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Atheist Perspective: Is the Soul a “god of the gaps”

February 24, 2015 6 comments

Friday I have office hours. Which means that for one hour I sit in my office and throw a pencil at the wall until that hour is up. No students ever come to my office hours until there is some kind of assignment due and that’s only if they can’t pin me after class. I’m not complaining too much, I have found better uses of that time: usually grading or writing lectures. This semester my scheduled time coincides with my department’s “lunch time talks.” The chair of the department invites professors from both our college and others in the area, as well as graduate students to present papers or engage in debates. They last an hour and lunch is served, usually pizza. This works out nicely because it means that instead of just hanging out in my office I attend the talks. Don’t worry about the students that would come, my office is in the same hallway about two doors down and I put a sign up. I also sit right near the door so as not to disturb anyone that is presenting if I am needed.

Last Friday the presentation was on the existence of the soul. It was a debate that served as a trial run for a more public debate which will take place on Wednesday. Six people were involved, three on one side and three on the other. The soul-denier position took a materialist stance, the very basic crux of their position was that the soul is an assumption that is not borne out by any kind of evidence. Mental events like thinking can be reduced to brain events in neuro-science. In other words mental events depend on neural events. The evidence for this is based on the fact that you can alter thinking by altering the brain, for example, if you get drunk your thoughts are different from you when you are sober. I would offer a different example: if you deprive the brain of Iodide, the person’s intelligence drastically drops. Also, if you introduce lead into a person’s body their ability to exercise executive control over their impulses drastically reduces. Further they offered that if we take a strict materialist stance, ignoring such esoteric concepts like “soul,” we can make accurate predictions about the functioning of the brain. Now, I should be clear, none of this shows that the soul does not exist but it does show that the soul explanation is not based on evidence.

What is it based on then? To me it is based on lack of knowledge. The concept of the psyche as having an independent existence apart from the body is as old as the bronze age. Possibly older but the stone age people weren’t known for the writing, even if they did write down ideas about the soul we don’t have them. This concept of a soul is borne out of ignorance on how the human mind works as well as a fear of death. All people understand that the body does not survive its death but if we believe in an afterlife something has to survive. The claim of the pro-soul side was that it is a non-physical thing which thinks. The thought occurs in the soul and then influences the brain to act, which then causes the body to move. My decisions are all based on the ideas that the soul initializes. The first problem with this position is that of interaction, if the soul is immaterial then how does it influence the material brain. It’s an old objection but still quite salient. They addressed this by saying that the soul is intimately intertwined with the brain.

That however doesn’t answer the question. It gives us a location for the soul but not how the interaction takes place. It’s merely evading the issue. Their side also offered up the evidence of fears, that if we are stuck in a graveyard and begin to feel afraid that there is no measurable correlation to fear in the brain. This is patently false. Correlations in brain chemistry and neurological activity have been identified with a wide range of emotions. I don’t know if fear is one of them, but others such as anger and pain have been cataloged. Even if this were not the case, calling the genesis of the emotions “soul” is merely filling in a gap of knowledge with an unproven assumption.

It is pure “god of the gaps.” We don’t know X so therefore “soul.” Just because we don’t know something does not mean that knowledge gets to be filled in with anything we want. Sure, we can offer explanations and then figure out some method of testing them, but we cannot say that the lack of evidence is proof for something. Just as we cannot say that God exists because we don’t know what preceded the Big Bang we cannot also say that the soul exists because we do not understand the generation of initial impulses. Especially considering that in some cases we absolutely do know where they come from.

The ultimate problem in their argument is that it tries to rest on the idea that because there hasn’t been offered a proof that the soul doesn’t exist that it surely must. Absence of evidence however is not evidence of anything. If they want to argue that the soul exists, at this point in human knowledge it must be taken as an article of faith and/or wishful thinking for some existence after the inevitable death of our bodies. As it stands, there is no proof that such a thing exists.

Atheist Perspective: Rememberance of a Moral Panic

February 17, 2015 Leave a comment

I was originally thinking that I should put this entry into my “Road to Atheism” series but I don’t think it really belongs there.

