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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Are We All Faithful?

I'd like to use this post to respond to a comment I received from a theist regarding something I wrote. This comment refers to a general line of argument I have heard several times before, and it deserves addressing. It has to do with faith and we might call it the "everyone does it" argument (maybe there is a more technical name for this already). In any case, here is the form it recently took:
"I have yet to find anyone, religious or atheist, who doesn't operate on faith. Both are highly dogmatic, as evidenced by the strength of your value judgments, which can only come from a priori, non-empirical stance. We ALL operate on the basis that some things are true, yet without adequate proofs."
Before I can address this it is important to draw out and make plain all of the implications of the above statement. By saying that we "ALL" operate on the basis of some things without adequate proofs, the author is implying that empiricists are in the very same boat with all others. The author also implies there is no difference in the reasonableness and no distinction among varieties of belief or the sources from which they spring because ultimately, we all rely on faith. These are important implications and need to be put into words.

The author is correct in the last sentence of what he says. However, if we think closely about this, we can see that this is not a statement belonging to the faith-based side of the argument. This is a statement of empiricism. It is the empirical approach, which makes the profound realization that we "ALL operate on the basis of some things without adequate proofs". This is why the empirical approach is to say that we never know anything for certain, and must continually question and test our assumptions through a continuous pursuit of new evidence.

The faith-based position, on the other hand, says the opposite. When a believer says, "I believe in God", they are not claiming to "operate on the basis" of God existing "without adequate proof". To claim this is for the theist to put on empiricist clothes and seek to look like one of them for the sake of persuasion. In reality, the faithful mean something very different when they state their belief in God.

Rather, what the theist is saying is that "God is real" - he does in fact exist; not merely that they will "act as though God exists" for some pragmatic purpose. But it goes further than this. The theist claims to have knowledge of God's existence. This use of the word 'knowledge' is also very different than the empiricist's use of the word, for it is absolute. There is no such non-provision "knowledge" in the empiricist's lexicon. This faith-based 'knowledge' might come through some revelation or communion, through biblical teachings or experiences of events. All of these are very different than empirical methodology and miss the mark.

1) Revelation or communion:
This is a claim that knowledge (justified & true belief) can come to us through something other than our five senses. No such phenomenon has ever been shown to be true. Certainly empiricism is contrary to this belief.

2) Biblical teachings or events:
This is where someone claims to have 'figured out' that God exists by reading 'His word', or by observing something in nature, or by experiencing some unlikely event. Yet, if we are to examine the logic behind all of these claims, we find they violate core principles of empiricism.

So, it is the theist who believes that, contrary to "operating on the basis" of some things being true, he or she can "know" things with certainty, and without any (proved) causal connection between the object and the alleged knowledge in his or her head. This is why the faithful are not keen on their claims being tested and why they refer to changes in scientific theories over time as though it were a weakness rather than a strength. Arguments for faith and theism will commonly try to "wear empiricist clothes" but these are very different approaches to knowledge and one should be careful not to confuse them.

Yet, what if we look at empiricism itself, on its own merits? Doesn't empiricism rely on unproved axioms at some level?

At the base level of all knowledge, we ultimately can't know anything for certain, other than the fact that we, ourselves only, exist in some form or another. I might be a brain in a jar, or I might be some cosmic goo that's living a life of fantastic delusion. But at least I know there is something that is thinking about it because I'm the one doing the thinking. This was the essence of René Descartes' famous argument, "...I think, therefore I am".

No faith yet.

From there, we have to start making some assumptions. For one, we have to assume that what we can sense about ourselves and our surroundings are in some way connected to a reality of some type. It is true this is an assumption. However, how could we do anything unless we at least assume this?

Still, even this most fundamental of assumptions, for the empiricist, is but a pragmatic conceit. It is "operating on the basis of". And still, the true believer's claim that God exists exceeds even this foundational assumption in its certainty. Anything less would mean doubt, and men have been killed for less.

After this unavoidable 'foundational pragmatic assumption', we then get into matters of induction vs. deduction. Deduction is where we begin with known premises and end with a conclusion that follows from them. This form of logic is the most sound and, provided there is no faith within the premises, very few would argue faith is involved in these conclusions. That is, unless one wants to say that a computer or a robot can have 'faith'.

Induction is where things get trickier. With Inductive reasoning, we often move from the specific to the general, or from past experience to future prediction. For example, because the sun came up yesterday and all days previous, we will assume it will come up tomorrow. Because we have not been poisoned by carrots before, we will assume we can eat carrots in the future. Because all dogs we've seen have naturally had four legs, we will say that dogs, in general, have four legs. This is shakier than deduction because it is easy to go wrong. For example, if we had never seen a tree over 12 foot tall, we might induce that no trees are taller than 12 feet.

Yet, unfortunately, one will find that almost all thinking requires some form of induction. Even the strictest of deductive logic relies on some premises which result from induction, and even the belief that deductive logic is sound and will remain sound for all phenomena and all time is an act of induction.

In some of the very foundations of science, we inductively reason that physical laws apply universally, that they are internally consistent, that we can decipher them with logic and reason, and that knowing them gives us predictive power in computing future events. The very practice of science would not be possible without these inductions. This, no doubt, is to what the author of the comment above was referring.

The question we should examine is this: is induction equal to faith?

In other writings I have noted that 'faith' is used in many ways in our language, and it is important to delineate between them. I draw a distinction between 'faith' and 'confidence'. Often when we say, "I have faith in my friends" what we really mean is, "I have confidence in my friends". To test that out, imagine saying, "I have faith in that random stranger". We might let our friend hold our wallet but not the stranger. The difference here is that we have past experiences which give us a pattern by which we can make future predictions. Certainly the predictions are not infallible, since people and things can sometimes behave much differently than a past pattern suggests, and we cannot directly observe the future - but they would seem to be more reliable than taking random actions.

So, confidence is "belief because of the evidence." Meanwhile, the faith that people like myself criticize is "belief lacking evidence or possibly even despite the evidence" - a very big difference.

What induction is not is the reaching of a conclusion because of no evidence. Induction is also not the reaching of a conclusion based on things for which we have no reason to suspect are connected to our conclusion. This would completely rule out #1 above (revelation or communion). What's left would be #2, Biblical teachings or events.

Here we might be in the realm of induction. However, there is a range of quality and good sense between instances of induction. Not all induction is of the same quality (remember the good and bad examples mentioned above). Not only are faith and induction distinct, but the comment also implies that one induction is as good as the next. This is plainly not true.

It is at this point that we get into the basics of good skepticism. Carl Sagan said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and that seems to be sensible advice. If I notice that after many times I leave my trash can in the street, a neighbor moves it onto my lawn, then I can reasonably suspect that it would happen again. Here we have a rather ordinary claim, and it requires only ordinary evidence. However, if I notice that many times I bet on the horse races and wore green socks, that I won, it would not be reasonable to induce that green socks were causally linked to my winning. That is because such a claim would be extraordinary, and the simple correlation between the green socks and winning at a bet would not be of an extraordinary level to justify such a claim.

The claim that an invisible all-powerful personified entity created the universe and plays a role in it is so extraordinary, that a reasonable person would need some sort of absolutely extraordinary evidence before deducing or inducing such a thing. And, even if such a thing were done, the layer upon layer of further extraordinary claims leading to the specifics of Christianity or any particular religion would each be even more extraordinary than the last because of their increasing specificity. Even if this could count as some form of induction, it is clear that it is of far less reasonable nature than the inductions normally employed by scientific empiricists.

