Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We Are All Connected

I wish I'd watched more Cosmos when I was a kid.

"The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it. But the way those atoms are put together."

Monday, October 26, 2009

How Everything Came from Nothing, No God Necessary

Reality is better than man-made fairy tales, as physicist Lawrence Krauss explains in this wonderful lecture.

The big point that comes out from this is a devastating answer to the common theistic sneer, "Do you believe that everything came from nothing?" Well, yes, I think the cosmologists are onto something just like this. Here, view this video and pay attention starting especially at 33:00. The laws of physics allow a universe to begin from nothing, no deity needed.

Favorite quote: "The universe is the way the universe is, whether we like it or not."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

We Ain't Yer Other!

I stated before that not only do we not need God to be good, but that we also already don't use or need God in our everyday goodness. Practically speaking, I said, we are all atheists.

Of course, this fact drives many theists bat-shit insane. And what do theists do when they cannot face facts? Why, they hope to confuse the issue by resorting to tangents while also fleeing the original issue with giant leaps of logic.

Take the "Jewish Philosopher," for example, who is pretty much the worst example on the Web of both a Jew and a Philosopher. He rants:

According to atheism, there are no consequences to our actions other than the obvious material ones. Therefore if I believe that I am smart enough or lucky enough to get away with crime, I’ll do it.

According to atheism human life has no value. We are merely miniscule bags of chemicals stuck to the surface of an insignificant planet.

According to atheism, we have no personal responsibility for anything which we do. If we murder, this is merely the result of brain chemistry and bad influences, but not any bad choice because free will does not exist.
The quote above is saturated with the worst kind of stupidity, the kind that takes a reasonable premise and then saddles it with all sorts of scary-sounding, insidious implications. When the so-called philosopher says, for example, "According to atheism, there are no consequences to our actions other than the obvious material ones," he makes what I would consider a basically true statement - if it means that there is no divine retribution for human actions. But then he screws up the logic by going straight from the premise to a silly conclusion: "Therefore if I believe that I am smart enough or lucky enough to get away with crime, I’ll do it."

Uh, wait. The so-called philosopher ignores that there are indeed consequences to crime other than divine retribution. Remember all those "obvious material" consequences he mentioned so vaguely just before? Well, they include jail, fining, feeling guilty, hurting someone else's feelings, family shame, and so on - none of which requires a god.

On the other hand, many people commit crime (or crime's avatars, intolerence and chauvinism) because of holy inspiration. They shoot people in a place of worship or fly planes into buildings, or embezzle, or commit espionage in the name of their god - all this because they believe they will receive a divine reward in the afterlife!

We don't have to parse the entire rant of stupidity that is the (ahem) jewish philosopher's comment to realize that like many theists who have a stick in their ass about atheism, he doesn't really know or understand atheism at all.

Every time such people try to insist about what atheists believe and what atheism entails, they err in a serious way by adopting non-sequiturs and conclusions that don't follow from premises.

Let's look at some more of the Jewish Philosopher's wisdom:

If we do find atheists living peaceful, honest, sober lives (which as far as I know is actually rare) this is the result of the influence of parents and grandparents who were not atheists. It is in spite of their atheism.

Atheists may claim that they are good because invariably crime does not pay in the long run (which is not necessarily true – look at Stalin and Mao who died peacefully in bed) or because humans are instinctively good (which is nonsense – read a history book or a newspaper).
Here we have a reverse "No True Scotsman" fallacy, in that the claim is that a good atheist is not a real atheist. What we see here is the Jewish Philosopher trying to retain an unreasoned assumption. Then he resorts to a ridiculous straw man argument in "invariably crime does not pay in the long run." Notice how the oh-so-honest Jewish Philosopher has sought to dilute the stronger argument given by P.Z. Myers:

There is morality in my 'worldview'; don't confuse the fact that I state baldly that there is no external non-human intelligent agent that imposes morality on me with an absence of moral thought. I derive my sense of what is right and wrong from intrinsic properties such as empathy and other social impulses, and from acculturation in a stable, successful society that has expectations of parents to introduce their children to what constitutes reasonable behavior. I also derive it rationally from what I can see as a robust strategy for long term security and happiness within my culture — that is, robbing banks has a very poor long term return on the effort.
Myers gives an argument that is personal and situational. It's a strong argument because it is concrete and specific. The Jewish Philosopher attempts to abstract the argument into a vague sound-bite.

