Saturday, February 26, 2011

An unexpectedly long argument against theism

In the course of writing a blog post on my naturalistic worldview, I have composed an inconveniently long argument against theism (belief in a personal God). Rather than include it in the naturalism post, I've decided to post it first and link to it later. For whoever cares, there is now another argument against theism on the internet.

Disclaimer: I know that there are many answers to each of the objections I raise here, and there are important conceptions of God that are not addressed here. I don't think I have a knock-down argument against the existence of God, and I don't think I'm going to argue anyone out of theism. Please read this as an explanation of why I am an atheist, and why I think that atheism is a plausible position. Readers are welcome to challenge the argument presented here, but I don't want anyone to start out with the wrong idea.

This is my own version of a traditional argument. Science and history provide us with a couple of major streams of data, and I'll argue that a non-theistic worldview fits the relevant facts better than a theistic worldview.

Science provides us with an account of the history of life in which descent with random variation and the process of natural selection, along with other causal factors, have caused the patterns of variation, adaptation, and relatedness that we see among all modern organisms, including ourselves, from the first origins of life on Earth between 3 and 4 billion years ago (which scientists still don't understand), to Earth's verdant present. The history of our species' civilization yields a narrative in which each of the various human societies on every major land mass on Earth has developed its own mythology and forms of worship to suit its particular way of life- traditions which are, in some cases, partially embodied in and inspired by texts those societies hold sacred.

How does a theistic worldview accommodate these offerings of science and history? The account of human origins given by the theory of evolution seems to make a creator God superfluous. The task of creation can be pushed further back to the origin of life or even the origin of the cosmos, and while science does not yet (and may never) provide explanations of these events, just saying "God did it" is no better than posting a big question mark at those points in the timeline. This does not rule God out completely, but if God did create the cosmos, or life, by divine fiat, then why create a world where life would run on and on in such a wasteful, chaotic, and savage process as natural selection? Did a God of love determine that humanity would evolve through a process of adaptation in which the unfit are pared away by horrific deaths to end miserable lives, and their fit competitors would often meet equally awful ends a short time later? The history of life revealed to us by science is, to say the least, apparently incongruous with the notion of a benevolent, personal creator God. While God is not ruled out altogether, there doesn't seem to be any special place where God fits.

If God yet exists, there is a question of whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or some other religious tradition altogether can lead us to communion with the Creator. If it is Christianity, which Christianity is it? The same question applies to the others. If one of these traditions truly is inspired by God, and the others are counterfeits, how can we tell which is the real one? All of them seem to have equal claim to divine inspirations and miraculous interventions, and all of them seem to be overwhelmingly correlated with accidental factors such as geography and upbringing, rather than some special factor that sets one of them apart as a more credible option. Did God create the world in such a way that humanity would evolve and then develop a wild array of spiritual traditions, and then just inspire one of those traditions without telling everyone that it was the right one? Like the history of life on Earth, the history of humanity in particular seems incongruous with the notion of a benevolent Creator.

Does a non-theistic worldview have these kinds of problems? Natural history and human history have unfolded in a way that is perfectly consistent there being no God- at least the bits that we know about. What about the bits that we don't know? What about the origin of the cosmos, the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, and whatever other various gaps there are in our understanding of the cosmos? As mentioned before, these are things that we don't know, and may never know- things we may not even have the capacity to understand. But is it better to accept some ancient myth whose veracity I hope now seems very shaky, or is it better to own up to our (blameless) ignorance about these matters, admitting to and perhaps even celebrating to our place in a truly mysterious cosmos?

