Monday, January 14, 2013

Agnosticism Vs. Atheism Part 2: Levels of Disbelief

Over a year ago I wrote a post differentiating the agnostic and atheistic positions. I said that in the absence of empirical proof of the existence of god, the evidence for and against god is weighed. The agnostic thinks the evidence about even, and the atheist thinks it's weighted in favor of there being no god. But I recently thought about a recent post of mine regarding Christopher Hitchens' definition of atheism, and so I decided to create a scale with nine levels of belief and disbelief in god ranging from strong atheism, to strong theism.

On my scale shown above, the moderate atheist can stop short of saying "There are no gods," but can say "There almost certainly are no gods. I therefore don't believe in any gods." In other words, given the weak evidence for god, and the powerful explanatory power of science, moderate atheism can affirm a warranted belief in the ability of science to naturally explain the existence of everything in the universe, including the universe itself, without the need for a deity.

Imagine this question posed to a non-believer: Are you an atheist that asserts the proposition that god does not exist, or do you simply withhold belief in god in the way the agnostic does?

This is an interesting question because it seems to accuse the moderate or weak atheist of really just being an agnostic. Does an atheist have to confidently assert that god does not exist? To me really anyone who falls short of at least saying "I believe in god" is an atheist. Since the agnostic doesn't actively believe in god, he or she is technically an atheist.

But let me answer this question using an analogy. Imagine a friend told you they saw Bigfoot outside their bedroom window the other night. Your immediate reaction would probably be disbelief, despite your friend insisting he saw Bigfoot. Most of us, including myself, would require some good evidence to prove that Bigfoot was really lurking outside your friend's bedroom. And in the absence of such evidence, you could rationally conclude that there was no Bigfoot, and that your friend either is lying, saw something that wasn't there, or saw something like a man in a Bigfoot suit. In other words, in the absence of evidence, the default position is disbelief.

I treat the existence of god the same way. In the absence of empirical evidence that cannot be explained by science under naturalistic causes, the default position is disbelief. This is especially so when the claim being made requires the supernatural. That means I say "I don't believe in god" but I don't say "I know god doesn't exist". Proof of non-existence is not required in order to not believe, all that is needed in the case of god is a plausible natural explanatory alternative. So therefore on the scale above, I would generally fall under moderate atheism because I do not assert that "there is no god," since it cannot be proved.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Perspective On The Problem Of Evil

I don't often write of the problem of evil on this blog because to be honest, it is not an aspect of religion that deeply concerns me. I don't think the existence of evil proves or disproves god. I can actually understand the idea of allowing human free will, which would consequentially allow humans to inflict harm on others. Suffering caused by nature is a bit harder to accept however. The idea that earthquakes, floods and diseases can cause misery and suffering not only to humans but also to animals, is very hard for me to reconcile with the idea of a god of love. This is especially true when you consider that god might have designed every deadly pathogen and exactly how it causes the being it infects to suffer and die. I wonder what a good god must have been thinking when designing the intricate viral and bacterial mechanisms that would later wreak so much pain and misery.

This is all explained as the result of man's sins. Man's sins brought this evil into the world, and if it were not for this, our world would be perfect and free of suffering. Millions of Christians accept this sorry excuse for an explanation. Logically speaking, if no living thing ever died, the world would be plundered of all its resources. It doesn't take a genius to see that coming. But it is easy for me to target the low hanging fruit of fundamentalism. Let's take a moderate Christian view that understands Genesis to be symbolic. This take on Christianity sees that god is more like an artist or a farmer - he set the universe in motion and let evolution take control naturally. That way deadly pathogens evolve out of the same evolutionary process that elephants, dinosaurs, fish and people do. If there is no original Adam and Eve, then original sin may have taken place at some point in the past when god chose to reveal himself to us. Either way, death and suffering would have predated original sin, and so the instability of tectonic plates, weather and disease are somehow the result of a natural process that god started and knew would happen. It's equally perplexing.

What about the idea of god sending people to hell for worshiping in other religions or not worshiping at all? Is there any conflict with this and the idea of a just and loving god? I think so. Imagine Christianity to be true. That means the pious Muslim, who devotes his whole life to worshiping god according to the tradition he was born into, gets a very rude awakening upon his death that he has been wrong all his life, and must now suffer the consequences of hell. The same is true for the Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, and depending on what denomination of Christianity, the Protestant and the Mormon. All of these people wanted to sincerely worship and sacrifice according to the traditions they were born into, but because of the geographic bad luck of having been born into the wrong faith, they spend an eternity in hell.

