Thursday, December 27, 2012


**Note: I recently participated in the National Novel Writing Month, and this post is an adaptation of a chapter from that project, so it doesn't quite read like a standard post. A more technical summary of reductionism can be found on Less Wrong's reductionism sequence, and specifically this page.**

Plenty of materials have unique properties, but they're not fundamentally unique. The unique properties are traceable back to small differences in the underlying arrangement of matter- number of valence electrons in the outermost shell, or atomic weight, or electronegativity, etc. But the same structure is underpinning all of it. Materials aren't fundamentally complex, they're fundamentally simple- made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons. That's it.

Reality isn't fractal; the huge differences we see on the macro level don't translate to huge differences on the atomic level. You can zoom in farther and farther, and eventually you come to a level where everything is made out of the same basic stuff, and it's just the arrangement of that stuff that makes all the difference.

Thoughts and desires aren't fundamentally complex either. Sure, they're big and complicated at a macro level, but if you zoom in far enough, it's all electrical charges running around in your brain. There's no substance to them, no form, except that our bodies- our hardware- interpret them to mean something. Thoughts aren't real things outside of the environment of your own brain. Humans are really good at interpreting the thoughts of other humans because we share that context- our brains know about thoughts because our brains have thoughts. But there isn't some 'thought' form that actually exists in physical reality.

Consider the following thought experiment: you write the word 'blue' on a piece of paper, and when you place a rock down on the paper, the rock turns blue. Then, if you put the rock down on another paper with the word 'green' written on it, the rock turns green. What would this experimental result mean for your belief system?

For me, it would utterly destroy my belief system, because this result is fundamentally absurd. The words 'blue' and 'green' don't actually mean anything on their own. Green and blue are fundamental things, but the words 'green' and 'blue' aren't. From the rock's point of view- I can't believe I just said that, since rocks obviously have no point of view- they're just a collection of ink molecules spread out over the paper's surface. They only mean something in the context of the language they're written in- only people who read and speak english would know what those words meant.

If we saw this experimental result, there's only three possibilities I could think of to explain it. Either the rock does speak english, or someone who speaks english is controlling the rock, or 'green' and 'blue' are real things. Fundamental things. Things on which the laws of nature act. Obviously the words 'green' and 'blue' aren't real things outside of the english language, but thoughts...

And that's why religion is defeated by reductionism. Because if what religion claims is true, then thoughts are something other than neurons firing. And if that's true, then the brain is just an interface for something much bigger, much more complex. It's just a piece of machinery that interprets the form of thoughts into electrical signals capable of controlling material bodies.

Now you might ask, what's so wrong with that? Isn't that what people mean when they talk about souls?

Well, that's not actually how brains work. If you damage one part of the brain, the victim is left unable to speak. If you damage another, he falls asleep without warning. If you stimulate another part with electrodes, the test subject literally becomes a sociopath, no longer hindered by moral attachments. In the real world, the brain affects thoughts, not the other way around. It's not that the brain is some conduit that allows thoughts through, and brain damage means those thoughts come through muddled or somehow less clear. It's that damaging the brain fundamentally alters those thoughts. It alters the way we think, not just the output. Sociopaths aren't just outputting actions as if they have no conscience, they're thinking and making decisions as if their conscience doesn't exist.

More fundamentally, physics only acts on particles, not on forms. Physics doesn't care that you've assembled the particles into the shape of an airplane- it just goes ahead and applies gravity, strong force, weak force, and electromagnetism to each and every particle, and calculates the interaction of each particle with each neighboring particle, and the result is a solid object that flies through the air if you go fast enough. The form is important to us, but it's not important to physics.

But even if the soul was a thing, and even if the brain was acting purely as an interface between the mysterious soul and the physical world, we still have a problem. We've now posited the existence of a fundamentally complex thing- either that, or we're positing some simple “soulitrons” that combine to make up a soul. But the whole reason we wanted to invoke a soul in the first place was so that we could get away from the idea that all humans are is a complex arrangement of simple things! If we're willing to say souls are complex groups of soulitrons, then why aren't we willing to say that human behavior is better explained as being complex groups of electrons, protons, and neutrons?

