Budding Philosophers

I’ve been calling my wife Mrs. H online lately to honor her request for anonymity.  I mentioned that to her the other night and she said, “ah yes, I’m Mrs. HiggsBoson”.  I love being married to someone crazy about science.

Anyway, we were sitting around the table the other night and my daughter asked us if we were 100% sure about something (I can’t remember the topic).  At the same time both HiggsBoson and myself quickly said that there is very little we can be 100% sure of.  Here’s some of the dialogue:

Daughter: Is there anything we can be 100% sure of?

HiggsBoson: Some things, like I am 100% sure you are my daughter.

Howie: Ah, but what if one of us is just a brain in a vat?

HiggsBoson: Oh quit it with the crazy philosophy stuff will you? [while my wife loves science, she isn’t a huge fan of philosophy].

Howie: The kids know what I’m talking about.

Son: What’s a brain in a vat?

Howie: That’s the idea that your body doesn’t exist, but that all of your thoughts are just generated by a brain in a jar somewhere.

Son: Oh yeah, I’ve thought of that before.

Daughter: me too!

Both of our kids seem to share my interest in deep life questions (especially my son). My wish is for them to never go through the pain that I went through in my search for answers.  Right now they remind me of how I was when I was young – a time where thinking about those things was just plain fun!  I’m glad I decided to return to that perspective.  Our children will know that the unknown is not worth the worry. They will also grow up knowing that their mom and I don’t worry about some invisible mind somewhere that gets offended if we don’t see the need to search for it.  And most importantly, they will know that if they end up finding the concept of a deity comforting to them that we will still love them exactly the same even though we don’t see things the same way.

Dear HiggsBoson: Thank you for keeping some balance in our family and for keeping your 3 philosophers from going to crazy town.  I’m so glad philosophy doesn’t float your boat, because we desperately need that balance in our family.  And I’m also glad we met after I was done with my stint with religion and also done with my desperate searching period, because if we had met before that we likely wouldn’t be together.  And that would have been a crying shame since we fit together like 2 puzzle pieces (oh, and by the way, thanks for the huge jigsaw puzzle you guys gave me on my birthday – I’m enjoying it quite a bit).  Have a great Mother’s Day!

And to all my readers who are mothers: I hope you have a great Mothers Day.  Maybe you’ll find the following video as heartwarming as HiggsBoson and I found it:

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Bridging a Great Divide

I had a post about morality planned for February but it’s taking longer than I thought to write.  Instead, I’d like to share a video which to me relates very much to morality.

I found the video on one of Eva’s posts and I was very moved by it:

In the video, Naomi Feil, a Jewish woman, makes a connection with a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s by singing Christian songs.  I think this made an even deeper impact on me given that I know of the aversion to Christianity that exists in the Jewish community.  This was very clear to me growing up in a Jewish home, and I also found it to be true, albeit to a lesser extent, in a more liberal Jewish congregation I attended several years ago.  There’s a lot of history causing that aversion, but happily I believe it is dissipating.

To me this is just one example of someone crossing over the boundaries of religion to make a beautiful connection with another human being.  I have always highly valued all human beings no matter what their beliefs are and my beliefs about ultimate questions have never changed that.  This was one of the things that attracted me to Christianity back in college – I believed that it represented true goodness and that it matched this value that I had within my heart.  That strong value didn’t go away after I left Christianity though, and no matter what my beliefs are about the existence of gods, that value of mine will remain unchanged.  To me this is an important part of what morality is all about.

Bravery to end the year

My 9-year-old daughter had been waiting for several months for this moment.  We planned it for the winter school break, and when it came she first decided against it.  But early this morning my sweet baby girl changed her mind and walked into the mall scared out of her mind.  Her mother, aunt, brother and I were all there by her side but she was still thinking about turning right around.  I was so proud that she went through with it and now she has 2 beautiful earrings in those freshly pierced ears of hers.  She was so brave!  She’s been running around the house all day giddier than a girl on the first night of Chanukah.

