Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sam Harris -- New Age Nutjob?

     So I was reading The End of Faith, was a little bit into it when I ran across the following:

"There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.  The dictum that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" remains a reasonable guid in these areas, but this does not mean that the universe isn't far stranger than many of us suppose.  It is important to realize that a healthy, scientific skepticism is compatible with a fundamental openness of mind."(pg 41)

In the footnote to this passage he says
"There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation."(pg. 242)

Well, I'm not going to let anybody accuse me of being narrow-minded, so I'm going to investigate all this crap, I mean evidence. I'm going to be sure and finish the End of Faith, including his mushy section on consciousness at the end.  I'm going to follow it up by reading what I assume will be a counter-argument in certain parts of Stenger's God and the Folly of Faith, and then I will do my best to look into the evidence for this kind of thing.

I think this should be fun. 

Don't worry, the masses of readers of my entry on Ecclesiastes have nothing to fear.  I will continue to drive home the meaninglessness of your existence as powerfully as I can in the meantime.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ecclesiastes, Entry 1

      You might find it odd that after all my protestations about being a secular humanist that I would pick a book from The Bible, the OLD Testament no less, as the subject of a sequence of blog entries.  It is about time I revisited this book that has had such an important effect on me. 

     In fact, of all the books I have ever read I cannot think of one that has changed my life the way this one has.  I first read this book when I was 14.  Its first word changed me forever.  Soon thereafter I read Macbeth, my favorite Shakespeare play, containing these words:
"Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tommorow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time
and al our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death.

Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking Shadow
a poor player that struts and frets
his hour upon the stage and then is heard
no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot
full of sound and fury
signifying nothing."

I have had these words memorized since that time.  But if you look at what Macbeth says here, you see the book of Ecclesiastes in miniature.

Verse 2:
"Vanity of Vanity says the preacher, all is Vanity."

Now, most theologically inclined people try to finesse this as saying life is vain without God.  That does not seem to be the emphasis of this book.  ALL is vanity.  Everything.  ALL of it. You, me, the Universe, God, everything.  Totally and abjectly futile and pointless.

Sounds like every teenager I know.

Bertrand Russell tries to take on Ecclesiastes in his book The Conquest of Happines but fails miserably.  Sorry.  He does.

"If he[Solomon] could have heard on the wireless the speech of the Queen of Sheba to her subjects on her return from his dominions, would it not have consoled him among his futile trees and pools? If he could have had a press-cutting agency to let him know what the newspapers said about the beauty of his architecture...?"
pg. 28

The answer to Russell is, "NO".  Obviously he had never appreciated the expression "The more things change, the more they stay the same." 

"What profit has a man from all his labor In which he toils under the sun?" v. 3

Take that you workaholics!  All your superiority amounts to nothing! You're going to die just like everyone else.  So there.

"One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises; and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
and then turns around to the north
That which has been is what will be,
that which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun."

This is not about the sun going around the earth, it's about the tedious rythms of nature.  You read in poetry about how beautiful and designed and predictable nature is, Qoheleth(look it up), is saying that nature is tedious, mindless, repetitive, as is life.  Russell TOTALLY misses the point when he says that all our technology is creating all this new stuff.  Perhaps in Russell's time new gadgets were very exciting, but not for me.  One replaces another, idiots line up to get the latest iphone or ipad or bullshit and it's always the same. You loser nerds! All to support industries so that folks in China etc.. can work in shitty conditions.  Nothing ever changes.

"There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance of things
to come by those who will come after."

We can't even keep straight who/what caused our current fiscal crisis.  Our media just drops it down the 'memory hole'(look it up).  People are appallingly ignorant about history, even recent history.  Think you're going to make your mark? No you won't.

Before long it will be like you were never here. DEAL WITH IT.

Like I said, people try to sweeten this book up because they can't handle it, but it is a violence to the book itself and to its wisdom.

