Friday, July 29, 2011

The Prison: an atheist fable

Well, I never got back to the blog last night; I apologize! I appreciate the continued discussion below the atheist post, though, and want to expand on that topic a little.

To start with, I think I need to be a bit more specific about a couple of points:

Point One: My questions in the earlier blog post are aimed primarily at atheists (not agnostics who come from a different place philosophically) and specifically at those atheists who would hold the following (in some form or other; my wording may not be perfect) as a kind of first principle: Nothing which cannot be empirically verified can be said to have actual existence. For the sake of this blog post, let's call it the Principle of Empirical Verifiability (PEV) for short.

Point Two: The question to me is not whether atheists, even those who adhere to the PEV, are able to be good or can choose to be good (or altruistic, or to find meaning, joy, and value in life, etc.). The question is whether this is a rational extension of the ideas of PEV atheism, an irrational departure from the ideas of PEV atheism, or something else altogether.

Point Three: What follows is an extended metaphor by which I hope to illustrate more clearly what I mean. As all metaphors/analogies, it is not perfect--but I think employing it will better able to make my overall meaning clear:

The Prison: a fable for atheists

Suppose that you awaken one day to find yourself in a completely unfamiliar place, surrounded by mostly unfamiliar people: the handful closest to you seem slightly, if oddly, familiar, but you can't explain why. In fact, you can't explain anything at all, because it takes you five years or so to grasp the spoken language of the people amongst whom you find yourself; it takes another ten to fifteen years to add the written language, knowledge of the basic principles of the place you live, and an understanding of your responsibilities as a fully-fledged member of this mysterious community.

But one of the things you have clearly learned by the time you have been a resident for fifteen or twenty years is this: you are in a prison, a huge, highly-advanced prison which has created many illusions of freedom for its residents, but a prison nonetheless. And there are three pretty terrible things about this prison: no one is ever released; no one ever escapes; and everyone, sooner or later, is led away by prison guards and executed, at which point they no longer exist in any form, in any reality, at all.

The truly frightening thing about the death sentences is that they are carried out seemingly at random; new residents who can't even speak the language yet are carted, screaming, away; residents who have barely begun to get their bearings are dragged off as routinely as those who have lived in the prison a long time; and residents who have grown old and feeble wait helplessly for their turn, which they know is coming closer and closer--because no one lives in the prison for more than 122 years, and the vast majority are sentenced to die sometime before they have been there a century. Some residents, regardless of age, go calmly with the cadre of prison guards when they are summoned; others fight and go limp and otherwise try to impede their impending deaths--but no difference is made either way. They die; they disappear; they cease to be.

Other than that, though, it's not a bad place to live. You can, if you are lucky enough to have the means, go to interesting schools, get advanced degrees, fill your head with knowledge; you can work at interesting jobs and earn prison credit which can be used to buy houses, transportation, an affluent and comfortable lifestyle; you can marry and have children--who will be subject to the same eventual death sentence and eternal oblivion as you, but if you are lucky, not for a long time, not until after you, yourself, have been executed. The operative phrase, though, is "if you are lucky," because many in the prison toil at manual labor, barely receive any education, drift from homelessness to hovel-living, walk everywhere or take the inadequate prison transportation (dirty, risky, inconvenient) to get to work or school, watch their own children taken away to be killed, suffer from illness and disease, and otherwise endure misery and hardship. While some people end up in this gritty, bare-bones existence by their own poor choices, most seem to be there as randomly as most of the affluent people seem to be where they are.

But in the end, it doesn't really matter if you have lived an interesting, successful life or a drudge-filled existence of toil and suffering: those guards show up one day, and nothing you were or did will mean much to your fellow prisoners, most of whom will simply be glad they're not you--yet--when you get dragged away.

Now suppose that you are living in this place and trying to make sense of it all. Here I have to simplify, because the point of this exercise of the imagination is to look at all of this as if you are a PEV atheist; bear with me if you are not. But you are a PEV atheist. You believe in the prison because its existence is empirically verifiable; you do not believe in any world outside the prison, any freedom, or any life after one is dragged away and put to death because those things are not empirically verifiable. Sure, there are people, called "believers" who think that the prison was never meant to be a prison, that human beings made it a prison, that the builder has been trying to show people the way out for centuries to the extent of sending his son to tell people about the world outside the prison, freedom, and the eternal life available beyond it; but they are clearly illogical dreamers whose visions don't belong to science, and you pride yourself on placing science at the head of all prison knowledge.

So you have to decide how you can best order your very finite, extremely limited existence when you know that your death and total annihilation will come at any moment. You have a choice: will you live as though your knowledge of this place, your awareness of the relative shortness of your lifespan and uncertainty of its ending date, and your rejection of non-empirical beliefs actually matters, or will you allow yourself to buy into the kind of fairy-tales that other atheists seem to be comfortable with, to wit: that you will probably live at least the average 78 years or so and thus not need to pay attention to your impending obliteration, that work, study, etc. contain some sort of transcendent meaning that makes them valuable pursuits, that joy, happiness, etc. are not just tricks of the mind engineered by the prison itself to keep one docile and content, that altruism and a pattern of good actions is noble and worthwhile, and a dozen other equally absurd things?

If you reject all non-empirical beliefs as the absurdities they are, then you face the reality: life is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, and then you simply stop being. Following all the rules like a good little prisoner might get you a decent job, a decent relationship, perhaps a relatively non-unhappy family, etc.--but that's not much of an exchange for existential angst and the certainty of destruction, is it? It would be more logically consistent with your beliefs to look out for number one, to lie, cheat, and steal if necessary in order to make your own life as comfortable and pleasure-filled as possible, and to treat other people like the insignificant insects they are (since they can never be you, and since you yourself obviously aren't worth much in this prison, anyway). Within the prison, you see people--politicians, celebrities, sports stars, the famous and the infamous--living lives of excess, and if virtue is somehow its own reward and wealth and consumption a sort of poison, there is, at least, no empirical evidence that this is the case.

At this point, you wonder: do some PEV atheists accept the non-empirical beliefs they seem to live by because this is easier than dealing with the reality? Do they accept them because they are too weak-minded to recognize the inherent absurdity of holding the PEV while still believing in non-empirical things? Do they accept them because they lack the strength, the courage, or the intelligence to lie, cheat and steal and get away with it all successfully? Do they retain the vestiges of religious upbringing such that they fail to notice that platitudes about altruism and the goodness of (prison) life are really rather silly and incoherent? Or is there something else going on?

And you, as a true PEV atheist, shrug, plagiarize your thesis, lie on your resume, cheat on your taxes and your partner, and taunt the "believers" until the group of prison guards appear to take you away forever. But at least, you mutter as you are dragged away, at least I was consistent.


*********

Now, I know that some will object that life *is* good and meaningful, that one doesn't need religion to believe that, that being good to people is better than being bad, etc. My point, though is: can you prove it? Or are these simply comfortable fictions some tell themselves to avoid ever dealing with the logical ramifications of what they believe?

I see a lot of assertions going on about the goodness and meaning of life, etc., in the comment box below the first post. What I don't see is any attempt to prove empirically that those assertions aren't as airy-fairy as any religion's belief system. And, frankly, if the choice is: be a pretty awful person but a consistent atheist, be a good person but an inconsistent atheist, or try to be a good person in accord with one's religious faith, religion still seems like the best deal to me--even aside from my inevitable reflections concerning my own Catholic faith and what that means to me.

82 comments:

priest's wife said...

a good argument!...now, I wonder what the atheists will say?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

As a non-atheist, I'm afraid I can't find much meaning in this lengthy analogy.

I do argue with the notion that 'there is no God because God can't be empirically verified.' That argument assumes that all that exists lies within the materially verifiable universe. But anyone who has studied a little algebra and geometry knows that any given mathematical universe may be a subset of a larger universe, or may overlap with another universe which shares some, but not all, elements in common. The universe we know is empirically verifiable. What lies outside it is not. The very question, what lies beyond... suggests there is more.

But its not a prison, and the malaria contagion is not a set of prison guards, and there really isn't a "son of the builder" in a prison.

Kimberly Margosein said...

And you, as a true PEV atheist, shrug, plagiarize your thesis, lie on your resume, cheat on your taxes and your partner

As I am sure that none of the fairy tale believers don't. By this, Ms Manning, you have created a straw universe. A Christian (not RC, one of the knuckle dragger protestants) told me once that sin is what doesn't work. That sums it up. A society, whether a handful of stone age nomads or a nation of millions cannot function without basic rules. We have all seen "good Christians" of all denominations caught with their hands in the nookie jar or cheating their fellow Christians, etc. I do not see Christians, or believers in any of the larger Abrahamic religions historically or currently empirically more moral in practice than others.

Kimberly Margosein said...

"That argument assumes that all that exists lies within the materially verifiable universe"

Mr Jenkins, it may or may not. However, whatever lies outside of the materially verifiable universe by definition is irrelevant to the materially verifiable inhabitants. Any pondering about the unverifiable is intellectual masturbation. And like the non-intellectual type, while amusing, it accomplishes nothing.

Dav said...

So you've created a straw man and a straw analogy. Now all we need is a straw dream car, and we're set.

What makes you think that liars and cheats would be happier in your analogy than those who, say, build a library or plant a garden, who make the average 78 years of life a joy for others? Let's see some evidence: in what ways are thieves and conmen better off than others?

Anonymous said...

pondering about the unverifiable is intellectual masturbation. And like the non-intellectual type, while amusing, it accomplishes nothing.

Ms Margostein, that's grossly over-simplifying matters, is it not? A good portion of mathematics, almost all of philosophy and some of quantum physics are materially unverifiable. No one has ever successfully created a material Klein bottle, yet it has been an invaluable concept for mathematicians, not just "intellectual masturbation".

Jeremy said...

Dav:
"What makes you think that liars and cheats would be happier in your analogy than those who, say, build a library or plant a garden, who make the average 78 years of life a joy for others?"

