"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Abolition Continues

May I direct your attention back to the Abolition of Man thread from about week ago. Tom Freeman has posted an incredibly long comment on that thread that is well worth a careful read. I also just finished a response that I do believe breaks the comment-length record so far. Don't blame me. It's Tom's fault for making me think so hard.

Update: Tom just finished two more quite lengthy responses. Check it out.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Unfounded fears

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.
- Bertrand Russell, ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’.

I realise this post could be seen as vaguely insulting, I can only say that it’s not intended to be so.

Reading through some of the comments by theists on the posts below, it seems to me that the same objections to atheism keep reoccurring, objections which put me in mind of the quote which I’ve used to kick-start this post.

I want to try to deal with the three main (as I see it) objections. My apologies for being a little brief, but most of them have been dealt with at great length elsewhere, so this is really just a “summing up”. When I get a chance later I’ll put in links to the bits of the site which deal with them in a more comprehensive manner.

Fear of nihilism: As God is the source of all meaning, without Him we’re condemned to a meaningless, unhappy existence.

Meaning is not, however, something which is external to human existence; it is something which we project onto the world: for an object or situation to be meaningful it simply has to mean something to us. Life is often beautiful, bewildering and intriguing – all things that appeal to me on an intuitive/emotive level – and therefore incredibly meaningful to me (especially considering the only alternative: non-existence).

People all over the planet find life to be more than meaningful without depending on a divine power in any way. The theist may counter that life with god is more meaningful, but then it’s incumbent on them to demonstrate that this is so. (A particularly tricky task, given that it would involve quantifying meaning).

Alex adds:
The misunderstanding here is that you take it that I am saying if there is no God it is impossible for anyone to feel a sense of meaning and we all must live miserable lives. This is of course a silly position to take if one believes there is no God. As you point out quite clearly, we exist and we find things to be meaningful. End of story. Believing there is, or is not a God doesn't change that in the least. It's not even a part of the equasion.

However, there is a subtlety to my argument that I feel must be pointed out clearly. The point I have been trying to make is that without God there is no ground for any of our meaning other than our own personal experience. (It is worth pointing out that modern psychology is working hard to write personal experience out of existence as well.)

So it is not that I see the absence of God as causing the absence of happiness, (to be precise, I would regard the absence of God as the absence of anything) but if we choose to imagine a world that exists without God, I would argue that any meaning that would result from this world would be false and would need to be maintained through self-deception.

Matt rejoins:
If you say that any meaning which doesn't come from a higher source is "false", then yes: humanistic meaning is false. But most non-theists would simply reject that definition. All that is required for something to be meaningful - in a "true" way - is for it to mean something to me. So there's no self-deception involved.

Alex re-rejoins: I will respond to this argument here.

Fear of social collapse:
Without God sitting in judgement, people will have no reason at all to be good.

If this were true, we’d expect that the more secular the country the higher the crime rate. Yet, not only is this not true, but some have suggested that the opposite may actually be the case.

The reason that most atheists don’t go on rampages of pillaging and murder is that there’s an incredibly strong pragmatic case for supporting certain notions of right and wrong: ask any random person whether they’d rather live in a society governed by law and order or one in which people were completely free to do what they like and, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs, you’d get an incredibly high percentage going for the former.

The reason for this is that it’s in my own self-interest to live in a society which respects individual rights. Not only am I much safer, and therefore able to achieve more of my goals, but the same applies to those I care about. This is the concept of reciprocal altruism, or, to put it more simply, I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.

Alex adds:
I must say I am not worried a bit that more "religious" countries have a boatload of social problems. I would be perfectly willing to go along with the charge that "religion" can in fact do more harm than good. Luckily for me I'm not arguing for religion.

I also don't really tend to the fear of social collapse. Most countries that are of a more secular flavor tend to nurture a dishonest view of godlessness. They play down the logical conclusions that are the result of having no God. Even if the bare bones meaninglessness and hopelessness of that ideology were promoted full force, no one would accept it. We are not wired to life lives like that. As you well know we are built to find meaning. We are built to believe that love is true and is the ultimate joy we can achieve in this life.

So again it's not that I so much fear social collapse, it's that without God a societies success depends on how well they maintain their delusion that people have value, that love is true, and that their lives have purpose and meaning.

Matt rejoins:
Again - you're defining things like love and value in a way that most non-theists would reject as pointless. People have "value" if we care about them - which acts on an intuitive/emotional level and has little, if anything, to do with our views on God.

Fear of determinism:
If we’re just biological machines, as the theory of evolution seems to suggest, then we’re subject to a strict determinism which obliterates the concept of free will.

