Tag Archives: philosophy

There is only us

1 Feb

This might seem like a no-brainer for many people, but it was something I slowly came to understand when I was a kid growing up.

My parents don’t really get the internet. My grandmother doesn’t even know how to turn a computer on. My father rarely uses the computer. Whenever he does it is just to check bank statements or e-mail. My mother also doesn’t understand the computer, much less the internet. She mainly uses the computer for typing up letters in word, for checking e-mail and facebook, and to play bejeweled. For both of them the computer is simply a tool, like a telephone. I can understand where they’re coming from; they spent the majority of their lives in a computerless world, even more of that time without the internet. The one thing they haven’t grasped about the internet is perhaps its greatest power: the ability to answer questions.

Both of my parents don’t understand how to use google to find the answer to a question they have. “What are some good chicken recipes?” “What movies are playing at the theatre tonight?” “How do I do fix X,Y,Z?” They’re both used to finding these answers elsewhere.

Where am I going with this? Well when talking to my grandmother, or my parents, I wondered how I would explain the internet. What IS the internet?

The first analogy that came to mind was a university, which leads me to the point of this post.

What is a university? The campus? The buildings? The books? A university is none of that, it’s the faculty and students that make up the university. If all the people left, the cold empty buildings would not be a university. If you get a degree from a university, what that degree signifies is that the people who make up that university deem you as having achieved a certain level of knowledge and ability. The buildings just serve as a meeting place.

The internet is the same way, only more pronounced because it lacks a physical location. It exists in the digital realm that we access through our computers. Or at least we create the notion of this digital realm by linking up millions of computers and servers where the actual content physically exists, just as the “university” realm exists through the connection and interaction of ideas and concepts that physically reside as chemical an neurological interactions within the brains of those who collectively are “the university.”

But what I’m trying to get is more than just this notion of creating realms of information through the transmission of ideas. What I slowly started to understand while growing up was that we are all there is. The lines on a map are not physical boundaries between countries, they exist purely because we created them. The system of calendars and years are setup by us. Only we mark the passing of time. Sure the earth completes one full rotation in about 24 hours, and one full orbit in 365 of those rotations, but it is we who arbitrarily picked a beginning and end to each year. On midnight of December 31st, the other animals on the planet have no idea that one year is ending and another beginning. For all they know, it’s just another night, and tomorrow is just another day.

I first came across this concept when I started studying history more in-depth. While we talk of “historical periods” like the Roman empire, or the middle ages, or the renaissance, there is no clear delineation between the start and end of these periods. Bells did not ring, the sun did not stop, and a voice from the heavens did not announce “You are now in a new historical era!” The only thing that separates us now from the middle ages are a lot of revolutions of the earth.

What is society? What are laws? If you are at a stoplight, in the middle of nowhere, and there is not a single person around, there is nothing inherently wrong about driving through that red light. It is only wrong because we say it is wrong. (Because doing it in a populated area could get someone killed) But if you drive through that light out in the middle of nowhere, nobody is going to make a mark by your name.

There is a saying “All knowledge is human knowledge.” For a while this bugged me. “Well that’s stupid, a squirrel has the knowledge of how to gather nuts for the winter,” but that’s not what it is addressing. It’s more of an existential statement. This whole post is about an existential realization I had growing up.

We are all there is. We make the rules, we alone are solely responsible for our actions and for creating meaning in our lives. There is no safety net or wall we can lean against. We’re completely vulnerable to error.

Which brings me full circle back to computers. I feel that more and more we are trying to make life like a computer program. If a computer were self-aware, it would not have the existential problem that humans do. A computer must obey laws (the coding of a program) in order to function. That coding is created by external entities, us. Our own version of coding that we attempt to enforce are social mores.

For me, one of the most stand out examples of this was when I went to Disney world with my now ex-girlfriend. We were going out to a late night fireworks show and it was a bit chilly. I wanted to pack one of the hotel blankets in my backpack to keep us warm. She protested. This made her very uncomfortable and she tried to explain to me that I can’t take the hotel blanket from the room. Why not? You just can’t. (coding) I explained to her that nobody was going to know, that I was going to return the blanket when I was done, and that if anything happened to it, that I would personally pay for its replacement. She grudgingly dropped the issue, I took the blanket, and we were warm. The whole incident really stuck with me. Why is it such a big deal to break the computer codes? We are the masters that wrote them in the first place. They exist because we say they exist.