I offer one more consideration in support of a non-theistic perspective. We humanbeasts learn about the world by understanding new experiences in terms of what is more familiar to us, and what is most familiar to us from the very beginning is ourselves, and one another. Our most fundamental experiences, beyond the basic sensory modalities, are personal, social, and symbolic. The concepts in terms of which we understand these experiences are those with which we will first try to interpret the world at large, wondering who put the stars in the sky, why water chooses to run downhill, what it feels like to be a tree, and how to translate animal sounds into our languages. We anthropomorphize promiscuously, construing for ourselves a role in an enchanted world, and we as a species have only slowly and painstakingly come to know that the real world really doesn't revolve around us. I suggest that God, rather than being the ultimate spiritual insight, has been the grandest expression of our anthropomorphic mode of understanding. Like the other forms of anthropomorphism we have learned to withdraw from our understanding of the world, we will let God take its rightful place as a fondly remembered story as we proceed in our commitment to the truth.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Preview of my worldview post

I'm working on my next big entry, presenting some basics of my naturalistic worldview. I don't know when it will be ready, but I just wrote an interesting paragraph that I thought might make a nice preview. Think of it as a very rough speculation about the nature of physical law. It will not appear in the final draft as it is here because it is nearly unreadable. I hope you have fun reading it anyway.

Rather than the naive picture of laws governing the behavior of pieces of hard, continuous substance, understand reality as a heterogeneous, ordered structure in which several strands respond to each other (a woven structure?), behaving spontaneously in a way that can only be inferred by us from their changing spacial relationships, space being the field of relationships between them. Causation is just the unfolding of the spontaneous behavior of these several strands as they respond to one another. This is "metaphysical behaviorism". The "laws" do not have their own mysterious existence, but are rather descriptions of the orderly behavior of those strands. The order itself, and how those strands can respond to one another without being One Ultimate Thing and thus being altogether undifferentiated, is a mystery, and we should not presume that humble reason can solve it (and we should never stop trying to).

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Project of a Humanistic Spirituality

In this entry I want to address the questions of what it would mean to develop a humanistic spiritual philosophy, why I'm trying to do it, and just who I think I am anyway, that I think myself fit to go about it.

These are good questions. There are already countless forms of spirituality in the world, and I hope that I am as quick as anyone to assert that many of them carry invaluable insights into human nature and human life, and tools for the creation of meaning and the organization of feeling and identity, which are at least as good as any that I could possibly offer out of my decade of philosophizing. All of the major religious traditions have their great virtues and their special beauty, and all are worth discovering, experiencing, learning about, and learning from. Of course, they all have their downsides too; they are all human creations, and they have all been put to every kind of human end in their long histories, through the best times and the worst, in the most exalted and the most horrifying aspects that humanity has displayed.

The time we live in now is radically different from that in which those ancient spiritual traditions were first conceived. Science has revealed to us a vast and wondrous world that no revelation or mystical insight has ever managed to shed light on; Philosophy, and history, and the arts have introduced us to ourselves in a way that makes much of what religion can tell us about ourselves redundant, or simply false. Technology has made it possible for us to achieve feats (for better and for worse) that were once thought possible only for supernatural beings. Nothing we have achieved or experienced as a species, however, has eliminated the truths of mortality, uncertainty, or loneliness from our lives; nothing, therefore, has lifted from us the need for spirituality.

Being spiritual creatures does not mean that we are hostages to ancient ideas and practices that are both false and damaging to our lives. Contemporary religion is rarely read strictly and literally out of ancient texts, and when it is, it is rightly spurned and ridiculed by rational people of both religious and non-religious stripes. The most reasonable alternative for those who remain within the traditional religions is to see ancient texts as flawed human attempts to understand and interface with a divine reality, and to see the religions built on them as evolving means to access, honor, or utilize that reality through faith, narrative, ritual, and community. Some who decide to live outside of those traditions (more or less) have developed new forms of spirituality promoting reverence or scorn for the older forms, some of them farcically stupid, others intentionally comedic, and a few both serious and genuinely worthwhile. I hope that my current project will fall into this last category, and that it will provide something both unique and valuable within it.

