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20030331 - Atheist thing

My good friend pete sent this email to a group of friends:

So I woke up this morning and flipped on the tube for some sunday morning programming. I got sucked into a "infomercial/spread the word" thingy by a guy who has been visiting college campuses for the last 25 years. He was pretty good, dropping alot of names like Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell that those college kids eat up. Anyway, one of his main points was as follows: its fine if you are Atheist, but if you are, you must accept three things. First, life is utterly meaningless. Second, morality is relative. Third, the only thing waiting for you after death is rotting. This, he concluded through a various number of points and examples, could only lead to a life of despair.

any thoughts?

So, I had to respond.

Go to this Environmental Working Group site about PFC's and tell me that you shouldn't despair. (OK, that's cheating; I just wanted to post that URL.)

Take a look at that last sentence. The presenter, in a one-sided argument with himself, he was able to prove that the atheist view can be depressing. Perhaps even more than just 'depressing', [define despair] but without hope.

[what is hope, hope for what?]

OK.

So, what am I to do? Take the red pill? "Well, depression runs in my family, so I'll start believing, as well as exercising and eating right! Jesus will now be an important part of my daily well-balanced breakfast!"

That seems a lot like Pascal's Wager--basically, weighing the cost/benefit of belief--something that makes the believer feel good, but can't really sway anyone.

Or perhaps I see if I still have that article clipping from the Cedar Rapids Gazette, circa 1989, that I had on my door in the dorms: "Depressed folks wiser says top shrink".

Great, Ignorance is Bliss....but ignoring something and then getting smacked in the face with it later really sucks, whether that's never questioning one's government, partner's screwing around on you, tax professional cutting corners, underling at work is never doing any of their work, or third-party kiosk construction firm always saying "don't worry, we'll handle it".

To try to jump back on track, though...
Ok, three things to accept:


NUMBER 1) life is utterly meaningless. I don't necessarily accept this, but we've got to examine this a bit, first. We're basically saying "Human Life and/or My Personal Life has no meaning that exists outside of myself." I hardly think we're talking that if I dedicate my life to something that it doesn't have meaning FOR ME, we're talking about objective meaning.

Meaning itself probably needs some defining here, though. m-w.com gives us:
Function: noun
Date: 14th century
1 a : the thing one intends to convey especially by language : PURPORT b : the thing that is conveyed especially by language : IMPORT
2 : something meant or intended : AIM <a mischievous meaning was apparent>
3 : significant quality; especially : implication of a hidden or special significance <a glance full of meaning>
4 a : the logical connotation of a word or phrase b : the logical denotation or extension of a word or phrase
- meaning adjective
- mean·ing·ly /-ni[ng]-lE/ adverb

#2 fits here somewhat. Life having a purpose, aim, or goal, that goal decided for us from the outside, such as "god's plan". Having a "task" to do without a clear goal or aim is generally called exploration or play.

"The play's the thing." --William Shakespeare

So, we are on the earth without a externally directed goal. Sounds like what all the poor animals (and humans who were once considered animals and treated as such) have. Nothing but pure biological imperatives. Oh shit. There are externally defined goals? Survival, reproduction, avoidance of negative stimulus, gravitation to positive stimulus. Protection of like, defense from unlike.

(Aren't half the problems in our culture because too many people have had their biological imperatives taken care of? But hasn't that always been the case with the 'ruling caste' in any culture? In many ways most in the US is part of that ruling caste....even a lot of people in tough times are better off than much of the planet.)

So, these may not be deep, intellectually very satisfying goals, but that's not really the task of the discussion. Toss in that goal-less way of dealing with things which is such an important part of mammalian life: play. The base of my existential thinking has been "How boring it would be to have all the answers. Life is about finding out what the hell the questions are, I'll never know most of the answers."

No one ever said ANY "faith" was easy. Even 'self-gratification' regimens like hedonism, pure selfishness, take what you can, etc. has the occasional problem with other people getting mad, not giving you what you want, telling you you are an a-hole, not playing with you anymore, fighting against you, etc.