This is a distant memory, so my details are bit fuzzy. I’ve talked about Confirmation before. I mentioned that in addition to my five days a week religion classes at my Catholic High School, my service as an altar boy (no girls allowed back then), I was forced to go to a Sunday night religion class in order to prepare me into accepting a faith as an adult that, by this time, I knew backward and forward. Sure the finer points of theological discourse were never taught to us: instead we were just given the same run down of the exact same stuff I learned in my religion classes from when I was in elementary school. The major difference is that in these classes they tried to subtly push the Holy Orders sacrament. Maybe they get extra points if they turn out a priest or nun but no one I knew was going to bite on that hook.

Most of it was boring. One session they had us meet in the school’s auditorium for a special session on—-SATAN! No, seriously, they had us meet so that some members of the local Police, a church official, and some other person that I can’t quite recall could talk to us about devil worship, animal sacrifice, and related activities. I want to be absolutely clear here: there has never been a report in my small suburb of Satanic activity. There will never be a point in that town where an organized underground Satanic group will be operating. How do I know this? Because such groups don’t actually exist.

I should also be really clear about another interesting facet of the talk: it took place in 1996. If the talk had taken place in 1986, that would be different…sort of. It would still be utterly unnecessary, but at least in the 80’s the great moral panic of organized Satanism was popular. In the 90s it was dead, by 1995 the furor was spent as “Michelle Remembers” was thoroughly debunked and the pre-school trial in California had ended with no convictions. The idea of a vast underground conspiracy was ludicrous, the idea that a bunch of people were patrolling our towns looking to indoctrinate teenagers into Satanism through the promise of drugs and sex was absurd. Yet here we were, listening to some “expert” on Satanism talk about signs to watch out for.

They gave us a handout with all kinds of symbols so that we knew to avoid such areas. The funny thing was that without this handout I would never know what they were. Some were familiar but others were weird. One symbol was the double s that the band, Kiss, uses as their font. Somehow it’s related to Satanism as well as the Nazi SS in that it sort of looks like their symbol too. The rest of the sheet was the typical pentagram, goat head, upside down cross (although that’s actually a Christian symbol for St. Peter), etc. It was very very stupid.

First, if I was the type of person to dabble in Satanism, and it really existed like they said it did; they basically told me how exactly to join by letting us know what to look for. Apparently, I could just walk through the woods or a park at night and look for these symbols then just wait for someone to come along to sign me up. Secondly, since it didn’t exist it was just a waste of time.

I remember the police officer the most, because she seemed to think along the same lines as I did: that it wasn’t happening. She told us a story of how someone found a pile of dead animals on the side of the road and called the police to report on animal sacrifice (because say what you want about Satanists, but they clean up their sacrificial stone altars when they are done). It turned out that the highway department had just been dumping road kills at the side of the road for one reason or another. She went on to tell us that drug use was the big problem, but if we saw Satanists we should probably tell someone. This was odd, because as far as I knew it wasn’t illegal to be a Satanist. Sure they might be weird and all, but as long as they aren’t harming anyone there’s nothing that can be done. I brought the handout home, told my parents what I had learned and then the handout made into the garbage.

That was it. Our class on evil, and it was so stupid, so absurd, it was basically parody. Satanism as they portrayed (and still do) it was nothing more than fear mongering. Real Satanists, the ones I have met, were silly people that would eventually just grow out of it. Most of the time the “religion” is just a form of rebellion that compels people to listen to shitty music like Marilyn Manson while buying a lot of pewter rings from Hot Topic. They don’t go to a church because that would mean recanting their rebellion from authority. The other ones, aren’t even religious, they just like to stoke the fires of the fundamentalists and exploit the legal loopholes that those same evangelicals created so they can put up their religious displays on public property. The whole thing was a farce, but the more religious you get the more you need some enemy to be working against you. In the case of Christians it’s Satan, but we know how that story is supposed to end if its real, he loses. He can’t stalk the land looking for followers because he’s in prison.

It’s a need for oppression that they wanted to sow in us for a reason I’ll never understand. Given that they don’t have a true enemy they have to make one up and give it powers that it could never have. The fact that this class happened makes me wonder what the real fear was going to be. I guess I know that now, it’s unbelief.