It is highly questionable whether the word "spirituality" has any meaning in a context that is denuded of "supernatural" content, and founded on a respect for science, rationality, civilization, and the moral and creative potential of humanity. The case can be made, however, that supernatural connotations for that word are seen to be entirely optional when the function of spirituality in human life is understood. For the purposes of this work, that function, very briefly, is to provide a grounding and organizing framework for "the deepest values and meanings by which people live", to borrow some words from Philip Sheldrake. While we may not have immaterial souls or "spirits" in the any traditional sense, we are aware of ourselves as finite, vulnerable creatures whose lives yet have genuine significance, and we value those lives and invest them with purpose. A humanistic spirituality is one that characterizes such value and purpose in terms of our natural lives- the only lives that we certainly get to live.

I did not set out at the beginning of this long process to develop a new spiritual perspective, but when I discovered that I was doing so, I embraced the fact. The time is ripe for forms of spirituality that have grown out of a contemporary naturalistic worldview, which owe little to the ancient religions that civilized humanity has grown up with and now suffers from, and which are not conscious imitations or mockeries of earlier forms. Inescapably, the perspective I will present in the course of this blog is a personal one; it won't be acceptable to everyone, and it might not be acceptable to anyone but me, but the most important thing about it is not whether anyone ends up agreeing with it. Its most essential function is to inspire and challenge, to stimulate thought and feeling, to encourage those who encounter it to engage creatively with their own "deepest values and meaning". In these terms I hope my project does not seem too hubristic; I am inviting you along to share my journey through the new self-understanding that modern science and society have made possible.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Science, Religion, and a Surprise Third Contender

Today I revisited one of my old facebook notes, and found it a pretty decent piece of writing, in addition to its being germane to the topic of the previous post. Where that post concerned the nature of philosophy, this note concerns its value.

As long as I'm introducing a re-posted facebook note, I'd also like to draw the attention of new readers to an earlier entry in this blog which also includes the text of an old note. Neither Owed Nor Promised is a rather long post setting forth my philosophical worldview in very broad strokes, and can be considered something of a preview of what's to come in this blog.

Now, without further ado, here's this entry's featured content:

Sam Harris has written a book called The Moral Landscape which has sparked a huge debate about whether science can tell us what we should believe is morally right, or whether we must ultimately turn to religion. This debate makes itself a little ridiculous by leaving out the mode of discourse this is most important to the domain of morality: philosophy.

Nobody cares about philosophy. That's not just a problem for philosophy; it's a problem for everybody. Philosophy is that form of discourse in which we engage in critical, rational, and creative ways with the concepts that are most fundamental to our lives: what is real, what is right and wrong, what is good or bad, better or worse, what can be known and how it can be known, and what really matters anyway. When we neglect philosophy, we neglect clear thinking and serious discussion, and we simply take for granted the categories and basic assumptions that are handed to us by society. Philosophy is something that we can grow and understand only so much without.

When we divide all discourse between science, religion, journalism, and cheap editorials, we fail to get at the root of anything, and to really question our ideas as far as we should. This is most important in the areas of morality and politics because they're not about objects that we can observe (Can you take a yardstick to justice or value?), but rather subjects that can only be addressed by a widespread conversation. This is the case in a democratic society, at least. In a more closed society, these issues would be decided for us and we would just have to take the answers we were fed. Then again, if we don't discuss them and decide upon them for ourselves, that's exactly what's happening...

So question everything, friends, and make a little time to think things through, or you can be sure that someone else is doing it for you. And remember that, when it comes to issues close to your heart, science and religion are not the only voices to consider. For those of you who are interested in philosophy but haven't seen a way into it yet, I'll list a few decent introductions:

From Socrates to Sartre


Sophie's World

Friday, February 4, 2011

What is philosophy?

Since this is a blog about a humanistic "spiritual philosophy", I think I should put a few words here early on about what I mean by "spiritual" and "philosophy".

Philosophy is a difficult thing to define, and no single definition is likely to satisfy even a large number of its practitioners and enthusiasts. Having fairly acknowledged this, I blunder on ahead to offer my own definiton: philosophy is discourse which proceeds through rational, critical, and creative engagement with the fundamental concepts underlying an account of some field of human (or any other category of appropriately sapient creature) practice or experience.