This may indeed be true, but religious belief offers only a cheap, and ultimately unsatisfying way out of it.

Whenever I go to make a choice, certain background factors inevitably come into play. If I were trying to choose between two pizzas, then the decision would be made on a number of – fairly predictable – factors such as taste, how much effort I wanted to expend, what I’d recently had to eat, etc. All of which can be seen as determining my choice.

Yet, the existence of a soul, separate from my physical body, does nothing to change this. Unless, of course, we say that God somehow allows us to make choices which, while not determined by our pre-existing preferences, isn’t purely random. But this is a somewhat lazy way out of the problem.

Alex adds:
And now for determinism. First off, I'm not so sure I'm comfortable with the idea of a soul separate from the body. At one point, that was my position, but revvvvd challenged me on that one and I have since done some more reading that has caused that position to be a bit less tenable than it used to be. I would now suggest that we are souls. We are biological bodies, but the trouble comes when we say we are "just" biological bodies. We are body. We are spirit. Different aspects not different substances. Anywho, enough on that.

If, as Matt suggests, This indeed may be true, regarding a strict deterministic world view, how can you live your life without an extreme dose of self-deception? Speaking of laziness, if you were to internalize the concept that you had no free will the level of apathy one would be forced to maintain would be what we now call a type of neurosis. It is impossible for us to have a healthy mental state and truly believe that we have no control over our life, decisions, or actions. To believe that everything will simply be what it will be and we are powerless to affect change of any sort, imparts a feeling of despair that you simply cannot avoid without lying to yourself.

Now the charge that all Christianity has to offer is a cheap, and ultimately unsatisfying way out of it. needs to be demonstrated.

Here's my position: We are created by God. God has told us who He is. He has told us he created us for joy and the fullest of life. He tells us He created us for a love so great we cannot now conceive it. We are free to make our own choices and are responsible for our actions. We are free to affect change in the world for better, or worse. Our thoughts really are our thoughts. They are not simply chemical noise. I can say of my own free will "Matt you are a person I respect and I very much enjoy our conversations."

The deterministic position: We are the product of a mindless explosion. The conditions at this precise moment were determined by the precise conditions at the time of the massive explosion. We are the effects of an uncaused cause. We are complete slaves to the conditions surrounding us. Even our own thoughts are results of causes beyond our control. Our futures are determined, we cannot change it. Matt cannot say, "Alex you are a nice chap.", but the big bang can, not that it really matters since no one is listening anyway.

I don't know about you, but I know which one leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

Matt rejoins:
I didn't say that it was "all Christianity has to offer" - but I've yet to see a convincing theistic argument which demonstrates the existence of the type of libertarian free will suggested here. Either our actions are determined by our preferences (whether God-given or evolved) or they're random.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

To my Atheist brothers:

I am praying for you tonight. I am praying to the God you don't believe in. I am praying for you, my brothers. I am praying to the One who at this very moment is speaking to your heart. I am praying that you have not shut Him out forever. I am praying that you know Him whether you know it or not. I am praying that the God who spoke all reality into existence would beat down the doors of your heart and force you to look Him straight in the eye. I am saddened to know that He probably will not. He loves you to much to violate you in such a way. I am praying that your hearts have not been hardened. I am praying that you will see forever a beauty that your minds cannot now conceive. I am praying that you will be helpless and broken. I am praying that you will find the One Truth that has the power to lift you back-up.

My heart is broken for you. Know that I love you as brothers. I have found a community of mind amongst you that, even in the midst of our divisions, has led me to count you as my brothers. This may sound as foolishness, but it is the truth of my heart. It's just the place I am at. I wish I could offer you more than a plea – more than my amateur attempts at reason. It's all I have. It's all I will continue to give.

May the Lord who creates, sustains, and redeems us be real to you.


Friday, February 16, 2007

...and now for something completely different

For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word.
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin.
Give the audience a grin.
Enjoy it. It's your last chance, anyhow.

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Obey, or (and) die.

This post is a response to Rev. Dr. Incitatus who has brought the conversation from meaning back to morality. This is cause for great excitement around here because we LOVE talking about morality! =) To get the background on this post please visit the back-story here.

Before I dig in I would like to enter a plea to all who visit this blog. Please don't let each thread die as a new one begins! If there are still areas you wish to explore in an existing thread, by all means, continue commenting on it. I would encourage everyone to make the "recent comments/rss feed" link the first stop on each visit. I know as we speak there are conversations going on in threads that have long sense sunk to the bottom of the list. I just hate seeing productive threads disappear as soon as a new one is posted. Okay, enough on that. Let the show begin!

