2009-03-11

Another thought on freethought

Once again, Mike Chapman has gotten me thinking. This time it was a sort of direct challenge, because he asked me some questions directly. I thought my response to his question, "Do you label yourself with a term(s) related to unbelief? If so, what is/are these terms and how do you use them to signify your worldview?" is worth copying here. Again, it's something I've been thinking about for a while, but hadn't gotten around to writing it down. Thanks, Mike.


I have long identified myself as an "agnostic", and I mean this in an intellectual/rational sense of knowledge, and nearly completely distinct from any form of belief or faith. I use the term "agnostic" to say that evidence of the existence of a god or "higher" power is and never will be available. Scientific methods of inquiry would be the only rational way to show such evidence. However, what one believes is separate from what one knows, in that a person does not need to prove something to believe it. Feelings, epiphanies, moments of clarity, instincts, and many other things affect our beliefs and our faith.

I, personally, believe there is a higher power. That higher power could, from my perspective, be labeled as God, or just as well by any of the laws of physics that apply. There is order in the universe, and science is slowly uncovering its ways. Humans will never discover every law and every force under which our world operates, and this unknown can very easily be labeled as a god. I do, sometimes, find myself thankful for the way things happen, and I tend to revert to the judeo-christian standard of looking towards the sky and giving a quick thanks. i do this because I think upwards is as good of a direction as any in which to look, and I don't want to live my life ungratefully. This might make me some sort of spiritual, but I tend not to identify with such labels.

Similarly, I might call myself a fatalist, since I believe that, given the laws of physics that we have and have not discovered yet, and given complete knowledge of the state of every particle in the universe, as well as unlimited computing power, one could "see" the future, much as one "sees" that a ball falling from a rooftop will soon be on the ground. I doubt that many other people would consider this view to be "fatalism".

Only very recently have I become acquainted with the term "freethinker". I think this describes me very well, because I have long been a staunch proponent of thinking about reasons for anything instead of making decisions based only on tradition, previous impressions, rhetoric, or other non-logical methods of persuasion. If such a term has been defined, I would be a "passive freethinker", since freethought itself is not a cause or a belief, but a method and a way to arrive at conclusion, and not a conclusion itself. Thus while I firmly believe that the tenets of freethought should be made easily available to all people, I don't see freethought as an alternative or as a competitor to religion, spirituality, or faith. These are completely separate, and it is the antagonistic aspect of freethought with which I don't identify.

12 comments:

Ben said...

I like your posts - even more after a few glasses of wine; )i have a question or two - why do you feel that you have to give thanks to a "god" in order to feel grateful about life? I agree we have a lot to be thankful about. Of all the billions and billions of people who have ever lived - we are probably in the top 1% in terms of our standard of living. I don't take that for granted - but, I don't think that a god has anything to do with that.

As Thomas Hobbes points out - for 99% of the time man has been a species - our lives have been "nasty, brutish, and short". Did all those prehistorical people somehow offend god to deserve that pitiful life? How about the victims of the recent shootings, or those who have died in Iraq, or any of the other countless violence, poverty, and disease that is happening anywhere on the planet at this very moment?

To me - the only possible answer is "no" - I don't deserve to be comfortably writing about things that don't really matter while I sip my wine anymore than three aid workers in Darfur deserve to be wondering if their captors will kill them tonight in their sleep. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/13/sudan-aid-workers-kidnapped)

Yes - I know the normal excuse for this is - "we can't understand god's will." to me though the world offers millions of examples everyday that show that there is no great "manager" of our lives in the sky - and if there is - "he" has been so absent for so long we might as well act as if "he" isn't there.

Also, I think that instead of "fatalism" that "determanism" would best describe your philosophical viewpoint. I think you're a little too positive to be considered a "fatalist."

as an agnostic - it might interest you to read a debate between andrew sullivan and sam harris on religion. Sullivan is a gay catholic and harris an atheist. Sullivan is the only political blogger that i read regularly - so, i respect him even though i disagree with many of his beliefs/views. anyways - check it out - you might like it (http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Secular-Philosophies/Is-Religion-Built-Upon-Lies.aspx). they are respectful - but strongly defend their views.

fbg said...

