Sunday, February 22, 2009

Understatements of the Century

Language is incredibly ambiguous and emotion-laden, so much so that it's impossible to use neutral language. Instead of putting no spin on our words, the best we can do is put "the right" spin on them. It's all you can do to not mislead people, and if you succeed, then they'll be misled by somebody even dumber.

So, by way of illustration, I've decided to compile a short list of statements that are so understated as to be absurd. Notice the use of diminutive phrases like "just", "nothing but", and "only" to enhance the effect.
  • Human beings are just a bunch of atoms.
  • A computer program is one enormous number.
  • A human being is just a machine.
  • Intelligent life coming from non-life is improbable.
  • What a person believes comes down to personal preference.
  • People only do what feels good.
  • Space is big. (You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.)
  • You'll win the lottery eventually if you keep playing it.
  • The laws of nature can give us equations to determine the state of all matter at any given time if we know the state of all matter at any particular time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Effects of Morality

Today's question: What does morality do?

If I tell someone that I don't believe in any sort of morality, I tend to get a response of shock and "moral panic". After the shock wears off, the arguments range from "how do you get out of bed in the morning?" to "that's what destroyed the Roman Empire". The consensus seems to be that if everyone were like me, the results would be terrible. So, I ask you, what are you afraid of?

Is it something physical? You might be afraid that without morality, our societies would destroy themselves in a civil war of greed. If that's what morality gives us, what separates it from mere practicality, or "advanced common sense"? What you're really afraid of is not that I'm discarding spiritual truth, but that I'm not smart enough to predict the consequences of my actions. It's a valid concern, but a physical concern.

Is it something emotional? Are you afraid that without a sense of universal good and evil, everyone would become depressed, apathetic drones? Then what separates morality from psychoactive drugs? It may be a natural remedy, and it may help me not depend on others for emotional support, but it doesn't have eternal, universal significance.

Is it something spiritual? Are you concerned for my soul? As I read it, Christian salvation doesn't come from morality, but from belief. Righteous behavior flows out from belief in God, but where does a belief in morality itself fit into the equation? If I don't believe in God, what spiritual difference would it make if I valued morality?

Maybe morality has some of those effects, but also has deep significance for other reasons. But then the shock and fear have nothing to do with its significance. If that's your stance, I can't argue, but don't pretend the fear is righteous. It's just pragmatic.

Please say what you mean, and stop hiding behind vague terminology and intellectual laziness. What you're hiding from is personal responsibility.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Next Step

I want you to imagine something...

One day someone hands you a book, and tells you, "You need to read it. It's the next step." You ask, "...what for?", and are met with a blank stare. "It just is! It's the next step."

Later that day, a lady tells you, "I believe it's the next step to sing 'I Am the Walrus'." "Oh..." is all you can manage. She looks at you in disbelief. "Well, why aren't you doing it?"

At lunch, you realize your wallet's at home and ask your friend to spot you 10 bucks. Feeling adventurous, you try, "I think it's the next step...". His face is screaming in shock. "How can you say that?! It's failure! Total failure!"

What's missing?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Spreading Atheism

I keep hearing people say that atheists have no valid motive or right to spread atheism. I think this perspective is ridiculous all over. The reasons to promote atheism may not be as obvious, but they can be just as significant to an atheist as a Christian's reasons are to the Christian.

The most common objection is "you only have this life to worry about, but for me it's an issue of eternity". If this life is all I have, wouldn't it be worth more to me? And if my earthly surroundings are all I'll ever have, am I not justified in being particular about them? I like the story about the boy throwing beached starfish back into the water, where a man comes along and asks, "What difference does it make? You'll never save them all." The boy says, "To the ones I do save, it makes all the difference in the world." All these "insignificant" moments on earth add up, and even Christians believe one's actions in this life make all the difference.

I also believe atheism is the truth, and I think the truth stands for something in its own right. I may not believe in absolute morality, but I do believe in absolute truth, and even though I can't force anyone to accept what I believe to be the truth, I refuse to subvert it to tolerance and "personal preference".

So, what's an appropriate response to the belief that there is no God? For me, the process of rejecting faith was excruciating, even if parts of it were thrilling and rewarding. I do believe that hard-earned knowledge is more valuable and profound, but I don't believe in burning books to make all learning a struggle. If you want to climb upwards, neither flat ground nor a sheer cliff is as useful as a flight of stairs.

My frustrations have come not so much from the disagreement and "intolerance" as from the misunderstanding, disrespect, and outright shock that I received from theists around me. I've also struggled with all kinds of fear, having secrets that may or may not destroy relationships, but could never be taken back. My approach to making things a little better for each generation is more of exposure than education. I try to be "the atheist" in someone's life and show them how little difference it makes, and what form the differences take. I also try to disarm loaded words like "atheist" by using them in natural conversation, when possible.

I like to develop and refine my beliefs by discussion with people who disagree. I don't measure success in "converts to atheism", because I find that it's rare for people to be "led" to atheism. Instead I try to break the certainty people have that they already know everything that I'm going to say, and to give them a flavor of what atheism is really like.

One of my less noble goals is to make the world a little less passively theistic. The way things stand, it's a theist's world and we're just living in it. They have all the traditions, political power, and the "right of way" in most parts of the world. A lot of theist comforts come at atheists' expense, and if they're bailing water from their boat into our ocean, I wouldn't mind bailing some of it back into their boat.

