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The “Meaning of Life” Question

March 29, 2016 1 comment

A student, one of the good ones, asked me a question last week as we were wrapping up a discussion of religion and politics. He asked me what he can read to give him an answer for the meaning of life from atheist standpoint. I don’t know if he thinks that I am an atheist or is just asking because he knows that I’ve read a lot of things. Neither of these issues actually matter as the question, what does an atheist use to give life meaning is the issue that he’s actually asking about. Of course, he could be just asking to show that there is no answer for an atheist and thus there lives are utterly devoid of meaning.

The latter is possible but I think it’s improbable. He explained that he was talking to an old teacher of his who explained that their religious faith gives their lives meaning and he had no response. So either he was forced into a devil’s advocate position in order to bolster religious apologetic arguments or they were having the argument. Either case is fine because, again, the question is what matters.

This was Thursday night during my office hours and I told him I would come back with answers or at least something to read on Monday. It was a question I was unprepared for. Is there a book that has given me meaning in my life? Is there one book that has defined my life in such a way that if people want to understand me they should read it? Is there an answer I can give that wouldn’t make me look like either an academic snob or a hipster? Does anyone read Proust other than for the reason to brag that they have read it?

Either way I can’t point to any particular book and say ‘this book is what I identify with.’ I can’t really point to any particular life philosophy either. Detractors will argue that because I’m an atheist my life must be full of atheism related things, like eating babies and throwing tantrums when someone prays/wishes me a merry Christmas/or wears a cross. Yet it’s not. I devote a couple of hours a week to really being an atheist and that’s in writing these entries once a week. The rest of the time I rarely think about unless someone brings it up or a news event about something horrible that religious people have done gains my attention. The problem with the detractors is that they are coming from their own perspective wherein their lives are defined by a particular book so to them, everyone must have a similar perspective but that’s objectively incorrect.

I suggested that the student read the letters of Epicurus and ironically, the book of Ecclesiastes (which I contend was written by an Epicurean). Otherwise I couldn’t think of anything. There are some books out there which have the theme he’s asking about, but, he can always find them himself–which is something that he pointed out. He wanted my suggestions.

As our discussion proceeded  I came to an interesting revelation: why do we cede the importance of “meaning of life” as a concept? It’s a question that I think we accept as legitimate without considering the meaning of the question. What does a “meaning of life” mean?

This person my student was arguing with answered with her religious faith. I however disagree because their religious faith is only concerned with the next life. They can’t have meaning of life in this world because their life is viewed as being in a state of transition. That would be like asking how someone’s life is in an airport. No one is in an airport, they are merely waiting to be somewhere else. Ask a suicide bomber what the meaning of life is, because there answer is going to be to go to paradise. Which is the same answer as any religious person that wants has an afterlife.

Whether it’s service to god, service to other people in the name of god, or simply faith the goal is still the same so how does that give this life, the present existence any kind of meaning? It can’t because no matter how good the airport is, you’re still only there in order to get to the place you actually want to be. Say what you want about us atheists but at least we value this life as more than just a testing period.

So this meaning question just seems to be a filler question. Something we consider to be a meaningful statement but actually doesn’t have any substance. The meaning of life is that we live it, there’s nothing else to it. If you find yourself devoid of purpose maybe you’ll find one, but just as much, maybe you won’t. However this is the only life we get, spending the whole time in pursuit of meaning is missing the point and involves seeking that which is externally elusive. We can’t find a meaning in our lives without first accepting it ourselves as being the meaning. A meaning for our lives can be anything, from helping other people to collecting all of the Pokemon but the religious people think they have a monopoly on the subject. However they only do because they control the question as they’ve owned it for so long.

 

 

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Categories: Uncategorized

Why the Proofs

March 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Last week was my Spring break. I spent the entire week grading papers, literally. It was my fault as I didn’t stagger the turn in dates. Most of the papers that I had to grade were from my Introduction to Philosophy class. As I noted last week I discussed the proofs of god’s existence. Upon grading the papers I came across a frustrating pattern: while most of the students just did the work, there were some of them that began there essays utterly dismissive of the entire assignment.

This is fine. It’s a philosophy class and I’m looking for their interpretations of either one of the proofs or both. Not finding either the Ontological proof or the argument from Design unconvincing is perfectly acceptable, I myself don’t find either of them convincing either. The problem that I ran into was not that they were dismissive of the proofs, but that they were dismissive of having to know them because, summarizing the sentiment of the papers that did this, they don’t believe in god so it’s not important to know these things.

