Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Letter to an Evangelical Acquaintance


Hi [Friend] -

Recently I was browsing through my ‘library’ at home and saw the copy of The Purpose-Driven Life you got me for Christmas several years ago, along with the note about my own search for meaning in life. I actually did read the book, even though I knew something about Rick Warren then; and I found his book to be a sort of rehash of what I had been taught and what I experienced growing up in my own church, Grace Gospel Chapel in Allentown, PA.

You were right that I was searching for meaning in life; but having thoughtfully considered and rejected the world-view of my youth, I could no longer go back to it. For a long time I fought against it; but what I’ve come to realize now is that I outgrew it. 

My life’s path has gone something like this:  liberation => disorientation => despair => nihilism => affirmation. I’ve also come to realize that this path was necessary for me. Even the period of nihilistic despair was a necessary transitional stage for me. And since I now view existence as a state of continual and possibly eternal flux with no end goal, no ultimate meaning or purpose, and no divine or other supernatural sanction, I accept the fact that both meaning and purpose are moving targets for me; my life has many ‘meanings’ and ‘purposes’ - many projects of my own devising. And I evaluate others on the extent to which they can endure life in a meaningless world because they organize a small portion of it themselves.  

My approach to life, my philosophy - like Nietzsche’s - is an experimental one, and not just a theoretical one. If my life could be said to have a goal at all, it would be the desire to be that type of person who takes into himself and redeems the contradictions and questionable aspects of existence, which is really a religious affirmation of life at bottom - life whole and not denied or in part. I can truthfully say, with Nietzsche, that “if we affirm a single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all of existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event - and in this single moment of affirmation, all eternity was pronounced good, redeemed, justified and affirmed.” And I have to say I’ve had many moments in life where I have ‘trembled with happiness.’

So I thought I’d give you this book for Christmas, since it does a really good job of summing up how I came to be where I am with my world-view. The author is an atheist, but he’s not one of the infamous ‘New Atheists’ who are quite vocal and unabashedly critical of religion. He’s actually a practicing Buddhist himself. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I would at least suggest the preface, which lays out the antithesis between our two world-views, and in that way you could have a basic but better understanding of where people like me are coming from. Also good, though, is the chapter “Ethics as Human Ecology,” which does a good job of explaining how and why atheists can be good without a God to legislate or sanction morality.

And if you plan on throwing it out, please give it back to me because I could always use an extra copy! All my books are essentially my notebooks, and many of them fall apart from use. Lol.

Merry Christmas, and I wish a happy and healthy new year for you, [Husband], and the kids!

[Juno]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Deepak Calls the Kettle Black


In what is almost always an exercise in irony (and a lack of awareness thereof), Deepak Chopra excoriates Richard Dawkins and his latest book, The Magic of Reality. The book is geared towards younger readers; this is just one of the many problems Chopra has with the book.

Now, I haven't read this latest effort by Dawkins, but I have a generally favorable view of the man; but my point in this post isn't to correct any misunderstandings or misconceptions Chopra may have about it. My goal is just to contrast and compare Chopra's view of reality with the generally accepted scientific view.

Generally speaking, Chopra claims that Dawkins has taken the magic out of reality. Chopra, of course, represents the real reality; and for a steep price, you can experience this through one of his retreats.

Now, one can be skeptical of the vehemence with which Chopra attacks Dawkins, especially in the light of the fact that Chopra has his own book to promote - one he co-wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, appropriately named War of the Worldviews.

In Chopra's book, Mlodinow writes:

"While science often casts doubt on spiritual beliefs and doctrines insofar as they make representations about the physical world, science does not -- and cannot -- conclude that God is an illusion."

I agree that the scientific method can't disprove the existence of God. But it certainly casts an overwhelming amount of doubt upon its existence, especially if this God is alleged to act in the physical world.

And this is precisely what Chopra claims for his notion of spiritual reality. The many pricey programs and retreats on his site claim to do what medical science (including psychiatry) does: physical and emotional healing.