To elaborate-

Philosophy is discourse. It is a grand discussion taking place in both speech and writing, sometimes to the aim of uncovering the truth about something (in which case it is the subset of discourse called inquiry), and sometimes for the sake of clarifying, discovering, or creating new points of view, ideas, and even worldviews.

Philosophical discussion is a rational endeavor; ideally, participants are mindful of the coherence and validity of their claims and arguments, and they appeal to one another's intelligence and intuition rather than struggling for rhetorical domination. Philosophy is a critical process; everything is open to question, all the time, including the basic concepts and vocabulary of the discussion. Philosophy can be a creative activity; as indicated in the previous paragraph, it can involve the construction of new concepts, ideas, and even worldviews. In this way, philosophy may at times be a form of art.

Philosophy is concerned with concepts. The philosopher deals carefully with ideas, defining them when he or she can, exploring their structure, seeking out their uses and boundaries, asking after their soundness and propriety, pointing out inconsistencies, and suggesting replacements and improvements.

When philosophy is subdivided, as into philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, epistemology, etc., it is to indicate that these fields involve investigations into the conceptual foundations of their subjects: science, mind, morality, knowledge, etc. Philosophy is not limited to such abstract subjects- there could just as easily be philosophy of sports, of fashion, of software engineering, philosophy of anything that humanbeasts concern themselves with and are inclined to discuss.

Keep in mind, I've offered a contentious definition here, and everything that follows has been equally questionable. This is what I take philosophy to be, and I have defined it in terms of the good things that it, uniquely, does for humanity, as far as I can see.

The definition I've offered is rather woolly and vague (this is not an accident), and I won't be making any special efforts to stick to it as I go about philosophizing (or failing to). Philosophy does not have the same kind of demarcation problems that science has; there is no danger that I will venture into pseudophilosophy and lead you astray with a false appearance of authority. There are no authorities here. If you disagree with me about what philosophy is or whether I'm doing it, then disagree! These are entirely discussible items.

I'd like to keep preliminary entries like this short and punchy, so I won't draw this out any further; I will save the little bit that I'd like to say about spirituality for another entry.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Am I a nihilist?

The word "nihilism" seems to live a double life, in a way that I think sheds light on the basic error in thinking which underlies moral realism.

On one hand, nihilism can simply mean the position that there are no ultimate values, that nothing is objectively good or bad, right or wrong. In this sense, I am a nihilist.

On the other hand, nihilism can mean a lack of values altogether, so that the nihilist has no real commitments and cares for nothing but manipulating circumstances for the sake of his or her own gratification. This is a kind of animal that I definitely am not, and hope never to become.

I think some people assume that the first meaning of nihilism listed above is synonymous with, or somehow leads to, the second. This is not the case, and I think I can say why very clearly and concisely; I do have values, but I do not hold them just because of something I believe to be true.

I am deeply committed to truth, freedom, love, empathy, compassion, fairness, enjoyment, appreciation, desire, creativity, and other qualities that I think of as making up a good human life, but I do not believe any of these things are good or right in the same way that I believe (for example) massive bodies attract each other according to an inverse square law to an extremely good approximation.

I hold the values that I do for reasons that are too numerous and complex for me to try to summarize in a brief post, but I understand that the reasons for my holding these values are not exhausted by empirical observations, logical arguments, and authoritative instruction, and if someone else holds values contrary to mine, it is not necessarily because one of us is wrong about about something. The sources of our values are not in the outside world; they are within us, and we are responsible for the values we hold and for what we do on their behalf. This is one of my most important beliefs, and it's something I'm going to elaborate on a great deal in the future.

So, in a rather trivial and artificial sense, but a sense that might hold weight with some people, I can rightly be called a nihilist. In a deeper, more interesting sense, I am anything but. I think it's important to understand that a lack of belief in objective value is far from implying a lack of values altogether.