actions we must make it based on the best possible knowledge one has at the time. They may be wrong, but at least an informed decision should be made. When it comes to long term versus short term gain, the balance must be considered by how harmful the short term suffering would be for the long term gain. So, if we are faced with the prospects of bliss for a majority of us 5 years from now, but the price will be that until then a minority of us must suffer dire consequences, and even give their lives we must use logic and reason to deduce whether it is worth it. A well rounded ethical position should always image one as the sufferer, the one "sacrificed" for the greater good of humanity. Utilitarianism comes to play in such a dilemma. For the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people should weigh in if one must choose between several bad prospects.

This brings up the famous trolley experiment: You are at a rail crossing and you see a trolley speeding out of control. On one track there are 5 people, on the other track there is only one. The trolley is speeding on the track with 5 people on it. You stand near a rail switch that can divert the out-of-control trolley to the track with only one person, killing him, but sparing the other 5. Do you pull the switch? Utilitarians and consequentialists say yes, because 5 being killed is worse than 1 being killed. I've thought about this experiment and I am not sure what I would really do in that situation, but I think I would not pull the switch, despite being a consequentialist. I'd probably feel a lot better with myself if my hands were not responsible for anyone's death. This might be from my slight deontological streak. I also would consider the people on the tracks if possible. What if the 5 were escaped convicted murderers from prison, and the one was Barack Obama? Wouldn't then we consider the life of one more important than the many? What if the one on the track was someone you love deeply, wouldn't their life be worth more than the other 5 or 10 people on the track or however that many? An infinite number of monkey wrenches can be thrown into ethical dilemmas to challenge our perceived ethical notions. In the trolley scenario however, you know nothing of the people's lives and characteristics and have mere seconds to decide whether to pull the switch or not. Given such an opaque perspective, I stand by my decision to no pull the lever.

So with moral growth and understanding I feel I have a very good head on my shoulders on the virtue and semantics of ethics. I love probably more than anything else, to debate morality with people because it is such a fascinating and personal topic, as we are all affected by it. It makes for one heck of a good intellectual conversation. "An intellectual conversation, is the only conversation worth having", as I like to joke around. And, as the great Greek Philosopher extraordinaire Socrates said "the unconsidered life, is not worth living". Continue the conversation when I'm long gone.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Halfway to decency

It seems that the two primary motivating emotions that guide me through life, are hate and fear. What can we say of a man driven by such forces? I am ashamed at the fact that I am not a particularly loving man. Love to me is a difficult emotion. It does not come very naturally or very easy for me. I am about to turn 30 not very long from now and I have yet to experience true romantic love. I feel that I know what it is like when I think real hard and try to imagine being in love, but I will never know for sure until it happens. I wonder if I am truly the type of man who can live his whole life free from love. Some of us are. And what scares me most is that I fear that I just might be that type of person.

It seems that my atheism is what defines me most as a characteristic. My profession means nothing more than a paycheck to me. I am not a dad to no one, so I cannot be defined or characterized as a father or fatherly. I am a son, and a brother, a cousin, and even an uncle, but these roles do not define me. They are mere labels describing my relationships to others. If I prefer to define myself as an atheist, than I should live every moment as one. It should be worn on my sleeve. My philosophy is almost entirely derived from the atheistic experience. Think doesn't mean that I am not open to the transcendent. One of my goals before I expire is to seriously try to have this experience.

Given all the things that one can achieve in one's life, I feel that I have so far achieved very little. Our tenure here on Earth is always too short. I truly fear that one day, when I am older, and perhaps ill, I will look back at all my years of able bodied youth, and deeply regret not committing myself more to what I am passionate about. I feel the clock is ticking and time is speeding up so fast. This is known to happen as one gets older. When I was a kid, summer seemed like forever. Now it comes and goes in the blink of an eye. I can't barely even remember last summer. I am having anxiety over my rapidly disappearing youth. I've had the frightening epiphany recently that I won't be young anymore, and I'll never get it back. Life is a one way street. But as such, we all come to this realization, and how we react to it is the key. I do not want to actually be younger. I hated being a teenager and would hate even more to be one now. I kind of wish time froze for all of us and we never aged anymore. Such an impossible reality could never be known with a working mind.