And even should my understanding of the Theist schtick be True, you're still being handed a bunch of problematical and often paradoxical goals. Then you're drawn into a lot of mucking about with "do we follow the original source" (and what happens when the Canon is conflicted by new sources (Dead Sea Scrolls)) or "do we get to modify it over time" (if not, can we translate it from it's original language and context?, if so, how can we be sure that the goal is TRUE and comprehensible?). And there's just some pretty barbaric stuff in many of the old sources. But these have to be accepted when they are from the almighty. But I can pretty easily (and somewhat rationally) decide to forgo my reproductive imperative, and weigh the risk/benefits of heroin.

Heck, the 'drive to pleasure' is pretty weak and easily modified, as many derive pleasures from self-denial, self-denigration, etc. whether as ascetic monks or shamen on vision quests, or being whipped and forced to write good checks.

Throw in what we know happens to people when their brain chemicals change just a tiny bit....

So, yes. Life has not been given meaning from an outside source (with questionable motives and working methods). Heck, Science&Technology may already be autonomous, at least somewhat independent of human goals, wishes, wants and desires, so it may not be too hard for a 'system' to come into existence without the Watchmaker's intent.

(Isn't the idea of The Watchmaker, common to philosophy classes everywhere, a pretty "modernist" sort of idea. The metaphor of a watch, a specific, carefully constructed object with one sole purpose which is carefully crafted by a knowledgeable expert with great care and precision. There is no question of intent, goal, purpose. No questioning of the concept of the time that it is measuring, diving, organizing, rationalizing. Take that watch and subvert it a little, into the glowing LED time indicator inserted into the stretched earlobe of a modern primitive. Now it's no longer a useful device for the wearer as a time-telling instrument in the ordinary fashion, we've cyber-punked it into a bit of fashion (not because it's 'high tech' but because we've taken the modernist concept and let the street find it's own gritty but bourgeois use for it). And what if that watch is a cheap-assed plastic affair found in a Happy Meal with a copyrighted Disney character on it that was mass-produced in a third-world contracted-out sweatshop by illiterates in any language and will cease functioning in under a month, designed by someone cutting and pasting a bunch of pre-made and not well-understood generic plans together before being modified several times by committee. Last cosmological discovery that I heard of points strongly to the universe being ever-expanding, so it appears at least that the watchmaker didn't include planned obsolescence (on the cosmological scale).)

So there's not a rule book for life, a scorecard, a final exam, or even a comprehensible goal. Boo hoo. Most world religions don't really give a concrete definite goal, either. You're supposed to 'do the good Lord's work'. Sure, there's a list of general do's and don't's but many of these can be derived from the precepts of the Church of the Not Getting My Ass Kicked While Not Being Taken Advantage Of.

I'm much more able to choose to take or not take Prozac, which will solve my utter despair, though it won't give my life meaning.

There's no externally non-biological/intellectually pleasing goal or point to life? So, I'll play, explore, define, re-define, and refine my own. Problem of meaningless solved in all but a "meaning must come from the outside (and be imposed upon you)" sort of manner, and in many ways that external imposition is already taken care of...my family, friends, geographical, ethnic, temporal (thank god I'm not reincarnated...think of all the short, brutal lives I will have had to endure throughout the past...only one person can be Cleopatra, (just you, Shirley MacLaine) the rest of us were slaves making the monuments or more likely a child of one who died before age five.), socio-economic, governmental, and other things give me a much narrower field of possible lives. (I am in despair, for I will never be able to be the greatest French-speaking, black, lute player in all of Japan in the 19th century, no matter what I believe in.)

NUMBER 2: morality is relative.

Well, if it isn't, it's certainly not very easy to understand, otherwise we'd not have conflicting messages from the history of the Christian Church.

Is it OK for a state to kill a member of the state for murder? If it is ok, then we just added relative conditions to the act of killing. State can kill one for killing. States can engage in war to provide self-protection? Relativity. This may be a slippery-slope argumentative fallacy, but it seems to me that any conditional you start placing starts to get into relativity. States can sentence to death/imprisonment members for other things besides murder? How about due to ethnicity? Can I tell a white lie? Can I withhold evidence? OK, OK, listing a bunch of exceptions to an absolute moral code (even if accepted, and some of these may be weak, or at least wanting the code to be a straightforward, clear, simple definition) doesn't 'prove' that there cannot be an absolute morality.