At this point, the religious may raise an objection: I've already said that's it's possible someone who speaks english is controlling the metaphorical rock. What about God? Surely you can't rule out the mystery of God as the explanation of a soul?

There's really two problems with this. First, mysterious answers to mysterious questions simply aren't helpful. And second, now we're positing God as a fundamentally complex thing. What is God made of? Goditrons? God is infinitely more complex than we are. We can't posit God as a “necessary being” as a solution to the fundamental complexity problem- or, notably, the first mover problem- because the idea of God is way more complicated than, well, pretty much any other explanation.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bowing Out Ungracefully

If you look at the blog archive, it's pretty clear my blogging has lost steam.  Part of that is time constraints, part of it is laziness, and part of it is that I don't feel like I really have anything that pressing to write.  I think I've worked through most of the major areas that have troubled me (at least to my own satisfaction).  Moreover, I've written down most of my important thoughts for future reference, which was a huge part of my goal here.

I've said in the past, I don't particularly like philosophy, I just care about it because I think it matters.  I think I've reached a point where I'm pretty sure I've got (a good approximation of) the right answer- at least, confident enough that I'm not going to spend all my free time on philosophy anymore.  I've still got a backlog of 50 or so books to read (almost done with "Four Witnesses", "The Republic" up next), which I intend to keep making my way through.

I may still post occasionally, and I'll for sure hang around other people's philosophy blogs- because those are interesting- but for posterity, if I never post again, it's not because I lost interest or had some horrible accident.  It's because I reached a conclusion.  I'm pretty sure Atheism is true (specifically, materialistic reductionism)

That's it.  Thanks to those that took the time to engage with me here- Jennifer, Ray, Leah, etc- many of you helped me along a great deal.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Buddhism, Part 1

As part of my investigation into religion, I decided several months ago that it made a lot of sense to investigate religions other than the one I happened to be born into.  As part of that effort, a few months back I did some studying on Buddhism, and never got around to formally writing up my thoughts, so here goes.

The book I read was What the Buddha Taught, and I was really struck by two things.  First, Buddhism seems to get right all the things Christianity gets wrong, but get wrong all the things Christianity gets right.  Second, even after making an effort to understand it, I still find myself rejecting Buddhism not just as wrong, but as self-evidently absurd (and this concerns me greatly).  I'll talk about this second point more in my next post, but for now, I want to deal with the first point.

For those unacquainted with Buddhism, I would definitely recommend reading the book yourself.  It's quite short (less than 100 pages), and even has some cool pictures of Buddha statues.  A final word of caution, my analysis here is working off of a single book (which itself is really more of a summary) written by one guy, so I'm sure I've still got plenty of misconceptions.  But if misconceptions stopped us from making authoritative-sounding claims, all of Congress would be out of a job.  Heyo!

What Buddhism gets right and Christianity gets wrong

Buddhism has this wonderful view of how to pursue truth that's about 2300 years ahead of its time.  It rejects authority in the forms of Faith and Tradition, and instead exhorts the follower to "come and see" rather than "come and believe".  It is a prescription for arriving at your own knowledge, finding Truth for yourself, rather than being told what's true by a religious teacher.  It's really a fundamental rejection of Authority in favor of Truth, which carries with it the implicit assumption that Authority and Truth are different things. The Christian basically claims that Authority and Truth are one and the same- that anything that has Authority is wholly and completely true (usually either the Church or the Bible, depending on the denomination).  But I don't think anyone reasonable could deny that people in the past have taken action based on these Authorities and have been wrong.  The Church was responsible for the crusades, and the Bible has had to be reinterpreted several times, notably to disallow slavery and to allow the equal social standing of women, just to name a few.  So while the Christian may hold that the ideal Church or the properly interpreted Bible is categorically true, the Buddhist seems to have the weight of history on their side- it's incredibly unlikely that all the past believers of a religion have been wrong, but all the current ones are right, particularly since we are taught our religion by all those wrong-headed believers from the past.