I admit that there is some support for the therapeutic effects of meditation and yoga on the human brain and body - and these were measured using the scientific method. There is no need to posit any spiritual entities or causes for them.

Chopra chides Dawkins for claiming that "to discover what is real, we use our five senses"; in support of his rebuke, he rightly claims that quantum mechanics and Eintstein's theory of relativity challenged what the five senses told us about reality. However, both quantum mechanics and relativity theory make predictions about reality, and both have been tested and subsequently confirmed through various experiments.

But what about Chopra's notion of a spiritual reality with spiritual causes? The following quote is taking from an interview with Chopra in 1995:
Quantum healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body.

Do not adjust your set - that feeling of vertigo you have is due to the fact that you've just eaten some tainted word-salad.

But, ridicule aside, none of what he just said is anywhere near the consensus of actual physicists. Here is the opinion of one prominent physicist:
Quantum physics is claimed to support the mystical notion that the mind creates reality. However, an objective reality, with no special role for consciousness, human or cosmic, is consistent with all observations.

And by "observations," he means actual, repeatable, controlled experiments with no pre-conceived notions about consciousness.

So it's not difficult to see that Chopra speaks confidently of that which he not only knows nothing about, but that which he really can't know anything about. What can it possibly mean to experience something not manifested at the sensory level? Chopra doesn't know. He merely asserts. He can't truly "know" anything without his senses. And he talks about "consciousness" as if it's the best known thing in the world. He criticizes Dawkins for not taking into consideration what those philosophers and neuroscientists involved in consciousness studies have to say about it. For instance, he says:
How microvolts of electricity and neurochemicals flying across synapses produce the entire world is a deep mystery, often referred to as the hard problem in consciousness research.

If by "produce the entire world" he means produce the entire world of our subjective consciousness, then he's correct; but none of the scientists he mentions believe that our mind/brain produces the world outside of our conscious experience, what most people call the "objective" world, or "objective" reality.

His boldness puts me in mind of Nietzsche's critiques of consciousness and the "will," especially with regard to Schopenhauer's conception of it in his The World as Will and Representation, which is very similar to the common Hindu understanding. Nietzsche's thought even seemed to anticipate the work of researchers like Daniel Wegner of Harvard, or wrote a very intriguing book called The Illusion of Conscious Will, where he casts serious - some say definitive - doubt on both our conceptions of consciousness and will. I'll quote Nietzsche at length on the subject:
Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic, and consequently also the most unfinished and least powerful of these developments. Innumerable mistakes originate out of consciousness, which, "in spite of fate," as Homer says, cause an animal or a man to break down earlier than might be necessary. If the conserving bond of the instincts were not very much more powerful, it would not generally serve as a regulator: by perverse judging and dreaming with open eyes, by superficiality and credulity, in short, just by consciousness, mankind would necessarily have broken down: or rather, without the former there would long ago have been nothing more of the latter! Before a function is fully formed and matured, it is a danger to the organism: all the better if it be then thoroughly tyrannized over! Consciousness is thus thoroughly tyrannized over and not least by the pride in it! It is thought that here is the quintessence of man; that which is enduring, eternal, ultimate, and most original in him! Consciousness is regarded as a fixed, given magnitude! Its growth and becoming are denied! It is accepted as the "unity of the organism "! This ludicrous overvaluation and misconception of consciousness has as its result the great utility that a too rapid maturing of it has thereby been hindered. Because men believed that they already possessed consciousness, they gave themselves very little trouble to acquire it and even now it is not otherwise! It is still an entirely new problem just dawning on the human eye, and hardly yet plainly recognizable : to embody knowledge in ourselves and make it instinctive, a problem which is only seen by those who have grasped the fact that so far our errors alone have been embodied in us, and that all our consciousness is relative to errors!

Nietzsche has much more to say about consciousness and the will, but this passage is long enough and should suffice. Another thing Nietzsche valued was the development of the scientific method - properly understood - and not the fruits of the scientific endeavor in particular. Nietzsche is a severe skeptic, and believed that every claim and presumption, no matter how sacred or hallowed, should be taken to court and investigated. He even famously said that "convictions are prisons."

