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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Dangers of Being Happy

*Note: I use the word "happy" here pretty loosely.  I don't want to get bogged down in a discussion of happiness vs. joy vs. contentment, when I really mean all of them at once, so feel free to substitute your favorite word for "happy" throughout the post*

I'm pretty sure I could be happy as an atheist.

I know this because I've been happy as an atheist in the past.  Sure, it would require some cognitive dissonance on my part- I would have to reject the nihilism that seems to me incumbent on the atheistic worldview- but I certainly wouldn't be the first to do so.  More to the point, it's starting to look like any cogent world view is going to require some cognitive dissonance on my part.

It often crosses my mind, as I'm driving to work, or sitting at home browsing reddit, that if I let myself, I could be happy right now.  I could pretty easily choose to focus on the present moment and the things I'm pretty sure have meaning, even if I don't have a metaphysical basis for why I think they have meaning.  I could still value love, empathy, conciousness, and the human experience, completely devoid of a moral framework to back it all up.  Believe me; I've done it before.

But I'm really, really nervous about choosing to be happy, for two reasons.  First, it seems like once you allow yourself to be happy, you've eliminated the motivation to keep looking.  Unless you're really, really sure that your philosophical system is the right one- or that it doesn't matter one way or another- then being content with your philosophy is the most dangerous thing you can do. 

Second, I'm pretty sure I'd rather be right than happy.  This is not an ideological stance, but rather a practical one.  It seems really likely that the consequences of being wrong are a lot worse than the consequences of being unhappy.  This is definitely true if any religion is correct, but even if atheism is true- to bend our moral intuitions to some external authority of religion is a really bad idea if we pick the wrong religion.  People have written entire books based on the strife that religion has caused- and continues to cause- in human society.  If there is no God, then the best thing we as a species can do it get over it and make the best of reality.

My belief system at the moment is extremely uncomfortable.  But if being uncomfortable is the natural outcome of my belief system, it seems better that I remain uncomfortable rather than paper over any holes in my metaphysics like a college senior moving out of a dorm.  This leads to the question I really don't want to ask- is it ever ok to be happy?  It seems like the answer here has to be "no", unless I'm really sure I've found the truth.

To be fair, it's not like there's no middle ground between being happy and thinking for yourself.  But I've seen in myself that the main motivation for me to care- the reason why I spend so much time and energy on metaphysics, philosophy and religion- is my philosophical discomfort.  If being happy entails ignoring that discomfort, then I'm going to go do more worthwhile things (read: play more video games).  I'm just not that interested in philosophy. I only care about it because I think it matters.  And once (if) I no longer have any need for it, I expect I will jettison that part of my life in favor of whatever else catches my fancy.

I wonder how other people deal with this problem.  It seems like most of the people roaming the philosophy blogosphere are genuinely interested in philosophy, so it's not such a problem for them.  But there's plenty of people- most people- who go about their everyday lives without so much as a thought towards metaphysics.  I'm suspicious of the heuristic they're using to reach the conclusion that they've done enough metaphysical legwork to find the local maximum of philisophical utility; how did they decide when they were done thinking about their ethics?  We all act on our ethics, but which ethical standards we use is highly dependant on which metaphysical system we adopt.  If Christianity is wrong, then Christians are doing life wrong.  If Atheism is wrong, then Atheists are doing life wrong.  And I'm not at all sure how to bootstrap myself out of a sort of inherent uncertainty about my metaphysical system with the level of confidence I would need to declare myself unequivocally right about things.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stargate Epistemology

I love Stargate SG-1.  It's probably my second favorite TV show of all time (behind the incredibly under-appreciated comedy series Better Off Ted).  I like it so much, in fact, that I'm watching the whole series (all 10 seasons!) on netflix right now. Sometimes I feel guilty about watching netflix instead of reading, but then I remember that the only way my apartment ever gets cleaned is when I have the tv on in the background, and I don't feel so bad.

One of the best things about Stargate is that it delves into some really complex topics, from ethics to epistemology to the very definition of a God (including several incarnations of how to deal with the Sati problem) in enough detail that it actually makes you think about the right thing for the characters to do.  The show also deals with pretty much every major sci-fi trope, including time travel, advanced alien races, faster than light travel, artificial life forms, and parallel universes.  Not to say that the show isn't sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it is without a doubt expansive.

As I'm watching through the whole series, I find it to be a good analogy to my experience of reading through the Old Testament in big chunks.  Before doing so, I had only digested the Old Testament in little pieces, and the whole thing read quite differently.  Likewise, watching whole seasons of Stargate over a few days is quite different than watching them one episode at a time.  The big thing I'm noticing is that there are certain themes that are popping up relentlessly, in almost every single episode.  There's two specific themes I want to mention here.

First, the epistemology of the main characters.  It seems like every other episode, someone is getting their memory erased.  Off the top of my head, I can think of three instances where characters got taken over by aliens, two where a character was taken over by a machine, four where characters had their memory wiped or replaced, two where all the other characters had been replaced with aliens, one where the main characters were themselves machines (but didn't realize it), and two where a character was brainwashed.  They deal with the topic of epistemology a lot.

What I've noticed is that their answer is always the same- and it's the answer the viewer intuitively agrees with (or at least, the answer I intuitively agree with).  The "right" action for the characters to take- the action the viewer, who is generally omniscient after the first 15 minutes or so, is rooting for the character to take- is to be suspicious.  In the Stargate world, someone is always trying to trick the good guys, but they never actually know someone is trying to trick them.  Now, it's pretty clear that the only way to get by in that kind of world is to be suspicious of pretty much everything.  But I'm going to argue that that's the only way to get by in any world where there's even the possibility that someone is trying to trick you.

