Friday, October 2, 2009

Atheism Not Built on Reason Alone

Atheists at a Cricket Match

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. The trouble is foxholes have become the perfect place for an atheist to set up shop, make himself comfortable. I don’t know when it happened but somewhere along the line the so-called Problem of Evil became the heart of the atheist rationale. For Christianity through the middle ages there was no such thing as the Problem of Evil. Sure, there was evil and it caused problems but it didn’t cause problems for God. It certainly would never be trundled out as proof that God did not exist. But nowadays if a person wants to shrug and show you just how stupid the idea of a Supreme Being is all she has to do is mention the Holocaust or tsunamis. With senseless shit like this going on, how can there be an all-powerful and all-loving God somewhere out there? It all seems so Q.E.D.
Not even a lack of miracles is taken to be as strong a defeater of theism. After all, maybe miracles hide from unbelievers. Maybe God averts disasters and heals undiagnosed tumors all the time. How would we know? There is nothing more convincing to us of the nonexistence of God than a senseless death. Children killed in earthquakes or wars – what sort of cosmic sadist would allow that? Who is really convinced that Job’s family being restored to him can make all of his suffering hunky-dory? Epicurus was aware that the existence of evil has serious implications on the nature of God. The result was that either God is evil or impotent since there very clearly is evil in the world.
If we accept that this reasoning is sound, what are we left with? Atheism seems to be an insistence on living rationally. We must deny the existence of God because we find evil in the world. We must accept that there is no meaning to our existence since this would demand a purpose behind existence, and how can there be a purpose to the chance existence of randomly acting matter?
An atheist in a foxhole makes a great deal of sense to me; especially if he has just seen one of his comrades liquefied by an exploding shell. This seems like a rationally justifiable position. What I can’t quite fathom is an atheist at a cricket match. A happy atheist has to be the strangest thing in the world. What is after all the meaning of a cricket match? Surely if there were ever an absurd thing it’s sports. All of those people cheering and shouting as if it all had some kind of eternal significance. In some heavenly future will we be able to look back on that day in the stands and at athletic play that meant so much? Not if atheism is true. So what is it that is going through the mind of the atheist sports enthusiast? My best guess is that the poor chap is acting against his own reasoning. He’s acting as though what he is doing somehow has lasting significance. He seems to be living as though he were in fact not an atheist and the universe is not a meaningless place. That he will never die and the memory of his life in all its numberless vivid details will never be obliterated from the universe.
Or consider it this way. Someone asks you, How’s your beer? Well given the fact that I will eventually die and stay dead forever I guess you could say that it is tinged with a great deal of bitterness.
Or, constantly staring death in the face, how can we be happy? How can we even go through the countless trivialities of life, to say nothing of enjoy ourselves at a cricket match?
Atheist existentialism is a crock if ever there were. When Camus opts against suicide he is rather arbitrarily acting optimistically. But why should he? Isn’t he simply choosing some rather bourgeois moral notion on which to construct his life? I know atheists who are almost religiously environmentalist, for instance. Every life is sacred. Every species matters. A world without a panda would be a terrible place. But why is this so? How do we know this is right? Isn’t the sun going to explode at some point and make all species on earth extinct? “He who dies this year is quit for the next.” Why should another billion years of tooth and claw existence be better than ending all this senseless suffering sooner rather than later?
I also had an atheist friend tell me I should suggest to my children that life never ends. Our bodies become the soil that grows into grass and that whole circle of life crap. Of course at some point the universe will become a very dark cold place and nothing much will be growing then. If current scientific models are correct. Talk about your cold comfort.
The point for me is simply that atheists don’t really live much differently from theists. They are optimistic about our situation in the cosmos. We can do things to make the world a better place. We don’t have to worry about death because we all live on. Life is eternal. Forget the fact that this is all built on fog and smoke.
We shouldn’t be too quick to say that the atheists ought not to live as they do. But what we really cannot escape suspecting is that the atheist really lives no more rationally than those religious fundamentalists he or she rails against. The religious person will talk about faith as though that speech makes some sort of sense, when in fact it may be as groundless as the atheist’s optimistic view of the value of biological life. But is one really in much of a stronger rational position? Does either offer good evidence for the way they conduct their lives being rational? I’m sorry if I can’t see it.
It seems to me that the atheist and the theist really don’t spend much time reflecting on why they feel the way they do about the universe and our place in it. Their sense of what it all means is assumed from the outset. It isn’t put into words. And Freud is no more convincing than Augustine about why we should do what we are supposedly called to do. We either owe it to our fellow human beings to try to make life better or we owe God obedience. Why? In short, don’t ask.
As far as I can see the atheist with his science really has no room to attack the fundamentalist. He who is without irrationality may cast the first stone. Perhaps this is why there have been so few true atheist philosophers in the history of the west. Philosophy keeps knocking up against the infinite. It is hard to be sure there could not be a God when you are convinced that there is something infinite. Giving trillions of minds and an infinite amount of time, couldn’t we human beings build a Supreme Being? It’s something to think about.
The fundamentalist should also be patient with the atheist when he turns out to be a bad philosopher. Richard Dawkins doesn’t think much of Anselm’s ontological argument, which he seems not to understand. He calls it a parlor trick. But he seems to think a great deal of Bertrand Russell’s actual parlor trick of the Orbital Teapot thought experiment. But if a person can’t tell the difference between the infinite and a finite teapot I don’t suppose I’ll be able to help them see the error of their ways. Suffice it to say that a God and a teapot are far from the same thing. The character Casaubon understood this in Foucault’s Pendulum, a book Umberto Eco wrote some twenty years before Dawkins decided to Rottweiler away at alleged delusions of God’s existence.
This is precisely what philosophy is for, though we have forgotten it: philosophy humbles us before what have proven perennially insoluble problems. How shall we live? What is the meaning of life? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the basis of knowledge? These questions are not parlor tricks. They have been worked on by some of the greatest minds the world has ever known. Only a fool could think he has all the answers or is free of all delusion.