I believe it’s moments like these that happen all the time in our lives that rise so high above any topic that I’ve ever written and ever will write about on this blog.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Can There be a Purpose to This Post?

EvangelistsA few weeks ago Josh brought up some good points about meaning and purpose in life at this link on Nate’s post.  We hashed through some of that over there but I thought I’d try to add a few more of my thoughts on the subject.  I actually agree with a lot of what Josh wrote (although I’m not sure he realized that), but there were some things he wrote that I thought could be looked at from a different angle.

First I’d like to explore what in the world is meant by “life’s meaning”.  For this I’d like to start with a quote from Loyal Rue:

When individuals articulate the meaning of life they are attempting to specify why they value life. 1

I believe this hits the nail on the head, and I believe it explains why atheists are actually correct when they say that their life is still meaningful to them even without a transcendent purpose.  They have their own reasons why they value living: perhaps relationships with friends and family, or the sheer joy of helping others, the enjoyment of learning, looking on a breathtaking vista, breathing in the fresh cool air of a new fall season, or all of those and more.  Whatever it may be, living is important to them (i.e. they value it) and they have many reasons to continue living.  That is what atheists are trying to express when they say “my life is meaningful” or “we can create meaning”.  This is why I believe that part of Josh’s last comment is not entirely true:

I do think it covers up the deeper reality that there really isn’t any reason to continue living the life we live without ultimate purpose.

There are reasons to continue living.  We have those reasons ourselves.  And my reasons for living aren’t even only within myself.  I know there are others who love me and want me to continue living as well.  So there are actually reasons to live even external of myself.  However, where I agree with Josh (and perhaps he just didn’t word the above carefully) is that outside of the desires of human beings there are no transcendent reasons to live if the more popular forms of naturalism are true (I say it that way because not all naturalists are alike in their beliefs).  What I think theists don’t realize though is that many atheists realize this and their response is “so what?”.  This actually is similar to the Buddhist response and relates to the parable of the poisoned arrow I explained in this post.

I’d like to dig even a bit deeper.  I think there may be a distinction between “meaning in life” and “meaning of life”.  What I mean is that usually when someone asks “what is the meaning of life”, I believe they are asking what meaning there is above and beyond humans (a.k.a. transcendent, ultimate, or cosmic). I’d like to share with Josh and others that I can relate to their need to have some “higher purpose”.  Feeling like I could be a part of something bigger than myself was a big draw for me before I became a Christian, and was a significant loss for me when I left.

Now when theists say “there is no meaning of life without God”, I believe there is actually a hidden premise in there.  The premise is: “meaning must come from a thinking, intentional mind” (because that’s how the monotheists who push this argument define God).  This seems to be a foundational belief, but I don’t see any logical reason that this must be true.  Perhaps there is somehow meaning built-in as a basic property of reality.  I believe this is a bit more of an eastern way of looking at things (perhaps Taoist), but Spinoza, Einstein and others seemed to also express such ideas.  But my western mind has the same bias that theists have, so while I’m open to possibilities I lean toward agreeing that “meaning can only come from thinking, intentional minds.” But think about that – where does that premise come from?  I believe it comes from our own experience that purpose and meaning are generated from human minds.  So there you have it – it comes full circle.  The very argument itself shows that humans can create purpose and meaning (which some theists, including Josh, agree to). They may not be eternal, but that’s not the point.

Further, I’d like to ask my readers to think and comment on 3 thought experiments. Theists will probably learn the most about themselves from them, but I believe some atheists can benefit as well.  Keep in mind that the experiments may not be possible scenarios, but that’s how thought experiments go:

  1. Consider a world where there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God who has created human beings for a purpose.  However, God tells all of us that absolutely nothing (including himself) is eternal.  All will come to an end at some point in the far future.  But he tells us that he still has a purpose for all of us to be alive.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  2. Consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God (don’t ask me how – it’s a thought experiment!), and there also is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds.  However, we also know for sure that human beings will exist for eternity.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  3. Last consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God and there is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds, but in this last world human beings all die like we do in our real world.  Also, we all know that humanity will come to an end at some point far in the future.  Most traditional monotheists would not find this kind of life meaningful.  But really think about it – what would you do if tomorrow scientists, philosophers, and theologians all got together and came to a 100% consensus that this is the way the world is?