In the end, however, it is doubtful faith-based notions even qualify as any form of sound logic or reasoning. At their heart, they are superstition and ideology from a previous irrational era in human history, and ultimately incompatible with even the basic foundations of modern human rationality. But that won't stop the faithful from trying (earnestly and honestly in most cases) to find some way of equating that irrationality with modern thought. By imagining there is some comparison, it makes it easier not to look squarely at the fact that they have been trapped by a medieval (at best) perversion of reason that preys on our weaknesses and imperfections as thinking beings. In this way, people convince themselves there is some compatibility between what they want to believe, and what they know makes rational sense - it is a coping mechanism.

The employment of this coping mechanism stems from a more fundamental belief that life is somehow meaningless without god/s or the supernatural, or that not believing in such is somehow immoral. Both of these misconceptions are deeply ingrained in our culture and history. Until someone understands the true (and secular) basis of ethics, and until they really understand that a meaningful and happy life is possible without supernatural beliefs, they will continue to harbor that strong desire to believe such things, and a deep fear of disbelieving them. Those desires and fears will continue to trump their good sense - the same good sense they are perfectly capable of applying in all of the other mundane situations in their life. Thus, they will concoct all manner of rationalizations and self deceptions to maintain unfounded beliefs. One of those rationalizations, which I have discussed here, is the attempt to equate empirical reasoning with superstitious faith.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wafa Sultan

I was recently made aware of this interesting clip by my friend, Al Robison (thanks Al). It is a Syrian-American psychologist named Wafa Sultan, appearing on Al Jazeera. As you can see here, she is very critical of Islam, and has apparently been making quite a stir since September 11, 2001. Although she "doesn't believe in Islam" she still calls herself a Muslim. She also says that she is a "secular human being". It would be interesting to learn more details about how she views the differences in these terms.

LINK: WAFA SULTAN ON AL JAZEERA (at YouTube)

LINK: WAFA SULTAN ON WIKIPEDIA

Sunday, December 9, 2007

TED & Rev. Tom Honey on God

I've been meaning for some time to post on a wonderful website of which my brother made me aware. It's called 'TED' (www.ted.com), which stands for: technology, engineering, and design. However, its topic is more broad than one would imagine, for all three of these terms are meant in their widest possible sense. In effect, the site features talks by some of the world's best professionals and thinkers in a wide variety of fields. The talks are always stimulating and deal with cutting-edge ideas. I can't recommend this site enough.

But this post is about one talk in particular. Under the section 'Is there a God' one will find a good assortment of speakers. But the presentation that I thought most profound was Rev. Tom Honey's. Honey is a vicar in the Church of England. He addressed his deep questions on God in the wake of the south Asian tsunami of 2004. Rarely have I seen such humble and honest introspection; such personal integrity and sincerity in a public presentation. In addition, Honey's ideas are stimulating and moving, his conclusion possibly the best that we see in the future evolution of human religion. I look forward to his continued exploration of these thoughts.

His conclusions in the last segment are worthy of quoting, but I'd prefer not to spoil his presentation, and recommend viewers simply watch the whole (nearly) 20 minutes.

Friday, November 30, 2007

THREE YEARS OF BLOGGING!

Well, this November marked the third anniversary of the DT Strain Philosophy Blog! After three years of blogging, I've collected a journal that has been helpful to me in remembering my own philosophical explorations over this eye-opening period.

I have been thinking about whether or not to continue this blog, and considered ending posts but leaving it up as an archive. The main reason for this has been my busy life lately. In either case, I would continue to add essays to the Philosophy Site over time.

Nevertheless, I've decided to keep the blog going. It's simply been too valuable a tool to me. As I look back over these posts, I'm reminded of important thoughts I've had in my own explorations that I would normally have forgotten. I've also gained insight by all the kind people who have left comments and alerted me to tangent thoughts.

But, while the blog will continue, I think I will narrow its focus some. In the past, posts have consisted of whatever happened to have crossed my mind, plus commentary on some major events of the day. What I plan to do this coming year is focus on helping to develop a Humanist philosophy more fully.

By that, I mean to work on developing thoughts to 'fill out' Humanism more in the area of addressing one's personal needs, ethics, and life practice. What we'll ultimately need is a new manifesto specifically aimed at personal life practice, ethics, and needs - something far more robust than the broad principles and 'social issue oriented' objectives in the current one (although the current manifesto has nothing but good and proper material within it - it is necessary, but not sufficient). In that endeavor, I plan to take inspiration from ancient philosophy, science, psychology, modern pragmatic wisdom, and my Humanist brothers and sisters who are engaging in similar thought. Many of us have had the notion of this endeavor for some time, but it has remained largely ungrounded. For more on this, see the website of my Humanist Contemplatives Club.

So, this being the end of my third year in blogging, here is a summary of the TOP TEN POSTS from 2007!

TOP 10 POSTS FROM 2007
I Am A Believer
Either/Or's and Iraq
Socrates & The "Soul"
Increasing Wisdom
Humanist Ritual
How Messed Up Is This?
Analysis: How News Misleads
What Can't Be Proven?
Complexity, Economics, and Libertarianism
Why Determinism Doesn't Get Us Off The Hook

These posts do not include the often-longer essays on my Philosophy Site. Also, see "The Best of" page for a summary of the Top Ten Posts of ALL TIME for my blog.

Here's wishing all my readers a happy new year and looking forward to more interesting posts :)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Subtle Distinction

Recently a reader, J.L.A., commented on my post: Responses to Dr. Francis Collins. Thanks very much to him for reading and for the comment.

Dr. Collins had characterized atheists as being opposed to the 'possibility' of a God, and I corrected that this is not what atheism is. Rather, atheism is merely the lack of a belief that a God does exist; a subtle distinction in itself, though not the one that is the subject of this post. J.L.A. wrote in response:
It is certainly true Dr. Collins is overgeneralizing the view of some atheists. However, there are some atheists who are convinced that there is no god and think that anyone who believes in one is deluded (I have had the misfortune of knowing several of them myself). Unfortunately, they are often the most vocal people in the group and that is often the reason that others misunderstand the meaning of the term "atheism".
I think there is a subtle distinction at play here that goes unappreciated. This unappreciated distinction makes it appear there are more 'strong atheists' (those stating certainty that God is non-existent) than there actually are. In reality, in all my dealings with atheists, I don't know that I have ever really met one.

The subtle distinction is this:

While we cannot know whether or not the claim of a non-physical entity immune to empirical observation is true are false, we do know that it is irrational to hold a belief in either position - specifically due to that fact.

Therefore, people who believe in God are deluded. And, even if they someday die and find themselves looking at God in the face, they will still have been deluded during their lives.

In such a case, they would not have been deluded about the existence of God itself, but deluded in thinking that it is reasonable or rational to accept as true such an extraordinary claim without empirical evidence.

It would be like being convinced that J.L.A. is actually an alien from a planet on the other side of the galaxy, posing as a human. Even if this bizarre claim turned out to be correct by chance, one would be no less deluded in thinking it reasonable to hold such a belief without justifiable, rational reason. In fact, even a much more likely possibility, such as believing J.L.A. to be 110 years old, would be irrational without some sort of evidence to believe it.

So, what happens is that believers encounter an atheist of this nature, who certainly doesn't believe God is impossible or claim to know that such a being could never exist. But the atheist unfortunately projects a sense that he sees the believer as generally silly, irrational, and wrong. The perception on the part of the theist is correct, but they confuse the source of the atheist's attitude as being a belief that they are wrong about God, when in fact, the source of their attitude is the belief they are wrong in their belief in God, regardless of whether or not there is actually a God.

In that judgment, the weak atheist is correct: the theist is objectively wrong.

