Category Archives: PHILOSOPHY

Capital punishment and gun control.

The Supreme Court has handed down a couple of very important decisions recently regarding crime and punishment:

This one’s easy for me to comment on: _Liberal delusion of gun control._

The other ruling is just as heated of an issue (I suppose if it weren’t it wouldn’t have reached the Supreme Court,)

…despite the Supreme Court ruling that:

“the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child,” despite the horrendous nature of the crime

Whooboy, what a charged, emotional subject–and that’s the crux of the problem regarding why we have the death penalty: emotion.

Based on emotion alone I would advocate the inhuman Clive Barker-esque torture of a child rapist and I’d sleep well at night. But can we run a civil, democratic, progressive society on emotional appeal?

Imagine what society would be like if we all acted based on emotion. The most positive among us would like to believe we’d all get along a lot better, love and flowers for all. But what about those days when you are in your worst moods. What about your co-workers? What if they all acted upon their emotions? Imagine the most incompetent and vile politician in office right now: would you want them to be able to make and enforce policies based on emotion only? What if the police arrested and treated the accused emotionally?

Well, we do know how that goes. YouTube and those captured video shows on TV have countless examples of police who abuse and mistreat and beat people in fits of emotion. Our administration is using torture we condemn and try other countries for, because we have an emotional desire to cause pain to our enemies. Because we’re human we have an awesome capacity for a huge gamut of emotion from one extreme to another–but to create legal policy and have the state act to appeals of emotion makes for an unbalanced, non-impartial, schizoid society.

What legalized and mandated acts of emotion you think are justified on others can be turned right around and have enacted upon you, in ways you think might be irrational or unfair but is justified by someone. The law has to be unemotional to be fair and objective and impartial.

It’s an established fact that the death penalty does not dissuade crime one bit. But is can dissuade people from turning in alleged criminals! As implied by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, “a nonprofit victim advocacy group representing 80 rape crisis centers,” where they made the statement:

“Most child sexual abuse victims are abused by a family member or close family friend,” the group said in a statement. “The reality is that child victims and their families don’t want to be responsible for sending a grandparent, cousin or long time family friend to death row.”

Such a situation could make people related to or close to a perpetrator hesitant about turning them in, knowing they may be get the death penalty.

Take a look at these lists of nations which have abolished the death penalty, stopped performing them, and still do perform them:

With the exception of two other modern nations, Japan and South Korea, the United States is in the company of some of the most abusive, primitive, religiously fundamental nations like Syria, Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan, Singapore, in our continued use of the death penalty. All other modern, civilized, progressive nations have outlawed its use–some as much as a century ago. Even Russia stopped executing people. We think about how modern we are, with our cell phones and air conditioning and we automatically equate everything else that we do as an extension of that modernity, including the practice of execution. We forget that it’s a barbaric and primitive form of state vengeance that has no place in a society that is supposed to promote human rights and dignity and is supposed to be a bright shining example for the world of humanity and compassion.

Emotional is wonderful and vital for being human, making and appreciating art, relationships, exploring being alive. But emotion, including hate and vengence, has no place in a democratic republic that is supposed to serve and protect all of its citizens fairly.

The meaning of life.

Search of meaningI recently listened to a recording of a debate between theologian William Lane Craig and scholar Keith Parsons* titled “Why I Am / Am Not a Christian.” It was held in 1998 and can be downloaded here:

♦ Craig/Parsons Debate on Why I Am / Am Not a Christian

Much of it involves the supposed proof of “the empty tomb” (see yesterday’s post on refutation of Craig’s usual arguments: Refutation of the “facts” of the Resurrection..) The topic of nihilism and purposeless/purposeful life with/without God also was discussed. And about 23 minutes into the second part Parsons expresses how vital it is to live life to the fullest, to eke meaning out of every day you have to live. But then Craig tries to refute this stance by questioning “who are you living for”? To what are you responsible to? He believes that without God to be answerable to, life is meaningless and absurd and you might as well live in hedonism and nilistic wantoness and any attempt to live for little meanings is pointless because there’s no objective meaning.

But then the real punchline comes when he says, prompted by a comment from the audience, that without God, “…it doesn’t really matter how you live because your destiny is unrelated to your behavior. The good man ends up no different than the evil man. … In the absence of God, morality becomes in a sense fictitious–it becomes pointless. There isn’t any value in life because it doesn’t change anything, how you live. We all end up the same.”