Atheist Perspective: Exemption

February 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Being an atheist in the United States usually means that you are a bit left leaning when it comes to politics. Not that there is anything intrinsic to the denial of a divine power that makes someone vote Democrat, but that the Republican party simply does not want to admit us. Last year they denied an atheist group a table at CPAC for instance. If your politics align with most of the Republican party platform: smaller government, supply side economics, intervention foreign policy; as an atheist you have to reconcile with the position that the conservative base simply does not want to admit that you exist. I bring this up as a disclaimer because it is so rare that I do this: the extreme left is just as bad.

The problem here is in the over toleration of beliefs that exists on the left. There are beliefs that are wrong, as an atheist that’s a pretty obvious sentiment. I am going to believe that all religious beliefs are wrong; but along with the wrong beliefs are the dangerous ones. The toleration of dangerous beliefs is not a virtue, it’s cowardice or it’s ignorance and it’s sometimes both. Atheists align with the left on issues of science: notably being anti-Creationist/Intelligent design and admitting that anthropocentric climate change is a real thing are Democrat positions. They are atheistic positions, usually, because scientific and epistemological issues  prove their truth. Even climate scientists paid by fossil fuel magnates, the Koch brothers, couldn’t refuse the evidence of climate change.

Yet, when it comes to beliefs the left is not immune (that’s going to be a really salient word choice later) to anti-science quackery. Right wing science denialism is dangerous in the long term–denying the truth of evolution does no immediate harm, it  does harm in robbing students of a proper scientific education. An education that is going to be needed in the future. President Eisenhower, and indeed the entire country, realized this when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and immediately updated the nation’s science education standards. Competition among countries necessitates that each generation not only has the same knowledge as before but progresses beyond it. Without that knowledge we, as a nation, will continue to fall behind.

It’s a long term problem and perhaps that is why it gets ignored or is so easily denied. On the other side of the political spectrum the problem is the opposite. The toleration of moonbat ideas is just as bad only it is more immediate. For all the anti-science claims the left makes about the right, the left is notoriously bad when they tolerate the anti-science “alternative medicine” and new age treatments. These types of beliefs are no different than the fundamentalist Christian creationism arguments in essence. They deny mountains of medical evidence substituting it for anecdotes by quacks and “religious gurus.”

Right now measles has returned. It has returned because the far left seems to think that its ok to ignore vaccination schedules in favor of what someone once incorrectly thought was a danger. It never was, and only in rare cases has a person gotten directly sick from a Measles vaccination shot. If being an atheist is about not assenting to a belief in god because of a lack of evidence then a preponderance of evidence must necessitate that assent.

Further we must also disregard those people who are denying the evidence, claiming conspiracy theory; as being utterly wrong. It does not matter whether or not we agree with them politically or ideologically, if they are wrong, they are wrong. In cases like this, they are deadly wrong.

Sure, Chris Christie seems to think that parents have the choice and Rand Paul doesn’t like government mandates on anything but their home states aren’t the ones where we are now getting pockets of a disease that was declared eradicated the same year Bush was elected president. The state with the highest vaccination rate is Mississippi at 99.7% while blue states like California and Oregon routinely have the highest vaccination exemptions. Some may also want to claim that it’s the religious that are getting the exemptions, this isn’t the majority case. Sure in areas where Menonites and the Amish are populace those particular groups may refuse vaccinations but given that they seclude themselves from the general population it’s a very little risk, we must also consider that coupled with their extremely low population and the risk in general puts us back at the 2000 “eliminated” label.

Facts are facts, they are religiously and politically neutral. Ignoring them is dangerous and tolerating their denial just because it doesn’t come from a typical source is hypocritical.

Atheist’s Perspective: Why I didn’t Go To the Funeral

February 2, 2015 1 comment

Last week I had some rather shocking news: my friend and colleague where I pursue my PhD died or a heart attack. We were the same age and I thought in relatively similar health. By that I mean that he never mentioned to me that he was suffering from any health related issues. That is just how it does though, one day you are yelling at your friend to stop being an ass to your other friends on a facebook thread and the next day they are dead. The world turns, the hydrogen continues to fuse in the sun, life as they say goes on.

