Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams


So I watched this today:

 

I felt that Richard Dawkins did most of the talking and that the archbishop didn’t really go in depth into his own views nor really explained or pushed any point. He mostly posed questions, clarified what his views are not, and gave very vague diplomatic sounding answers. At least, vague to me, someone who is not familiar with his positions.

In summary, I have to agree with the top comment on the video: Richard Dawkins made some clear points, the archbishop made some vague points, and they both come across as very nice and altogether too civilized and polite people. Sorry, no locking horns or bloodshed at all.

Some ideas that were discussed and my two cents:

The part I liked was the exploration of the idea of the first human, or rather, the lack of a first human. Highlighting the point that there may not be a distinctive point where are new species emerges. Exactly! Taxonomy, the classification of biodiversity, is an arbitary, human-created system. It’s a classification system created by us to allow us to conveniently describe the world we see. The world, more often that not, tends not to fall obediently into the nice distinct categories we draw up, at least not without plenty of exceptions to every rule.

The part about language was interesting too– whether it was a sudden change in those particular genes, something that arose gradually or arose as a side-effect result of some other ability.

I wish they had gone more into the issue of consciousness though, and I wish the archbishop had elaborated more on his view (I assume?) that science may not be able to explain consciousness. Personally, I don’t see a problem with a gradual consciousness arising from brains. It seems completely plausible and even likely to me that the gaining of consciousness and self awareness (and ‘god awareness’?) could have been a gradual evolutionary process as well.

I mean, we can see all sorts of different ‘levels’ of consciousness and self awareness in the living things around us; From plants (completely unconscious, unintelligent and unaware) to simple organisms to insects (are insects conscious?) to birds and mammals like cats and dogs which have discernible personalities even but probably don’t self reflect too much, to elephants, apes and dolphins that are definitely conscious and probably self aware to some extent at least, even if we can’t tell if they ever reflect on the meaning of life or question why they do things.

I also agree with Dawkins that self-awareness would probably be gained way before we would call it human, and I’d add on that I think any ‘god awareness’ would probably come quite a bit after what we would likely call human.

The archbishop wondered about the problem of getting something non-physical (ie consciousness) from something physical, and coincidentally I had recently discussed some similar ideas with a friend. Again, I don’t see a problem, but maybe I’m missing something, making a mistake somewhere.

I don’t see why what we know about how the physical brain relates to non-physical processes doesn’t solve this problem. When certain physical parts of the brain are damaged, there is a resulting damage to memory, or speech. When you stimulate parts of the brain, there is a resulting sensation. Specific chemicals (neurotransmitters) result in certain feelings or emotions. Doesn’t this close the gap between the purely physical and the non-physical?

Then the question of whether computers can have consciousness and free will.

Dawkins imagines if you were able to programme a computer so well that it could behave as though it were conscious well enough to fool people, and while he hesitate to call that consciousness, it seems like he has to committed to that view.

The response to that was that it’s pretty ridiculous to commit to such a view, since computers are mere tools; they can’t even add 2 and 2 or tell the time, they can only do what you tell them to.

I think an answer such a question depends fully on your underlying assumptions about what consciousness is and how it comes about.

If we were really able to, one day, programme a computer to be so human and life-like, like in science fiction (I, Robot? A.I.?) where computers for all purposes appear exactly like they have a unique personality and free will, then how could you say they weren’t conscious? If we were really able to reach that point, you wouldn’t find it so ludicrous an idea. Of course, if you think they couldn’t possibly be conscious, that would also mean you think it’s impossible for computers to ever reach that stage, that it’s impossible for something programmed by humans to cross that line, to truly have consciousness or free will.

Free will is indeed a tricky one; I think most people would disagree about determinism? and Richard Dawkins is understandably hesitant about his position too. But in recent months, I’ve found myself tending very much towards that sort of thinking: everything that we do or feel happens as a result of millions of factors that we have no control over; from my innate personality or temperament to the weather on a particular day affecting my mood to my education and upbringing that affect the way I think and see the world… is there still room for free will?