Parsons replies that indeed because we do all die and that’s the end, then each life becomes utterly significant. Just because Albert Schweitzer and Hitler are both dead doesn’t mean that their lives didn’t have incredible significance. Our finite existence means you must get your joy as you can from each moment. (Unfortunately his response ends with a sentiment that sounds like a promotion of selfish hedonism, but that wasn’t his point nor intent.)

What gets me about Craig and others who share his belief in life being meaningless without God to answer to, is it’s a very childish, immature outlook on life. Note his comment: “[from an atheistic view] it doesn’t really matter how you live because your destiny is unrelated to your behavior…. There isn’t any value in life because it doesn’t change anything, how you live.” His entire focus is on some unknowable afterlife. Some cosmic judging of his life providing reward or punishment. Carrot and stick. You do good because Daddy tells you to else you get a whoopin’. That’s the Christian (or any dogmatic religious) understanding of morality, life’s value. Sure, you’re told to be good to your neighbor, love, forgive, etc. But ultimately, why? So you get rewarded by Sky Daddy and not punished for eternity, that’s why! That’s it. That’s life’s meaning to these people. Earn reward, avoid punishment. (And they say atheists are selfish.)

Granted, an atheist CAN be nihilistic and believe in nothing and thus behave without concern about harming others. But, if history has shown us anything, it’s that a belief in a religion by no means guarantees moral behavior! If a person truly lived according to God’s Holy Word as contained in the Bible, they would commit all kinds of horrible acts we consider terribly immoral today: slavery, lying, murder, child selling, hate, racism, prejudice, all in the name of God, and advocated and condoned by God. Even when people cherry-pick what they want to follow and believe in, in the Bible, there are some who live immorally (by contemporary Western standards) due to the belief that the ends justify the means–when the ends is their interpretation of “God’s Will.” From the person who kills doctors who perform abortions, to those who lie and deceive in order to Spread the Word of Salvation, religion and belief in God doesn’t make the faithful any more moral than a lack of belief in a God makes a person a hedonistic nihilist.

Craig’s profession that value comes from believing in God falls apart when you examine the question it raises: Which god? You could probably grab a few moderate Christians, moderate Muslims, moderate Buddhists, moderate Janeists, moderate Wiccans, and moderate atheists, and find very little to no difference in the way they live their lives. You’ll probably find each one holds the same values: loyalty, honesty, promotion of happiness and avoidance of harm to self and others, supporting family and friends…. Why? Why do most people all over the world regardless of religion and culture share many of the same core beliefs and find the same value in life regardless of what God (or non-god) they believe in? Doesn’t that throw a wrench in the argument that a person must have “Jesus in their heart” to have meaning and value in their life?!

From the atheist point of view, there’s a couple of reasons why most humans share much of the same concepts of morality and value. The first is evolutionary. We have evolved to be altruistic and cooperative because it benefits the species in general, and our selves and our kin and offspring directly. A lot of research has been done on this topic, including observation of what we would call higher order moral, altruistic behavior in other primates. As a species we learned long ago that cooperation is more advantageous to our own survival (the self, our offspring, or species) than solitary competition and perdition. This outlook is extrapolated to our contemporary situation: How long do you think you’ll have freedom to act if you lived completely selfishly and hedonisticaly? Prison, banishment from society, early death is the usual result of nihilistic behavior. Taking a completely selfish look at the issue, you’re better off if you follow the morés of society and value life and avoid harming others.

That’s the basic biological explanation. But while we are animals ruled by general evolutionary biology, that’s not all we are! We do have sentience and individual consciousness and so we are each capable of creating value and meaning in our lives beyond our drives and subconscious programming…and thank goodness! because that same evolutionary biology also has programmed us to be xenophobic and tribal–qualities that are also extolled, promoted, and rewarded by religious dogma. Fear the unknown, value your tribe and destroy those different from you or not part of your tribe, follow tradition and authority. Fortunately the modern moderate religious person tends to eschew, in some ways, these beliefs because they live in a world where tribalism is difficult and empathy with people outside your tribe is encouraged. Mass communication, the threat of destruction by war the likes of which unimaginable by evolutionary biology, have allowed people to start seeing the world as one tribe. Some people, however moderate in their dogma, still see others unlike them with suspicion and/or condescension; but fortunately many people understand the value of all humans in a way that was not seen even 50 years ago, much less 500 years ago, and almost not at all 2000 years ago.

