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An Atheist’s Perspective: The Materialist Conundrum

April 29, 2014 4 comments

If you do not believe that there is sufficient evidence to establish the existence of a divine being, you may also not believe in the spiritual realm either. The commonality between the two is that we are dealing with an immaterial/material interaction that needs to be explained if there is to be a consistent metaphysics underlying reality. For spirituality we have to first define what that means, and then we have to explain how it works. For any kind of theism the same dual fold issue remains: yet the theist usually has recourse to magic. Both of these viewpoints have something in common with atheism (deism for this post is within the purview of theism for obvious reasons).

Hard materialism states that we are merely a conglomeration of material and gaps between the material allowing for both motion and change–this is the immaterial. In simpler terms there is only things and nothing. Call them atoms, call them monads (although the followers of Leibniz will have a stroke if you try and use the term this way), it doesn’t matter: there is material and nothing. Forces emit from the material, e.g. gravity, but without the material there is only void. With only these two categories of stuff, the hard materialist will then have to claim that all of the stuff is subject to some kind of law of nature in order to make sense of the material. This is the goal of modern physics, to determine the laws by which the universe behaves so that we can understand it and use it to make predictions. 

Our science has done a pretty good job of this, we can make large bodies of metal float and fly through the air. I can use this computer on this internet all because we understand a good deal of the behavior of the stuff of the universe. Biology, chemistry, and now physics allow us to shape our world. So we understand the biological causes of each of us, how we came to be alive. We understand the chemical causes with gametes and DNA; and to some extent we also understand the physical causes with the bindings of molecules to each other. The hard materialist will smile using all of these things as examples of natural things being subject to the natural laws. Using occam’s razor, they can literally shave all of the supernatural causes that were once used to explain the world. There is no place for them as they exist outside the natural order. 

As unsettling as it sounds, atheists have to eat a bullet here–a bullet that theists are more than happy to supply. Hard materialism offers no room for free will. At last no room that can be proven with any kind of consistency. The most famous of the early materialists were the Epicureans, and Lucretius, the second most famous of the Epicureans, wrote that the atoms–which construct all material objects–would somehow swerve and in this swerve would create free will. I should note here that this “Swerve” is not in the existant writings of Epicurus it seems to be wholly an invention of Lucretius in his “On the Nature of Things.” The problem for this belief is that any swerving of the atoms is either subject to some natural law that we are not aware of and thus we are back to predetermination and a lack of free will, or it is entirely arbitrary in which case it is difficult to determine how it is free will to begin with, i.e. if the swerve determines our free will then is it really free will? Some cite features of quantum physics in which free will is based on the uncertainty principle, or the unique results of experiments were sub-atomic particles appear in two different locations at the same time as being evidence that there exists materialist free will; those explanations are lacking in that for the former it relies on a misunderstanding of the term “observe” within quantum mechanics and the latter is an example of a deficiency in our ability to explain an outcome, e.g. there is something we are missing that we have yet to explain. The alternative is to just accept that there is no free will but that our perception of it is what really matters. We may never be able to prove either way so what, in the end, is the difference?

If free will is an illusion, we will never know. If there is free will, we will never truly know that either. In both cases our behavior would be exactly the same. Materialism, if it is to remain consistent: has to accept one of two propositions. The first is that all action is governed by laws and that what we call free will is also governed by these laws. The second, is that we don’t know. 

The second is risky only because accuracy and consistency is a burden that only atheists seem to be forced to carry. By claiming that we don’t know, the theists seem to think we’ve fallen into some kind of trap in that they have an explanation for what we don’t. Their explanation of course is magic. Free-will and the material/immaterial divide is granted through divine fiat and that unexplainable explanation is their solution. It’s a fallacy of course, an appeal to ignorance or what is also known as the “god of the gaps” argument but they don’t see it that way. They use divine revelation to explain where that information comes from, but it’s never their divine revelation it’s always at least third hand. 

The important thing to remember as an atheist is that admitting you don’t know is not a weakness, it’s honest. That kind of answer is much better than accepting an answer because you find the alternative unsettling or using magic to fill in the holes. Perhaps one day we will understand, or perhaps not; either way we don’t know now and that’s the best any of us can truly say.