Definition time: (from m-w.com)
1 a : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior

First of all, there must exist a right and a wrong. Generally defined, in theist circles, as either something God creates whole, or something that exists outside of God. (The first inviting the paradox that God can declare rape of babies a Good act and that by definition being a Good act (if 'God wouldn't do that' then you're saying the rules exist outside of God), the second putting a limit on God's power.) So, there's a wrong and a right, and we'll give you that these are knowable. And these are not relative. m-w.com's relative 3 : not absolute or independent

So, the atheist must accept that there is no code of right and wrong (ethics, morals) which is not independent (from God) or 'just exists'. That's not really too hard. Though I might wish some sort of Karma or eternal arbiter of justice who weighs the heart of the recently departed on a scale to decide their fate (Egyptian) when some asshole cuts me off in traffic, I personally think that it's up to good people like you and me to give those people that Karmic payback...the universe isn't going to unless you accept your role as the tool of the universe.

I'm a little less studied up in my Ethics....I know there's quite a few instances in the Old and New Testament that our (warped modern Secular Humanist) ethics find to be problematical if not repugnant. But showing that the basis of Christianity is rotten doesn't make the Atheist case, either.

So just go to http://selectsmart.com/RELIGION/ and choose another religion....

I guess I'll just have to say that there's also enough commonality in the world's 'morality guides' that makes me think that while there may be no absolute dispenser of morality, there are a lot of somewhat obvious conclusions from thoughtful reflection about how to live one's life. I believe that these change over time (slavery, treatment of animals, rights of non-landowners, women, children, workers, gays, human rights in general).

Much of this rests on Number One....if life has the goal of pleasing god, one must live according to that, if life has the goal of self-preservation above all, one may find their ethics change in different situations. The two are not always compatible (see any movie about WWII concentration camps, or the Civil War P.O.W. Camp Andersonville). Of course even simple mammals can have goals which go beyond simple self-preservation -- we see creatures which eat their own young as pretty monstrous, and see "humanity" in the actions of a mother sacrificing herself for her offspring (Bambi).

Basically, my answer is: because there is no God, there is no external goal for my life that I've been handed or have to deduce, and there likewise is no moral plan which that God has handed me or us. What if there is a God, but we've all been intentionally given separate goals, like some monstrous computer algorithm fitness test?

Of course, just as some baby prey-animals seem to have a fear of predator bird shapes above them hardwired into their brains, it wouldn't be too hard for some of what we call 'morals' to be built-in to some degree. There are taboos which (appear to) transcend all sorts of cultures (to a degree). So maybe there is a low-level built-in moral base, that's either evolutionarily advantageous or an evolutionary spandrel (by-product or quality which was not primarily advantageous, "blood is red", but that color-fact is not in itself a positive survival characteristic for (most) red-blooded creatures).

But even that sort of 'built-in' type of morality isn't comforting...it is no more 'moral' than a code imposed by any other outside force, unless you're cheating and defining 'moral' as 'what god said'. And can change through further evolution, so it's not absolute or eternal. Just like the morality of the Christian God throughout the Old and the New.

Atheists (may) have a harder time fooling themselves that there is an absolute, eternal, comprehensible morality. OK. I can accept that.

Looking at the number of people around the globe, today, who are actually trying very hard to live good lives, who may not be Christian, the Christian side also has a very hard choice as to whether all these other people who are living good lives by their cultural and personal ethos (and even as judged by Christians if you remove those 'must believe in our system' rules) are doomed to some sort of punishment/eternity without God's love. You've got a pretty brutal God on your hands in that case...no, thank you.

Shit could be just a little bit more fair, too. I identified as an atheist in 5th or 6th grade (all I remember is that one of the years I read JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, the other one I became an atheist), yet I seemed to find it much easier to live according to the non-system-protecting commandments and rules than many of my classmates who went through some sort of Catholic or Protestant confirmation.

Is this a list of things that Atheists have to accept, or things that Christians don't want to accept?