Buddhism absolutely prohibits violence in it's name- you are not to make others believe, but only to offer them Truth that they may have the chance to seek more of it if they so choose.  Buddhism, seemingly unique amongst all religions, has spread through peace.  There is, as always, contention over exactly how peaceful Buddhism is.  I'm certainly not the expert here, but I will say that if What the Buddha Taught is at all accurate, then at the very least Buddhism places a much higher premium on peace than Christianity.  Abrahamic religions tend to treat violence, be it in the Old Testament or the End Times (or Jihad), as a necessary means to an end.  Buddhism treats it as wrong in all its forms.  Even if Buddhism does have some violence in its history, there's still a pretty stark contrast between modern Buddhism's view of violence with modern Christianity's view of violence.

Things Buddhism gets wrong and Christianity gets right

Buddhism rejects Doubt.  It is explicitly called out as something that is going to prevent you from reaching enlightenment.  This doesn't jive with me at all.  Bayesian belief doesn't allow for doubt-less belief. We literally can NEVER be 100% sure of anything, and claiming that we can seems to me at best bad epistemology, and at worst an invitation to ignore evidence (I confess to being a bit confused by the duality presented in What the Buddha Taught- Doubt is listed as one of the "five hindrances to progress", but the author also cautions against "being attached to a certain view" as foolish and unwise).  Christianity, on the other hand, seems to embrace doubt.  Admittedly, many Christian families and denominations do not, but pretty much every famous Christian philosopher (Catholic or otherwise) has gone through severe doubts, and come away better for them.  This one's a no-brainer for me.  Without the possibility of doubt, you've given up any hope of fixing your beliefs if you're wrong.

Buddhism advocates for detachment. It basically says that "Dukkha" (loosely translated "suffering", though the author stresses that this is an inadequate translation.  Think along the lines of the Christian term "broken") arises because of our "thirst" for things of this world.  It says that these desires are what stop us from reaching a true understanding of reality, which is what leads to enlightenment.  This idea that "thirst" is the evil in itself is just plain weird to someone who comes from a Christian background. Christianity (in my estimation) teaches that this thirst is pointing us towards something much grander. It teaches that this thirst can be quenched, and indeed that a passion for good things (or passion against bad things) is one of the primary moral imperatives in this world. Love God and Love others- and Love is not detachment. I think the Christian view fits a lot better with my empirical experience- the happiest times in my life are when I've been in love, or passionate about something, or have a goal I'm striving towards- not when I've been detached.

Buddhism (or rather, the Buddha) flatly refused to answer some questions.  What the Buddha Taught basically says that our human-ness matters more that these unanswerable metaphysical questions.  Now, I'm generally on board with this sentiment- I agree that our Human-ness matters a LOT more than metaphysical questions in terms of how we live our day-to-day lives.  But I also think that these questions can help us differentiate which religion (if any) actually makes sense. That is to say, once you're a Buddhist (or a Christian or a Muslim), it's not such a big deal to not have an answer for these questions. But when deciding between these religions (or if you believe any of them at all), we ought to hold them all to the same standard. Since these metaphysical questions seem to me some of the best arguments against Atheism, it's important that religion offers a better answer than "it doesn't matter", or it hasn't differentiated itself from Atheism.  One thing about Christianity- a lot of its answers aren't convincing, but it always has an answer.

But Buddhism goes farther than just refusing to answer a few question.  This particular book says things like "Nirvana is beyond all terms of duality and relativity" all the time.  He never nails down exactly what he's saying. It seems like there's pattern here of hand-waiving; Buddhism can't answer what Nirvana is like, it can't explain where right and wrong come from, it can't explain where the Arahants go once their bodies die, and most importantly, it can't explain where any of it comes from, other than to say "it comes from itself" in some infinite cycle. It's certainly unfair to accuse Buddhism of this without acknowledging that both Christianity and Atheism do some hand-waiving themselves, but it seems like the hand-waiving of Buddhism is much more foundational than the other two.