Where these kinds of atheists are wrong, however, is in their attitude; and I think this is what you may really be referring to when you mention your unfortunate association with such people. I would advise all atheists not to project such attitudes in the first place. Aside from it simply being uncivil and rude, it is also unfair and conceited. Of our many millions of thoughts, we are all wrong (i.e. deluded) about something, and there is no evidence that a person is necessarily dumb or deserving of such treatment merely for being a theist. Most people are deserving of respect, and that in no way requires any censorship of the substance of our critiques. Furthermore, such attitudes only serve to raise walls and hamper communication. And, of course, it also leads to this common misunderstanding about atheists in general as being people who deny even the possibility of a God.

Mature people should be capable of communicating their positions clearly without smugness, intolerance, or demeaning attitudes. We are all part of the same human family and all attempts to convey truth or reason should be made with compassion in mind, and with the attitude that engenders.

As for those few people who might actually claim to know that a God cannot possibly exist, I consider them equally as wrong in that extraordinary claim.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Weighing Up Democracy

Everyone knows by now that Pakistan's president Musharraf has declared a 'state of emergency' and suspended democracy in his country, postponing elections and putting a stop to a court case that was deciding the legitimacy of his presidency. Pakistan has allegedly been an ally in the 'war on terror' and has been given billions of dollars by the U.S. to help fight it.

Philosophically it would be impossible for the purpose of the war on terror to be 'defending democracy' (as has been claimed) if it were a higher priority than democracy itself. If one is willing to put the means before the ends, this would be an indication that those means exist for something other than the stated ends - some other unstated ends.

What Musharraf has done in his country does not overly surprise most Americans. But it seems unimaginable to Americans that such a thing could happen in the U.S. What is more important to American president George W. Bush: the 'war on terror' or democracy? There's a good way to know where your president's priorities lie.

The Bush Administration has stated they are opposed to Musharraf's 'extra constitutional measures'. Statements are easily made. You can determine a person's priorities by where they spend their money. If Bush agrees to a suspension of funds to Pakistan until democracy is restored, then we will know that he values democracy more than the war on terror. If he does not suspend funding, then we will know he values the war on terror more than democracy itself.

And, what would the implications be for a country if its president, when faced with a contradiction between democracy and fighting terrorism, preferred the latter to the former?

Addendum:
In my haste I neglected to address another huge factor, which is the danger of extremists within the country taking over a democratic Pakistan with nuclear weapons. Here we see an example (like Iraq) of what democracy could unfortunately be when it isn't coupled with that other pillar of a just society: individual rights. Democracy without a doctrine of rights (and the cultural foundation that supports such notions) is merely mob rule. Among those rights; the separation of religion and state. So, it's not just the weighing of democracy but the weighing of democracy with or without individual liberties that must be considered. In that respect, it's possible Bush could have a logical 'out' in this case, regarding funding support.

This also really highlights the possible mistake of thinking that a people, if given the vote, will automatically vote themselves rights. The United States during its founding was inspired by a solid foundation of Western philosophers whose ideas helped shape the Bill of Rights. Without that cultural foundation, might a people unwittingly vote tyranny for themselves? Such is the madness of dogmatic religious fundamentalism that only a Western fundamentalist leader could fail to understand - and such is the danger we find ourselves in if we collectively lose that cultural philosophy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why Determinism Doesn't Get Us Off The Hook

This post is about comparing the two seemingly contradictory concepts of determinism and moral responsibility. On one hand, if everything is determined by causality and physics, and this includes our brain activity, memories, thoughts, choices, and actions, then how can we be responsible for what we do?[1] On the other hand, it sure seems like we should be held responsible for what we do. If we weren't, couldn't we use that as an excuse to be even worse than we might be otherwise? Wouldn't all of ethics and morality fall away as being some sort of sham?

I believe these issues clear up considerably when we have clear definitions of things like: 'morality', 'responsibility', 'will', 'free', and so on. In my view, what is happening here when we perceive a conflict between these two concepts is that we are assigning meanings to one or the other which are inappropriate.

First, start with the premise that it's all "atoms and the void", interacting in a causal nexus according to the laws of physics. What will happen will happen.

Next, imagine there are various subsets of these atomic structures with various sorts of behaviors that emerge out of these complex interactions. We, as thinking beings, assign various names to clumps of these atoms, to various forms we find repeated throughout nature, and to various sorts of activities within and between these clumps.

One of the clumps of atoms we see repeated is what we've called 'human beings'[2]. We've also observed that these 'human beings' have various sorts of common behaviors. Among them is the tendency to coordinate on opinions regarding the acceptability or unacceptability of other behaviors - mostly those that deal with how they interact with one another. These notions tend to shift over time in the culture in response to environmental factors, conditions, and human nature. They are generally 'enforced' through social pressures, ranging from social discomfort to the use of force, depending on how important the behavioral rule is generally held to be. This is human morality[3]. Forming these social norms is a tendency toward which all humans seem to have an instinctive, inborn natural inclination. This is evidenced by the fact that all human cultures have formed these social norms, even if the specifics of those norms vary. It seems quite obvious the reason Homo Sapiens evolved this tendency is related to the fact that humans are social animals and there is some survival benefit to coordinated cooperation and society-building in general. Our numbers seem to indicate that it is a particularly potent survival trait at that[4].

So, when we talk about morality, we should remember that we are talking about a human-level phenomenon, with human-level functions and roles. Certain concepts simply don't apply on certain scales. For example, one cannot meaningfully discuss 'air pressure' with respect to one atom of oxygen because the concept of pressure is inherently about the relationship between several molecules.

We need to ask ourselves why it is important for human beings to be held accountable for their actions? Why is it important for them to feel pity, remorse, shame? Why is it important for us to shun those who do wrong?

If we understand the survival benefits of morality, and we further understand the benefits to ourselves as individuals, then we can see that ethics is important, morality is important - not only despite its inherently human origins and function - but specifically because of that. Since ethics is important, its maintenance is as well. This means teaching it to children, encouraging it in peers, developing it in ourselves, and applying those social and legal pressures to those who do not comply (including punishments).

But what of our notion that a person shouldn't be responsible for something if they 'couldn't help it'? Let's look at the sentence: "Tom isn't responsible for his actions because of determinism." What we have to remember is what exactly we mean by "Tom" in that sentence. "Tom" is the name we have given a certain clump of atoms. When we look deeper at what we mean by the word, that clump doesn't necessarily refer to the clump of atoms that is Tom's body. Rather, we're talking about a 'person'. In other words, we're talking about the pattern of interaction and data that is maintained through the ongoing activity of atoms making up regions of a brain. 'Tom' is a pattern of information that interacts within itself as a complex system. The ability of that system to make selections between data and initiate actions is Tom's "will". Tom's will has a 'normal function' to it and when it is functioning properly and unhindered we can define this as being 'free' - free of obstruction or intrusion from unusual phenomena not typical to its normal operation. Tom therefore has a 'free will'. Thus, in talking about 'free will' much is cleared up by precisely defining what we mean by 'will' and what it means for a will to be 'free'. These are pragmatic and practical means of defining these characteristics in a way that is meaningful and useful.

In a deterministic universe, a person will operate causally, according to its natural function in interaction with its environment. Therefore, if ethics is important to humanity and beneficial to individual human beings, we must attempt to build an environment in which that person will adapt to be more likely to operate in the manner needed. We have found this is accomplished through social pressures such as shunning, blame, praise, and in more extreme cases punishment, confinement, etc. There are more artful ways of accomplishing this than through brute force, which often include more creative 'carrots' than 'sticks', but the bottom line is the same - human beings must be held accountable for their actions, precisely because we live in a deterministic universe. Meanwhile, to the contrary, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to why we should punish people if they are so free from causality that our punishments will have no causal effect on their future actions.

When we choose whether or not to hold a human being accountable for a moral misbehavior, we should look at whether or not the will was operating freely in the manner described above. The reason for this is that it is the will which that accountability is designed to mold. Guilt, pride, contentment, peace, unhappiness, shame, are all experiences which shape the will such that it will more often make certain choices and avoid others.