I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I spent the first ten minutes of class addressing this issue. The problem is that if they are the type of person to mention that they don’t believe in god and that they think an assignment requiring them to understand a proof of existence is inane then they are also the type that will eventually have an argument with a religious person about god’s existence. If they do not know these arguments then they are going to be utterly lost. You have to know how they are going to argue in order to effectively counter their apologetics. To be ignorant of their position is to do one of two things: play into their stereotype of an atheist or admit surrender because they don’t know what the theist is talking about.

You have to consider their standpoint: the proofs don’t matter to someone who has faith. However, those proofs augment it. Typically the theist finds the proofs convincing enough that they fail to understand why anyone else would not be convinced by them. If you don’t know the proofs and they throw one out, you can’t just blindly dismiss it. It puts into their head that you are either stubborn and close minded or that you just didn’t understand it correctly. The Design Argument in particular is nasty about this given the sheer number of different versions of it. It’s all based on several misunderstandings (especially of biology but also importantly of probability) yet knowing it, just for the purposes of being able to argue against it is reason enough.

Analogically, it’s like the time Astronomer Phil Plait went against Joe Rogan to argue about the Moon Landing and lost. It’s not because Rogan was right or that Plait is a moron, it’s because Plait was unprepared to argue against the conspiracy mindset. Sure you can explain that despite Newton being wrong, his physics still get us to the moon but can you explain the anomalous picture artifacts? Can you explain why the dust didn’t billow out? Can you explain radiation shielding and the Van Allen belt? Sure, Plait walked into that argument armed with eye-witness testimony, his knowledge of astronomy (PhD) and reflectors left on the moon, but that’s easily countered with accusations of cover up. Plait, instead of arguing the evidence of the moon landing, had to instead discuss whether or not Von Braun was a Nazi, the missing telemetry data, and the death of Gus Grissom. You can’t go into these type of debates unprepared.

The other analogy I offered was for my Biology majors. At some point, someone in their intro class, is going to attack evolution. It’ll be some Bible literalist who wants to make sure that everyone in the class understands that it’s “just a theory” and conflicts with what everyone secretly knows is true but the liberal-atheists won’t let anyone say anymore: that Creationism is the real deal. They’ll toss out a question, “if humans came from monkeys how come there are still monkeys?”

It’s a question that’s so absurd it goes beyond being wrong, but if you’re unprepared the sheer ridiculousness of it makes it unanswerable. You’ll have to be prepared for accusations that it’s unprovable, that it’s unobservable, and that it’s unfalsifiable (to answer them briefly: quite proven by now, observed in bacteria in labs, and yes if a creature was thriving in an environment it was completely unsuited for). Otherwise that person walks away thinking that they’ve won the argument against reality. The Biology major is goingto have to know the eye, the evolution of the eye and why it’s not so great for humans on land. They’re going to have to know enough of this so that the accusations can be countered, the ridiculous questions can be brushed off with glib answers, and that the person asking understands that there is a reason the person teaching the class is teaching it. When Bill Nye argued against Ken Ham, Nye came prepared to argue the points that he knew Ham was going to discuss. That’s why he did so much better than Plait did against Rogan.

I didn’t set out with this lesson to give them tools to argue against religion. That wasn’t my goal. I merely wanted to present one of the more popular debates within Philosophy of religion that is easily graspable by those not in the field. For the believers I had nothing to say, if they liked them they liked them. If they had a favorite, or wanted to add one in their papers (which several of them did) they were fine to do so. Really the dismissiveness of the non-believer is what bothered me.

I don’t talk about my beliefs in class. They don’t know I’m on their side. If I did I would have let them know that in all the conversations I’ve had with religious people none were more satisfying than in these types of debates when I displayed my knowledge of the Bible. Knowing what the other person is going to say makes you a more effective debater, but also it gives you a different perspective. It lets you know that while they may be wrong, they have reasons for their positions. I think that’s a lesson that’s more important than anything else.

