Wednesday, July 09, 2008

It's been over two years since this blog was born, and over five months since my last post. I should correct that... What shall I talk about? Ah, I know.

Religion. Religion is still as misguided as ever, but atheists have risen spectacularly to the task of proving that "reasonable" folk, too, can be utterly moronic. The point of atheism is to maintain a healthy skepticism, an honest humility, and an acceptance of what one does not and cannot know. The point is not to jump down the throat of those who are as ignorant of their views as you are of yours. A bad atheist is just as dangerous, just as pathetic, and just as stupid as a bad theist.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had just over a year ago with Leon Kass. As I tentatively made clear my transhumanist tendencies, he expressed -- to my surprise -- a form of relief, instead of the hostility I was expecting. He said he'd rather deal with people who were aware of technology's potential -- for good and for bad -- than those who were completely in the dark about the possibilities. This, I think, is a good stance to take. It's better to face an enemy who is educated in his weapon of choice; such people exhibit intelligence, caution, respect, and skill, and are far more worthy of triumph or defeat.

If you're a radical atheist, and believe me, I can be, remember your reasons for it. Remember why you became an atheist in the first place. Most atheists I know (e.g., atheists pre-Dawkins et al) became so independently, often secretly, because their intellectual paths forced them there. I, for one, did not want to stop believing in God. The idea of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-merciful God is a great concept -- our lives are guaranteed to mean something. There is an answer, and a fairly simple one at that. This sort of God may very well exist, although I'm inclined to doubt it. As a little girl, I wanted desperately to be like the God-loving heroines I read about in books; I valued very highly the virtues I read about, including the deep piety exhibited by all my childhood heroes. As an almost laughably spiritual kid, I'd skip classes in elementary school (sorry, Mom and Dad) to climb trees and tell God what was on my mind. I very much believed He was listening, although I never once expected him to talk back. I'd often feel guilty for wasting his time with my silly observations, and foolish laments (often over dead birds or wounded snails), so I instead spent hours praying for people I didn't know, generically hoping that everyone would be okay.

I remember finding a book on prayer in the back of a classroom (Mr. Marshall's room, in case anyone who reads this went to Highland Oaks Elementary in the early 1990's). Skimming it led me to believe that this was a secret method for actually communicating with God -- a hotline to the Deity himself! I remember furtively copying the Lord's Prayer into my own notebook, so that I could try it myself later that day. It became almost an obsession; I'd recite it in my head as I walked to school, to classes, as I fell asleep. It didn't matter that He never answered back; He's God, He's not supposed to respond to humans. We were supposed to accept our place happily, and I did. Knowing that God was real, that he was listening, and that I loved Him -- all of these things brought me almost constant elation.

Anyone who says that even theists aren't happy all the time is not a good theist -- if you truly believe, with every breath, that there is an all-forgiving God who loves you, you will always be happy. Moments of unhappiness are moments of weakness that are quickly corrected, when you remember how the universe truly works. This life is important, sure, but it's nothing compared to the totality of God and His plans. Hardships are merely opportunities for you to smile upwards and thank Him for giving you this test. If you are worried about yourself, ever, as a Christian, you're doing it wrong. Needless to say, elementary school was overwhelmingly the happiest time of my life.

I remember, even further back, my mother telling me as a toddler about Karma. I wildly misinterpreted the concept -- I believed that she was describing a physical law, and that there were actual, physical repercussions based on good and evil deeds. This, combined with being told that God and Christ were real, absolute figures, skewed my thinking for years. Of course, this is why most children brought up in a religious household are themselves religious; kids take everything literally, and parents are incapable of telling a lie. Parents are also incapable of not having an answer.

In fourth grade, I switched elementary schools, and had to do my first ever science project. (If this were a Christian blog, you'd insert ominous music here.) Terrified of looking stupid -- I had never done a science project before, and all the other kids had been doing them since first grade -- I tried to learn everything I could about doing science. I found a book on science projects, interestingly (or perhaps not) also in the back of Mr. Marshall's classroom.The first time I read the scientific method, I didn't understand it. The second time, something was involuntarily electrified in my thoughts -- this was a method of knowing truth! Truth! The most important thing possible! Previously, I had constant faith that truth existed, and that it was knowable -- but this was how to actually make it known! I was as excited as I was when I found the book on prayer -- this was a way to communicate with the absolutes, the only things that mattered. I thanked God almost constantly for months. I kept reading.

Thus began my career in science; a desire to learn the Truth at all costs (and let me tell you, being a nerd all your life has its costs. How many people will have to tell their grandkids that they missed their senior prom for an international science fair?). I kept reading, kept questioning, and kept familiarizing myself with increasingly nuanced scientific thought. For a long time, God and science were not incompatible; they were the same thing. And for a lot of people, this is still the case; they managed to understand in a way that I could not. The threads of positivism are so deeply and beautifully woven into the fabric of scientific thought, that I was at long last forced to reluctantly give up my all-consuming belief in the Christian God. This was not desired; it was merely necessary. I do not regret it.

Real revolutions are not those declared -- they are those resigned to, those forced upon the unwilling; they are the uprooting and often unpleasant changes brought to the door of the disinclined yet prepared. If you became an atheist because you consider yourself a rebel, or because your friends are, or because you think PZ Myers is cool, you are not an atheist. You are a child, or an idiot. You owe a great deal of historical debt to religion, whether you like it or not. You must cast off God with reluctance and acceptance of this debt. You must move forward only because you are compelled to, by your own independent and rational thought. You are not an atheist -- just as you are not a theist -- unless you've earned it.