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The Road to Atheism XXII: How Tom Cruise Pushed Me Over the Edge (Seriously)

April 22, 2014 Leave a comment

I was living in Toledo OH, on the quasi-fringe area on the bible belt, working at a cable company doing sales and tech support over the phone for the television aspect of the business. At this time the last church service I had attended was a funeral for my friend’s mother. I was about as non-religious as the average Catholic. I believed but I attended mass on a formal basis: that is to say that I went on important holidays, weddings, and funerals. At the cable company, most of the people that I worked with finished their education at the high school level, some had college degrees, but I was alone in that I had finished my Master’s. This led to me being regarded as the smartest person in the phone banks–it was certainly a debatable proposition but it was clearly the case that I was at least the most educated. My reputation existed because Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” had recently hit and I had spent most of my free time, not on the calls, figuring out exactly what to think of the book. 

Working with a lot of really Christian Christians meant that the book was a popular topic of conversation but, as is frequently the case, most of them had not read it. I sought to remind them that the book was located in the fiction aisle, and despite the disclaimer in the front of the book (that, for instance, the Priory of Scion was real–it isn’t, the document the book claims as proof is real but the person who placed it there created it with no proof, in short it’s about as real as any conspiracy theory) it was nothing more than a novel with some art history thrown in. Truth be told I did think the book was a fun read. The book itself opened my eyes to conspiracism but it, despite the fears of Christian ministers, did nothing to my religious viewpoints. With that in mind, another thing of more importance to the city of Toledo happened shortly thereafter. 

Toledo’s then star daughter Katie Holmes became engaged to Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise is probably the most famous Scientologist in America, if not the world; and the assumption was that Katie Holmes was going to join the religion which was regarded with some mystery and a lot of ignorance. She was becoming a star, with a role in Batman Begins, and since many people of my age who were native Toledoans all claimed to know her the people at work began wondering what Scientology was. Part of this was the group’s fault: they use as their symbol a cross which made many think that it was some fringe branch of Christianity. Even the city’s newspaper, the Toledo Blade made the problem worse by confusing Scientology with Christian Science (the religion which denies the existence of the material world, and thus all medicine–a very dangerous and foolish practice). 

One woman at work, a very religious person the kind that didn’t accept Evolution, asked me about it. I really had no idea, all I knew was that it was something that some hollywood actors did and that mainly they existed out West (this would be incorrect but it’s what I knew at the time). She knew that in not knowing something I would be forced to look it up, which I did. I took a break from my calls, grabbed some pens and a legal pad from the supply closet, opened up Google and began searching once my break was over. I learned, within a month, everything that I needed to know to stay away from them. 

One website in particular was full of information. The interesting thing about the search was that I was looking for doctrine and tenets, I wanted what Ms. Holmes would soon accept as being the truth, I wanted to know what I would encounter if I walked into the nearest Scientology church and said, “I want to be a member.” The trouble was that the group’s website itself didn’t tell me much. They (and this has since been a little amended but even a visit to their site now just gives a creed which speaks of spirit and laws, but it’s hollow as to why this is the creed) were pretty uninformative. It’s all style and very little substance: I want to know what their conception of “spirit” is, and who their “god” figure is; but nothing on the website worked to solve those answers. They promised to solve the troubles of man, but never listed what the troubles were. It seemed, and a subsequent visit to their website recently told me that nothing has changed. Although it is a very slick website, I have to give credit were credit is due on that. 

Clambake explained what auditing is, what Thetans were, who Xenu was, what operation Snow White was, and what the different levels of the faithful are. My co-workers thought I was making up the story, they knew I wasn’t a religious person and no one could believe what I was reporting. They decided that they would pray for Katie that she return to the true path. Native Toledoan, and comedy writer/political writer P.J. O’ Rourke, commented on Bill Maher’s show at the time that the Holmes’s were really big Catholics at weren’t too excited about their daughter joining “The Spaceman religion.” 