Categories: Uncategorized

Teaching Philosophy of Religion

March 8, 2016 Leave a comment

I teach my intro to Philosophy a bit differently than most of my colleagues. Generally the course is constructed out of what the instructor perceives as “Philosophy’s Greatest Hits,” they begin with Plato, Aristotle, skip to Descartes, Mill, Nietzsche, Marx, Kant, possibly some language philosophy, maybe some feminism, then end with something they are working on. Perhaps throw in some Phil. of science, toss in a contemporary issue here and there, and bang, the course can literally stay the same for eternity. You’re never not doing some of those guys. The course is designed to give the students a rounded, superficial view, of the entire discipline.

I do it differently: I teach it by subject. I start at the beginning, with the Pre-Socratics, then move to the Greek idea of the good life, Phil. of religion, Phil. of politics, Ethics, and then I’m usually out of time. The discipline itself is difficult to impress upon the average first year college student unless they are coming in to the school for Philosophy, which they are almost always invariably not doing, I feel that it’s my job to sell it. The subject doesn’t make money, it’s hard to quantify, and with rare exception most people don’t even understand what it’s about.

I do it subject wise because I think it makes the subject appeal more. My most commonly used phrase in class is certainly, “but we could spend an entire semester on this, yet we have to move on.” It’s a teaser for the major. When it comes to Phil. of Religion, I have a reticence on how to handle it. It opens with a week and a half on proving the existence of god concentrating on both the Design Argument of Cicero (not intelligent design, that’s completely different and largely a political issue) and then the Ontological argument by Anselm. Both are deeply flawed but both are persistent little buggers that still get hoisted about. Students usually bite on the Design Argument but are confused and bored by the Ontological. No one ever brings up a third argument, at least thus far, I’ll see when their papers come in later this week. I defend each argument as though I was the person who wrote it (that’s actually my preferred method of teaching, it makes it fair) then, once defended, I spend a good amount of time ripping them apart. If they were solid, sound, and valid arguments there would be no subject to teach, only what boils down to an axiom.

From there we move on to arguments against divine truth. Because you can’t disprove the existence of god, just like you can’t prove Unicorns aren’t real, religious philosophers have to attack the veracity of religious claims. This usually pisses some people off, mostly people who have never set foot in a philosophy class and think that everyone who teaches a different thing is out to get them. I choose for the representation of this side Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. In interest of full disclosure I do this not because they are the best at it, but because I want to avoid the accusation that I’m anti-American as there are some people who think not preaching the false claim that this is a Christian country (though it is a country full of Christians) by using two people that are not only Americans but patriots at that. Anyone looking into these two writers will have a difficult time persuading anyone that they hate freedom on the lone reasoning that they disdain religion. Ingersoll is lesser known, but he was a Colonel for the Union during the Civil war.

I know people that have had the awful experience of the student who thinks that their job is to preach in class. I’m one of them, but not as an instructor, I was a student then. I believe the goal is to give the class a taste of the debate not ram one view point down their throat. Yet, just the mere pretense that there are two sides of the god question is enough to give some people a heart attack. I’ve never had a complaint but given the sensitive nature of the topic I feel that it might be only a matter of time. The areligious section is actually quite shorter than the pro-god section only because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to prove the negative. I would get more into it when I taught Philosophy of religion as it’s own class. Spending weeks on pro-god, then weeks on areligion, but the theories I would use to augment them were bad. I mean, sure Freud’s great (not really), but his explanation of religious behavior is so wrapped up in his now abandoned Oedipal complex that it’s a laughable historical artifact.

I don’t do Hitchens, Harris, or Dawkins because of how polarizing those figures are in both religion and politics. I won’t touch Jillette’s essays even though they are well written because they aren’t philosophy, they are just his individual thoughts. Not to diminish his outreach but don’t have the research behind them that I need. I’m not new at this, if there is one misquote, one part that’s even partly wrong, an astute student will dismiss the whole thing.

To the Christian Conservative out there I’ll be clear: yes I teach that some people think religion is bullshit. However it’s added on to a lesson about how god must exist. And again, at the end of each lecture I tear down the idea I spent an hour defending. I tell the students that while Paine rightly points out that religious rules eerily resemble a control that those in charge want to instill in a population it does little to erase the idea of a god that exists. Paine observes that these alleged books of morality are full of stories that have nothing to do with morality, genealogy charts, and conflicting evidence but that doesn’t take away from the moral lessons themselves. No, what does that is how little morality actually exists even within the moral codes they espouse, but again I could spend all semester on this stuff.

