Atheism ...
Just Another Title?
Tonytiger

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: tonytiger
Subject: Re: Atheism...just another title?
Date: Sunday, November 07, 1999 1:18 PM

Of course its a title in the sense that the word describes a group of people with certain philosophical traits. The problem is that neither theists nor atheists can agree as to the scope and meaning of the term, so it does us well to define the word when we use it, or simply to describe what we are talking about. For example, I have yet to encounter a god claim that both makes sense and holds water.

Mirriam-Webster's lists, as a synonym for the word atheism, the epithet wickedness. While it is useful to know that some people use this definition, I denounce its use whenever I encounter it.

To some, atheism is the lack of a god-belief, and includes agnostics (who don't know), noncognitivist (who say that a god claim cannot be understood and thus can neither be accepted nor rejected in a rational discussion), infants and imbeciles (who lack the thinking abilities to form a god-belief) -- but excludes agnostics who think there is something out there but cannot say anything more. This definition is historically the most popular among atheist philosophers. We currently favor this definition but are leaning toward the following definition.

Others divide the above category into (in the most recent proposals) atheists and nontheists. Thus, an atheist would be one who has considered god claims and has rejected them outright, and a nontheist includes those who have not considered god claims and those who are ambivalent but do not have a belief (agnostics who do not know, versus theistic agnostics who think there's a god but cannot tell you any more than that).

Positive Atheism, as we use the term, is a proactive ethic. (Some others use "positive atheism" to mean those who have considered and rejected god claims, versus those who have not encountered them, etc. We do not use the term this way.)

Positive Atheism is based upon the premise that organized atheism exists only to counter the claims of theists. We are, in this sense, calling theism falsehood. This would indicate that we have a respect for truthfulness. (Though some active atheists are patently dishonest, we would say they are not self-consistent and are tarnishing the credibility of their message and ours.)

If, by our very act of propagating atheism, we imply a respect for truthfulness (in that by our very atheism we call theism a form of falsehood), then it is imperative for us to be very cautious that all our acts words and actions are truthful and based in self-consistency. Gora said, "The insistence on truthfulness does not disturb the freedom of the individual. An atheist is free to say or to do what he likes, provided he does what he says and says what he does." Gora also advocated keeping no secrets and doing nothing that one would ever want to be suppressed or kept secret.

While truthfulness and self-consistency does not make for a comprehensive, foolproof, air-tight system of morality, it is a good foundation and a good primary ethic, and with it a person does well.
 

Gaud forbid that their children should also be taught the germ theory of disease, that the earth is a globe, that the sky is not a lid ("firmament") with stars attached to it, that pi equals approximately 3.14159, or that they should learn foreign languages and thwart the curse upon mankind issued at the Tower of Babel. These school boards need to hire people who know their Bible so we can keep to accurate, biblical teaching.
 

While this trait is common within the species, it is not necessarily something to unite over; neither is it something that is necessary to unite over. It simply is, and we will either continue to achieve this goal or we will not. Any failure on our part failure may or may not have been our own doing or undoing, but could conceivably have been entirely beyond our control.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: tonytiger
Subject: Re: Atheism ... just another title?
Date: Tuesday, November 09, 1999 4:38 AM

It looks as though a singularity, requiring no energy to come about, escaped into a vacuum. A very slight imbalance between matter and antimatter could explain why there is matter at all: an imbalance as slight as a billion to one could explain the matter that does exist, the other 999,999,999 having cancelled each other out. All these ideas are subject to criticism and to being overthrown, but this is the version I trust the most at this point in my education. None of this contradicts anything currently known in physics, says particle physicist Victor Stenger, whom I interviewed three days ago regarding this very subject.
 

This quesstion about purpose presupposes intent on the part of a creator. I don't think our universe or our species were intended. If you could show me a sentient designer for this whole mess, then we could begin to speculate upon the intentions of that designer.

Since the existence of the universe and of life can be explained without resorting to a creator, the argument from design is mere speculation. To bring the notion of a sentient creator out of the realm of speculation and into the realm of serious discussion, one would have to identify that creator in such a way that everybody who sought would see pretty much the same thing when we looked.

Here is why I am very skeptical of religion: almost everybody who thinks they have identified a creator describes something completely different; many such descriptions are mutually exclusive. Meanwhile, hardly anybody disputes the existence of the sun and the earth and of humans and of personal consciousness.

Our goals, as species and as organisms, are to survive and to procreate. This is one thing you can say about all living things. Beyond this, individuals have their own purposes, but usually these are wrapped up in survival, procreation, and sometimes even happiness (for the more intelligent species of animals).

Humans choose their own purposes, which almost always involve enhanced chances at survival and procreation. This, in humans, explains our tendency toward morality and nurturing behavior. Since we spend a larger fraction of our lives as helpless children than any other species, the social and nurturing instincts are naturally selected into the human species.