All these different episodes give us some concrete (if farfetched) examples of how and why it's important to be skeptical.  They attempt to demonstrate that bad beliefs have bad consequences.  If we take that as a given (and I think most people would), then we're left with the question of how often we're proffered a set of bad beliefs.  The answer in our modern society, no matter what you believe, seems to be all the time.  Since so many of us hold mutually exclusive beliefs, we ought to be really suspicious of all of them- including our own.  I've gone on the record about skepticism in the past, but I left out the fact that (almost) everyone is a skeptic- of other people's beliefs.  You have to be, or you just end up at some useless pluralist belief.  The better question is how we treat our own beliefs.  I seem to agree with the writers of Stargate- the only reasonable way to treat our own beliefs is with a hefty dose of skepticism.

The second really interesting topic is the question of what it even means to be a God.  There are several alien races running around the Stargate universe, but there's three main ones that impersonate gods at various points: the evil Goa'uld, the benevolent Asgard, and the frighteningly god-like Ori.

I'm always a little disappointed by the writer's treatment of the Goa'uld.  The Goa'uld are a race of parasitic snake-like creatures that crawl into people's heads and take over.  They imbue their hosts with great strength, intelligence, and healing powers, and they have the proverbial sufficiently advanced technology that appears like magic.  They go around enslaving human worlds, pretending to be gods from ancient earth cultures (Ra, Apophis, Anubis, Nerti, etc).  Problem is, they make really unconvincing gods.  They war amongst themselves.  They have children which eventually usurp them.  They are considered immortal, but they seem to kill each other fairly frequently.  It all sounds a great deal like the gods of ancient Egypt (not surprising, since that's what most of it is based off of).  It seems to betray my modern western monotheistic bias that I find such depictions of gods unconvincing.  So far as I've been taught, people in the ancient world actually believed these things.  The fact that I can so easily dismiss them- not just as true, but even as reasonable plot devices in a story- makes me question whether the idea of any God at all does not sound plausible to me simply because of the culture I was raised in.  I wonder if I had been raised in a purely secular culture if I would view the Christian monotheistic God- who sent his Son in human form to be sacrificed at the hands of humans in a small corner of the desert a few thousand years before society had advanced to the point of being able to accurately verify and record such events- with the same level of smug indifference as I currently view the false gods of the Goa'uld.  I roll my eyes at the gullibility of the humans taken in by the Goa'uld, but humans really and truly did believe such things at one point- no doubt with simillar resolve as religious people today believe.

The Asgard present another interesting case study.  They are a benevolent race that protects human societies from the Goa'uld, but they still pose as gods.  They consider these societies to not yet be "ready" (read: advanced enough) to abandon their religions.  Frankly, it's a pretty condescending view of religion (it seems pretty clear the Stargate writers are atheists), but it shows the viewer something of an unattended side effect.  There are a few episodes where SG-1 tries to convince some native peoples to take some drastic action to save themselves instead of trusting in the power of Thor (the Asgard take on the form of old Norse gods), and it's shocking how very little difference there is between an Asgard world and a Goa'uld world.  In almost all cases, the people are sort of blindly flailing at some idea of God, rather than interacting with the gods as they are.  Typically, the people have no direct interaction with the diety of choice, but they construct whole theologies and moral systems around them.  It's really interesting to see the parallels between blindly following a "good" false god and blindly following a "bad" false god.  At least in the Stargate universe, it matters less than you'd think.

It's the last race that I find the most interesting.  The Ori are a group of "Ascended" beings from another galaxy that ultimately seek dominion over our own galaxy.  They have a sort of treaty with the "Ancients", the group of Ascended beings that live in our galaxy, but that doesn't stop them from sending what amount to missionaries- albeit extremely powerful and aggressive missionaries- into our galaxy.  These Ori are really close to our definition of gods- they have powers well beyond our comprehension, and well beyond our ability to interfere with.  Really, there are only two things that disqualify them being gods- first, they're not good guys.  They have most of the powers of gods, but they use that power for inherently selfish purposes (they draw power from worshipers, so they go about "converting" every civilization they find).  We have this idea that any formulation of God is necessarily benevolent, but I'm not so sure I buy that notion- and Stargate makes an attempt to call us out on our seemingly artificial limitation on the character of a god or god-like being. 

The second thing disqualifying the Ori from godhood is that we know they're not gods.  We know that they are ultimately just beings like us who ascended to a higher plain of existence.  This begs the question, what exactly do we mean by God in the first place, if not a being that exists on a higher plain of existence than us?  If it's not intuitively clear to me that we can assume the character of any God would be benevolent, it's even less clear that what it even means when we say "God".  If what we mean is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, then we have a good definition, but at the expense of leaving any room for our own lack of understanding.  I guess what I'm saying is that it's not intuitively clear to me that we can define God in the first place, much less why such a being would necessarily be the only possible kind of super-powerful-godlike-being.  The only way I can imagine arriving at a particular conception of God would be if God revealed himself to be a particular way and of a particular character (as many religions claim he has).  But even if we take this route, we've negated the effectiveness of a great deal of apologetics arguments.  The nature and character of God does not seem to me to be evident from the world we live in, so the only possible convincing evidence for God would be direct revelation- a claim that unfortunately many different religions make.

But my favorite part of Stargate is watching as two characters- Teal'c and Bra'tac- try to convince their fellow Jaffa that the gods they serve are false.  It's not at all close to a one-to-one mapping onto the way Christians and Atheists interact, but it's usually an epistemologically interesting discussion.  Plus, it usually ends with Teal'c and Bra'tac beating the pants off some bad guys.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interpretive Dissonance

I've noticed recently how sure everyone seems to be that their worldview- and all necessary conclusions flowing from that worldview- are correct.  And I've noticed that after a worldview makes a truth claim about reality, adherents of that worldview act as if this claim is unavoidable, inevitable, and unquestionable.  They act- and worse, argue- as if this claim stands on its own, and is not derived from or dependant on their particular worldview.

