Sense and Sense-ability

Question from Dante:
I came up with a notion that i have been musing over for months now. It’s an evolutionary notion/question. I will not use it to make any assertions but I would be interested to hear what any sages would have to say and how they would address it. So here goes….

Realism/rationalism is based firmly on a permutation of inputs through our 5 senses, processed through our brains using the tool of what, contemporarily, we agree to be science. In an evolutionary sense, starting with the primordial soup, the first unicellular organisms would have started out with some sort of sense analogous to the tactile or chemical. As we climb the evolutionary tree with time, we find further senses appearing, which did not always exist – till the present time when we are aware of 5 ”top-level” senses which we use to experience our reality. processing their input to produce our rationality.

Here is the ‘punch line’:- Evolution is ongoing. Therefore we have no basis to presume that life on our planet has reached the zenith as far as the development of senses goes. Or do we? Beings on this planet billions of years from now ( it is not irrational to postulate) would have further progressed the sensory perception – 6 senses? maybe 7 I dont know. But I do know it is arrogance to decide that evolution does not progress beyond five, just because that is the limit of our sensory perception at this stage of evolution.

This is my question – is it not true then that our knowledge’/’rationality’/’reality’ even science has to be at least to some degree subjective? At the very worst erroneous? Are we really masters of this universe with the tools we use at this stage of evolution – FIVE SENSES????

Answer by SmartLX:
No, we are hardly masters of the universe, and yes, our senses are highly subjective and very often erroneous. We have far more than five senses now – look up proprioception and chemoreceptors, for instance – but in the future we might develop more of them and improve our existing senses. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot in the universe we currently have no way of sensing or detecting, near and far. Reality goes way beyond that which we’ve seen and recorded.

So why ask this on an atheist site? Most likely because of the possibility that senses we don’t yet have might be able to detect the influence or even the direct presence of a god. Sure, it’s possible that we could discover a god in the future, if we become capable of looking in the right way. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s no substantive evidence for a god available to us right now, and no good reason to believe in anything but the possibility of a god.

Atheism: Endgame

Question from Brian:
Although I am an atheist, I believe that religion serves a very important purpose in our capitalist society. Most of us live, almost like slaves, being controlled by our employers. It gives meaning to those who otherwise cannot find meaning in their lives. For example the idea that a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, allows someone who is poor, which most Americans are, to believe that while this life may suck, the next life they will find some sort of better life. So Christianity serves an important role in appeasing the masses. Now, what is the endgame for atheism? How will a capitalist society continue to sustain itself, when the masses have no hope, and fail to develop some sort of coping mechanism? Let’s face it, the vast majority of the people are biologically and intellectually incapable of surviving in the harsh capitalist system, which is why they turn to religion and the supernatural. Knowing science or understanding the physical world doesn’t help them in a practical sense. It will only make them more miserable. What’s wrong with a little delusion? Isn’t the most rational thing for people to do is try to live a life as happy as they can?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think that modern religion is very good at serving the purpose you ascribe to it, or that the absence of religion would leave the kind of hole in the collective psyche that you and Karl Marx think it would. (That’s not a general insinuation; he wrote something similar in his “opiate of the masses” piece. He wanted to remove the drug so that people would feel their pain and do something about it.)

Yes, Christianity and other religions have traditionally reassured the poor and warned the rich, and if you’re cynical you might think this was to channel money from both groups to the religions themselves. This message has by now been utterly corrupted by “prosperity gospel” and other such doctrines, and religions are brazenly taking congregants for everything they have. This isn’t universal, of course, but religion as a whole appears to be actively making people poorer on average through the way it’s preached. Throw right-wing politics into the mix and religion becomes a way to make the poor vote against their own interests and further enrich the super-rich at their own expense. Religion can make people happy, but so can alcohol, and the cost can be too great – and I’ve only gone into the financial aspect here. The real problem with a delusion is usually what’s happening in the real world at the same time.

I’m sure many people do find meaning in their lives solely through religion, but this is not because there is nothing else. Religion encourages believers to focus their lives on it, and to draw meaning from it alone, so they seldom even look for alternatives. When one is first divested of belief in a god, the threat often looms that one’s whole world will collapse (try searching the site for my term “faithdrawal”) before the realisation comes that the accompanying beliefs that everything depends on the god are also wrong. I honestly think your opinion that the majority can’t survive without religion is terribly patronising toward the majority. If you’re doing it, why can’t they? What makes you biologically and intellectually superior to so many?

You ask about the endgame for atheism, but atheism need not be the first move. There is an inverse correlation between average happiness and the religiosity of a country, as this infographic explains. The happiest countries by a number of standards are those where relatively few people consider religion important at all. This not only flies in the face of your implication that capitalist society would collapse without religion, but it also suggests a way forward for atheists: simply work to improve your society and make people happier, and religion will fade.