Happiness is also another goal that is common but not universal in humans, and some humans are what most of us would call sick, and thus do not have survival as a goal. Also, since the drive to procreate is established in the lower regions of the brain, and since rational and abstract thought is established in the neocortical regions, most humans learn to control the sex drive, and some (such as myself and, for example, certain religious priests), learn to suppress it altogether for long periods of time or even for life.
 

If there is life on other planets, they almost surely came about the same way we did: through evolution by means of non-random selection of random mutations in a self-replicating organism. Thus, the goal to survive and to procreate would almost surely be part of their motivational and behavioral systems.

Our brains and thinking were formed in the mammalian ancestors we had, most recently, the common ancestors we had with Chimpanzee and the Neanderthal (who may have even been more intelligent than we). The human brain has spent 99 percent of its history foraging in the African Savannah. The vast majority of the rest of that time was spent living in communities where superstition reigned, and where critical thought was seen as a threat to order and was thus punished by death or banishment or by enforced economic disadvantage. Thus, the tendency toward credulity was (un)naturally selected into our mindsets, and the tendency for critical thought (the scientific process) has only very recently been allowed to flourish. This could explain why, in this age of technology, superstition still runs rampant among humans, and why critical thought is still somewhat rare.

These experiences were unique and very unlikely, but they did shape what we are like today. I doubt, though, that an intelligent species on another planet developed under even remotely similar conditions. Also, if there is an intelligent species on another planet, surely their brains are wired much differently than ours, having evolved out of an entirely different set of species. So, I don't think we would have an easy time communicating with extraterrestrial species even if they were visiting our planet (which they probably aren't, because Relativity and the Uncertainty Principle make the development of the necessary long-range, high-speed travel highly unlikely).
 

I will turn 43 later this month and I have no kids (that I know of; I was somewhat reckless when I was younger), and do not intend to have any. Should an accident occur, I am prepared and financially able to take care of them and emotionally prepared to give them my best.

I would enhance my children's education, but would probably send them to public school (unless, of course, the Fundamentalist Christians either destroy the public school system or take it over so that the Christian ethic is taught there, then I would either find a humanistic school or teach them myself).

I don't "go with the flow" on any matters, but try to find flaws in everything for the purpose of improving any situation I find myself in. This may be a personality quirk that is hard-wired into the way my brain works, or I may have learned it; nevertheless, this is they way I am and I have learned to accept the way I am and to make the most of what little I have. The ultimate good that I can do is to make the world a better place for my having lived.
 

We are so closely related to the Bonobo Chimpanzee that I advocate establishing civil rights for all Chimpanzees, everywhere in the world. I think it is shocking that a zookeeper can put a full grown Chimp to sleep simply because he needs an extra cage -- a creature with the mentality and emotional makeup of three-year-old human child; a creature who uses tools and can learn a simple sign language; a creature who, if he witnesses, as an infant, his mother being killed by poachers, he will probably die from shock; a creature who kisses his or her loved ones; a creature who sometimes makes love in the so-called missionary position -- and then go out and blockade an abortion clinic to protect a fetus that more closely resembles a steamed prawn than it does a human.

I feel a kinship to all creatures, and I am glad that I don't have to go out and kill, say, a chicken in order to eat (although I probably would if that were the only way for me to eat). When I have to kill a spider to protect my pets, I am very careful to do it swiftly and as painlessly as possible, as I cannot be sure that that creature does not have some form of awareness. If an organism has a nervous system, it probably has an awareness of some sort. Plants and microorganisms have no nervous systems, and thus probably have no awareness.

When I see the birds singing in the tree, I see my brothers just having a ball (and trying to get some!). I am friendly and patient toward dogs and cats and squirrels that I see on the streets and in the parks. Only humans have the skill required to try my patience. I don't see humans as special except in this respect and in the fact that they are the most intelligent entities with which I can communicate (although often I prefer the company of animals to the company of humans).

I have developed a simple language that my cats understand, and I can "read" their cries and meows pretty well. I know when they are hungry or spooked or want some attention or just want to say "hi." I must remember that they are just little guys, and have only limited understanding, and then we can get along just fine. I spend about three hours a day with my attention focused directly upon my various cats, and they all sleep with me on my bed, though not always at the same time. Two of them are on my desk right now, and they both understand that I am working, so they leave me alone and wait patiently for me to finish. I am patient with them when they don't realize that I am working and demand attention: it is as good an excuse as any to take an ergonomic break from the terminal.
 