Why do theists like the Jewish Philosopher do this? My hypothesis is that they see atheism as a kind of anti-religion, an Other to use as a receptacle for all the bad things that would otherwise undermine their sense of how great their religion is. That is, they are never far from the thought that none of their core superstitions are actually true, so they intellectually build an Other to serve as the scene for this thinking.

Because they see atheism as an Other, these anti-atheists can rarely understand it in anything but negative and hostile terms. They take a fundamental position toward atheism that is is narcissistic. The believe that it's all about their little religion (cue Bill Donohue) when really their specific combination of fairy tales, lies, and restraints matter very little.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Children and Fatherhood

I should write more often about how much I enjoy my children and how much I love being a father. It really is a fantastic thing to live with the kids and to be part of their growing up (with their mother, my wife, of course!!). But even more, I like that we're connected and I like our connection. Ugh, I'm failing with the words. Maybe that's why I hardly write about the kids - they are so wonderful that I cannot express it coherently.

Hannah is so very smart and sweet. She's also pretty and full of life. I hardly worry about her because I know that she'll succeed in whatever she chooses to do. I think we really get each other.

Emily is such a cutie, and I can tell that she's quite intelligent. She and I share a tendency to be quiet and to be homebodies. I can't wait to see her in school, but another part of me thinks she's perfect as-is and doesn't want her to grow up.

C.J. is a happy, bouncy, boisterous little guy. He's all boy, as the mothers on our street like to say. Gosh is he loud and energetic. He's really a physical kid and very independent. But he has the face of an angel. I'm not quite sure what our relationship will be like. He's so attached to his mother - and I don't blame him - but I wonder sometimes if he sees me as a rival in the house, as if he's already pushing to be the alpha male!

The kids make me laugh - a lot. Although I very much like living in the present, I get volumes of joy from a vague vision of the future, in which my three grown children are all around visitng and laughing with me. Much as my wife has shown me what happiness is, the children have taught me about joy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morality: No God Necessary

Anti-atheist folk love to suggest that atheists have no basis for morality. It's a tired, malicious and incorrect argument that claims: If you don't believe in God then you have no objective standard for morality. You make morality a mere matter of opinion or preference. If you want to kill someone because you consider her or him your inferior, there is no moral standard that would lead you to the conclusion that you should not kill.

The anti-atheist argument on morality usually gets formulated as I have expressed above, with little deviation. For example, we get this from Dennis Prager:
Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media, the case is both clear and compelling: If there is no transcendent source of morality (morality is the word I use for the standard of good and evil), "good" and "evil" are subjective opinions, not objective realities.

In other words, if there is no God who says, "Do not murder" ("Do not kill" is a mistranslation of the Hebrew which, like English, has two words for homicide), murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral "facts" if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.
And someone at Uncommon Descent recently produced this gem:
[H]ere’s a simple thought experiment for any of the materialists (or philosophical naturalists, or atheists) among our number here at Uncommon Descent. Perhaps this simple thought experiment can bring some clarity to moral questions from a materialist persepctive.

Here goes: You’re in a large city and walk up to a a busy street corner. Heavy traffic is whizzing by in both directions on the street you need to cross. As you prepare to cross, you notice next to you a smallish, frail, elderly woman, carrying some shopping bags, who also needs to cross the street, but is quite obviously nervous and frightened of the attempt. You now have 3 options: 1) you can ignore her completely and just go about your business; 2)you can push her into the traffic; 3) you can assist her to get safely across the street. The moral question is, what is the right thing to do and why is it the right thing to do (that is to say, how can we know that is the right thing to do)?
If you read the comments in the thread from which this quote comes, you'll see that the main thing the person wants to know is "how we can know" what is "in fact the right thing to do."

A few elements stand out to me in this reasoning.
(1) The 'how can we know' part is rather pathetic, as if we need to have worked out our philosophies of right and wrong behavior before we can make any decisions at all. Yet we very often act upon decisions without knowing whether they are right or fully right. Indeed, too often several options have varying degrees of rightness. The 'how can we know' meme is a dodge, an unnecessary rabbit trail that could be pushed out endlessly - well, how can we know that we know?