[Morality is pretty tricky to PROVE that it is some inherent thing which exists in some religious moral code sort of fashion, without being self-referential. "This is wrong because the Bible says it is wrong and the Bible claims to know that that is what God wants, because the people who follow the Bible claim that the Bible is the word of God...]

With that, let's move on to
NUMBER 3: the only thing waiting for you after death is rotting

As we said in Junior High: No DUH.

Add to that "Thank God!"

I really wanted to just say "no duh" and leave it, but I can't.

Well, rotting is an especially visual image which doesn't help matters much. And the reality is that in the culture I live in, we're either burnt up and passed around as ashes along with several other people's ashes and wood n stuff, or we're sealed in a concrete thingy and just dry out. But let's stick with rot for the moment. We're rotting either way, it's just a matter of whether that's all. And the Christian view isn't the only alternative (nor is there necessarily ONE single view, much of what a typical Christian of today sees as the afterlife is extra-biblical). (see the Shirley Maclaine/Cleopatra thing which I filched from Arthur C Clarke.)

So, I'm going to end when I die.

To me, that makes life far more precious, makes it count, more. Not only is my life all I have, that's all anyone has. Makes it a little harder to accept capital punishment (or wrongful imprisonment), war (intentional and unintentional casualties) especially in not literally self defense type situations, and things like that.

And really, this goes back to Number 1. Though the Christian enterprise has created all these afterlife expectations (which aren't necessarily part of the Canon), it really comes down to a matter of life having "meaning". Much of the Christian spiel logically comes down to losing your "you" anyway (and gets pretty close to some eastern ideas of reincarnation and transcendence as well as books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Camilla, etc.)

Now, just because all of these things may be true, there is no reason to become a nihilist, or to despair. I also believe that quantum tunneling is possible, the universe is deterministic, and that my eyesight is not perfect, but that does not mean I expect 'solid' object to pass through each other regularly, that I don't sweat choices about whom to marry or whether to choose to put $3000 in a new Vanguard stock mutual fund or bond mutual fund, or that I'm blind.

There are certainly some things which are a lot harder to accept than those 3.

While I could ramble some more and try to make some up, the one than really struck me when I started rambling my response, and the one that really struck me a long time ago when I first encountered the idea, and still struggle with somewhat today:

Number 4: All Christians are crazy, as well as anyone else who has had a "religious experience".

That's a summation. It's not that simple.
I found "Philosophy of Religion" by David Elton Trueblood in the Iowa State University Design Center building. He goes through a lot of your typical Philosophy class "existence of god" (what the heck is the name of that branch of philosophy?) arguments, even some that I'd never encountered in classes ("Religion is a ladder, each rung closer to the Truth") but each one was pretty easy to shoot down ("so since Christianity is the rung above Judaism (over polytheism, over animism), Islam must be the rung above Christianity, right?"), except one. That argument still doesn't sell Christianity, but it does erode either Atheism or faith in humanity. Many people have what they believe are religious experiences. If you look through recorded history, and the recorded religious experiences, you find a great many of them, across culture, religion, time, place, etc. Many of them may be easily shown to be non-authentic....but it only takes one of those experiences to be an authentic contact with something 'out there' for the atheist to be wrong. So, either all religious-spiritual experiences are 'hallucinations', wish fulfillment, bad chemistry, just plain craziness that is basically part and parcel of humanity, or

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,
--Hamlet, Act I, v, 166-7
(http://www.humanistsofutah.org/1997/shakespeare_explained.html)
 


20030331 - Killing Men's Sports

Interesting National Press Club speech I heard today. Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, gave a little talk about progress in the NCAA to emphasize academics, and how he sees Title IX. I'm not a sports-dork at all; the only NCAA thing I watched during my 10 years of college was 15 minutes of a cross-country match outside my dorm window. It amazes me that people spend so much time worrying about such stuff, especially stuff they aren't competing in, but I understand we all need our various forms of mindless entertainment. Participation can be healthy, and studying the sport can be done from the couch, if you're interested in a handful of sports. (And can be studied 24 hours a day on ESPN2 if your sport is carrying huge iron cutouts of the continent of Africa.)