Categories: atheism, religion

Thanks Popey

March 1, 2016 3 comments

It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in with Pope Frank. I feel that I always must begin each Pope Post with an introduction like this: the reason I’m so hard on this guy and not the previous Popes, is because I’m told I’m supposed to like this guy. I’m an Atheist and he doesn’t think that automatically sends me to hell. I’m on the side of empirical evidence, and he thinks that Climate Change is supported by science, as well as Evolution and the Big Bang. However, that’s a pretty low bar considering that the evidence is there. Is acknowledging the proven supposed to endear me to someone? Especially when we consider that this is a guy for whom authority is not a matter of debate, that authority rests in his will, and still he refuses to make the substantive changes that he claims are so necessary.

Let’s start with Zika. Popey claimed that contraception, but never abortion, may be permissible in situations where the fetus will develop a harmful condition. Since, as of this writing, microcephaly has been linked with Zika infections in pregnant women, they are permitted to use the lesser evil in order to stem the greater evil. Now, I teach bio-ethics, and this is a real issue when we consider topics such as abortion. A child can contract (or be given) certain conditions such as hydrocephaly, spina bifida, and microcephaly in which the mere birth of this child will result in a life that is nasty, brutal, and in some cases short. If a child receives the Huntington’s, they have a death sentence wherein the end of their life is plagued by a loss of motor control and mental faculties. In the case of Huntington’s the person can live a fulfilling life for awhile so termination is usually not something that is considered. In the cases of the others it becomes a grey area since a life of misery and suffering isn’t a life that most would be willing to undertake.

Now the Pope has said that preventing this is not the most absolute evil. He cited the recommendation of the Vatican in the early 60s that contraception would be permissible during such atrocities as the mass rapes in the Congo, because, as we all know, rape victims have that choice (it should be noted that this was reversed with the Humanae Vitae in 1968 [It should also be noted that while this may have actually never happened the idea that it did was cited by Pope Francis]). So, sex without the possibility of procreation is still a sin, but it’s not an absolute evil. The strange thing is that I teach the Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect, and I’m pretty sure the lesser of two evils argument doesn’t work as a justification for anything. It also opens the door for a lot of wiggle room on the lesser evil part: what’s to stop a good Catholic from claiming that some minor genetic disorder means that they can strap on a condom in order to prevent color blindness or left-handedness? I’m all for contraception, it’s not any kind of evil, but these blanket statements always get walked back. In either case, thanks for not condemning me to hell because I didn’t want to have a baby that one time.

His recommendation also is that doctors use all available techniques to create a vaccine for Zika. Uh, thanks guy, I think the medical establishment was already working on that one. The problem is what we do in the meantime.

Then the Pope took criticism for his omission regarding the Bishops who have been transferring priests accused of sex abuse to Latin America rather than to the local authorities. His response, “They should resign, clear?”

Yeah Popey, it’s clear. You want them, of their own volition, to resign their posts. It’s a nice sentiment, but you could fire them, have them stripped of their office, and defrocked. I mean, we’re only asking you to stop one of the largest criminal conspiracies in the world, something that you could easily do. See the problem isn’t just the sexual abuse, it’s the fact that perpetrators get to keep everything but their location. In fact, in some ways, it’s worse to send them to Latin America where a priest is more respected than in the Northern Hemisphere. If you think that a Bishop, a high ranking member of your organization, is just going to resign is absurd. Why would they as there is no seeming punishment for doing the thing that they did. It almost seems like it’s condoned because of the lack of punishment.

The Vatican’s position has been clear from historical precedent. Moving these alleged perpetrators (and sometimes not even “alleged”) has been the historical policy. Again, the problem isn’t just the abuse, it happens with a rate that has been estimated as on par with the general population, it’s the response by the officials of the church to shield and protect its reputation rather than let their officials have to deal with the local authorities. For instance Cardinal Pell who is hiding from Australian authorities in the Vatican and is refusing to attend hearings in person opting rather for remote testimony. This could all end if the Pope would just declare the perpetrators and those that hide them as being subject to the legal system of the countries where the allegations took place. However that’s not what his policy seems to be nor does it seem to be in the future as well.

Usually I remark that this guy is always one step forward and two back. This time we didn’t even get that step forward. Sure, he said that Trump (#drumpf) was probably not a Christian–through a thinly veiled criticism on people that want to build walls rather than bridges, but I dislike his meddling in US politics no matter who is target is. Still waiting for some solid reason to like this guy and I just don’t get the fascination.