Even if we concede that living morally would make you happier, it is not less inconsistent to believe that your "moral" choices are actually superior to the "immoral" choices you could otherwise be making. They may be more beneficial to you, but it's not a matter of right and wrong, but of expedience.
Helping your neighbor makes you feel good inside but that doesn't prove that it is *right* to do so or that it would be *wrong* to do otherwise. You may not like a person who lies and cheats and commits murder, but how can you say that what they have done is *wrong*? Unwise perhaps, distasteful yes, but you cannot call it morally wrong -- unless you have faith in the imperically un-verifiable truth of objective morality.

Where is the imperical evidence for objective morality? There can never be any of course, because morality is not a tangible thing. Therefore belief in moral right and wrong requires faith (not necessarily faith in a religious system, but at least a simple faith in morality). For a PEV atheist to have this faith is highly inconsistent. Of course, most of them do have this faith nonetheless.

Barbara C. said...

Jeremy, that's kind of what I've always wondered. If there is no God, then what does "right" or "wrong" matter, how is it determined, does it even exist? Right and wrong are based on the concepts of "absolute truth" and "natural law" which can not be empirically proven.

But really bugs me is how rabid atheists want to call any Christian who makes a mistake a hypocrite. They willfully ignore that a major tenant of Christianity is that we are all sinners. The difference is that Christians, those that are more than nominally so, TRY to be better. We try to be the best, most loving, unselfish people that we can be even if sometimes we fail horribly.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Mr. Margosein, what if something OUTSIDE the empirically verifiable universe were capable of intervening INSIDE that universe? What if this intervention were manifested only by materially verifiable phenomena, but these phenomena did indeed have an impact on empirical life?

What if the empirically verifiable phenomena were originally set in motion by some unverifiable impetus outside this universe?

You don't have to believe it, but it can't be ruled out. Erin believes that she will someday be translated outside the empirically verifiable universe, and that her behavior inside this universe will at that point be judged by certain criteria.

Again, it may be true, or it may not, but it is certainly plausible, so speculation is far from irrelevant.

JohnE said...

It would be more logically consistent with your beliefs to look out for number one, to lie, cheat, and steal if necessary in order to make your own life as comfortable and pleasure-filled as possible, and to treat other people like the insignificant insects they are (since they can never be you, and since you yourself obviously aren't worth much in this prison, anyway).

Yeah...well the problem with that is the other people soon notice what you are doing and stop cooperating with you - eventually turning against you and perhaps even killing you because you are making their lives unpleasant.

Altruism is an optimization strategy. Fighting ones way to the top takes a lot of work and requires you to watch your back and fight potential rivals.

Behaving altruistically doesn't get you as many resources, but makes it more likely that you will be able to enjoy the resources you do acquire in peace.

--but that's not much of an exchange for existential angst and the certainty of destruction

You might find this really hard to believe, Red, but some of us out here don't get all angst-y about the idea that we'll die one day and not exist anymore.

Kimberly Margosein said...

Yes Mr Jenkins. "What if this intervention were manifested only by materially verifiable phenomena, but these phenomena did indeed have an impact on empirical life?" The phenomena would then be part of the empirical universe, and could be studied. We could then learn something perhaps about the cause of this phenomena, and over time, this cause could be studied empirically. With all your "what if" qualifiers, ANYTHING is plausible, and time to get out the wad of intellectual kleenex. It is equally plausible that the universe was created ex nihilo last Thursday and we were created with memories and personalities like pre-loaded software. Such speculation doesn't advance humanity, and eventually turns into a playground for the weak-minded, and the fanatics and charlatans who prey upon them. PS-Thanks for getting my gender correct. In the area I live while Kimberly is not a common name for males, it is not unknown.

Sleeping Beastly said...

As a convert who was raised in an atheist home, I might be able to answer some of your points without as much ire and indignation as some of the atheists who might be inclined to comment here.

First, while I was raised atheist, I never really knew anyone who accepted the PEV premise as anything like an absolute truth. Sure, I have heard atheists say things like, "I don't believe in anything I can't see or touch," but if you can get them to ponder the statement for more than a few seconds, they will generally acknowledge that it's a poor description of their actual beliefs.

Most atheists know that there are plenty of things they can't know or can't describe in scientific terms, but which exist anyway. They also know that there are plenty of things that they can't know or can't describe in scientific terms that do not exist. They are people who have, for a number of reasons, decided to place God in the second category. Their reasons can range from poor experiences with Christians to misunderstandings about the nature of theistic claims. (I would say that not wanting to believe often plays a part as well, as it does sometimes with people of faith.) Generally most atheists' reasons for not believing in God can be summed up thus: "I haven't seen enough evidence for God's existence to waste my time thinking about him."

If there are any atheists anywhere who believe that only that which can be empirically verified can be said to be true, I haven't met them.

Second, I also don't believe that lying, cheating, and stealing lead to a better life, and most atheists can share that belief without sharing my belief in God. Even if we accept the debatable premise that dishonesty is a better path to material comforts than honesty, most of the atheists I know seem to believe that there is a link between happiness and integrity.

When I was an atheist, I did have to accept that all moral claims were subjective (to an ancient Aztec, dragging your neighbors to the top of a pyramid and cutting out their hearts was a good thing, while to a modern American it is downright rude and I could see no objective reason to say the one was wrong and the other right) but I also recognized that there were common threads throughout history, and that they usually had to do with consequences. Don't cheat on your girlfriend because sooner or later people will find out and no one will want to date you anymore. Don't steal things because sooner or later people won't trust you in their shops, and might have you locked up. Don't get into fights all the time, because sooner or later people are going to get sick and tired of your antics, and do something about it. Plus, you'll turn into a sour, unhappy person.

To me, speaking about morality was a shorthand way of speaking about consequences. Saying "I won't do that because it isn't right" was just another way of saying "I won't do that because I won't like the eventual consequences."

As a believer, I still believe in consequences, and think they are intimately tied into morality and God's will, but a belief in God isn't necessary to recognize most of the same moral laws that Christians hold to be true; they're just recognized from a different perspective and based on different premises.

Finally, disbelieving in my own immortality was probably the biggest comfort for me as an atheist, and one of the hardest things to give up during my conversion. Knowing that I would one day be gone and that none of it would matter to me anymore was a huge relief. I was a hedonist (if life has no intrinsic meaning, then why not live for maximum pleasure?) and found life to be painful and tiring a good part of the time. I always thought of death as, if not rest, then at least the end of toil.

If I've missed your point, then feel free to disregard my comment, but I hope it's helpful anyway.

Sleeping Beastly said...

Also (and I beg your pardon for going off on a tangent) I think that many, many, many atheists are confirmed in their atheism by poor Christian witness. I think one of the worst temptations to a Christian is tribalism. Christians are not called to battle Islam or Liberalism or Conservatism or to make sure we have perfect front lawns. We're called to be salt of the earth, but we so often lose our saltiness!

That saltiness is charity.

We are supposed to be known by the great love we have for one another. If you can't look at me and know I'm a Christian by how much I love my fellow man, then I am failing in my vocation.

I am Christian, not because I am better than the atheists who raised me, but because I was given gifts and consolations that they were not. I did not deserve any of these gifts, and they were not given me to bury in the ground, but to share, to invest, to give away. And I know that if I don't feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the oppressed, I'll get sorted with the goats when the time comes for judgment.

I think that, in most cases, atheists are not atheists because they have failed; they are atheists because we have failed, because they can't look at our joy and love and say, "I want that too!" It's not a failure of evangelization, at least not in the sense we normally think of; it's a failure to live out our charitable vocation.

Red Cardigan said...

Lots of interesting comments, so far, but what I keep seeing is a lot of people positing some variation of "No, altruism is an objectively good thing, while lying, cheating, and stealing are bad, especially if one is caught."

So doesn't that just make altruism the belief system for cowards and stupid people? The risk-takers and extremely bright can lie, cheat, and steal all they want and be totally successful--and even happy, not that "happiness" is an easily definable state, not being empirically provable and all.

What's funny (as in "odd," not "humorous,") to me is that most of the self-described atheists are defending altruism as a life-ordering system with no more rationality or objectivity than religious believers use to defend religion. I see in this a sort of hypocrisy, naturally, of the "Your irrational belief system is bad because you believe in a person who doesn't, according to me, exist because his existence can't be proven! My irrational belief system is good because I believe in a set of ideals that also can't be proven to exist--but they are real! They are! They are! Because I say so!" variety.

It is Sleeping Beastly who seems to come the closest to getting what I am saying: SB says that pure PEV atheists don't really exist, and that most atheists accept *lots* of things that can't be empirically proven. Which makes their rejection of religion on the grounds that it can't be empirically proven very inconsistent, to say the least.

SB also points out that to the ancient Aztecs, ripping out the hearts of their victims in human sacrifice was a good thing--so atheists might want to ponder whether the things they see as "good" do not, in fact, have their roots in the religious system which has been prevalent for the last couple thousand years or so, instead of rising up out of pure disinterested empirical rational thought.

John E said...

So doesn't that just make altruism the belief system for cowards and stupid people?

You forgot to include lazy - do you have any idea how much work it is to claw your way up to the top of the pyramid and fend off those who would try to take your stuff?

Heck with that, if I can get what makes me happy by engaging in mutual cooperation with other people, I'd rather do that.

Also, it could be that folks are just making a rational risk/reward assessment.

Bernie Madoff lived pretty good for a while, but he's going to die in prison.

Was it worth it? Maybe it was for Madoff, wouldn't be for me - I'd rather not die in prison.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, not in *that* kind of prison, anyway...

John E said...

Most definitely not in that sort of prison.

But I hope you see my point - you are neglecting the very real likelihood that lying, cheating, and stealing will bring very unpleasant consequences that would outweigh the immediate benefit of those actions.

Humans as a group are pretty good at detecting liars, cheaters and thieves eventually.

Red Cardigan said...