Tony and I weren’t close. I won’t pretend that we were as many people do when it comes to be funeral time. We were however, allies. We were the only two members of the Christian Philosophy Association that were atheists. We were outspoken atheists as well. We attended the meetings when we could, when they were held, and we did the readings for the meetings. Also, we weren’t disruptive or antagonistic. There was a sense that we were welcome at the meetings as well, even though…or perhaps even because of, we disagreed with the central thesis that the Christian religion accurately represents a historical, physical, and divine objective truth of the world.

It was confusing for me, with him. I wasn’t always an atheist but he claimed to have never believed in god. It made sense because he was very unaware of some basic tenets of Christian doctrine. Things, I thought were impossible to not know. Just growing up in this overwhelmingly Christian country by the process of osmosis I would have thought you would learn about some doctrines. Yet time and time again, he would ask seemingly obvious questions that made even myself groan. It’s one thing to not know that the Immaculate conception is a doctrinal retconning of the story of Mary so that Jesus is born of a person that was without original sin, but it’s quite another to not know the story of the conception altogether (also that it refers to Mary and not Jesus, but most Christians I know are ignorant of that fact). Yet he was quite aware of various Christian movements such as Liberation Theology, a pseudo Marxist movement steeped in Christianity, and could at least acknowledge some of the benefits religion has created (unlike some of the more militant atheists I know).

Tony and I weren’t rabble rousers. We could, as I phrased it, “play the game” meaning that if we assume the foundation were true we could argue the finer points. When it came to doctrine of perdition, people like us were probably more of a boon to the group than a burden since our perspective on what counts as truly wrong wasn’t based in ideas of mere belief. I think it also served everyone well if we could put a semi-reasonable face on atheism. We weren’t the only atheists in the group but we were the only ones that reached out. Our group (which to be fair included a Muslim as well) invited a speaker to debate on the concept of survival after death. It was a public debate that we sponsored, and some of the other students, atheists as well, complained that the department was sponsoring a religious debate where people were engaging over the concept of the soul’s existence upon the death of the body. Tony and I laughed, what did these people expect? The Christian Philosophy group sponsored the damn event and they were complaining that Philosophy of Religion was being discussed!? Idiots.

All that being said, he was fiercely Marxist. He was the liberal I used as an example of a left wing extremist. If the Republicans wanted it, it was wrong didn’t matter what it was. He would lost arguments on my facebook page, due to his ideology mixed with a lack of historical knowledge (not that he was stupid or ignorant of history but that he picked fights with people who had much greater knowledge than he). We agreed and we disagreed, but that’s what life is.

When the formal notice went out, the one that wasn’t an email from the department, I checked the arrangements while preparing to figure out how I was going to get out there. At best I live an hour away, so it involves a process. I couldn’t attend the wake as I had a class to teach so the funeral it was going to be. I hate funerals. It’s not being in a church that bothers me, I can be bored anywhere: but it is one those functions that I am socially awkward at. I don’t know how to act or greet people. Can I make chit chat or does everything have to be serious? In the surprisingly high number of them I have been to I still can pin this down. I walk into job interviews with more self assurance than I enter funerals.

I was going to get over it and go, until I read the obituary and saw the phrase “…a mass of Christian burial will be…”

Again, he wan’t secret about it. He would tell me that he would have regular fights about religion with his family members. Yet, they were going to go against what his view was and merely inflict their view point on the occasion of his death. Now, I know that this sounds a bit paradoxical: in my viewpoint he is dead and you can no longer injure a dead person. If we are still pretending the funeral is about the dead, and not about the living, how can you change the religious view of the person who has died?

This isn’t a harm to the body, that ship has sailed. Harm is impossible at this point so I don’t know what I think is wrong about doing this. It may simply be that the funeral becomes a pretense for what the immediate survivors want rather than what the actual deceased would have desired. I was at a funeral two years ago for a friend’s father that was a less a funeral than it was a recruitment pitch for a mega church and the story I was told was that a close relative had become a minister in the church and it was really his desire rather than the relatively non-religious person that died. If funerals are about the dead, let’s keep them about the dead and not about inflicting our religious views on other people. We really don’t want me doing that or every funeral I’m in charge of is going to look like the detective’s wake from the Wire.

Categories: atheism, death, funerals, religion