Monday, December 31, 2012

Depression, Nihilism & Humanism

I am sad. I am weary. I sometimes wish I was never born. Why does life have to be so tragic? Why does happiness evade me so easily? I often have those moments where I am alone and can do some self-reflecting. I think about my past and what things in my life have meant to me. Like the Buddha, I recognize that all things change. People die; relationships whither; money dries up; beauty fades; material things are lost or broken. One can never attach themselves to any of these things because they are all temporary and finite. As much as I wish that things I value would last forever, such is never the case; for change is the only thing that is constant.

I still can't help but speak of tragedy when I reflect upon the hardships I have endured. My life has been a roller-coaster of emotion, with a lot more valleys than peaks. I have come to think of my life as near constant depression, punctuated only by momentary episodes of bliss. Is it my nature to be such a way, or is it due to the circumstances beyond my control? I cannot help but be an emotional being. If nineteenth century romanticism has taught us anything, it is that we are as emotionally sensitive to our surroundings as a feather is to the wind. Love almost always ends in tragedy; happiness almost always ends in sorrow. Perhaps there is the need for a balance to be struck, in that one must exist for the other to have grace. I don't know if nature requires such equalizing properties with regards to emotion.

Is the prospect of nihilism to blame? Is the belief in no ultimate purpose or value the cause of such conditions? Like most atheists, I would rather know the truth even if it has negative consequences than live under an illusion. I reject accepting notions of false consolation, even if their falsity is not absolutely demonstrated. What hope can there be under nihilism when one is faced with depression?

I have a sought refuge during periods of depression in the hope that the future will be better. One thing that really depresses me is the idea of permanence, in that hardship will never improve or get worse. It is not easy accepting that things will never get better. Hope drives us all to wake up and start our day and think that a little bit of improvement can be made.

Is nihilism rationally justified given naturalism? Is humanism and nihilism one in the same or are they opposed to one another? Well it may depend on how you define each of them. Humanism can be defined as a variety of ethical theory and practice that emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world and often rejects the importance of belief in God. Nihilism can be defined as the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life and argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. 

So with these definitions do we have a conflict? I consider myself both a humanist and a nihilist. I do not believe human beings have objective or intrinsic value that exists beyond other living beings and certainly not beyond the material world, and I affirm human value on the basis of reason through the recognition that humanity benefits best from being treated with dignity, and with certain inalienable rights. The fact that we will all individually and collectively perish is by no means a source of conflict for the humanist.

Humanism is not attained by default given atheism, but nihilism apparently is. I have discussed this notion with other atheists who like to reject nihilism perhaps due to its negative connotations. I tell them, that in the absence of god nothing gives objective meaning and value to human life, and that even in the presence of god, human value is still not really objective but rather is subjective to god's will. He could have easily just said that rats and not humans have objective value. I think all atheists accept the idea that human life has no objective meaning, purpose or intrinsic value but some are simply not willing to accept the idea of nihilism because it is perceived as believing that there is no hope and can be no value at all to human life. But I like to remind them that nihilism doesn't say that life has no value, just no objective value. We can still give ourselves meaning and purpose and lead fulfilling finite lives.

So when it comes to tragedy and depression which none of us are immune to, atheists can seek hope in humanist values which affirms scientific inquiry and moral progression free of dogmatic constraints. Free and open inquiry will allow us to best discover the realities of our natural world, which unlock the potential to better the lives of everyone, leading to less unnecessary misery at the hands of nature. Recognizing human rights and dignity through reason will affirm the value of human beings, leading to less unnecessary misery at the hands of mankind. While this by no means will result in the end of all personal hardships and depression, we can know that we are using our intelligence to better the lives of mankind and nature not only through science and this will lead to more fulfilling lives for all conscious beings.

Happy New Year to all.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

By What Sense Can We Consider Our Cognitive Faculties Reliable?

Our five sense are what we use to interpret the world around us. They feed our brain information, and we use this information to perform logic and reason and deduce what is and what isn't real. So by what sense can we consider our cognitive faculties reliable? How do we know if the reality we interpret really exists, or if it is just an illusion fed by our senses? Many say that we can never know with certainty that the reality we perceive does indeed exist, but rather its existence is measured by probability.