I will continue starting with verse 12 next time.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Noam Chomsky on the "New Atheists"

     Below is a link to a response from Chomsky on the subject of the "New Atheists".  It is interesting and typical Chomsky:

I apparently also missed out on all the fun.  Evidently Hitchens and Chomsky got into it -- in all likelihood initiated by Hitchens, unless I miss my guees -- over 9/11 and the Iraq war.  If you look up something like "Hitchens debates Chomsky" you get a number of nice hits.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Vegetarianism and Plants

    Alright, I've had enough of this.  There is zero evidence that plants feel pain.  They do not have the requisite nervous system for such sensations.  They lack a brain and other sense organs.  I'm not a botanist, and it is evident that some plants are able to respond to the environment, but I am unaware of any mechanism any of them possess that would indicate sensory experience of any kind.  Now, animals such as my dog very obviously feel pleasure, pain, etc... ; this applies to cows, chickens, pigs, well.

   Unless there is some paranormal method whereby plants are able to have sensation(though, I don't know what good sensory experience would be to a carrot or a rutabaga), I can find no evidence for it.  It is obvious to me that animals do feel things.  Thus we should try to reduce that suffering since we can. 

     As for other animals not being sensitive to the pain of their quarry... That lack of awareness is their excuse.  We don't have that excuse.  Thus it's no good arguing it's the 'way of nature' to cause other animals pain, at least not with me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Return to Vegetarianism

     So Easter Sunday a couple of years ago I'm at the Cheesecake Factory with my wife and best friend from church and I order the stuffed mushrooms.  They were incredibly delicious.  I couldn't believe how good they tasted!  I scarfed them down with great gusto and commented frequently how much I liked them.
I was thinking to myself self-pityingly how little enjoyment I had in this life and how much I enjoyed these mushrooms. 

     Well, it turns out the mushrooms were stuffed with sausage!  Thus ended 15 years of vegetarianism.  The next thing I knew I was guzzling Metamucil and stuffing my face with the carcass of every sentient being I could legally order.  In particular I enjoyed steak.  OH MY GOD did I enjoy steak.  I blew a ton of money on every variety of steak, I preferred a good marbled one.  Getting hungry?

    I could eat a gargantuan amount of meat in a single day.  It reminded me of the halcyon days of my youth when I could eat two bacon cheeseburgers at a time.  My dog started being afraid of me(that's not true, I would never eat my dog).  But somewhere in the back of my mind was the sense that I had allowed all of this self-indulgence to blind me to the the evils of meat-eating.

     So, I started to feel guilty about eating meat.  I tried to become a vegetarian but failed miserably a few days later when we went to a restaurant that had steak.  It wasn't even a good steak.

     Since the time I started eating meat I lost my religion and became an atheist.  Now, the orthodox thinkers among you may think that would mean, absent any theological reason to be kind to innocent creatures, I would redouble my meat-eating.  Such is not the case, however. 

     I started to reflect more deeply about the suffering animals endure.  I found myself feeling increasingly like eating meat was wrong.  Now, other animals eat meat; this I know.  It's natural.  An atheist like me ought to revel in the the Discovery-Channel-After-Darkness of eating animal carcasses.  But it had quite the opposite effect.  Instead, I found I focussed more on their suffering.  But I continued eating meat.  Was I a sadist?  What was the matter with me?  So one day I went out to a shish kabob place and had the lamb kabob(with extra meat).  Something about this experience finally pushed me back over the edge.

     So I have been a vegetarian for 5 days.  So far I've had no craving for meat.  But the cravings will come.
I think I will successfully fight them off.

     It seems that since we can survive as vegetarians, and since we have vegetarian options all around us, and we are aware of the suffering of the animals we eat, that we ought to not eat them.  Other animals have an excuse I think.  But we don't.

Free Will by Sam Harris: Well Written, Flawlessly Argued

     The gentle reader should be aware that I arrived at his conclusion, that there is no such thing as free will, for the same reasons as Harris some time ago.  So, readers may decide that I am too easily convinced by his arguments.  Long time readers of my blog will recall I was very critical of The Moral Landscape, which I thought was deeply flawed, so it's not that I'm somehow under his spell.  I just have to admit that he nailed this issue.

     All of our thoughts arise in us from unconscious processes.  We don't control the thoughts that arise, they just arise.  We don't control our desires or intentions; they just happen to us.  Even if we have a soul we did not choose it; wicked people under this theory are simply unfortunate.  Even if conscious processes are necessary for certain decisions, we are passive recipients of those processes. 

  Quantum Uncertainty is no solution.  It just makes our decisions statistical, not free. 