However, if we determine that a moral outrage took place because of some unusual interference with the will, such as a mental illness or brain damage, this is another matter. Similarly, if we find that the action took place due to accident beyond control of the will, it is also another matter. In both of these cases, there is no functional purpose to holding the person morally accountable because (1) the event was not an indication of the nature of the person's will we seek to mold, but rather some other phenomena effecting it, and (2) accountability is not capable of molding the external forces that were acting on the person's will, nor is accountability capable of molding anything having to do with incidental accidents which could happen at any time. Thus, accountability should only apply to cases of a freely operating will. Only there can it have the molding effect it is designed to.

Meanwhile, to apply such accountability (and the discomfort or displeasure that often accompanies it) in a case where the will was not free, would be giving those negative experiences to a will that was already properly formed or did not have the defects the accountability is seeking to dissolve. In such a case, the accountability may have an adverse affect, molding the will in unpredictable or undesired fashion such that inappropriate behavior is actually increased. In addition, it is a violation of a social contract with which we have agreed that we will not do to others what we would not want done to us (namely, applying negative experiences when we have done nothing negative ourselves). Should that contract be weakened, we all experience less enjoyable events on average. Therefore violations of it should be avoided where possible.

As you can see, moral responsibility and free will are phenomena like 'air pressure' which only make sense on a certain scale (a human scale). Meanwhile, determinism is a much more fundamental property. In this regard, it is simultaneously possible (even mutually necessary) for determinism to be true, the will to be free, and people to be morally responsible - so long as we define these concepts precisely and pragmatically. At least, that's my take.

For a nice essay on how the Stoics reconciled moral responsibility and determinism, see Dr. Keith Seddon's article: Do the Stoics succeed in showing how people can be morally responsible for some of their actions within the framework of causal determinism? [LINK HERE].


Notes:

[1] In dealing with this conundrum, I'm going to go ahead and assume that determinism is true - that we do indeed live in a completely mechanistic and causally determined universe. I'm also going to ignore quantum mechanical considerations on the basis that, even if randomness plays a role at the most fundamental levels of the universe, it averages out on larger scales that even brain activity statistically behaves as though it were more or less determined. Some say there might be exceptions whereby quantum fluctuations in portions of the brain might create a chain reaction leading up to the larger scale in our neural networks, thereby possibly resulting in different thoughts and actions. However, I'm going to discount this as well for these purposes, since randomness presents the very same conundrums where moral responsibility is concerned, in that it is still a phenomenon which may result in our choices and actions which is something other than a completely sovereign 'will'.

[2] The fact that we are the human beings is incidental to the fact that we can still observe ourselves objectively from an 'outside perspective' as we would any other phenomenon.

[3] For a more complete explanation, please see: Natural-Objective Ethics on my philosophy site.

[4] That is, if it doesn't turn out that our intellects, growth rate, or other traits result in overpopulation and stripping of the planet's resources, or possibly devastating warfare, destroying ourselves in the process. The answers to these questions remain to be seen.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Comparing Budhism and Stoicism

In a recent online conversation, several members of the International Stoic Forum and myself had a wonderful conversation on the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. I have collected and edited the conversation on my philosophy site for easy reading. I've also included some commentary and conclusions at the end. If you'd like to read the conversation, please click this link:


Many thanks to all who participated!

Debunking 9/11 Nonsense

I have recently been looking for a good website to direct people to, who have unfortunately been snickered into buying the conspiracy theories about 9/11. I had previously found a lot of good information out there debunking the ludicrous claims of the conspiracy theorists, but the site below seems to be a good single location where they have been collected together.

As with cults or some religious people, reasons for being invested in these ideas are sometimes more personal and broad than the actual facts. Therefore, deprogramming someone from these ideas can be very challenging. Most of the 9/11 misinformation is intentionally being concocted by people who get off on it, as a power trip or to see how many people they can hoodwink into believing them. If you know someone suffering from their vile efforts, this site can be a good starting point:


If you know of other good sources debunking these conspiracy theories, please leave them in comments, thanks.

(note: links and long arguments for the conspiracy theories themselves will be deleted until or unless I see something new to convince me they aren't nonsense. I'd prefer that I and my websites not contribute to the spread of blatant disinformation and will treat such comments the same as a religious zealot's preaching).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Responses to Dr. Francis Collins

Recently on the excellent podcast by the Center for Inquiry called Point of Inquiry, Dr. Francis Collins was interviewed on scientists and faith. Dr. Collins is author of The Language of God and head of the Human Genome Project. A scientist and a man of faith himself, Dr. Francis argued that good scientists can also be theists. He stated that one being a believer doesn't prevent one from doing science properly to understand the natural universe.

I couldn't agree more with this. The scientific method is specifically designed to address those things which can be empirically measured. Claims that are about things which are 'outside of nature' and not amenable to scientific measurement, cannot be addressed by science in the first place, much less result in any finding for or against. Dr. Collins displays great intellectual honesty and scientific integrity in the interview. He admits the case for evolution is overwhelming, laments the evangelical church's attachment to creationism and Intelligent Design, and says that his arguments cannot 'prove' the existence of God.

Where I differ with Dr. Collins is not on matters of science, which I wouldn't possibly presume. Rather, Dr. Collins has a distorted view of atheism, thanks in no small part to people like Dawkins mucking things up. As Dr. Collins states in the interview:

"...I had to conclude that atheism was the least rational of all choices because it assumed that the atheist knows so much as to be able to exclude... the possibility of something outside of nature; namely God. And, that seemed to be a pretty arrogant position - a position of some hubris for anybody to take and certainly not one that you could defend on rational grounds."

However, atheism does not exclude the possibility of God:
Atheism is merely the lack of belief in a God. One could lack a belief that God exists, and lack the belief that God does not exist. This would be an atheist because he would be without theism - without the belief that God exists. The lack of the latter belief would be incidental to the term. Atheists such as myself say clearly that God cannot be proved or disproved and we cannot have knowledge, one way or the other, of such a being. As such it would be foolish to believe in God, and it would also be foolish to claim that such an entity couldn't possibly exist. Still, the lack of the former is enough to fully and completely count as an atheist (a-theist, or non-theist).

More importantly, theism is not the belief that God is possible:
Theism is the belief that God is real - that God exists. Therefore, to back up that claim, one need do far more than argue for God's possibility. One must show there is a positive reason to believe that God is, in fact, independently and objectively real and actual. That alone is theism and, lacking that, all other positions are atheism[1].

On a second matter, Dr. Collins states:

"A purely naturalistic worldview is impoverished in certain important ways. It basically says some questions are just 'out of order' like 'what's the meaning of life', and 'why are we here', and 'is there a God'."

Later he suggests that some think these questions are simply "not worth asking". I think that Dr. Collins, like his nemesis (perhaps too strong a word) Richard Dawkins, both suffer from an abundance of focus and experience in scientific practice. I'm sure in both of their fields, these questions seem to be 'out of order'. However, as interviewer D.J. Grothe points out, these are questions that atheists commonly enjoy tackling. From my philosophic point of view, I'd say it's not these questions that are out of order so much as it is definitive answers that are out of order. We can ask ourselves if there is a God in all sorts of ways, and explore possibilities in all sorts of ways. But in the end we must admit that we couldn't know such a thing.

However, Dr. Collins handles the issue in another way. He mentions sources such as C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and says that such arguments presented therein show belief to be "more plausible" than non-belief. He then concluded this was enough to take a 'leap of faith' and thus believe in God.

This is an approach I've seen many times and in many varieties. The problem behind this approach is the unstated premise that we must reach a final conclusion. That, for some reason, it is important for this little short-lived microscopic primate crawling about a speck of dust in a nameless corner of the vast cosmos for the tiny sliver of time it occupies, to submit an affirmative proclamation to the universe on the existence or non-existence of a deity.