But it seems that Chopra and those like him use the method(s) of introspection, meditation, and Yoga; and Dawkins - and scientists generally - uses the method of introspection, "extrospection"- if I may coin an awkward term - hypothesis formation, intersubjective hypothesis testing, as well as a rigorous skepticism in every step of the method. While Chopra's methods may make a person feel subjectively better, and in some instances improve their emotional and physical health, they don't necessarily get us any nearer to reality, which is what Chopra criticizes about Dawkin's new book. Scientists value and rely on their method because the employment of it produces a coherent picture of the world and makes prediction and control possible - indeed, it makes life possible. All the mystical, truly subjective (as opposed to intersubjective) experiences, intuitions, epiphanies, and dream-insights are typically unique to the individual who has them. And like I said, while it might make that particular person feel better, it doesn't necessarily reflect reality - which is what Dawkin's is trying to instill in the youngest of minds.

Monday, October 10, 2011

On 'The Creation Story for Atheists' - A Review of a Review


The Discovery Institute, the main think tank of the Intelligent Design movement, has an article posted on its site titled, "The Creation Story for Atheists."

Instead of pointing out the irony in a movement that refuses to name the 'designer' in its hypothesis for the complexity of biological life - but has no problem posting all sorts of articles claiming that the Christian god is that designer - I want to address the article itself. It is a review of a book about religion and evolution called God and Evolution: Protestants, Catholics, and Jews Explore Darwin’s Challenge to Faith.

In keeping with the Intelligent Design movement's history of opposing the scientific theory of evolution for religious reasons, the author of the article leads with this lengthy paragraph:

Here’s what we’re up against today: Two out of three college biology teachers call themselves atheists or agnostics, as do ninety-five percent of the biologists in the National Academy of Sciences. Of the leading scientists involved in evolution, eighty-seven percent deny the existence of God, and ninety percent reject any purpose in evolution. The reason is easy to find: Darwinian evolution, “the creation story” of atheists, now operates “as the normal stance of science.” In high-school and college textbooks, Darwinian evolution is taught as a blind, heartless, purposeless, unguided process that makes any spiritual explanation of life superfluous. This is our current tax-funded orthodoxy enforced by court orders. Worst of all, what is “almost universally taught in textbooks” is that man himself is the unintended byproduct of blind material forces. Is it any wonder that our culture is sinking into nihilism?

Now, as I was reading this, I was thinking Amen! to most of it - at least until the last sentence.

She's correct: evolution implies an unguided natural process; and human beings are an unintended outcome of this 'blind' material process. Where I think she goes wrong is when she concludes that all of this leads to nihilism. But first, we need to ask ourselves if our culture really is sinking into nihilism. Many people throw the word around pejoratively without defining what they mean by it - or possibly even understanding it.

Nihilism, as I understand it (and which is based primarily on a Nietzschean reading), is a psychological state that results from the realization that the natural process of perpetual change aims at nothing; that there are no values intrinsic to the world; and that there is no metaphysical unity behind this process that is in continual flux. Additionally, having realized the aforementioned delusions about reality, one admits to oneself that this is the only life there is, without recourse to after-worlds or divinities; additionally, one can't endure the thought that this life is all there is.

Now, most people who throw the word "nihilism" around think this is a permanent or indefinite state. However, I agree with Nietzsche that nihilism is a transitional state. Nihilism is the necessary consequence of the devaluation of values we've previously held. In other words, when we realize that the values we've relied upon to guide our lives are no longer tenable - or even possible - we experience a sense of disorientation, and oftentimes even despair. That feeling of despair is nihilism.

But is it permanent? For some, yes. For someone who is not compromised by mental illness, suicide can be the necessary consequence of a 'perfect' nihilism. Aside from self-destruction, a nihilist could seek to effect the destruction of everything about the world that outrages him. Perhaps this is what the author has in mind. Perhaps her formula might look something like this: scientific materialism => atheism => nihilism => moral catastrophe.