The first 2 scenarios actually have an interesting story to them. In my blogging I’ve actually been surprised to find that some theists have desires which are very different from the ones I had as a Christian.  When I was a Christian it was more about feeling like I was a part of something grander than myself, so I would have answered with a resounding YES to question #1.  Eternity really had nothing to do with it.  In fact living eternally has never been much of a big draw for me.  I obviously wouldn’t want to live eternally in sadness, and I’d be ok with an eternity of bliss, but to be honest never-ending consciousness just seems a bit too much to me.  What I was very surprised to find however in an online discussion I had with Brandon was that the idea of “something(s)” being around in eternity and being affected by his life was an important factor for him in regards to meaning. I believe there is a lesson to be learned from this – all of us should know and recognize that we are all built differently, with different needs and desires.  While there is a great deal of overlap in many of our needs, when it comes to our desires related to questions of meaning it really does span the map.  My wife is the perfect example of this – she is the most content person I’ve ever met and it boggles her mind why anyone would ever care about or need any kind of ultimate purpose in their lives.  So theists should keep in mind that if they are trying to sell their worldview with the “meaning card” their effort may very well be wasted.

And in regards to eternity, this quote from John McTaggart is worth thinking about:

If we do not start with the certainty that love for an hour on earth is unconditionally good, I do not see what ground we should have for believing that it would be good for an eternity in heaven. 2

Lastly, given that I have a bit of agnosticism in me, in my mind there is still the possibility that there really is some meaning to the universe, be it from gods or from some basic properties of the universe.  While I’ve fully faced scenario #3 and already dealt with the fact that there is likely no transcendent meaning, I see no reason to completely dispense with the idea.  I talked more about that as well as other related things in this post.  I think it’s good to face all different kinds of possible scenarios in similar ways.  We can never remove our preferences, but it can help in reducing bias.


Footnotes:

  1. “Nature Is Enough”, by Loyal Rue
  2. Quoted by Erik Wielenberg in “Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism”

The Unknowable Is Not Worth The Worry

ReligionsToChoose

Has there ever been a time in your life where you’ve thought deeply about ultimate questions?  Whether you call it religion, philosophy, metaphysics, or just important life questions, many (not all) people wonder about these things.  For some it even gets to the point of worry or fear when they begin to realize that they are human and may be wrong about what they believe.  Perhaps it is worry about the afterlife.  Or maybe just general worry about not having the correct answers to ultimate life questions.  For example, Robert Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, has said in some of his interviews that the question of whether or not God exists has even tormented him.

There were several times in my life that these questions tormented me, but I no longer see any benefit from allowing them to control me.  I still have what I like to call a healthy interest in ultimate questions but I don’t let them get to me in the way that they did years ago.  Two periods in my life stand out very clearly to me – the first was right before I converted to Christianity, and the other was around the time that I left Christianity.  The second period especially was a very dark time for me, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to a noise fearing that God was about to punish me.

Fear is a natural thing and it saves us many times from getting badly hurt or killed, but it can be distorted and used in the wrong ways if it is applied toward “the unknowable” region of ultimate questions.

While I am not a Buddhist, many times what people of eastern religions say seems much more healthy to me than the more traditional mono-theistic religions.  What Ananda Guruge says in this particular video really resonated with a lot of what I have been thinking for several years now (especially the last part about the man shot with an arrow):

The “parable of the poisoned arrow” has a lot of wisdom in it that I believe we can all learn from.  This link explains it even clearer than the video and it’s worth the read.

