Junk Food Tip ‘O The Day

Smart Balance Omega Natural Peanut Butter, Fritos Scoops, Sunkist orange soda. The peanut butter is dip for the Fritos. Wash it all down with a cold orange soda in a chilled mug.

To Be Or Not To Be

Can there be a rational argument against suicide? Yes, I think, but, like almost all rational arguments, it can be overcome by the facts. (Mathematical arguments are the exception: they do not rely on any fact, and so can not be overcome by any fact.)

The (or a) rational argument against suicide is this: suppose you’ve decided to end your own life because of some problem or pain that seems insurmountable. While it is true that suicide will remove the problem or pain, you must realize that it is also probably true that, given time, the problem/pain will go away anyway, even if you don’t commit suicide. And when that happens, you’ll be glad you didn’t take your own life.

But as I said, facts can overcome this argument. For instance, it could be the case that I have a painful, debilitating, and ultimately fatal disease, for which there is no cure, nor hope for cure. In that case, it’s not true that, given time, the problem/pain will go away, and so there’s no reason to think that I will at some later point in my life be thankful that I didn’t take my life earlier. And in fact, most people agree with the notion that a person in these circumstances should be able to end their life when they want to, in the most painless manner possible.

There may be other rational arguments against suicide. But given the level of suffering that organisms like us are subject to, I don’t think any absolute prohibition against suicide is truly rational.

Consciousness as Elemental

Consciousness can appear to itself as “elemental”, as fundamental as matter and energy, perhaps even more so.

But is it really?

And if consciousness is not elemental, what are the implications for the place of logic and reason in our experience? and what are the implications for religion?

Hermione Philosophizes

One charm among many in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and concluding book in the wonderful series by J.K. Rowling, is an exchange between Harry’s friend Hermione Granger and one Xenophilius Lovegood, a believer in the legend of the Deathly Hallows. The Deathly Hallows are magical objects, and Hermione, ever the skeptic, questions whether one of them can possibly be real. The following conversation ensues:

“Prove that it is not,” said Xenophilius.

Hermione looked outraged.

“But that’s – I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? … I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”

“Yes, you could,” said Xenophilius. “I am glad to see that you are opening your mind a little.”

Fifty points for Gryffindor! Hermione’s got it exactly right.

Believers often claim that skeptics are close-minded. But who is really close-minded, the skeptic, who insists on evidence before bestowing belief, or the believer, whose faith is rock solid, unassailable, and impervious, both to evidence, and the lack thereof?

Thinking Aloud

Suppose I am in possession of an 1848 US penny, and no one is aware I posses this coin. Further suppose, I (without being observed) place this coin on the deck of my house (my house was built in 1981) for some nominal period of time – say five minutes – and then remove it, again without being observed. Finally, suppose I grind this coin into powder, ingest it, and subsequently die – never having revealed to anyone that I placed an 1848 coin on my deck. Is there any reason for one to believe an 1848 penny was once on the deck of my house? Is there any evidence to suggest that an 1848 penny was on the deck of my house? I claim the answer to both questions is no. Yet, an 1848 penny was, in fact, on the deck of my house. 

From the above, can I conclude that while evidence may be a sufficient condition to suggest a reality, it is not a necessary condition; therefore, every possibility might be a reality even in the absence of supporting evidence? If so, why then must faith be burdened with evidence? Can I not assert that faith should be defined as belief without evidence, rather than belief without reason?

Why I Am Not An Agnostic

An agnostic (a – without, and gnosis – knowledge) says that the existence of God – neither provable nor disprovable – is beyond our knowledge, and just leaves it at that. He faults the atheist for believing that God does not exist, just as much as he faults the theist, for believing that He does.

“Isn’t agnosticism really the only intellectually honest position to take? After all, you don’t really claim to know, do you? You’ve already said that almost all belief is subject to doubt; surely this applies to beliefs about God, if anything? So why aren’t you an agnostic?”

I’m not an agnostic, because of Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Not only is there no good reason for believing in Celestial Teapots, there’s no good reason for even being agnostic about Celestial Teapots. The reasonable position to hold is that Celestial Teapots simply don’t exist.

The agnostic seems to believe that, because the statement “God doesn’t exist” might be false, it’s not intellectually valid or honest to believe that it is true. On the contrary, any statement, if it’s empirically meaningful at all, will be falsifiable. That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of deciding what we believe, nor does it shield us from the possibility that, once the decision has been made, we might be wrong after all.

A God I Can Live With

For a significant fraction of the population, the words “God” and “Christian” signify several specific and related beliefs: that God exists, and is the Supreme Being who Created the Universe (SBwCU); that God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful; that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, sent to Earth to redeem mankind from his sins; that Christ died on the cross, but rose again the third day thereafter, thus defeating death; that in the hereafter, those who believe in Him will survive death as well, and that their eternal souls will go to Heaven to reside in bliss with God and his son Jesus forever.

