Julia Sweeney: Letting go of God


Amazing performance! Hilarious and heartfelt, entertaining and thought-provoking. :)
Super expressive, she tells her story so well. Great watch.

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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

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.

Apple butter on a biscuit


This video deserves more love.

Lack of a god doesn’t take away meaning, humility, love, appreciation, morality, understanding, security, selflessness or anything else from life. Without God, you can still love life, make sense of it, be humbled by your place in the universe, appreciate and accept the mysteries and unknowns in life, be at peace, find purpose and meaning, do the right things. In fact, I tend to think life is more meaningful, the world is more beautiful and awe-inspiring without the idea of a god being behind it.

Religion ‘works’ and religion continues to exists because different aspects of religion fulfill a myriad purposes, the biggest of which is to provide an answer to the meaning of life, and it does it quite well. But I don’t believe that religion alone can fulfill these purposes. I think every ideal and concept in religion and why people find religion comforting and fulfilling can be translated into non-religious terms.

Mere Christianity and Morality


I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Chrsitianity and shall post some of my responses here. You may read or listen to Mere Christinaity here.

Summary of Chapter One: The law of human nature

1. There is a universal standard of Right and Wrong that men expect other men to know, that is obvious to everyone and did not need to be taught.
2. This moral law is the only law people are free to disobey.
3. Moral standards across cultures are more similar than they are different; details differ, but the main thread stays the same. Trying to imagine a totally different morality would be as impossible as imagining a culture in which 2+2=5.
4. Even people who claim that there is no Right or Wrong will claim that something is not right when an injustice is done to them, contradicting themselves.
5. People may make mistakes just as they may get their sums wrong, but morality itself is objective. In fact, everyone breaks the moral law, and our reaction to breaking it, namely being anxious to make excuses and shift the blame away from ourselves, further shows how much we truly believe in it.

C.S. Lewis’ argument at the core is that people will find in themselves an objective moral law, and where would such a law come from if not from God? Francis Collins also uses Moral Law as something (the main thing?) that points towards the existence of a supernatural moral law-giver in his book, The Language of God. Some articles expounding similar ideas here and here.

In general, it’s a very compelling argument because I think it’s a very intuitive feeling for people to want to believe in an objective Right and Wrong. Before I started thinking about this, I thought objective morality had to be right. Subscribing to relative and subjective morality just seemed like a really bad idea that would lead down a slippery slope towards immorality. It also just felt ridiculous, against conventional, rational thought and counter intuitive. And yet, when I read Collins’ and Lewis’ arguments, I felt less than convinced. And the more I read and think about it, the less convincing they become.

Then I watched this three part video series on youtube. It’s not flawless, but it’s very good. All arguments for a Moral Law sounded weaker than ever after that, and I was no longer so wary to let go of the concept of absolute morality. (Although I have yet to redefine and clarify my concepts. Future entry, maybe?)

I think that the explanation of morality given in the videos can be used to counter all of the points proponents of the moral law argument make.