At 6:10:00 AM , Blogger Credo Ut Intellegam said...

Oh, you make me so sad -- it sounds merely as if you swapped one dogma for another far more bleak one. You exchanged belief in God for belief that ONLY positivism can reveal the Truth -- which statement is wholly unsubstantiated. The fact that you think that if you're a good theist, you must be constantly happy just demonstrates that you simply don't understand what it is to be a Theist. What's worse, is that despite the fact that I've told you this isn't true, you persist in the belief you have about Theism as conditioned by your elementary school mind. This means that it is likely that you do not understand the tension that exists in the minds of some mature Theists, and cannot judge why or why this might not be helpful in finding the Truth. This blockage makes sense, since your Theism was never allowed to mature without antagonism from "positivistic" science. And more's the pity.

At 6:15:00 AM , Blogger Credo Ut Intellegam said...

Not to mention that the dichotomy, the all consuming need to embrace positivism implies the necessity to drop God as a concept or object of belief, is a terribly false one. We're people, not computers -- God may not be compatible with the Positivists way of looking at the world. But one is a human first, and an adherent to a school of philosophy second. One need not be consumed by the school of his or her thought. Positivism, like science (or terrorism), is a tactic, a method for reaching and ascertaining certain things -- but it is powerless to reach certain others, even others that we know to exist (cf. all of the humanities). It's fine if you feel compelled to drop God conceptually, but to do so is NOT the necessary corollary of living or thinking scientifically.

At 7:49:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Credo, I hate to say this but, you're just wrong. Bleak? No, not bleak. I realize this might be difficult for you to imagine, but it is actually *real*.

At 2:57:00 AM , Blogger Mitchell said...

I grew up agnostic/atheist and had a happy childhood. In my teens I spontaneously adopted a standard materialistic synthesis of ideas - physics, evolution, Hofstadter on consciousness - leavened with expectations of the future that would now be called transhumanist. Then at age twenty I read Celia Green's "The Human Evasion". So far as I know that was the first time I realized that there was genuinely a question as to why anything exists. That is the one respectable component to the usual human concepts of God: God as first cause.

Human religions are clearly intellectually baseless, especially since Darwin. But the closed semicausal system (I call it semicausal because of the quantum aspect) which the natural sciences offer us cannot explain either existence or consciousness. Whether or not the human race can manage it, I think the path ahead involves progress in ontology (metaphysics), but a special sort of metaphysics. Metaphysics is identified too much with something completely other than the world we have. But one of the other intellectual shocks of my twenties was to read Bertrand Russell on the topic of "universals", i.e. properties and relations, and to realize that they may be regarded as "things" just as much as any object, though evidently of a rather different kind. That sort of metaphysics became rather unfashionable once people learned nominalism, and the idea that, say, redness is "just a name"...

OK, where am I going here. The point of your essay is to tell atheists not to be stupid and triumphal and superficial about their atheism. And I want to go further and say that materialistic atheism is itself probably wrong, and that the intellectual alternatives are not limited to materialistic atheism and personalistic supernaturalism. The history of metaphysics (and let's include Chinese, Indian and Islamic metaphysics) contains a rich variety of ideas about the nature of reality and its components which may or may not admit of combination with the mathematical framework which has been arrived at instrumentally. The optimism about reality generated by human-friendly religion would appear to be untenable, though it may be worth investigating the psychological basis of some of those states of elation, as it may be possible to derive them from other, more conscious directions. I am thinking of the psychological impact that Celia Green manages to find in the "total uncertainty", i.e. the arguments for radical skepticism we find in Hume and elsewhere. As a counterpoint to Hume I would wish to offer Husserl (who in a way was following up Kant's answer to Hume) and his study of consciousness. There is an aspect, in fact there are many aspects, of appearance which are certain, as appearance. The true nature of things may be obscure, but there is no point in denying that certain appearances are there. This fact in itself means that total skepticism is not the whole story, and must have implications for the nature of consciousness that are a little beyond me at present...

But enough from me. My bottom line is that atheism is not the final word either. To be sure: no going back to optimistic theism, if there is to be any respect for truth. But also, no complacency regarding nominalistic materialism and the computational philosophy of mind. That is itself just another image of reality, one which makes an idol out of the objectifying mental constructs and epistemic modalities by way of which we first encountered the tenth-decimal-place predictability of the world. I am fond of (interacting) monads as a metaphysical framework which may be able to preserve that exactness of causal interaction while also restoring the ontological depths which things actually possess, but I don't wish to promote it especially; just the possibility and the necessity of moving on to concepts of reality beyond the synthesis we already have.

There's a whole other aspect to post-religion, what might be called life-philosophy, that I haven't mentioned. Everyone today knows about existential angst and all those other atheistic moods, and a new metaphysics would surely have implications for sensibility too, but I certainly don't know what they are. So the most I can recommend is the open-ended striving which Celia derives from the total uncertainty: until you truly know better, you do not know what is possible, and so you may as well aim to be as a god. That is transhumanism, of course, but too much of transhumanism just recycles computationalist dogma: upload yourself, simulate your brain, and you'll be safe until the cosmic heat death. Too simple, I think. We have to overcome the challenge of rediscovering ontology before we can really know what we're doing with these attempts to preserve or transform consciousness; otherwise any old computational system which vaguely reproduces your pre-mortem behavioral tendencies will count as 'survival'.

Must stop now...

21 Aug 08


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