For one, to think such a creature even has the means to submit a meaningful answer on the question is comical. Secondly, to think the rest of nature even cares what it has to say on the matter is equally comical. But thirdly, and more importantly, is the fact is that the question is irrelevant and ultimately inconsequential to anything of substance in our lives. It ranks #2 on my personal list of 'completely ridiculous and meaningless wastes of time in philosophy', just under the issue of whether or not we have 'free will' (and yet, here I am again, sucked into spending time on it).

Most people make decisions and live their lives by anything but their belief in a deity. There is no evidence it effects our morality, our ethics, our happiness, our meaning, our ability to explain nature, or our society in any way that numerous examples haven't shown are equally obtainable absent an invisible intelligent architect. Sure, I along with any number of other people, can be convinced that the meaning of life is to eat bananas but that doesn't make life objectively meaningless without bananas.

In fact, many people are fully content to leave matters as 'unknown' or 'unknowable' and that's what a truly rational and humble person must do when it comes to questions beyond our means to answer[2].

We basically live our lives as normal - without any sort of appeal to unproved claims in invisible entities, but remain open to the possibility and ready to change that behavior should any new evidence come along in the future. In the meantime, we can rationally argue that those who do go out of their way to worship, appease, or address such alleged entities are thinking 'out of wack'.

Perhaps the most revealing statement by Dr. Collins was his take on morality. After siting C.S. Lewis, the issue of our ingrained moral sense came up. Dr. Collins was unconvinced that evolution has explained all of our moral behaviors and speculated that it couldn't explain all of them, but perhaps only some superficial and direct tendencies[3].

Then came the bomb:
He asked, if our morality was just about biology, just an "evolutionary artifact" and an "illusion", then who cares about morality? He wondered why an atheist should care about morality.

Thus we see the real hole in Dr. Collins' perspective, and it again has to do with an abundance of scientific knowledge and practice, with very little philosophical foundation. Dr. Collins, like so many of us, suffers from the affliction of ignorance concerning virtue and ethics: the lack of knowledge that they are, in fact and in themselves, good for us. I am convinced that, at the root of much theism, is the view that ultimately, ethical conduct is some sort of 'sacrifice' we make, for some other external reward or punishment, rather than it being a reward in its own right. I think if more people understood that ethics and virtue is 'good medicine' and fully comprehended Epictetus' statement that virtue alone "is both necessary and sufficient for happiness", then such questions would dissolve.

What is also ironic about Dr. Collins question is its circular nature. If morality is an evolutionary artifact, that would mean that it had some survival benefit. Therefore, it would necessarily be something we should 'care about'[4].


Notes:

[1] According to my anecdotal experiences with many who are not theists, it seems the person who will claim that any sort of God-entity cannot exist and is impossible, is few and far between (I couldn't recall one by name that I have met personally). However, that vocal group of anti-theists get all the press and have convinced huge numbers of people into thinking of atheists as something they aren't. Another factor in this is the common apologetic theist straw man that seeks to get off easy by merely arguing for God's possibility. Such a tactic demands an opponent whose position is the impossibility of God - thus that sort of person is highlighted despite being almost unheard of, even among atheists.

Many atheists, perturbed by this persistent mischaracterization, have opted to use the term 'non-theist' to help highlight these points. But technically, lacking theism, they are still atheists, as are most agnostics (who lack theism as well). I would recommend not using any of these labels and simply having substantive conversations about specific beliefs and positions. Given the distortion of these labels, I think more meaningful communication of the reasonableness of positions is only possible in this way.

[2] I conversed with one person who pointed out that such people actively behave as though there is no God, even if they say the matter is merely unknowable. But this is the way we always act about unknown things. For example, suppose we knew there was a planet full of pre-industrial but fully intelligent people on a planet in our nearest star system of Alpha Centauri? How do you think that might affect NASA's budget or the speed with which we get probes and people there? Of course we don't know such a thing, but one would have to be quite ridiculous to say it is impossible. In fact, given what we know of biochemistry, our own planet, and astronomy, life (even intelligent life) is probably more likely than not somewhere in this universe. We simply don't know if there is a life-bearing planet somewhere in a nearby star system yet. But the default position is to behave in a fairly regular fashion until or unless such is shown to exist.

[3] On a side note, it was interesting that he later admonished this very same 'attacking the gaps' strategy of the creationists against evolution and felt comfortable that new information to come would fill in those gaps. When Grothe earlier brought up that possibility with Dr. Collins on the matter of evolutionary morality, he said he'd be interested in seeing what resulted, but still appeared to hinge the weight of C.S. Lewis' argument on the assumption that evolution couldn't explain our moral sense.

[4] For a more complete description of this, please see my essay on Natural-Objective Ethics.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Shermer Speaks Up

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, and author of several books on reason and rationality. He has written a letter that appeared in the September 2007 issue of Scientific American. It addresses what many are calling the "new Atheists" who have been writing some books on atheism that many have described as quite aggressive and confrontational. Examples ranging from accusing religious moderates of aiding in the causes of terrorism and extremism, to calling religious parents child abusers, to an outright rejection of religious tolerance where theists are concerned, and more.

Shermer's position is a brief but concise summary of many of the arguments against this approach, which support my stance and the fourth of five basic concepts on which the notion of the Humanist Contemplative is based.


If you would like to read the article, you can order back issues from Scientific American, or read it on their website by clicking the link below. To subscribe to Scientific American you can click here:


It is best if you can read the article from the original source. However, if the link above has expired or been lost, I have archived on my philosophy site, LINK HERE.

Many thanks to
Mary Beaty, who first alerted me to this letter.

Health Care & Religion

Earlier this week I had an interesting discussion with Dr. Cayla Teal from the Baylor College of Medicine. She is studying issues of how health care quality is effected by racial and ethnic issues. In the process, she discovered that issues of religion also played a role. Now she is putting together some survey questions designed to measure people's preferences and attitudes about their health care service as it pertains to all of these issues.

She had contacted me, as president of the local Humanist organization here in Houston, in order to get perspectives and input from Humanist and nontheist points of view. This was specifically in regards to the sections of the survey dealing with religion.

I wasn't being asked the questions themselves (I'm not part of the survey). Rather, I was being asked for input on how the questions could be formulated so as to be of most relevance to the widest religious variety of people, and how they might better gather the specific information being sought without misunderstanding.

We talked about how different groups use terms like 'religious', 'spiritual', 'God' and so on. We also talked about instances where one could answer a question in a way that was technically correct, but gives an opposite impression from the reality of the subject's position - because of unfounded assumptions inherent in the wording of the question. This often took the form of bias in the questions that assumed the subject was some form of theist; a common bias that atheists probably notice more than theists.

Another interesting issue was how differences in people's conception of 'faith healing' could result in meaningless answers to the questions. For example, some people might say that faith helps one get better because they think something supernatural is going on, while others may say the same thing, but because they believe it is a placebo or other biological process effected by a hopeful and positive psychological attitude. These differences can make a huge difference in what a person actually believes, even though they might answer questions in the same manner, if they are not carefully worded.

Similar issues arose because different subjects have different ideas about how God works, how the 'idea' of God works, and what role (if any) such a deity plays in our lives. Do we pray for the strength to accept whatever is God's will for our heath, or do we pray for God to actively change our health? These sorts of questions went beyond what would be relevant to a naturalist such as myself, but they are important things to consider when phrasing questions about faith and health.

