Archive for June, 2011

Perspicacity

Posted in Faith Experience on June 30, 2011 by RWZero

“The more consciousness there is in such a sufferer who wants in despair to be himself, the more the despair intensifies and becomes demonic. It usually begins like this: a self which in despair wants to be himself, suffers some kind of pain which cannot be removed or separated from his concrete self. He then heaps upon this torment all his passion, which then becomes a demonic rage. If it should now happen that God in heaven and all the angels were to offer to help him to be rid of this torment – no, he does not want that, now it is too late. Once he would have gladly have given everything to be rid of this agony, but he was kept waiting, and now all that’s past; he prefers to rage against everything and be the one whom the whole world, all existence, has wronged, the one for whom it is especially important to ensure that he has his agony on hand, so that no one will take it from him – for then he would not be able to convince others and himself that he is right. This finally fixes itself so firmly in his head that he becomes frightened of eternity for a rather strange reason: he is afraid in case it should take away from him what, from the demonic viewpoint, gives him infinite superiority over other people, what, from the demonic viewpoint, is his right to be who he is. […] As the weak despairer will hear nothing about what comfort eternity has in store for him, so too with this despairer, but for a different reason: the comfort would be his undoing – as an objection to the whole of existence. It is, to describe it figuratively, as if a writer were to make a slip of the pen, and the error become conscious of itself as such – perhaps it wasn’t a mistake but from a much higher point of view an essential ingredient in the whole presentation – and as if this error wanted now to rebel against the author, out of hatred for him forbid him to correct it, and in manic defiance say to him: ‘No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against you, a witness to the fact that you are a second-rate author.'”

– Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

A Short Note on Metaphysical Probabilities

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on June 28, 2011 by RWZero

There exists an ongoing argument between people with strong teleological, and dysteleological, views. They argue about “whether this could’ve happened by chance,” how likely it is to have happened on its own, what version of the anthropic principle one believes in, and so forth. So I’d just like to point out that the whole discussion is absurd.

In order to speak about probabilities, one must have an understanding of how likely the various outcomes of an “event” are. One can talk about die-roll probabilities because it is clear how likely it is for a particular number to show up on the face of a die. We have seen other numbers on faces of dice. We roll them all the time. But one cannot talk about the “probability” of existence altogether. We only have one universe to look at. The experiment cannot be repeated with a different result, it cannot be compared with anything, its frequency of occurrence is unknown, and its fundamental nature is unknown. One may look at the world and interpret it as being one thing or another, but one may not talk about chance. Even the mere notion of “chance” presumes the existence of a scenario upon which chance can operate, which in this case is to presume the conclusion.

So one cannot speak about probabilities here. It is more like a confidence interval, if it is like anything at all.

God

Posted in The Narrow Path on June 26, 2011 by RWZero

I considered, at first, that I could write for a long time with a heading like this. But I don’t have to.

I’ve tried saying “I don’t believe in God” out loud a few times, and it doesn’t seem to take. Certainly I didn’t fare very well when I tried to actively disbelieve in the existence of God–I may never survive another stunt like that. However, I’ve tried saying “I believe in God” out loud as well, lately, and it doesn’t take either. So I’m not sure that I really believe the words that are coming out of my mouth when I say either of those things.

It is not just that I am unsure whether there is a God, but that I am unsure what we are even talking about. This being noted, perhaps I am some kind of an ignostic.

Who, or what, is God?

The $64,000 question is not whether there is a God. It is whether we can know God, and moreover, whether there is anything we can do about it. I have almost total doubt and disbelief when it comes to those things.

I have no problem believing generally in God. The world is elaborate, vast, complex, and full of sentient beings who have conscious experiences. Most importantly, it exists. That has often been enough for me. If there is no mind at the bottom of the universe, how is it that the universe produces all these little minds? That would seem to suggest that we got more in the effect than we had in the cause (an argument put forth by apologist Peter Kreeft that I always found somewhat compelling). And in any case, there has to be some explanation for what all this stuff is. But when you start to dig a little deeper, it becomes more tenuous.