Neither of us has any special claim to truth -- nor anybody else, for that matter. That's the best that I can tell you. The best advice, as far as behavior, is to stay away from hard drugs and risky sex and don't take any other unnecessary risks. My generation grew up not knowing that AIDS exists and not knowing that Hepatitis C exists. The latter was discovered only about seven years ago, and I cannot believe just how many people have this deadly illness. These two diseases are the main reasons why I have relegated the pursuit of sexual pleasure to a very low priority.

And stay out of fundamentalist groups. I don't mean just religions, because some religions are not fundamentalistic, and some nonreligious groups are very fundamentalistic. I mean any group that claims a special knowledge of truth that others don't have, or any group that thinks it needs to protect the rest of us from ourselves or from other harms.

Science is the process whereby nobody has a special claim to truth and all claims to truth are subject to criticism. In science, the greatest honor seems to be to have your own pet theory overthrown by some young whippersnapper of a graduate student, because then we all have learned something and we all have just abandoned another false viewpoint (your pet theory).

Science is about anybody having access to public knowledge, whereas religious revelations are always private. If God tells Fred something, that is Fred's business and Fred's responsibility. If Fred then tell me what God told him, that is hearsay, and I don't have to believe it or obey it because I wasn't in on the revelation. That message is not as trustworthy as God is, but is only as trustworthy as Fred is.

This is the mistake that most of the classic religions have made, and then they try to make us all accountable to some ancient revelation which was probably the mutterings of some eclectic person who may have suffered from epilepsy or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The problem is not that people with such disorders are disqualified from having access to truth (they aren't, any more or less than you and I aren't) but that the "truth" of the "revelation" has been etched in stone and is placed above criticism.

We do best to always look for errors and mistakes in what we think is the truth, and to constantly test our theories to see if they might be faulty. I do this with my atheism whenever I challenge a theist to explain to me what they mean when they use the word "God." I don't know what they are talking about, and have yet to encounter a god-claim that either makes sense or holds water. But if one can make his or her case with me, I have promised to convert to that system of thought. For now, though, I remain a liberal doubter who sees the scientific method as feeble but who also sees the scientific method as being the best we have for arriving at a semblance of truth. If someone can show me a system that is better, and can show me that the new (or old) system is, in fact, better, I will run with it.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: tonytiger
Subject: Re: Atheism ... just another title?
Date: Wednesday, November 10, 1999 5:15 PM

I apologize if I sounded patronizing in my previous letter.

Your remarks about having "a long journey ahead" made it appear to me that you could have been a teenager or a young adult who may have sought wisdom or guidance from an older adult. This was my error that I spoke prematurely, without having enough of the facts to warrant such speech.

Even if you had been seeking such advice, I hope I made it clear that I have no monopoly on wisdom (nobody does), and that I can speak only to the mistakes that I made as a youngster and that I have watched other youngsters make -- mistakes that we now deeply regret having made. I hope you now understand that it was from this perspective that I spoke. I can only hope that you did not become offended by my mistake.

As for having Indian cultural roots, I hope that you have visited our Atheism in India section. Last I heard, we have the largest Internet presence of the works of Gora and Lavanam. A year ago, Lavanam told me that he intends to be on the Internet within a few years.

When it comes to the path of truth, liberal scientific inquiry and public scientific discussion is, I think, the closest we have come. In this system, no claim to truth is above criticism and eventual overthrow by a better model. No person has claim to truth; it is that body of publicly available knowledge that has thus far withstood public scrutiny. If someone utters a hypothesis that does not withstand this scrutiny, or if that person is unwilling not only to subject the ideas to public scrutiny but also to abide by the results of this public inquiry, then we have no business respecting that opinion.

To me, this path, however feeble and however many people it offends in the short run, is the best we have. This process will ultimately turn out to harm the fewest people in the long run. This is scientific inquiry as we know it today, and this manner of thinking can and should, I think, be applied to every quest for knowledge.

The pursuit of truth which lacks this mode of thinking is called "faith." Many of faith's proponents tell us that is just one tool in the toolbox for discovering truth, and that faith is a superior tool for discovering what we currently do not know. To me, human reason, subject to the process of public scrutiny, is the entire toolbox, and that we have no other tools worth using.
 

This is one of the classic lines of reasoning against the claim that we were designed by an intelligent entity. It is called the Argument from Evil and is, I think, very closely related to the Argument from Nonbelief. Theodore M. Drange's book, "Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God," speaks to these arguments as they relate to Evangelical Christianity (which, I hear, is somewhat rare in England). The Argument from Evil states that the existence of evil cannot be reconciled with the existence of an all-powerful, all-good creator god. The Argument from Nonbelief states that the existence of atheists cannot be reconciled with the existence of an all-powerful, all-good god who, by definition, wants all humans to know that he exists.

Your presentation of this argument cuts to the core of the problems raised by the notion of intelligent design. To me, the best explanation for the existence of evil -- human evil -- is that we evolved through nonrandom selection of random mutations, and that were not designed or created. Evolution does not contain the problems you describe, and exquisitely explains much of the situation we see on Earth today.