I can't tell you what the questions are, as I promised Dr. Teal I would not. But they were generally about discovering what patient's desires were for their health care provider, given their religious views (or lack thereof). However, Dr. Teal has told me she will inform me once the study has been completed and published, which I look forward to seeing - and will post some information on here.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cassiopeia

We have a new kitten. I was out walking one morning under a covered area during heavy rains. I saw, in the middle of the wet pavement, what appeared to be a small wet rat and started to walk around it. As it turned out, it was a baby kitten, soaking wet and abandoned. It was so young it couldn't even raise its head. Her paws were pink and not even covered with fur yet. She was barely moving so leaving her would probably mean her death, either by starvation, the elements, or animals. I took her home and warmed her up and dried her. We took her to the vet when they opened and they checked her out. She was healthy, and the vet set us up with a lady named Betty, who specialized in raising baby kittens up to an age where she could eat solid food and we could leave her at home when we're gone. So, that's what she's doing now for us.

We've decided to name her Cassiopeia (or 'Cassie' for short). In Greek mythology, the original Cassiopeia was the beautiful wife of King Cepheus, who boasted that she was more beautiful than all the Nereids, the nymph-daughters of Nereus the sea god. Poseidon then brought his wrath upon her kingdom. It seemed a fitting name given the puddle in which she was found.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Political Compass Graph

There is a very interesting little test that defines the subjects' political and social views. One axis defines the spectrum of left to right economic views (left meaning socialistic/communistic, right meaning free market/capitalistic). The other axis defines social authoritarianism (what they call fascism, which is questionable) to libertarianism (or anarchism at the extreme). I thought readers might be interested to take the test themselves, and I also thought it might be nice to document where I fall here on my blog.

If you would like to take the test, you can visit www.politicalcompass.org and click the 'take the test' option in the upper left of the screen.

I would advise doing so before reading the rest of this blog post, as reading some of my comments on the test questions may taint your results...

As for my results, you can click on the image here to see a larger version of it. I have combined my results with those of famous people as provided on the website, and have combined labels from several of the graphs they provided, into one for ease of use.

It did seem to me the test had several shortcomings. Too often the questions seemed to use inexact terms, sloppy phrasing, and assume that we would think along conventional lines. It says things like "x is natural". It's obvious the statement is implying that x is ok. What if we think its natural but not acceptable or proper? One could easily give an opposite impression of what they really think by answering accurately.

Another example would be the question as to whether violating 'international law' is sometimes necessary. What if you don't believe such a thing as 'international law' actually exists, because no political legislative body has ever been created on an international level that has the legitimate popular mandate to create 'laws'? It becomes somewhat of a 'did you stop beating your wife' question.

One other question was "A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system." Now, what if I believe that is a significant advantage of a one-party state in many cases, but I believe that other advantages of democratic multi-party states far outweigh that advantage? If I answer honestly, the test program will likely think I view one-party states as favorable in some way.

Another problem with the test is that one can easily see the political liberal mindset in the phrasing of the questions. Perhaps due to a lack of imagination or role-playing ability, what is assumed and what is taken for granted gives the neutrality away. For example, no one who thought that the interests of trans-national corporations was beneficial to humanity would have stated it as, "If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations." This either/or leaves such people with truly no representative answer to give. And people who have agreed with "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" in some cases of international politics of late, would never state that as an absolute. They would say, rather, something like, "In some cases it is useful to make cooperative deals with the enemy of my enemy, even if we normally would not approve of such people."

Having said that, the test probably measures what it sets out to in fairly close-enough terms. I say that judging by my own results and the results of many people I know well who have taken it. Perhaps those difficulties with the questions are some advanced psychological technique to make us answer without being able to 'figure out' the test. That may well be the case :)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Television Program with Comments

As I mentioned a while back, I was recently a guest on the Houston PBS television program The Connection. Online video of that program is now available here, along with commentary (it may take a few moments to load):

LINK: The Connection

At the bottom of the page, I make some additional comments on things we didn't have time to get into in the program.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Complexity, Economics, and Libertarianism

Jim, a member of a Humanist email list I'm on, made an interesting post recently mentioning emergent complexity in economics (he gave this Wikipedia link). Jim seems to be an economic libertarian and sited this as a support to his position. I am a big enthusiast of complexity theory and the work of the Santa Fe Institute for many reasons. As such, his mention peaked my interest, but I think there is something important to note, at least insofar as my position is concerned.

I don't think complexity necessarily justifies libertarian economic philosophy on the grand scheme of things.

To be sure, it certainly suggests we allow economies to function naturally as much as possible. Taoism, in many respects, contains realizations which are ancient precursors to many notions found in complexity science. Naturally, we similarly find a connection between its observations of the world and prescriptions on 'how we should be'. For example, Chuang-Tzu warns of over-intrusive government, saying it is a sign of intolerance of people's natural proclivities and inclinations (On Intolerance), and encourages corruption and oppression (Horses Hooves).

All of these notions point to the same realization, which is that free market economies will tend to operate as a self-organizing complex system with an organic structure (or 'Li', as the Taoists might say) with all of the advantages of growth and adaptability thereof. Government intrusion, then, hampers the free operation and efficiency of that system.

Yes, economics will self regulate as a system. For example, wages will rise and fall because of the supply of certain professionals and the demand for them. Over time, if the wages get too high, too many people will choose that as their profession and supply will exceed demand. Employers will recognize they can get away with paying less because they'll have plenty of desperate people in need of a job. As wages get too low, employers will find that no one wants to work in that profession and will therefore need to raise their rates. The system corrects itself in a beautiful organic process!

But before we kneel at the altar of the economic complex system, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

First, we must realize that this economic organism is not 'us' individually. Nor is it 'us' in terms of it being humanity. It is not even 'us' in terms of it being our society. It is an independent system in its own right, that yields conditions we suffer or enjoy.

As such, it is not an end unto itself, but rather a means to an end - that end being to provide an ethically sound environment in which people can live well.

As a system, while the economy will indeed correct itself, in the process its variable flow into highs and lows that have little respect of 'what is right' or 'what is humane'. One might think that we drive these variables by our likes and dislikes, thus 'humaneness' and 'rightness' is inherent in the system because those are things we like. However, this simply isn't the case in practice. In reality, wages will often rise above what is excessive and harmful for individual lives and society (which includes more than the economy, but also our social networks, morale, etc). More importantly, wages will sometimes fall well below what is a humane level of compensation for the work done, leaving desperate people with no realistic alternative. The same is the case for all of the economic variables throughout the entire economy. Most of the time it works, but occasionally it veers without concern into environmental conditions which are inherently inhumane and ethically unacceptable.

People who marvel at that intricate and amazing complex system that is our economy, tend to focus all of their thoughts and attention on how best to make it run more smoothly and efficiently. They look at 'averages' and 'trends' and 'indexes' as indicators of whether or not things are 'going well'. Little concern is given for the individuals getting tossed about on the fringes of those overall curves.

Unconscious and as well intentioned as it may be, this is worship of the 'economic organism' at the expense of people, the expense of ethics, and the expense of basic human compassion.

We must instead keep the larger view in mind: that the economy is here to serve human beings as one element in the grand mix of our larger concerns as good people - and we are not here to serve the needs of the economy. When we do, we realize that, yes, we want a smooth running economy that yields good fruits for us. But, we also recognize there are certain conditions and situations that are morally unacceptable, regardless of the indexes, averages, trends, or long term self correcting mechanisms. When that happens we must, as a people (i.e. government) step in and say "no".

Will that hamper the efficiency and health of the economic organism? Yes it will - and that's ok. Some things are worth the price of apples being higher or the growth of new businesses being lower this quarter.

Unlike what Libertarians will tell us, this sort of judicious ethical intrusion in certain areas while being appreciative of the need of an economy to evolve freely, will not necessarily lead to all-controlling socialism, communism, or bureaucratic oppression. We must simply judge these things ethically as we go, considering those factors as well. Tough decisions? Yes. But to simply say that all eyes should remain on the economic organism and trust that individuals will get their just rewards for their obedient worship of that entity, is a harmful notion in my view, that misses major concerns about our humanity.