(2) It is baldly ridiculous to imply that a written law, whether it be a holy book or national legal code, imparts knowledge of what the right thing to do is. Statutes tells us what to do or not to do. They indicate moral thinking, but they don't define or contain it. Just imagine for a moment what the world would be like if Iranian law were equivalent to morality, or Russian law, or Mormon law. But in the end, we cannot know what is the right thing to do from a holy book or from a sense of having a divine judge watching over our thoughts and deeds. To know implies a level of certainty that we rarely can achieve when it comes to morality.

(3) It's even more ridiculous to posit that virtually any moral choice one might make in a given situation is "in fact" the right thing to do. What's a fact is that people can always devise choices. Moral decisions are about reasoning and strategy, not illusory facts.

Theists have a hard time grasping that appealing to God is not the same as appealing to an objective standard of morality. The appeal is always subjective. The timeless, unchanging morality of God depends on whether one is a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian or a whatever. It depends on when in history you live. It depends on your personal sense of values, perhaps shared with the larger culture in which you live. It hardly takes any thought at all to realize that as a practical matter, objective morality is meaningless. It's purely a rhetorical term.

Atheist hero P.Z. Myers has a thoughtful, devastating response to the charge that we cannot be good without God. He says:
There is morality in my 'worldview'; don't confuse the fact that I state baldly that there is no external non-human intelligent agent that imposes morality on me with an absence of moral thought. I derive my sense of what is right and wrong from intrinsic properties such as empathy and other social impulses, and from acculturation in a stable, successful society that has expectations of parents to introduce their children to what constitutes reasonable behavior. I also derive it rationally from what I can see as a robust strategy for long term security and happiness within my culture — that is, robbing banks has a very poor long term return on the effort.

So, I do believe in right and wrong. It's just not handed down from a magical sky-lawyer.
Myers says so succinctly and eloquently what I am trying to offer as my main point: Theistic belief in right and wrong is no better than atheist belief in right and wrong. Furthermore, I am skeptical that idea of God itself plays any role in the everyday goodness most people show. Not only do we not need God to be good, but we also already don't use God in our quotidian moral reasoning and judgments.

Practically speaking, we are all atheists.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bob Dylan: Last Man Standing

As part of my project to create a "greatest hits" CD for my fortieth birthday, I listened to a few of my CDs by Bob Dylan. The most recent one I have is Time Out of Mind. I don't know that I'd call this a great CD, but it has some truly great songs. And Dylan continues even now to produce excellent material.

The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan were the great musical forces of my adolescence and early adulthood. They were huge influences and joys in my life. But I rarely listen to the Beatles now, and I don't respond to their songs anymore the way I used to. I still like vintage Stones, but they too are a relic in that they no longer produce new music that excites me.

Dylan, however, remains a "living" artist to me. He still has lessons to tell and stories to teach. Even his old stuff yields rewards. An under-appreciated gem like "Bob Dylan's Dream," from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, retains a rawness that continues to speak to me. So Dylan is the last man standing, the one artist of my youth who still has relevance.

My first Dylan record was Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits. I had high expectations because in my reading everyone seemed to talk so admirably of him. Most of my books were about the Beatles, and they clearly saw Dylan as a great songwriter and a dominant intellect. So when I put on the record and heard the first track, "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," I thought it was a joke. That voice of Dylan's: was that his real voice? That raw, acoustic sound which was so ragged and poor compared to the studio polish of the Beatles: was this the stuff that drew everyone's admiration?

I went through the other cuts that first time, from "Blowin' in the Wind" to "Like a Rolling Stone." I don't think I liked it all very much, but I didn't dislike it. Some of the songs had neat hooks, like "Just Like a Woman" and "It Ain't Me, Babe." So I continued to listen and to be intrigued by that voice, that unpretty voice. That ever-biting, surprisingly malleable, and ultimately perfect voice.

At 16, I was an unabashed Dylan fan when no one else in my peer group was. I took some grief for this but I didn't care. I knew Dylan was saying things that were better than Rush, R.E.M, Van Halen, and even U2. Here, for example, is the opening to the Prufrock-ian "Ballad of a Thin Man":
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home.