To answer your first question: I don't thank "God" necessarily. It's just that, when I'm thankful, I say or think "thanks", and prefer not to be thanking myself, because that would be arrogant. I thank luck, life, and the world. Those are my God.

It's like yelling at your bowling ball to roll a little further left to get that last pin. It won't help, but you do it anyway.

Determinism sounds good, too, but I wasn't aware there is a difference between it an fatalism. I'll have to look that up.

Ben said...

i think that determinism is more scientific - like your description of the complete knowledge of every particle - fatalism is more like your favorite show Lost - they might try to escape the island, but it's their fate to be on the island eventually.

i don't thank myself either - but, I feel that being grateful doesn't necessarily have to involve an object. It can be like happiness - just a state of being.

I like your bowling ball analogy - and i think that it shows how a lot of people are religious. it's as if they know on a certain level that there is no diety inside the ball - who will make the ball turn and knock down all the pins - but, they say to themselves "what does it hurt to 'believe' that there is this being? if he exists, then he might be able to knock down the pins for me, and if not - what have i really lost? the risk is not believing in the being in the bowling ball - because then he might give me gutter balls for the rest of my life."

the problem i have with this kind of thinking is that belief does matter - wars are fought over it, restrictive and punitive laws are enacted to satisfy a god that all evidence shows does not exist.

the other argument of religious people is that all morality flows from god - "if atheism becomes more popular than religion then the world will become a very immoral place."

i'm not saying that every one of the 10 commandments is wrong - i'm just saying that i think people can figure out we shouldn't kill each other on our own - and i think that morality which comes from a place of self-interest related to the direct consequences of our actions - rather than the indirect punishment of god - is a much stronger and more resiliant morality.

i leave you with this quote from Einstein - "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

fbg said...

I just looked up "fatalism" on Wikipedia, and it seems to agree with you. However, determinism seems to be the "scientific" part of fatalism, which also includes belief. I am both determined and fated not to [willingly] watch Lost ever again. I am no Lost Watcher.


Is this discussion about epistemology, or politics? Are we talking reasons for, or effects of belief?

I think that's the issue here: we need to separate knowledge, belief, ethics, and actions from one another. Science gives us knowledge we can agree on. Belief is personal, though can obviously be affected by others. Ethics usually stem from beliefs. And actions, well, may or may not be based on these others.

I say this because I think most people misunderstand me (in "religion" conversations) on a single point, which most succinctly can be stated: what I know is separate from what I believe. (Of course I "believe" knowledge, but that's not the point here." I can believe anything I want, and no one can have any logical objections to it, as long as it doesn't contradict knowledge. Many people believe in God. Einstein believes in sympathy and compassion. Saying one or the other is "wrong" or "not as good as the other" is, like, your opinion, man. There is simply no possible way to justify that rationally.

Belief does not usually start wars or make laws. This was politics and lust for power. The battles Mohammed fought, and the Crusades, were fought solely for power, in spite of religious beliefs directing everyone to be peaceful. It's still just politics and power that drives religious organizations to do stupid things. They simply use the beliefs of their members as a tool to increase their power. If everyone realized that only knowledge, and not beliefs, can be right or wrong, so-called "religious" wars would be called by a more appropriate name, something like "First War of the Greedy Bastards", "Second War of the Greedy Bastards", and so on.

I have never bought that "atheism equals immorality" cliché, either, but using its ridiculousness as an argument against religion has itself become almost as much of a cliché. Morality and ethics follow directly from belief. Compassion and sympathy are results of Humanist beliefs. You have to believe in something in order to have morals; otherwise you don't know which way is up. Can we call this reference point "God"? "Human goodness"? "The Flying Spaghetti Monster"? "Pride"? "Egotism"? "A step past schadenfreude, where you take pleasure in seeing misfortune, and then alleviating it a bit"? "Allah"?

Let me play devil's advocate (again): what's this self-interest-related consequence which should prevent us from killing one another? Why shouldn't I hit that guy no one likes, and no one knows, who is being obnoxiously loud on the subway? Fear of punishment? Who imposes the punishment, and why? Hammurabi?