He recounts the now famous Libet experiments that show that our decisions can be predicted by brain states before we are consciously aware of these decisions.

If you believe in free will I recommend this short, well-argued book as a challenge to your thinking.  I think he is convincing, but that's just me.

He also takes on the notion that without free-will we will not do anything.  Clearly some things in life require we make a conscious decision.  We can't not make decisions in this life; but we are passive recipients of the decisions, not entities that somehow 'control' them.  The whole line of thought is not even coherent. 

He successfully fends off Daniel Dennett and the other compatibilists. Again, I think he does a better job than I can do here in this post.

So, my congratulations to Sam Harris for writing such a good book!  Not that he's worried what I think...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ayn Rand, Pure Evil, and the End of my Patience

     Well, OK, I can see that Ayn Rand makes me upset.  Perhaps this means I should just avoid reading the rest of this book for awhile.  I mean, I enjoy a good rant as much as the next person, but is it really productive?  There are plenty of sites on the internet devoted to hating Ayn Rand's philosophy and everything it stands for.  On the one hand I could say to myself, "There can never be enough!" on the other hand "What's the point?" 

   I'm basically a mild-manered, peace-loving guy.  I try to understand where others are coming from, even if they are completely out of their minds, reality impaired if you will.  I mean, it's not their fault, really.  They can't help it.

    And as for pure evil...well, yes the philosophy is pure evil -- sorry, I can't take that one back.  But the people who follow it are just misguided, that's all.  I feel sorry for them...well, no I don't.  Everyone is misguided about something.  I mean, if these people really think it's OK to allow discrimination on the basis of race or gender, to get rid of worker protections, get rid of public education, get rid of food stamps, antitrust laws, environmental protections, help for the elderly, to get rid of child labor laws so the kids are getting their wee hands caught in the big machines, well... that's just evil.  See? I'm doing it again.

   So, next time I'm going to take on Sam Harris's book on Free Will.  Harris is actually a neurobiologist and I have a feeling he may have some good insights into this issue.

Atlas Shrugged: Pure Evil, Inelegantly Written

     Well, I've gotten a start on Atlas Shrugged.  It is even worse than I remembered!  The writing is execrable and the message is heinous.  She's not exactly subtle about her points.  It takes no great intellectual effort to glean the message from this protracted piece of tripe(now that I'm a vegetarian I no longer knowingly eat tripe.) .

     Obviously Rand is indulging in some fantasy of a masterful masculine capitalist, Master of the Universe.   I can see how this image could appeal to certain men, especially.  All around these figures are pitiful hippy do-gooders who care about the poor(who are inferior or loafers).  The capitalist master takes abuse from ungrateful parasites all of whom he could swat like flies, but because of some misguided sense of noblesse oblige he does not.  Take for example Hank Reardon, whose victory in the production of a new metal is belittled and even resented by his family, all of whom ultimately depend upon him.  He is TOO KIND to them.  That is his downfall.  They are holding him back from the pure joy of creation. If these ne'er-do-wells around him can't congratulate him for successfully carrying the weight of the world, can't they at least leave the poor man alone?!  The ingrate he put through school chides him and other capitalists for not giving him more money for some stupid charity that will be wasted on other good-for-nothings.  Will the abuse of the poor capitalist never stop?!

     Look, if you get off on reading this kind of trash, well, OK -- but please don't tell me it contains any profound ideas.  I assume you think you're one of the beautiful people, but the odds are sorely against it, just remember that.  I have a bad feeling the thousand pages I have left in the book will be a tiresome repeat of the same wicked misrepresentation of our world. 


Monday, May 14, 2012

Atheist Materialism and Philosophy

     Some may wonder how I am an atheist materialist since I have a history of studying philosophy.  Haven't I read Derrida? Stanley Fish? Foucault? etc... Yes, I have read much of this.  I am familiar with a lot of the history of Western Philosophy.  I am familiar with the main arguments from the big movements in its history.  I am also acquainted with Eastern Thought.  I think the Tao Te Ching an incredibly wise book.  I once again recommend it to everyone.

 If I'm so aware of this, how can I adopt what seems a metaphysical position?  Well, let me start at what I consider the epistemological beginning:

1. Can  I demonstrate the existence of anything outside my immediate here and now experience? No.
This includes the universe and other minds.  There is, as far as I can tell, no successful argument.  Period.