The comment struck me, because I began to think to myself, “what’s the difference?” Seriously if you think Scientology is ridiculous, a cult, or whatever; what is your justification for thinking so against the beliefs of the other religions? Let’s take their Cosmogony, their story begins over a trillion years ago with an intergalactic tyrant. Physics tells us that this timeline is absurd, the universe wasn’t a universe at that time, it was nothing and for them to claim that not only was there a universe but also an intergalactic empire, is contradictory to all models of the universe based on science. Now, is this any more ludicrous than denying the evidence of Evolution? If you think yes, then you need to explain how. Are the claims of the life of L. Ron Hubbard any different than those of Muhammad or Joseph Smith? Again, if you think yes, then please explain why they are different other than the actual claims themselves. Are the beliefs of what a Scientologist can do–once they achieve a certain level of adherence (“clear” in their speak) any different than that of a Mormon or Catholic? Again, how are they different because you need to prove that there is a fundamental difference. 

While I can’t speak to the religiosity of Katie Holmes within the organization, I can speak of the credulity of an individual born into a religion. What we are born with we perceive as normal, and anyone born into a world where the ghosts of volcano incarcerated nuclear weapon victims possess individuals isn’t going to be able to view that as strange. They will have no reference point external to whatever they have been told since birth. I was taught that a piece of bread turns into the literal meat of a man, but that there was no discernable difference between the two since the underlying change was not physical. Change and no-change simultaneously, a violation of the law of non-contradiction but this was not merely a matter of fact but also a matter of morality. To deny this, or even doubt it, was to declare oneself a heretic. Is it any weirder? No. 

What Mr. Cruise’s engagement forced me to realize was that no matter how crazy I thought their religion, mine was no less insane. The main difference was that I was born into mine. While one might wish to point out that my former religion has two thousand years behind it, that does nothing to point to the truth of the religion only that people believed it (besides if age were a measure of truth we all ought to be either Jews or Hindus). For what reason did I have in believing my religion aside that I was taught to believe it by everyone I knew growing up? None at all.

For any part of Scientology that I thought was odd, strange, or just plain stupid; I could easily find an equivalent that a Scientologist might think of mine. The only true difference that I could find was that any Catholic church in the world is very up front about their beliefs, it doesn’t cost money to learn the secrets of Catholicism. I learned through researching a religion that relies on aliens for its foundation that I had no reason to believe aside from holding to tradition. Lacking this objective reason for believing I could really only do the honest thing: abandon it until a reason could be found. 

 

An Atheist’s Perspective: Certainty

April 15, 2014 Leave a comment

The science and religion “debate” is one that has gotten pretty ridiculous at this point. There isn’t really a debate. The debate is largely a cooked up controversy by people holding to a literal interpretation unwilling to make any kind of change in their belief system. If there is something that you believe, and that you would continue to believe even if all the world’s knowledge was set against it; it’s time for you to rethink what that belief is founded on. We ought to extol the virtues of science and before you object, just think of how ironic it will be to post that comment on a laptop, through a wifi signal, on the internet. The reason religion will lose this alleged war is because it has lost all usefulness, it has no predictive ability and it doesn’t create. 

Since the deniers of science (creationists for example) lump all science together, as if it were all the same thing, I will do so with religion. At one point in the European Middle Ages the only knowledge work being done was by the clerics, this was because they were the only literate people. As the progress of civilization continued, literacy spread, and civilization could have only moved forward with the spread of literacy. Knowledge was not increased because of religion but rather in spite of the “truths” they have claimed about the world. For instance historians researching Babylonian texts were excited to find a parallel story regarding the great flood, only to find out that the Epic of Gilgamesh actually predated the Bible, and probably did a bit more than just “inspire” it. Archaeologists have repeatedly failed to discover evidence of any wandering nation in the Middle East, and that those who built the pyramids were not slaves but hired workers. 

All of this would be fine if the we would be allowed to regard the stories as nothing more than fables and myths; but instead are repeatedly instructed that any derivation from a literal interpretation is an assault on their faith. These works are such that they are claimed to be factual accounts or hand delivered by the divine to a person and cannot be considered fallible in any respect. Yet, their ideas are objectionable, the account of deeds horrifying, and their scientific knowledge laughably incorrect. The divinities have little knowledge of the world that they have created. Yet this doesn’t stop them from claiming a certainty that they can never deliver on. 

Despite what its enemies claim, the world of science does not claim the same type of certainty that they do. Science admits of the possibility of being wrong. Unlike religion it actually encourages testing and the questioning of the alleged truths. There are very few laws in the world of science, and even then, if evidence comes along which can break those laws, they get amended. We don’t have phlogiston theory anymore because the evidence for it is invalid. 