Do we suppose that God is a being that is conscious of himself in the same way that we are conscious of ourselves? That is almost impossible by definition. Many people seem to talk about God as if he is a “big person,” someone who gets angry, makes decisions, thinks about things–but this is impossible. It is impossible because all the human characteristics that we ascribe to God arise from limitations that God is not supposed to posses. I almost do not feel the need to explicate my position on this; I think it is clear that if there is a God, this God is so totally beyond our comprehension that we have no business engaging in this infantile behaviour of bargaining with him, guessing his will (“aw, God was just trying to tell me to stay behind for the rest of summer camp!”), and so forth. No such “big person” God can exist; it is just not possible for such a God with those characteristics to be the same God who created the very universe in which such behaviour manifests itself.

Before I go too far down this road, however, I must reiterate that I do not believe this is the real question. The real question is whether the God of one of the world’s major religions is the God who made the world. And here I think we get into trouble.

If we forget, for a moment, that I see all these serious, insurmountable issues with Christianity, we nonetheless have this problem: God either has revealed himself through a religion, he has hidden himself altogether, or he does not exist at all. My logic is as follows:

– Hiding yourself altogether is kind of the same thing as not existing.

– It seems hard to believe that God would create the world and then hide himself. But we know that if God exists, he has hidden himself from everyone at some time, because there was a long period of time where no humans believed in any of the current religions. So if there is a God, we are dealing with a God who does not particularly care that the world know about him. There’s no way around this at all. It is impossible for a God to exist who wants most people to know who he is.

– Not only does God not care whether most people know about him, but he does not communicate with people who try to find him. I know this because I prayed for my whole life, and I just saw the back of my eyelids, and nothing happened at all; not even with my amazing ability to weave past events into a coherent narrative. I still pray a bit sometimes (what about it? Who are you going to send, the doublethink police?), and nothing continues to happen (which is why I don’t do it very often). So maybe God talks to you, but he doesn’t talk to me and he doesn’t talk to most people.

– If God exists, he hid himself from most people who ever lived, and then he doesn’t remotely communicate with, or give any direction to, most of the people who believe in him (even if the biggest religion, Christianity, is true). He forces them to make post-hoc rationalizations about everything and invent stories to explain why he’s behaving this way. What exactly does one do about that?

The Christian God purposefully expresses his intention to blind people and prevent them from seeing him. I think if that’s the way it’s going to be, we should really just give up. When people tell you to keep on seeking, they don’t often mention that if God’s hand is over your eyes, there’s no getting it off.

But enough of these snide remarks. My point is simply this: I want to believe in God, generally speaking. In fact I am quite inclined to think there must be a God, when I look around me. But as soon as I start to add anything to that–ascribing characteristics to him, or wondering what I should do about it–there is an almost impenetrable dead end. No God that I can invent, in my mind, fits with this world that I see around me, when I look at it closely.

For this reason, I see no reason to argue too much about the general “existence of God,” because as impressive as the universe is, we must have some idea of what we are talking about in order to argue about it. Believers often try to blindside unbelievers by pointing out reasons to “believe in God,” when the only important question is “which God?” (when I was in school, there was an annual musical comedy show called “Skule Nite” put on by the engineers–one of the skits began like this, with a questioner stating belief in God, and a person coming on stage and asking: “Which God?” at which point the curtains swung open and a big song began about shopping for a God to believe in, at the “God Mart”).

If one is to speak strictly, I could be called all sorts of things other than agnostic.

I am a theist in the sense that I believe in something. I am agnostic in the sense that, for any given something, I do not know if that something is there. And I am an atheist in the sense that no matter what may be out there, none of it has any discernible involvement with me.

The Sin of Discounting Specifics with Generalities

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on June 21, 2011 by RWZero

You cannot dismiss a claim by pointing out general reasons why people tend to be mistaken about such claims.

Moreover, you can’t go making arguments that could be equally said of both sides. What’s so hard about this? I’ve pointed it out as a Christian, and I’ll point it out again as a conflicted agnostic. It’s all over the place. And this doesn’t even exclusively apply to the big questions.

You cannot dismiss evidence because “people went out expecting to find it.” Seriously. The real question is whether or not they found it. I recognize that you’re thinking about the errors of cherry-picking and systematic bias. But those are much different from suggesting that all evidence be blindly stumbled upon in order to be meaningful.

You cannot dismiss people’s memories because “memory is fallible.” You cannot dismiss something someone saw because “people see all kinds of things.” In some contexts, memory and sight are fallible. In others, they aren’t.

