Monday, May 21, 2012

The Human Condition: Part 2

We are social beings by nature, and we have evolved as such. When I reflect on myself, I am often reflecting upon my interpersonal relationships and their particularities. I used to think to myself, that I could live totally free from any strong relationships with others, and that I could be a total loner, and still remain happy. But I've found that when I am alone for too long, a certain depression begins to creep over me. It's the lack of happiness that stems from the enjoyment of the company of others. I also feel that I need in a way, other people's respect, to feel good about myself. I used to look down at this trait in particular, before realizing that it is a property of all human beings. As social beings, our social position in life, and the quality of our interpersonal relationships, mean a great deal to us, and I am certainly no exception.

I am often amazed at the few of us who can abandon all contact with others, retrieve into social isolation, and yet be content with themselves to such a degree, that even the most satisfying interpersonal relationship cannot produce the same happiness. The Buddha is one such person who is said to have achieved this maxim. I have been learning more about Buddhism lately. There is wisdom in all philosophies and in all religions. The best thing to do is take the best from all of them and use it for the benefit of yourself and others. Buddhism is a very malleable philosophy. I personally see the Buddhism as a philosophy, and not a religion, based on the teaching of "The Buddha", or the enlightened one. Siddhārtha Gautama was just a man, who when he reached "nirvana", achieved a transcendent state to such a degree, became The Buddha. He did this after years of punishing his body, and discovering that the path to enlightenment lies not within suffering, but in understanding and reconciling one's desires.

As an atheist, I of course reject the supernatural aspects of some of Buddhism's beliefs, but I cannot deny some of its wisdom. The transcendent experience exists for sentient beings, and I see the Buddha as one who sought out this state, and personified it better than any human being. The Buddha achieved this state  alone, under a tree after meditating for several days, according to the story. And since then, many have tried to seek this path to enlightenment by imitation. Although the Buddha achieved enlightenment alone, it was through the people around him that helped guide him toward this path. I cannot think to remain alone in this world and not expect mental and physical suffering.

The problem I have with social interaction is how my awkward personality, and my tendencies toward unpopular topics for conversation, lead to a disconnect between me and others. I'm a deep thinking, philosophical type, and that doesn't always mix in well with our cultural obsession for material and superficial gains. There are few people who I naturally get along with, and this has always been a strain on my sense of happiness. I've always felt a little disappointed in myself for not connecting with people in many social situations. I've come to learn to accept this reality, that I am simply not going to get along and have a connection with many individuals. My acceptance of this allows me to make certain changes with my regard to these people. It is very simple: avoid people I do not get along with as much as possible, and surround myself with people that I do get along with.

Now there are times when I am forced to deal with people that I do not like, such as with work. My response shall be in making the best out of the situation, and to not let my character suffer. In other words, be myself, whether these other people like it or not. To sacrifice one's character, to mold it into a form more compatible with those who one does not naturally get along with, is what I seek to avoid. I used to so freely pretend to be the person I thought others wanted me to be, when I did not naturally get along with them. I now look back at those days with great disappointment. What about pretending to act as others want you to act, to get something you want? We sometimes behave a certain way towards others to get what we want, and we all do this from time to time. I am quite aware of the lack of virtue that comes with being a pretender.  Considering how natural it is, I say that as long as one retains the core of their character, there is nothing necessarily wrong with acting a certain way to get what one wants.

As I have said before there are three basic conditions that make me happy: being in a place I like, with people I like, and doing something I like. If those three are met, I am a happy man (assuming I am not dying from a disease or the like). If I were to take out the second condition-being with people I like-and instead imagine myself alone, this lessens but does not destroy my requirements for happiness. The act of helping others can suffice the pleasure of being with good company, and helping others does not necessarily require being with other people.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Human Condition

To be more or less happy with one's self; to be in a contented state with with one's appearance; line of work; interpersonal relationships; personal integrity and character, is to, I think, achieve life's maxim. The age old philosophical question, "What is the meaning of life?" I think can best be answered by the achievement of such a state.

Biologically, we are machines for propagating our DNA, as Dr. Richard Dawkins so gloomily puts it. But this doesn't represent the human condition accurately. We are certainly more than just baby making machines. I for one, do not wish to propagate my DNA at all. So where does that leave me when looking at life's ultimate meaning?