Of course, the common conception of nihilism usually evokes two abominable and dangerous ideas: lack of meaning, and lack of value. I would imagine that, in most people's minds, a nihilist who lacks or denies purpose or meaning probably won't lead to moral ruin, at least not on a societal scale; however, a lack of value - especially a lack of metaphysical value (that is, value grounded in God or some other other-worldly realm) - would make most people assume that such a nihilist has not only abrogated all traditional values, but is also actively encouraging others to slouch towards Gomorrah.

But let's unpack this a little bit. First, it's a fact that it does not logically follow that atheism is the inevitable result of scientific materialism or, as is feared most by the religious - the theory of evolution. The author even mentions two of the most prominent scientists who are also Christians: Francis Collins, an evangelical; and Ken Miller, a Catholic. However, she says of them:
In answer to Miller, David Klinghoffer warns that Darwinism makes the idea of God’s image in us incomprehensible, something that leads to “moral catastrophe.”
Francis Collins, head of the BioLogos Foundation, claims that the biological world looks exactly like the product of Dar win’s “undirected process,” and that only through faith do we recognize this apparent lack of design as “deceiving.” On this point Collins is refuted by St. Paul in Romans 1:20: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”

There are two things here I want to point out first. One is the reference to 'moral catastrophe' again. I would think the fact that there are sincere religious believers who also accept evolution would be a sort of 'proof of principle' to people like our author here. Not so.

The other thing I want to point out, and which is related to the first, is the author's use of scripture to 'refute' Francis Collins. Religious fundamentalists can't accept different interpretations of scriptural facts. Many times - and in this instance - they think that merely citing a verse is enough to refute an assertion. It's not unlike those bumper stickers or T-shirts you see that say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!"

But this leads us to ask: where is the nihilism? Where is the so-called moral catastrophe? I don't know if any practicing scientists are nihilists, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that close to none of them are murderers, rapists, thieves, or saboteurs - nor are they actively encouraging any of this behavior in others. Chances are they're no better or worse than their religious neighbors. So it would seem to me that anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that our society is not in the midst of a moral catastrophe, or slouching towards Gomorrah.

What is equally obvious is that religious fundamentalists consider things like homosexuality, gay marriage, perceived socialist tendencies - like universal health-care or taxing the rich more - to be signs of moral catastrophe. But since the term 'moral catastrophe' reeks of hyperbole, let's check the dictionary. My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines 'catastrophe' as: a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin.

It would seem to any reasonable observer that our society is clearly not in a state of catastrophe - moral or otherwise (with the exception of the current 'Great Recession' being an instance of extreme misfortune, possibly).

So I propose a new, more appropriate, less histrionic term for what our society is experiencing; what with all the loosening or transformation of traditional social mores:

Moral Evolution.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?



Aside from the fact that Thomas Jefferson edited out of the New Testament all miracles and suggestions of Jesus' divinity, is it still possible to call him a Christian? Well, certainly not in the Tea-vangelical sense of Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, or other prominent conservative politicians. But it may not be accurate to call him an atheist, at least not in the sense that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are.

Below are some relevant passages of a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams on August 15, 1820. Was Jefferson religious? Was he a Christian? Both sides of the Culture War claim Jefferson as one of their own, but the actual truth of the matter may be a little more complicated than either side would like to admit.

When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke...
At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us indeed that `God is a spirit,' but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter.
All heresies being now done away with us, these schismatists are merely atheists, differing from the material Atheist only in their belief that `nothing made something,' and from the material deist who believes that matter alone can operate on matter.
A single sense may indeed be sometimes decieved, but rarely: and never all our senses together, with their faculty of reasoning. They evidence realities; and there are enough of these for all the purposes of life, without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.

So, based on my reading (and not just of this one letter), it seems Jefferson was religious - in the sense of viewing morality as something sacred, or as a 'natural law' - but it also seems as if he was a pragmatic agnostic.