I find this idea hard to reconcile with the notion of a loving and just god. I mean, where's the mercy? Where's the compassion? Why couldn't god make his existence more clear instead of mysterious and invisible? How can a god of love sentence someone to eternal hell-fire simply because they were born into the wrong religion, or were thoroughly misguided by science? Why would a loving, just and omniscient god choose to make his point by rewarding those who happened to win the lottery of geographical luck? Regardless of what monotheistic religion is true, if anyone of them is, it means billions of people today are going to hell. It means billions more who have lived and died have gone to hell. The majority of the world's population is going to hell, all because of a lack of evidence and bad geographic luck. Considering this, I think it would be wantonly cruel if a god did exist and didn't reveal himself or make his existence verifiable for the sake of the billions headed towards hell. Anything short of this is unjust and I would argue, intentionally evil.

To me it isn't man's evil that I find difficult to reconcile with, it's god's evil and indifference. That's how I would interpret the problem of evil with respect to religion.


A Poem

I exist not to be seen,
clouded under a shroud of darkness.
I am not to be heard but only for my words.
Darkness is my escape,
it is my sanctuary.
I avoid the light as much as necessary.
Glimpses of myself rile up feelings of sadness.
I no longer seek company like I used to.
I no longer wish to be seen.
I want to disappear.
Consciousness has become my enemy,
forcing me to endure time as it passes with decreasing speed.
I wish death could be so simple.
I wish death could provide hope.
I no longer dream about the future like I used to.
Now the past is all I have.
I regret that I had not done things differently.
It is so hard to accept such a tragic fate that has befallen me.
I wish it never were.
I wish I never were.

Alas, all tears eventually dry in the sun.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Should We Only Believe That Which Can Be Scientifically Proven?

The philosopher is the lover of wisdom. To not think, is his worst crime. 

Consider the following proposition:

  • We should only believe to be true that which can be scientifically proven

And now ask yourself:

  • Is this proposition self contradictory due to the believed inability to scientifically prove that we should only believe that which can be scientifically proven? 
  • Is this a case of positivism? 
  • Does the existence of transcendent experience, moral experience, philosophical and metaphysical facts, and historical facts exist beyond what science, or knowledge gained through our senses can measure?

Perhaps my bias as a naturalist will become apparent, but I generally agree that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven, because if something can be scientifically proven, we can know it is true. And unless there is some invisible force deliberately messing with our senses (whose existence we could never prove) we can reliably trust that our cognitive faculties are accurate.

Now there are areas of knowledge where science gives partial explanation, but falls short of proving it. For example, the multiverse theory hasn't been proven but is speculated within the laws of physics. A lot of science is theoretical in the sense that it is not yet a valid scientific theory. That's fine, every scientific theory starts out as just a regular theory. When something falls short of being proved, then we should also consider the theory not as fact, but as a possibility.

One thing is for sure, and that is science works. Science has been the most successful method for discovering facts that mankind has ever utilized. Science is the reason why most of us exist, and it is the reason why we have the modern world. Now to say that it is a logical contradiction that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven because we can't prove that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven, is a philosophical and logical play on words, as I shall examine.

If you're going to say that personal intuition, or that revelation is a better way of coming to know truth, I am sorry to say, but this is demonstrably untrue.

  • Personal intuition and revelation are about as reliable as guess work is when it comes to finding the truth. 
  • If you grant one revelation, why not grant all the others? The fact that revelations contradict each other and sometimes even contradict themselves, is reason to question their validity. 
  • If revelation and intuition are contradicted by science, we always go with science because science is evidence based. 
  • If science ever gets something wrong, and it does all the time, the scientific method has a built in self-correcting mechanism that revelation doesn't have. In fact, we use science to disprove revelations when they make scientific claims larger than they can justify.

So I want to examine a few of the areas that are believed by some that are said to transcend the domain of science.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sex & The City: A Few Notes On Polyamory

I rarely write about my sex life or my personal life on this blog so this is a marked occasion. As man who has never been married, and who doesn't particularly like the idea of marriage, I've been a pretty active player in the dating field over the last decade or so. And living in New York City, I perhaps have benefited by having a front row seat to seeing cultural trends develop.

One growing trend I've noticed today is that many young women and men are identifying as polyamorous. Polyamory is basically when you have multiple sex partners at the same time and are open about it. So a woman may have several men and women in their lives that they are having sex with, and vice-versa. What I wonder, is whether polyamory is a natural evolutionary expression of human sexuality given that we are no longer really having sex to reproduce anymore.

Throughout the 2000s I was dating a pool of 20 something post-college grads and aspiring wannabe actresses (AKA waitresses). If a girl liked me when we started dating, sex usually came quickly, sometimes it was the first "date", but often no more than a few dates later. The women in the 21st century always seemed pretty sexually liberated to me. I even dated a few girls who were so sexually aggressive they intimidated me.