I'm calling this phenomenon Interpretive Dissonance, because it's advocating that we take as an axiom a truth claim that was arrived at only after the facts had been looked at.  It's a reversal of the proper order of reasoning- going from "I believe A, which implies B" to "B is axiomatically true, therefore A must be true because it implies B".

For example, I recently had a conversation with one of my fundamentalist evangelical friends where I asked her if she  had ever considered Catholicism.  She told me she could never be a Catholic because "Catholics don't see the relationship with Jesus as personal.  They think you need to go through a priest and through Mary to get to God."  Now, leaving aside the question of whether or not this is accurate to Catholic theology, what was really interesting to me was this presumption that the only conceivable God of the universe would be her specific conception of a personal, relational God with Jesus as the go-between.  It struck me was that the question in her mind wasn't "is Catholicism true?", but rather "does Catholicism conform to my current beliefs?"  She had this idea that God must be personal, and (her understanding of) Catholicism didn't fit that arc- so she rejected Catholicism out of hand, before even considering that it might actually be true.

Not too long ago, I got into a debate about gay marriage with an old Bible teacher of mine.  I am happy to listen to arguments against gay marriage (or homosexuality in general), and there are some decent ones (mostly centered around the natural law and preserving same-sex friendship).  His position, however, was that the old testament explicitly set up the idea of "traditional" marriage Christianity advocates for today.  I pointed out that, in the Old Testament, Eve is created as an afterthought to Adam, only once no other suitable partner could be found, and further that pretty much the entirety of the Old Testament promotes polygamy (and, in many cases, keeping a harem of concubines) as the proper ordering of sexual relationships.  But he had reached this conclusion- that heterosexual monogamous marriages are the proper expression of human sexuality- and flatly could not conceive of a reality where this was not true.  He had interpreted the New Testament and modern Protestant teaching (both of which do give a legitimate basis for "traditional" marriage) and was convinced that the Old Testament must not only be compatible with, but actually advocate for this same teaching.  He wasn't looking at evidence and arriving at a conclusion, he was starting from the conclusion and working his way back to how to interpret the evidence.

But I think the most obvious incarnation of Interpretive Dissonance is in the Christian idea of needing a savior.  I've been told repeatedly that I need to "recognize my need for a savior", and that my rejection of Christianity is really just a prideful rejection of my need to be saved.  But here's the thing- the conclusion of our need for a savior comes only after our conclusion on the character and nature of God.  I freely admit that if the Christian worldview is true, I absolutely need a savior- I am a sinner more than most.  But it's ludicrous to say that I need a savior a priori to deciding what I believe about God.  It's crazy to say that our knowledge of reality is so precisely calibrated that the only conception of God that could possibly exist would be one that sent his son as a savior for mankind.  I have no problem with people who find that theology the most compelling, but I have a huge problem with people who assume I secretly agree with them.

I think there's a really easy proof against this a-priori-savior concept. Consider the people who lived before Christ.  These people lived in the same world as us, but there was no savior yet.  The necessity of a physical, relational, personal savior can't be an ontological imperitive, unless you're claiming a rational human being in this period would arrive at the conclusion without divine revelation that a savior must be coming in the future.  Other religions talk about needing to be saved/forgiven/recieve grace from God (notably Islam, which basically says it's God's volitional forgiveness that gets believers into heaven, since no human acts are good enough), and there's nothing about reality that inherently requires a physical human incarnation of God to act as our eternal savior.  That may be the most compelling narrative- and it may in fact be true- but a claim that it is necessary is either a claim of divine revelation of its necessity, or a claim of a complete and unflawed understanding of the character, nature, and choices of God.

I've found Interpretive Dissonance to be really common among evangelicals, but this is by no means a flaw unique to protestants, or even unique to the religious. For example, I've been really disappointed with the response to Leah's conversion. Scant few of the comments I've read have been reasonable objections to her epistemology or challenges to specific Catholic beliefs. Mostly, it's been condescending Catholics playing the "a real search for truth always leads to Catholicism" card, and frighteningly dogmatic atheists railing against the stupidity of religion. Both groups (definitely not everyone involved, but a significant portion) are taking this position that the other side is absolutely nuts. They don't seem interested in looking at the evidence and seeing where it leads, but rather have decided where the evidence should lead, and are going to interpret the evidence in such a way, no matter what the evidence is.

And that's the real problem with Interpretive Dissonance.  It stops asking the question "is this true?" and starts trying to conform evidence to the hypothesis.  It's every bad scientific and statistical methodology rolled into one.  Once we believe something to be true, we shouldn't be locked into it to the point where everything we see must support that conclusion.  All that is is a recipe for believing  in perpetuity the first thing that happens to clear our Bayesian threshold.  It's OK to have conflicting evidence.  In fact, any position that reasonable people disagree on should have conflicting evidence.  If you legitimately don't see the conflicting evidence in the cases where reasonable people disagree (even within your own worldview), then you probably need to jettison your interpretive practice, because you're doing it wrong.

I do want to be clear that I'm not advocating that everyone "play nice and get along".  These are important questions, and we should be trying to convince each other of what we think the truth is.  But we need to do it by rationally weighing the evidence the other side presents and actually updating our priors when we find good evidence in either direction

Finally, in the interest of using actual scientific terminology, I should point out that the idea I'm trying to get at with Interpretive Dissonance is really some combination of anchoring bias, the backfire effect, confirmation bias, the observer-expectancy effect, and (most directly) belief bias.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Holy Unexpected Development Batman!