Atlas Shrugged, my conclusion

27 Sep

I finished the book a few days ago and have been delaying writing this post ever since. It’s a lot to think over, and to be honest I’m afraid to criticize parts of it for what people might say.

When I first started reading the book I was not all that interested, though by the end I was unable to sleep until I finished it. There were a couple of things that really resonated with me:

  • A is A, there is an objective reality indifferent to our needs, wants, and wishes. I’ve written a few posts in the past detailing my frustration with people, politicians, and pastors who don’t seem to understand this fact. Throughout the book I wanted to strangle the people who shouted at Dagny (one of the main characters) to just “fix it.” “How do you suppose I do that?” “I don’t know! Just do it! It’s you’re job!” I am reminded of the story of King Canute who stood on the shore and commanded the tide not to come in.
  • Rand’s view on original sin and morality. I’m attracted to her morality of reason, though I’m not sure I fully comprehend it yet. (It’s buried in a 3 hour long speech by John Galt towards the end of the book. I understand how the argument is constructed, it’s just that there is so much to take in, I’m having to read it over and over again to digest it). What really struck me was the portion talking about the abomination that is “original sin”:

“A sin without volition (choice) is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If a man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as a man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold a man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice, and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but has a ‘tendency’ to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.”

I resent how the mystics (read religious) try and make everything pleasurable a sin. Happiness is a sin. Your existence is a sin. Your very nature and the tools you need to survive are sins.

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. they have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, that his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth – and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.”

The part of Rand’s objectivist morality that I’m struggling with is where altruism fits in. Rand makes it pretty clear in the book that sacrifice to your detriment is evil, yet is altruism a forml sacrifice?

“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve a career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is. If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum of money you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue [read as evil]…if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself – that is the greatest of the virtues [evils] you can practice.

What about the human instinct to help your fellow man? Is that just a false construct resulting from a twisted morality? The part that I get hung up on is the term “worthless stranger”. It’s ok to help a friend, but not a “worthless” stranger. What’s the difference between a stranger and a “worthless” stranger? What’s the difference between a stranger and a friend? Knowledge and approval of the other person? Is it wrong to give money to charity? If you can afford it, I think not, if you can’t, then it is wrong. There is a part in the book where Dagny, the multimillionaire railroad tycoon, finds a bum hitching a ride on her train. The conductor is about to throw him off the train and into the desert (where the bum will most likely die) but Dagny stops him and invites the bum in for dinner. That was a form of charity. Dagny could afford it, she didn’t know the man, he was a stranger, and by all accounts “worthless”, whatever that means.

This book also impacted my views in 2 other ares: The rich, and taxes. To be honest, before I read this book I hated the rich. I resented them. They have something I don’t. They are able to do things I can’t. I viewed their wealth as some kind of evidence for their immorality. They must have done something evil to get all that money, that or they just inherited it without effort. In light of this book I’m a bit ashamed of that view, but you live and learn. I know see them not as evil, but people who are enjoying the rewards of their effort. They are something to look up to and emulate. Well, some of them. One of the things I noticed in the book is that all the rich people where honest, honorable, hardworking, intelligent people. If they gave you their word, they kept it. Unfortunately, in real life, these people are hard to come by. How would Rand view the dishonest businessman, the one who gains his wealth through fraud and deceit? These men certainly do exist. Would Rand just view them as another form of looter, dependent on the work of others for their survival?

Secondly, I understand and agree with another main point of the book: need does not constitute right. Just because you need something, doesn’t mean you have the right to take it. Governments need money to operate. That doesn’t mean they have the right to take it in the form of taxes. (And they do take it ultimately at the point of a gun. If you refuse to pay your taxes you go to jail. If you refuse to go to jail, men with guns show up at your house and take you there in chains) Before I saw no problem with the income tax, now I see it as a penalty for productivity, which is one of the highest goods. Before I agreed with progressive taxation, but now I’m starting to see it as way of penalizing those who do well. ( A month ago I would have slapped you if you told me I’d ever utter that sentence…)