And...where's your empirical proof of that, John? We humans may irrationally pride ourselves on our ability to detect liars, cheats, and thieves, but it stands to reason that we only detect the ones who aren't clever enough to get away with those things. In fact, I don't know how we could ever prove that lying, cheating, and stealing *isn't* a huge part of the reason for the success of every single fantastically successful person on the planet--do you?

In which case, we've accepted the irrational belief that it's better not to lie, cheat, and steal for the simple reason that the fantastically successful do not seek our company, and prefer to remain obscenely wealthy and steeped in pleasure *without* having to worry that their number will be increased to the point where their lifestyles would no longer be possible. In other words, the fantastically wealthy have sold us a bill of goods about the downside of lying, cheating, and stealing because they do not wish us ever to experience the upside, as they do.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The ancient Aztecs got most of their sacrificial victims by fighting incessant wars to capture prisoners to sacrifice, not by cutting the hearts out of their immediate neighbors and fellow clan members.

It made their neighbors rather upset, which is one reason a handful of Spanish soldiers in hot metal shells were able to assemble the temporary alliances by which they conquered the entire empire. See, this sort of behavior DOES have consequences.

I think almost everyone is building straw men now. It is so much easier to lampoon an opponent if we can write their lines for them, making them appear as ridiculous as possible, rather than responding to our opponent putting forward their best shot.

But SB's "Salt of the Earth" comments is truly excellent.

You know, Mr. Margosein, some of these phenomena ARE studied -- rather to excess I think. The RC Church doesn't canonize anyone without observing three verified miracles. Are they really miracles? I have my doubts. But I infer from what we can more reliably observe that there probably IS something awesome out there in the unverifiable realm.

An interesting question I have toyed with is, what if this deity were just as omnipotent as it is, but instead of being "good," was really, really BAD? What if this deity really DID want human hearts by the dozen every day? Maybe that's why we're having more hurricanes and earthquakes? Aren't we LUCKY this being is "good," because there would be nothing we could do about it if this being were "bad"?

Anonymous said...

Red, you keep tossing around terms like rational, irrational, and empirical as is they were interchangeable synonyms and antonyms which they're not. But we don't know what YOU think they mean or what YOU think they apply to and what they don't or when. It's hard to make sense of a conversation if every person gets to make up their own language and meaning as they go along, so if you could just maybe explain what YOU mean by rational and empirical and irrational and any other words you think are important here everyone could speak the same language you're using.

John E said...

In other words, the fantastically wealthy have sold us a bill of goods about the downside of lying, cheating, and stealing because they do not wish us ever to experience the upside, as they do.

Errr...no...just off the top of my head, I can think of several fabulously wealthy folks who have had to suffer consequences that I'd find unacceptable - the aforementioned Madoff, the Brother Hunt, Jim Bakker, Jim Jones, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, to name a few.

Jeremy said...

John E.:
"But I hope you see my point - you are neglecting the very real likelihood that lying, cheating, and stealing will bring very unpleasant consequences that would outweigh the immediate benefit of those actions."

So you are saying that immoral actions are unwise and not really in one's best interest. Perhaps that is so. It certainly is a lot of the time. But even if it were so in every case, that doesn't mean that lying, cheating, or stealing are objectively wrong. So you still have no basis on which to condemn a thief or a liar (or a mass-murderer for that matter). Their crimes may be foolish and may catch up with them in the end, but, however poor their decisions may have been, they still cannot be judged to have done any wrong.

Likewise, a person who strives to benefit society, perhaps even accomplishes great things, cannot be said to be morally superior to the criminal. His great deeds were done because they brought him satisfaction, because he had empathy and enjoyed the warm feeling of helping others, but there is no objective moral standard by which to commend him.

...that is, unless you have faith in the supernatural value of human life. It's alright admit that you have this faith. I just object to atheists talking as though faith is something below their intellectual level, as though they had arrived at all their beliefs by empirical evidence or other purely rational means.

Anonymous said...

The idea that we each have a unique individual existence is merely a belief, one that causes tremendous fear and suffering, and results in much pain-inducing behavior.

Can you point to anything about you that is permanent? Can you find anything about yourself that is not in constant flux? Cells die and get replaced constantly. Moods and thoughts move around non-stop except in deep sleep. We cannot, any of us, claim to be the same physical person we were last month, certainly not last year.

We cannot empirically demonstrate that we continue to be the same person from day to day. That level of insecurity is unsettling and it is little wonder that much of humanity clung to monotheism when it was thought up. An eternal and unchanging being that promises eternal life. How deeply touching it is to think about the relief from fear that idea provided. Instead of disdaining belief and believers, the response of a loving heart is compassion.

On another topic, altruism is defined as:

1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
2. Zoology Instinctive behavior that is detrimental to the individual but favors the survival or spread of that individual's genes, as by benefiting its relatives.

Hard to see how altruism can be called a belief system. Altruism is not "thinking that other people deserve as much regard as I do" but acting as if they do, regardless of my thoughts or beliefs - which are all over the place and move on their own throughout the day.

While altruistic behavior on my part won't impress the personality disordered or change their behavior toward me, I have personal experience of that behavior impacting how many persons treat me. It is much more pleasant than what comes back to me if I'm cranky, short or selfish toward them, and I have the relief of knowing that in those interactions I have not added to the suffering of another being, which means I have not added to my own suffering, as we are all expressions within one system.

elizabeth

Barbara C. said...

The thing is that the negative consequences might prevent an atheist who has no rational reason to hold to a "common good", but since so many atheists are trying to convert everyone to atheism if we had a society of all atheists who could only see good and evil in subjective terms would such things as law and order disappear? Or would we kind of have a Lord of the Flies situation?

robotxorange said...

We're all guilty. There's so much in our psychology that leads us to value our own group over any others, to value our own beliefs over those of another group. And it's so much easier to attack a group, to generalize, than to confront the beliefs of each individual in said group, and even more so than to confront the faults in our own logic. Our beliefs are fueled by our experiences, and just as we are each unique, just as we each have our own unique combination of experiences that led us each to our own present, so we are unique in each moment, constantly shifting, constantly rethinking or reaffirming everything. We belittle the beliefs of others, we demand sense and logic where there is none, as if we can know, as if any one of us has ever believed for a moment that we know everything there is to know, that we can label every feeling, every instinct in the same way we name the stars.

But we push. We pry. We rant and rave 'til our voices go. By pulling out every shred of logic, every argument, every tiny detail in a person's worldview, cataloguing it for the world to see, as if it's their business, and earmarking every inconsistency, we do them wrong. There's no sense in dragging out each others' dirty laundry, as if we know, as if we CAN know, anything at all. We are all inconsistent, confused, mistaken, guilty, and lost. There is never a single moment in this life for any of us when all is right and there is not a single thing within us that needs changing. It is so cruel to demand such insight, such self-examination, such change without even a second thought.

Change is painful. It's harsh and bright and loud, like being born, again and again. Only very rarely is it necessary to drag a person, kicking and screaming, out into the light, when the only other option is self-destruction.

This is never the case with faith (or lack thereof). Faith cannot be forced. It cannot be coaxed. Like love, it comes, it goes, it is a power beyond our control, something far greater than ourselves. Forced faith is false faith. If we are lucky, we feel it warm us from the inside. If we are not, then some of us are doomed to walk this life cold and in the dark, while others find the night refreshing, the independence freeing.

It is not for us to know what lives in our brothers' and our sisters' hearts, only to welcome them with open arms and love them for their flaws.

Sleeping Beastly said...

@Jeremy: It might be helpful to think that atheists are using the terms "right" and "wrong" as shorthand for "prudent" and "distasteful." When I say "The budget proposed by the Tories will ruin our country" what I mean to say is "In my opinion the budget proposed by the Tories will ruin our country." I leave out the first phrase because it is cumbersome and generally understood without being said.


@Barbara: ...if we had a society of all atheists who could only see good and evil in subjective terms would such things as law and order disappear?

Interesting question. Do certain belief systems lend themselves to certain types of government? Is atheism most compatible with anarchy, Christianity with monarchy, existentialism with dictatorship?


@Red: So doesn't that just make altruism the belief system for cowards and stupid people? The risk-takers and extremely bright can lie, cheat, and steal all they want and be totally successful--and even happy, not that "happiness" is an easily definable state, not being empirically provable and all.

All societies have a few people who think like that. They are called sociopaths. And I imagine they do tend to think of the rest of us as stupid and cowardly.

Atheists who are not sociopaths tend to embrace some mixture of hedonism, utilitarianism, and existentialism. "I want to feel good. Doing certain things that are normally thought of as 'immoral' will hinder my quest for pleasure. And on top of that, since the only meaning in my life is meaning I invent for myself, and I happen to be biologically programmed to care about the people around me, I am going to live as though treating them with kindness were somehow meaningful. That makes it meaningful, even if the meaning is only subjective."

The fact that such meaning is subjective is not surprising or upsetting to atheists; they have already accepted that they live in a world with no objective meaning, and that personal, subjective meaning and decisions are the best they're going to get.

Now that doesn't mean you won't hear moral outrage from atheists. Just that, if pressed, they will have to admit that being angry at someone else for crossing their own personally-chosen moral lines is irrational. C.S. Lewis has something to say about this in the first chapter of Mere Christianity, and he says it better than I could, so I will leave it to him.

SB says that pure PEV atheists don't really exist, and that most atheists accept *lots* of things that can't be empirically proven. Which makes their rejection of religion on the grounds that it can't be empirically proven very inconsistent, to say the least.

Again, while some atheists talk as though they were rejecting religion on the grounds that its claims cannot be proven in a laboratory, most of them reject them for a variety of reasons, only one of which is a lack of scientific evidence. When a person makes a decision about whether or not they believe in the existence of God, the decision is a human one, meaning that it is more like a trial in court than a laboratory experiment. The one-man jury must be convinced by weight of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and where the burden of proof lies depends on the juror's current belief system (usually determined by upbringing.)

Jeremy said...

