Friday, September 28, 2007
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Andrew Sullivan (one of the more intelligent and sensible believers I've stumbled upon during my daily internet-scouring) had some interesting things to say during his online debate with my junior-hero*, Sam Harris. The full text of their back-and-forth has been posted all over the atheist corner of the internet, and I highly recommend you take the time to read it. Here it is:
Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan Debate
As I was making my way through the piece, all doe-eyed with my man-crush on Sam Harris and his elegant prose, I got caught up in a game of "how would I respond to some of these things?" What follows is one example.
"Is this sense of an after-life an illusion? We cannot know for sure. But death isn't an illusion. And when death is nearest, faith emerges most strongly. You can either see this as a reason to pity people of faith - they're too weak to look mortality in the face and deal with it. Or you can see this as part of the wisdom of people of faith: we know what we are, and we have reached a way of dealing with it as humans, full humans, not just arguments without minds and bodies. Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
But I believe this position misses the point. He seems to think atheism only comes into play at the moment before death**. It implies that his understanding amounts to, "atheists think believers aren't brave enough to admit that when you die, you cease."
But... no! That's not what we're saying!
We're not saying, "if you're a brave and smart atheist like me, you can deal with death being the end." In point of fact, we're saying, "It looks very likely that death is the end, so RIGHT NOW and the remainder of our lives until death are the most cherishable, and the most perishable things we have. They ought not be wasted. All opportunity costs must be considered. Spending even an ounce of effort on plans for yourself after death takes at least an equal (and likely larger) amount away from the only life you are guaranteed to have.
That is why it's such an important goal to fight the desire of the eternal***.
* - I know what you're thinking... and the answer of course is Dawkins.
** - maybe because that's the moment that the majority of the believer's life is spent looking forward to?
*** - At least, we should try to fight it on the spiritual plane. I'm all for promoting the desire of the eternal through technological innovation.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
It's time to start 'playing God'.
Any sufficiently radical scientific study engenders passionate outcries from the religious: "We must stop playing God before it's too late!" 'Playing God' to them is inherently bad; my guess is because of its violation of some deadly sin or another. Pride, vanity, hubris. Whatever it is... we can't puff ourselves up and presume to know what we're doing. We can't take God's place. We're violating natural order.
Nevermind that all technology 'violates natural order' once we separate 'the advent of technology' from 'that which occurs naturally'*. By this rationale, every time a monkey picks up a stick to scratch his back, he's playing god. If you don't subscribe to the aforementioned line of reasoning, perhaps you might consider that advancing our technology is simply a byproduct of our intelligent nature?
It wasn't until our technology began yielding godlike capabilities that the religious got squeamish about it all. The displacement between humanity and deity has been reduced to a stone's throw. In some aspects, we've exceeded him. God needed 40 days of rain to wipe out the population of the earth. We could do it in a drastically more populated world with a few 40 megaton blasts... in a few minutes, no less. I'm not proud of that fact, but it's a relevant point to make.
Removing all religious stigma from the term, scientists 'playing god' is no less benign than children 'playing house'. Nobody accuses the child of tempting wrath and parental retribution. If anything, it shows a desire on the child's part to want to grow up, to be as mature as his parents; it is a better endeavor than playing 'bank robbers'.
'Playing God' should be an aspiration of ours, not a warning to us. We, like the children playing house, are practicing and preparing ourselves for a future when we will be in charge. With godlike capabilities, we can practice benevolence on a global scale. We can take responsibility for those who need our care. We can make the world a better place.
We've finally reached the level of scientific maturity that we can start doing something about it.
We're finally ready to start playing god.
* - And my whole point here is that the advent of technology should be thought of as something that occurs naturally.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Two separate concepts popped into my head the other day. New ways to articulate how I feel about a couple key topics in the faith vs. reason debate.
Number 1 -
Faith and Blind Faith (or, faith and Faith, truth and Truth, what have you).
Most of the argumentative types I come across could really benefit from a lesson in linguistic precision. I love the English language for being so flexible and organic, but I hate when those attributes are exploited to supplement the argument being presented. "It takes just as much faith to be an atheist/believe in evolution/fill-in-the-blank." You know what? I'll admit it. That's all true.
That's true because it takes some measure of faith to do or believe anything. It takes faith to believe your calculus teacher; otherwise, you'd be left to reinvent calculus for yourself. It takes faith in spades to fly in a commercial jetliner; there are hundreds of engineers who better have been correct in their calculations when they designed the airplane... and thousands of their predecessors who developed the aviation industry based on the works of Glenn H. Curtiss and the Wright brothers, all of whom had to place a lot of faith into a lot of things to accomplish their achievements.
Faith is not a bad thing, so long as we understand how we're using the work. 'Faith' is another way of saying 'trust'. Trust is based on evidence. Faith in this sense is functionally useful; in fact, it is a sleight to faith to leave it at that... faith is crucial to survival. Faith gives us a means to use all the tools we have not invented ourselves. Scientific advancement would not have gotten us to where we are so quickly if scientists couldn't rely on information outside of their own experience. It is what enables us to stand on the shoulders of giants. Faith is not a bad thing.
Blind faith, however, is a terrible thing. Blind faith removes the verification process something has to endure before you can have faith in it. This is the kind of faith the religious have; the problem is that they mistakenly believe that their faith is the unblind kind. They have been misled into thinking that their faith is supported by evidence when, for example, they see prayer 'work' for the people around them. That is why they cannot distinguish between the faith it takes to be religious and the faith it takes to be rational. That is why they so easily say "it takes just as much faith to be an atheist." The truth is, it takes no blind faith to be an atheist, and the faithful can't tell the difference.
Number 2 -
'Supernatural' is still a useless word.
I figured out another analogy to make my concept of the supernatural more palatable to mystical types. The concept of the supernatural is like thinking of a color called superblack*. It is conceivable to think of a shade of black that's blacker than any shade you've ever seen before. You can imagine what it would be like to see something superblack. But the problem is, true black is defined as the absence of light. To go further than that is by definition immeasurable. Black is simply as black as you can get**. You can think of superblack, but it won't get you anywhere that black can't.
Here's another one. Temperature. The coldest temperature theoretically achievable is absolute zero, which is -273 degrees celsius. It is at this temperature that all molecular activity ceases***. Heat is simply a way to measure the kinetic activity of particles. Absolute zero is literally the absence of heat. But it'd be very easy to imagine extending the temperature scale to -274 degrees. It doesn't matter that in this universe nobody is ever going to measure absolute -1... we can still think of it. But again, it won't get us anywhere.
* - Not to be confused with the glorious summer comedy 'Superbad'.
** - Okay, this is not true in the world of NTSC television, but that doesn't count anyway.
*** - Back off, buddy. I'm not going to discuss zero-point energy if I don't have to.