I like to think of myself as a man well exercised in logic and reason. I have patiently listened to some of the best and most knowledgeable experts on religion, science and philosophy regarding the nature of reality, the existence of the supernatural, the limits of logic and the cognitive faculties by which we all use to make sense of these things. Through the use of my senses and logic, I have came to the conclusion many years ago that naturalism best described the nature of reality since among other things, there is no evidence for the supernatural and it must be taken on faith.

Naturalism is sometimes criticized by theists by the argument that it cannot be rationally affirmed. William Lane Craig wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post recently criticizing humanism and naturalism. He writes:

For if naturalism was true, the probability that our cognitive faculties would be reliable is pretty low. For those faculties have been shaped by a process of natural selection which does not select for truth but merely for survival. There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true. Hence, if naturalism were true, we could not have any confidence that our beliefs are true, including the belief in naturalism itself! Thus, naturalism seems to have a built-in defeater that renders it incapable of being rationally affirmed.

His statements address the heart of my concern on whether our senses can be relied upon. Dr. Craig says that evolution may not select for truth and so naturalism can thus be an illusion with no basis in reality. But knowing the truth and having an understanding of the surrounding world that is accurate and not based on illusion would indeed benefit the species that evolved it. Since we are the most advanced and evolved species that we know of, and since part of our evolutionary advantage over other species is due to our intricate grasp on intellect and being able to connect information and see patterns, we have every right to believe our cognitive faculties accurately explain reality.

So Dr. Craig is wrong when he theorizes that evolution does not "select for truth but merely for survival." Having the ability to accurately sense truth would provide an evolutionary advantage, and it seems that us homo sapiens have yielded the most benefits of this process.

So as an intellectual thinker, I have wondered like Dr. Craig whether we can believe our cognitive faculties can accurately portrait reality. All we have to go on are our senses and intellect to discern what is and what is not real. The fact that human beings are the most progressive species ever to live is a testament to our senses being accurate. Our accurate assessment of reality allowed us to exploit nature to suit our needs through the manipulation of its resources. Who is to say that our understanding of physics is an illusion?

Furthermore, he said something interesting that I think applies to theism. Dr. Craig says "There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true." I agree, and think this would be true of all religions. Having false beliefs like religion, studies show, may actually provide survival benefits in terms of how wishful thinking can sometimes benefit morale which can aide recovery from disease. But this is more of an accidental byproduct rather than a serious method to aide recovery. To best cure disease and injury, it requires a truthful biological and scientific understanding of the human body and microbial life. In other words, a more accurate understanding of reality allows for greater survival. So we were able to survive better once we jettisoned superstitious beliefs in favor of science and biology. Naturalism seeks to explain reality by what is observable and testable, and such methods provide the greatest capability for accurately describing reality.

So contrary to what Dr. Craig argues, I think we have a very sound grounding for believing our senses accurately describe reality, and that naturalism best explains it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's Christmas Time, So What's An Atheists To Do?

Every year around this time I write something about what the Christmas holiday means to an atheist like me.

When I was a kid I remember the joy of waking up on Christmas morning and opening my presents under the Christmas tree. I loved getting new toys as any kid would. Today as a grown up atheist, I see nothing necessarily wrong with gift giving, or spending time with family during Christmas. Although I don't really celebrate Christmas, an atheist can take part in these social traditions without any violation of their naturalistic beliefs.

One of the bad images atheists have is that we are trying to destroy Christmas and take the fun away for millions of its celebrants. I can fully appreciate this concern. I too am concerned that atheism can be an annoyance for anyone wishing to keep a relatively benign tradition. So I think as atheists we should conduct our preservation of the separation clause carefully. What groups like the American Atheists are doing is trying to prevent any government money and institution from funding or displaying a religious based holiday. So that means, among other things, there should be no nativity scenes on public property. When it comes to Christmas trees, wreaths and holiday lights, it gets a little more fuzzy. Some say that the lights and decorations do not necessarily have a religious meaning to them, and that the Christmas tree itself was a pagan tradition that can be secularized into a "holiday tree". So the question I ask is, do we as atheists really want to eradicate any and all visual displays of holidays, whether they are associated with a currently practiced religion or not, from all public buildings and property?