There is I believe a strong subjective element when searching for life's meaning. One must find his or her own way towards purpose. I found mine a few years ago when I realized that my life long atheism was calling me into a life that advocates it, and its associated humanist causes beyond my immediate relationships. For others it might by the pursuit of athletic goals, or financial status. I think one's perceived purpose in life tells quite a lot about their inner character.

Now religions all have their say when it comes to life's meanings. Worshiping god and adjusting one's life according to certain doctrinal rules is how many religions view life's ultimate meaning and purpose. But I've never seen this as something personally appealing. I can fully understand how some people feel compelled to throw their lives into a particular religion, and how it gives them a sense of purpose and meaning. To me, my feelings of purpose in being an advocate for atheism is not something I was pressured or commanded to do. There is no central doctrine of non-believers to go preach atheism to the masses.

But what about the transcendent? It is that elusive state of consciousness that some claim the human experience is fulfilled through. Religions have tried to claim the copyrights to the transcendent experience, but the fact of the matter is that it can happen to anyone in sometimes the most secular of states. The fact that Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists and naturists alike, have all reported these experiences shows that it is a natural phenomenon that is perhaps a by product of a being that has achieved a certain cognitive capacity. Religions simply just tap into this existing human condition.

I must admit I am deeply intrigued by the transcendent. I have never had such an experience in my life to my knowledge. Although, not having had one, I might not know what it is that I haven't had. It has been described as the sensation of being at one with the universe, and transcending one's own physical body, and even one's mental limitations; to be free of ill will and pain, greed and desire. Such states by the Eastern religions have been called nirvana.

Being the atheist that I am, I am not particularly sympathetic to religions, whether Eastern or Middle Eastern in origin. But I will admit, that all religions have some good aspects in them. The Eastern faiths approach the transcendent through deep meditation and spiritual exercise. I don't agree with all of their stoic teachings, but their recognition of, and approach to, the transcendent, particularly the Buddhists, is I think a fabulous achievement for the human condition. The Buddha, or enlightened one, is worthy of respect in my book.

Buddhism answers the question on life's meaning as achieving happiness. It is more or less the same conditional state that I described above. But is happiness the purpose of life? Achieving happiness is a universal human desire. What that happiness is, is purely subjective to the individual. I cannot say for sure that I know it is so, but it seems that Buddhism is on to something here, if only on this one point. Such a universal desire, with no exceptions, must mean something. We all desire to be in pleasurable conditions. Even the masochist, who desires pain and discomfort, simply just has a different conception of happiness.

If happiness can be achieved through nirvana, and if the transcendent can uplift the conscious realm, and if these are all products unique among the human condition, then is the transcendent tantamount to the human condition? I am not prepared to say that the Buddhist idea of achieving enlightenment is the only path towards the transcendent or a deeper purpose; surely there must exist many ways. What I think I am trying to say, is that achieving the transcendent, or nirvana, however it may be done, could be the ultimate subjective meaning of life.

To be human is to be conscious; it is to reflect on one's self, and one's condition, and to reflect on the lives of other sentient beings. It is to bathe in awe at the mysterious; it is to laugh at irony, and cry at misery. It is to appreciate beauty, and cherish wisdom. The human condition is utimately achieved through experience.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good From God?"

In 2011, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris debated evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the topic of morality and god entitled, “Is Good From God?” The debate, largely was an attempt by Dr. Craig to critique Dr. Harris’ book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. As you may know, I have a bone to pick with Dr. Craig regarding his attempts to rationalize the more troubling aspects of his Christian faith, and in the debate he offers several examples which I will criticize.

Dr. Craig opens the debate with his two primary contentions. First, that if god exists, he offers a sound foundation for the existence of objective morals and duties, and second, that if god does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral duties and values. Dr. Craig defines “objective” morality as being valid and binding, independently of human opinion. Both Dr. Craig and Dr. Harris assert the existence of objective morals and duties, and only disagree with what is its foundation. On my blog, I have written repeatedly about how I believe there is exists a certain core of values that are objectively true, and are not relative to anyone’s opinion. And I have argued against the idea that the existence of god is what these objective values are founded in. What I want to do is critique line by line, the objections that Dr. Craig makes against Dr. Harris’ argument that science can offer us a foundation for objective values.