Yet in spite of its willingness for change, and the admittance of the possibility of being wrong, the world of science is astoundingly good at making predictions. I can use some basic knowledge of electricity to predict the current running through a wire coil. I can use physical theories to predict the path, arc, and landing spot of a thrown ball. I can take two poisonous substances and mix them together and get a perfectly fine combination of water and salt. All through the use of scientific knowledge which admits that it is missing areas of knowledge which govern the complete picture. We don’t understand that intricacies of gravity but we know enough to put chairs in the sky, and to land on the moon. The mechanism of evolution may escape us, but we know enough to predict flu outbreaks and fight diseases. It is ironic that one thing that is open to being wrong is our best way of explaining to the world. 

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An Atheist’s Perspective: The Religions Question III

April 8, 2014 1 comment

While I believe that I have exhausted the main reasons that atheism is declared a religion, we now have to wonder why this claim is so strenuously adhered to. Aside from the two particular claims that i have addressed previously the others are relatively minor, and most of them center around the alleged indoctrination of principles that are anti-religion, which in the U.S. means anti-Christian. Because there is a large group of people that want to teach science in science classes, this is received by the fundamentalists and the literalists as being part of an anti-Christian/atheist conspiracy. I however covered this last week.

One of the issues that we can see at the center of this debate is that as religion loses ground, they must feel that something is to blame. Surely their omnipotent deity cannot be wrong about the world as laid down in whatever text the theist believes in, but something is happening. Currently the number of avowed atheists in the country hovers around 5%, which is the highest it has ever been. This number has overtaken Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism by percent in population. I stress “avowed” since typically Americans over represent their religiosity in this country and in many places it is socially anathematizing to declare oneself an atheist (there are seven states in the US, which officially ban atheists from holding office in violation of the Constitution). I’m not claiming that the number is significantly higher but that this is a factor which must be considered when looking at the data. 

So why is it that a disparate group of people who only have one link in common–atheism, is considered a religion? It’s not a federal designation or I wouldn’t pay taxes, and no philosophical designation does the same; so where does it come from? In order to discover this one must look at where the claim originates. The chorus of accusation usually comes from the most religious of the theists. It is curious claim of this group to make because they use it as a slander unaware of how a religious person using he word “religion” as an insult is ironic at best. 

If it were merely their goal to claim that atheists are hypocrites because they have a religion too, that would be one thing: it wouldn’t be any closer to being correct but it would be less wrong. What they are missing is that you can have no religion and still believe in a god, this is what is known as agnosticism. Atheists typically believe that the question is, so far unanswerable; agnostics separate themselves by claiming that there definitely is a god but that it’s qualities are unknowable. They are, at the very least deists who believe that religion is man made but the Divine is a certainty. This group gets utterly ignored because its very existence means that you can believe in a god and yet still think that X sect of Christianity is false, or even that all Christianity is false. To them, this is simply cannot be. 

It’s also worth pointing out their need for an enemy. The more fervent the individual the more and more they seem to believe in a group of people that are seeking to undermine what they feel is the the flimsy string which is holding together morality: their particular branch of their particular religion. As adherence to a particular sect of any religion in the West is trending downward something needs to be blamed and why not an organized militant group of disbelievers that have shunned adherence to two thousand year old mythology stories with no argumentative legitimacy, that have excised religious fables from science, and think sexual preference is no business of the general public? Atheism, as a concept, serves this role relatively well as it always has even unto the days of the Ancient Greek world. 

The trouble is that this is wholly a fiction of their own invention. We are not a unified group, and even if we were how could such a small group control so much when even claiming doubts about religion in general (and Christianity in particular) is essentially a political death sentence? Ask Rand Paul who was forced to dial back his love of Ayn Rand–whom is the libertarian patron saint–an ardent atheist for his Christian roots.* 

To close this series, atheism is not a religion. It is only claimed so by people in search of a villain who are blind to the reality that it is their failure to adapt to the modern world which is causing them to lose people. Not some sinister cabal which does not exist (if it does, can I apply or do they contact me?).

 

*I’m not claiming that Rand Paul is an atheist, but Ayn Rand definitely was as well as her libertarian materialist individualistic point of view. 