PS:
It is also good to note Wu Wei, a philosophy specifically designed for skillfully working in and with complex systems. If we use 'skillful means' in our decisions, we see that there is almost a 1-to-1 correlation between money spent on education or on jails. Low wages lead to desperation, which leads to crime, which leads to money spent fighting crime and jails. Thus, the 'interconnectedness of all things' means that we pay either way - it's just a question of how smart we are about it.

Some may be too consumed with judgments about 'what others deserve' and 'who should get what' to look at things as a dynamic system without preconception. That individual therefore puts himself in the very role he would forbid the state, as being inhumane and oppressive.


Therefore, we are benefited in subtle ways by being ethical first. The maxim is maintained: there is never a distinction between what is virtuous and what is wise. Any notion to the contrary is an indication that we are suffering from a delusion about either wisdom or virtue.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Leadership and Stoicism

Two of Stoicism's most prominent philosophers were Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. As professor Michael Sugrue of Princeton University observes in his wonderful lecture on Marcus Aurelius: one of the wonderful ironies about the history of philosophy was that the former was a slave and the latter an emperor. That speaks greatly to the flexibility and applicability of Stoicism, but it also has recently brought to my mind another thought.

In this year I have found myself in a leadership role in my community organization, my profession, and soon, my family. This has made me recognize new aspects of Stoicism. Previously I had conceived of Stoicism as especially useful to those with little or no power. As such, it helps us to focus our energies on the things we can control and learn to accept that which we cannot.

But lately, as my 'say-so' has risen (power is too strong a word), I have found that my stress has risen with it. Given that we are always seeking greater control, one might expect the opposite. But I think this happens because power is a strong temptation. When we are put in charge of something or made responsible for it, we get used to having more control than ordinary. We soon find ourselves expecting that greater level of control. It becomes even easier to fall prey to the delusion that we can control more than we do, and as that delusion intensifies, so too does our suffering.

So now I am thinking that I must begin to approach Stoicism less from an Epictetan point of view, and more from an Aurelian one. Surely the emperor saw something of use in Stoicism that he chose it as a remedy for his affliction of power. We'll see how this line of thought progresses.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

God who?

A reader named James recently wrote in with a letter full of questions about my position on God. I have placed his letter and my response on my philosophy site, as I thought James had brought up some great questions:

Sunday, July 1, 2007

What is A Contemplative?

I have been thinking recently about ways to highlight the personal introspective and spiritual, if you will, in Humanism. I call this the Humanist contemplative thought. The first step was forming a club within my local Humanist group called the Humanist Contemplative Club, which has been active at a modest level just over a year now. I have also been making contact with several people who have a similar vision for the expansion of Humanism into a more robust and person living philosophy. Recently, I've come across a nice website and organization called The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Their classes seem quite pricey and I couldn't, of course, vouch for them personally as I don't know a lot about them. But their website seems to have distilled the essence of the 'contemplative life' which may be of great use:

LINK: The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

LINK: The Tree of Contemplative Practices

Their list of contemplative practices is excellent and would be worthy of a Humanist Contemplatives time to investigate. Some of them, of course, involve supernatural concepts which are irrelevant to Humanists, but most do not. The video that plays automatically on their home page is nice, but I really recommend the second part of Dan Kowalski's film introducing the work of the center:

LINK: "Part 2: Application"

This video really sums up nicely the essence of contemplative thought and practice. In it, several good points are listed, paraphrased below:

1) Working to integrate contemplative awareness and contemporary life to help create a more just, compassionate, and reflective society.

2) Contemplative practices have been developed over centuries in both secular and religious traditions.

3) They include meditation and yoga, other movement forms like Tai Chi or Qi Gong, contemplative dance, silent reading, times in nature - any activity in which you regularly engage which helps you increase your awareness and compassion can be a contemplative practice.

4) Contemplative practice is designed to help us be more effective in life and integrate our 'hearts' with our 'heads'.

5) As you practice and apply what you learn to your daily life, you being to develop what could be called a 'contemplative perspective', which includes many enhanced qualities, skills, and values:
- Calmness, which allows stability in life;
- The ability to be 'in silence' and learn from that;
- Clarity and spaciousness of mind, which helps us to see things as they are rather than as we want them to be (I and Buddhists would call this mindfulness);
- The ability to act from passion rather than anger;
- Increased kindness and compassion
- The ability to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time;
- The ability to act from an ethical understanding;
- To be non-judgmental but still hold a discriminating awareness for making decisions;
- The ability to appreciate the interconnection of all people and all life.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

What Can't Be Proven?

Matt (aka The Dude) writes in with this question:

"What can't be proven?... I often get into debates, especially religious, where the point gets to someone saying "You can't disprove it, so I'll just keep believing it." My point is this: Lack of evidence, by default, points to non-existence, it does not give rise to limitless possibilities.

I can't disprove unicorns don't fly around Pluto, but it doesn't mean they're there.

I'm usually at a loss for words when people throw that argument forward. How would you deal with that objection?"

I agree such people are using faulty logic, and I have had similar experiences. But I would differ with the questioner on one point. He says, "Lack of evidence, by default, points to non-existence, it does not give rise to limitless possibilities". I would say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Indeed, the lack of disproof does give rise to limitless possibilities. We live in a reality that may ultimately be far more ancient and vast that we can ever know - perhaps infinitely so. Many things are possible - but that isn't the point. The point is, why should someone believe in one specific possibility without any positive proof therein?

The first thing I would note in answering that question is this:
Theism is not the belief that God is possible.
Theism is not the belief that God is likely.
Theism is the belief that God is real - that she/he/it does, in fact, exist.

Given that, we then have to ask ourselves how things would work if we were to have a similar belief about anything and everything that could not be disproved. Clearly, there are many claims and possibilities that, while possible on their own, are contradictory with other equally possible claims that have not been disproved. Therefore, it would be madness to accept every possibility that has not been disproved as real.

On my philosophy site, there is a conversation I held with another person which I've titled "How Do You Determine Truth?". In it, I say that we basically have three options for dealing with claims for which there is no proof or disproof:

1) Believe them all unless or until they are disproved.

2) Believe those things we like believing and disregard the rest.

3) Believe in none of them unless or until they are proven.

I've already noted that #1 would require a person to hold an infinite variety of contradictory claims as true. The most common response seems to be #2, even if only subconscious. Even we skeptical minded folks are guilty of this from time to time about various beliefs we take on in our lives. But only #3 is consistent with genuine reason. Of course, the above simplifies the matter considerably since, in reality, things are rarely either 100% proved or 100% disproved. But the simple delineation of these three options illustrates the essence of the matter.

Therefore, perhaps a more practical way to look at it would be as Carl Sagan suggested: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I like to note the implication of this, that ordinary claims require ordinary evidence - thus, the degree of belief in a claim should be proportionate to the degree of evidence for a claim. And, of course, all positions should be provisional and open to reassessment in the light of new evidence.

But perhaps your conversant is someone of a more romantic approach. In this case, it might be more effective to point out the inherent arrogance of making claims about things for which we have no evidence. More effective that accusations of arrogance would be to speak positively of the humility required to acknowledge our limitations to know when we have not received verifiable evidence. Thus, the lack of that humility is implied with the opposite position. This approach is more fully explored in my essay titled, "The Humanist Contemplative".

