Monday, June 23, 2014

A Thought on Proselytizers Who Threaten Damnation

One who comes to the Christian religion—or any system of religious belief—not out of reverence for the word of god as recorded in scripture, earnest desire to enter the Christian community, sincere devotion and unreserved submission to the god of the bible, and wholehearted belief in Jesus’ substitutionary atonement but, rather, out of naked, craven fear of consignment to the lake of fire is not properly Christian at all but is, in fact, the embodiment of pusillanimity…an individual whose abject cowardice and fraudulent piety serve to insult—not exalt—his or her “newly found” faith.

It makes one wonder why so much evangelism is done at the point of a metaphorical sword.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Argument from Temporal Relationships, as Applied to a Timeless Causative Actor

Following a very long period of inactivity, I here present an argument that, I believe, demonstrates the untenability of the notion that a causative actor—such as, for example, a creator deity—can be timeless while still being causative.


To start, I will define two key terms:

"Bound by time" is defined as follows: "in the case of two or more things, when each one has a temporal location relative to the other(s)."

"A timeless being" is defined as follows: "a being that does not have a temporal location relative to anything."


Now, the argument:

Premise 1: Any two things [X] and [Y] that have a temporal relationship are bound by time.
Premise 2: "Cause" and "effect" have a temporal relationship.
Conclusion 1: "Cause" and "effect" are bound by time.

Premise 3: A timeless being is not bound by time.
Conclusion 2: A timeless being is neither "cause" nor "effect."


If this argument is, as I believe, sound, then a creator (causative) deity that is ostensibly a timeless being is, in fact, a non-existing manifestation of absurd reasoning.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

The Myth of Morality

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)



One of the more irksome tendencies of Christians, and of theists broadly, is to pretend that atheists are a monolithic group whose views, in all meaningful ways, are uniform and identical; this thinking is, of course, mistaken, as a great deal of theistic thinking must be insofar as theists cling to an evidentially untenable belief in god and, thus, subscribe to a worldview whose centerpiece seems to be fictive. Atheism comes in many flavors and varieties, one of which is the deep humanism of Carl Sagan, who writes, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” Such a point of view could scarcely be more different from that of the nihilist, as which I identify myself. More specifically, I am persuaded of the truth of both moral nihilism and existential nihilism, the former referring to the view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral and the latter referencing the belief that life (human and non-human alike) has no intrinsic meaning or value.

Insofar as human beings are moral creatures—by which I strictly mean creatures who are imbued with a moral sense and an inclination to make moral judgments—the point of view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral…righteous or wicked…virtuous or contemptible…tends not only to strike most people as counterintuitive but, indeed, to appall them. “Surely,” they will exclaim, “there must be something that you can describe as objectively, categorically immoral,” and then will proceed to list any number of perceived horrors: rape, butchery, torture, slavery, genocide, etc. Some who disagree will even imply that if my worldview does not permit a categorical condemnation of, say, the torture of children, then that is evidence that my worldview is wrong since, they say, no veracious worldview could entail so “odious” a consequence as moral nihilism. Such individuals, of course, have fallen into arguing from adverse consequences, a logical fallacy; the truth-value of some factual proposition [X] is not determined by the desirableness of any consequence [Y] resulting from factual proposition [X] being true.

So, one might ask, what is my worldview anyway? In accordance with what worldview have I been persuaded of the truth of both moral nihilism and existential nihilism, despite the perceived monstrousness of both? The principal viewpoint to which I subscribe is evidentialism, roughly stated this way: “The confidence with which one can believe any proposition that aspires to be a statement of truth is directly proportional to the amount, strength and conclusiveness of the evidence adduced to substantiate the proposition.” I am only an atheist because my view of moral and existential nihilism entails atheism, and I am only a moral and existential nihilist because my evidentialist First Principle makes it impossible—based on current evidence—to believe in intrinsic morality, meaning or value; as such, evidentialism as an axiomatic First Principle is primary, with all derived views (nihilism, atheism, etc.) subordinate thereto. If one wanted to try to convince me that the torture of children was categorically morally proscribed, one would have to adduce evidence to substantiate that proposition.

What tends to addle the thinking of generally rational people when it comes to morality is the ease with which they shift from factual observations about what is to value judgments about what ought. Let’s continue with the torture of children as our example, starting from a moral assertion (meant as a categorical statement of fact) made by a hypothetical interlocutor: “Torturing children is immoral.” As an evidentialist, I would begin by asking, “Why is it immoral?” I can imagine a number of possible “evidences” this individual might offer, but I think a perfectly plausible one to expect would be, “Because torturing children causes them excruciating pain and agony for no reason.” So, I would ask, “Why is it immoral to cause them excruciating pain and agony for no reason?” My hypothetical interlocutor, to this point, has failed to elucidate the connection between behavior [X] (torture of children) entailing consequence [Y] (pain and agony) and behavior [X] somehow being “immoral.”

This conversation could go on in perpetuity because at the heart of the claim that behavior [X] is immoral is a slide to a value judgment. The reason this individual claims torturing children is immoral is that he or she holds to the foundational moral belief (assumption, that is) that causing excruciating pain and agony for no reason is wrong (that one ought not to do it). In essence, that foundational moral assumption, to that individual’s mind, could be called a “moral fact,” seeming to need no further support or justification. But, inasmuch as I start from an evidentialist First Principle, and the claim that “causing excruciating pain and agony for no reason is wrong” seems quite definitely to be a proposition that aspires to be a statement of truth, my confidence in that proposition can only be directly proportional to the amount, strength and conclusiveness of the evidence adduced to substantiate it. If it’s simply taken for granted—that is, if it’s assumed with no evidence having been adduced—then my confidence in the proposition is zero.

Let me reiterate that I have no presuppositional allegiance to either the non-existence of moral facts or the valuelessness of human life. My sole presupposition is my evidentialist First Principle, from which my secondary and tertiary philosophical ideas flow and in accordance with which those subordinate ideas are subject to revision in light of new evidence of the requisite conclusiveness and strength. It is simply that, if one wants to convince me that moral facts exist—such as, for example, that it is immoral to hurt people for no reason—one must do the hard work of adducing evidence. The mere fact that humans, as noted, are imbued with a moral sense and a predisposition to make value judgments does not get the ball very far down the court, as it were, because the scientific community has done an estimable job explicating the Darwinian roots of Homo sapiens sapiens’ common moral fabric.

From a Darwinian point of view, living things are just machines the purpose of which is to aid in replicating the genes that built them; on Darwinian theory, as Richard Dawkins observes, our genes are actually a “duplicate me” program that happens to build humans (tigers, grizzlies, etc.) as a digression that, nevertheless, is an essential part of the “duplicate me” program’s efficient execution. Natural selection would select for a moral sense—and an adherence to particular moral rules—if doing so would increase reproductive fitness and lead to more copies of genes reaching successive generations. Why do humans generally view theft, mendacity and wanton selfishness as immoral? The answer, according to many in the scientific community, is because those behaviors tend to cause social groups to break down and, as a result, members of the community suffer diminished fitness (fewer copies of their genes reaching successive generations). Thus, Darwinian selective pressures would deem those fitness-inhibiting behaviors “immoral,” whereas Darwinian selective pressures would deem fitness-boosting behaviors “moral.” It has nothing to do with intrinsic moral facts…just what facilitates gene replication.