Mike Chapman said...

After reading this discussion, I have a question. What's wrong with thanking yourself? Or giving yourself credit for something? Watching professional sports these days, for examples, is getting really irritating to me because it seems that when a football player does something great out on the field, he is always thanking god or some supernatural power that supposedly be. What about all the time he put forth in the weight room building his body up, what about all the time on the practice field where he hones his skills? What about all the time he watches tape to learn more about opposing defenses or offenses? My point here is that although I think it is noble and humble to understand that you (or one) is not the center of the world and is the cause of everything good. At the same time, however, I think people need to give their self more credit at times. When I write a good paper or something, of course I am appreciative to all those people that have affected my thinking and worldview in addition to being thankful for the luck that I have in being able to use my mind and write. At the same time, I also think its appropriate to think to myself, "Mike, nice job. You put a lot of work in this paper via your research, expanding your mind, and writing well...kudos." Of course, there is a difference between giving yourself credit when credit is due and taking this to an unhealthy extreme and praising yourself 24/7...

Thoughts?

-MC

fbg said...

I agree with you completely, Mike. The limits of celebration and self-thanking are limited only by the tolerance of those around you, and your awareness of this tolerance.

For example, I strongly oppose Jacques Rogge's criticism of Usain Bolt's celebrations at the 2008 Olympics. If that wasn't a time for celebration, then such a time doesn't exist. However, in day-to-day interaction, self-gratefulness may lead me to stop listening to you.

That being said, I usually have no problem thanking myself, since usually I am most responsible for what I do, which is sometimes pretty cool. I just have to make sure I don't call myself "God" before I thank me, or else Ben will get upset. Don't worry, Ben, if that happens, I probably just forgot to say the second syllable of my last name.

Ben said...

let's get into this idea that science is as much about faith as religion. Yes, it is impossible for us to know all the facts - so, any theory must make a leap (of faith) to generalize about both things we know and don't know - using only the things that we do know.

but, science is not as dependent on faith because science is a process not a system of beliefs. It is a way for us to find the truth - but, it isn't an explanation of the truth. The theories produced through the scientific process can be modified as more facts come to light. scientific theories are made to be modified - religious dogma is made to last forever. one is much more amenable to reason.

so, i agree that scientific theories must include at least some faith - i disagree that science is as reliant on faith as religion - such that creationism can be said to be as rational as evolution.

fbg said...

I'm sorry, Ben, I don't follow you. Who said "science is as much about faith as religion"? I'm confused about with whom you're agreeing and disagreeing.

You wrote that you disagree with the statement, "creationism can be said to be as rational as evolution", and I heartily share your disagreement. Religion is in a different category than the rationale, because it's based on belief. Creationism, as all things religious, is 100% arational, but is in no way irrational. In other words, it is impossible to prove that Creation didn't happen, and just as impossible to prove that it did.

Ben said...

I guess i don't see much of a difference between irrational and arational - either way you must suspend reason or doubt to believe in it.

i just worry that by suspending doubt when it comes to religion that people make a habit of it. they become more likely to suspend doubt/reason in other areas of their lives - including politics - which i think is dangerous.

sorry if i'm making incorrect assumptions based on some of your statements - but, it sounded like you were saying that science required as much faith as religion. i think there is a BIG difference in the beliefs of religion vs. those of science. it seemed like you were glossing over those differences or saying that the belief required for science is the same as religion.

yes - power is the actual reason for war - but, it sure makes it much easier to force your people to be cannon fodder if they think you have been chosen by a god to lead them.

fbg said...

Ok, now I see where I wasn't making myself clear. It's precisely a point that Andrew Sullivan makes in his second email, posted at the link you wrote above. Here is that passage:

Sam Harris:
Anyone who thinks he knows for sure that Jesus was born of virgin or that the Qur'an is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe is lying. Either he is lying to himself, or to everyone else. In neither case should such false certainties be celebrated.