So, Leah's a Catholic

I have to be honest- I'm not shocked by this.  Surprised, absolutely- I did not wake up this morning thinking the next Unequally Yoked post I read would be in Patheos' Catholic portal.  But Leah has held what I consider internally inconsistent beliefs for quite some time (and she knew it).  I've been quite vocal about the fact that I can't rectify virtue ethics (or really any other ethical system) and the materialism I think necessarily follows from Atheism, so I'm not surprised that someone who I agree with a lot couldn't rectify them either.  She's just a lot more sure of the former than I am.

That said, this is a staunch departure from some of her comments as recently as 8 months ago.  I'm really interested to see how she goes about dealing with all of the reasons she's given in the past for why Catholicism isn't compelling to her.

In point of fact, she seems concerned with much different features of religion than I am- she is concerned mostly with morality and telos, whereas I spend a lot more time looking at the less attractive parts of various religions (like the Old Testament, or the Buddhist doctrine of detachment, etc.) under the assumption that if you reject one pillar of a given religion, you must reject the entire religion.  I don't know that one method is categorically better than the other, but I am really interested to see how she defends her new position.

Ultimately, I'm really excited for Leah.  I legitimately hope she's found truth- but even if she hasn't, this will be a tremendous learning experience for her (My understanding is that she's a cradle Atheist, but I could be wrong there).  I obviously don't think she's right- at least not at the moment- but I've read enough of her blog to be convinced that she is legitimately looking for truth.  And if her search for truth has lead her down a path that I don't quite agree with, then at the very least it should be taken as a clue to me to take the position seriously.

I know from personal experience how hard a conversion can be.  You need a certain level of intellectual honesty to admit that you've been wrong your whole life.  For someone as well known and influential as her, I'm sure it was even more difficult than I realize in light of the reaction she knew her hundreds of Atheist readers would have. That takes a great deal of moral fortitude.

I'll certainly be challenging her on her new beliefs in the coming months, but for today, I'll just say good for her.  I don't agree with her conclusion, but I do agree with the way she went about getting there- and I'm definitely rooting for her.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ideological Turing Test Complete! ... you failed.

So, it turns out I don't make a very convincing Atheist or a very convnicing Christian.

Unequally Yoked recently concluded it's (annual?) Ideological Turing Contest.  You can find the preliminary Athiest results and Christian results posted already, with a promise of more in depth statistcal analysis on the way (I can't be the only one who gets excited at the words "statistical analysis", can I?).  And if there is such a thing as a winner and loser (it is a contest, after all), I most certainly lost (twice).  I was the only entrant who scored below 50% both in my real answer and my fake answer (no, that's not pride you hear in my voice).

First, a brief description of my strategy: for my Athiest entry, I tried to describe reality as I see it if Atheism is true.  I can't really be upset that most people found it not very compelling- I don't find it very compelling myself.  But I do find it the most internally consistent.

What did surprise me- though I suppose it shouldn't- is how many people thought I was a Catholic.  Certainly I've done a fair bit of religious reading over the last several months, so some of the Catholic verbiage has probably entered my vocabulary through Osmosis (references to "Authority" and Chesterton's "truth-telling thing" ostensibly gave me away as a Catholic sympathizer).  But I think my real problem is that I didn't present Atheism as a compelling framework that anybody would ever want to believe in- and that's because I legitimately don't think it is.

For my Christian entry, I made the monumental mistake of trying to immitate a fundamentalist evangelical.  I had some good reasons for doing this- I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, the vast majority of my friends are fundamentalist evangelicals, and I frankly didn't think I could hack it as a Catholic immatator.  I don't know any of the cool Latin phrases, and I was afraid I'd be given away when I launched into a paragraph-long explanation of why we can't rely on scripture in a vacuum, not realizing that a real Catholic would reference sola scriptura in any such discussion (hey look, I do know one!)

That said, I really should have realized a couple of flaws in my diabolical plan. 

First, I no longer think like a fundamentalist.  That different type of thinking is what led me to reject it in the first place, and it's only gotten worse in the last three years as I've stopped going to church and Bible study regularly.  For every question, I tried to ask myself "what would my friend so-and-so say to this?", but it turns out I failed pretty miserably at that.  While I don't think my answers were necessarily too far off from what my fundamentalist friends believe, they're waaaaaaay off from what my fundamentalist friends would have answered (this came out pretty clearly in the comments section of my Christian post.)  I care about really different issues than most fundamentalists, and I got caught red handed.

Second, there's not a lot of fundamentalists on Unequally Yoked.  I tend to think that a legitimate fundamentalist answer would not have done particularly well either (though this is pure speculation on my part)

Third, I apparently no longer know how to talk like a fundamentalist either.  Even in trying to answer in the voice of my fundamentalist friends, some Catholic ideas wormed their way in (I blame Jennifer).  In particular, the idea of the Church as a truth-telling thing once again reared its ugly head (though interestingly, Chesterton has been recommended to me by several pastors/friends/relatives who are decidedly not Catholic- and for the record, I have read Orthodoxy, but nothing else from Chesterton.  The Everlasting Man currently sits gathering dust on my shelf, 15th or so in line)

In retrospect, I wish I had either tried my hand as a Catholic (though I suspect I woul have done just as poorly), or else given my best approximation of reality if God is in fact real.  At least that would have made for a more interesting read.  Instead, I tried to tow a party line, and didn't do it particularly well.

Finally, I proffer two quotes from the comments I thought were worth mentioning:

"Plus, like math_geek says, an even moderately educated Christian would have talked of homosexual behaviour rather than homosexuality per se"

This one actually really surprised me.  I lived my whole life in fundamentalist Christianity, and this was (obviously) not drilled into me nearly so well as readers thought it would have been.  Not sure if this is a reflection of my upbringing, or of the unequally yoked community, or of how far I've lost touch with my Christian roots.  Regardless, an interesting introspective for me.

"Totally atheist. Probably just about died writing the words “I wouldn’t defer to any holy book that advocated violence or oppression.""