Sleeping Beastly:
"It might be helpful to think that atheists are using the terms "right" and "wrong" as shorthand for "prudent" and "distasteful."

No doubt you are right. Thank you for putting it so well.

I guess that means that when most atheists decry the evils in the world they are just blowing off hot air, and all they really mean is that they happen to not like what some people do. Only the believer can say that murder, rape, and genocide as being objectively evil. Only the man of faith has any reason to repent of wrongdoing. Even the evil deeds wrought by Christians (such as the Inquisition, or that time when I lashed out in anger against my brother) cannot truly be condemned by atheists, but only by those of us who believe in God.

albanaeon said...

Sleeping Beauty, you're basically doing the same thing you realize. In your beliefs it is "prudent" to obey the commands of your god, and definitely "distasteful" to burn in hell.

And honestly, a lot of people here are very confused as to what "objective" means. "God says so" is NOT an objective definition of good, because good is being defined by someone else's judgement. Which would make it a SUBJECTIVE definition. And before someone brings it up, simply saying God is good will not solve that problem because you have just moved the subjective judgement from God to yourself.

Also, this isn't really some masterful gotcha for atheists. Quite simply, altruism objectively increases the likelihood of the survival of the group and of the individual. Societies with less lying, cheating and stealing are more likely to survive which makes my survival more likely. It really is that simple and objective.

Strawman Atheist In Straw Car with Straw Dreams and Straw Stories said...

"If you reject all non-empirical beliefs as the absurdities they are, then you face the reality: life is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, and then you simply stop being."

...So?

Jeremy said...

albanaeon:
"Sleeping Beauty, you're basically doing the same thing you realize. In your beliefs it is "prudent" to obey the commands of your god, and definitely "distasteful" to burn in hell."

I'm glad you brought that up. But no, that's not what Christianity teaches. Rather, we should do what is right because it is right, not because of the consequences (not even the eternal consequences). Granted, those consequences certainly can be a motivation for right action, just as earthly consequences can be, but the true reason to do what is right is because it is right. How is the right-ness of an action measured? It is measured by whether it pleases God or not. This *is* an objective standard because there is only one God (who is eternal and unchanging), and therefore one measure of morality that applies to all beings. Of course, it requires faith to believe in this standard, but unlike the atheist, I do not have a problem with faith.

This is my basis for calling evil evil and good good. Any person basing their beliefs on reason alone (as most atheists claim they do) can have no such basis. Therefore an atheist has no business making any moral judgment about anything. But to make no moral judgments runs contrary to all we are as humans, and so most atheists do make moral judgments, treating them as objective, despite the irrationality of it. I suppose I would too if I were them, but really it's much better to have faith in an objective moral law so that you can make moral judgments *and* be rational while doing it -- but again, this requires faith as well as reason.

Jeremy said...

"Societies with less lying, cheating and stealing are more likely to survive which makes my survival more likely. It really is that simple and objective."

That is objective, yes, but it is not a moral law at all. It is merely a set of guidelines for how to increase your survival. Morality is much more than survival -- as you know, for surely you admire those who sacrifice their own survival for others. Morality is what you ought to do, regardless of benefit to yourself.

Anonymous said...

This assumption that ethical assessments, kindness and altruism are only utilitarian when practiced by atheists is quite an arrogant attitude by those of faith. Only your "reasons" (which are not of reason at all, but based on an irrational claim about a supreme invisible being) make those behaviors "real" or "true" or "meaningful." Hmm.

There is the possibility of an open heart that sees the suffering that results from unkindness, unethical actions and selfishness. It is not necessary to believe in a great parent in the sky who will reward or punish us, assessing our behaviors on its rating scale, to lean away from suffering and toward wanting all beings to be free from suffering. Compassion is of nature, as much as striving to stay alive is of nature.

By attempting to use rationality and objectivity as the only basis for "real" goodness, and saying that belief in a deity is the basis for rationality and objectivity, believers make a preposterous claim. More importantly, it is a damaging and confusing argument that begins with the assertion that we are born so inherently disgusting that we deserve an eternity of punishment from the All-Loving Parent that created us, and moves on to more absurdity.

We can see love in nature and as the most alert, self-aware species that we (as yet) know us, we can see its consequences in our own lives. I don't need a deity to know that the vicious gossip and accusations that a generation of my relatives have engaged in toward each other has caused much alienation and suffering among all of them and created issues that my own generation had to deal with. I don't need a deity to see that the loving members of my family maintain the love of their children and grandchildren.

elizabeth

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Any civil society is capable of passing laws, good or bad, which are enforceable, rightly or wrongly. That does not require morality. Hopefully we get it more right than wrong.

It is true that those who have faith in some religion, and derive a moral code from it, should do what is right because it is right, not because of the consequences. But an awful lot of Christian teaching is based on
1) the awful future consequences, and,
2) the assertion that any society will go to the dogs if people are NOT afraid of those same consequences.

In some Native American cultures, if they are half-way rightly understood, those who really exerted themselves for the good of the tribe were honored for it, and one thing they were honored for is distributing a large portion of the results of their hunting prowess to other members of the tribe, whether young or elderly, disabled, or simply lazy and unmotivated. Perhaps doing the right thing because it is right is something like that. You are honored by your peers, or, you feel good about doing what God wants you to do, or you are programmed to feel good about it, whether anyone honors you or not.

None of this is inherent in either theism or atheism. Some atheists are nihilists, but so are some Christians. On balance, a monotheistic faith probably does offer a few extra tools for encouraging moral and altruistic behavior. But if you believe in God, ultimately it is for the reason Hector's friend going into the UCC ministry gave for his choice of vocation: "Because I believe it to be true." And if you don't believe it, then you don't.

Loki said...

life is solitary,

Not if you have family and friends.

nasty,

Not for most people who have access to such luxuries as the internet.

brutish,

Again, not for most people who have access to the internet. If you were talking about Somalia or the Congo you might have a point.

and short,

Depends upon your definition of "short." Most opossums only live a single breeding season. Seems to me our lives are quite long. Only 13 animal species are known to live longer than humans.

and then you simply stop being.

Yes, and? We live in a universe with the second law of thermodynamics. Everything eventually stops being, including black holes. If we didn't have the second law of thermodynamics, we couldn't have live in the first place.

Following all the rules like a good little prisoner might get you a decent job, a decent relationship, perhaps a relatively non-unhappy family, etc.

this sentence just contradicted the very sentence preceding it.

but that's not much of an exchange for existential angst and the certainty of destruction, is it?

Who says we experience existential angst? Maybe we've accepted it and moved on.

It would be more logically consistent with your beliefs to look out for number one, to lie, cheat, and steal if necessary in order to make your own life as comfortable and pleasure-filled as possible, and to treat other people like the insignificant insects they are (since they can never be you, and since you yourself obviously aren't worth much in this prison, anyway).

This is a giant, unsupported, leap of logic. Please explain, in minute detail how, logically, it would be more consistent to lie, cheat, and steal than go after that nice job, friends and family you were going on about earlier. And how lying, cheating, and stealing are, empirically, more likely to have a positive outcome in your life than they are going to have the outcome of people hating you, and you going to prison. The real prison, not fantasy prison.

Loki said...

I see a lot of assertions going on about the goodness and meaning of life, etc., in the comment box below the first post. What I don't see is any attempt to prove empirically that those assertions aren't as airy-fairy as any religion's belief system.

Okay. Let's prove it, empirically. I eat chocolate, it's delicious, I enjoy eating delicious things. Life is good.

so now that we've empirically proven life is good, let's move on to proving that goodness itself is good.

I give a dollar to a homeless shelter, that dollar buys a loaf of bread, that bread feeds a homeless man, that man's life is improved because he is no longer hungry. Now we've empirically proven that goodness is good.

Now let's empirically prove meaning. Meaning is just value/comprehension/understanding/analysis we attach to things. I assign value/comprehension/understanding/analysis to my life and to others, therefore, we've empirically proven meaning.

It's not that difficult and not at all incomprehensible. And absolutely empirically verifiable.

Loki said...

Rather, we should do what is right because it is right, not because of the consequences (not even the eternal consequences). Granted, those consequences certainly can be a motivation for right action, just as earthly consequences can be, but the true reason to do what is right is because it is right.

Then why are there consequences? The fact that there are consequences pretty much proves coercion.

How is the right-ness of an action measured? It is measured by whether it pleases God or not.

Which is an incredibly lousy standard. Without direct continuous and corrective communication from God, you could never know what pleases him or not. All you have is your particular interpretation of what you think should please him, and no way to correct that interpretation except by other people's interpretation (often their interpretation of other people's interpretations of still other people's interpretations of what pleases God). No matter what, you can't actually know anything pleases him or doesn't in that system.

This *is* an objective standard

No, it's not. You start with a subjective belief, "I believe in god," then move to a second subjective belief "I believe in this God," then move into even more subjective territory, "I'm interpreting God's mind in this particular way." At no point does objectivity enter into it.

because there is only one God (who is eternal and unchanging), and therefore one measure of morality that applies to all beings.

Which is a completely subjective statement, and only your personal interpretation of other people's interpretations of a translated book of people's interpretation's of God. So not only is it not objective, you've disproven the idea that there is one morality, as each person is going to walk away with a different, personal morality in that highly subjective situation.

This is my basis for calling evil evil and good good.

Which is all fine and dandy, but all you are doing is stating your personal, subjective opinion.

Any person basing their beliefs on reason alone (as most atheists claim they do) can have no such basis.

False. If you start with the obvious and simple, "Harm is harmful," then move to the next logical proposition, "creating harm hurts people," then move on to the next logical proposition, "creating harm is wrong." There you go, a simple, empirically verifiable basis for calling good (lessens harm) good and calling evil (creates harm) evil.

Therefore an atheist has no business making any moral judgment about anything.

Again, see above. You know, you might want to try asking an atheist what their business making moral judgments hinges upon, prior to just assuming they have none.