It seems incredibly counter-intuitive to think that I do not have free will, and yet maybe that’s just due to… reactionary prejudice to the idea? I mean, saying you have no free will… seems to eliminate self (that we cherish so much) altogether: you’re nothing but a robot or simple animal merely reacting to (external) stimulus in accordance to the abilities and tendencies of  your hardware (ie your brain and body).

Yet, even if I did believe that I don’t truly have free will… the ‘no free will’ universe and the ‘free will’ universe would be indistinguishable– I’d have no way of telling because in practice there are so many billions of factors involved that go into causing any emotion or decision-making in me that the illusion of free will would still remain.

The experiment Dawkins mentions about your brain ‘deciding’ to make a decision before ‘you’ do is interesting, but I think it’s difficult to draw any real conclusions from it. Couldn’t it just mean that there is a time lag between when you actually decided and when you’ve realize you’ve decided? or between when you actually decided and when you’ve managed to convey to the experimenters that you’ve decided. On it’s own i don’t think it really shows determinism, or whether souls exist or not. On it’s own it’s just… interesting.

I don’t think investigating only “small scale, short term and uninteresting decisions” is a problem though, as the archbishop thought it was, unless you mean to draw a distinction that in picking up a glass of water you exercise less free will than when deciding whom to marry, which I don’t think is coherent.

I like the idea Dawkins put forward about the human brain going beyond what one would expect for mere survival, that in order to build a brain to survive in a mundane world, it is difficult to build a brain that is not also capable of doing more advance things like mathematics and philosophy. I’m not sure I agree fully because I think all the complicated bits of our brain could have evolved just like the simple bits: because they DID give us an advantage.

What advantage could the tendency to philosophize about metaphysical issues possibly give to animals whose main concern is to find food, shelter and mates? Well, wouldn’t an inquisitive mind capable of seeking explanations have benefited those that did manage to come up with answers that could improve their hunting abilities or survival? And of course there the social aspect: we’ve evolved to live in groups.  Surely that way of living could results in the selection of much more complicated mental states.

Things the archbishop said that I found surprising

1. Immortality is a matter of faith and not something that can be proven by reason. He even seems to discount near death experiences.

2. I’m not sure if I’m understanding what he said in reply to the question “was the universe designed” but this is what I got:

The fact that there is a universe that is intelligible, that hangs together, that has processes that converge to certain ends is part of what he means when he says that god created the universe and that god is an intelligent god.

Involving god in the micromanagement of the processes is problematic because of the moral question, ‘if god can do that (stop suffering), then why doesn’t he do it more often?’

Is that what he’s saying?

3. There is no first human and no adman and eve.

I suppose I haven’t read up much on views that assume parts of the bible as myths or allegory, so I don’t understand it much.

But the inevitable question is: once you give up the claim of the inerrancy of the bible, once you decide some parts aren’t properly true, then how do you decide which parts are and which parts aren’t? If you can give up the story of adman and eve, what’s stopping you from giving up the story of Jesus’ resurrection? Doesn’t the bible give a genealogy all the way from Adam to Noah? Abraham? Jesus? So if Adam isn’t real, how do you know where ‘real’ starts?

… argh, this post is altogether too long. Xp

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Little Shadows


In the silence of the world
Little shadows softly creep
Running, stumbling, tumbling, leap
Without sound, nary a peep

In the madness of the world
Topsy-turvey upside down
Inside out and round and round
Sprinting senseless, no-where-bound

Wherefore art thou?
and who am i?
beauty unfound
apple eye

On your sleeve for all to see
or sneaky, silent, stone wall be
Do you care — do I care you care?
Maybe; maybe not; left (un)shared.

Unreality, realer than real
All you know and all you feel
Contradictions, paradox
Non-existence, there is no box.

Will you please me? no one will?
Just keep swimming; no choice still.
Forever sad, empty, dead.
Hollow chest and vacant head.

Fallen tree, no one’s around
No ears present, still a sound?
Out of sigh, beyond my reach
Feels like: no sound, tone, pitch.

In the stillness of the world
Formless shadows flee and flit
Crying, wailing, screaming, weep
Souless, soundless, endless pit.