An Atheist’s Perspective: The Religious Question II “Dogma and Deity”

April 1, 2014 Leave a comment

By the very definition of the term atheism has no gods. That is the literal translation of the word from the Greek. Yet for those calling atheism a religion they often point to atheists having quasi-gods for whom they hang on every word as though they were holy. Failing that, they will claim that atheists instead deify certain concepts giving them a religious like stature. This leads them to also think that there is some kind of atheist doctrine or dogma that we must follow or we would be kicked out of the atheism club. While these seem to be two different issues they are tied together (unfortunately making this one post instead of two).

I’m going to deal with the last claim first: there is no doctrine or dogma, that’s the theist’s game. The evidence for this is that there is no organization to be kicked out of, no hierarchy that calls the shots despite what the conspiracy minded theists will claim. Deny creationism and Ken Ham will not let you be a member of his church, assume that homosexuality is ok and the Phelps won’t be having you for dinner. The authority of the Pope is a prerequisite for being a Catholic, deny that Muhammed is the prophet of Allah and you are no longer a Muslim. Now the atheist who believes that there is a personal involved god cannot be an atheist but all that person does is lose the label. Nothing else. We, as a group are not unified: Penn Jillette is a libertarian of the Ron Paul sort, Christopher Hitchens supported the war in Iraq, and Bill Maher doesn’t believe in what he calls “Western medicine (aka medicine).” The only thing that unites us all is that we do not accept that the evidence to support the belief in a god exists. As stated earlier dogma cannot exist for us because there is no central authority to lay such a dogma out. 

Having settled that, the question of deification comes forward. In this I see a problem of perception. Religious conservatives in the U.S. seem to think that there is some war between those that believe in evolution and those that believe in creationism (and it’s progeny “intelligent design”). The perception is largely based on a confusion that we deify Darwin (along with some others) and in that it is a matter of faith that we want evolution taught in science classes. Both points show their ignorance rather than some astute observation on their part. 

Their perception is entirely based on their own view of things being projected on us atheists.  For them, their creation story is a matter of faith, of belief, and thus they feel that we must think the same thing. We want evolution taught in schools not because we believe in it, but because it is science. It requires nothing to believe in, it is testable, has evidence supporting it, and can make predictions. If there were some kind of evidence against it that was being ignored or purposefully misinterpreted it would not be a scientific theory. What they fail to understand is that their point of view rests on the idea that belief despite evidence is a virtue while for us it is mere foolishness. The other thing that they fail to understand is that scientific theories and laws are true whether or not anyone believes in them and especially whether or not we want to believe in them. 

It is not that we have a doctrine that accepts evolution and that compels us to spread it; it’s that the pesky thing called evidence makes us want to have it taught as the science that it is. And it is not our conspiracy that brings this war to the classrooms it is theirs. All we are asking is that science be taught in the science room while they are trying to force their religion on everyone regardless of whether we believe or not. Their claim that atheists deify Darwin is especially confusing since evolutionary Biology left Darwin’s conclusions behind. While his work started the ball rolling their have been made many advances since his work’s publication. Typically they are about as ignorant regarding atheists as they are about the science they trying to suppress. 

For example imagine a psychology class teaching that people suffering from bi-polar disorder are also shown to have abnormal brain chemistry. This is the conclusion, backed by testing, of modern psychology. Now, given that Scientology denies the legitimacy of psychology as a science, is that psychology class anti-Scientology? It’s the same issue, a faith based point of view runs counter to the factual evidence and somehow it is the factual evidence which must bend. This is foolishness. 

It’s not dogma or doctrine to want what is understood to be the truth to be taught as such. It may turn out that some piece of evidence comes up that turns evolution on its head, perhaps some creature that flourishes despite being completely unadapted to its environment exists–a cold blooded lizard that lives in the snow or something–then the theory must be re-investigated. However it ought not be because some bronze age book claims without proof that things happened differently. 

When Atheists get celebratory about Darwin or Einstein, it is not the person themselves that is being celebrated but rather their accomplishments. If Darwin’s theory is ever proved utterly wrong, he like Freud now, will be relegated to a footnote in the history of human history not cleaved to as though the salvation of humankind relies on believing something that did not happen or was completely incorrect. The only dogma or doctrine, is that what is true ought not be accepted until there is evidence for it.