Friday, May 29, 2009

David Hume

David Hume thought that we could never be sure of our knowledge of the world. It is just perception. We can't know that the sun will rise tomorrow just because it rose yesterday and the day before. That's an inductive fallacy. Thomas Reid tried to take Hume to task by asking, if we can't trust our senses, what can we trust? This doesn't get us far. The real answer is in how complex the universe is likely to be. To have everyone have vastly different perceptions to such a degree that we can't read a thermometer or clock, we would need one of two things: either a complex universe that can change how thermometers work from moment to moment, or we would need brains that have simultaneously evolved that can perceive in vastly different ways -- your blue is not my blue because you are actually seeing something different from what I am seeing when I see blue.

Hume also thought that there could not be a self that exists over time. The self clearly is a tricky thing. But modern brain science shows that memories are indeed stored in the neurons. False memories are not a problem here because they are anomalous. The point is that we do have memories and they do stay with us. I don't argue that Hume totally misses the mark. Again, the self is a dicey concept, but some sort of self does exist over time unless disease or damage occurs. Hume's contention that there is no self is the falsehood here, not that the self is not at all fungible. We should note that Hume's problems with induction seem a bit silly in the face of a universe that has light traveling steadily for tens of billions of years. Why should we have doubts about the future, in a Humean way, that don't seem to apply to the visible past? Hume would have to come up with some sort of vector for this sudden and inexplicable change he proposes is possible.

Also Hume says that there is no reason to prefer avoiding the destruction of the world over scratching his finger. The problems here are with the words reason and prefer. By reason does he mean a method of proof? Can we prove that the destruction of the world is less preferable to scratching an itch? We can prove that we would like it less. We would not want to see fear and pain in ourselves or others. Fear and pain are not things that we generally prefer. Can we prove that we should not? Is that necessary to show that Hume has tied himself in a knot? I doubt it. We could not make the vast majority of people prefer destroying the world over scratching one's own finger. Had Hume acknowledged this fact I feel that he would have been making some progress. As it is, he again is not accurately describing the world. He is forcing a needless skepticism on himself. I don't think in ethics we can know what all the wrong or right actions are. But that doesn't mean that we know nothing about right and wrong.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Wren

The tiny wren is not too reticent.
Boldly, he claims his need to be content
With nothing less than his own mastery
Of song. The trills his urgency sets free,
Having surpassed their given form, outstrip
All reasoning, or parity. The grip
Exceeds the hand: the draft the cup or glass.
The height is not distance from the dewy grass.
Not greater is the wren than his brief song,
Its tune’s been sung by early wrens for long,
But this uncommon wren sings of our flight,
Fulfills its promise, mindful of the night.
No rubbish from a shrunken guilty thing
Whenever themes are given vital wing.
The virtuoso wren has song in spate.
Each April new if wren and song will mate.