You cannot dismiss a conclusion or a belief because “people just want to support worldview X” or “people believe all sorts of things.” I hate to say it, but it really doesn’t matter whether people are wrongly-motivated, or even if they are credulous. It only matters whether their conclusions make sense.

You can’t argue against a specific reason for believing in God by stating that “people have always been trying to use God to explain things that have natural explanations.”

You can’t argue against a specific reason for disbelieving in God by stating that “people will always find a way to deny God so they don’t have to follow him.”

You cannot blindly assert that “nothing can convince you anyway, you won’t change your mind.” Nothing can convince YOU, and YOU won’t change your mind! It is not a prerequisite of meaningful debate that both parties appear on the brink of changing their minds. Especially because it’s possible that one party is right about the issue at hand, and knows this with enough certainty that faking uncertainty is disingenuous.

I recently read a book by Vincent Bugliosi (whose science is a bit deficient, but who is nonetheless a logical man). He began by posing a question to the following effect: “If a bum and Winston Churchill both had something [conflicting] to say about World War II, who would you believe?” The answer, he explains, is not “Winston Churchill,” as 99% of people respond. The answer is “I’d have to hear what he had to say.”

But people don’t hear what’s said, because people are biased, and they’re too busy making generalizations about how people are biased and don’t hear what’s said.

Let the specifics speak.

Tree of Life

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on June 20, 2011 by RWZero

Thanks, Terrence Malick. Your existence makes mine a little easier.

Stopping Points

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on June 19, 2011 by RWZero

This is a very serious belief of mine that I take rather seriously, so I should not be writing a short post about it at 2:35 AM on a Sunday. As with all such ideas, I’m sure other people have expressed it elsewhere, in some other way, but it has occurred to me and so I would like to write it down.

I believe that our sanity and consistency is based primarily on what I like to call “stopping points.” These are essentially simple concepts, statements, or ideas that mark the end of a line of inquiry. I believe there is one at the end of every single line of inquiry we can imagine. While it may be obvious to the individual that the “stopping point” can be deconstructed and analyzed, most people will not even think to do this, because it satisfies the mind for its own purposes. I imagine a starting point from which all our thoughts branch, like threads. At the end of each thread, I imagine a little walnut-like object that contains a thickly-knotted ball of thread, and all the loose ends, that could stretch on forever if unrolled. Those are the stopping points.

My belief is that the stopping points are fake. We invent them so that we can stop thinking, when in reality it just goes on and on until who knows what, when or why. Maybe it loops around and comes back to where it all started.

A common example might be to ask a common person on the street what everything is made of. If you’re lucky, the person might say that everything is made of “atoms,” or “electrons, protons and neutrons.” If you’re luckier, they might run on a bit about quarks, leptons, or some drivel about strings (and let’s face it – we scientific types proudly mention “string theory” as if we have some understanding of it, but despite having read a few books on the subject, I still haven’t a clue what the hell string theory really is and you probably don’t either). But under few circumstances will the person self-start a discussion about what that is made out of. They will stop there and fold their arms. If you want people to shrug and start saying things like “the stuff” or “I don’t know,” you have to twist their arms. You have to crack the little walnut.

There are people who believe that life on earth was seeded by aliens, and/or that these aliens are responsible for guiding and studying human affairs. That is their answer to the question of how life got on earth, and various other strange circumstances surrounding our existence. But I have never read much about such people discussing where these aliens came from, what possible purpose they could have for us, and what the point of creating humans and studying them is. I imagine that if such beings exist, they ought to be asking themselves that question. They ought to be depressed, really, unless they are so enlightened that their ways are not our ways. But for people who believe in such aliens, the aliens are a stopping point–no more questions need to be asked, because the undiscovered information is presumed to have some bearing on further inquiry. Perhaps if we knew the aliens, we’d know something that would help us answer those bigger questions. All we need to know is that the aliens are there.

I would like to raise the point, now, that God is a stopping point in the mind of all people who believe in God. This is not the same thing as saying “Who Made God?” (since if there is a God, nobody can possibly fathom such a question). It is to say, rather, that assuming a transcendent and omnipotent God does not make things make any more sense, if you are willing to keep on thinking about it. We now have this omniscient God who made humanity. So what? I mean, whence this God and his universe full of little creatures who argue about his existence? Is this some kind of a game? Previously we had an absurd scenario full of impenetrable mystery. Now we have a God who was responsible for creating this absurd scenario full of impenetrable mystery, and I dare say that raises even more questions than we had before. When the questions behind the questions are asked, I am not sure that anyone can find sense.