Rev. Dr. Incitatus,
Okay here's where I'm at. I can see how our sense of morality could have evolved in parallel with our species. I don't really have a problem with that. My objection begins when the naturalistic assumption goes no further than "mindless purposeless matter and energy". Working within that paradigm you then have a organism that is able to step outside of it's self and see the meaninglessness of it's situation. If pure naturalism is correct this odd little organism could see that his empathy is nothing more than an evolved survival mechanism, then freely circumvent this feature when it advantageous to the current circumstance. Granted, this organism would have to overcome it's ingrained "feelings" to do so, (as in your dehumanizing of the enemy example) but there should certainly be no need for "guilt" in the matter. Living in this paradigm can you then say that is it "wrong" to dehumanize the enemy?

I get the feeling I really need to read Dawkins Selfish Gene. The reason I say that is because I see in the naturalist perspective a continual appeal to what is advantageous for the survival of the species. All morality is viewed through the lens of species survival. There is this undercurrent running through all life on this planet that exudes the need to survive. Where does that come from? What a sad little joke if pure naturalism is correct. You get a planet of organisms that become animated then proceed to strive an yearn for survival on a planet that is doomed to annihilation. That fact renders null this mysterious survival instinct and the morality that has evolved along with it.

Of course that is a big picture view and none of us are existing in the "big picture". We exist in the now. So in the here-and-now how should we operate with regards to morality if pure naturalism is adopted? I'd guess you just do what works. Ride the pony while it's still walking. In a practical sense no one is going to walk around striving to live their life for the good of the species. We will live our lives for the good of US. Nature will decide what is good for the species. Sounds pretty liberating does it not?

So what of the vast populations of the world that do not live in a privileged life filled with the benefits that we in developed nations enjoy?

No worries, nature will take care of it.

What of all wars for territory and resources?

No worries, that is just the natural process of selection in action. Things will be as they will be. All you need to concern yourself with is enjoying this ride as much as possible given your circumstances.

You encapsulate this position well when you state:

Basically, to me morality is simply one of evolutions dirty tricks. But like sex, I'm quite happy to go along with it.

You seem to acknowledge the reality that pure naturalism brings. Your life is a dirty trick. But you may as well enjoy it while you have it. If your life is filled with misery and despair (as many are), tough cookies. If you don't like it you can leave. (and many do)

I don't know man, this treatise on the evolutionary origins of morality may have progressed my thoughts on the natural aspect of morality, but it has done nothing to explain why it should be obeyed. It's not our job to ensure the survival of the species. Our job is to be random variations. It's natures job to sort out who survives.

If my view stands it should be no surprise that morality has a natural aspect as well as spiritual aspect. This is consistent with my view of what it means to be human. We are natural, flesh and bone, yet we are spiritual as well. To separate the two does violence to the way we operate in our day-to-day lives. If morality is purely natural there is no reason to follow it's leadings. If Man is purely natural there is no reason He should be esteemed or bestowed with inherent worth.

If the "now" that we live in continues to tell us to value others, to live a good life, to choose to love your spouse so that "true love" may develop, etc...—yet the big picture that swirls around us takes no notice of us and progresses on to a future that will quickly be the end of us all... The result is a wicked hoax that taunts us. We are all deceived. We have been given a life we never asked for and forced to watch those we love die the deaths they always feared.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Praise for all!

Tom Freeman, our good friend and Co-impetus for the creation of this blog in the first place has tagged us with "The Thinking Blogger Award". Many thanks to you sir! As anyone who has been following this blog at all must know by now, very little of what goes on here is "just Alex's thoughts". We have maintained a synergy amongst individuals who come from polar opposites on the world-view scale (at least with regard to God). To the credit of all who contribute here we all seem to keep coming back! So I would like to formally bestow this thoughtful award upon the few brave souls who dare toss their cherished perspectives in to the arena. It is because of you that Tom's brain is forced to think when he visits!

The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote

As for the blogs that make me think... I know, I know... I'm so predictable!
up, up and away, Some Strange Ideas, Greg Boyd's Blog, The Garden of Forking Paths, Imagined Community

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Abolition of Man

This post is to enshrine the current iteration of a well traveled topic on this blog. Matt and I have been continually kicking around this idea of what role "Meaning" plays in our lives and where each of us believes it comes from. The most recent thrashing of this subject is occurring here. It gets down to some very bedrock issues and is well worth a read. Having said that, shall we begin anew?