I'm actually not sure. Imagine a public building displaying Halloween decorations or Thanksgiving day decorations. None of those holidays are associated with a practiced religion today, indeed Thanksgiving was never ever a religious holiday. Would this be OK according to the American Atheists? Just how far should the "wall of separation" between church and state go? If Christmas is a pagan tradition adopted by Christianity as I and many others see it, than can we say that every aspect of Christmas  -  lights, wreaths, trees, candy canes and other visual displays, are all religious in their very nature? Might we allow a city to display on public property, (and paid for with public money) a snowman, some wreaths and a light display without any violation of the first amendment as we might also with a display of a jack o'lantern and scarecrow?

Although I have reserves about the consumerism surrounding Christmas today, I think atheists should trend carefully in the so called "war on Christmas". Officially, groups like the American Atheists are not trying to prevent anyone from celebrating Christmas, they are only trying to make sure that government does not fund or display what they see as religiously based holidays. I pretty much agree with this but I have reserves when it comes some of the holiday decorations commonly associated with Christmas. I do not see a snowman display or wreaths as religious.

Furthermore, just like how Halloween started out as a pagan tradition that was incorporated into Christianity, no one today dons masks and costumes because they actually believe it will scare spirits. The tradition of Halloween remains after the supernatural aspect disappears. Modern Christmas celebration can detach itself from the Christian mythology that it was fused together with, along with the pagan spiritual elements, so that Christmas becomes a holiday solely focusing on family, friends and gift giving. The Christmas mythology need not be suppressed, but rather it should be regarded in the proper domain myths belong to, where they are not in any way based in reality.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gun Debate: My Thoughts

The recent tragic shooting in Sandy Hook Connecticut has griped the nation in the gun debate in the past few weeks. This is a debate that we seem to be having over and over, every time that there is a senseless mass shooting. Personally, I have been a long term supporter of 2nd amendment rights and have been a member of the NRA for years. I don't always agree with their politics rejecting all regulations of weapons laws, and understand that they are largely today an organization that tries to get republicans reelected.

It seems reasonable and obvious to me that we can preserve an individual's right to bear arms, and also have reasonable laws and regulations that restrict certain people from getting their hands on guns and assault rifles. A starting point would be a requirement that all gun sales require a background check by closing the loophole at gun shows. Additionally, I support regulations banning large capacity magazines and certain military style assault rifles. Newer proposals include ideas where we have smart guns where only the person who owns the gun can fire it with the use of fingerprint recognition technology.

No amount of regulation of weapons is ever going to prevent every massacre, so I think we also need to address the cultural impact surrounding our problem with young men and boys mass killing others.

I was in high school when the Columbine high school shooting tragedy occurred. I remember that the gun debate surfaced in the wake of that event as well, but also a debate on the crisis of masculinity. We live in a country with a culture where if you are a male going through some trouble, you cannot cry, you cannot show emotion or admit that you are troubled or vulnerable, or else, your very manhood itself will be questioned. So we have a culture in America where the only socially acceptable way males can express themselves without having their manhood insulted or questioned, is through violence.

We need a fundamental change in our culture in the way we treat masculinity or else we will continue to see outbursts of violence by males. We need to help foster a culture where is it acceptable for males to seek help and admit that they are dealing with trouble. We must remove this idea that a "real" man is a man who is always right, always on top of his game, and never shows any emotion or vulnerability.

If we can do this combined with some sensible gun laws, then we will begin to see a decrease in the amount of mass shootings and an overall decline in violence committed by males.

Are College Campuses Atheist Factories?

While digging through some old paperwork I discovered some old essays I wrote when I was a freshman in junior college for my philosophy class. Some of these papers I had not read in ten years. It's amazing to read that even back then I was a fervent atheist. In one paper where I was to write a Socratic dialogue, I create a mock trial where I am being accused of being an atheist in a system where it is illegal. I write:

I myself am an Atheist, I don't think religion is evil, I understand it has many good aspects of it, but I just do not have a place for it in my life. Let us say for example I didn't live in this era and place of religious freedom. I probably wouldn't be an Atheist, but lets say I was in a time and place where Atheists faced punishment or even death. I am accused by the authority for not believing in God. My devotion to Atheism is so that I am willing to [face] whatever punishment they have for me, even death.