An interesting, but purely speculative, question would be: if Jefferson were alive today, with all of our scientific advances - before evolution by natural selection, before the discovery of DNA, before particle physics and relativity - would he still be a pragmatic agnostic, or an atheist, or something else entirely?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Ride in the Existential Death Cab


I can't say I know much about the band Death Cab for Cutie, other than the fact that the singer is married to one of my crushes, Zooey Deschanel. But a recent article in Christianity Today claims that they are "one of the most coherent and articulate representatives of naturalism on the American music scene today."

I don't know that they get much air play on the Top 40 stations, at least not like artists such as Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Usher, J-Lo, etc. Of the aforementioned artists, the only one that comes close to broaching existential topics would be Lady Gaga - if you can get past the in-your-face fashion statements that tend to distract more than draw one in.

After investigating some of the lyrics from Death Cab for Cutie, I would say I have to agree with the author when he says that "they provide an intelligent challenge to Christians considering the ultimate question of man's purpose and existence." Intelligent, yes; but only in relation to some of the other lyrics produced - for instance, the pure hedonism of Britney Spears singing "If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?" or Usher saying "Keep downin' drinks like there's no tomorrow, there's just right now, now, now." But let's examine Death Cab's insights, vis-à-vis this article.

The article's author lays out his plan, which is to show that the band's efforts

chart a progression through the different manifestations of our culture's naturalism, from romantic despair, to near nihilism, to the rejection of these troubling questions entirely as unanswerable and even dangerous. At the end, with no answers in sight, it is the examined life that is no longer worth living for the naturalist.

The article's author is a sophomore studying English Lit at Bryan College (whose motto is "Christ Above All"); so we can assume that he is about 19 or 20 years of age. So I think we need to take into account this fact, and the fact that he attends a highly-ranked Christian college. His treatment of his subject is thorough and well-analyzed, and his writing is polished; but the two factors noted above will obviously have an influence on his relationship to his subject. But this is true of me as well; I am an atheist who went to a private liberal arts college (though I grew up in an evangelical culture, and even believed myself to be a born-again Christian through most of college).

In brief, the author charts the band's progress first with this
The message of the song (and the album) is that life is short and difficult with no ultimate meaning, but if we can just huddle together, we may find some cure for our loneliness and despair. There is no heaven or hell, just the body heat of another mortal to keep us warm.

and
To put it cynically, love is two dying animals distracting themselves enough from the reality of their condition that they can live out their short years, relatively untroubled. Christianity provides another way, but it is important to realize just how powerful this need for companionship and connection is, even in the absence of any higher deity. Where there are no gods, humans will build them from each other.

But why put it cynically? For several years now I've been meditating on the nature of existence. I've observed the devoutly religious, the moderately religious, the thoughtful secularist, the staunch secularist, and the true hedonist. Whether we like it or not, we humans have an innate desire - dare I say instinct? - to seek out or at least experience our lives as having meaning.

The question that keeps posing itself to me is: for what are we living? Granted, this is neither a new epiphany nor an original thought. But I do mean we; if I could ask everyone what they were living for, what drives them, etc., I would. I find the question - and subsequent answers - fascinating.

Obviously the religious - devout or moderate - are going to answer that the meaning of their lives resides in God's hands; God assigns a meaning to each individual life - or at the very least, the mere fact that they are valued by God is enough. Secularists - particularly secular humanists - are likely going to respond that their lives revolve around other human lives, and, indeed, all of humanity. Some even push the envelope and include all sentient life in their circle of meaning. But these are very general, Ivory Tower-type of terms. People may hit on these when they sit back and reflect over a cup of coffee or tea, but what drives them on a day to day basis? Why live today?

For most people, there are more pressing concerns that, while maybe not immediately identified as constituting the meaning(s) of their lives, occupy most of their time and energy: e.g., raising children, pursuing a career, etc. These people, being so busy with the typical rat race, surely enjoy the fruits of the arts - at least in a hedonistic way, as an escape, a temporary respite from the grind. And there are those, like Death Cab for Cutie, who make art. But we probably have to ask: do they make art to escape or evade the inner desire for meaning, or do they make art to satisfy it?