Right off the bat in Dr. Craig’s opening remarks he asserts the ontological foundation for goodness:

11:20 On the theistic view objective moral values are grounded in God. As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good, He is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus if God exists, objective moral values exist, wholly independent of human beings.

One of the problems I have with this statement is the fact that the greatest conceivable being is a highly subjective expression. For example, Muslims and Christians have distinct beliefs on the nature of god. Muslims disagree with Christians that god had to rest on the seventh day after he created the universe because resting is not a property of an omnipotent god. If a god who needs to rest is less great than a god who doesn’t, than it follows that the Muslim concept of god may be better than the Christian concept. So a greatest conceivable being to a Muslims, is different than that of a Christian. And what if a psychopath’s idea of the greatest conceivable being would be that of a sadistic dictator? Could the greatest conceivable being then an aggregation of all these diverse concepts by taking the best from each? God’s nature consists of many things and jealousy is one of them. He is also wrathful, and capricious. Are these the characteristics of greatness?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

President Obama Endorses Gay Marriage

I just realized how little I have blogged about the current presidential election. I am one who follows politics: Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, and the Colbert Report is standard viewing for me. President Barak Obama yesterday has "came out" and endorsed gay marriage. This is truly a historic and unprecedented event. Never has a sitting president endorsed gay marriage before and I support his boldness during an election all the way. Now I have already written about my support for gay marriage without hesitation before, and for me it is a non-issue. But the issue of marriage itself is something in the back of my brain right now, and just briefly, I'd like to make it front and center.

I do not want to dwell on the gay marriage debate right now, but as I near my 30th birthday, like all  people who have not yet tied the knot, I feel the mounting societal pressure to marry and marry fast. I am very open and honest with my family and friends about my disdain for marriage. I do not, ever, want to get married. I dislike being legally bound to another human being. I do not want to see, or be near, the same person everyday, for the rest of my life. The mere idea of it, nauseates me. That being said, I fully recognize the rights of others to do so. The legal benefits of marriage, as well as the bond that is shared by two people, truly in love and committed to one another, is a wonderful concept--that I will most likely never experience.

I like to joke when asked on my views on gay marriage, that I am against straight marriage. It's true, because technically I am against all marriage in general. I never enter into a relationship believing it is going to last a lifetime. I usually imagine that I will be lucky to make it passed the 6 month mark. And dating today is perhaps as complicated as ever. We use other other people as means to our ends, and we don't even care anymore. I'm not particularly romantic, and I am a bit ashamed about the lack of real serious and deep committed relationships in my life. Perhaps I was never given the right opportunity, and if I had I would be happily married right now for several years. But, I've never even come close to getting married with anyone I've ever dated. I perhaps could have gone down that road with a few girls I dated, if I didn't loose interest in them.

And that's my problem. I get bored way too easy. Like tiring from an album that is overplayed, I crave newness, I crave the novelty. There is nothing like the feeling of starting a new relationship before getting to know someone's disgusting personal habits and traits. Usually, the more I get to know someone, the less and less I like them. Occasionally I stay intrigued, but all that does is simply prolong the inevitable incuriosity.

I would never deny the right of someone else to marry another consenting adult, but similar to president Obama's public struggle with gay marriage, I have struggled privately with marriage in general. Recently I have heard of a new marriage idea, where you enter into a temporary marriage that must be renewed every few years, much like a cell phone contract. If I ever did get married, I could see myself getting married in this way. So, maybe there is hope for me yet. Although, the idea that marriage should be the inevitable goal for all human beings, repulses me due to my natural inclination against it. Connecting with someone intellectually, and sexually, even if it does not last til death does us apart, is my preferred goal.

I love Bill Maher for having the same basic feelings that I do on marriage. He's in his 50s and still dating, and that's how I would love to be. So, to rap things up, I'm pro gay/straight marriage for others, but for me personally, it's not my thing. If only other people were able to sometimes divorce themselves from their extreme or bigoted personal views on moral issues with their attitudes towards it publicly, like I do, the world would be a slightly better place.

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?


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