Buddhism also has no answer for determinism.  Here again it does some hand-waving, but it can't ultimately tell us why we as rational agents matter more than the sum of our parts anymore than atheism can.  The Arahant is only the Arahant because he could not be anything else. And the non-enlightened is only non-enlightened because he has no choice. That's the crux of it- without a non-physical "soul", it seems to me we've lost the ability to say that we "choose" anything. We've lost will itself.  Christianity has an answer for this.  Granted, it's an answer that's often shrouded in the mystery of "God's ways are higher than our ways", but at least it's an answer.

Finally, Buddhism is the only philosophical system I know of that really embraces the idea that you're really nothing more than the sum of your parts, and that "you" isn't actually the "you" you think it is- it's just whatever signals happen to be running around your brain at the moment. Certainly most forms of atheism lead to this conclusion- but usually it's followed by a wholesale rejection of the idea that this negates the concept of finding meaning. Buddhism, in contrast, seems to make it the goal to come to terms with your non-individuality, and sort of assimilate back into the universe (for lack of a better phrasing). The point is to get to a place where you recognize your non-individuality and you cease to even desire individuality. I certainly don't find that model very compelling- my moral intuitions point pretty clearly towards individuality and freedom being some of the highest "good" we can find.


It almost seems like Buddhism should be labeled "Romantic Atheism".  It rejects basically everything "spiritual", but tries to hold on to meaning by talking in terms of morality, though I've yet to see any basis for calling something "right" or "wrong" in a Buddhist framework.  In that sense, it finds itself vulnerable to the same moral relativism charges levied against Atheism. They both share the fundamental flaw that they can't tell us WHY humans matter. Buddhism talks a lot about the value of life, and how we ought to be compassionate and loving to all things- while simultaneously denying that things have a "self" to begin with. I can't rectify these competing values in a single world view- either in atheism or Buddhism. I'm actually thankful for the parallels I see between the two. I'm tempted to attribute my lack of understanding to a cultural bias of mine, that I am simply thinking like a westerner and don't understand. But it seems to me that lots of westerners make this claim too, and I don't agree with them either.

But I'm still really unclear on who/what is actually getting enlightened if the mind/consciousness is just physical. Buddhism talks of disciplining the mind, but who or what is doing the "controlling" of the mind to discipline it in the first place? If we have no true sense of self, then it seems like there's no reason to care about finding enlightenment- and more importantly, nothing to be enlightened.

I also found the author's criticism of theism a bit wonky. Pretty much any of the objections he made- "Though highly developed as theories, they are all the same extremely subtle mental projections, garbed in an intricate metaphysical and philosophical phraseology"- seem to apply word-for-word to Buddhism as well.

Ultimately, I think I would give Buddhism a lot more credit if I had never been in love.  Buddhism claims that detachment is the path to enlightenment.  But my experience (and intuition) tells me that passion- whether for a person, an activity, or an ideal- is the only thing that gives life meaning.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Falling Out of Love

Bear with me here kids, this post is going to get a little personal- but I promise it's going to resolve to an actual philosophical point at the end.

As readers may or may not know, I've been in love with a Christian girl for the last several years- since back before I left Christianity.  Recent events (last 6 months or so) have made it clear that I need to move on from that relationship.  I'm now trying my best to fall out of Love with her.

Now, I've got a couple of options here:

1) Forget her.  Facebook combined with my lack of self control makes this a difficult proposition, but not impossible.  I could certainly keep busy enough to at least minimize the amount of time I spend dwelling on that past relationship

2) Get angry at her.  There's plenty of things from our past that I could get angry about (some that I genuinely am angry about, no encouragement required).  Villifying another person is a pretty common mode of human interaction.  If you're liberal, then those conservatives are souless sycophants.  If you're conservative, those liberals are brainless ideologues.  Especially in the case of interpersonal relationships, when things go wrong, the safest thing to do is usually to blame the other person.  In my particular case, if I'm mad enough, that might assuage some of the pain associated with missing that relationship.

3) Wait.  This might or might not work, but either way it's not very helpful in my current position.  More to the point, this seems like either a glorified version of option 1, or worse, a claim that the emotional pain will eventually form the equivalent of emotional scar tissue.  That which used to hurt will no longer hurt because there are no more nerves left to hurt- not because I'm in any better of a position, and not because I've made any real moral or emotional progress.