My point is not that we should entirely give up on thinking about and exploring uncertain questions – obviously trying to understand the truth about reality is an important part of life and has the obvious benefits of improving our lives the closer we get to the truth about that reality.  That is what scientific, philosophical, and all other fields of investigations are all about.  By all means that should continue, but a healthy balance and understanding of uncertainty is also an important part of that process.

There isn’t too much I can say to people who don’t believe ultimate questions are elusive, that’s just something that some people begin to realize at some point in their lives, and some people never get there.  I’ve shared some of these ideas in the first few posts of my blog – much of it has to do with the realization of our humanity and ability to be wrong, especially as knowledge claims become more and more removed from our sphere of experience and more nebulous (or inscrutable) as far as probability claims might go.  But if you have gotten to that point then it should be very clear that worrying about these elusive questions cannot end up being healthy for your life in any way.  All that it does is physically stress your mind and your body with no productive purpose or conclusion to help it reach to.  In fact in some cases stress can negatively impact our rational decision making process – so in effect allowing these questions to torment you can possibly cause you to form the wrong conclusions about the very questions that you want properly answered.  If you want to learn more about the mind, fear, stress, and ways to overcome fear this post by Victoria N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ is a great place to start.  Victoria has a lot of information related to the mind and has studied a great deal on the subject.

During that dark period of my life I described before, I searched several different religious traditions, spent a lot of time with several different religious groups, and met weekly with my former pastor to discuss and read many different books related to religious questions.  There came a point where I realized that the torment was hurting me more than helping me so I decided after a year or so to take a break.  I ended up spending several years very rarely reading or thinking about religion.  What is interesting is that instead of that being a dark time in my life, It ended up being filled with light – filled with life, love, friends, family, falling in love, getting married, having children…  It was after that long period that I was able to return to a more balanced, healthy, and much more enjoyable exploration of ultimate questions.

Moving Forward With Ultimate Questions, Part 2

In this video clip, John Schellenberg describes a bit more of his way of thinking about ultimate questions which is very much in line with my own (you can find the full video here):

A couple of points I’d like to make:

– In other videos, Schellenberg calls himself an atheist in a very similar way that I call myself an atheist (with some minor differences), yet he is not a naturalist.  As you can see in the above video, while he leaves open the possibility that naturalism could in fact be true, he says that “the jury is still out, in a really big way” – and I agree, in a big way. 😉  I’ve run into several people on the internet who seem to equate naturalism with atheism.  While many atheist bloggers are indeed naturalists as well, polls of philosophers on the questions of “atheism” and “naturalism” actually indicate that among philosophers the number of atheists who do not accept naturalism is actually larger than one might think.

– I agree with Schellenberg that the future of human evolution, while unknown, could very likely lead us to a point where we can get more definitive answers to these big questions of life that many of us ponder.  When I think about the kinds of rational and critical thinking skills which humans have compared to other life forms like bacteria and many animals, then I wonder about what kinds of understanding of reality that future beings might possess. Perhaps the future will open the doors of understanding to some of our much deeper questions.  As I have expressed before, these thoughts for the future are a great source of meaning for me.

– Even aside from evolution, simply the mere fact that human knowledge seems to be growing at an almost exponential rate is very encouraging for me.  If 6000 years ago you had asked a Sumerian if they thought that we could find the answers to questions like “where do diseases come from” or “where does lightning come from” then very likely they would have said that these kinds of questions would always be out of the reach of humans.  While there are still a great many questions that seem elusive to us today, great progress has certainly been made in many fields, such as medicine, vehicles of transportation, computers, weather prediction, space exploration, etc.  I think it is fair to ask what methods helped us to progress in this very large increase of knowledge that we have today – was it faith that the writings of ancient people were totally true or was it more objective methods like the scientific method?  Obviously you know what I think.

Moving Forward With Ultimate Questions

My blog is more focussed on moving forward when it comes to the big questions of life rather than looking back. So while I certainly plan to have posts that discuss why I no longer believe certain things (because I recognize there are many people who are still convinced of beliefs which have been shown to be very unlikely and more education is needed regarding that), I would much rather focus on the progress that could be made toward answering some of our big questions. While it is certainly possible the answers to some of these questions will forever be out of our reach, we don’t know this for sure so as I’ve said before I don’t see a reason to throw in the towel. And while I see it as likely that they won’t be answered conclusively for hundreds of years, humans could be around for a lot longer than that, so why not continue seeking for answers.