I contend that those who enjoy art enjoy it for hedonistic reasons: it gives them pleasure; it provides them with an escape, a temporary respite from the question of existence - which is the question of meaning. This question is commonly thought most difficult and pressing for those of us who are secular. I think this is largely correct. For me, having come from a fundamentalist Christian background, the formula runs something like this: liberation => disorientation => despair => nihilism.

Now, I think there are some tangents and waypoints along this path. After extricating oneself or being liberated from one's religious upbringing, there will most likely be a period of disorientation, if not in terms of morality (we won't suddenly start robbing and killing), at least in terms of meaning (if there's no God, what does it all mean? what's it all for?). But depending on when in life this period of disorientation takes place, one can repress or otherwise ignore the problem of meaning, typically by immersing oneself in a more hedonistic lifestyle (and that doesn't necessarily mean the Charlie Sheen lifestyle!). This period could last for years - maybe even for an entire lifetime.

If the disorientation is faced squarely, however, then a creeping despair can take root and spread throughout one's entire life, until nothing gives pleasure - even those things that used to give the most intense and satisfying pleasure. Furthermore, one may come to the conclusion that real values aren't even possible - and that leads one into gaping maw of nihilism. And, of course, nihilism can lead either to suicide or an all-consuming, irreparable hatred of all existence.

And, of course, since this article is in Christianity Today, we have this:
Christianity provides another way, but it is important to realize just how powerful this need for companionship and connection is, even in the absence of any higher deity. Where there are no gods, humans will build them from each other.
Now, this is truer than the author probably realizes, and a bit ironic, too. We secularists obviously think that the Christian God was built out of the human psyche as well. So for us, this is no real insight. And for those of us who are free from the tyrannizing guilt and shame of Christian morality, we have no problem building our own gods from each other. The problem frequently lies in just what those gods should be.

But without any hint of irony, the author says, "but what cruel and fickle gods our relationships make." Cruel and fickle are two words that can describe the Christian God; and it is probably best encapsulated in the Christian's own bromide of "God answers all prayers; it's just that sometimes the answer is No." Sometimes?

Christians don't have an easier time with their relationships either. There are Christian psychologists, Christian marriage counselors and, yes, Christian divorces. Perhaps we can cut the author some slack here, being only 19 or 20 years of age, and not having experienced the world yet.

The author closes with the following thoughts:
It is much easier to assert that there is neither problem nor solution, than to live knowing that a solution might be out there, somewhere. They have given up on the questions themselves and are therefore missing the terrifying but cleansing answers behind them.

As I suggested before, there are different ways to approach the meaning of existence once one has been liberated from a dogmatic morality and world-view. Here the author suggests denial as being the route Death Cab ultimately ends up with; and I would agree with the author that many people in our culture do in fact end up employing "hedonism and naval gazing" as ways to assuage the feeling of existential emptiness and pain.

But the author seems ignorant of, or simply doesn't mention, the depth and breadth of thought that existentialism brings to the realm of aesthetics. The two the come to mind for me, and which happen to be two antipodes, are Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Schopenhauer, following along similar lines as Christianity and Buddhism, experienced the world as nothing but suffering, with desire being the cause of this suffering; so just as the Buddhist seeks a pacific Nirvana, and the Christian seeks "blessedness," Schopenhauer sought a similarly tranquil respite through what he perceived as the objectivity or disinterestedness of art, where we lose ourselves in it, and forget our individuality. Or to put it another way: with no individual, there's no individual left to suffer from existence. But this is a more nuanced description of 'ignoring the problem' that Death Cab allegedly does.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, sees nihilism as a necessary transitional stage between a life-denying, dogmatic morality such as Christianity (and even Buddhism - which is life-denying, but not dogmatic) and a Dionysian, affirming, deifying embrace of existence as it is, without subtraction or exception. If one is strong enough to endure and overcome a period of nihilism, one can begin to create for oneself one's own table of values, one's unique individuality, one's own meaning. However - and I also agree with Nietzsche on this - 99% of the population simply isn't strong enough for it.