It’s certainly not because of any religious belief, at least none based on any ancient documents! It’s because humans understand humanity. People are by and large empathic to the pain and suffering of other humans, and share the joy of others. We understand that the more we reduce harm to others and expand happiness, the better of a world we have for ourselves and our descendants. There is inherent value in reducing harm and increasing happiness that transcends any religious belief (which tend to limit happiness to only yourself or your tribe and promotes harm to all others). yeah, I may die tomorrow or in 50 years and whatever I do doesn’t change the fact that when my mind ends I “experience” the same non-existence. But while I’m alive, I find contentment and happiness in knowing that maybe I can make the world a better place for my daughter and her children and for humanity in general.

No, I doubt I’ll do anything great or grand. Won’t cure a disease, or solve hunger. But that does raise another question: Most Nobel Prize winners are atheists and agnostics. Why do they feel compelled to aid humanity and the conditions of the world if they’re godless and not guided by any Jesus In Their Heart (or Mohammed or Krishna or Fairy Spirits or whatever)? Because that’s how people define value in their life. I might not win any awards for humanitarianism, but I find value in what little improvement I can make in my own way. I find value in learning as much about reality as I can, and helping others to see the wonder and awe in the natural world. If I cause harm to another, it pains me. When I see joy in another, it elevates my own heart. I don’t need a supernatural Sky Daddy to threaten me with eternal damnation or tease me with everlasting life to know I can make a difference to people around me, and that difference can be positive or negative. Besides, Sky Daddy’s idea of value involves the suppression of reason, free will, intellect, and promotes mindless slavery to childish concepts of fear and black-and-white morality.

I prefer a more thoughtful, honest, free-will, honestly given/acquired sense of value and purpose in life.

* Oddly, I couldn’t find an online bio of Parsons. So, I’ve linked to some of his books

Chemically altered trust, and divine responsibility.

A really interesting, a little scary, story on io9 today:

♦ The “Trust Me” Drug That Makes You Take Social Risks

Basically, there’s a drug available which can alter the way the brain perceives people and can chemically make you more trusting and willing to behave on that trust.

Lee Randolph on Debunking Christianity discusses this and the entire concept of the brain having physiological areas which affect behavior, and discusses the religious implications in the context of divine reward and punishment:

♦ Brain’s ‘Trust Machinery’ Identified

Moral naturalism.

Last month I commented on a conversation over at NewSojourn, “Where Does ‘Ought’ Come From?“, where he commits the fallacy of the false dilemma by saying that you either believe morality, ethics, “proper” civil behavior is dictated by a (the Christian) god, or else there is no such thing and any claim to believe in ethics and morality if you’re not religious (Christian) is a lie. Or his word, “hogwash.”

Well of course, as an atheist and a naturalist (no, NOT nudist!) I’m also a secular humanist, so I take great offense at the idea that you have to be either a religious believer (Christian specifically) or a nihilist. There is something in between that is perfectly complimentary to the idea that morality exists (because it does) without the need for any god (because there aren’t (–even so, why specifically Yahweh and not one of the other 2400 gods?)

But better than any response I’ve given, I just listened to the latest Point of Inquiry podcast with an interview with naturalism philosopher and Vice President for Research and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry:

♦ John Shook – Naturalism and the Scientific Outlook

It’s not a very long episode, only 25 minutes, and I think the way he discuses the argument for naturalism as a philosophy and a worldview is pretty much the final word in my book. He also discusses the role of science in society and the way science is not a study of scientists (which is what creationists and anti-scientists want to make it out to be), but an examination purely of nature and the evidence from the examination of nature regardless of the people involved.

Here are some nice bits:

Naturalism is a worldview, a philosophy of you like, that understand reality through experience, reason and science. And I break it down into these three more simpler elements but it’s necessary to understand: they work together. …

You cannot have naturalism without science. But, we have to understand, science itself is based upon our experience of the world, and, reasoning about the world. We draw inferences, we test hypotheses, we draw tentative conclusions about what reality is like. Sometimes, opponents of naturalism, love to appeal to experience independently of science, or to reason (let’s say some rational arguments for the existence of god), again–completely unhinged from science. …

The diversity of human experience is incredible! Of course religious experience is part of this. What naturalism simply demands is that… experience is not enough. Experience has to be tested by rational standards of coherence and common sense, and also it has to be consistent with science. …

Strictly speaking, science itself as a list of cutting-edge theories, that are best tested by experiments, you can’t directly infer moral conclusions about how human beings ought to live. You can’t read them off…. You can’t detect values with a microscope. There have been some objectionable philosophies that have attempted this. For example Social Darwinism once proliferated: ‘Rich people ought to survive because obviously they’re more fit,’ this sort of bogus, junk science really is a logical dead end. … Humorously, this junk science, this propaganda of Social Darwinism, was actually playing a card played by theologians played by time immemorial. ‘If it’s natural, it’s right.’ This presumption being by theologians: God set up nature so God must have deemed it right. That principle just have to be thrown out as completely illogical and unsupportable, so scientists shouldn’t do it either.