Setting aside crudely functional moral instincts that facilitate the Darwinian imperative to reproduce and have reproducing progeny, a world devoid of moral facts (as ours seems to be) necessarily renders all ostensibly factual moral statements not merely wrong but, in fact, absurd. Using Bertrand Russell’s example of the present king of France, the statement, “The present king of France is bald”—or the opposing statement, “The present king of France is not bald”—presupposes in its structure that there is a present king of France. Because there is not, both statements suffer from “presupposition failure” and, therefore, are more properly described as absurd than as false. To say, “It is immoral for Bob to enslave Deb because he feels like it” is neither a true statement nor a false one; it’s an absurd statement because it presupposes a moral fact (“It is immoral to enslave people because you feel like it”) that, based on current evidence, doesn’t exist.

Some people—including myself, on occasion—recognize the untenability of objective morality but yet, owing to our innate disposition as morality-minded beings, slip into moral language not as a means of making a statement that aspires to be a factual proposition but, rather, as a means of expressing personal approval or disapproval. By this, I mean that someone who says, “The Holocaust was immoral” might not intend to declare, “The genocidal butchery of millions of people is, factually speaking, immoral.” Instead, it might simply be a morality-minded creature’s way of saying, “I didn’t like the Holocaust and I disapprove of it.” Such a statement is categorically different from claiming that the Holocaust was factually immoral; a statement of dislike and disapproval merely describes one’s reaction to a particular behavior or incident, whereas a statement about the behavior or incident being moral or immoral aspires to describe the moral character of the behavior or incident. Evidentialism is perfectly consonant with expressions of like and dislike…approval and disapproval…because there is plentiful evidence that conscious creatures like us can like, dislike, approve of and disapprove of various things.

Perhaps our evolutionarily inculcated moral instincts are so strong that to recognize that the world seems devoid of moral facts—pending evidence of the requisite conclusiveness and strength to upend that conclusion—would strike us as too much to bear…as too horrid to abide. Although the conclusion might seem awful, we must be careful not to fall prey to wishful thinking and pretend as though we are justified in believing things for which little or no evidence has been adduced merely because believing those things would be “pleasant.”

For example, it’s perfectly agreeable to believe that humans have rights merely by virtue of our humanity, but, much as with the fictive moral facts that litter our consciousness, no compelling evidence has ever substantiated the existence of intrinsic, naturally existing rights. All claims of such rights betray a deep-seated anthropocentrism that assumes without evidence or argument that distinctly human traits (i.e., self-awareness, the capacity for abstract thought) confer greater intrinsic value than distinctly bovine (porcine, avian, etc.) traits confer. And, worse yet, no mechanism has been proposed whereby such hypothetical intrinsic value might be reliably demonstrated even to exist. Intrinsic value that has not been shown to exist can scarcely be a solid foundation for naturally existing “rights” that, themselves, seem to have been pulled from the ether and of whose existence we’ve found neither hide nor hair, evidentially speaking.

Finally, I turn to the question of livableness: That is, is the worldview I am espousing one within whose bounds one can actually live? If that question is posed as a test for a worldview’s veracity, let me admit my considerable skepticism. Suppose, for example, that a man were hopelessly, endlessly devoted to his sister such that, if his sister were to die, the man would immediately commit suicide. If that man’s sister were to die, I see two possible outcomes: either the man would recognize that his sister had died and, thus, commit suicide, or perhaps the man would create a delusional fantasy (à la Ed Gein) in which his sister was still living. In this invented scenario, the truth (the man’s sister is dead) would not be livable but a delusional fantasy (the man’s sister is still alive) would be quite livable and, in fact, would be the sole means of preventing the man’s self-annihilation. It might be the case that looking at the world head on, unblinking and unflinching, is more than one could handle and, therefore, one must submit (consciously or unconsciously) to some number of delusions to trudge on. The necessity of delusions, however, would do nothing to undermine what the facts actually are.

Christopher Hitchens, speaking of supernatural imaginings, writes, “It has taken us a long time to shrug off this heavy coat of ignorance and fear….” It will take us still longer to relinquish the meretricious myth of morality.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Extraterrestrial Life as a Statistical Certainty

Throughout history, men of religion have striven to place humanity and, by extension, Earth at the center of everything. From wrongheaded notions of a geocentric universe to fanciful delusions of humankind having been specially created in the image of a god, the breathtaking ego our species exhibits—a self-importance enabled through, and justified by, religion—desperately has to be exorcised, like a malevolent demon from a pious innocent. In this brief post, I shall tackle the contention that Earth is special and worthy of its enviable standing because it is a planet on which life emerged.

In Lawrence Krauss' fascinating book A Universe From Nothing, he makes multiple mentions of the 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe, of which our Milky Way galaxy is merely one. The Milky Way galaxy contains 200 to 400 billion stars, which, it should be noted, is not a uniquely high number; for instance, the Andromeda galaxy hosts one trillion stars, which rather makes the Milky Way seem puny by comparison. And, as Popular Science has reported, on average, each star in the Milky Way has at least one planet (and probably more than one).

So, how can we extrapolate the probability of life on other planets from these facts and figures? We cannot demonstrate its existence for sure, of course, but we can statistically prove the tremendous, overwhelming likelihood of its being there.

If the Milky Way contains something like 300 billion stars, then, for purposes of our statistical analysis, let's be conservative and halve that number to 150 billion stars as the average number across all 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe. (Remember, this is hardly an outlandish estimate, considering that the Andromeda galaxy hosts a trillion stars.) And let's say that every star has a single planet on average. (Again, this is an extremely conservative estimate, given that, as Popular Science quoted astronomer Seth Shostak as having said, “[T]he number of planets in the Milky Way is probably like five or 10 times the number of stars.”) So, that's 400 billion (times) 150 billion (times) one to arrive at 60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the observable universe.

Let's set the odds of life ever emerging on any given planet at a million to one. In that case, life would emerge on 60,000,000,000,000,000 planets.

Let's set the odds of life ever emerging on any given planet at a billion to one. In that case, life would emerge on 60,000,000,000,000 planets.

Finally, let's set the odds of life ever emerging on any given planet at 10 billion to one. In that case, life would emerge on 6,000,000,000,000 planets. That means if the odds of life emerging are 10 billion to one, then life would emerge on about six trillion planets. As Lawrence Krauss astutely observes, "[T]he universe is big and old and, as a result, rare events happen all the time." Extraterrestrial life is a statistical certainty.

If Darwin illuminated biology by removing the need for a creator, and the Copernican Revolution demythologized astronomy by removing Earth from the center of anything, then perhaps this statistical argument will give the lie to religion-fueled delusions about life on Earth, including humans like us, being special...let alone lovingly and uniquely created.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Exploding Comfortable, Comforting Myths

At times, I feel quite disconnected from the society of which I am part, and one of the most powerful reasons for this feeling is the pervasive mythology that plagues the thinking of large swaths of the population, across ideological, political and religious groupings. These myths, whether they are held for reasons of comfort or because of misapprehension, delusion or childhood inculcation, always have been, and still remain, false. In this essay, I strive to expose the artifice behind these foundational myths, allowing us to look at the world head-on and without the hollow false comforts of wishful thinking and primitive superstition.