Written on 18th Jan 2012

Limbo


this feeling
like floating
only half living
only half there.

you’re sleeping
while waking
and speaking
and laughing
but don’t truly care

going through
the motions
a shell on autopilot
a lifeless puppet on strings
muscle memory,
probably.

just waiting
while floating
and drifting
and dreaming
semi-conscious and unaware.

waiting
and waiting
and waiting
and waiting
for reality
to seep
back
in.

Written 24th January 2012

Double-Edged Sword of Intelligence and Knowledge


One thing that has always bugged me about religion is the fact that many of the religious people I know are highly intelligent (much smarter than me), well read and well educated (more well read than me), really nice and generally very awesome people who seem to have their lives completely figured out. In other words, many of them were people I really admired and looked up to. Why and how did they believe? They’re intelligent, logical people. Plain ignorance or misguided thinking can’t be the reason. It seems much more likely that I’m the one missing something rather than them. What is it that they can see, that they can understand, that I can’t?

For that same reasons, on the flip side it’s comforting to me to read or hear of people– scientist, pastors, friends-who-are-awesome — deconverting; It’s an even stronger ‘case’ this way round: The religious whom I admire have maybe only ever been on that side of the fence. But people who deconvert- especially pastors, for example- would know the religious side really well! It couldn’t be that they are ‘missing something’, because they obviously knew it before. They must know something that those still religious are don’t.

It’s really tempting and intuitive to do that, pointing to authority figures to support your point. But it’s also lazy, and isn’t really proof of anything. It’s basically saying something akin to, “Look, even Albert Einstein thought so; are you so arrogant as to think you’re smart and know better than Albert Einstein?” Er, no, definitely not. But are you suggesting that Albert Einstein is correct about everything just because he’s smarter than you or me?

Just because someone smarter than you thinks so, doesn’t mean you accept his opinion uncritically; Don’t piggy-back on other people’s conclusions, do your own thinking and make your own conclusions.

That’s not to say we discredit or ignore all other conclusions, though. Obviously, we still do have to take other people’s more authoritative, expert views into account, because it’s undeniable that they know more than us. Considering their deeper understanding will undoubtedly give us insight. But don’t equate knowledge or experience with infallibility; They may know more than you, but they are as human, and as fallible, as you and I are.

I keep learning that… being incredibly smart doesn’t really mean anything. Being incredibly smart doesn’t mean you’re always right or always come to the best conclusions. It doesn’t mean you never make logic leaps or fallacies, doesn’t mean you can see all sides of the issue. Being incredibly smart in one way doesn’t mean you’re incredibly smart in all ways.

Similarly, being an incredibly loving and caring person doesn’t really mean anything either; It doesn’t mean you’ll never hurt another person.

People, all people, are only human. They do what they can, they do what they think is right.  No matter how incredibly smart, well-educated, earnest and serious they are, they don’t have any magic answers.

This article, The Ugly Delusions of the Educated Conservative, builds on this idea that knowledge doesn’t always equate to credibility, and brings it a step further: contrary to what we might think, more eduction, more intelligence and more knowledge can actually make it more likely for you to hold inaccurate beliefs.

Why? because the smarter, more well educated and more knowledgable you are, the more confidence you tend to have in your own position. Confidence is fine, but it has a nasty habit of stepping over the line into arrogance, if you’re not careful. And arrogance loathes to admit that it’s wrong, which means, if you were wrong to begin with, you’ll probably stay that way.

Education systems all over the world tend to focus on intelligence of the students, and the knowledge they’re being fed. But intelligence and knowledge are a double-edged sword; They can bring you far, but they can bring you far in any direction.

Perhaps what the emphasis should be on instead is Open-mindedness and Critical Thinking; the ability to listen to consider other positions and to evaluate them. Only then can you be sure that knowledge and intelligence are constantly being checked and put back on track rather than veering off on one mistaken tangent, never to return.

While the article refers specifically to conservative republicans and climate change, I feel that it fits the religious as well, or maybe even more so. Wouldn’t the religious commit this crime more readily, for is that not the foundation of faith? You always operate within the faith, the possibility that your faith may be wrong is not an option. If belief in god is held as the foundation, the unquestionable, infallible truth, then all other knowledge that comes in will be twisted to fit that. As with the Republicans in the article, it’s not the supporting reasons that hold up the belief, it’s the belief that shapes the supporting reasons. And that’s the reverse of what it should be.