As you said earlier, reason plays a relatively minor role in this process of world view formation. Sure, you can consciously will it to the forefront, at least to the degree that you are aware of it, but for the most part our struggle to sort out these issues takes place in a much different realm.

Thus far you have battered me with question after question regarding the stance I take on these issues. I, in turn, have taken my swipes at the atheistic world view. Where has that brought us?

I don't know about you, but after all this, I am feeling more confident than ever with my position. Not because I have succeeded in "proving" anything, but because the more I explore the alternative to theism, the more I see how atheism is bound to bring about the abolition of man. If atheism is our starting point, man will be demeaned and devalued right out of existence; not by the atheist, (most of them do not realize the poison they hold) but by the empty philosophy that reduces man to random chemistry and leaves us with no hope other than oblivion.

So when it comes down to it, I am confident in my theism because of how I feel. My feelings, (and everyone else's) point to something that atheism has no room for. You yourself want to feel deeply about life. However, your world view cannot contain it. Atheism is the most vulgar of all the options on the table. Of all the wold views man has constructed nothing annihilates our worth, meaning, hope, beauty, and love faster than atheism. You can try and twist around this any number of ways, but the stated tenants of the naturalistic position create an immediate contradiction:

You may feel each of the emotions stated above, but naturalism will at the same moment, half under it's breath, utter: but it's only chance and chemicals and is therefore meaningless.

You don't seem to accept this and I don't blame you. I know you want meaning Matt, but I'm afraid for you to grasp it you are going to need to let to let go of the idea that there is no God and we are just lonely accidents floating on to oblivion.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

My Anthem

After months of long running debate over here it rather gave me the chills when I first heard this song. Though I may say many things in this blog using many words this song pretty much encapsulates my position... Not to mention it RAWKS!!! It's called Of Dust And Nations by Thrice. Enjoy.

The towers that shoulder your pride,
The words you've written in stone,
Sand will cover them,
Sand will cover you.
The streets that suffer your name,
Your very flesh and your bones,
Sand will cover them,
Sand will cover you.

So put your faith,
In more than steel,
Don't store your treasures up,
With moth and rust,
Where thieves break in and steal.
Pull the fangs,
From out your heel.
O'We live in but a shadow of the real.

Step out from time,
See the dust of nations.
Step out from time,
Hear the stars' ovation.

Saturn will not sleep until,
The sand has made us clean
Still we stack our stones and bury what we can,
But it all will be undone,
And nothing built under the Sun,
Will Ever stand before the endless march of sand.

So put your faith,
In more than steel,
Don't store your treasures up,
With moth and rust,
Where thieves break in and steal.
Pull the fangs,
From out your heel.
O'We live in but a shadow of the real.

So put your faith,
In more than steel,
Don't store your treasures up,
With moth and rust,
Where thieves break in and steal.
Pull the fangs,
From out your heel.
O'we live in but a shadow of the real

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Show me the money!

This is a response to Alex’s comment here. As it deals with something I’ve been mulling over for a while now I thought I’d give it the honour of its own post, in the hope that it will help move the discussion along slightly.

After battering the origin and design of the universe around for a bit, and coming to no firm conclusion, Alex suggested we turn to the issue of the resurrection, to which I replied:

Both of us are going to read into it what we believe: for you it's the work of God, for me it's a distorted version of a non-divine event.

…which Alex felt was a little glib and relativistic.

However, I didn’t quite intend it in that way.

As I see it, knowledge comes in two general forms: that supplied by direct observation, and speculation built on this observation.

Let’s take the theory of evolution for example. The theory that natural selection can account for the diverse range of life which exists on this planet, as species adapt to the environment they find themselves in is largely a matter of speculation for all of us – no-one was around to observe the events of the last few billion years. However, it has its foundations in things can be directly observed: genetic variation within species and competition for resources and procreation.

Without that direct observation, I’d have no good reason for accepting the theory of evolution as likely.

It’s a similar situation with the resurrection of Christ: The theory that Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead is a matter of speculation for all of us – no-one alive today was around to witness these events. However, if you’ve had direct experience of God in some way, and found religious texts like the Bible to be generally true to what happened, then you have grounds for accepting the resurrection of Christ as likely.

But, equally: the theory that tales of Christ’s resurrection are simply distorted versions of a non-supernatural event is pure speculation – I wasn’t there. However, in terms of direct observation I know that I’ve never had any personal experience of God’s existence, I’ve found that arguments put forward by believers are generally flawed/unconvincing and I know that events can become distorted in the telling.

Therefore, for people in my position, the distortion theory is really the only one we’re justified in holding.