The modern sexual revolution, enabled largely by the birth control pill, allowed people for the first time in history to be able to have sex without a condom where there was a reasonably high expectation that the woman wouldn't get pregnant. This lead to "free love" and non-traditional displays of human sexuality (i.e. fornication). This also helped ignite the gay rights movement not much later.

Four decades later, the children and grand children of the sexual revolution have continued to make what was once non-traditional, the new normal. Homosexuality and gay marriage for example, are such non-issues to much of the liberal and progressive world that we have simply moved on to more important issues like the environment and the economy.

Today in most of the industrialized world, when a boy and girl start dating, if there is mutual attraction and a connection, they will usually begin a sexual relationship shortly thereafter. This is the norm today as it has been for decades. Polyamory evolves from the idea that having a committed monogamous relationship with one person is too restrictive, unsatisfying and perhaps too suffocating. I can understand this. A woman for example, might have a man in her life that satisfies her manly urge, and another woman who satisfies her female urge. Men can do the same, although it seems to be more rare. It is interesting to note that polyamorous relationships do not always have to involve bisexual people who want to have the best of both worlds at the same time.

Let's look at the morality behind polyamory. I personally have no problems with any juxtaposition of sexuality as long as it is between adults and is consensual. Although conservatives hate the idea of people having open relationships, they must face the facts. For some people, the idea of a monogamous heterosexual marriage does not come natural and can seem even oppressive. This cookie-cutter mold may fit some people, but it does not fit everyone. So to each's own, they say.

People have been cheating on their significant others since the beginning of humanity. I've never really had much faith that long-term monogamy was practical or even natural. Polyamory seems to be just the natural evolution of our sexuality given that long-term monogamy is not feasible for some of us. It basically says, "Hey instead of cheating on each other behind our backs and being deceptive, let's just be honest with each other and agree that we will also see other people." I find this a lot more moral than cheating behind someone's back.

Now the critics will say that having multiple relationships is unnatural and will inevitably lead to heartbreak and failure and that traditional marriage is the only route to go. Now that may be true for some people, but it's for everyone. For some, polyamory is the only way they can naturally express themselves in relationships. We must also recognize that polyamory certainly isn't for everyone just as heterosexual marriage isn't. Human sexuality is extremely complex, and it is much more than boy meets girl, they get married and live happily ever after. Human sexuality is a complex range of interconnected relationships, fetishes, and gender-roles. Sure heterosexual monogamy is one of them, and if that works for some people, then fine. But it must be acknowledged that there are other types of relationships that deserve just as much legitimacy.

So finally, am I personally into polyamorous relationships? Well I have to be honest that I've never actually had an open relationship and I tend to prefer being with one person at a time. But, in the right context, I'd certainly be open to a polyamory.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Not Kill, Rape & Steal If There Is No God? A Christian Fallacy

Why is it commonly assumed by some theists that unless everyone operates with the belief that there is an all-seeing skygod above them, we will all just give into every desire and steal, rape and kill? This is was the "fundys" (fundamentalists) insist what will happen if we remove god from society. Other more progressive theists only argue that without god there is no objective morality. I can understand how one could make that argument (even though I think it's wrong), but not the irrational notion that we'd all be bloodthirsty killers in need of a next victim without god. Where does this irrational belief stem from? 

I think it stems from the Christian notion that we have rebelled against god and that our true nature is one that is only out to gratify our carnal lust and that the only restraint against this will be in the form of the punishment of hell. Christianity in other words, has a very negative view of humanity. It can't fathom the idea that humans can exercise restraint on their own reconnaissance. Under Christianity, we are basically savages who are only tamed with god's commandments. This is an old Iron Age piece of "wisdom" that has been handed down through the generations and has survived perhaps because it was created at a time when we were more or less savages, at least to others outside our tribe.

Iron Age man knew nothing of course of evolution, and how it explains the origin of morality. His brutal nature towards others and lack of empathy towards others in different tribes made him project this state of existence onto all of mankind. It is amazing how Judaism and Christianity were obsessed with chastity and sexual purity. Christianity goes even further and takes it to sexual purity of the mind. What mankind did with religion, is set aside all the natural desires we have (some of which are necessary for our procreation and survival) and cast them as the product of evil and demons so as to believe a mind free of any desire is a mind in touch with god.

This helps associate desire with evil and lack of desire with good and god. So fundis think without god, we are only beings with desire. And since there is no hell without god, why not just give into every desire? They lack knowing how irrational that would be and how evolution shaped us to behave towards a moral system that benefited the group, not the individual, since after all we are social primates.