Here's the thing: I'm really suspicious of any solution that involves either ignoring or fabricating facts about reality. 

I want to understand and act on reality in any given situation.  This desire is the basis for my rejection of Christianity, and it would be pretty hypocritical for me to not apply this to my personal life as well.  So to me, the problem with all the solutions I've suggested so far is that I actually love her. Forgetting that might be temporarily useful, but it has me dealing with a map that isn't a good representation of the territory of my life.  Ideologically, I'm flat out against self-deception, but even practically speaking, this seems like a really bad idea.  All it takes for any of these solutions to fall apart is for me to have a single real conversation with her.  In that conversation, I'm reminded of all the good things about her, all the reasons I fell in love, and I'm reminded that, while her actions may be objectionable, her motivations are not.  She legitimately cares about me, and doesn't want to hurt me.  And how angry can you really be with someone who's trying to do what's best for you inside the framework of what they think they're allowed to do?  She may be wrong (I think she is), but she's not malicious.  And it's hard for me to stay angry at someone who has my best intrest at heart.

Now we're finally getting to the point.  Two of them, actually.  First, this thing called love is... pure.  I can't think of any other word for it.  There's a lot in the Bible that I don't agree with, but "love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud"- that stuff is spot on.  I've talked before about how I find the existence and quality of love a pretty good argument against materialism, but the further I go in this process, the more convincing it gets.  I have absolutely no explanation for why I don't hate this girl.  It seems like I should.  The only reason I don't is that I have this weird connection to her called "love" that I'm literally unable to overcome (I've tried).  It's actually acting as a stronger motivator than my empirical experience of being continually hurt by that relationship- and that just gives me the epistemological willies. 

I'm not sure how to rectify this with atheism.  The argument can certainly be made from evolutionary psychology that my experience of love is an evolutionarily selective behavior- that people who experience this kind of love are more likely to have a family and hang around for the development of the children, and therefore their children are more likely to succeed.  But first, that seems pretty ad hoc to me- it's a decent after-the-fact explination, but not a great prediction.  And second, I as a self-aware moral agent value happiness a lot more than I value evolutionary fitness.  The experience of love- at least this part, the experience of leaving love behind- is pretty damaging to happiness, in both the short and the long term.  It would seem that my optimal happiness strategy (at this point) would be to find a way to circumvent the love mechanism in my head- find a way to be happy without it, and get rid of my need to find love in the first place.  If I can find happiness without love, that's a lot less risky of a way to go through life (using the simple heuristic that my own happiness is the ultimate goal of my existence).  Once again, here I am fighting against evolution.  And this is the core of my ongoing problem with atheistic morality- it always seems to end with me fighting against evolution.

But there's another reason I'm not comfortable with this intentional abdication of the experience of love.  I think I'm more convinced of love being a moral imperitive than I am of just about anything else.  Call it irrational if you wish (I do), but my empirical, emotional, and consequential experiences all tell me that love is the most important thing in this life.  It seems likely, at this point, that my life would be better going forward if I found a workaround for love- but even if that's true, it still strikes me as the wrong thing to do.

The second point of this post is more of a question: how do you kill something that is good?  It seems like a lot of people at one point in life end up in a position where they're actively trying to fall out of love.  It's sort of nonsensical to try in the first place.  The very act of being in love should entail trying to preserve that love- and it's this cognitive dissonance that's rendering my attempts at "moving on" through conventional means pretty ineffective.  I can't "move on" because the desire to move on is incompatible with the experience of love.  If I were capable of moving on, I would no longer be in love, and would have nothing to move on from.

But supposing we get to the point of wanting (or needing) to kill something that's good, how do you go about it without damaging your moral compass?  I'm straying into virtue ethics here, but how do we destroy something valuable without simultaneously devaluing it?  Is it even possible to force yourself out of love while also realizing what love actually is?  This seems a lot like the argument that God is constrained to good because he alone understands the full consequences of good and bad.  It seems like, the more clear understanding you have of what it means to love, the harder it's going to be for you to choose to stop loving.