The problem is that I don’t see a viable alternative. There are things that a community….needs….*shudder*, that taxes are the only viable means to supply them. What exactly is the role of government? “To protect the people”…though that has certain Orwellian undertones. To protect individual rights, property, and lives. Does that sound ok? Well what would that entail? A fire department, police force, and military obviously, with roads necessary for them to get around. What about a post office? What about Medicare and social security? In the book, the economy was going to hell and the government kept trying to fix it by slapping on more and more regulations, attempting to micromanage every industry. I find that kind of regulation ridiculous, but I think some regulation is necessary. When? Well when it’s necessary to protect property and lives. What do I mean by that? Well I approve of government regulated building standards, highway safety standards, sanitation standards, measurement standards, things of that nature.

What I’m really curious to know is what Rand would have thought about global warming. It is a fact of reality that we are drastically impacting the nature of our environment for the negative. A is A and no amount of wishing or political speak will change this. The problem is too massive to be handled on a business by business level, it has to be national and global. If few businesses are willing to alter their practices to help avert disaster, is it right for the government to step in and force them? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m looking at the problem the wrong way. People effect change by how they spend their money, is there a way to encourage them to spend their money in such a way that businesses will naturally change course? I don’t know.

Lastly, I wanted to address Rand’s view of higher education. In the book she repeatedly slams colleges and professors. In Atlas Shrugged colleges are where students go to be told what to think. The entire education system revolves around tearing away a child’s ability to think and reason in favor for giving him/her pre-decided upon ideas. I don’t know what college was like during Rand’s time, but having just graduated from the higher education system, I can say that’s definitely not what it was like for me. College is supposed to be where you learn how to think, not what to think, as portrayed in Rand’s book. Do colleges like the ones Rand described exist? SURE! I went to college right down the road from one, “Liberty” “University”, a place with the perfect Orwellian doublespeak name. In real life, real universities are engines of innovation, the same as the rich in Rand’s novel were engines of innovation. Universities that teach students how to think are innovators, universities that teach students what to think aren’t. (case in point: “Liberty” is not a place of innovation)

That’s pretty much all I can think to say on the topic for now. A friend suggested I check out the works of Virginia Postrel for the answers to some of my questions, so I think I’m going to do that. In the meantime I took the world’s smallest political quiz to see where I stand and got this result:

Atheism is not Intellectual?

6 Feb

My girlfriend made a comment the other day that Atheism just wasn’t that interesting. Now I probably misunderstood her, but I’ve heard someone else say that there isn’t much to Atheism, not much to talk about. Somebody once told me that they didn’t see much point to Atheist forums where Atheists could gather and talk about Atheism. He imagine forum would be limited to “Hey, I don’t believe in god(s)” “Really? Cool, me too!” <end conversation/> There is plenty to talk about in Atheist forums and blogs (just look how long mine is and I still haven’t run out of things to talk about)

But yes, there is nothing more to Atheism than a lack of belief in the supernatural. I believe this simplicity is one of Atheism’s greatest strengths. Keep It Simple, Stupid!. There are no great mysteries of Atheism, no “problem of evil”, no dogmatic disputes, no rival denominations.(And that’s just a few, and only withing Christianity!)

There are so many topics in religion that just don’t make sense and/or don’t fit with reality, so many “mysteries of god”. Religion has developed a long tradition of trying to reconcile these differences. People from St. Augustine, to Martin Luther, to Paul Tillich have spent their entire lives working like lawyers on these problems, trying to rationalize any explanation. Volumes and volumes have been written on mysteries of faith, the trinity, the virgin birth, creation, etc. There are entire universities devoted to turning out theologians to tackle these problems.

There is none of that in Atheism. Atheism doesn’t need it. If you take the supernatural out of the picture, everything just works.

Now some might point out the strong “intellectual” history of religion in trying to solve their problems and say that since Atheism does not have these problems, Atheism lacks an intellectual tradition. That it is this tradition that makes religion “interesting”. Well, yes and no. Unlike theists, Atheists don’t spend time trying to workout the intricacies of Atheism. (There are no intricacies) If you look at all the Atheist books ever publish, like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, etc, you will find that they deal with Atheist responses to theists.