But one thing he mentioned that surprised me was how Title IX doesn't really cause some smaller men's sports to be killed. Title IX called for parity in sports funding and ideally participation. So if you've got a college with a 50/50 gender split, you need to fund women's sports with 50% of your budget. And when a big school that has a bunch of expensive sports (football, basketball) closes a small men's sports program (wrestling, rowing, etc.), they always blame it on Title IX. If they didn't have to fund all these women's sports, you see, they'd have plenty of money to lavish on the men's curling team.

That's what they've whined. But, as Myles Brand states in his speech:

It has been argued that Title IX has led to closing men's programs, such as wrestling. Rather, Title IX has been used as an excuse to close these programs: it is not the reason. During the mid-1980s, when Title IX was not being enforced, more than 50 wrestling programs closed. In fact, institutions make decisions not to support some athletics programs for myriad reasons.

Yeah, sure there would be more money if they didn't have to have more than a couple women's sports...but the reality is that that money isn't going to go to some small men's sport, it'll go to new grass in the quad, or maybe a new logo for the football team.
 


20030313 - That boy could dance

One of Freakbiscuit's brothers is getting married in June. She is going to be a bridesmaid. This is going to be a Chicago-style African-American wedding, pulling out all the stops. As a bridesmaid, she will not be walking up the aisle, nor will she be marching--she will be dancing, and has been informed that she will have steps to learn and perform.

And she's been taunting me lately, because after the ceremony, there's going to be the required reception with dancing. And everyone's going to be looking at the white guy on the dance floor. Great, just what I need....in fact I think I'll have to add that to my official List of Things That White Farmboys From Iowa are Deathly Afraid Of:

  1. Accidentally saying something wrong/stupid and having any people think you are racist. (note)
     
  2. Losing your significant other to Wil Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There would be no way for a male in my general age group to ever live this one down. "Hey, isn't that your ex-girlfriend in this photo from the Star Trek Convention? Right there, the one with the Vulcan ears standing next to Wes?"
    Oh, sure, he's a big inter-net star or something, but that just means he's not all bad...you still don't want to lose to a guy with that big a cloud of humiliation looming in his past.
    (Insert the young annoying entertainment-industry-child of your choice here to make this relevant to your particular age group: Opie Cunningham, a member of Menudo, Webster, one or both of the Olson twins, etc.)
     
  3. Having a large number of African-Americans of all ages watch you dance. It'll take a lot more than lessons from Kevin Bacon to make this farmboy footloose in anything but a crazy art-kid way. (They call it the dance. The St. Vitus dance.)

I might as well dye my hair green as a distraction, though that'll make me look even more pasty.

note: When I graduated from high school, 25% of my graduating class went to Iowa State University, at least for the first year. Yes, an entire 6 of us. Needless to say, Shellsburg (Pop ~700) didn't have a lot of racial diversity. You could occasionally see black people in the mall in Cedar Rapids, though. We went to college and were extremely aware of race, but in a self-conscious terror of doing or saying something "wrong", much in the same way that many men coming to college are scared of opening a door for a woman and having her yell at him. (subnote) So, we were basically just scared of black people, because we were worried we would act badly in ignorance.

subnote:You may not think men are scared of this, but from my 7 years living in the dorms, I can say that guys in college talk about how that 'could' happen quite a bit, especially when the occurrence of it is far, far more rare than it happening to anyone involved in the discussion (and probably far less likely than a campus date-rape). I've made this observation many times over the past 10 years, and I think I've only had two listeners who actually have had this happen to them. Of course a college campus is about the only place where you'd run into a freshly minted feminist who'd yell at a guy for opening a door for a woman. Though there was that one guy on my floor who would stop at a doorway because he saw women were coming and wait the two minutes for them to get close enough for him to open the door for them--he was just begging for someone to blow up at his strange, desperately protective behavior--but no matter how much he deserved it, he never had that happen to him.
 


20030312 - A little trip

RandomTim is a cool guy that I sorta know (I have gone camping him on his father's farm in the Catskill mountains). He's on a little motorcycle trip, spanning North and South America: http://www.easyrandom.com/