Every person has a limit to his or her knowledge, and without stopping points the person would bleed out, so to speak. I know this information because I read it. I read by obtaining the information through my eyes, which is processed in my brain. Processed in my brain. It’s just three mysterious words, but it does the trick. We would all go nuts if we tried to think otherwise. I submit that to proclaim the existence of God (as the answer to “why”) is the same thing as to proclaim that everything is “due to natural law.” God and “natural law” serve the same purpose in that particular context: to put an end to the regress, and to put us to sleep at night.

Although I will say that aside from the terrible nightmares (which have stopped lately), the events of late have put me to sleep a lot faster, because you don’t have to think when you’re asleep.

Secular Church and Stock Answers

Posted in The Narrow Path on June 17, 2011 by RWZero

I’m going to try to write about two small things at once.

I visited the church of Atheism tonight (the CFI, that is). I always hated the Centre for Inquiry in the past, perceiving them as wildly skeptical debunkers who were afraid of the unknown, and I swore that I’d never get involved with those guys… but I took a deep breath and attended their panel discussion (which was hosted by Michael Coren), which had someone representing each faith. The Christians, however, were a little overrepresented, having two Roman Catholics and an evangelical.

Nevermind the panel discussion. It wasn’t very interesting and almost nothing was said.

As it turns out, Justin Trottier and the other handful of secularists in there are actually very reasonable and personable. I was amazed at how much better they were than I expected. Granted, I still encountered some classically skeptical, scientism-oriented people who I think could use a bit of shoehorn in the imagination, but it really wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad at all. They’re nice people! And they aren’t as closed-minded as I thought they were. But I trolled them a bit anyway.

*   *   *

The next thing I was thinking about, just now, was Christian stock answers. It isn’t the stock answers I was thinking about, but rather, the total lack of respect that’s used in applying them. I was thinking about this because I had some used on me, and it made me so angry that I surprised myself. I didn’t know this childish rage was still inside me.

Why does it make me angry? Because I defended Christianity for my whole life, and knowing this, they go ahead and use them on me anyway. You can sit in a church and criticize Christianity, and people will take you somewhat seriously. They might even think about what you say. But as soon as you step outside the circle even for a moment–even after a lifetime of being on their side–all of it is moot. You’re one of them. Your lifetime of belief doesn’t mean two bags of llama droppings; they just turn right around and subject you to the same one-dimensional treatment that they give the rest of the world. I think I deserve to be taken a little more seriously on account of my history: but no.

“You chose to see it in that way. You choose to believe that such and such is true.” I’ve never heard of people choosing things that they desperately don’t want to choose, but perhaps I’m not up on my 21st-century definitions of “choice.” It gets even more interesting: “there’s always a choice [with regard to belief], even if you’re not conscious of it.” If you’re not conscious of it, in what sense is it a choice? Moreover, how exactly does one even acquire such a weird belief? If you’re not conscious of it, then you can’t even know that there exist unconscious beliefs, because you aren’t conscious of them.

Imagine you worked for the producers of Windex, and you’re told that everyone who denies the supremacy of Windex is suffering from indoctrination by the anti-Windex media. People who think that the Windex hasn’t cleaned their windows have blurry vision. So you work the phones for your whole life, doing door to door Windex sales and telling people who call in that they’re hallucinating the streaks on the windows. But one day you sit at home testing out the Windex against the competition, and you become convinced that the Windex really does have some issues. You tell some of your fellow employees about your findings, and what do they say? Your lifelong compatriots? You’re clearly suffering from indoctrination by the anti-Windex media. Doesn’t mean a thing that you’ve used that line on a thousand other human beings; doesn’t mean a thing that you’re gambling with your livelihood by talking about this. Everyone who denies the supremacy of Windex is suffering from one of the issues on the list taped above your cubicle. We who work here at the Windex factory know how it is. If you worked here and you deny this, then you never really worked here in the first place, for those who have gone out from us were never really on the payroll, for if they were on the payroll then they would not have gone out from us.

Just unbelievable. It’s not always like this, but when it is, I burn like a torch.