But to make no moral judgments runs contrary to all we are as humans, and so most atheists do make moral judgments, treating them as objective, despite the irrationality of it.

Except for harm, which is objective, measurable, and verifiable...


but really it's much better to have faith in an objective moral law so that you can make moral judgments *and* be rational while doing it

Except you can't.

Quasar said...

Wow. That's an impressively lengthy analogy. But all you've managed to do is describe the world in extremely cynical and pessimistic terms. You're basically just saying "the glass is half full so you should give up hope".

I can't respond to the entirety of your post, so Instead I'll respond to this: If you reject all non-empirical beliefs as the absurdities they are, then you face the reality: life is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, and then you simply stop being.

Is that really reality the way you see it without religon? Because if so, that's really sad.

"solitary"

We live on a planet with 7 billion potential other people. Everyone one of those people is someone to meet, someone to be friends with, someone with stories and experiences different to your own. How is that "solitary"?

"nasty"

Life is neither nasty nor nice: life just is. You're personifying a non-sentient aspect of the universe. Some parts of life are nasty. Some are nice. I'm really sorry for you if you think all aspects of life are nasty: that just sounds depressing.

"brutish"

Again: sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. The exact ratio depends on who you are and where you live.

"and short"

My life is the single longest experience I'll ever have, and given that I can get bored in a matter of minutes there's more than enough time in my life to pack in the experiences. There's not much point in comparing it to geological or cosmological timespans: they are well beyond our comprehension.

I see a lot of assertions going on about the goodness and meaning of life, etc., in the comment box below the first post. What I don't see is any attempt to prove empirically that those assertions aren't as airy-fairy as any religion's belief system.

That's because there's a difference between opinion and fact. We are expressing our opinion that the glass if half full. You are expressing your own opinion that the glass is half empty (and waxing magnificently eloquently on the subject of how dry and horrible and dirty and utterly, completely, totally empty the top half of the glass is).

Opinions don't need to be proven, they're opinions.

The problem is, religon is telling us that even though the glass is half empty, the top half is filled with a mystical divine water that tastes better than anything we've ever drunk, but we won't be able to taste it unless we first believe it's there. That's not an opinion: that's a statement of fact, and you can't mix them up like that: they're non-soluble. So we say "okay, prove it".

Jeremy said...

Loki:
"I give a dollar to a homeless shelter, that dollar buys a loaf of bread, that bread feeds a homeless man, that man's life is improved because he is no longer hungry. Now we've empirically proven that goodness is good."

No we haven't. Giving a person bread is only objectively good if that person has objective value. Yes, you can prove that giving people bread helps them, but on what do you base your implied assertion that people have objective value? I know you *feel* like people have value, but feelings are subjective.

Objective values require faith. This is because are not observable, nor can they be proven by logical syllogism. Subjective values on the other hand are no more than a private fantasy constructed by the individual. They are not a part of the reality that is really out there, they are just in your head.

Red Cardigan said...

I'm beginning to notice something interesting.

A lot of the non-believers area saying, in essence, "Life is good *for me personally,* therefore, life is good," and then calling that evidence or proof or some such thing.

But that, of course, means that the life of a woman in a third-world country who daily endures poverty, hunger, oppression, sexual or physical abuse, disease or other suffering, the pain of watching several of her children die because of the hardships of their lives, the hopelessness of a daily struggle for mere survival that most of us can't even fathom must be...bad, right? If she thinks her life is good she is clearly delusional or clinging to religion or something, right?

Which means that this all probably boils down to some sort of existentialism or relativism (or a combination): my life is good, therefore I am free to posit that life is good knowing that my life is the only life I'll ever experience; or, life is good for some and bad for others, but as long as it's good for me I don't really have to think about others, beyond making empty "charitable" gestures here and there that assuage any latent guilt I have over the random chances that kept me from being poor, a victim of violence and oppression, someone living a life of ceaseless toil with few pleasures, etc.

Sleeping Beastly said...

Part of the problem I see in this discussion is that many of the Christians and atheists here are talking right past each other.

It's impossible to have a respectful conversation with someone if you can't state their premises and arguments in a way they would agree is accurate.

Quasar said...

What sleeping beastly said. Red Cardigans most recent comment is the most obvious example of this, although I admit I may have been unfair on her when I characterised her opinions as overly pessimistic: what I means was that she would be overly pessimistic without religon. But back on the subject of RC's most recent comment:

"A lot of the non-believers area saying, in essence, "Life is good *for me personally,* therefore, life is good," and then calling that evidence or proof or some such thing."

RC, please don't tell us what we're saying "in essense": you are spectacularly bad at it.

Try quoting us: it'll help you avoid falling into this trap, where we say X and you say "it sounds like you're saying [not X], Here's my response to [not X]."

Because the very first premise of your entire comment to us is that we're saying something we most emphatically are not, all of it's conclusions fail miserably. Try actually responding to what we say, not to what the weird, twisted version of us you have in your head would have said.

Loki said...

Well, I've twice now had very lengthy posts that seem to have been deleted...

No we haven't.

Yes, we have.

Giving a person bread is only objectively good if that person has objective value.

Value isn't objective, value is subjective. Value it worth assigned to things. That's the reason money has worth, not out of any innate quality in money, but because we all agree money has worth.

Yes, you can prove that giving people bread helps them, but on what do you base your implied assertion that people have objective value?

Nothing has objective value. The objective standard is causing harm/relieving harm.

I know you *feel* like people have value, but feelings are subjective.

Just like value.

Objective values require faith.

No, because Objective values don't exist.

This is because are not observable, nor can they be proven by logical syllogism.

They're not observable because they don't exist.

Subjective values on the other hand are no more than a private fantasy constructed by the individual.

No, they are based upon the immediate wants and needs of individuals and societies. Again, see money.

They are not a part of the reality that is really out there, they are just in your head.

So is the economy. So is a considerable amount of math and science. Heliocentricity and gravity and plate tectonics for example are all things that are just in people's heads. That doesn't make them any less real or have less of an effect on society.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

SB is correct, and I'm afraid even Red is indulging in precisely what SB describes.

A huge part of the argument is "Let me put what you've said in the worst possible light, the belittle how bad it sounds, rather than taking what you say at face value."

I think the atheist arguments are wrong. I think the assumption that what is not empirically verifiable does not exist is very shaky at best. I believe that what IS empirically verifiable IS empirically verifiable, it doesn't change from one observer to the next.

But trying to play "angel's advocate" and argue with an atheist who has a moral code that a moral code is an absurdity proves nothing. It isn't absurd to them. In the mind of some theistic philosophies, it may be absurd for an atheist to have a moral code. But an atheist is not bound by that assumption.

Arguments for divine presence need to do much better than that.

albanaeon said...

Jeremy, you are very confused what objective is. Good is what pleases God is again not an objectively verifiable statement, as we really have no basis for verifying it. But more importantly, even if we could, it still would not make pleasing God an objectively good thing. Good would be entirely based on the whim of a being, which would make it subjective.

Red Cardigan said...

Two things: I'm not attempting to misstate anything on purpose to make anybody look bad. But how does, "Well, my life is good," become an argument about the objective goodness of life? And how is what anyone has said here *not* a statement that says, "Well, my life is good..."?

Second, I'm not deleting anybody's posts, here or anywhere. Blogger deleted a good friend's comment on another post. I had nothing to do with it, and frankly don't know why Blogger seems to decide that a post is spam. If you tell me a post is missing, I'll look for it; but if it's not in the "awaiting moderation" or "spam" folder then it's just not available, and I have no idea what Blogger did with it.

Red Cardigan said...

And I just found 3 comments in the spam folder and published them--but chances are that if you don't *tell* me a comment of yours is missing, I won't go looking for it. Blogger doesn't let me know if comments are in the spam folder--I have to go check, which is something I tend not to do unless someone tells me a comment is missing.

Anonymous said...

"Thus, I pledge by my faith that I will never, ever vote for a Republican again, as long as I live."

you're an idiot.

jasper

Quasar said...

"But how does, "Well, my life is good," become an argument about the objective goodness of life?"

Who are you quoting? The only people who have said "life is good" in this thread are you (repeatedly) and Loki, who was making an entirely different argument.

So far you are the only one to reference the argument "my life is good" Ergo "all life is good" (which, of course, is a blatent logical fallacy).

I really have to spell this out, don't I?

We are not saying the things you are saying we're saying.

"And how is what anyone has said here *not* a statement that says, "Well, my life is good..."?"

Well, I can't speak for anybody else (I can state facts about their arguments, as I've done above, but I can't speak for them), but my argument was "the world isn't as hopeless and bleak without religon as you pessimistically try to make it out to be".

It had absolutely nothing to do with the "objective goodness of life", which I quite frankly find to be an exceeding weird concept. It's like the objective taste of a radio signal or the objective sexual attractiveness of an armadillo: sure, it's a concept that could with some leverage be applied to that noun, but it's also a remarkably strange conjunction of words.

Life isn't good or evil, it's life. It's probably the most neutral thing in the universe that isn't one of the noble gases.

Anonymous said...

"But that, of course, means that the life of a woman in a third-world country who daily endures poverty, hunger, oppression, sexual or physical abuse, disease or other suffering, the pain of watching several of her children die because of the hardships of their lives, the hopelessness of a daily struggle for mere survival that most of us can't even fathom must be...bad, right? If she thinks her life is good she is clearly delusional or clinging to religion or something, right?

Which means that this all probably boils down to some sort of existentialism or relativism (or a combination): my life is good, therefore I am free to posit that life is good knowing that my life is the only life I'll ever experience; or, life is good for some and bad for others, but as long as it's good for me I don't really have to think about others, beyond making empty "charitable" gestures here and there that assuage any latent guilt I have over the random chances that kept me from being poor, a victim of violence and oppression, someone living a life of ceaseless toil with few pleasures, etc."

So atheists are just selfish people (because they like chocolate cake?) who think life is only of value because they themselves have nice lives? I'm trying to follow these leaps you make here.