What I would suggest is that instead we remind ourselves that as naturalists we rely on experience, reason, and science–it’s the unity of the three of them that really allows naturalism to tell us real information about how human beings ought to live. Especially the experience. Sometimes naturalists think by discarding supernaturalism they have to completely discard the religious cultural heritages of humanity too. And we don’t have to do that. What we can do is we can distinguish between what doesn’t work anymore in religion and what still may work. For example: moral wisdom, about how human beings ought to live. Now of course it’s couched too often in mythological language… and it is horribly outmoded.

So, naturalism would recommend, not that we start from scratch, some blank slate, some a priori principles of pure reason to deduce how we ought to live; instead what we ought to do is we ought to critically examine and test this cumulative body of moral wisdom that comes from the world’s cultures. After all, there’s sort of an evolutionary wisdom here. Most of these cultures have lasted for hundreds if not thousands of years, human beings have to a certain extent, successfully flourished, why discard this body of wisdom? So a naturalist would say: ‘We could build a new non-religious, secular culture–not in some a priori fashion or by consulting intuitions or anything like that, but simply by taking from the best of the other world cultures. …

And from there they discuss value of life, the meaning of life, and cosmic ego versus personal ego and what may be in between when defining meaning and passing values on.
It’s a good listen!

Life in the future! An ode to reason.

Welcome to the 21st century!

♦ Girl, 6, thrown on fire for being ‘lowest class’

If anyone denies that the earth is composed of literally two different worlds, they’re living a completely sheltered life in theirs. Here in the year 2008, we have machines that can literally detect thought before you have the thought, we can map the genome and know what each gene is for, we’re perhaps just years before we can use nanobots to treat cancer, we have telescopes which can see the remnants of post-Big bang radiation.

And we still have places where women are forced to cover their bodies lest they offend men and Allah’s sensibilities, where people are relegated to class divisions based on levels of reincarnation, where virgins are raped because it’s against the Koran to kill a virgin if they fall in love with a non-Muslim, where priests discourage condom use in AIDS and famine plagued places because it’s against God’s will, and let’s also include just plain stupid and ridiculous ideas of war in this contradiction, whether religious or not.

Continue reading Life in the future! An ode to reason.

Big Bad Things CAN happen; we have the ability to change things.

I learned in a theory class last year that people have a tendency to think that the way things are are the way things have always been and always will be. Before the Enlightenment, people had a good reason to believe this. For centuries of feudalism everyone followed the feudal ideology living lives defined by birth, and going to war only when the royalty or pope needed them to for the purpose of the Crown or the Church.

Until the Scottish rebellion marked the beginning of a zeitgeist that would not really be sensed until the French Revolution. Once that happened, the Western world realized the world can be changed. The Way Things Have Always Been need not be! People have an ability to literally change ideology, alter classes, abolish rulership within a generation, that would have been considered literally impossible only decades earlier.

Continue reading Big Bad Things CAN happen; we have the ability to change things.

I am an atheist.

Scarlet AMy being an atheist may not be surprising to some, but stating it is unusual. I’ve stated many times on here, and in person, that I’m a “non-theist.” Which is really just a weaselly way of saying “atheist.” (Although, it began as a all-inclusive way of saying “Deist,” then “agnostic”….) I still don’t plan on generally going around calling myself an atheist, as I still believe it’s a silly term to use to describe one’s self, like using a word for not collecting stamps or not believing in mermaids and saying I’m that word. I still prefer the term “secular humanist,” as it’s a positive affirmation of what I do believe in.

(The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles)

So, why am I making an affirmative stance, coming “out,” so to speak, at this time? (The OUT Campaign) First, what brought me to this moment, then the implications.