Wow. This was written on September 30th, 2001, when I was nineteen. Even back then I was devoted to atheism enough to the point where I could imagine myself perhaps dying for it. The following mock trial dialogue that I wrote in the paper contains some interesting justifications I made for my atheism. I write:

Pros [Prosecutor]: So you began to question the very existence of God. Was there a particular moment in your life when you began to question God, such as a traumatic event or was it a gradual process? 
Me: It was a gradual process. I didn't wake up one morning and say "I don't believe in God." I guess as I got older I just didn't except the explanations religion gives you. I mean it's so vague. 
Pros: So you weren't convinced from what you were taught as a child. And I;m assuming you have your own theory and beliefs of how the world was created. What is it that you believe in?
Me: Evolution. 
Pros: Evolution. I see. I've heard of this theory. Something about how we humans, are descendents from Monkeys. 
Me: Yes, and it was the Apes not the Monkeys. 
Pros: And this is what you believe in? You are positively sure that evolution is true. 
Me: From the evidence I have see, yes, and it makes a whole lot more sense to me than religion had.

It's funny how I justify the world's existence through evolution, which not only does it not address the origin of the universe, it doesn't even address the origin of life itself. At nineteen, I wasn't as knowledgeable about the cosmological arguments or any of the other ones which theism uses. That didn't stop me from getting an A on the paper though.

In this introduction to philosophy class, I do remember us students having our beliefs challenged. Most of the students I was with were people who believed in god and I remember that many of the assignments and reading we did on morality were challenging to the idea that morals come from and are grounded in god.

So, when conservatives argue that colleges are really just liberalizing, atheist factories, they do have a mild point. Theistic beliefs and assumptions are going to be challenged in college, as well as long-held stereotypes of different people. College is the time to experience real diversity, and to have your beliefs challenged. Colleges are mostly liberal because it is the liberal point of view that is almost always on the right side of history. Conservatism is almost always on the wrong side of history, and we have plenty of examples of that. Furthermore, liberalism is more inclusive, whereas conservatism is more exclusive. For example, liberals are a lot more accepting of gays, immigrants and people with alternative lifestyles than conservatives are.

Conservatives have their own private colleges where they can spew out their creation "science" nonsense and teach kids that homosexuality is a choice. Fine, but public universities at least should steer clear of those non-scientific and religious based views. With religion aside, a university can still hold onto conservative politics. What we should have is debates with students participating from all points of view. College is suppose to be the time where beliefs are challenged, and if that means that someone with a conservative moral philosophy or someone with a liberal moral philosophy is going to be put in the hot seat where they will have to justify their beliefs, all the better.

Many conservatives do not want to have their student's beliefs challenged. They'd rather live in a box, where they can sometimes impose their beliefs on others without having them challenged back. And liberals are sometimes guilty of the same thing. I've met many liberal atheists over the years who I disagree with quite a lot on morality. One thing I hate to hear atheists say is that there is no such thing as morality, or good or evil, that we are all just products of our culture and families and that morality is all just an opinion. These atheists have to have their beliefs challenged too, as we all do.

So if colleges are the place to have one's orthodox beliefs challenged, does that necessarily lead to a more liberal way of thinking? I would think so. Since many conservative beliefs are religious based, and since many religious based morality has little to no secular justification, this means that morality that is ultimately held up by dogma is unlikely going to be able to withstand a torrent of secular critique. Thus, a conversion to liberalism can take place. If proper critical thinking usually leads to a more liberal or atheistic approach towards morality, then I have no problem with that in our college campuses.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

"A Case for Secular Morality" Coming Soon....

You can think of this blog as a kind of record showing my moral growth and progression. Over the last few years that I began really getting into the arguments made for and against religion, I have learned a tremendous amount of knowledge concerning morality. I am developing my own moral philosophy concerning the nature of good and evil, and the source of morality. When it comes to ethics, we all have our own opinion. My goal is to simply offer my beliefs on the matter and have them compete in a free market of ideas where the best system of ethics wins on its own merit and logic.

So, I am beginning to write now a relatively brief and simple to understand paper outlining my moral philosophy, taken from the beliefs that I have already outlined on this blog. It will be called "A Case for Secular Morality" and it will be my attempt to explain as best I can, the precepts and principles of my moral system with regards to my atheism. I hope I can pull of a decent paper. I want to make it easy to read and interesting so that the laymen on morality can make use of it. In my paper I will address some of the objections that I have encountered debating theists who believe that only with god can there exist a complete moral system. Depending on the eventual size of the paper I will either post it on here whole or in sections hopefully over the next month or so.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Does Religion Retard Human Achievement?