How does faith in a deity grant you the right to be so arrogant and dismissive of other people's relationships to their lives?

Have atheists here stated that lives that contain suffering have no value or are bad lives or that life itself is bad because of sorry circumstances? I seem to have missed those posts.

Why you project that we have guilt over our circumstances of birth or achievement is a little beyond the point of the original post. Now you've strayed over to pop-psychology.

I did not grow up mind-washed about being born with an inherent stain on an invisible part of me that, unlike every other experiential aspect of the world, is permanent and unchanging. I don't carry guilt about my circumstances, which are modest, but modest in America still means more wealth and comforts than most people in history and I am aware of my fortune and the responsibilities that come with it.

How are my charitable "gestures" empty? Empty to whom? To the recipients? I have direct evidence that they do not find my gestures empty.

Erin, you exhibit a strong propensity to assume the worst about the motives of people you simply cannot understand. But I don't think want to understand atheists or, frankly, anyone who is very different from yourself.

If you can't stand the idea that this is all there is to life, then by all means, comfort yourself with beliefs that help you. But those of us who are at peace with the realities of life are not punching bags for your resentment of our ability to find equanimity with things as they are.

elizabeth

Red Cardigan said...

""the world isn't as hopeless and bleak without religon as you pessimistically try to make it out to be". "

Okay, now perhaps we're getting somewhere. Where did I say that the world is hopeless and bleak without religion? I think that if human existence is limited to about 75 (give or take) pain-collecting years followed by complete oblivion, then human existence is a pretty stupid thing because in the end it doesn't mean squat. And if I really believed that, I would also believe that I could be as selfish, cruel, dishonest, grasping, and greedy as I liked--because what the hell would it ever matter anyway?

In answer to that I get pretty poetic platitudes about sunsets and laughter and the joy of living a good, selfless, nobly altruistic life. Okay, fine, if those are the kind of myths you tell yourselves to avoid the horror of the reality. But frankly, if it boils down to that, then I say your fairy-tale is a hell of a lot less compelling than the major beliefs of any major world religion, because for so many people it's so damn false, in that their lives really are wretched and terrible, and they get to look forward to the same oblivion as spoiled first-world consumers with their smug platitudes.

Loki said...

Where did I say that the world is hopeless and bleak without religion?

That's your entire argument. Most succinctly stated in this quote, "I don’t believe the world is ultimately terrible, but then again I believe the world has ultimate meaning and purpose."

I think that if human existence is limited to about 75 (give or take) pain-collecting years followed by complete oblivion, then human existence is a pretty stupid thing because in the end it doesn't mean squat.

Which brings us back to the world is hopeless and bleak without religion. Although really, all you are doing here is pointing a finger at your God and stating "J'accuse," since he's the one that forced 75 "pain-collecting" years upon you.

Oh, and meaning is a subjective idea that you ascribe to things, so it wouldn't "mean squat" because you made a conscious choice for it no to "mean squat."

And if I really believed that, I would also believe that I could be as selfish, cruel, dishonest, grasping, and greedy as I liked--because what the hell would it ever matter anyway?

So, again, the only thing preventing you from horribly sociopathic tendencies is religion?

In answer to that I get pretty poetic platitudes about sunsets and laughter and the joy of living a good, selfless, nobly altruistic life.

Well... generally most of us don't find sociopathy particularly tempting. We also enjoy lots of things about our lives. Those two facts negate your entire premise.

But you can't see that because you are attempting to get us to justify your hypothetical actions/ideas if you were hypothetically an atheist. And since those hypothetical actions/ideas are entirely irrational (as has been explained several times now) they can't be justified.

Okay, fine, if those are the kind of myths you tell yourselves to avoid the horror of the reality.

I eat chocolate. It tastes good. Please explain how this simple statement, one which negates your entire arguement, is a "myth" that "avoid[s] the horror of the reality?"

because for so many people it's so damn false

Prove it.

in that their lives really are wretched and terrible

Really? Prove it. Prove that their lives are really so wretched and terrible they'd be better off not living.

they get to look forward to the same oblivion as spoiled first-world consumers with their smug platitudes.

Sort of like the spoiled first-world consumer who just claimed that millions (billions probably) of people lead lives so wretched and terrible, they'd be better off dead? Isn't that a little smug?

Jeremy said...

In this post I am going to be careful to define my terms. I'm sorry I took so long to do so, it's just that I assumed at the outset that people would understand these pretty basic terms.

albanaeon:
"Jeremy, you are very confused what objective is. Good is what pleases God is again not an objectively verifiable statement, as we really have no basis for verifying it."

True, is not verifiable (my whole point is that morality is not verifiable!), but it is objective. Something that is objective need not be verifiable. You are the confused one. Here are two dictionary definitions of objective:

"not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion."

"intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book."

So when I say "objective," I am talking about real, factual truths. An objective assertion is one that is either true or false. If the assertion is true, then it describes realities outside the limits of the human mind and feelings. Some examples of this are mathematics and the existence of the sun. I also make an objective assertion when I speak of the existence of God, although whether this is a true assertion or not is of course something we will not all agree on.

A subjective assertion, on the other hand, is neither true nor false. It is simply the opinion of the individual. Here is the dictionary definition of subjective:

"existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought ( opposed to objective)."

Examples of this include personal tastes and preferences. Now, one *could* also say that God exists and mean it in a subjective way: "God exists for me, but not necessarily for everyone." That sort of wishy washy statement is certainly not what I mean when I speak of God.

So now to the topic at hand: morality. Let's start with the statement "it is wrong to harm people." Now when a person says something like this it is normally assumed that they are making an objective assertion. That means that, if the statement is true, harming people is always wrong, no matter who you are. But one could also say "it is wrong to harm people" and mean it only subjectively, as in: "it is against my preferences to harm people" or "harming others is distasteful" or "harming others is against my personal principles."

What a lot of people here have been saying is basically "harming others does not make a human beings happy and can have unpleasant consequences." This *is* an objective statement, and it *might* be verifiable, but it falls short of saying that harming others is morally *wrong.*

So what I would ask the atheists here is this: Now that you know what I mean by 'objective' and 'subjective,' do you believe that some actions are objectively right and others objectively wrong? If so, isn't that a completely unverifiable assertion, requiring a kind of faith?

Jeremy said...

One more thing. I think the confusion with the term objective has mostly been that something objective must be verifiable. This is not the case. The confusion comes from the fact that those believe only in empirically verifiable will of course dismiss all objective assertion that are unverifiable as being untrue. But, untrue or not, they are still assertions about objective reality. And that is just what I'm getting at, doesn't the person who believes only in what can be verified have to dismiss objective morality as untrue or else be completely inconsistent? What they are left with then is subjective morality (which by definition exists not the universal reality we find ourselves in, but only in their own minds).

Loki said...

I assumed at the outset that people would understand these pretty basic terms.

No, I'm reasonably certain that the person not understanding these pretty basic terms is you, and I'm reasonably certain that the dictionary you're about to quote agrees with me.

Something that is objective need not be verifiable.

No, it just needs to be, for lack of a better word, true.

Something that is objective need not be verifiable.

No, you are not, you are talking about your own subjective feelings and interpretations.

An objective assertion is one that is either true or false.

No, an objective statement can not be false. You are misreading the dictionary, chiefly because you are using the worst dictionary of the English language. He's Merriam-Webster's definition, "of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind (objective reality)"

Again, "objective" can't be false because, by definition, it has to describe the actual, perceptible conditions around us independent of mental static.

I also make an objective assertion when I speak of the existence of God

No, you don't.

Now that you know what I mean by 'objective' and 'subjective,'

Which isn't what "objective" and "subjective" actually mean...

do you believe that some actions are objectively right and others objectively wrong?

Why yes.

If so, isn't that a completely unverifiable assertion, requiring a kind of faith?

Why no. See that whole "harm" thing that you mentioned, but did not address. There's an objective, verifiable, measurable standard for right and wrong which requires no faith whatsoever.

But I can see you're about to butcher the concept, so I'm going to head you off at the pass...

That means that, if the statement is true, harming people is always wrong, no matter who you are.

No, it doesn't (and I'm not even sure what the "who you are" at the end you tacked on is about). You see, in the real world, people often have to make choices between many options, most of which will harm someone. A right decision is one where the amount of harm inflicted is less than the amount of harm lessened by your action.

Jeremy said...

Loki, I don't even know where to begin here. You understood nothing of what I said. Of course an objective fact has to be true! I was saying that an *assertion* of objective fact must be true or false. Any time I make an assertion, that assertion must be true or false (duh). The reason I wrote "objective assertion" was to distinguish it from a subjective assertion which by definition is neither true nor false. Do you get it now?

"See that whole "harm" thing that you mentioned, but did not address. There's an objective, verifiable, measurable standard for right and wrong which requires no faith whatsoever."

The fact that an action harms someone is verifiable, yes, but the fact that harming someone is objectively wrong is not verifiable. If you can't understand my meaning here then you'll miss my entire point. I can't believe I've had to waste so many words to explain it.

Red Cadigan, I appeal to you. Am I really being so unclear in my arguments? I feel like there's a malfunctioning computer firewall between this guy and me and no real communication can pass through it.

By the way Loki, that dictionary definition you quote is demonstrably lacking. If you've ever read Plato (who greatly influenced the way that terms like objective are used in philosophy), you know that for Plato objective reality had nothing to do with the physical realm. Here's a good quick reference for use the word objective http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivity_(philosophy)

Red Cardigan said...

You're being perfectly clear, Jeremy. I don't think Loki (or too many of the other atheists who have posted here) are using terms like "objective" etc. as they've been used in philosophy.

Loki said...

You understood nothing of what I said.

I understood everything of what you actually said, of course I could not be expected to understand what you meant to say when it contradicts your actual statements.

Of course an objective fact has to be true!

Which was not what you were arguing earlier...

I was saying that an *assertion* of objective fact must be true or false.