No myth is more widespread—bridging huge ideological chasms to connect groups that, otherwise, have enormously divergent philosophies—than that of anthropocentrism or human exceptionalism: the notion that human beings are the central, most significant form of life and are categorically different from other animals. Now, of course, the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies has anatomical and physiological characteristics to distinguish it from other creatures, such as Ursus arctos horribilis, Phrynosoma modestum and Bison bison athabascae, and no one seeks to deny that. Divisions of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family and so forth are made because of real, true differences between forms of life, and to pretend they do not exist would be to deny biological reality. Every species is qualitatively different from every other species; that is the reason for their having been distinguished in the first place.

The myth lies in the notion that there are human beings, and then there is the rest of the animal kingdom: the idea that there is a category we may call “animals,” which does not include Homo sapiens sapiens, and then a category called “people,” in which we place ourselves. A more correct division would be to identify non-human animals and human animals because, given the truth of Darwinian evolution and universal common descent, there is but a single tree of life and we are very much a part of it, right alongside grizzly bears, the roundtail horned lizard and the wood bison. Our bodies, including the immensely complex brains we are endowed with that create the illusion of an “I” inside—the illusory ghost haunting our fleshy machine—were shaped by the same dispassionate, undirected, mindless natural forces as shaped the bodies of every other creature that does exist or ever has existed.

People often go to great lengths to explicate the incredible things of which human beings are capable—constructing giant skyscrapers, composing gorgeous symphonies, creating paintings whose beauty is breathtaking, writing novels whose power resonates generation after generation, making altruistic sacrifices for the sake of others—and then, from that, attempt to justify treating human beings as “special” or possessing a higher level of “intrinsic value” than other creatures possess. Although one could argue that all of these characteristics serve to distinguish human beings from other animals, no one has yet advanced a convincing argument as to why these characteristics, as opposed to other characteristics, should be considered value-adding ones. Hummingbirds' heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute. The cheetah has the ability to accelerate from zero to more than 60mph in three seconds. Why are these not value-adding characteristics? What authority gets to decide which traits confer greater intrinsic value and which are intrinsic value-neutral? It should be clear that all such judgments are merely dressed-up speciesism.

Connected with the fallacy of anthropocentrism are the interconnected myths of human rights and objective, prescriptive morality. In The Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It often seems that people declare this or that to be self-evident when there is no evidence available to support the contention. Given the fact that the Darwinian tree of life birthed us exactly as it did catfish and koalas, there is no evidenced foundation to say that human beings have rights merely by virtue of being human. From whom would these mysterious rights come? How would they be known? To which species would they be bestowed, and by what standard would they be applied? A man could walk in front of a crazed person with a gun and declare, “You may not shoot me. I have a right to life.” If the person then shot the man dead, I, as an observer, would be tempted to say, “Well, so much for that.” Even if one entertains the notion of nebulous rights endowed by an imagined creator to a single evolved species among billions of evolved species (inclusive of bacteria and archaea) ever to exist, it seems a trivial pursuit when these wispy rights can be so easily transgressed.

The truth, for an evidentialist, is that there is no reason to believe human rights—or any rights at all—exist, apart from those codified by governments and applied to their citizens in a legalistic manner. There is also no reason to believe objective, prescriptive morality has any connection to actual truth about the universe we inhabit, because, if we postulate such morality, we run into the same unanswerable questions: From whom would these moral rules come? How would they be known? Which species would be yoked with these moral rules, and by what standard would the rules be applied? Consider a thought experiment: Virtually everybody would agree that murder is wrong. (And, on a subjective, personal level, I agree.) So, suppose somebody declares that, because murder is morally wrong, one should not murder. A valid question to ask is, “Why is murder wrong?” The answer might be because it harms people and deprives them of their right to life. A valid follow-up question, after dispelling the notion of a “right to life,” is, “Why is harming people wrong?” And, no matter what the answer is, the “Why?” questions could continue in perpetuity. All moral rules are built upon assumptions, and that is why objective, prescriptive morality is incompatible with evidentialism.

Darwinian forces have shaped us to survive as a species, and it seems obvious that, given our cooperative and constructive instincts, community building is an important component of individual fitness. A hominid society plagued by widespread murder, theft, deception, rape and destruction would not long last as a society and, thus, individual members' genetic material would not be passed down and the Darwinian imperative to multiply would be unfulfilled. That is why, overall, the human conscience deplores murder, assault and the like: We have been evolutionarily trained to believe that society-building behaviors are good and society-destroying behaviors are bad. And that is likely why, on a subjective, personal level, I am appalled by murder.

However, a crudely functional moral code that has been instilled so that self-replicating instructions for self-replication—genetic material—can be passed down can hardly be considered the basis for an objective morality that seeks to say, “Behavior A is really, truly wrong, whereas Behavior B is really, truly virtuous.” The truth is, nothing is truly right or truly wrong...genuinely good or genuinely bad...righteous or wicked. The universe does not care and, in the grand scheme, as it accelerates its expansion, the universe will eventually become a cold, dark nothingness, leaving not a trace of our trials, tribulations, joys or sorrows. It will be as though nothing ever existed. On the universal scale—that is to say, objectively—it does not make a whit of difference whether one person kills another or saves his life; it matters not whether one is Adolf Hitler or Norman Borlaug. And any instinct we feel that says otherwise (including my own deeply felt instincts) can be chalked up to our fundamental nature: elaborate machines whose sole job is to preserve self-replicating instructions for self-replication.

Another myth, this one among the most insufferable of all, is American exceptionalism, which is a relation to the similarly fallacious human exceptionalism (already addressed). Largely the product of neoconservative thought, this is the idea that the United States has unique rights and responsibilities as the leader among nations and is charged with spreading liberty and democracy. This notion is predicated upon a number of mistakes, foremost among them the belief in objective good and evil (that is to say, the United States gains unique moral authority by being a righteous nation in opposition to wicked ones) and the supposition that having this or that characteristic (certain founding principles, a specific kind of national spirit, having emerged from a revolution, etc.) confers special rights.

One can cite any particular distinguishing fact about the United States, just as one can cite unique attributes of human beings, but it will not help in the slightest in connecting that distinguishing fact with the bestowal of special rights and responsibilities. Analogously to the case of Animalia, there are any number of countries, each with its own attributes and history; simply recognizing this does not make one country categorically different from all the others, nor does it cause magic “rights” suddenly to appear. Every country is on the same plane, struggling for its subjective goals and trying to execute its subjective will. The will of our country cannot be considered any more objectively righteous than that of Iran, because any attempt to demonstrate such with evidence will be poisoned by ungrounded value judgments.

The final myth with which I will concern myself is more societal in nature: that ethnicity, skin color and sex are meaningful standards by which to group people. It seems obvious that human beings are human beings, just like grizzly bears are grizzly bears, and it is a rather trivial bit of happenstance that a person is born in Venezuela as opposed to in Italy, or in the United States as opposed to in Japan. Although it is certainly true that regional and national cultures can be materially different from one another and, in some ways, it truly is meaningfully different to be an Italian than to be a Cuban, the commonalities that humans share—including those evolutionarily inculcated instincts that I referred to, which serve to ensure that genetic material can be passed down—supersede mere details of culture. Even less meaningful than ethnicity is race, which, ultimately, simply relates to the melanin in the skin and nothing more substantial than that. Homo sapiens sapiens comprises a single species, across all ethnic and racial lines, because all such differences are superficial and, ultimately, inconsequential.