While Atheism does not have an intellectual history of dealing with ultimately superfluous problems, it does have a history of intellectuals.  Here is something to think about. 93% of Scientists in the American National Academy of Sciences are Atheists. 97% of Royal Society fellows are Atheists. Now, is there a reason the vast majority of Ultra intelligent people are Atheists? Turns out there is a correlation. Dr. Richard Lynn, a researcher at the University of Ulster carried out an extensive study spanning 137 countries and found that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an Atheist. The reverse of that meaning the less intelligent you are the more likely you are religious.

Now I’m not saying religious people are all stupid or unintelligent. Many religious people are intelligent. (Just not as many as there are intelligent Atheists) People can find was to compartmentalize and rationalize anything. The intelligent religious are doing just that.

So yeah, Atheism might not have any “interesting” problems or internal debates, but it sure is interesting discussing how theists are affecting the world, and what Atheism’s response should be.

Science asks how religion asks why

6 Jul

I think this was a quote from the Angles and Demons movie. The idea behind it is that science and religion are not these two opposing forces that offer different explanations for the same phenomenon, instead they’re addressing two different questions.

Well this would be great if it were true. It sure sounds like a nice quote, but that of course has no bearing on its validity. The key problem with this quote is that it confuses religion with philosophy. While religion contains some elements of philosophy, that is only a fraction of the picture. Religion is much more active where philosophy is passive, especially when it comes to telling people who to live their lives.

Religion and philosophy both divide people into groups, yet philosophy works more in the realm of the abstract and doesn’t have the same political implications that religion does. For instance, you would never see a group of empiricists burning down the house of a constructionalist like you would see members of religious group A destroying the house of a member of religious group B. The difference might best be summed up by “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned”

(EDIT after point made by reader: Political philosophy completely slipped my mind and would negate the above paragraph. While these kind of philosophies would result in actual friction between two groups, here I am mainly focusing on academic philosophies like Logic, Epistemology, and Metaphysics)

Yes science focuses on how we got here instead of why, but religion originally started out as a way to explain the same phenomenon that science now does. Ancient tribes had spiritual leaders to explain what caused thunder, or where the sun went at night, all natural events that science now explains.

Still to this day religion retains these ancient roots. The “intelligent design” battle in the United States is a perfect example. Here religion is fighting against science (in a debate the rest of the world realized religion lost 100 years ago) over “how”.

I think it’s interesting that in the same movie Ewan McGregor’s character protest “If science is allowed to claim the power of creation, what’s left for god?!?!” Here he is acknowledging that religion still does try to dabble in “how” instead of “why”. For the “science asks how religion asks why” quote to be true, religion would have to stop trying to explain the same things science does, but then it wouldn’t be religion, it’d be philosophy.

My #1 reason for rejecting faith

9 Apr

If I had to give one reason for why I disagree with religion and its view of reality, it would this:

It is true that I make some assumptions. I assume that I exist. (I think therefore I am) I also assume that the universe exists based on my observations. It is true that my observations could be wrong, and that we are all just brains in a jar, or in the matrix. It is true that since I don’t know the future I can’t be absolutely 100% positive a ball will fall when I drop it. These are the shortcomings of observation.

Yet even with these shortcomings, religion and observation’s views about reality are not equal. Simple stated, observation produces practical benefits that religious belief does not. A thousand years ago the majority of human population was busy trying to produce enough food to keep from starving, and they often did. Nowadays, through the application of observation, 2% of a first world country can supply enough food to feed the other 98% of the population. A thousand years ago we didn’t know why the moon moved in the sky. Now we know, and not only that, we’ve traveled there and returned home safely. Two hundred years ago we didn’t understand what caused infections and disease, now we have anti-biotics and modern medicine that save thousands of lives daily. All of these advancements were the products of applied observation, science. Unless you live in a cave (which you don’t since you’re on a computer reading this) you use the benefits of science everyday.

The history of the relationship between science and religion is a history of religion making claims, only for science to come along and disprove them. This is simply because religion was originally invented to explain the then unexplainable. Why does it rain? The gods make it rain. Why does the sun move across the sky? Ra in his sunboat moves it. Why are there seasons? Because Persephone ate from the fruit of the underworld. How did life arrive on the planet? God made it. Why are there so many languages? The tower of Babel. These are just a few basic examples but the list goes on and on. The religious understanding of how reality operates is skewed in many areas, from medicine, to anatomy, to astronomy, to physics, to biology, and chemistry.