2.  Can I use logic to demonstrate that I ought to use logic to make philosophical decisions? No.  These arguments immediately become self-referencial, circular, etc... There is no way out of this.  Sorry.

3.  Are there any valid logical demonstrations for any ethical points of view? No.

     Well, this looks pretty bad for logic and empiricism.  There are no necessary hypothesis.  To someone who believes in God as the creator it can be responded, why not have the universe be self-existing, save a step and don't invoke God.  To the atheist argument it can be responded, why have a universe at all?  Why not save a step and just have your current experience?  Both the universe and God are unnecessary hypotheses. So it seems we have a draw here.

     But, what should one really believe?  I think it's possible to be a solipsist or a metaphysical idealist or to believe just about anything if you want to.  There is ultimately no way to adjudicate among the wide range of positions one could take.

    That said, why would someone like me decide on metaphysical materialism and atheism?  Well, first, I've decided I can't live without assuming that other people exist.  So, I stipulate the existence of other minds.  Note that this is a stipulation; there is no argument.  Why should there be a physical universe outside of the mind?  Well, I seem to be affected by drugs, caffeine, and many things.  My mind seems dependent on something outside itself.  This is an experience I have that is rather immediate.  All I can say is that I have the experience and I conclude a causal relation from the association of drugs and my mental state.  Hume is obviously correct in his arguments against causality, but I accept this direction of causality because it seems so obvious to me.  I don't know how else to put it.

    So, I've stipulated there are other minds and that my mind is dependent on something outside itself, ie, my physical nervous system.  Where to go from here?

    Science is not just a little successful in predicting things and of creating pictures of reality; it is extremely successful.  I'm so impressed by its success that I find it difficult not to believe that it is on to something. From a logical point of view, we are only dealing with world pictures; there may be no universe at all.  But the pictures fit together so well, are so good at making predictions...  Religions cannot boast this kind of success.  Religions also have at best a 'mixed' record when it comes to ethics.  Thus I see no reason to go along with the unnecessary hypothesis of God, but I feel inclined to accept the universe.  It seems to me I'm just accepting the existence of the universe and the monotheistic religions accept the universe and God.  So, I'm accepting one less hypothesis than them.

     I also see religion as an impediment to human freedom and progress.  A humanistic perspective, that values the reduction of suffering, freedom of thought, and pluralism, strikes me as much better than those positions.

     Now, ironclad scientific realists are going to find this all very disappointing.  If you have a successful argument for scientific realism, please let me know.  My guess is that you don't.


Ethics With or Without God

     In response to the American Humanist Association's 'Day of Reason' a certain Mr. Ham posted online that there could be no absolute moral standards without God.  Everyone would be on their own to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.  It seems he is right here.  I have been unconvinced by any attempt to demonstrate logically the truth of any moral propositions.  So far, so good.

      Here's the problem, though: NONE of the arguments for the existence of God are convincing.  I have thought about these things for my entire life and that's the skinny.  Thus, one can choose to believe in God if one wants, or choose not to.  I think the probability inclines against the existence of God, but that doesn't make belief in God impossible, just not compulsory. 

     OK, so let's try to follow the logic where this goes.  One is certainly free to choose to believe in God and the morality of contemporary Christianity along with it.  Or, one is certainly free to try to derive some sort of ethics from the hodge-podge of the Bible if one chooses.  But there is no logical compulsion to do so. 

    If one could demonstrate the existence of the God of the Bible and be able to derive ethics straight-forwardly from the Bible, then Ham would be right.  There would be absolute ethics.   But without a demonstration of the existence of God the notion of absolute ethics is an illusion.  Those who CHOOSE believe in God and derive ethics from this therefore do so with no more LOGICAL force than humanists who CHOOSE their own ethics.  Thus ethics is personal, with or without God since the existence of God has not been demonstrated.