If you meant that, why did you say that instead of "An objective assertion is one that is either true or false?" You labeled the assertion itself objective, not that you were making a claim that some particular fact is objective.

The reason I wrote "objective assertion" was to distinguish it from a subjective assertion which by definition is neither true nor false. Do you get it now?

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaait... so you purposefully used imprecise, opaque, misleading language and are surprised by the fact that people are not understanding your meaning? It's not a matter of if I get it, it's really more a matter if you have accurately conveyed the meaning you intended.

but the fact that harming someone is objectively wrong is not verifiable.

That's the definition of harm. That's what harm is.

If you can't understand my meaning here then you'll miss my entire point. I can't believe I've had to waste so many words to explain it.

If I can't understand your meaning, then it is most likely that it was expressed not particularly clearly. Use precise language and extra verbiage will not be a particular problem.

By the way Loki, that dictionary definition you quote is demonstrably lacking.

Why yes it is. It was one definition out of seven, and the most accurately reflecting the point I was making about the word. And none of those seven definitions fit your usage. I can go look in the OED if you like?

c matt said...

in what ways are thieves and conmen better off than others?

At least materially, most politicians and CEOs seem to be doing well compared to the rest. And materially is all that should matter to a PEV atheist, at least one who is consistent.

c matt said...

However, whatever lies outside of the materially verifiable universe by definition is irrelevant to the materially verifiable inhabitants.

Hmm...tel that to the materially verifiable inhabitants that rely on the sq rt of i.

c matt said...

Altruism is an optimization strategy.

Really? It doesn't seem to work that way for many Wall Street Bankers I have heard of who dabbled in mortgage backed securities recently.

Insomniac said...

Just finished reading the fable. I'm not sure if this has been bought up yet. If it has, here's a rewording.

I have two primary issues. The first one's a bit nitpicky -- the fable presumes a theistic standpoint. The prison seems to be have been built, if at least run, by people. The equivalent to a naturalistic atheist in this scenario would be someone claiming that there are no guards and that the prison was just the natural universe. It sounds awfully close to "You're too blind to see the processes!", which is just a tad condescending. A more translatable story would be birth into a remote tribe backed by impassable mountains and hemmed in by an seemingly endless jungle from which no one ever returns.

Now, my second issue is paramount. When the fable says, "it would be more logically consistent with your beliefs to look out for number one, to lie, cheat, and steal if necessary in order to make your own life as comfortable and pleasure-filled as possible", it either presumes that that is the easiest way to promote self-interest or that there is no social element. If the prisoners are able to interact, wouldn't some sort of society form? With that comes ties, empathy, and the like. True, there will be some sociopaths, but the majority of people would find it easier to form reciprocal relationships with others. Other social animals, like monkeys, do the same thing. If the greater whole can trust the individual to keep in accord, they both gain a lot. The individual gets protection and access to resources while the whole gets another body to assist in group dynamics.

Quasar said...

"Where did I say that the world is hopeless and bleak without religion? I think that if human existence is limited to about 75 pain-collecting years followed by complete oblivion, then human existence is a pretty stupid thing because in the end it doesn't mean squat."

Ummm... you just answered your own question. You described life without religon with the terms: "pain-collecting" and "stupid", dwelt on mortality, and then called it "meaningless" in the end. How is that not a "hopeless and bleak" perspective on the world?

And if I really believed that, I would also believe that I could be as selfish, cruel, dishonest, grasping, and greedy as I liked--because what the hell would it ever matter anyway?

Okay, you know what RC? I'm not buying this rubbish any longer.

YOU ARE NOT A SOCIOPATH. If you lost your religon you would not spontaniously become selfish, cruel, dishonest, grasping and greedy. Humans in general are better than that. You are better than that.

STOP TELLING US YOU'RE SOME SORT OF IMMORAL MONSTER ONLY HELD IN CHECK BY RELIGON: YOU. ARE. NOT.

"In answer to that I get pretty poetic platitudes about sunsets and laughter and the joy of living a good, selfless, nobly altruistic life. [snip] because for so many people it's so damn false, in that their lives really are wretched and terrible, and they get to look forward to the same oblivion as spoiled first-world consumers with their smug platitudes."

I'm sorry, why can't people living in hardships appreciate all of those "pretty poetic platitudes"? Sunsets are universal. So is laughter, and so is the happiness we derive from our biological imperitive towards empathy. If you're saying people living in third-world countries don't laugh or appreciate beauty then quite frankly I have to wonder what the hurp is wrong with you.

Reading back through, the "pretty poetic platitudes" you have fixated so single-mindedly on are the minority of the responses. The majority (and this is a somewhat haphazard summary, because everyone's raised different points (seriously, the variety is quite astonishing)) are making logical points about how HARM and EMPATHY are objective sources from which to derive morality and meaning, about how meaning is a personal thing that everyone finds on their own, and about [flips through] actually, there really is no consistancy to the responses, is there? I suppose that's a good thing: there's lots of different answers to your questions, based on each individuals take on the world. Yay individuality!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

There appears to be a misunderstanding of what Red is saying about whether life has meaning, value, or purpose.

Anyone could observe that a large part of human existence consists of pain and suffering. Many atheists rely on this set of empirics to argue that obviously there is no benevolent God in charge.

Many Christian sects, in one form or another, view enduring this pain and suffering as merely a prelude to a much more inspiring and perhaps in a sense comfortable plane of existence. This belief, true or false, lends a certain meaning and dignity to life. It is lived for a purpose, and that purpose is to be realized in the next life, after death to this life.

In order to say that this life, in itself, is good, without any afterlife or God, without any eternal rewards or punishments, one must posit that with all the capricious pain and suffering in the world, it all means something.

That, I surmise, is the fundamental basis of Erin's taunts, and missing that is why various return taunts aren't making much impact on Erin.

But again, it seems to me that IF life is merely the product of 3.5 billion years of mindless random chemical reactions, the complex and almost irreplaceable result would be worth preserving, simply because it is the most intelligent bit of self-awareness this cold indifferent universe has given rise to.

A note on objective: it means that something has meaning and reality regardless of the subjective awareness, experience, or perception of any given SUBJECT. (That which is merely the perception of a subject, an observant being with will and consciousness, is by contrast SUBJECTIVE.

But these things can be somewhat relative. If God exists a priori, then divine will is objective in relation to myself as subject. It is what it is whether I know it or not, like it or not, perceive it or not, will it or not.

One could argue, as some have, that God himself is a SUBJECT, and therefore his will and acts are subjective. Logically true... but then, what is the OBJECTIVE context? What is there that exists regardless of whether God perceives or wills it?

An "object" also means, something that is acted upon by a "subject," but is unable to act upon anything of its own volition. What subject can act upon God as object?

Of course, if there is no God, then the cold indifferent universe is objective, and we humans are subjects acting upon it, taking dominion over the earth, so to speak. There is a philosophical meaning and beauty to that, and a sense of fulfillment in being part of that, whether attempted by divine command, or simply because we can.

Sleeping Beastly said...

The problem with this kind of discussion is that the two sides of it share so few concepts and axiomata that there will be no meeting of the minds at all, unless both sides approach the discussion with charity and humility. And if there is no meeting of the minds, then what if the point of discussing the matter in the first place?

Jeremy, someone once said something very relevant about earls and swine. When someone isn't interested in what you have to say, but only cares about scoring points against you, I say it's time to shake the dust off your feet.

John E. said...

Me:
Altruism is an optimization strategy.

c matt:
Really? It doesn't seem to work that way for many Wall Street Bankers I have heard of who dabbled in mortgage backed securities recently.

I'm not sure what your point is here, c matt.

Are you saying that because the bankers did not behave altruistically that must mean that altruism is not an optimization strategy?

Because I don't think that makes sense - would you like to expand on your thoughts you've put out here?

limey said...

RC said:
Point Two: The question to me is not whether atheists, even those who adhere to the PEV, are able to be good or can choose to be good (or altruistic, or to find meaning, joy, and value in life, etc.). The question is whether this is a rational extension of the ideas of PEV atheism, an irrational departure from the ideas of PEV atheism, or something else altogether.

I'm struggling a little bit with what it is your are really trying to say here. So first I will explain what I think you are saying and then will answer that. If I have misunderstood you, you can correct that.

I think you believe that an atheist at root, can't be a good person unless they actually make an effort to do so, or get help. Your belief that this is the case is so strong that you can't see how a society of atheists could work because everyone will be trying to fleece everyone else.

Put simply, that's wrong. The reason that is wrong is because all around us are atheists that function as decent people in society. Those who do the crimes are the minority. Sometimes those who do the crimes are even Christians, explain that one if its the presence of the God in someones life that makes them good. (I think I can predict the answer to that one)

The existence of so many atheists in a functioning society must surely make you wonder what mechanism there is that drives it, it there isn't a God in their lives to do it. Its evolutionary my dear.

Evolution can and does explain how people can be good. It does explain things like altruism. There is a lot of research and study into this and there will no doubt be much more to come. Personally, I find this area of science very interesting and look forward to what is discovered next. There is too much for me to go about linking random studies so I implore you to go and research what the scientists have done on the subject.

Being very simplistic about it, being good and altruistic is a behavioral benefit. People prefer people who are good, those people get the benefit of having a long term relationship and bring good babies into the world. The genetic character traits continue.

Expanding out of the family unit and into a bigger society; good people work better together and so co-operation and honest trade benefits the broader society. Small tribes that are trustworthy become popular while any tribe that is selfish becomes isolated.

Its not at all impossible to imagine the above being true and leading to an organised society of good and Godless people.

No, I don't have specific proof, the above is my paraphrase of how I understand current thinking. For the proof I suggest you find and read some of the studies on the subject as suggested above.

Talking of proof, I notice that you haven't provided any proof for your suggestion that its irrational for an atheist to be good.

Kimberly Margosein said...

Limey and all others: This concept is covered in the latest issue of "The Economist"

c matt said...

Talking of proof, I notice that you haven't provided any proof for your suggestion that its irrational for an atheist to be good.