Friday, May 1, 2009

prelude to a bliss

Prelude to a Bliss

Was Falstaff ever young and thin,
Or less addicted to his sin?

I would have had him on Bermuda’s shores,
Perhaps, retiring on the fat Azores,
Feasting on sweet Madeira’s ruby berries,
Or another of the warm Canaries –
Believed to be the Islands of the Blest,
Where Homer said Greek heroes take their rest.
Sertorius could have skipped the wars
And bloody Sulla, locked ambition’s doors
Upon these isles in anonymity,
Well-insulated by a tropic sea.
And thus Sertorius thought to do, to die
In peace. An t’were, like-tested, so would I.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Conspiracy Query

Porkchop: Things are going better than I coulda dreamed, GM. Phase Seven is complete. The LSD is working wonders on Harry Bloomy, just like you said it would, of course. All eyes are focused on the Goat Three Thousand. Ha! I've almost started to believe in it myself. I can't wait for Operation Sheer Bliss to start up next month. We've got the greedy bastards right where we want them. They all believe their broke but they can't live with anything less than paradise. GM, you are one great fucking genius. Before we teamed up I had my doubts. I thought you were just this spinach-smoking freak with a grudge against Archer Daniels Midland. Now you got me thinking maybe I oughta inhale some of those polyphenols too.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Real End of History

No, I'm talking about the coming (yeah, right) utopia. Where's utopia? Nowhere. I'm talking about Americans not having a sense of history or any historical sense. It isn't that no Americans remember important dates. Some of us do. Some of us are big readers of, say, the Civil War. Some people know a great deal about Revolutionary America or about the fight for civil rights. But knowing about separate periods or historical events is not the same as having a historical sense.

If we did have historical sense we would not have gotten into the idiocy of McCarthyism in the fifties because we could have asked where Stalinists came from and what was the likelihood that anything like that was going to happen here. After all, was it happening in England or France in the fifties? Was it happening anywhere by consent of the people and without a great deal of bloodshed? (In case you don't know, no, it wasn't.) Had it happened anywhere where there was not a great deal of political backwardness and total absence of workable infrastructure? No. Did Marxism fill the vacuum anywhere besides Russia and China? No. And there it did so after long campaigns of widespread murder.

Marxism needed corruption. We were deathly afraid that the pinkos would overthrow our entire way of life for a big part of the last century. And all of it was to no point. Nowadays Newt Gingrich and Lush Rimbaugh are trying to scare the hell out of some Americans that European style socialism is again on the march. Will Americans be fooled twice? I doubt it.

But the Republicans are going to miss a good opportunity for soul searching and for figuring out what sort of real politics they can develop. I don't say that Republicans are going to go away. They aren't. There are too many people in this country who believe in Big Business No Matter What The Poison and live on Anti-Abortion Fervor. That is not likely to disappear. Republicans will get voted back in because they are the only option people have when it comes to punishing Democrats. Our two party system shows no signs of erosion. Half of Republicans are even willing to put all their chips on the likes of Sarah Palin, as improbable as that may seem.

But it isn't just the GOP that has no use for history. Obama is too much the man of graphs and flow charts. It's too bad that none of them came in history books. Oh, sure, he may know a lot of facts about constitutional issues or even something of economics -- or at least of more recent players in the field. But what does he know about presidential history or biography? He has no sense of biography or story in general. He's a facts and figures sort of guy. Like most folks of our stupid era his is big on analysis of discrete problems. He has no power of synthesis. No one with any real notion of narrative would attack the financial crisis in so muddled a manner. No natural storyteller would jump into the health care issue will he's deep into the economic plot. Nor would he have picked the cackhanded Clinton for Secretary of State when we are lousy with people who can sound sensible and fake sincerity (H Clinton is weakest on the latter, if you hadn't noticed). Although you can't argue with idiots, you can shake hands with the devil. Of course the devil is likely to test his new air-to-ground missile the next day but that's no major difficulty when you are filled with the audacity of rosy-glasses. You can talk all you want to sharks and maggots, but at the end of the talk they are still sharks and maggots and haven't understood a damn thing.

But see, this is what you get when all of your smartest people are thinking about theory instead of history. Put down thy Foucault and pick up thy Shakespeare. If Obama can't be bothered with Robert Caro or Richard Pipes, Simon Schama, that kind of thing, read some Plutarch for gods' sake.