This one made me laugh.  He's correct in saying I don't agree with this stance- but in all my conversations with my fundamentalist friends, the majority of them definitely believe this.

I really like Eve Tushnet's conclusion on this- humility humility humility!  Even though I like to think I have a pretty good idea of all the major players at the table, it's pretty clear- both from the degree of difficulty this assignment presented me and from how objectively poorly I did at convincing people I was playing for their side- that I don't understand nearly so much as I think.

Big thanks to Leah for running the turing test, and for letting a schmuck like me have a go.  I wish I could say I would do better next time- maybe she could add an agnostic category.  I think I'd nail that one.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Making Predictions

I'm a huge fan of making testable predictions.  There are several reasons why it's important that beliefs we have (particularly beliefs that are important enough for us to act on) make predictions.

First, if a prediction comes true, it means that in this specific case, the world behaves as if our model is correct.  That's not the same as saying that our model actually is correct, but as we accumulate more and more instances of reality behaving as if our model is true, we become more and more confident that our model is at least a good approximation of reality.

Second, beliefs that make predictions are allowing themselves to be falsified.  This is either a sign of great confidence, or a desire to find truth, even at the expense of preference.  I don't trust anything that doesn't allow itself to be falsified.  If there is no set of evidence that could contradict a given position, then that position cannot be rationally held (I speak here of "evidence" in the broadest sense.  For the purposes of metaphysics, personal experience can count as evidence too)

Third, any model fuzzy enough to explain any conceivable evidence isn't actually making any claims about reality.  And any model that doesn't make claims about reality just isn't very useful.  The geo-centric model is a good example here.  As planetary orbits were observed, the data flat out didn't fit with a geo-centric model.  So, people made up increasingly complex orbits, where planets were looping around themselves, to explain the observed data.  The theory was no longer predicting results and then observing outcome, rather it was changing its underlying assumptions based on the data it observed.  Not terribly useful for anyone who wanted the model to generate any information that wasn't already known about reality.

Ex post facto predictions are sort of a can of worms- since we all know what reality is actually like, we all have a tendency to try to explain how and why our belief system would have predicted reality to be this way.  Often times we feel that if we admit that our model would make predictions that we don't see in reality, that's tantamount to admitting that our model isn't true (I don't think this is the case at all, since its possible, even likely, that we just don't understand all the ramifications of our model.)  Hindsight predictions suffer from a lot of rationalization, so they don't make great scientific tools.  However, I still think it's an interesting excercise to talk about what we think a given model of reality would predict, a priori to actually experiencing that reality.

That are really three questions worth answering in the context of this blog:
1. What would we expect a hypothetical world without God to look like? 
2. What would we expect a hypothetical world with God to look like?
3. What does the world actually look like?

1. What would we expect a hypothetical world without God to look like?

If God is not real, I would not expect life to exist.  Much, much more likely to me would be a universe of inanimate matter (or no universe at all).  However, given that life does exist (particularly the complex life we observe to exist), we would expect there to be a reasonable way life could have arisen, propogated, and grown in complexity.  We find exactly that in evolution- and we find good evidence that it has actually happened.  I would expect that the universe, and the earth, would have existed for billions of years to allow time for evolution to progress far enough to give us the current level of complexity.  We find exactly that as well.  I would also expect life to have arisen on other planets in the universe.  Surely it is too much to think that there is exactly one habitable planet in the universe, or that of all the habitable planets, one and only one actually generated life.  Unfortunately, we are a long way away from exploring the billions of planets in the universe (and unless we flip physics on its head and discover a way to travel faster than light, we will never get there).  However, if we do someday find life on other planets, this seems like a death knell for religion (although some claim that Islam predicts extraterrestrial life forms)

If God is not real, I would not expect conciousness to exist.  Even if we admit that life could arise without divine intervention, it's a staggeringly long way to go from a biological machine to a self aware moral agent.  The very fact that we question why we're here, that we even have the faculties to look for purpose, is something I would never have predicted from a Atheistic universe.

If God is not real, I would not expect morality to matter in the slightest.  We may speak of evolutionary psychology and us being social animals- and these do a decent job of explaining things after the fact- but there's absolutely no way I would have predicted that.

If God is not real, I would not expect guilt to exist.  As social animals, it makes sense that we would need something to curtail our selfish desires in favor of what benefits society.  But guilt seems to be a horrible mechanism to accomplish this.  It's an after-the-fact disappointment in our own behavior, but it's not very good at stopping us from doing the bad behavior in the first place (at least it's not for me.  Perhaps others have had a different experience).

If God is not real, I would expect cheaters, liars, and selfish people to succeed disproportionally to the rest of society.  To have a functioning (read: evolutionarily stable) society, you need to have some critical mass of people willing to play by the rules.  If you don't, then the social fabric will break down, and the resulting free-for-all is detrimental to the survival of all individuals within that group.  But, presuming you have enough of those people, there's a clear survival advantage for those willing to break the rules if the payout is good enough.  This seems to be what we observe in reality- there are lots of corrupt rich people (But perhaps we just hear about the corrupt ones?  Perhaps rich people actually are more honest, as a percentage, than non-rich people?).

If God is not real, I would expect worldly success to yield greater happiness.  Evolutionarily speaking, people should be hardwired to not be happy in low social standing, and to be happy (though vigilant) in high social standing.  This does not seem to be the case- the affluent seem to manufacture artificial problems for themselves, while the destitute often maintain a happy lifestyle.  The things we want are not the things that make us happy.  This market inefficiency should not exist in a world of evolution.

2. What would we expect a hypothetical world with God to look like?

There are actually two cases here- one is that God is real and wants us to know the specifics about him.  The other is that God is real and doesn't really care if we know anything about him.  Since pretty much all religions deal with the first case, that's the position I'll be assuming.