With respect to the sexes, it makes sense to look at things through a Darwinian prism once again. The principal difference between the sexes is reproductive and, thus, it is sensible to approach the issue in that vein, because it informs virtually all the supposed lines of distinction, behavioral and otherwise, meant to separate male and female human beings. Given that males have an essentially unlimited supply of spermatozoa and a relatively small reproductive investment—again, bearing in mind that we, and all creatures, are merely elaborate machines whose function is to preserve self-replicating instructions for self-replication—it is in males' Darwinian interest to impregnate as many females as possible, thus ensuring prolific offspring. Given that females do not have an unlimited supply of ova and, even more importantly, have a nine-month reproductive investment, it is in females' Darwinian interest to be very choosy about who their partner is.

This truth, I believe, underlies societal behavior codes pertaining to the man courting the woman (i.e., asking her out, paying for dates, trying to woo her). In the most basic terms, men are evolutionarily programmed to be less sexually discriminating and women are programmed to be more discerning, all owing to differential gametes and reproductive investments. The question then becomes whether we allow ourselves to be slaves to inclinations inculcated by mindless Darwinian forces, or whether we choose to eschew crudely inborn instinct for something else.

Our society is utterly awash in myths...false beliefs that pervade our thinking, our ideologies, our philosophies and our lives. One wonders the kind of society we would have if people, at long last, retired their spurious beliefs, replacing them instead with mere truth.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

god's Farcical Role as 'Explanation'

One of the most common "arguments" that I, as an atheist, hear regarding god's alleged necessity is that, given the incredible complexity (or beauty, or wonder, or intricacy) of certain components of the natural order (i.e., the human eye, the bacterial flagellar motor, the human brain), the only possible explanation for the existence of such complexity is an intelligent designer, which is then read as god. The ludicrousness of this argument cannot be overstated. It is pure farce to point to something like the human eye or the bacterial flagellar motor—much less, with respect to the origins of life, an ultimately simple single-celled organism—and "explain" its existence, as Christians feebly attempt, by citing an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity whose nature defines good and evil, who developed an infallible plan in which every one of us plays a part, who is concerned with and monitors our behavior, who reigns over heaven, who listens to and occasionally answers prayers that are transmitted by hushed murmuring, and who sent a son—with whom he exists as part of a mysterious trinity—to die for humanity's sins, after which he resurrected his son bodily. To call this monstrosity—this haphazardly stapled-on appendage—an "explanation" is to make oneself appear to be a fool.

Friday, October 7, 2011

What the Hell?

As a former Christian who lives in a country in which that faith dominates—and as an ex-believer who is now a lonely atheist in a large extended family teeming with (admittedly Catholic-flavored) Christians—it can be difficult to step entirely out of Christian thought, even when, intellectually, I remain wholly unpersuaded by the supposed evidence meant to support Jesus as savior. I have had family members tell me that they pray for me, imploring god, I suppose, to show me the light and guide me from my infidelic ways; others have told me that, from their perspective, my life must be in some way bankrupt, what with the lack of something in which to believe, such as a benevolent divinity or the mythology of the United States as John Wayne-esque hero nation. To them, awe of science is a poor substitute for spiritual fulfillment, which it, perhaps, is, although I have little appetite for superficially palatable falsehood. And, to them, one’s satisfaction with his supposed acquisition of knowledge seems rather hollow when compared to an eternity of damnation.

I departed from the Christian faith about a decade ago, right around the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, although my apostasy had tremendously more to do with my studies during that period at Hofstra University than with any moral outrage at the acts religion can inspire. As I took courses in anthropology, biology, philosophy and even literature, I came to realize that the compartmentalization of my mind, which I had already begun to implement, was untenable: I could not be a believing Christian, who accepted the bible as basically true, in one compartment while amassing my knowledge of the species and the cosmos in another one. With surprising haste, the soul was exorcised from the corpus, god was removed from human evolution, fine-tuning slinked away into the dustbin of bad ideas and I, in a real sense, was liberated from nearly two decades of carefully inculcated delusion.

Still, though, being an ex-Christian is not the same as never having been Christian in the first place. My feelings toward Christianity and, indeed, my susceptibility to Christian ideas are qualitatively different from those feelings and that susceptibility with respect to Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or any other faith among the countless multitudes. I recall Christopher Hitchens, writing in Vanity Fair last October while in the midst of battling cancer, admitting, “As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business,” although he quickly added, “though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be ‘me.’” And that is the thing: Even a staunch atheist such as me—one who, as an evidentialist, has tried to look at the evidence objectively and, in so doing, has had his non-belief repeatedly reaffirmed—is not immune to occasional frightful thoughts of being consigned to an eternity of agonizing punishment in hellfire.

Christian writers of decades and centuries past have seemed to take an almost perversely sadistic glee in describing the various tortures, torments, agonies and excruciations of hell; gospel descriptions about weeping and gnashing of teeth seem the very picture of restraint compared to, say, the fetishistic torture-porn that is Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” When one was formerly a Christian believer—and, again, remains ensnared in a Jesus-saturated culture and possesses a family that regularly discusses dead loved ones’ reunion with other deceased relatives in heaven—this has power. When others warn one about the dark fate sure to befall his sinful soul, it is hard not to harbor a bit of fright and even, in those most pathetic moments, fear that can be quite acute.

In earthly life, it is perfectly natural to fear having a cavity filled by the dentist due to the few moments of pain it might involve. And, it is standard practice to avoid relatively minor pains by taking protective action, such as by wearing oven mitts so as not to burn one’s fingertips. I know that, speaking personally, I avoid pain at all costs, sometimes depriving myself of things that might be enjoyable or exciting simply because the cost-benefit analysis contains too high a risk of pain occurring. This is to say, I anticipate the possibility (not even necessarily the probability) of pain and, as a result, modify my behavior to bring that possibility down to effectively zero. But, were hell actually to exist, and were it, in the slightest, to resemble Jonathan Edwards’ horrific imaginings, the pain in store for the sinning hordes would shrink every torment with which we are familiar to nothingness. Surely, then, it would make sense for me—if not now, then before I expire—to return to Christianity and repent my atheistic agitation, yes?

No, no, a thousand times no. I am an evidentialist not because I idolize this scientist or that philosopher…not because others easily lead me and I fall under influence…but, rather, because I truly believe the evidentialist principle is the best way to approximate truth. And, no matter what my relatives believe or what a large majority of Americans hold as true, I do not believe the Christian revelation; the evidence, where sought, is often nonexistent and, where actually found, is ultimately insufficient. I do not believe the Old Testament recounts actual events, nor do I believe in Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, nor do I believe that humans have souls, much less that these immaterial souls go to an immaterial place following corporeal death. This leaves me, then, with but a single motivating factor to reconvert to Christianity: fear of terrible punishment for failing to have done so.

I do not believe in any gods, but I especially do not believe—indeed, would consider it insulting to believe—in a god who looks favorably upon a person whose sole motivating factor in following the deity is craven, pathetic, self-serving fear of punishment. I find it inconceivable that a supposed glorified creator of the universe—a being who, if existent, would be the author of all creation and separator of the righteous from the wicked—would be pleased with a throng of followers who do not love him or revere him or, indeed, even really believe in him, but only choose to prostrate themselves before him because of their pusillanimous terror. I cannot guarantee that, moments before my death, I will not repent of my atheism and turn skyward desperately, but, as Hitchens observed, such would be a humiliation: both for me and for any supposed god.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Evidentialism, Illuminated

To analyze the world in which we find ourselves, it is necessary to have an interrogatory starting point: a foundational principle upon which we, brick by brick, can build the knowledge we think, with some confidence, that we possess about this world. Much like how I, when I get my vision checked every few years, look through a variety of lenses to see which one gives each eye the sharpest, most in-focus image, the process of choosing an interrogatory starting point—a First Principle—is one in which less compelling principles are rejected in order to embrace the single one most able to serve as an enduring foundation. The First Principle upon which I have settled, that being evidentialism, can be summed, at least in my case, as follows: Evidence is the best, most reliable way for humans to approximate truth as we interrogate the world of experience. All of my reasoning—which is to say, all conclusions I draw that are not obvious, manifest facts of the world—is driven by this principle.