It may sound bitter to frustrate theists just for its own sake, but especially with regard to religious traditions I think the small effects add up. Many Christians refuse to participate in the "harmless traditions" of Santa Claus and Halloween, or the questionable tradition of Mardis Gras (not that any of those are "atheist traditions"), and I call that justification enough for my actions.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fatalism and Futility

"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go."
The Waking, Theodore Roethke

Fatalism is the belief that there is only one possible future. The name comes from "fate" rather than "fatal", but emotional nuances still haunt the term from the first time you hear it, making it more natural to dismiss and criticize. The idea is at odds with the idea of free will because the normal conception of free will requires that no natural laws completely determine human behavior, whereas obviously human behavior can affect the physical world. This would imply that non-physical causes have physical effects, and therefore the sum of physical laws isn't enough to completely predict the future.

Fatalism suggests that the conditions of the future have a constant, non-variable value. However, everyday language, even among fatalists, treats the future as a variable to be affected by each decision and action. I've heard several people ask, "If the future is predetermined whether or not I make a given choice, why bother doing anything?". There are two ways to read this question: present actions don't actually affect the events of the future, or actions don't affect the fixedness of the future. Both are troubling thoughts.

The first case is obviously absurd. We make choices every day that ripple outwards and have incredibly unexpected consequences. It's even more absurd than it might seem, because if memories are physical states in the brain, then future memories couldn't be affected by present actions, so you could have absolutely no recollection of many choices and actions. The absurdity leads many people to reject fatalism and determinism outright.

But fatalism doesn't require this absurdity, because fatalism holds not just the future as constant, but also the present and all choices and mental states. Any choice that will be made is fated to be made one way or another. It's still a perfectly valid and useful mental model to treat the future as a variable, because it's a mathematical unknown in any equation and still must be solved for. Even the past can be treated as an unknown, as historians are well aware, because we've lost information and can't be certain of exactly what happened. There are many "variables", but no free variables.

The reasoning of the original question is a form of proof by contradiction, assuming fatalism and then deriving absurd results from the assumption. Proof by contradiction is worthless if it makes extra assumptions, because then the error can't be traced back to the original tentative assumption. In this case, the contradiction came from the extra, false assumption that there are free variables.

I can't refute the other way of reading the question, though, because I completely agree with it. Your actions and decisions (constants) can't affect the fixedness of the future by any means. It's like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: you have no variability to imbue the future with, so you can't actually change its course. The feeling of helplessness is understandable in a psychological way, but not actually supported by any logical argument.

As an example, imagine I can read your mind, and you're standing at a fork in the road. You decide to go left and I tell you "Go left". So then you decide to go right just to spite me, and I say "Go right" right away. You give up and decide to stay put, so I say "Don't go anywhere". Then you decide to run in circles quoting Shakespeare, but before you can move I say "Run in circles quoting Shakespeare". You will probably feel an overwhelming sense of futility before long, but eventually you decide to ignore me and just go about your business. After a while, you start to realize I'm the one who should feel overwhelmed with futility, not you. If I keep doing this forever, I'm nothing but a nuisance. If I ever stop, you've won the game. Finally, I'll say "Tape my mouth shut" and you will.

The same reasoning applies to fatalism. Everything you do is predetermined even if you try to cheat the system by changing your mind, but it doesn't matter. You'll never know what's around the corner until you turn the corner, and it shouldn't bother you that something is already around the corner whether you look or not. It can't help being there, but you can (deterministically) decide whether to look.

Moral Relativism - Part 3

If someone's beliefs point to some type of morality, then I have no business judging or interfering. But many people seem to actually put the need for some kind of morality ahead of the existence of a particular system, and furthermore require that the criteria of right and wrong are universal and unambiguous. They claim that without a system of guidelines, everyone will sink to the worst depths of depravity, and every society will tear itself apart. They teach everyone to fear and distrust anyone who doesn't avow at least some morality, and that anything is better than nothing in this respect. This attitude goes far beyond a loyalty to their own doctrine of morality, and firmly asserts that even if all other particular beliefs turn out to be false, some other morality must save us from the war of all against all; the very idea of moral relativism must be a logical contradiction and so-called relativists must be fools.

Morality is supposed to be a system for guiding behavior. Without some explicit brand of morality, what would be left to guide a person's actions? We still have reason, emotion, social conventions, and some would claim free will and an internal moral compass. These may not add up to a universal system, but it is certainly some kind of means for guiding behavior. Someone who demands some further moral standard is saying not just "I have extra/alternative criteria" but "those criteria are not enough". Usually, the accusation comes in a stronger form, that "those criteria are worthless or even harmful". Another angle is "even if those criteria are enough to keep the peace, they're just a soulless copy of true morality". I could address each claim individually, but I'll just summarize that yes, it's tough being ethical and responsible, nobody does it perfectly, and I also don't think just any given moral system gives life meaning, even if some particular system might. In other words, it's not true that anything is better than "nothing", even if some particular thing might be better.

On the other side, young people seem to look to moral relativism as some sort of refuge from any responsibility that excuses them from any sort of social judgment, and others judge relativism along these lines. I consider such an attitude insane and irresponsible, and not a valid conclusion from the premise of moral relativism. However, not everybody window shops for a nice conclusion and picks a justification to match. I'd love to move the discussion away from emotional outrage, fear, and disgust and towards clarity and understanding. I'd also love for atheists to stop clinging to universal morality when they can't make a coherent argument for it.