That said, the crime of being a ‘smart idiot’ (as the author terms it) is one ANYONE can easily make, once they forget to remember that their own opinions may just be incorrect, once they close their minds to all other positions but their own.

Here’s to helping each other make sure we don’t fall into the trap of being smart idiots.

Branching Trees and Nature Parks


New ATCs! :D First and second experimenting with my newly bought paints and third reverting to my more familiar medium of colour pencils haha. I’m sorry they’re all blue. Maybe I’ll make more in all colours.

Shall accompany these nature-themed ATCs with some nature-themes good news: Coney Island, off Punggol in the north-west, will be home to Singapore’s ninth nature park!

A Nature Park is better (conservation wise) than a regular “Community Park” I suppose, but it’s not a Nature Reserve, so it probably doesn’t receive any proper protection. I’m slightly amused by this line, which is obviously supposed to make the place sound very natural and full of exciting wildlife: “Lush vegetation covers nearly 90 per cent of the island. Wildlife species that have been spotted there include the white-bellied sea eagle, a large bird with a considerable soaring range.” You can spot the white-bellied sea eagle in MacRitchie, no need to go all the way to Coney Island.

Not that it’s not exciting to see the white bellied sea eagle haha. But apparently you can also see “birds of prey such as the native grey-headed fish eagle, and jerdon’s baza, a rare migratory bird.” so that sounds pretty awesome! :)

We have nothing to lose


If my views are wrong, I have nothing to lose in everything to gain in further searching for the truth.

If my views are right, I have nothing to lose and much to gain in further refining, strengthening and deepening my understanding of my views and the reason why people think otherwise.

If your belief is wrong, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain in searching and finding out more.
If your belief is right, you have nothing to lose and much to gain in clarifying the details, confirming your position and understanding why people hold different views.

Perhaps you could say, the devil is a master deceiver; what if one strong in faith starts to question, and ends up deceived? …what’s to convince you you AREN’T being deceived right now?

Don’t assume what you think or know is necessarily the truth. Don’t be afraid to discard old ideas if new (and valid) information becomes available. Be open and always searching. What do you have to lose?

All easier said than done, so don’t stop trying.

Ode to Suicide


Write in prose, and people worry.
Write a poem, it’s merely expression.
So I’ll write in prose-thinly-disguised-as-poetry
Give it some rhythm, give it some form.
It’s the best I can do.

Here is a blade,
a bottle of poison,
a gun.

Well-
since I have neither poison nor gun
I guess the blade is my weapon of choice.

A gun is too loud,
too sudden, too quick.
And also too messy and gory.
Out of control, angry and wild.

Poison is too subtle,
too hidden, too covert.
It makes me think of my bout with food poisoning:
A piercing pain
On the inside beyond reach,
Beyond control and ambushing;

A blade is neither of those.
A blade is silent;
the sounds of slicing
only in your mind.
With a blade you have control
Of a sharp, scraping, surface pain;
The kind I like.
A blade offers the luxury of time
in the way it takes:
Seeping, draining
leaking, fading.
Gradual

And yet
all these pain are but a mere cover up for another
the kind that eats you alive from the inside
and takes your life even if you don’t.

Written on the 3rd of December 2011

Passive No More; Ex-Agnostic Says Thank You


My personality is as middle of the road, non-confrontational compromiser and peacmaker as you can find.

Religion wasn’t something I thought about seriously or often, but related ideas inevitably would float about in my mind sometimes. I considered myself an agnostic in every sense of the word, and even took mild offence at atheist who derided the position as invalid or a cop-out.

Wikipedia says, “In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves there is a God, whereas an atheist disbelieves there is a God. In the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grouns to justify knowledge whether God exists or does not.” and I embodied both definitions:

I didn’t really believe in any god, but it also seemed to be a possibility I couldn’t rule out for certain. The idea of a god had intrinsic appeal, although even when the possibility occasionally did flit across my mind, it was more often a deistic god than a theistic one.

More precisely though, I also believed that given what we are (humans) with our limited (human) abilities, we can’t know or be sure about a higher power that exists beyond our world. And if we cannot know about it, then it can’t matter what we think about it.