If God is real, I would expect it to be obvious.  It isn't.  Not only is his very existence not obvious, but even if we were prepared to take God's existence as a brute fact, it's not clear which if any of the hundreds of versions of God humanity has come up with is correct.  The fact that there is no dominant religion, some 1500 years after most of the major religions have been formulated, is totally unexpected.

If God is real, I would expect people to share a common base of morality.  C.S. Lewis makes a big deal out of the argument from natural law, but the more I've thought about it and the more I've read about it, it seems that we humans have wildly divergent beliefs about what is right and what it wrong.  Individual freedom, the value of human life, gender equality, anti-slavery sentiment, gay rights- all of these are relatively modern ideals.  We don't share a common morality with our forefathers, we don't share a common morality with our neighbors in the Middle East, and we don't even share a common morality with the various other religious groups in our own modern industrialized countries.  If there is an objective moral standard, our view of it seems totally inadequate to be making any even remotely difficult moral judgements.

If God is real, I would expect love to exist.  Particularly if God is real and deemed humanity worth creating, love- the interaction of two totally foreign beings somehow yielding an intimate relationship- seems like the engine that drives it all.  This is exactly what I find in reality (Perhaps it's too strong to say that a God-based reality would predict love, since love is a little bit absurd.  Let's say instead that it fits the framework amazingly well, admittedly after the fact)

If God is real, I would expect living things to have a consciousness.  You can't love if you aren't aware.

If God is real, I would expect only beings with a moral consciousness to exist.  I would not expect ants, mice, bats, birds, lions, or even apes to exist.  Why create a complicated biological machine that does not fulfill the purpose of love?  But we do find such machines, and we don't hold them accountable as moral agents

If God is real, I would not expect evolution.  Why go to all the trouble of creating just the first life, and letting it morph and mutate over the next 3 billion years- especially if you're capable of snapping your fingers and making it happen?  But we find excellent evidence for evolution.

If God is real, I would expect him to be living and active.  This is not living and active in the way some Christians mean- God working all things behind the scenes for the good of those who love him- but rather obvious, apparent, and actively intervening in every day life.  I would expect God to engage humanity in a relationship, and a relationship is necessarily bi-directional.  Having a bunch of puny humans sing some songs isn't a relationship.  If God wanted to be friends, if he wanted to be a ruler, if he wanted to be a confidant, he could be any of these things- but my experience in reality is that he acts as none of them.  Or rather, any one human conception of God works just as well for these purposes as any other human conception, and it's impossible to distinguish, in practice, the role of Allah in the Muslims life from the role of Yahweh in the Christians life.  They believe different things about their Gods, but they believe it on essentially the same kinds of evidence.  If one were real and the other false, I would expect one to be a demonstrably better relationship- and therefore one religion absolutely wiping the floor with the other.  And that's not what we see in reality.

If God is real, I would expect holding to moral principles to matter.  I would expect kind, generous people to be successful, and crude, selfish people to fail.  This does not always (or even often) seem to be the case.

3. What does the world actually look like?

I am surprised, in writing this post, that this is the question I'm getting stuck on.  I honestly see two different worlds, depending on which lens I look through.  I see one world where morality and justice prevail; a sort of karmic rightness, at least on a large scale.  I see another where people who lie and cheat and steal get ahead.  I see a world where love matters, where people overcome the baseness of their humanity to do amazing (and often self-sacrificing) things.  I see another where idealistic dependance on love strangles a right view of reality; we are born alone and we die alone, and everything else will eventually be stripped away.

I don't think I've made any real progress here- I still see the existence and complexity of humanity, purpose, love, etc. as the primary problem for Atheism, and I still see the existence of other religions with equally staunch adherents as the primary problem for any organized religion.  But I am curious if anyone disagrees with me about what predictions these world views would actually make a priori.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Problem of Independent Morality

*Note: I'm not very happy with the way this post turned out.  I reserve the right to make edits later, particularly if it comes out in the comments that I was unclear on something*

Many Christians (and indeed, I myself) are fond of pointing out that Atheists seem to lack any solid metaphysical grounding for the moral intuitions by which they live their lives.  Many Christians also take it as a given that Christianity solves this problem.  But I'm not so sure.

The typical Christian claim goes something like this: there is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-benevolent God.  This God is the arbiter of morality- he is both its source and it's ultimate judge. That which we call "good" could more accurately be termed "of the character of God", and that which we call "bad" is actually that which is "separate from God".

But it seems to be the case that morality in this framework is just as arbitrary as in the Atheist's.  It arises purely based on the character of God.  That is to say, if God's character had been different, morality itself would have been different.  But in reality, there seems to me a clear difference between what we call morally good and morally bad behaviors.  Morally good things are things that fundamentally benefit people- make them more comfortable, happier, more secure, more free.  Things that we call morally bad are things that fundamentally hurt people- cause them discomfort, pain, anguish, uncertainty, and fear.  Morality, in practice, is far from arbitrary.

Now the argument can certainly be made that morality is not arbitrary precisely because God's character is not arbitrary- we only consider morality "fixed" because God's character is fixed.  But I don't think this solves our problem, if only because we can conceive of a God with a different character than omni-benevolence (certainly the ancient Greeks did).  Just because a being is omnipotent, it does not follow that his moral character is omni-benevolent- even if we are somehow justified in making this claim on God's character, we're still constraining God's character to some external stanard of the moral law

Put it another way- "Omni-benevolent" is a descriptive word that we apply to God after his character is revealed.  If omnibenevolent simply meant "whatever God is", we wouldn't need to bother calling God omni-benevolent.  Even if we make the claim that omnibenevolence is "part of God's nature", that's no help here.  After all, cheerfulness is part of Steve's nature.  It may be the case that Steve is perpetually and unchangeably cheerful, but the definition of cheerful does not derive from Steve.  We don't look at Bill (also cheerful) and say "you're so Steve".  Steve and Bill both share the "Cheerful" trait, and are even defined in relation to that trait, but that trait does not derive its meaning from them.  "Cheerful" would still be a thing, even if they didn't happen to be cheerful.  Much the same, we may claim God is omni-benevolent, but that is a very different thing than saying omni-benevolence derives its meaning from the character of God.  If those two are the same, then talking about an evil (or even just imperfect) God wouldn't just be nonsensical, it would be syntactical jibberish.