Andrew Sullivan:
What you are doing here by the use of the word "lying" is imputing to the believer an insincerity you cannot know for sure. When we speak of things beyond our understanding - and you must concede that such things can logically exist - we are all in the same boat. Your assertion of nothingness at the end of our mortal lives is no more and no less verifiable than my assertion of somethingness. And yet I do not accuse you of lying - to yourself or to others. I respect your existential choice to face death alone, as a purely material event, leading nowhere but physical decomposition. Part of me even respects the stoic heroism of such a stance. Why can you not respect my conviction that you are, in fact, wrong? Why am I a liar in this - either to myself or to others - and you, in contrast, an avatar of honesty? Isn't this exactly the sort of moral preening you decry in others?


By the way, their discussion is great; I'm glad you sent me that link. Each time I read one of their emails, I believe I agree with it, until I read the response, and then I agree with that. The problem with the arguments, though, is that they are arguing two different issues, and it appears they haven't realized it.

Sam Harris seems to be saying that religion has done more bad in this world than good, and Andrew Sullivan is arguing that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with believing in a higher power. That is, Andrew is arguing why religion is not necessarily bad, and Sam is giving examples of how religion tends to be bad.

They are both right. However, I think Sam really needs to acknowledge the fact that nothingness is no more rational than somethingness. This situation -- when we don't know -- is where belief steps in. We don't, and can't, know, so we have to believe something. We may chose to believe in something, or we may choose to believe in nothing, and the choice we make has nothing to do with reason. It is arational -- a decision made in the absence of reason -- but not irrational -- a decision made in conflict with reason.

Science is rational, and the only part of science that's based on faith or belief is the "hunch" that a scientist might pursue. Otherwise, we only know what we have proven. Belief and faith start where knowledge stops: the things we don't or can't know. In my opinion, it is okay for a scientist to say that they believe aliens or other life forms exist in our universe, even though he can't prove it.

That being said, atheists have a god, and that god is Nothingness. It takes exactly the same amount of reason to believe in Nothingness as it does to believe in anything else that we can't prove exists or doesn't exist. My favorite color is red, but I can't prove it to you. Does that mean I'm lying?


So, that's my piece agreeing with Andrew Sullivan, and here's my short piece agreeing with Sam Harris, and you, Ben:

Suspension of doubt is indeed very dangerous, and it absolutely leads to wars, unreasonable politics, and various other bad things. And it's a shame that religion and religious organizations tend to foster this type of behavior. But, the problem is a human problem, and the fact that in a god is not the problem. The groups Green Peace and PETA have instigated some dubious deeds in the past, and these aren't [obviously-] religious organizations. People acting on their beliefs of whatever sort can be dangerous. Suspension of doubt occurs on a daily basis with or without religion.

That's why I say we should let people believe whatever they want, we should let them have their churches and do their praying, and we should not complain about it. But, as soon as they start contradicting reason, or whenever they treat their beliefs like knowledge and forcing them on other people, we should smack them in the face. Or, join the Out Campaign (outcampaign.org), and put them in their place, politically speaking.

Sara said...

I just came across this post (a bit late!) and would love to respond ad nauseum your arguments, but will just leave you with this quote, which is in my top three faves. Additionally, I would like to virtually high five Ben.

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
-Siddhartha

fbg said...

Sara, I agree with your quote 100%. What are your other favorite quotes? :-)

But... the quote doesn't support Ben's point (i.e. it doesn't show that atheism is the only rational choice), and in fact it contradicts it.

When Siddartha says "agrees with reason", I assume he doesn't mean "can be logically proven", but instead, "doesn't contradict reason". In the case of the latter, the simple existence of a god is no contradiction because we don't know for sure. A god existing somewhere, doing something, does not contradict a single scientific fact or theory.

Even in the case of the former, where Siddartha insists that we believe only things we can prove, Ben (and apparently you, Sara) believes in the absence of all gods, and this absence is something he believes in, without being able to prove that it exists.

Like I have said from the beginning, the only intelligent answer to the question, "Is there a god?" is: I don't know. In addition, we could venture a wild guess, and I find nothing wrong with that, but apparently you atheists do.