Individually, each one of these statements strikes me as highly unlikely to be true. Taken together, it can be logically proven that they can’t all be true, not all at the same time. For example, the mere existence of evil implies that God can’t be both all powerful and all good: either God must not be able to stop all evil, in which case He isn’t all powerful, or He chooses not to, in which case He’s not all good. The only way to deny the conclusion is to deny the premises, the existence of evil. But evil certainly appears to exist, even in an impersonal and random universe, at least in terms of my own survival, and of the survival of humanity at large. I, at least, have never heard a convincing argument that all the apparent evil in the world is actually not evil at all.

“But you’re holding God accountable to your own standards! How reasonable is that?”

Logic holds even God accountable. God can’t be both all good and all powerful, given the existence of evil.

But for a significant minority of the population, “God” and “Christian” have more abstract meanings. These people are less ready than their fundamentalist brethren to pit God against science in a contest over the facts. For these moderate believers, science is about the facts, while religion is about values, and the “larger picture”. Concepts like the divinity of Christ are stages in a spiritual evolution. “God” refers to the ultimate reality that underlies Existence, to the ultimate mystery of things. No more, no less.

The more abstract God becomes, the more I like Him. The less He cares about us, the better. I would be perfectly happy with the perfectly abstract God, which represented everything, and nothing, at the same time.

To borrow a concept from Computer Science, the perfectly abstract God is an uninstantiated class: now that‘s a God an atheist could live with.

Does God Explain the Universe?

The universe is everything that is. Nothing inside the universe explains itself, so the universe as a whole can’t explain itself. Therefore God is necessary, to explain the universe.

But if God explains the universe, what explains God? If you say that God is completely self-sufficient, and doesn’t need an explanation, why can’t I say the same about the universe? If you posit a Meta-God that explains God, you set off an infinite regress: your Meta-God now needs explaining. If you say “fine, I accept an infinite hierarchy of Meta-Gods”, the question still recurs: what explains the infinite hierarchy as a whole?

God really explains nothing at all. Which is the opposite of God explaining the universe.

Does The Universe Need Explaining?

Why is there something, rather than nothing? Why does the universe go to all the trouble of actually existing? Wouldn’t it be easier, and somehow more elegant, for there just to be nothing at all? Sort of an existential “principle of least action”…

Questions like these make it seem as if the universe is crying out for an explanation. But is it? The universe, by sheer definition, is everything that is. Thus, if there is an explanation for the universe, that explanation is already part of the universe itself. If anything explains the universe, it must be the universe itself.

There is another possibility. Reality simply is. “Explanations” are techniques that beings such as ourselves have evolved to map reality. They are fairly adequate for mapping those features of reality that are directly related to our survival. However, there is no reason to expect that human beings would have evolved the mechanisms necessary to “explain” everything. Evolution is notoriously parsimonious. Why should we expect our evolved minds to come equipped so as to be able to understand absolutely everything?

What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”

Religion and morality

My neighbor has something that I want. But he won’t let me have it. If I kill my neighbor, I can have what I want. I can see that killing my neighbor is bad, but still, why shouldn’t I, if it gets me what I want?

The atheist, according to Michael Gerson, has no real answer for this question.

The idea that God provides the ultimate grounds of moral authority, and that without God there is no objective basis for morality, is an old one. Socrates was executed in Athens for impiety and the corruption of youth. The jury did not consider the two crimes unrelated.

The theist’s answer, according to Gerson, is that you should not kill your neighbor, because the God you love and respect forbids it. The atheist, on the other hand, can perhaps choose to do the right thing, if he so desires, but with “God dethroned”, he is under no moral compulsion to do so, and hence has no basis for condemning those who don’t.

This atheist’s answer is that there is such a thing as a rational basis for morality. You shouldn’t kill you neighbor, because he is your fellow man, no different from yourself, and if it’s right to kill him, then it would be right for someone else to kill you. Personally, I find the atheist’s answer much more compelling than the theist’s, as it is grounded in human reality, and not some hypothesized divine reality.

But in the broadest sense, it really doesn’t matter that much where our values come from, or how they are grounded, as long as we agree on what the basic values are (e.g. don’t kill). What matters is how we act on them. And at that point, the position of the non-believer isn’t that much different from that of the believer. Both have values. Both know that they can act in harmony with their values, or not. Both must decide how to act. Believing that his values are endorsed by God doesn’t relieve the theist of the choice for or against them. Likewise, knowing that his values owe something to convention doesn’t relieve the atheist of the responsibility of acting in accord with them.

There are cases, of course, where atheists and theist disagree on basic values. But then again, neither do theists, even amongst themselves, agree on all moral matters.

To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, morality needs religion like a fish needs a bicycle.