Put it yet another way- we like to call God omnipotent.  But nobody makes the claim that the definition of power is "whatever it is that God has infinite amounts of".  Power is a thing, whether or not there is a God to have it.  We can say that God is by his very nature all powerful- and that may well be true- but it does not invalidate the concept of power in a framework that doesn't include God.

I think the Evil God problem illustrates that "God", while perhaps being necessarily "good" by virtue of his omniscient nature (as Leah contends in that link), is still a logically seperable concept from "good" (even if God is necessarily good in Leah's framework, then He is being constrained by good, not the other way around).  But I don't think we even need to appeal to that level of argument to get this point across to a Christian audience (since I suspect the evil God idea will strike many as fundamentally absurd).  Instead, let's look at the story of Abraham.  God directed Abraham to kill his only child in cold blood.  This is pretty clearly a morally evil action to take.  If you hear a news story about a women who kills her children because she thinks God told her too, you don't think "good for her, believing her faith so strongly", and you don't for a second question whether or not she was actually doing as she was told by God.

When I've disussed this question with Christians, I've never heard any of them say that killing Issaac wouldn't have been wrong because anything God says is by definition right.  Instead, they either point to the fact that God didn't actually make Abraham do it, or suggest the possibility of far-reaching consequences we're not capable of grasping (i.e. killing baby Hitler). In either case, we are saying that God simply would not order a senseless killing without some good reason.  This is not a claim that God is morality, but rather that God is always right about morality- and since God knows more than us, and because he has the character of omni-benevolence, we are required to trust him completely.  We are admitting here that the standard of morality is external to God- some things are right and some things are wrong, and God's character fits entirely into one of those categories.  And again, even if his character necessarily fits into one of them, that is God being constrained by morality, not the other way around.

It seems to me that the Christian is on no more solid footing here than the Atheist. Both are appealing to moral standards that have roughly the same metaphysical grounding. But here's the thing- I don't ultimately see this as a problem.  It seems pretty straightforward to me, once you've arrived at a position of valuing human life and the human experience, to arrive at a morality that says "people matter, and what's good for people is morally good and what's bad for people is morally bad". The question that Christianity tries to answer (and where Atheism fails for me) is why we should care about morality in the first place? Coming up with morality is pretty easy, except in the most extreme of edge cases; convincing me why I should care about some arbitrary electrical signals passing through a semi-randomly arranged mass of protons and electrons is a much tougher deal.

All the arguments I've read for secular morality (including the one I'm in the middle of from Why I Believed) point to rational self-interest as our reason for being moral.  This is where they all lose me.  Certainly rational self-interest is a tremendous motivator (the only thing I learned from my college economics class was the following dictum: "Incentives work"), but that's not why I want to be good (or rather, not why I want to want to be good).  I want to be good because it's the right thing to do- not because of potential divine judgement, and not because it will benefit me in the end.  Certainly my desire- and a reasonable basis for morality- are explicable in the secular vision.  They're just totally, completely unsatisfying to me.  It seems to be the case that once I recognize that morality is just a hard-wiring of my brain to prefer things beneficial to the group, my optimal strategy is to actively override my moral intuitions.  I should be good when it suits me, in case others are watching, but in the case where I'm sure nobody will notice, there's absolutely no motivation for not doing what benefits me the most.  I would certainly never donate anonymously, sacrifice myself for another, or anything else that my corrupted-hardware-brain might try to convince me to do out of some misplaced burden of evolutionary psychology.  Wanting it to not be true is not an indication of it actually not being true- but man is that a depressing reality

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Back from my "Vacation"

Well, I survived my trip to nowhere, only a few cuts and bruises the worse for it.  I'm sure I learned something important out in the woods, I'm just not sure what yet.  In the meantime, here some the things I did learn from this trip:

-When the ranger says "Oh, nobody's been up that way yet this year", turn around and go home.  Just leave.
-Look at a topographical map before you plan your route, not after.  And 3,000 vertical feet is a lot more than you think it is.
-Bringing only powerbars, trail mix, and craisins for food might sound like a good idea, but those are appetizing for exactly one meal in a row.
-If you get to the top of a snow-covered cliff, and your map directs you to go over it, don't.  In a fight between your map and your common sense, always side with your common sense (there's some analogy to morality here, I'm sure of it...)
-If you lose both your water bottles (one in a river, another in a swamp), an empty ziploc craisin container makes an excellent makeshift canteen.  Also, free cranberry flavored water.

I have quite a few entertaining stories, but none that I feel particularly compelled to log to the indelible annals of the internet.  Most of them involve me being stupid and/or doing dangerous things.

I'll be back to posting on a few of the metaphysical ideas I was ruminating on in the next couple of days.  But in the meantime, the Ideological Turing Contest is in full swing over at unequally yoked- feel free to head over there and check out the entries so far.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ideological Turing Test

A few months ago (back when I started this blog), I talked with my brother about God.  He suggested that it might be worth my while to go "looking for God" by finding somewhere quiet and spending some time listening (my brother's a nature guy).

Anyway, long story short, I planned a trip to Yosemite which has (surprise!) come due.  I'll be gone all next week, so I won't be posting or replying to any comments.