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Dylan could be positively Shakespearean in his wordplay, as in "Highway 61 Revisited":
Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you're right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.
Like no one else, Dylan put conversation and drama in songs. In "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," the dialogue stacks questions and misunderstandings and establishes a vision of the mythic American west as a place of desolation and self-inflicted violence:
Well, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,
They were the best of friends.
So when Frankie Lee needed money one day,
Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens
And placed them on a footstool
Just above the plotted plain,
Sayin', "Take your pick, Frankie Boy,
My loss will be your gain."

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat right down
And put his fingers to his chin,
But with the cold eyes of Judas on him,
His head began to spin.
"Would ya please not stare at me like that," he said,
"It's just my foolish pride,
But sometimes a man must be alone
And this is no place to hide."

Well, Judas, he just winked and said,
"All right, I'll leave you here,
But you'd better hurry up and choose
Which of those bills you want,
Before they all disappear."
"I'm gonna start my pickin' right now,
Just tell me where you'll be."

Judas pointed down the road
And said, "Eternity!"
"Eternity?" said Frankie Lee,
With a voice as cold as ice.
"That's right," said Judas Priest, "Eternity,
Though you might call it 'Paradise.'"

"I don't call it anything,"
Said Frankie Lee with a smile.
"All right," said Judas Priest,
"I'll see you after a while."

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat back down,
Feelin' low and mean,
When just then a passing stranger
Burst upon the scene,
Saying, "Are you Frankie Lee, the gambler,
Whose father is deceased?
Well, if you are,
There's a fellow callin' you down the road
And they say his name is Priest."

"Oh, yes, he is my friend,"
Said Frankie Lee in fright,
"I do recall him very well,
In fact, he just left my sight."
"Yes, that's the one," said the stranger,
As quiet as a mouse,
"Well, my message is, he's down the road,
Stranded in a house."

Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked,
He dropped ev'rything and ran
Until he came up to the spot
Where Judas Priest did stand.
"What kind of house is this," he said,
"Where I have come to roam?"
"It's not a house," said Judas Priest,
"It's not a house . . . it's a home."

Well, Frankie Lee, he trembled,
He soon lost all control
Over ev'rything which he had made
While the mission bells did toll.
He just stood there staring
At that big house as bright as any sun,
With four and twenty windows
And a woman's face in ev'ry one.

Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee
With a soulful, bounding leap,
And, foaming at the mouth,
He began to make his midnight creep.
For sixteen nights and days he raved,
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest,
Which is where he died of thirst.

No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest,
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest.
And he just walked along, alone,
With his guilt so well concealed,
And muttered underneath his breath,
"Nothing is revealed."

Well, the moral of the story,
The moral of this song,
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong.
So when you see your neighbor carryin' somethin',
Help him with his load,
And don't go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.
Dylan would revisit this spare (if not bleak) vision again, notably in "The Man with the Long Black Coat" from the Oh Mercy album--except perhaps by now he'd lost some optimism:
Preacher was a talkin' there's a sermon he gave,
He said every man's conscience is vile and depraved,
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it's you who must keep it satisfied.
It ain't easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat,
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat.

There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way.
But people don't live or die, people just float.
She went with the man
In the long black coat.
Dylan is a modern Jeremiah. He sees how out of joint the world is and tells all of us about it. He senses the strangeness of his position as an icon. Everyone praises the prophet's words instead of heeding them. Today's Dylan just sings and doesn't take his "star" status seriously. All he can do is work his work, as he muses in "Tryin' to Get to Heaven," with its allusion to "Midnight Rambler" by the Rolling Stones:
Gonna sleep down in the parlor
And relive my dreams
I'll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems
Some trains don't pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers, like they did before
I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door.
Dylan is that performer who will go until he dies. He's a rail rider with a guitar on his back and a harmonica in his pocket. He's a scop, a troubadour, a vaudevillian. And Dylan is the most important songwriter of them all. One can get older with his songs and within their world of outlaws, strangers, and jilted lovers.

Perhaps Dylan's "suffering servant" posture ultimately wins out over the unapologetic, unrepentant rebelliousness of the Stones. If one lives, one becomes put upon and beaten back. The observing voice in Dylan is undefeated and undaunted, yet unpretentious. That voice does not refuse to warn of the storms approaching in the distance, even if no one heeds the warning.