Conclusion, theists who derive ethics from the Bible are making the same kind of personal choice that nontheists make.  The logical status of Biblical ethics is no better than the status of the arguments for the existence of the God of the Bible in the first place, and those arguments are failures.   Thus, what seems to Biblical thinkers as a firm ethical foundation is no more firm than the foundations of any nontheistic ethics.  This security and universality is an illusion.  Thus we are all in the boat of making PERSONAL ethical choices whether we accept it or not, even Biblical thinkers.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A personal aside about my religious experience, Dante, and Ayn Rand

     Those who had known me for a long time might have been surprised when I converted to Christianity, and was a practicing Christian for a number of years. I had up until that time been a rather intense atheist for most of my life.  My first doubts about God occured when I was around 11 or 12.  I had a brief period of some kind of belief around 15-16, and then returned to atheism around 17.  I stayed an atheist until my mid-30s.  How did this conversion happen? Why?

     I have asked myself this question over the last number of years.  The closest I can come to an answer is that the first influence was Dante.  I spent several years, starting around 1999, virtually obsessed with this Florentine poet.  His powerful writing spoke to me, a man in middle age,  feeling somewhat lost, wondering how I had arrived at the position I was in.  What did I believe in? What would become of me?

     I was also irritated by the smug arrogance I saw about me in the Academy.   Once again the folks I detested the most were the Ayn Randians, those who had had everything given to them and somehow took the credit for it themselves.  There were also arrogant, and even authoritarian, liberals. 

     Could I be one of their number?  No.  Instead, I bathed myself in the literary criticism of Dante.  I wished fervently that I had gone into the humanities rather than mathematics, so I could  spend my days reading and contemplating these artistic beauties.  The effect of Dante was very emotional. 

     For some time I harbored a desire to become a Catholic so I could disappear into this for the rest of my life.  It was a very intense kind of escapism at a time in my life when I didn't know what was going to happen next.  It also provided an escape from my detached colleagues.  I suppose many other mathy types escape into gaming; I escaped into Dante.  I went so far as to buy a rosarie and sleep with it wrapped around my hand.

     When we moved to our current locale I wanted to join a Catholic Church and indulge myself in its aesthetic.  As timing would have it, the very Sunday we visited the priest had to admit that one of the other priests, a teacher at the school attached to the church, had been accused of abusing some of the children.

     Then we visited a local Mennonite church.  The people were gentle, sincere,  and humble. They dressed plainly, and they were pacifists.  They were an interesting subculture to which I had never been exposed.  They were, and are, in many ways the exact opposite of the effete types I had been around.  I found it a breath of fresh air.  It has its own quiet, plain aesthetic, the opposite of Catholicism in many ways, but one that could be very deeply felt.  I found everything from their simple way of speaking to their food extremely charming. 

     There I met men who dressed roughly, who rode motorcycles, and who  worked construction, but who turned the other cheek and displayed rare kindness.  It was a jolt to my expectations in which I revelled.  I found myself drawing toward this way of life. 

    The only damn problem I had was intellectual.  I did everything I could to defend the faith in my own mind, but deep down I knew better. I wanted to be one of them so much.   They weren't Catholic, but they were capable of instilling many of the same feelings in me and I still reread Dante often. 

     Slowly this fever started to break.  I found that the constant pressure from my intellect had worn away at the fantasy I was trying so hard to live.  Now I have abandoned my faith and find myself in the world again. I suspect the desire for escape will resurge at some point.  What will become of me then?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ayn Rand, Private Property, and Unfettered Government

Private Property

     Let me start by saying I am not a socialist or a communist.  I fear that both of these systems would tend to concentrate too much power in the hands of the governmen which would have to stamp out 'unapproved' capitalist ventures.  On the other hand, I am not a pure capitalist in the way that Ayn Rand is. 

    Unlike Ayn Rand I don't think private property is some 'right' that exists outside of some agreement among persons regarding what property is and how one may dispose of their property.  Our 'right' to private property has to be enforced by some entity.  That is, I need to be able to call the police or take someone to court when someone absconds with this 'property'.  Operationally, the enforcement of those rights by collective agreement(ie, by the government) is what DEFINES my right to property in the first place.  There is no other meaning to the notion of property.  Thus, it is the government itself that defines property what property is, what can be property(for example, it determines whether people can be property), what one can buy and sell, and when one MUST buy and sell(hence government can pass antidsicrimination laws etc... which Rand explicitly OPPOSED).  This includes money.  To say that the government is 'stealing' money in the form of taxes is thus in error because it is the government that enforces our ownership of money.  So I fundamentally disagree that government is theft.