Thanks for writing! :)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Better Ways to Express Humanism

It's just occurred to me that an essay I wrote a while back for a club's website in my local Humanist group has never been put on my philosophy site. So, I added it today. It's called "The Humanist Contemplative". In this essay, I outline a particular focus within Humanism that our club is based around. But I think the essay has broader value to me because it shows a way of talking about and presenting Humanism that I think should be more common. Throughout the explanation, I utilize concepts from the following...

- Complex systems theory (science)
- Buddhism or the Buddha (3 general references)
- The Kalama Sutra (Buddhist)
- ‘The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow’ (Buddhist)
- Dalai Lama (Buddhist)
- Stoicism (2 general references)
- Epictetus (Stoic)
- The Christian Bible
- The three pillars of Anglican/Episcopalian faith (Christian)
- Jesus (Christian)
- Chuang-Tsu
- Frederick Edwords (2 references)
- Albert Einstein
- Sam Harris
- Paul Kurtz
- Ayn Rand
- Carl Sagan
- Socrates


To read the article, see my philosophy site or click this link:

The Humanist Contemplative

Friday, June 1, 2007

To Be Appearing on Local Television

I have just returned from the studio of the Houston PBS station, where I was invited to be part of a panel on a local television program called "The Connection". The subject was about whether a good and meaningful life is possible without a belief in God. I was announced as the President of the Humanists of Houston. The other guests on the program included Nancy Fay, a retired teacher and a Freethinker who is a Director at the Houston Church of Freethought (and a friend), a Methodist Pastor named Thaddeus Easland of the Hope Church, and Rabbi Stuart Federow of Congregation Shaar Hashalom. The host (and the woman pictured here) was Doris Childress.

For those capable of viewing Houston local PBS, the program will air at 8:00pm on July 6, 2006, and again on July 8th, at 5:00pm.

After both airings have shown, I will try to find a way to take the VCR tape of the program they gave me and convert it into a video that will be available on this site and on the HOH website.

The program went well I thought. Everyone was cordial and we hit on some good points. The program was only a half hour and it passed quickly, leaving still many things unsaid. The host of the show has communicated to me that they would like to do more shows on similar subjects in the future, and may like to invite me back to be on those, which I said would be fine.

Rabbi Federow informed me before the show that he hosts a radio program on 950AM KPRC called 'A Show of Faith' and might like to invite me or the others to be a guest sometime. I told him I'd be pleased to.

After the show has aired and I get the video up on this site, I'll also include some additional commentary and responses to things in the program which I didn't have time to cover.

Update June 2, 2007: Originally this post had incorrectly said the airing would be June 1st and 3rd. Unfortunately, the assistant producer gave us the wrong dates originally. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Update August 5, 2007: Online video of this program is now available on this site. Click HERE to see it, along with some additional comments at the bottom of the page, on things we didn't have time to get into. These may take a few moments to load.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How Messed Up Is This?

I've recently come across the surprising statistic that about 71% of the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa is suffering from malnutrition. Almost all of the other nations in Africa that are marked as having malnutrition are around 35% - still highly tragic numbers, but not near the unbelievable rate in DR Congo[1]. This is where a lot of the skeletal children you see pictures of come from.


But that's not the messed up part. The messed up part is who was behind it...

I decided to read up on the history of DR Congo to see what in the world happened to cause their unique situation. What I found began around 1960, during the height of the cold war. At that time, the Congo was controlled by Belgium, as it had been since 1908. This was a remnant of the history of the colonial empires, whereby almost all of Africa had been sliced up by different European nations (you'll recall that apartheid South Africa was controlled by the British, for example, and that British colonialism was also at the root of the beginnings of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict after they closed up shop and left abruptly). During WWII the United States got the uranium it needed for its nuclear bombs from the Belgian Congo, which was rich in the stuff.

The Belgians gave no political power to the Congolese people. The educated people there eventually started a campaign to end the inequality. Following some riots, the Congolese won legalization for their own political parties in 1959. In May 1960 they elected a President and a Prime Minister, and won independence by the end of June. In 1962, Belgium also granted neighboring Rwanda self-government, which it also controlled - thus leading to intense racial conflict between the native Hutu and Tutsis, after an abusive majority came to power.

Back in Congo, however, two provinces didn't like the situation and struggled to secede. In that disorder, a dispute broke out between the President and the Prime Minister. Now, the Prime Minister had previously appointed a man named Mobutu as chief of staff of the new Congo army. By 1965 Mobutu had garnered enough support within the army to take advantage of the leadership crisis and mount a coup against the democratically elected leaders. The President was overthrown and the Prime Minister assassinated. Mobutu renamed the nation Zaire, erected a one-party dictatorship with himself as Head of State and "father of the nation", and was accused of many human rights abuses and corruptions.

Mobutu conducted this military coup against that democracy with the financial backing of the United States (CIA) and Belgium.

As it was, Mobutu was against communism and leftist ideas. He would therefore allow U.S. companies to export the natural resources of Zaire without worrying about environmental, labor, or other regulations. Belgium would also retain mining rights for copper and diamonds.

Now we skip ahead to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The U.S. decides that Mobutu is no longer a necessary ally and relations cool. Without that backing, Mobutu's opponents inside Zaire begin to step up demands for reform. Mobutu conducted a lot of 'fake reforms' supposedly to be democratic, but were more cosmetic than anything else. Finally in 1997 a rebellion forced Mobutu to flee Zaire, which was renamed back to the DR Congo[2].

Since 1994, DR Congo has been waylaid by ethic strife and civil war, with its society virtually collapsed. There was also the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, which has resulted in a massive inflow of refugees. The current president, Joseph Kabila, in 2006 became the first Congolese President to be democratically elected by universal direct suffrage (meaning, everyone can vote regardless of race, gender, etc). I read he's trying to implement reforms to combat the malnutrition crisis but we'll see. Kabila is also working with the World Bank in an effort to improve the economy. But here's at least one point of view on the World Bank (from Wikipedia)...

"Corporatocracy is also used by John Perkins in his 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man to describe a system of governance controlled by "big corporations, international banks, and government" (Perkins / Plume paperback edition, 94). Harking back to the "military-industrial complex," Perkins claims the corporatocracy is manifested in the following cycle: the World Bank issues loans to developing nations to pay for large-scale development projects; contracts are then doled out to a handful of American engineering firms; as a result, these countries become ensnared in a net of interest payments and debts they cannot repay. American corporations benefit through increased profits, and the U.S. government benefits through securing its political clout and control over developing countries with vast natural resources. According to Perkins, the majority of people in those countries do not benefit since a large portion of their country's budget goes toward servicing the national debt instead of improving living conditions.[3]"

If this is correct, then it could be that the Congo is still the pawn of the U.S., in an even more subtle scheme.

I'm also actually a supporter of capitalism (although not completely Laissez-faire). However I'm not sure that being opposed to mega-corporate rule is inconsistent with that. It could be that such notions as the international mega-corporation are actually contrary to real capitalism.

Three interesting thoughts:

1) Much of the current problems in the world we are paying for today can be traced back, not only to the cold war and ww2, but to 18-19th Century European colonialism.

2) Was the cold war really about the evil Soviet empire that wanted to invade the U.S. and make us all wait in line for toilet paper? Or was it more about stoking that fear for the sake of expanding opportunities for U.S. corporations?

3) Could it be that as far back as the economic buildup after WW2 which catapulted us to superpower status, we've been a de facto Corporatocracy and didn't even realize it?

4) How much of what goes on today with U.S. international policy is about stoking fear for the sake of serving the interest of our corporate oligarchy? 100% maybe?

I'm not one to use the propaganda tactic of making unsubstantiated claims, about things I really already believe for certain, in the form of questions. The above reflect real questions I'm actually wondering about.


[1] United Nations World Food Program Interactive Map [link]
[2] Wikipedia article on DR Congo [link] (other connected articles also used)
[3] Wikipedia article on Corporatocracy [link]