Any debate between theists and atheists has to be conducted in terms of what is directly observable – if I have no experience of God, then tales which posit his existence are generally going to seem extremely unlikely, and are therefore unlikely to lead to anything except fundamental disagreement.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Some thoughts on living a meaningful life

For some theists, the ultimate consequence of an atheistic existence must be a sort of apathetic nihilism: there is no God to provide meaning to our lives, so therefore life must be meaningless.

However, this is true only if meaning has to come from an external source in order to be considered valid. Many atheists reject this.

For something to have meaning for an individual it simply has to “mean” something to them, the source of this meaning, be it internal or external, is irrelevant. For most of us, life has an inherent value and meaning simply because we’re living it – nothing more is necessary.

Insisting that meaning has to come from an external source is committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy:

Theist: Life without God is meaningless.
Atheist: I find my life quite meaningful, actually.
Theist: Ahhh – but it’s not true meaning is it!

Alex adds:

Hey Matt,
I knew I shouldn't have checked the blog today... I'm still feeling quite ill and have very little energy, but if I don't at least respond to one of these I fear I will get no further rest! Thanks bud.

I'm glad you made a post of this topic as it is one we continually circle around and I admit I have probably been less than clear with my responses. It also ties in nicely with a comment by the good Dr. Rev. here that I was also procrastinating on.

Let me start with a restatement of our positions:

Atheist: I believe there is no God, but my life still seems to have meaning, therefore we can have meaning in the absence of God.

Theist: A meaningless cause cannot beget a meaningful effect. Since the first cause is God, who is meaningful and purposeful, we as effects of His first cause can live a life of meaning and purpose.

The reason I take issue with the atheist position that the known universe can be self existent and godless, yet we can live a meaningful life, is that there is a fundamental disconnect between what we feel and what we know when we take that stance.

If you adhere to the belief that that we are the product of a yet to be explained singularity that occurred by a mindless process and is proceeding to an equally mindless, homogenous end, there is no opening for the word meaning. The whole show simply is.

If you then pick out an incredibly brief sliver of time and zoom in to our current state as organic creatures on a rock we call Earth orbiting a star we call the Sun, you would find Matt and Alex debating their existence. Is there any room for meaning yet? If so where did it come from? The answer given from the atheist bench thus far has been: "Us". Meaning is real because we feel it.

To which my standard response has been: Then to the degree that you believe in your meaning you believe in a lie. Your meaning is a product of your feelings, which is a product of your chemistry, which is a product of chance + matter, which comes from who knows where. Sure you can embrace it and exult it as worthy, but in the end it's only as worthy of exultation as a baking soda & vinegar volcano. If there is no God our meaning is meaningless. If the atheist can stare that in the face and still try and maintain that their *meaning* is still valid and worthy, they must be willing to accept a life based on a foundation of self deception.

I have yet to find an atheist who is comfortable with this conclusion. All attempts I have seen to work around this problem start with the basis of our feelings, empathy, etc... At which point I always point back to the question: what do those stem from? I really can't see anyway out of this problem for the atheist.

If it's a purely materialistic existence you want you'd better be ready to accept the meaninglessness that goes along with it.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007


An interesting sarcastic rant composed by Steve Turner a British music journalist, biographer, and poet.

This is the creed I have written on behalf of all us.

We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin
We believe everything is OK
as long as you don't hurt anyone,
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.

We believe in sex before, during, and after marriage.
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that sodomy is OK.
We believe that taboos are taboo.

We believe that everything is getting better
despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence must be investigated
And you can prove anything with evidence.

We believe there's something in
horoscopes, UFO's and bent spoons;
Jesus was a good man
just like Buddha, Mohammed, and ourselves.
He was a good moral teacher
although we think His good morals were bad.

We believe that all religions are basically the same--
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.

We believe that after death comes the Nothing
Because when you ask the dead what happens they say nothing.
If death is not the end, if the dead have lied,
then it's compulsory heaven for all
excepting perhaps Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Khan.

We believe in Masters and Johnson.
What's selected is average.
What's average is normal.
What's normal is good.

We believe in total disarmament.
We believe there are direct links between warfare and bloodshed.
Americans should beat their guns into tractors
and the Russians would be sure to follow.

We believe that man is essentially good.
It's only his behavior that lets him down.
This is the fault of society.
Society is the fault of conditions.
Conditions are the fault of society.

We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust.
History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

We believe in the rejection of creeds,
and the flowering of individual thought.

"Chance" a post-script

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
and when you hear

State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!

It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

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