It's an interesting question as to whether or not this a good idea at all- particularly in light of this post over at unequally yolked.  Look hard enough, and you're likely to find something (I ordered the book she was reviewing, and will definitely read it... someday)

That being said, I don't think the answer is to stay at home and think your way to God (if he exists).  So, better to do something than nothing, I guess.

In the meantime, I submitted an entry to Unequally Yoked's Ideological Turing Test.  I'm both excited and nervous about this, since I seem to have the unfair advantage of having believed both sides- so it will be pretty embarrassing if/when I get caught not being able to articulate one of the two sides (though admittedly, quite a few of the readers over there have experience on both side of the fence).  Leah should be posting the entries on wednesday or thursday of next week, and I encourage people to head over and check it out- bonus points for anyone who can spot mine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

After Skepticism

*NOTE: I'm treating whether or not the reader has reached the same conclusion as me, that "all metaphysical systems seem deeply flawed", as secondary to the content of this post. Regardless of whether of not you agree, "what do we do in this case?" is still an interesting question*

So what do you do if every major metaphysical system you've looked at has insurmountable problems? Atheism can't explain where the universe came from (or why we should care).  Christianity can't give us a real reason to believe (other than no reason at all) and has a deeply flawed Holy Book.  Buddhism tells us passion is what's holding us back and utter detachment is the proper state of mind.  Islam leads to societies of oppression and violence.  Hinduism gave us the caste system.  So what now?  What happens after you apply a skeptical heuristic to the truth claims made by all the major metaphysical systems, and find them ALL wanting?

It seems like we a few options hre:
1. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely, believe the parts that you agree with, and reject the parts you don't
2. Believe the parts that you agree with of every metaphysical system you come across
3. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely to be true, and believe all of it's claims, even the ones that you can't justify belief in
4. Reject every metaphysical system since they all seem to have insurmountable problems
5. Keep looking.

I'm going to deal with these one at a time.

1. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely, believe the parts that you agree with, and reject the parts you don't

This is the approach taken by Weak Form Christianity (though WFC doesn't so much reject them as it does ignore them).  When I was a Christian, I had a fair amount of disrespect for this position.  It does seem like a bit of a cop out- can we really trust only part of a religion?  Either the religion is true or it's not- and it makes sense that someone starting a new religion would have enough insight into human behavior to get at least parts of it right.  At the very least, it seems like your religion is now a reflection of what you know to be true, and not in itself a truth-telling thing.  If we're going to accept that which we already agree with and reject that which we already disagree with, then why bother with a metaphysical system at all?  The metaphysical system isn't informing our beliefs anymore, so it seems almost superfluous at this point.

This admittedly seems like a bit of an oversimplification.  Weak Form Christianity, for example, isn't so much a rejection of general Christian teachings, but rather an admittance of ignorance as to the specifics.  You can still believe the core of a religion wholeheartedly.  But it does seem that if you reject specifics, you're rejecting the divine inspiration of that religion/denomination, and you're losing a fair bit of your basis for believing it to begin with.

2. Believe the parts that you agree with of every metaphysical system you come across

At this point, aren't you really just making up your own religion?  At the very least, this method of belief definitely can't teach you new truth.  It suffers from all of the shortcomings of the first approach, but has the additional advantage of exposing you to a broader base of truth (or at least gives you more perspectives to weigh), but  has the disadvantage of losing any claim that it is or was ever divinely inspired.  At least if you believe in Weak Form something, you can say that the underlying religion is God-inspired, if not accurate to the letter.

3. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely to be true, and believe all of it's claims, even the ones that you can't justify belief in

...or rather, act as if this system is true, since I'm not convinced you can rationally choose to believe something.  This, I think, is the option most people pick, though I'm not sure how many would admit to it.  The problem is, this is only a good idea if what you're choosing to "believe" in happens to be right- and if you disagree with the specifics, it seems like we really can't be very confident in this fact.

But the real problem here is that you've given up any ability to think critically about your religion.  Your saying that your religion is no longer beholden to your reason or experience- or at least, only parts of it are.  Again, it makes sense that every metaphysical system has kernels of truth in it.  Just because you find this particular metaphysical system to have more truth than the rest of them, that's not necessarily compelling- one of them has to more true than the rest, by pure virtue of the fact that they're different.

This seems awfully close to blind faith.

4. Reject every metaphysical system since they all seem to have insurmountable problems

In practice, these seems to me to look a lot like Nihilistic Atheism (Obviously you can't really "reject everything" while you're still alive, because you still have to make decisions about what to do and why to do it). The best argument I can give against this option is that nobody in their right mind wants to live their life this way.  That doesn't make it untrue, of course, but if it is true, then I start to question if we should even care- why not live in delusion if the truth is as horrible as Nihilism?

5. Keep looking

This is an interesting one for me.  I "kept looking" for God for about 2 years before leaving Christianity.  I was asked repeatedly why I was "giving up".  My answer was to ask another question- How long should I look for something I'm not finding before I stop looking?  You can't say "forever", because if it's not actually there, you'll end up wasting your life being obsessed over a question that has no answer.  But you also can't give up too soon, because it's not clear that if something were true, it would be obviously apparent.  What's the right amount of time to look before giving up and just doing and believing whatever makes you happy?  Six months?  A year?  A decade?  The biggest problem is that there are essentially an infinite number of religions to choose from, and you could literally go your whole life without giving them all a fair try (heck, there's almost an infinite number of denominations just within Christianity).


I'd be fascinated to hear what other people think is the right thing to do here.  I honestly have no idea.  I've thought each of them was the correct path at one point or another.  At this point, I'm still in the "Keep Looking" stage, since there are a few mainstream religions I haven't given a legitimate chance to yet.  But I'm not too far from having looked into and rejected all the major ones ("rejected" is perhaps too strong of a word.  Mostly I'm just "still unconvinced"- doesn't mean I can't or won't be convinced later).