To elaborate: We seem to gain knowledge in two main ways, namely through the senses observing the physical world, and through pure abstract thought, reasoning things out. No one today would say God, heaven or hell is physical in a way that we could find them and prove them through science. Neither can we arrive at the conclusion of God by reasoning or thought experiments the way we can reason about logic or maths. God seems to inhabit some separate spiritual realm which doesn’t intersect with our world. If we can’t access it, how can we know it? if we can’t know it, what can it matter what we think of it?

Frankly, I was terrified of the topic of religion, because it is such a sensitive topic and there are always strong opinions on all sides and I am a person who instinctively tries to avoid conflict at all cost. I also hated getting into discussions or even listening to ‘the other side’ of the issue because I felt I didn’t know enough; If my knowledge on a topic is patchy, of course I shouldn’t say too much. If i enter the discussion and can’t think of an answer, it would seem like I ‘lost’, when it could in fact just be due to my lacking knowledge. If I listen to an argument from an expert on the other side, I’m sure to be swayed by his arguments, he’s an expert! I’m defenceless against him!

Well, now I DO think that’s a cop-out. It’s okay to be unsure; in fact, given the myriad of opinions out there and how much people love complicating life, it seems only reasonable to be unsure. But what is not okay is being unsure because you refuse to even look. If you’re unsure, examine why you’re unsure. Is there anyway you can perhaps make yourself a little less unsure? It’s okay to be unsure; it’s not okay to be unsure AND sitting happily on your bum, content to use ignorance as a excuse forever.

I was an agnostic, leaning maybe towards deism, haven’t really ruled out theism for sure, but also sympathizing sometimes with atheism, which appealed to my cynical and science/logic side. But a religion, if true, shouldn’t be in conflict with science, for science is merely the observation of the physical world, so that shouldn’t be a true barrier. And so, a true agnostic at heart, I went in with as open a mind and heart as I could manage: I honestly know that there’s so much I don’t know such that I can’t conclude anything for sure. I admit I don’t have the answers, and you say you do, so I’m all the more willing to listen, willing to understand, willing to try. Above all, I crave understanding. Understanding of how this can work, of how it can make sense.

Now? I think atheism is the most coherent position. I think I’ve been forced to explore and examine why I think what, and it has only cleared and focussed my world view into something more sharp and concrete. So for that, I thank you.

Is it ironic that you said the one thing you wanted was for me to know Christ, and you did the one thing you thought was necessary (a sign from god himself) to achieve that, and all that has brought me from my very neutral position to a more extreme and antagonistic one? To the point that I now find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with positions like that of Richard Dawkins, when previously I found him too confrontational, too extreme?

Ironic maybe, unexpected maybe not. That’s an overwhelmingly common theme in de-conversions: it all started with wanting to get closer to god or serving god more, and then the harder they searched, the harder they prayed, the more they cried out to god and the more furiously they believed… the more they found their faith crumbling around them.

I said it before: there was no gaping holes in my world view then, no searing cosmic questions that I needed answering. There’s even less uncertainty now. This doesn’t mean I’ve closed the doors or refuse to listen to or hear what people who believe have to say. On the contrary, I’d really really like to hear from them, because if there’s one thing for which I still crave for understanding, it’s how their world view makes sense to them.

But I’m not going to do so at the expense of my own beliefs anymore.

Your world view is an interconnected web of ideas and beliefs. They need to fit together like a jigsaw. It’s a framework in which you place your experiences of the world, the lens through which everything is viewed. If EVERYTHING I encounter can be understood from within this framework, it makes no sense to add a component that clashes with existing components and that raises more questions than it answers.

It’s all in your mind


The world keeps flip-flopping.
From complete certainty to completely lost,
yet the world hasn’t changed.

The world keeps flip-flopping.
From brightness to darkness, from love to hate,
and yet the world hasn’t changed.

The world keeps flop-flipping.
From being crystal clear, to murky black,
from all pieces in place to a jumble of parts.
and yet the world hasn’t changed.

The world hardly changes,
yet its only constant is change.
The world is vast, and possibilities endless
yet we hold the entire world in our heads.

The only truth lies in paradoxes
The truth will set you free;
yet you know it and you don’t
So freedom is yours as well as just beyond reach.