I have periods of intermittent hopefulness and I am in desperate need for it now. What secular form of hope does the atheist have absent of any spiritual guidance? Hope itself implies no religion, as it implies no god. It is the secular prayer. The problem with hope, and prayer, is that neither of them imply any action. When conditions are not favorable, isn't it best to do something about it instead of just hope that things get better? Things could get better on there own, but why wait for chance?

So here I spend a quiet evening at home alone, a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes by my side, reflecting on some of the day's thoughts. Perhaps one of my greatest burdens is that I over think too much. This is what I like to call, the thinker's dilemma. Why should I plague myself with such cognitive introspection when I can be blissfully ignorant? Well, for me at least, it isn't that I really have a choice-I was made this way. One of the most useful enterprises one can undertake is to learn how to capitalize his or her believed shortcomings and turn it into their greatest talents. This to me is where hope lies. I am halfway to decency but I'm not even there.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Does God Have Compassion For The Damned?

Dare I for a moment, question the will of god? It's late on a Friday night, and I want to write something. I have been awash in a serious Winter hibernation as of late. About the only light I see is on my way to work. Thinking for a moment about the god hypothesis from our great monotheists, I recently wondered whether Yahweh, or when he is revealing himself to the Arabs, Allah, being the all knowing, all seeing, and morally perfect deity that he is, has any compassion what so ever for those he's damned. He is after all, the greatest conceivable being; the unembodied soul of moral perfection, infinite love and wisdom.

This could be a fatuous question to the pious; for god has, in his impeccable arbitration, given us free will that the damned chose to exploit, and thus they are deserving in their fate. He judges not with bias, and his rulings are permanent and unchallengeable. But think about for a moment, the actual method Yahweh decides to judge us. One of the moral arguments defenders of faith like to claim, is that with god, justice is coming to those wronged in this world. The bad guys may get away from the law, but sooner of later they will have to face god. The faithful can rest assured that what goes around, truely in the end will come around. But they seem to forget that, with Christians, Jesus died for all of all of our sins. This means that every single one of the most unimaginable atrocities that one can do in one's lifetime and get away with, with the exception of blasphemy, will be forgiven to those who believe. The serial killer who gets off on the torture of others, need only to come to god in repentance and will be forgiven. But his victim, who prayed to the wrong god, or perhaps worse, didn't pray at all, gets not only a violent end in this world, but eternal conscious torment, courtesy of god's judgement, in the next.

I ask then, with genuine emotion, how is this justice? How is this morality and judgement at its best? Some of the most liberal and enlightened of the faithful refuse to believe "their" god would do such a thing. I say that they should take another look at their Bible or Qur'an, and read what "their" god really teaches. Although religious moderates might like to deny it, suppose this to be true; that the one and only god is committed to the torment of those who didn't prostrate themselves and believe, while pardoning some of the worst and most depraved among us. Wouldn't the screams of the tormented in hell, who are, according to Islamic descriptions, being burned continually on their renewable skin, and having boiling water poured down their throats, entice even the slightest hint of compassion from the most moral conceivable being?

The answer is no. God is utterly indifferent to the damned. God does not think twice about his judgement. The best definition of evil that I have heard, is having a lack of sympathy or compassion. After thinking about this definition, I agree with its conditions. Every "evil" situation that I can thinking of, involves a human being demonstrating a lack of sympathy or compassion towards another living being. So an earthquake that kills 10,000 children would not, therefore, be evil because the earth is not alive, it is not conscious, it just has tectonic plates that rub up against each other. The Earth is nature and nature is morally neutral on every issue. Thus the lion that kills the cubs of another lion is cruel, but not evil. For in order to be evil, you must lack the ability for empathy and compassion. It takes a certain level of conscious development, and rational thinking, that can divorce itself from emotion and impulse. Not even all of us homo-sapiens posses this trait.