As I try to explain the practicality and necessity of behaving morally to a Christian fundi, they falsely assume that atheism will necessarily lead to irrational ideas and behavior. When it comes to the practicality of the golden rule I had the following exchange with a Christian:

Christian: [Under atheism] Why shouldn’t we harm others if it means being able to propagate our superior genes? 
Me: Well we compete with others to show off when it comes to finding mates all the time. But truly harming another over sex violates the common sense golden rule: you wouldn't want to be killed so another man can have your wife/girl friend. 
Christian: I don’t think that [the golden rule] can be defended on a purely logical or pragmatic basis. In its defense you wrote, “you wouldn't want to be killed so another man can have your wife/girl friend.” Although this is true, there is no logic or pragmatic consideration that would prevent me from thinking, “I’m going to get him before he gets me,” or “There is nothing that compels me to live like those others with their cattle mentality,” or “There’s no higher law that requires me to reciprocate. I am free!” In other words, there is no logical and necessary connection between the way that I want others to treat me and the way I should treat others. 
Me: Under the Protestant interpretation of Christianity that you subscribe to, god judges us not by whether we lived a good and moral life, or whether we were evil. Going to heaven or hell is determined by one thing and one thing only, that is whether we accept Jesus as our personal savior. So that means I can kill and steal and rape all I want, and if I sincerely repent and trust in Jesus, I go to heaven. What is to stop a Christian from reasoning this way? Why can't they just say "well Jesus died for my sins, therefore if I don't sin, he will have died in vain. Therefore, I should sin as much as possible so that Jesus' sacrifice is more important!!" Now you might say "oh no rational Christian would behave that way." Well perhaps, but no rational atheists would say "There is no god, so I can kill and steal all I want!! Hooray!!" 
My point being, that under atheism one has to behave irrational in order to violate the golden rule and just think he can kill and steal whatever he wants. Irrational people will always do irrational things. And if I grant that, then the Christian has to grant that it is possible for a Christian to act irrational within the rules of Protestantism, and think he can rape, kill and steal, and still get into heaven, which is technically possible. So the Christian's argument gets him no where: Both the atheist and theist will have to act irrational to be irrational. That's not news to anyone. The only difference is that the atheist does not have to believe in irrational and counter-intuitive commandments that he must still think are relevant.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Nightmare of Eternal Life

Like most rational people, I gave little thought that the world was going to end this past December 21st. Why do some people become so happy on the sobering prospects that the world will soon end? It must be sprung out of some gloating fantasy to see the wretched perish. I have never had such fantasies. I can say however, that I have occasionally wished the world's demise when I was in the pit of a depressing episode, but only because misery loves company. Is that the reason why some choose to go on mass killing sprees? Perhaps.

I have thought about death many times and I have to say, it does stir up uncomfortable thoughts. The idea that I will one day have to leave the party, while it goes on without me is not particularly pleasant. Discoveries will occur, technology will advance, culture will progress and evolve, good times will be had, and I won't exist to know of any of it. But another more uncomfortable idea, is that the party will go on forever and I won't be able to leave. I will be forced to stay, consciously aware, forbidden from achieving the peace of mind that death offers.

That is the idea of heaven, and it has never really appealed to me. I don't actually wish for eternal life, as is promised me by Christians. I think of it a rather hideous prospect. I can understand someone who is dying at the age of 40 or 50 to wish for many more years of life, but who in their right mind would actually want to live forever. I mean think about it. To exist consciously forever, as an unembodied spirit, in some sort of fantasy land where detailed descriptions are nil and open to all kinds of conjecture, I think would eventually and inevitably drive one mad.

Even if in heaven you are allowed to indulge in every temptation forbidden to you during your terrestrial life, how long could that entertain you before you inevitably bore of it? If in heaven you become knowledgeable of all the universe's mysteries, so that there are no more to discover, wouldn't an existence without curiosity become one with no purpose? What would you do in this situation after, say, a thousand years of existence? What about ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million? Even after all of this time, there is still eternity to look forward to. What could possibly keep your consciousness occupied for eternity?

The only thing unavailable to you in heaven is death. Death is the one thing you could never and can never have. You cannot die, you cannot cease to exist consciously. God wouldn't allow it. He has determined that the consciousness of every conceived human being exist eternally as a "reward". Since we all want what we can't have, you would eventually become obsessed with death, but it will always be out of reach. You will be able to have every possible experience except death, but you must exist eternally, that's the whole plan.

Intellectually, I have never heard a Christian plausibly explain these problems to me. I for one am looking forward to not existing consciously. Sometimes it is my conscious itself that drives me crazy. I think too much about too many things and I wish I could turn my mind off sometimes. I actually do hope that death is eternal non-existence. I don't want to be aware of my surroundings forever, and the very idea of it make me depressed. So when theists think they are making the offer no one can refuse, (that of eternal life) I can say to them that the very idea seems like hell to me. It is a good thing that we have no serious evidence that consciousness exists beyond the death of our brains. I certainly sure hope it doesn't.


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