Given the centrality of the evidentialist principle to my reasoning, it is worthwhile to parse the actual statement a bit. What is “evidence,” first of all? According to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, “evidence” is anything that helps to prove that something is or is not true. Typically, when I am asked to define the word, I say something along the lines of, “Evidence refers to the relevant facts pertaining to any matter of controversy, uncertainty or dispute.” Thus, following my First Principle, if there is a dispute about a matter for which an actual answer exists—for example, either Harry did kill Sally, or Harry did not—weighing relevant facts is the most reliable method to approximate the correct answer. The word “approximate” also appears in my statement of evidentialism, and this is because, even though recourse to evidence has proven repeatedly to be our best tool for discovering truth (i.e., in the legal/judicial world, in medical settings, in day-to-day life, etc.), it is not an infallible tool; we, as mere evolved creatures with large and advanced brains, cannot hope to possess absolute certainty. We are forced to settle for provisional truths in which our level of confidence is commensurate with the available evidence.

The last part of my statement of evidentialism refers to “the world of experience,” as distinct from a hypothetical “world of actuality” to which, for whatever reason, I might not have access. Think of it this way: For Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the main character in “The Cosby Show,” the world of that show was his actual world. Dr. Cliff Huxtable does not live in our world; rather, he is a character who exists only in the world of the television program. In an analogous way, consider the possibility that, in actuality, I am a brain in a vat; some kind of super-intelligence has merely created the illusion that I exist as a free-roaming primate when, in fact, I am just a brain soaking in a vat. Because this fact, presumably, is inaccessible to me in the illusion in which I live, I could gather no evidence of this “actual world” to which I have no access. By the same token, though, an “actual world” from which my consciousness is permanently isolated and of which I have no evidence might as well not exist at all; its existence is indistinguishable from its non-existence and, thus, inconsequential. The only world about which I care—the only world consequential to me and, thus, worthy of interrogation—is the one in which I find myself: that being, the world of experience.

What, then, is so persuasive about evidentialism as a First Principle, anyway? Why, to use the eyeglass-lens analogy, is my vision so much better with evidentialism than with, say, a First Principle centered on biblical Christianity? As hinted at earlier, evidence can easily be adduced in support of evidence's pervasive utility in approximating truth, thus making evidentialism a self-subsisting, rather than self-annihilating, First Principle. Criminal justice systems that are driven by evidence gathering and examination are clearly much more likely to zero-in on criminals than are systems in which evidence is shunted aside when trying to determine guilt. In the medical field, those doctors who ascertain what symptoms a patient manifests (gather symptomatic evidence) before reaching conclusions about what afflicts that patient are clearly much more likely to diagnose the illness correctly than are doctors who gather no symptomatic evidence. And, inarguably, in nearly every person's everyday life, he or she constantly gathers, and acts upon, evidence. For example, when, upon seeing brake lights illuminate in front of us, we apply our own brakes, having realized that the evidence of the brake lights indicates the car in front of us is slowing. Stated simply: Evidence works.

There are some who mischaracterize me as a doctrinaire materialist or naturalist...as a committed and unshakeable atheist or physicalist. In fact, though, the only commitment I make—the only notion to which I have presuppositionally wedded myself—is to the validity of evidentialism as First Principle. I am, in ascending order of importance, an atheist, a naturalist and a nihilist, and I am all of these things as a result of my evidentialism; theoretically, all three of those descriptors could change—indeed, could be negated entirely—if the evidence were contrary. That is why the oft-heard charge that, through my presuppositions, I have ruled out biblical Christianity rings utterly hollow. Biblical Christianity is, in principle, fully compatible with evidentialism. This is demonstrated even within the bible—in 1 Kings 18, for example—leading Jaco Gericke, in his contribution to the book The End of Christianity, to note that, presumably, Christians have confected their own reasons “why these things no longer happen and why no philosopher of religion will agree to a contest on Mount Carmel.”

I would be foolish, indeed, to reject supernaturalism entirely if the world looked fundamentally different from how it actually looks. For instance, suppose that true, pious Christian believers were able to resuscitate the dead, a feat that nobody of any other religion—and no impious, casual Christian—could ever do. Surely, if such a thing were actually the case, it would be meaningful, and it would be difficult to maintain a purely naturalistic stance. Consider also a hypothetical possibility raised by Richard Carrier, who, in his extended essay on why he is not a Christian, envisages true Christian bibles that are all indestructible, unalterable and self-translating. It might be a bit primitive for one to shout, “Lo, a miracle!” in response to such a phenomenon—surely, a natural explanation might exist, however unlikely—but any evidentialist would have no choice but to reweigh the odds of the supernatural existing. I am a naturalist because, in interrogating the world of experience, I find no compelling evidence for the supernatural, and no need for recourse to it. In the same way, I am an atheist because I have discovered no persuasive evidence for gods, and no need to appeal to them. Finally, and most importantly, I am a nihilist because, given the current evidence, the cosmos, and everything in it, seems to be ultimately meaningless, purposeless and lacking objective value.

Although, as noted, “nihilist” is the most important appellation that I apply to myself, it is worthwhile to explain, especially given my relentless criticism of the religion, exactly why I reject biblical Christianity and embrace atheism. The reasons are numerous and include the flood—the word just seems right—of absurd claims contained within the bible's pages (not absurd in the sense of being self-contradictory but, rather, in the sense of failing utterly to comport with the world of experience as we all collectively know it), the text's seeming incompatibility with Darwinian evolution and a 13.7 billion-year-old universe, prayer's uselessness in actually effecting desired results, people's pronounced tendency to embrace the religion of their parents and peers, and the problem of statistical improbability regarding a hugely complex being—god—simply existing without a satisfactory explanation of origins. There are, however, three principal reasons I reject Christianity, each of which is probably sufficient to falsify the faith and that, when taken collectively, ring its unmistakable death knell for all but the most presuppositionally committed.

Why, then, am I not a Christian? First, because god is absent or, at the least, silent. In essence, those of the Christian faith proclaim that our universe, and all that is part of it, is in the hands of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent creator deity who takes a personal interest in human affairs. It is completely inexplicable, then, that this creator deity would be entirely undetectable and utterly absent from day-to-day life. If one reads the bible, one finds an active, present, immediate god; moreover, one finds copious miracles and prodigies that are unlike anything with which we are familiar.

The reliably perceptive David Hume, in Of Miracles, writes:

It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations ... When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements, quite obscure the few natural events, that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvelous ...

Hume rightly adds, "It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days."

Why would a god who, in barbarous and ignorant times, was so clear, present and active suddenly, upon the emergence of a scientific understanding of the natural order, become a silent, inert sluggard whose presence could only be discerned in the most obscure, skepticism-baiting ways? Where are the miracles and prodigies for our scientific age? Because god, if existent, would be a do-nothing layabout, Christianity is falsified.