Perhaps "irrational" may not be the best term. It is more like "arational" if there is such a term. Not so much that it goes against reason for an atheist to be good, but that there is no reason for an atheist to be good.

Premise 1: After I die, I no longer exist, there is nothing, nada.

Premise 2: Nothing I do in this life will affect premise one, whether I am the best or worst person on earth.


Conclusion: Because nothing I do will affect my eventual outcome,there is no principled basis for me to be good.

This does not mean I can't be good as an atheist. Sure I can. It may bring me pleasure, warm feelings, etc. There is just no principled reason for me to be good. Another atheist could be bad because it brings him pleaure, warm fuzzies, etc. and he would be just as true to his atheism as the "good" atheist.

c matt said...

Are you saying that because the bankers did not behave altruistically that must mean that altruism is not an optimization strategy?

Well, it certainly wasn't for them. Your point as I understand it is that because being good is beneficial to society in some Darwinian sense, it can arise as a purely materialistic phenomena.


The example above shows that it is not an optimization strategy for many segments of society. In fact, it is to the benefit of those with power, or those who seek power, to completely go against this optimization strategy of the masses, to the eventual detriment of those masses. Soon, we shall see this Darwinian principle in action (soon in an anthropological sense) as this "optimized society" collapses from these power predators who, by the way are in complete principled alignment with an atheistic world view.

John E. said...

c matt, I'm saying the altruism is 'an optimization strategy' than I employ and you are countering by saying that the bankers use a different strategy.

Well, so what?

I choose to optimize by one set of behaviors, the bankers choose another.

If they get more resources than I do, what is that to me as long as they aren't taking my resources?


Your point as I understand it is that because being good is beneficial to society in some Darwinian sense, it can arise as a purely materialistic phenomena.

No, my point was that, unlike what Red has been saying, a person might rationally choose to behave altruistically rather than to lie, cheat, and steal for various reasons.

One reason I cited was "how much work it is to claw your way up to the top of the pyramid".

You are responding to an argument I am not making.

I am making the argument that an individual might choose to expend fewer resources and take fewer risks by behaving altruistically even though it nets fewer resources.

Now, would you like to respond to the argument I am actually making?

c matt said...

I am making the argument that an individual might choose to expend fewer resources and take fewer risks by behaving altruistically even though it nets fewer resources.

Essentially, a utilitarian argument. Which is fine, assuming you have made accurate calcualtions, and those would hold for everyone. It may just as well be that there are fewer risks and takes less energy to behave badly, or that the greater resources gained outweigh the risks/energy expenditure. That is the calculation the wall street bangsters and mafianationals came to, and they were right (at least, they suffered no material injury other than perhaps the opprobrium of us of lesser means).

So, based upon an atheistic viewpoint, one could choose to do either. There is no principled basis for preferring one to the other; there is only calculation (and either getting it empirically right or wrong to various degrees). Which therefore makes the entire concept of "good" or "bad" essentially meaningless. One can act altruistically in perfect harmony with atheism; one can also act completely selfishly in perfect harmony with atheism.

John E. said...

One can act altruistically in perfect harmony with atheism; one can also act completely selfishly in perfect harmony with atheism.

Well yeah - was anyone arguing otherwise?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

c matt, is the main reason you choose to be good, when you choose to be good, attributable to

a) The fear and trembling that the wrath of God inspires in your quaking soul? and

b) Your longing for the unutterable majesty of God?

If yes to both questions, then, in the absence of these incentives, would you be a callous murderer, rapist, embezzler, extortionist, and purveyor of other felonies and misdemeanors, on the theory that if God is not watching, you might as well grab what you can?

Or would you still recoil from such crimes and seek to live your life in harmony with your fellow man?

Quasar said...

"Premise 1: After I die, I no longer exist, there is nothing, nada.

Premise 2: Nothing I do in this life will affect premise one, whether I am the best or worst person on earth.


Conclusion: Because nothing I do will affect my eventual outcome,there is no principled basis for me to be good."


Ah well, given that Premise 1 is demonstratably wrong, so is both Premise 2 and your conclusion. After I die, even though "I" (as defined by continuation of consiousness) will no longer exist, the world still will. That's not nothing. That's everything. Ever heard the phrase "life goes on"?

Besides which, it's not even provable that continuation of consiousness ceases after life, even from an atheistic viewpoint. For all I know I'll die and then fourty-two billion years in the future I will wake up after a vastly technologically advanced race (maybe humanity, maybe the species that evolved after we killed ourselves, maybe ET's) reconstitutes me molecule by molecule from the imprint I left on causality.

Quasar said...

One can act altruistically in perfect harmony with atheism; one can also act completely selfishly in perfect harmony with atheism.

Well yeah, but one can also strip naked, cover oneself in yoghurt, and dance the foxtrot in a field of porcupines in perfect harmony with atheism. Doesn't mean it's a smart or sensible idea, it just means it has no impact whatsoever on whether or not you believe in a deity.

On the other hand, if you wanted to rationalise the naked yoghurt porcupine foxtrot, that's where religon would come in handy. Confess your sins and dance the Sacred Naked Yoghurt Porcupine Foxtrot, and you will be forgiven in the eyes of the LORD!

John E. said...

Besides which, it's not even provable that continuation of consiousness ceases after life, even from an atheistic viewpoint. For all I know I'll die and then fourty-two billion years in the future I will wake up after a vastly technologically advanced race (maybe humanity, maybe the species that evolved after we killed ourselves, maybe ET's) reconstitutes me molecule by molecule from the imprint I left on causality.

You might be interested to know that noted physicist Frank Tipler has written of the idea that at the Big Crunch at the end of the Universe, the surviving entities would use the immense energies available to build a computer that would simulate every possible existence that could have happened, including your life.

He goes on to equate this simulating device with the Trinity.

I think he is trying too hard to get the attention of the folks who distribute the Templeton Prize money.

Sleeping Beastly said...

@Quasar: Besides which, it's not even provable that continuation of consiousness ceases after life, even from an atheistic viewpoint. For all I know I'll die and then fourty-two billion years in the future I will wake up after a vastly technologically advanced race (maybe humanity, maybe the species that evolved after we killed ourselves, maybe ET's) reconstitutes me molecule by molecule from the imprint I left on causality.

I am assuming you find this scenario more probable than the Judgment as described in the catechism? If you'd care to explain why, I would be interested to read it.

Quasar said...

He goes on to equate this simulating device with the Trinity.

I think he is trying too hard to get the attention of the folks who distribute the Templeton Prize money.


"Every possible existence"? No. In order to simulate something you need a computer of greater or equal complexity. So, without taking shortcuts, you could simulate 1 existence of the same size as the dying universe, and that's at 100% efficiency.

So no, that's not going to happen, but it's still a fun thought experiment.

I am assuming you find this scenario more probable than the Judgment as described in the catechism? If you'd care to explain why, I would be interested to read it.

Yes, I do, keeping in mind that "more probable" doesn't mean the same thing as "probable". We're talking about hypotheses on the same level as "what if we're just a brain in a jar" and "what if the world was created last thursday with the appearance of age". Fun, but not especially pertinent.

As to why I find it "more plausible" than Judgement Day: this scenario relies on logical, albeit hypothetical, extrapolations of technology, progress and sentient life. It relies on phenomena which could, theoretically at least, exist in this universe without breaking the laws of physics.

It doesn't rely on supernaturalism, or on a mystical "soul" or forms of energy we've never been able to find evidence actually exist, or on positing a universe or entity that is "above" the laws of physics which has communicated with us in the past or on any of these other concepts that not only lack supporting evidence, but that should have left evidence if they actually happened/existed.

It's a much more parsemonious explanation that the recordings of ancient history were greatly exaggerated: not exactly an unheard of phenomena amongst "holy texts", I'm sure you'll agree.

limey said...

Kimberly Margosein said...
Limey and all others: This concept is covered in the latest issue of "The Economist"

You'll have to provide some more clues. I don't get the print edition and I am not sure which article on the website is the one you are referring to, if it is at all there.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The two most cogent empirical arguments for divine creation are:

1) The evidence that it all began with a tremendous burst of electro-magnetic radiation, exactly as the second verse of Genesis describes. This lends some arguable credence to the first verse, and, it raises the question, how did some guy standing on a hill east of Egypt without a telescope know that?

2) The very slight changes in the measurements of the strong and weak nuclear forces, which would have resulted in the wrong mix of carbon and oxygen to sustain life. We are the result of what would appear to be a very finely calibrated universe, not a randomly generated one. That is more impressive, to me, than the clumsy manipulations of the "Intelligent Design" misanthropes.

Andy said...

"To me, speaking about morality was a shorthand way of speaking about consequences. Saying "I won't do that because it isn't right" was just another way of saying "I won't do that because I won't like the eventual consequences.""

Respectfully, that seems to be your personal experience and not typical of the broader population. From what I understand the basic moral instinct that all humans share is compassion. Sure, at some base level no one wants to be punished, but society is bound together more by the Golden Rule (a principle discovered by many cultures at different times). Look at the secular societies of Europe. If everyone there was only out for their own hedonistic pleasure there would be chaos. Punishing criminals only gets a society so far, and considering these societies are lenient in many ways indicates that people are good without God without a need for a police state.

Here is a link about some research on moral drives: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

Sleeping Beastly said...

@Andy: I am not sure we're talking about the same thing. In essence here's how I understood my comment to be relevant:

The original post asked what logical reason an atheist has to behave altruistically.

I replied that, in my case, that logical reason was that all actions have consequences - not just social consequences, but internal consequences too. Even as an atheist I understood that the actions I took shaped the person I was becoming. I did not respond by talking about instinctual compassion because compassion is a reason, but not a rational argument.

Does compassion play a part in the things humans do? Certainly. So does selfishness. Compassion is not the only universal instinct.

And no, I can't speak for all atheists, but I can speak for myself, and I can speak for most of the atheists with whom I discussed issues of ethics and morals.