Atheism has been constantly attacked by Christians, to the point that Gallup polls indicate an atheist is the last person someone would vote for as president, even if otherwise completely qualified for the job. I went to a Promise Keeper’s rally a few years ago, and along with gays and feminists, atheists were constantly being reviled as the evilist of the evils and must be eliminated. Literally. They call for a jihad war on atheism (and feminism and homosexuality).Then yesterday I saw this article on BoingBoing:

♦ Ill. Rep. Monique Davis: it’s dangerous for children to know atheists exist, orders atheist to stop testifying

About an Illinois congresswoman who decried an atheist activist objecting to the state giving $1 million to a Baptist church (granted, as a historical building, however). She angrily accused the man of working to destroy the foundation of the state and country, of hypocrisy, and demanded he leave the court because of his “philosophy”, which she stated was harmful for children–who should be protected from ever even hearing about atheism.
Ronald Lindsy, director of the Council for Secular Humanism’s First Amendment Task Force, has replied:
“She is unfit to serve in her office, just as a representative who told a Jew or a Hindu to ‘get out of that seat’ would be unfit to serve. If she does not resign, the Illinois House has an obligation to expel her.”

Remember when George Bush Sr. said: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.“? He should tell that to the hundreds of atheists fighting in his son’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
Atheists in Foxholes
I think these organizations have something different to say.

Continue reading I am an atheist.

Philosophical validation to old arguments.

This is not a pipe.Quite some time ago a former friend and I engaged in some rousing debates about God, absolutism, relativism, morality, etc. He was an educated Christian apologist, well read and versed in apologetics and Christian philosophy, and I at the time was educated in pretty much nothing. Well, except I had been a semi-well read Christian for many years before becoming, at that time, a Deist.

Anyway, some of our comment/discussions can be found here:
♦ Atheism and Christianity share in moral relativism.
But more directly addressed here, and with one of the many comment-conversation/debates:
♦ Absolutely Relative (the theme continues)

In these discussions, I would argue that when it comes to morality and concepts of “reality,” it’s all relative to a greater or lesser degree. Mark’s response is that’s a self-defeating belief to “make an absolute statement that there no absolutes.” His constant metaphor was that it was like sawing off the limb you’re sitting on.
If you read the discussions (and why would you? They’re banal, often redundant, and often just inane,) you’ll see that I try very hard to make him realize the problem is in semantics and facts vs. reality.

Since these discussions I’ve been going to grad school, earning my Master’s in English. Never in all my undergrad education had I studied any philosophers, no cultural critics. Not even the big ones like Hegel or Nietzsche much less the more recent ones like Derrida or Adorno. But I’ve been doing a LOT of it in the last year and a half now.

Image my pleased surprise when in my Cultural Studies class this last week, we discussed Adorno and Barthes and Frederic Jameson, and their ideas on the differences between facts and reality, and especially the issues of language and semantics (and semiotics) when dealing with reality. In fact, we even discussed directly the entire concept of “everything is relative, there are no absolutes” when dealing with reality which is different from facts, and all of it made problematic because of issues in language which is itself a signifier for ideology! Man, it was a heady discussion, but really thrilled me that some of the arguments I was trying to make a couple of years ago, had been thoroughly approached with similar conclusions as I had come up with, by people much more thoughtful and intelligent than I!
Which proves to me not that I’m that intelligent and thoughtful, but that these conclusions are just that obvious and reasonable. 🙂

Some of the gritty bits: Jacques Lacan came to the conclusion that the realities we accept are formed not by biological imperatives, but by language. Language forms our reality, more specifically, the signs that are created by our culture, of which language is one of. A sign being the system of the signified and its signifier.
For example: The swastika is a signifier. But of what? You will get five completely different answers depending on if you ask a Nazi, a Jewish American, a Hindu, a southwestern native American, or a Buddhist Korean. The signifier, the swastika, has no inherent meaning, no absolute meaning. It has whatever meaning we attach to it, and then that sign forms part of our reality.

That makes sense when you’re dealing with something “small” like a single symbol: a logo, restroom signs, a word (poison in English and poison in German have very different meanings). But it’s harder to grasp when you extrapolate that out into more esoteric, cultural concepts–but it’s no less true. Concepts of love, generosity, loyalty, honor, faith, have whatever meanings the culture ascribes to them. The culture, according to Adorno, Marx, etc., is the result of ideology promoted by the ruling class.

In any case, the “reality” we all accept personally and culturally is quite different from facts. Things like 2+2=4, and aluminum boils at X temperature. Although the meaning of the number 4 and the word “aluminum” are imbued with cultural significance and is subject to relative reality, the facts they are intended to convey are universal absolutes.

To make a statement like “there are no absolutes” is exempt from it’s seeming paradox because the linguistics of the statement and the reality its reflecting on exist on two different layers of apprehension.