Second, the bible, despite the fact it is purported to be inspired by god himself, wallows in pitiable prescientific primitivism and yawn-inducing mundanity. Certainly, considering its alleged divine inspiration, one might expect the bible to be full of dazzlingly specific information of which no one had been previously aware. In light of its purported inspiration, one might expect the pinnacle of all intellectual achievement. This is not so. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, writes, “[The bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.” There is nothing about the actual age or size of our universe. There is nothing about the germ theory of disease, heliocentric theory of the solar system or atomic theory of matter. Earth's vast geography is shrunk down to claustrophobically local levels. It is not even clear from the bible whether the creator of our universe is aware of Australia. The bible is not a product of divine inspiration but, rather, lamentable ancient ignorance.

How, Christopher Hitchens asks in god is not Great, can Genesis be proven the mundane work of ignorant humans in merely a paragraph? He writes:

Because man is given “dominion” over all beasts, fowl and fish. But no dinosaurs or plesiosaurs or pterodactyls are specified, because the authors did not know of their existence, let alone of their supposedly special and immediate creation. Nor are any marsupials mentioned, because Australia—the next candidate after Mesoamerica for a new “Eden”—was not on any known map. Most important, in Genesis man is not awarded dominion over germs and bacteria because the existence of these necessary yet dangerous fellow creatures was not known or understood. And if it had been known or understood, it would at once have become apparent that these forms of life had “dominion” over us, and would continue to enjoy it uncontested until the priests had been elbowed aside and medical research at last given an opportunity.

The bible's mundanity belies the claim of divine inspiration, thus proving Christianity false.

Third, I am not a Christian because worship of Yahweh as the singular creator deity did not arise independently among numerous geographically isolated populations. Any delusional belief system, if designed with sufficient cleverness, has the potential to “catch fire,” as it were, and spread pervasively throughout our species. Much less easily explained, however, would be for the same delusional belief system to arise independently—as though through universal identical revelation—in many different places. Imagine if, around 2000 BCE, worship of Yahweh had arisen, nearly simultaneously, in the Middle East, China, the Americas and central Africa. What would the odds have been of an identical god character—with distinctive quirks, commandments, preferences and fetishes—having been invented by completely different populations? They seem infinitesimal. There is, however, no evidence of Yahweh-worship arising independently among geographically isolated groups. However spiritual they might previously have been, primitive populations began to worship Yahweh specifically when believers in Yahweh arrived at their shores: The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity's message, therefore, is spread by the veritable Pony Express method of human beings.

Christopher Hitchens, in god is not Great, writes, “One recalls the question that was asked by the Chinese when the first Christian missionaries made their appearance. If god has revealed himself, how is it that he has allowed so many centuries to elapse before informing the Chinese?” Whatever deities might have haunted Chinese history, none was distinguishably Yahweh. The failure of god to reveal himself independently to several geographically isolated populations, then, also falsifies Christianity.

As noted earlier, though, I am not principally defined as an atheist or a non-Christian but, rather, as a nihilist, particularly a moral nihilist and an existential nihilist. As explained on Wikipedia, moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is moral or immoral. Indeed, moral nihilists reject the very concepts of objective good and evil...right and wrong...righteous and wicked as pertains to the actual, existent world. Wikipedia defines existential nihilism as the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Broadened a bit, existential nihilism refers to the belief that the universe is meaningless and purposeless, as is its every component. On this view, humanity, for instance, is to the universe as a single grain of sand on a beach is to the Earth. The entire species could go extinct in an enormous nuclear blast—indeed, the Sun could incinerate the entire solar system, or the Milky Way could vanish—and the universe would not take the slightest notice, nor would the event have the faintest objective meaning. And, as previously explained, my nihilism, both moral and existential, directly results from my evidentialist First Principle.

The natural starting point is with existential nihilism, because, in my view, moral nihilism follows quite directly therefrom. The foundational background knowledge with which I approach the issue includes, but is not limited to, the fact of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, the fact of an old universe (about 13.7 billion years) and an old Earth (following some 9 billion years later), and the utter absence of compelling evidence for the veracity of religious revelation, including that of Christianity. The cumulative discoveries of science over the past two centuries have confirmed that all living creatures on this planet share common ancestry. That is, there is a single Darwinian tree of life, of which every species, including human beings, is part. Although different species possess different traits—some have eight legs and some have large brains, some have antennae and some can fly—every variety of creature is fundamentally connected through common Darwinian ancestry.

With respect to the cosmos, we live in a universe whose size and age exceeds man's ability to imagine adequately. The Milky Way, our home galaxy, is a hugely vast cluster of stars and their planetary systems. The Milky Way contains roughly 300 billion stars, of which our Sun—inside which 1 million Earths could fit—is merely an ordinary one. Our solar system is only a speck as a component of the Milky Way, which is but one insignificant galaxy among perhaps 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The Big Bang is estimated to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago, with Earth's formation following long after (again, 4.54 billion years ago). Perspective can be gained by putting this in the context of a calendar year: Imagine that the instant of the Big Bang equates to the stroke of midnight on January 1, and the present day equates to precisely midnight on the following January 1. On this imagining, Homo sapiens sapiens would appear on the scene seven-and-a-half minutes to midnight on December 31. It is surprising that man, according to Christianity, is made in the image of god and is the object of god's special attention and love, but then does not appear for aeons and aeons in a universe in which humans are confined to the tiniest conceivable speck of available space.

In the absence of compelling evidence for a god, and lacking persuasive evidence to support any religion, I have provisionally concluded that we are alone in the universe: not alone in the sense of there being no extraterrestrial life but, instead, in the sense of being unsupervised and uncared for. Sure, we, as human beings, care for one another, particularly for family members, friends and others for whom we have developed feelings. But, in a quite literal sense, we—and all creatures—are composed of the same dumb “stuff” that also composes inanimate objects, like rocks and concrete. The molecules of which we are constructed are made of atoms whose origins trace to the crucibles that were the cores of high-mass stars, whose chemical contents exploded into the galaxy aeons ago. We are the universe become conscious, a thought that, while exhilarating, is also humbling. We, like rocks, are a mere atomic assemblage—albeit, yes, a conscious one—whose existence is accidental and, thus, objectively purposeless. We certainly can imbue our lives with personal, subjective meaning, and we can assign personal, subjective value to those we love, but none of those things can be considered an actual fact: not in the same way the speed of light in vacuum can be so considered.

“Value” is a concept that requires an assigner or assessor. As noted, one atomic assemblage can assign value to another one, but, inasmuch as any living creature is destined to die—and, in the grand cosmic scope, to do so almost immediately—any value assignment is ephemeral: not enduring...factual...objective. On the universal scale, none of us matters and none of us is significant, thus undercutting the consequentiality of any value assessment any of us might assign. Essentially, all of this is to say that if one meaningless, insignificant thing declares another meaningless, insignificant thing important to it, that importance, itself, is meaningless and insignificant by extension, since importance cannot come from unimportance, nor the meaningful from the meaningless.

It is with all of this in mind that I proffer moral nihilism. To call an action—any action—righteous or wicked is to imply that the action is a significant one and, moreover, either comports with or transgresses an established moral code. Again, though, there is no reason to believe that significance can arise from insignificance, making it quite difficult to say that any action undertaken by any human has a moral dimension. To whom might human actions matter? To other humans? That is to suggest, to other accidental atomic assemblages whose vanishingly brief existence will ultimately come to nothing? Well, on the scale of the universe, so what? The question also arises of against whose moral code human behavior might transgress. In the absence of god, there is no moral code handed down from on high. Those who subscribe to the superstition of actual, objective morality must be appealing to some source of right and wrong....