So in that vein, I’d again like to post what I see as ways of moving forward with these questions.

First, the video about possiblianism:

While I wasn’t very impressed with David Eagleman’s book “Sum”, the video above impressed me with the way he presents the ideas of there being a whole possibility space for answers to the big (or “ultimate”, or “metaphysical” – I use these words interchangeably) questions we have. Each of the religions that have existed represent dots in the tremendous amount of dots that exist in the possibility range of metaphysical reality. The other big take-away for me is the focus on using objective methods (scientific method being just one example of that) in our search for answers.

John Schellenberg, although more philosophical and sophisticated than David Eagleman, really presents a very similar viewpoint in these 2 videos: Part 1 and Part 2 (if anyone can tell me how to embed videos from the Closer to Truth website I’d really appreciate it).  I highly recommend taking the time to watch the videos, especially if you are interested in understanding my viewpoint regarding religion or ultimate truth (as some of my friends have asked me to explain my views on religion, this will now be the post and videos I forward them to, along with this and this).  Obviously a few short posts and a few videos can’t explain all of my views on religion, but it’s a good starting point for the main points:

  1. We have not yet reached a point in human history where we can conclusively know the answers to our ultimate (metaphysical, spiritual, religious, etc.) questions.
  2. The possibility space for answers to these questions is tremendous compared to all of the answers we have had in the past from religions.
  3. We should use critical thinking and the objective methods that we have used in all other fields of interest to explore and research these kinds of questions.
  4. All the rigorous and nit-picky checks as well as peer reviews that are applied in the other fields should apply to these questions as well because without them history has shown that we can easily fool ourselves into believing false things without them.  We have to avoid falling into the traps of “pseudoscience”.
  5. While some of these questions may never be able to be answered with these kinds of methods, we should not give up on coming up with unique ways to overcome these difficulties.
  6. If we end up agreeing that some of the questions are out of reach of these methods, then we honestly conclude that we don’t have the answers. We don’t grab a conclusion that seems to work best and say that that is the one that everyone in the world must adhere to.

Some examples of research that has already been done: consciousness, spiritual development, spirituality in the brain (this is just a short list of examples of things being researched that I’ve quickly grabbed and it’s likely some of them don’t properly adhere to the rigors I am talking about).

Now all sorts of questions arise when we discuss research regarding ultimate questions, and there is no way I can address them all in one small post, but I will try a few.

Some say that all ultimate questions are incapable of being studied by objective methods. Here I have to disagree.  While I understand the huge difficulties and even the possibility that some of them are out of reach, there are clearly still areas that are up for research using the methods that we know work the best.  The examples I’ve given above are some.  The main idea is that while a “supernatural” or “ultimate” realm may not be able to be investigated directly, the indirect effects that it may have on our natural realm are definitely capable of investigation.  I could say more here, but I’m running very long – I’ll leave it to another post.

I’m not suggesting we spend tax dollars on this kind of research, or even suggesting that everyone should give money towards it.  But if you are giving money to a “static” institution which declares that they have the truth and there is no need for progress or research to go forward then you should consider giving some of that money toward real research in these areas.

An important part of this process is being willing to give up on our most cherished beliefs.  We don’t have to abandon them completely (unless they are very conclusively wrong), but we must be willing to challenge them and consider that they might be wrong in order to progress forward.  History has shown that this is the way that we move forward. Flat earth, sun revolving around the earth, demons being the source of sickness, bloodletting for illness treatment, less than 10,000 year old earth, and evolution denial are all examples of cherished beliefs that a lot of people had a very difficult time giving up on (and some of them still remain as issues for a large amount of people), yet once we were willing to challenge and question them we were able to progress forward.