     Government determines what kind of contracts are enforceable.  Why? Because government is itself the means we use to enforce them.  Thus, government can pass laws that children cannot contract out their labor.  It can also stipulate that labor contracts must include concessions for employee safety, minimum wages, and, yes, insist that employers contribute to employees' health care coverage.    

     Can all of this control go too far?  Of course it can! But Rand's position on all of this is unconscionably extreme.  The control on all of this is democracy.  The government should ultimately be accountable to the citizens so that if it goes too far in a direction it can, albeit slowly and imperfectly, be brought into accordance with the population's wishes.  That is how to control 'unfettered government'.

     I also think it is incorrect that government can do nothing right. Our government does things correctly all the time, every day.  We just take too much of it for granted. 

Unfettered Capitalism
     Unfettered capitalism has terrible effects.  This is why we had a labor movement.  This is why we have antitrust laws.  This is why we must have regulation.  Unfettered capitalsim concentrates wealth and allows that wealth to corrupt government.  Unfettered capitalism applied to health care would mean that millions of Americans would be uncoverable by any insurance, for example, the elderly.  You can adopt the position that poor elderly people should just die without medical care, but I cannot.  I think, as I said in my last post, that this is extremely unkind, but it is the consequence of Rand's position.  Recall the Republican debate when the audience started chanting 'let them die' when Blitzer asked Ron Paul a question about health care. 



Monday, May 7, 2012

The Philosophy of Ayn Rand

     A number of years ago I attempted to read Atlas Shrugged.  I found the book so revolting that I put it down.  Over the years since then I have become acquainted with Objectivism and met a large number of its adherents among my mathematical and scientific colleagues.  I found that the philosophy exerted a doleful effect upon their personalities.  It seems logical, now that I have come out as a Secular Humanist, to revisit what Rand considered to be her magnum opus and respond to it.

     First, however, I need to let out my response to Rand's philosophy.  This so it will be out that I read the book with a rather strong bias.  I will attempt to bracket that bias out while reading the book and do my best to give the book a fair shake. 

     So,  from my reading in Objectivism and my reading about Rand's philosophy I have come to consider her thought one of the most pernicious philosophies to survive from the 20th Century.  It is down there with the philosophies I loathe the most.  From what I can tell her philosophy is simplistic, ill-considered, unwise, and extremely unkind.  Those who are influenced by her turn against their natural compassion and to an elitism I find repellant.  Most of my colleagues consider themselves, rightly, as among the intellectual elite of the country, so her writing appeals to their vanity.

    But I need to remind them that every curve has both a left and a right hand side.  A philosophy that appeals to the top 1% is usually not good for a lot of other people.  Most people were not fortunate enough to have their gifts.  It is easy for those at the top to feel they have earned their place in society when in actuality most of them were born near that place, either because they came from a wealthy family or they inherited superior ability.  These things are doled out randomly and not in accord with any justice.

     As for her claim that pure capitalism is what is best for poor people, there is no evidence suggesting this, and much evidence to the contrary.  'Trickle Down' doesn't work.  Capitalism concentrates power in the hands of those at the top who are then able to corrupt government. Rand would want government to make sure everyone is playing the capitalist game according to the rules, even the extremely wealthy, but this is ridiculously naive.  The recent financial crisis shows that deregulation can be a catastrophe.  It also shows that the elite can make terrible decisions and saving the economy requires that the other 99% bail them out.

     But I have to repeat here at the end that one of the worst effects of this philosophy I have seen is on what one might call the 'spirit' of its followers.  People who may be naturally kind, naturally compassionate, are turned into self-serving, uncaring, elitist pricks.   They are also its victims, though they don't suffer physically as much as the comparatively disadvantaged do under her ideas. 






Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why I am a Secular Humanist Part 4 -- Gay Marriage, Capital Punishment, Pornography, Abortion, Animals

In this entry I will state my conclusions regarding some hot button issues.

Gay Marriage

     The state ought to get out of the marriage business altogether.  Marriage between two or three or ten adults should be a private matter.  As far as the other issues freqeuently raise, hospital visiting privileges and family health care plans...  I don't understand why a patient can't just say in advance who should be able to visit them.  AND there should already be UNIVERSAL, FREE, HEALTH COVERAGE for all Americans.  That would solve the family health care question.  I believe such a thing is possible, but it will take time and commitment.

Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment should be banned.  It is excessive and is a non-deterrant.  People are ultimately not responsible for their behavior, so why should we punish them as though they were 'evil'?  We should realize that people become murderers etc... for reasons.  Those of us not subjected to their experience or biology should consider ourselves fortunate.  I think our understanding of human frailty should increase our compassion even to those of us who do the most horrible things.  Obviously society needs to be protected from such people, being cruel accomplishes nothing.


     I'm not a consumer of pornography, so I'm out of my depth here.  A priori I think that while some pornography is surely degrading to women, it's at least not obvious that all of it must be.  I also have not done a thorough study of any literature regarding the effects of pornography on society or culture.  Thus I'm out of the loop.  My first assessment is adult pornography should remain legal.  Child pornography should be punished severely.


     I don't believe in Human Rights.  They don't exist.  They are a bi-product of an old way of talking.  We can use them as a short hand for talking about things in our society, but they ultimately refer to nothing.  Thus, all disputes over the 'right to life' or the 'right to abortion' are all wet.  I cannot decide who has a right to what since rights themselves are fictions.  In my own mind I am sympathetic both to the fetus and the mother.  In the end I think there should be a limit to end term abortions to those procedures protecting the mother.  In the early stages clearly the mother's wishes should take precedence. 

I was a vegetarian for a long time and then fell off the wagon.  I wish I were a vegetarian again, but I seem to lack the self control. I think we should remember that animals suffer and thus we should do everything we can to reduce this suffering.  I've tried to get back on the wagon a couple of times, but end up eating a steak or something on an impulse.  If anyone has any advice...

Why I am a Secular Humanist part 3

     Where Secular Humanism comes into difficulties is with ethics.  Atheitsts who like science fall across the political spectrum.  How can one position say that they alone represent the interests of humanity while the other positions, all deeply felt, do not?  Some philosophies associated with atheism, such as contemporary communism on the one side, and the untrammeled capitalism of Ayn Rand on the other, are downright pernicious.  I haven't met a lot of communists among my mathematical colleagues, but unfortunately the philosophy of Ayn Rand is like a cancer.  I find that this point of view, with its pseudo social darwinism, has a revolting effect upon the personalities of those who adopt it, making them less humane, less compassionate.  I, for one, cannot live like that.

     I am further not convinced by any of the arguments for morality given by secular thinkers such as Sam Harris or even Derek Parfit.  These arguments are all invalid.  Morality has to start from somewhere, somewhere within the compassion for human suffering within a person.  Good and  Bad are not facts like one finds in science.  Thus it will always be prone to the kind of controversy in which we currently find it.  I can't justify my own ethics.  My point of view is just the point of view I have adopted, for personal, psychological reasons. 

     In my opinion the best way to live my life is described in the Tao Te Ching and the writings of Epictetus.  I suggest that everyone read these two texts.  Others will adopt other points of view.  As far as economics are concerned, I think something like a mixed economy has more going for it than either communism or untrammeled capitalism.  Large capital will always corrupt government, so the ideal of pure capitalism is unreachable, even if it were the most likely to produce freedom, which I doubt..  Communism gives rise to the concentration of power in the hands of an elite.  I also suspect that democratic socialism is doomed to failure as an ideology; competition and acquisitiveness are ineluctable as forces of nature.  I don't think we currently have a good single solution to the fundamental economic problems of the world.

     One thing I will say is that religion will not produce the answer to human problems.  I am aligned with those who see religion as a pernicious influence.  It creates in groups and out groups.  It institutes irrational laws like sharia.  It attempts to steal the freedoms of those considered 'sinners'.  All based on irrational adherance to ancient texts written by primitive people ignorant of the advances since the Scientific Revolution.

      It is time to put gods aside.  In my view a careful examination of theological arguments leads to the conclusion, with high probability, that there is no god at all.  We also need to avoid the irrational ideologies that can arise in an atheist worldview.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Why I am a Secular Humanist Part 2

     Perhaps if Nietzsche were alive today, to see the incredible advances of modern science and technology, especially modern medicine, he would have a different view of the power of science.  On the other hand, we take the obvious successes of science so much for granted that people, I'm speaking of postmodernists here, don't realize the magnitude of what it has accomplished. 