There is, of course, the natural moral framework inculcated by Darwinian evolution, which essentially is a utilitarian code intended to permit survival and, most importantly, gene propagation. Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth, gives an illuminating explication of natural selection, writing, “It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.” He continues, “Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, ‘Duplicate me.’ In the case of the cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly. A tiger’s DNA is also a ‘duplicate me’ program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger’s DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first.’” This is whence objective, prescriptive morality is meant to come? The whole purpose of Darwinian evolution, as Dawkins writes, is gene propagation. There is no right or wrong...no virtue or wickedness...just cool, unfeeling, ruthless efficiency. A human being is no less a fantastically large digression than a tiger is; we just like to enchant our existence with delusions of meaningfulness.

The evidence is unmistakable: There are no gods, no revealed religion comports with reality, human existence is wholly accidental, no human being—either singularly or as a collective—has any enduring meaning or value, and morality is but a useful illusion inculcated into us by Darwinian means in order that our genes might be more effectively propagated. This is simultaneously diminishing and liberating, much as the realization that we are organic products of the universe—stardust from long-dead worlds—is at once humbling and exhilarating. We live in a world with no “shoulds” and no “oughts”...no “shouldn'ts” and no “ought nots.” None of it matters, and none shall be remembered. One might as well have fun—if one chooses, that is—because, in the last analysis, one is only answerable to oneself.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Where I Stand

The god of the bible does not exist, nor does any god of any kind exist.

When a human being dies, it is the end of him. There is no afterlifeheavenly or hellishand consciousness does not survive corporeal death.

There is no soul. Consciousness is to do with the functioning of the living brain.

The only world that exists is the natural one. There is no supernatural realm, and there are no supernatural entities or occurrences.

The bible is composed of the desert scribblingssome beautiful, some odious...some insightful, some primitiveof men whose ignorance of their world was rivaled only by their pitiable credulousness.

Jesus was a man who lived, but he was not the son of god, did not resurrect and is not anyone's savior.

Human beings are an evolved species who are related to every other species that has ever lived on this planet.

There are no moral truths. Morality is a matter of opinion, and all moral standards are ultimately arbitrary.

The cosmos has no sense of ultimate justice. The "good" are not ultimately rewarded, nor are the "bad" punished in the end. Indeed, the "good" and the "bad" vary with opinion, and there is no fact of the matter.

Human lifeindeed, all lifeis objectively meaningless.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gaining Proper Perspective

1. The universe is far older and unspeakably more enormous than the average person realizes. The universe was born 13.75 billion years ago, and Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago. The Milky Way is but one galaxy, among hundreds of billions of others, and the Sun is but one star in our galaxy; individual galaxies can contain hundreds of billions of—if not a trillion or more—stars, many of which are considerably more massive than our Sun is. Our solar system is an unimaginably tiny—completely insignificant—part of the Milky Way, which, itself, is just as infinitesimal, and insignificant, a part of the universe as a whole. Our planet is minor, and the star it orbits is ordinary.

2. The insignificance of our galaxy, our solar system and our planet in the scope of the larger universe is mirrored by the triviality of human beings in the context of Earth's ever-branching Tree of Life. As noted, Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, with life's initial emergence on this planet having been pegged at approximately 3.8 billion years ago. However, mammals have only walked the planet for 220 million years; the genus Homo made its first appearance only 2.35 million years ago; and hominids bearing close resemblance to humans of today have only been around 200,000 years or so. This, of course, means that hominids bearing resemblance to modern humans have treaded the Earth for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history.

3. In light of facts one and two, we can say with sufficient certitude that humankind, as a whole, is completely and comprehensively insignificant in the context of the cosmos. Our galaxy is of no importance in the broader universe; our solar system is of no importance in our broader galaxy; Earth is but a minor planet in its larger solar system; and humankind—in the context of the broader Tree of Life that has been growing for 3.8 billion years—has just emerged on the scene this instant. Human beings happen to have evolved: Evolutionary forces were not “building toward” us; nor was our evolution a goal, pinnacle or conclusion; nor does our momentary perch atop the animal kingdom confer onto us unique specialness, value or intrinsic worth.

4. Given the comprehensive insignificance—of the Milky Way, of our solar system, of our planet and of humankind as part of the Tree of Life—discussed above, we can go one step further. If the Milky Way galaxy were to disappear tomorrow—sucked into a black hole the size of which no astronomer has yet imagined—the universe would look, well, pretty much exactly as it does now; the Milky Way's presence would not be missed. If the Sun experienced violent star death tomorrow, and its death throes obliterated the entirety of our solar system—including, of course, the Earth—the Milky Way would look more or less identical to the way it looks today; the destruction of our solar system would go unnoticed in our galaxy. And if human beings, in an inexplicable mass extinction, all dropped dead tomorrow, Earth, life and evolution would continue on in our absence. Earth is critical to us because it is our home; we, however, are far from critical to Earth.

5. Humanity is to the universe as a single grain of sand on a beach is to Earth; the entire species could go extinct in a nuclear blast tomorrow, and the universe would not take the slightest notice, or miss our kind. If humanity as a whole is of no cosmic significance, then it follows that no individual human possesses cosmic significance, either. And if no individual human possesses cosmic significance, then it certainly follows that no human action—whether it be deemed virtuous or wicked by those who would judge it—is ultimately significant, either. The Milky Way's formation was not a significant moment in the universe's development; the Sun's birth was not a moment of importance in the Milky Way's history; humankind is not a significant branch on the Darwinian Tree of Life. Importance we assign to ourselves and to our actions is subjective and comes from ourselves, not from objectively grounded cosmic significance that actually exists as a matter of fact.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Against Self-Importance [Updated 12/18]

Humankind's pronounced predisposition to self-importance, bordering on haughty arrogance, leaves me with some combination of bafflement at our childlike taste for palatable delusion, frustration with our seeming inability to reason beyond it and weary resignation to our current solipsistic (in the sense of being characterized by extreme egocentrism) stance. Certainly, almost every successive discovery that is won through diligent scientific effort bespeaks the wondrousness of the world as we know it and the humbling majesty of the small planet on which we live. One need only consult the exciting developments emerging in disciplines ranging from biology to cosmology, chemistry to astrophysics, and paleontology to geophysics. However, our compounding and expanding scientific understanding only serves to testify to a universe far larger and grander than we will ever experience, and one in which we play such an infinitesimal role that we charitably could be said to have essentially no significance.

As a regular reader of my writing might expect, I believe the institution of religion is the principal cause of the delusive idea that humans, either as individuals or as a species, hold some special significance. And, for clarity, I speak not only of significance exceeding that of other animals but, in fact, of any cosmic-scale significance whatsoever. From extremely early childhood, those of us raised with religious inculcation are told that we are children of god, created in his glorious image, and cared for and loved by him. Moreover, we are told that god is deeply concerned with our thoughts and actions, down to the trivial and the mundane, and that he is comprehensively aware of what we, as individuals, do. If the intellectual cancer of creationism is grafted onto, or simply replaces, our scientific education, we might well be led to believe that the universe, our planet in it and we on that planet were literally and supernaturally created, making us, by extension, godly objects.