Yet religion can hardly be blamed for this. The sacred texts of the world’s major religions were written centuries before the advent of the scientific method. They did the best with what tools were available. So given this pattern in the history of science and religion’s relationship, I feel it is reasonable to assume the pattern will continue; much the same way that based off of previous observations I can predict that a ball will fall when dropped. This is related to the idea of the “god of the gaps”. The idea behind “god of the gaps” is that god resides in science’s gaps in knowledge. Even Newton reached a point where he couldn’t go any further and declared “god did it”. Yet since the advent of science these gaps have been slowly filled. Everyday the gaps that god can live in get smaller and smaller. There is nothing to suggest that the trend will not continue.

<Edit> Afterthought: I forgot to mention the complete lack of evidence for the existence of any supernatural beings. There is just as much evidence for the existence of Ra as there is for Yahweh, zero. Now I’m not saying they can’t exist. If I did I would be making a positive assertion which would shift the burden of proof to me. (Despite the fact that it is impossible to prove a negative) Yet as long as people claim that being X exists, they have the burden of proof. The bigger the claim, the bigger the amount of proof required. Claiming that there is an all powerful, all knowing, invisible being(s) in the sky is a huge claim. You use this same logic everyday. If someone said they had a diamond the size of a car in their backyard, you’d want to see it. Our legal system works off of this same concept. Innocent until proven guilty. The prosecution makes the positive assertion that the defendant is guilty. It is up to the prosecution to provide enough evidence to prove their claim. Until guilt is proved, the court operates under the assumption of innocence. Religion is no exception.

To tie it back to the original post, people often try to claim natural things in the world as evidence for their god. Even if it was evidence for the existence of a higher power, there is no reason to then attribute that higher power with all the attributes the religious do, i.e. all-knowing, all-powerful, loving, intervening in human affairs, etc. The funny thing is that the things the religious have claimed in the past have slowly been explained by science.

Occam’s razor states that when presented with two competing explanations, the one containing the fewest superfluous entities is to be preferred. The naturalist explanation always has the fewest superfluous entities, and better yet is demonstrate-able. From these observations we can learn about how the universe we live in actually works, and then take that knowledge and apply it to better the human condition.


The difference between science and religion

16 Mar

There is a fundamental difference in the ways science and religion operate. For religion, something just is. That’s it. Either you believe X and the religion or you do not. There is no testing or experimenting with the religion or it’s claims. Now sure there are doctrinal debates and the theologians who have them, but in the end it’s still just another flavor of X which the believe must accept to be part of the faith.

Science, on the otherhand, works in the opposite way. Every statement about how something is must be backed up with evidence, evidence that is testable over and over again.

Religion and science both try and provide answers about existence. I think there is an issue with the way science and religion give these answers. Religion gives answers with an attitude of smug, absolute certainty. The answers, whatever they are, are definite and unchanging.

Science gives answers that have an asterisk on the end with a note saying “subject to change if new and compelling evidence is found.” This makes science very fluid, open to revision. Scientists in no way claim they have all the answers. Unlike religion, science welcomes questions. If a scientist has their hypothesis proved wrong, it is just as exciting for them as if it had been proved correct. To them and advance in either direction is still an advance.

But I think this upsets people who are looking for absolute answers. They see science and they see uncertainty, where as when they look at religion they see absolute certainty. A lot of people don’t like uncertainty in their lives. They like to know what is going to happen. Yet it is a false certainty that they have. People have been certain about a great many things since the dawn of time, but that never made them correct in those certainties.

Look at the track records of science and religion. Religion’s entire history is a history of making “matter of fact” statements on just about everything, only to have science come along (relatively recently) and slowly, but steadily, prove many of religion’s “certainties” wrong. The first example of this was when Galileo proved that the earth was not the center of the solar system as the bible said. (He was later convicted of heresy and imprisoned under house arrest for the rest of his life and his works banned by the church)

Given these track records, which one would you rather put your “faith” in? Religion and it’s smug (and misplaced) sense of superiority and absolute certainty? Or science, and its humble skepticism, where ideas are open to debate and experimentation in an atmosphere of free inquiry?