The god of monotheism is evil because of his lack of sympathy and compassion towards the damned. Who can send a child who happens to have been born into the wrong religion, and who dies, to a sentence of eternal conscious torment? It's not like god can't change this at any time, he is the master of all things. He designed such a system, and he enforces its rules. The most slavish of the faithful accept this as god's will and dare not to question. The logical implausibility, and frightening impression of such a moral monster ruling the universe, is part of what convinces me that there is no such god. And what a relief that is, because to contemplate having to be subject forever to such a being, one would surely have had personified the soul of evil.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Watch this documentary: There's No Tomorrow

I came across this short, informative, animated documentary about the problem with capitalism's affect on our energy resources. In short, our current system is not practical on a long term basis. We are committed to non-renewable energy, and the little investment put into renewable alternatives, has hit some road blocks in regards to whether they can really be feasible replacements.

Getting rich in the short term via oil, coal and natural gas will plunder the Earth of resources, destroy it with pollution and ultimately be the end of humanity if we do not seriously consider a patchwork of alternative energy.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Does Altruism Exist?

"Why do good for others," many have asked, "when it results in a cost to you?" It is a fair question raised throughout the years. Does doing good for others, at your own expense, have positive gains in the long run? Surely it does, I don't really think that there is an argument there. What I'd like to dive into, is the notion of whether these benefits, render altruism itself, non-existent.

Altruism is generally defined as the "principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism)" or more simply "a concern for the welfare of others." So altruism is caring for others and doing helpful deeds to them. But does it matter where those altruistic motives come from? If you are only helping someone, because you seek to gain something immediate in return, is this still altruism? For example, if I offer to help you fix your car only because I know that you will drive me to places I want to go, am I then really just acting out of my own selfish best interests? Can all thinkable acts of altruism be found to have motivations in one's own self interests? Would acting ultimately out of one's own self interest, cancel the notion of altruism itself?

When I think of altruism, one of the best examples I can think of is giving your seat up for a stranger on a bus or subway, or helping a stranger carry a large package they are having difficulty with. The stranger in this case is of no relation to me, and in a large city, there is little chance that I will see them again and that my altruism will ever be reciprocated. Altruism cannot be motivated out of one's duty or obligation. So a firefighter who saves a child from a burning building is not performing an act of altruism because they have a sworn duty to do so that their job commands of them, and they will face punishment if they fail to do so. Altruism must be voluntary with no commandments involved. It is true to note however, that many police, firefighters and doctors are motivated my altruism to get into their career fields in the first place.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Manifest Destiny

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
 -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I've been increasingly complaining to friends on how I am currently dissatisfied with my life. Sure I appear to have plenty of fun debating the issues of the day, as well as the ones of years past. But with the pleasures of drinking and partying diminishing, and with discontent with my job and overall lifestyle growing, I have recently had a lot to reflect on. One downtrodden friend of mine, proclaims how lucky I am to even have a job in such hard times. He sounds as if he'd instantly switch places with me, and take my job in cubicle hell.

I, in a way, don't blame him, but rebut his ideas that having a job is anything good. I then wonder, why do feel the need to keep my job? Well the money first and foremost. I have to pay down my debts; I have to pay my rent and my other bills. It are these liabilities that I feel keep me in the mental bondage that is work. If only I were debt-free, if only I didn't have to pay rent or worry about money at all. If I could only somehow, live like a free-loading hippie, traveling where I want, being a political activist, or a champion for the atheist cause, with no rent to pay, or bills for that matter, maybe then I would be, are I say it, happy.

Is working in a cubicle for the next 40 years my idea of considered life? I don't hold on tightly to ideas that are against any form of structured work. There's nothing wrong with sitting in a cubicle if that's what one fancies. Perhaps if behind my desk I was writing for secular causes, or collaborating with link-minded individuals on such matters, I wouldn't be so discontent.

It deeply scares me that I might have to sit in a cubicle for even just another 5 years laboring towards something I don't really care about, and around people I don't really care to be around. The problem I have is that the things I am most passionate about, are not really things that make one particularly wealthy, apart from a select few. Sometimes I think, that if only I was one of those Wall Street types, preoccupied with money and financial markets, I would be able to maximize my passion and get ridiculously wealthy off of it. But such is not my character; I detest those greedy Wall Street, money market schemers.


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