All of this is to say that, in youth, our intellectual development is so minimal that we have no defense against attractive delusion that is presented as fact by those whom we trust. If, in childhood, the fangs of religious indoctrination are plunged deeply into our bodies, pumping their unique brand of sweet-smelling toxin, we are likely to grow to be adults whose brains are hopelessly addled by nonsense. Recognizing religion as the robust, well-adapted phenomenon that it is, one cannot help but to approach it in Darwinian fashion in an attempt to understand why it is so pervasive. That religion, in general, promises an afterlife following earthly death certainly contributes to its appeal, inasmuch as the prospect of nonexistence seems to frighten and disturb most of us. In religion, many people also find not only solace and comfort but meaning and inspiration, too. For these people, god and religion, to some extent, provide life with an overarching purpose, without which, presumably, they would feel adrift. Religion also feeds into our innate egocentrism, inasmuch as many of us like to feel loved (especially by a supreme being!) and to believe that our actions, for better or worse, reverberate beyond our minuscule little sphere.

Although religion might well be the vehicle through which human self-importance most frequently reveals itself, and I certainly would contend that it exacerbates and magnifies whatever predisposition toward egocentrism people might have, it definitely is not the only way in which this mental distortion becomes manifest. And I would be dishonest to say that I, myself, do not fall victim frequently to variants of this selfsame delusion. I suffer from an extreme susceptibility to the rose-colored visions of pure, undying romance that have permeated cinema for decades and that are so frequently echoed in sappy love songs, causing me to be sucked into ideas such as "soul mates." By that, I mean two people who, among the nearly 7 billion who populate this planet, are romantically meant for each other to the exclusion of all other possible couplings. The problem with such ideas is the unanswered, and seemingly unanswerable, question: "Meant for each other" by whom? And even granting the possibility that there were an individual, among the billions of people on our planet, for whom you were personally meant, it seems rather silly to think that you would find that individual.

And let us not neglect to mention those old canards that it is sometimes just a person's "time to go" or that, if something happens, "it was meant to." One sometimes hears things similar to the former when a tragedy befalls somebody, such as, for instance, when a plane crash kills a happy young couple. Perhaps more to the point, somebody might say it was a young daredevil's "time to go" if he were to plunge to his death while mountain climbing. The apparent implication of this is that, if the daredevil were to have stayed home and watched television that day, some other accident would have offed him. Turning to the latter phrase, "it was meant to happen," I view it largely as a mental illusion one conjures to absolve oneself of blame and emancipate oneself from regret over an unwelcome development in one's life. That is, it involves believing that something was preordained, thereby allowing one to embrace the comforting notion that, no matter what choices had been made, the outcome would have been the same. The problems here are identical to the one previously identified: If one has a "time to go," by whom is it determined? If something "was meant to happen," to whom can we credit the planning?

These generally secular forms of self-importance might seem meaningfully different from those characterizing religious practice. For instance, freethinkers recognize that prayer is a useless exercise that is undertaken by those who, in a fit of childish delusion, believe they can effect change in the real world by falling to their knees and murmuring to themselves, all the while thinking they are communicating with the creator of the universe. However, whether secular or religious, all variants tie together inasmuch as they are part of a fallacious-idea web wherein humans are significant, subjects of a plan, qualitatively different from other life forms and imbued with a nebulous "special something." It seems that there is insufficiently abundant comfort, purpose, meaning, ego stroking and reassurance in the harsh light of science, leading many to crawl back to the cool, dark territory of unreason, like bugs beneath a stone.

From what, exactly, does the majority seek comfort? I argue that the answer is our proper place in a vast universe. The age of the universe--of which our solar system (as well as our entire galaxy) is the tiniest sliver--is 13.75 billion years, with an uncertainty of 0.17 billion years. The age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years, with an uncertainty of one percent. Modern forms of Homo sapiens first emerged on the scene about 195,000 years ago. Looking at these dates in context, we can say that humanlike creatures have been around less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history. With a clearheaded comprehension of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, we understand that human beings happen to have evolved. We certainly were not bound to evolve, nor is evolution an efficacious stepladder that was designed to reach the heights of humankind, nor is humankind the "final product" toward which everything has been building. Furthermore, Darwinian evolution knows of only one Tree of Life, and we exist as part of, rather than standing apart from, that multiply branched tree.

Finally, we also know that that which lives eventually will die and, despite a great deal of wishful thinking of both an explicitly religious and vaguely spiritual nature, there is literally no persuasive evidence to support the contention of an afterlife. The evidence, it turns out, is to the contrary. In God: The Failed Hypothesis--How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, Victor Stenger writes, "We have seen that neurological and medical evidence strongly indicates that our memories, emotions, thoughts and, indeed, our very personalities reside in the physical particles of the brain or, more precisely, in the ways those particles interact. So this would seem to say that when our brains die, we die." Perhaps it is upsetting to accept, but the simple fact remains that each of us will die. There will come a day, whether distant or close at hand, when each of us will be but a cold, lifeless body, lying in a morgue or funeral parlor, or on a medical examiner's slab. Makeup and powder will be applied to our faces, our best clothes will be draped on our corpses and we will be injected with chemicals to forestall the process through which each of us will decompose...until we become nothing at all.

If one adheres to Christian dogma, quite a bit of the preceding discussion might be questioned or flatly denied. I recognize that, if one is a bible-believing Christian, one is fully entitled, if not outright obligated, to believe in the intrinsic specialness of humankind and our species' cosmic, enduring importance. That one's false superstition compels such beliefs, though, does not prevent me from pointing out that Christianity amplifies, distorts and exacerbates delusive self-importance, a condition that is well recognized if only partially understood. I see no particular reason to relitigate all the issues that I, and many others, have already discussed, such as the ludicrousness of prayer, the many frailties of Christianity and the profound weakness of the design hypothesis, but I do think it is worthwhile to reiterate the principal reason why I am not, and intellectually cannot be, a Christian. Quite simply, to subscribe to Christianity, one must believe that a god who, in barbarous and ignorant times, was eminently clear, present and active suddenly, upon the emergence of a scientific understanding of the natural order, became a silent, inert sluggard whose presence can only be discerned in the most obscure, skepticism-baiting ways. The Israelites had precious little need for abstruse philosophical prestidigitation like the Transcendental Argument.

Whether it is the seemingly endless succession of people predicting the end of the world in their puny, insignificant lifetimes, the thoroughly irrational masses who are convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime before they, themselves, would die off, or the people who foolishly pretend that Earth holds a place of significance in an observable universe that is estimated to measure 93 billion light-years in diameter, humans habitually betray a breathtaking ego that is completely unwarranted by the evidence. If one wishes to think and, as a result, behave in accordance with truth (as best as it has been currently ascertained), one should recognize that, qualitatively, we are no different from any other evolved creature, our current perch atop the animal kingdom notwithstanding. And if one requires meaning of some kind to persist in life, one must invent such meaning for oneself.

Because just as surely as there is no objective, prescriptive moral code weaved into the fabric of the cosmos, nor any god above, below or anywhere else to love, supervise, create or punish, there is no purpose to life, to humans, or to you or to me apart from whichever one we invent. And as much as we might like to believe we are a grand, towering thing of a sort that only a deity could assemble, the truth is contrary: We are the accidental product, among millions and millions of others, of a Darwinian trial-and-error process. Most importantly, the universe did not notice our arrival and does not notice our persistence; it will not notice our eventual, inevitable extinction and shall not remember our follies.