But how invigorating, how exciting, how dangerous would be the following affirmation of life to those who are strong enough:
"If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-suffcient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event - and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed."

How clear and fresh is the air around those words! The person who can utter those words without reservation is that "type of spirit that takes into itself and redeems the contradictions and questionable aspects of existence!"

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Closed Minds vs. Open Minds


The flagship blog of the Intelligent Design movement published a post recently claiming that the Christian actually has an open mind, whereas the atheist has a closed mind. Let me address, and attempt to rebut, each claim in turn.

It is interesting that devout/militant atheists, like I once was, seem to have no doubts about their philosophical commitment and worldview.

While I can't speak for all atheists - and I wouldn't use the terms 'devout' or 'militant' to describe myself, either - I can say that I do have doubts about my philosophical commitment and world-view. Once we get beyond the everyday, practical issues of how to live and what to do, there are some interesting and compelling reasons to be skeptical about the naturalistic world-view (and of all world-views in general) - but these are rather esoteric, up-in-the-ivory tower type of considerations.

What I as an atheist am certain about is that the Christian world-view is false. Why am I certain? I come to the issue from the opposite side as this blog's author - I was a born-again Christian turned atheist. Just as this blog post's author says he found the Christian world-view more satisfying, I found the 'atheistic' world-view more satisfying. I could put it a different way: is an Intelligent Designer possible? Yes. Is the Deist god possible? I'm open to the idea, but that hypothesis would need to have some kind of evidence significant enough to overturn the current scientific cosmological paradigm. Does the god of the Abrahamic religions - or the gods of the Hindu religions - exist? Almost certainly not.

My reasons for this conclusion are too many to list in just one blog post. But my point is that I, as an atheist, do not summarily reject all other hypotheses with a closed mind; however, once I have considered the evidence and arguments for a particular world-view (in this case, Christianity), and found them wanting, I can confidently dismiss all subsequent arguments for it unless they provide me with new arguments or evidence to consider. So far, Christians haven't provided sufficient evidence or new arguments to convince me otherwise.
and they will tell you that there is absolutely no question that materialistic processes can explain everything.
This is not my view. There may be some working scientists and philosophers out there who do claim this, but I have doubts that human beings will be able to explain everything. Two majors areas of current dispute are: the nature of human consciousness, and the beginning of our universe (if it even has a beginning). We could say that naturalistic scientists believe that materialistic processes can explain everything in the natural world, but make no claims about a supernatural world, if such a thing exists. But there may be an epistemological limit to what humans can discover, given the fact that we are a part of the natural fabric of things, and don't enjoy an Archimedean perspective from which we may come at these problems from all angles. And as far as figuring out the nature of human consciousness, there are some scientists and philosophers who believe that it is in principle impossible, because we're trying to figure out the brain - using the brain.
I therefore put myself in the camp of legitimate skeptics, as a former mindless Dawkins clone with a bunch of Hitchens, Harris and Matzke thrown in for good measure.
This seems to be an odd thing to say. First, he claims to be a 'legitimate skeptic.' But my experience of Christians who claim to be skeptics - and this comes from my personal experience growing up in an evangelical church, as well as continuing relationships with those I regard as intelligent, well-read Christian acquaintances - aren't nearly skeptical enough.

A Christian skeptic might question the veracity of the biblical account of Christ's death; but once they are shown a quote or two from Josephus, they are satisfied, and they feel bolstered in their faith because they have 'supporting evidence.'

But true skepticism doesn't end with a dogma. This author may have been a skeptic before, but now that he's a Christian, he literally can't be truly skeptical about his faith - or else he will cease to be a Christian. Dogma is dogma - you either believe Christ is the son of God or not. You're either 'saved' or you're not.

Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, spoke about skepticism:
One form of honesty has always been lacking among founders of religions and their kin: they have never made their experiences a matter of the intellectual conscience. "What did I really experience? What then took place in me and around me? Was my understanding clear enough? Was my will directly opposed to all deception of the senses, and courageous in its defence against fantastic notions?" None of them ever asked these questions, nor to this day do any of the good religious people ask them. They have rather a thirst for things which are contrary to reason, and they don’t want to have too much difficulty in satisfying this thirst, so they experience "miracles" and "regenerations," and hear the voices of angels! But we who are different, who are thirsty for reason, want to look as carefully into our experiences as in the case of a scientific experiment, hour by hour, day by day! We ourselves want to be our own experiments, and our own subjects of experiment.

Making oneself into an experiment is, to me, the ultimate consequence of skepticism. This requires a high tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and change. My understanding of the Christian world-view - and, again, this is coming from someone who grew up in it, and whose parents are still in it - is that it is characterized by a desire for being and not for becoming; for permanence and not for change. The Christian may be able to tolerate these things on a small scale, on a day to day basis in terms of the inconsequential vicissitudes of their daily life; but the Christian cannot tolerate these things in an ultimate sense - as if life itself were only becoming and not being; only change and not permanence.

So, just as Christians say that the person who commits an atrocious act but claims to be a Christian isn't a true Christian, I have to say that this blog's author isn't a true skeptic - at least not according to my definition.
The really interesting thing is that my liberation from the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris-Matzke nihilistic stupor in which I lived and suffered for so many years was to a great extent the result of my interest in science, mathematics, and engineering.

This quote puzzles me even more. If this blog's author has actually read Dawkins, Harris - and especially Hitchins - he would know that these thinkers are anything but nihilistic, and their mindset is definitely not one of stupor. Maybe this blog's author experienced 'naturalism' as a nihilistic stupor, but that would be his fault, not the 'New Atheists' and not the naturalistic world-view. Maybe this blog's author needs the emotional comfort religion - especially Christianity - provides. Having come from that background myself, and having left that 'certainty' of eternal life after death and a heavenly father who watches over me, I can empathize with the author. Unfortunately, I can't respect it.

It's also interesting to note that, even though the official stance of the Intelligent Design movement is that they refuse to identify the Designer, bloggers for the Intelligent Design movement regularly invoke not just any old Designer, but the God of the Christian Bible. But that's a post for another day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On Evangelicalism and Militarism


One of the many things I have trouble wrapping my head around, when it comes to American evangelical Christianity, is the high correlation between America's armed forces and the Christian faith.

Prima facie, this correlation seems to go against everything Christ (and to a lesser extent, all New Testament writers) preached against. Turn the other cheek? Love and pray for your enemies? Judge not, lest ye be judged?

Since I believe Christians are human just like everyone else, I can understand and appreciate their desire for revenge and recompense for atrocities like 9/11. But the Christian claims to be something different, a 'new creation,' and is commanded to distinguish himself from the rest of the world. Jesus certainly did when he refused to fight back against both the Romans and Jews of his time.

But on a certain level I completely understand the Christian's desire to 'serve his country' - especially if he thinks he's serving a Christian country. But there is one issue I think the Christian solider needs to address: collateral damage. It's one thing to be able to identify the enemy who has attacked you and then try to eradicate him or neutralize him with as much force as is necessary. But it's quite another - and non-believers understand this as well - to be able to justify or rationalize collateral damage.

How does the Christian do this? I don't know. How can they? In many times in combat their actions will lead directly to innocent casualties. At a minimum, they give their assent to and are part of an organization (i.e., the military) that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of innocents; in which case, they indirectly contribute to or condone such killing.

It's one thing to take upon oneself the risk of one's own death - "those who take up the sword shall perish by it" - but how does the Christian justify the deaths of innocent villagers in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or the innocent spouses and children of those who are actively fighting us - unless they adopt Osama bin Laden's philosophy of guilt by association? But even that brings us back yet again to the basics: is God the judge of the world, or not? Should the Christian love his enemies, or not?

Should the Christian even serve in the military, or even pledge allegiance to the flag of our nation (Exodus 20:4-5)?