There are no explanations for natural evil in a universe designed by an all-powerful, all-good deity. Either the deity chooses to allow earthquakes to kill and maim millions for whatever reason (not all-good), or the deity is powerless to prevent earthquakes (not all-powerful), or these are simply natural phenomenon which no entity controls and no entity has designed. I do not see any other way to explain this problem, but I am still open to any theists' attempts to explain this problem.

As for the singularity, all the evidence we have so far (mostly pertaining to the uniformity of the background radiation) points to the likelihood that its initial post-singularity stages were entirely chaotic -- no order whatsoever. It is possible that the total energy required was zero, and that whatever happened simply escaped to fill a vacuum. This also seems to preclude design.

However, we know of no other universes (or instances of this universe) which are or were different from the one we have, so we cannot compare how things might have been. All we know is this one universe, and since life exists, the statistical chances of life arising from a universe is unity -- one -- based upon all the data we have. Based on our observations, for every universe we know if, life exists somewhere in that universe. If we had other universes to compare with this one, then we could speak more accurately of the unlikelihood of life forming in a universe because we would have a greater sample to compare. I am not sure if we will ever confirm the existence of any other universes, of any previous universes (a la the "big crunch" and "big bang" cycle of some theories), or of any larger, much older system within which this universe would be just a brief bubble. But unless we can confirm the existence of a larger system, we cannot postulate whether it was created or is eternal.

I think the crucial question is: Can we explain the existence of this universe without resorting to supernatural intervention? Modern physics seems to say that we can -- that such an explanation cannot be ruled out. If we do not need to resort to a supernaturalistic explanation, then any naturalistic explanation would be simpler than any supernaturalistic explanation: to explain the existence of the universe is less problematic than to explain the existence of both the universe and of a creator who would, by definition, be even more vast and complex than the universe itself. In this case, we would then need to explain the existence of the creator.

No theist I've encountered has wanted to allow the question, "Where did God come from?" However, if we are to be consistent, and if we posit a creator to explain the existence of the universe, then we must -- to be consistent -- face the question of the creator's origin. If the universe needs a god to explain it, but then that god can have been eternal, then why cannot the universe (or a larger system within which this universe resides) have been eternal.

Of course, if one can demonstrate the existence of a creator (and not simply posit its existence based upon the vastness and complexity of the universe), then all these questions become irrelevant. However, the existence of a creator is anything but obvious; hardly any two people say the same thing when they tell us what they mean when they use the word "God." Joseph Lewis summarized the problem this way: "A precept claiming infallibility should certainly possess the universality of the law of gravitation and the perfection of the arithmetical table. If it fails to possess these undeviating qualities, its imperfection is self-evident and its value either greatly diminished or useless." (The Ten Commandments, page 457.)

The next key, I think, to a naturalistic explanation of the universe, will lie in the discovery of the so-called dark matter. If dark matter can be detected, and if it has the properties that many particle physicists suspect that it has, then the total energy in the universe would equal zero. This would mean that the universe -- the Big Bang -- will likely have required zero energy to get started. The creator then loses yet another round of the argument.

Dark matter is no longer simply the missing element in an equation which results in a universe with zero total energy: gravitational studies of the rotations of galaxies also point to the existence of dark matter. This is a good thing, because I am uncomfortable with a theory which simply "fills the gap," so to speak, in an equation that is presumed to equal zero. If it turns out that the equation does not, in fact, equal zero, then the notion that the total universal energy equals is overturned. This still does not necessarily overturn the idea that the Big Bang required zero energy to get started, it only complicates the theory -- and scientists are always looking for the simplest theory with the fewest complications.
 

More often, theists are turning to "language of quantum mechanics" and invoking those mysteries in order to posit a "scientific" justification for their theism. This tends to involve many leaps of the non sequitur variety, and even more premature conclusions. If someone tells me that a "quantum physicist" believes that science justifies theism, I'd first ask "Which quantum physicist?" Name that person and then let me read her or his papers that allege to conclude the existence of a god.

The singularity that Stenger spoke of could have manifested itself from nothing, or so he says.

I hope you write me again. I have enjoyed this discussion immensely -- even the part where I made a mistake! (Perhaps some young person who later reads this discussion will benefit from that part.)

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: tonytiger
Subject: Re: Atheism ... just another title?
Date: Sunday, November 14, 1999 3:08 PM

My point is that we have established a discussion called the scientific method. Any claim to a truth has no right to be respected unless that person is willing to submit his or her claim to that discussion process and is also willing to abide by the results of that process.

As far as "love" is concerned, it can be defined and detected. Microscopes are not the only ways to detect the existence of things.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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