     Contemporary physics is INCREDIBLY accurate.  Quantum Field Theory is accurate beyond the wildest dreams of the science of earlier generations.  Science has pegged the age of the universe, perhaps part of an infinite multiverse, at 13.72 billion years ago.  Our understand of the nervous system, especially of the brain, has made enormous strides over the last few decades.  We now have an impressive understanding of how the various parts of the brain are responsible for our consciousness and behavior.  These two areas of understanding have provided many answers and our best shot at answering more of our deepest philosophical questions.  Some questions may simply be unanswerable, or we may determine that they are ill-posed.

     We are even beginning to find the parts of the brain that are active before we are aware of our intentions.  Brain activity has been identified just prior to consciousness of an intention in the Libet experiments.  Scientists have even been able to induce intentions by stimulating parts of the brain.  This, together with my own experiences with antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, has convinced me that free will is an illusion. I am confident that as science progresses we will develop ever more detailed understanding of how our behavior depends on physical processes. 

     Those who say that Science is but the articulation of a certain technique of power are, in my opinion, all wet.  I am convinced that the major scientific discoveries of the last century or so are impressively free of cultural bias.  This is not by any means to say that all of the scientists themselves have been morally perfect beings, rather that the scientific enterprise is able to take the good and throw out much of the bad.   As brilliant as philosophers like Foucault obviously were, everyone should read Discipline and Punish, I can only respond to their claims of the identity between scientific knowledge and power that their understanding of the hard sciences were somewhat limited.  Foucault is another example of someone who could have benefited by having lived a little bit later.  Foucault died of AIDS in 1984.  If he were alive today more could have been done to save him, or at least prolong his life. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why I am A Secular Humanist Part 1

     Humanism is not necessarily fashionable as a position in philosophical circles anymore, such is the influence of postmodernism.  Humanism, with its emphasis on reason and science, is throw-back to modernism, to philosophy unencumbered by the influence of currents of more recent Continental Philosophy.  Indeed, the fact that humanists use the word 'human' suggests a universal definition of the 'human' that we are told has been manufactured by western powers to legitimate certain forms of power.  So, how can someone who has absorbed Nietzsche and is especially fond of Foucault, able to take the humanist position?  That is the question I am going to try to answer in the next few posts.

     There is no doubt that Nietzsche was a great genius.  He was certainly one of the great stylists.  He paints a disturbing picture of the modernism of the 19th Century.  He plumbs its emptinesses, reveals the nihilism implied by what he saw as the conventional values of his time.  In fact, I completely agree with many of his comments, particularly those regarding religion.  He skewers religion as a life-denying, life-hating, stance.  He unmasks the otherworldly escapism of the history of philosophy since the time of Socrates, the refuge taken in the Forms or the Absolute or God.  Everyone should Read The Twilight of the Idols.  It is a refreshing, challenging book.

     Where Nietzsche and I part ways is his critique of Reason and Science.  When I was in grad school in Philosophy in the early 1990s, the Academy was still in the throws of what has become known as the Science Wars.  This has largely dissipated over the last 20 years.  It is clear to me that the scientists have won the day.  While Science may not be able to tell us the ultimate nature of "really real reality"(as PDQ Bach would say), it is remarkably successful.  I think many people outside of the sciences don't quite realize how careful, how peer-reviewed, is the mainstream of Science. 

I'll give you an example, everybody's favorite, Evolution.  When I was an Anabaptist, there were many I knew in the Church who rejected Evolution in favor of Intelligent Design.  Having an open mind I began to study the evidences for Evolution and compared that evidence against the arguments of the Intelligent Design group.  I read both sides, doing my best to give both sides its due.  I considered all the arguments as carefully as I could.  The result of this investigation was, a great enhancement of my understanding of Biology, and the conclusion that the arguments for UNGUIDED evolution were absolutely overwhelming.

Over the last two decades since I left grad school in Philosophy I became a Mathematician, but never lost my taste for Philosophy.  I have concluded from my exposure to Science and Mathematics that Scientific Progress is neither an idol nor a failed narrative, it is a fact.  Indeed, if Nietzsche's illness really was Syphilis, modern medicine could cure him now.