It might seem pointless to pose the question of whether religion retards human achievement to atheists since we pretty much already know that it does. So my question is not really to address whether or not religion retards human achievement ( it does), but rather to address whether or not it is possible that religious people can recognize that it does, and understand that it's this retardation that bothers most atheists, free-thinkers and progressives.

Most atheists in the West are humanists. On the American Humanist Association's website, humanism is defined as:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Now humanism is not a default belief given the absence of religion. There are many other alternatives that can compete in a free market of politics, philosophies and ideologies. Humanism must therefore be arrived at through the use of critical thinking with the goal to seek the "greater good of humanity".

When I debate with conservative theists on the epistemology of truth, they all believe that the use of logic, reason and science, are inferior to the "truth" of revelation; meaning, if a supposed revelation gives us a claim to scientific or moral knowledge, even if it seems counter-intuitive, mankind's use of his critical faculties is futile, or in the case of Islam it is forbidden, to try to better explain events or arrive at better truths. So to the conservative theist, revelation must always supersede any amount of knowledge that contradicts it.

One of the most enduring arguments that Christopher Hitchens repeatedly made against religion, was that religion forces us to constrict our critical thinking abilities, - the most important abilities that we have, in favor of unproven dogma believed on faith. This is a retardation of human achievement if there ever was one.

But through all my debating what I have not been able to achieve, is to get any theists to admit this and say something like, "yes religion does hinder critical thinking, and that can slow human achievement, but my religion requires that I belief certain things on faith." If a religious person actually said something like that, perhaps with a difference choice of words but with the same overall message, I think it would be a milestone in the debate between reason and faith.

Instead of an acceptance that religion retards critical thinking, I get a bunch of history lessons thrown at me about Islamic and Christian scientists who made great achievements in math and science. For example, one Muslim debated me this position:

You still keep lying & saying that Islam retards Human-achievement, yet you have absolutely no proof of this. However, there are countless historical & contemporary proofs that the light of Islam has inspired Muslims to excel in the fields of history, science, medicine, mathematics, and the list goes on. In fact, the world-renowned “1,001 Inventions” exhibit, which highlights the technological achievements of Muslims, over the past 14-centuries, as well as the renovated Islamic-Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, thus proves how Islam helped, and even pushed people towards greater understanding of the cosmos, art, mathematics, technology, etc

Now I don't deny that there have been many people who believed in god that have made great achievements for mankind, but I cannot also forget that it was institutionalized religion in Europe and the Middle East, that feared many discoveries these inquisitive minds brought us because it contradicted long held assumptions founded on dogma. So I respond saying:

I fully acknowledge achievements made by Muslims during the golden era. But Islamic thinking (much like how Christianity was centuries ago) began to resent the critical thinking that lead to scientific and philosophical progression. Greek philosophy, which Arabs had preserved, became illegal to copy; the Ash’ari school of thought which still dominates Islamic thinking today, closes off the idea that human reason, science and observation can discover scientific & moral truths, and instead believes only revelation can do so. This is clearly evident in the way you argue. This lead in part to the decline in Islamic science and understanding, and the West, which had less restrictions on reason and logic, passed the world in all areas of achievement. So, if you do not have a free and open system, that allows all ideas to compete in a free market, where the best wins, you will retard human achievement. And Islams does exactly that.

When religion turned against the free pursuit of knowledge, many great minds were jailed, tortured, killed, and burned alive in the religious war against knowledge before, during and after the Middle Ages. Just because a person can be inspired by religion to pursue knowledge, doesn't mean that the religion as a whole supports an open platform for free inquiry if it also held down by unproven dogmas, as all religions have. 

Religious people do not want to publicly acknowledge the fact that religious dogma can hinder the pursuit of truth because they know that by doing so they will be admitting that religion acts like an anchor that prevents growth and thus retards our body of knowledge. That is why atheists like myself are extremely passionate about maintaining a system in which the free pursuit of knowledge, unchained by any dogmatic beliefs, continues to thrive. 


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