To answer your question directly, the endgame or the ideal for atheism from my perspective is universal voluntary abandonment of religion and religious faith as harmful and ultimately useless. Ideally all benefits of religion are replaced by other sources which don’t come with the same drawbacks. People congregate but are not told what to think, they donate to charities which do good work without an agenda, they find personal meaning in the world around them and work to improve it without arguing to a standstill over the meanings. It’ll be hard to achieve, and as you suggest it will require the world to be a nicer place to live in, but that right there is something we can work towards.

The Khabouris Codex: cool name, but proof of God?

Question from Abishek:
Does anyone know the truth about this “Khabouris Codex”?
Some Christians on the internet use it as proof that the New Testament is divine. I am confused, please help me in this.
Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
This was a new one on me. The Khabouris or Khaboris Codex is a manuscript of the New Testament (except for five books) dating back to the 12th century. It contains a note to say it’s a copy of a second-century manuscript, which if true gives it serious bragging rights as one of the most authoritative sources of the NT text in Jesus’ own language of Aramaic.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s important about it for the purposes of proving the divinity of the text. Since it was acquired from Kurdistan in 1966, the manuscript has been physically used to assist in religious healing and spiritual instruction. Reading from it has been claimed to cause minor psychological miracles; the main example is that regularly concentrating on the text in Aramaic – without understanding Aramaic – is said to make one more mature. It was even used in an attempt to calm violent prisoners. It’s a proper Christian relic, with minor powers such as you’d see on items in the ‘relic’ or ‘trinket’ category in a role-playing game. It’s most likely in a private collection at the moment.

The Christians you’re referring to may be arguing for the divinity of the New Testament from any of a few different angles. It might be the idea that the text has barely changed over thousands of years, which is dependent on the unverified claim of the Codex’s own source. It could be the discovery of the Codex, as a new revelation from God. It could be any of the abilities the Codex supposedly displayed after it arrived in the West, which are highly subjective in nature. It could be some passage which differs from the modern Bible and can be interpreted as making a unique prediction about subsequent events. None of these seem to be anything to worry too much about, honestly, but if you have more details of their claims (or a link to their website) please fill us in using a comment.

Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

Should I tell my fiance I’m an atheist?

Nicholas gives us a relationship question (haven’t had one for a while)…

I recently have become an atheist, I was formally a Christian. During my time as a Christian I became engaged to a woman from the Philippines who is a very devout Christian (pastors daughter). I love her very much and regardless of our differences about religion still want to marry her and spend our lives together. I have not told her that I am now an atheist, and am just curious if you have ever seen a similar situation that worked out? I feel that maybe after she has moved here and we have lived together for awhile I can slowly reveal this to her, or if not just keep it hidden inside me forever. To me it is just not worth killing our relationship over our different views. If I may ask your opinion on this situation, and any advice will be appreciated. Thank you.

I can only give you my personal advice here Nicholas and it’s not going to be pretty. You need to be honest with her. A committed relationship is a union where each party agrees to be their complete selves with someone else. By holding back the truth from her, you are holding back who you are, and that isn’t fair to either of you.  Don’t compromise who you are for another person. That only leads to even bigger problems down the line. Tell her your thoughts and feelings and hope that she can be accepting of who you are as a person, not just who she wants you to be.

I’ve known couples who have opposing views on things. Politics, philosophy, science, and even religion. They make it work because although their perspectives may be different, they still share the same respect for each other. I know it’s hard to do the right thing when faced with our fears, but that’s usually when it’s the most important time to do it. So be strong, trust in your relationship with her, and tell her.

Hope that helps.

How can you be an atheist if you don’t know everything?

Tommy asks…

An atheist is defined as someone who doesn’t believe there are any gods while an agnostic is someone who says that they don’t know if any gods exist. Simply put an atheist’s claim is an absolute statement that there are no gods while an agnostic is admitting that he doesn’t know, perhaps for lack of evidence he is willing to accept or some other reasons. Therefore, my question is this: Can someone make an absolute claim that is logical, reasonable, and scientifically supported that “there are no gods” without having omniscience? This is a Yes or No question. In order to answer this question you must first begin with Yes or No and then explain your answer. If you do not answer firstly Yes or No then you have not answered the question because the question is, in fact, a yes or no question. If you deny that this is a yes or no question then you’ve failed to understand the question because I am the one asking the question and I require a Yes or No answer. You are perfectly welcome to explain your Yes or No answer, but you must start with Yes or No. If you feel that the entire question is some sort of logical fallacy then your answer to this question is automatically No and then you must explain then why you believe it to be a logical fallacy. The most honest approach to answering my question is to simply answer Yes or No and then explain yourself from there. Otherwise your answer will be viewed as evasive and dishonest.

The problem is Tonny, you are basing your question on a false premise. You assume that a person can’t be both an atheist and an agnostic. I am an atheist/agnostic. I have no (a) belief in gods (theist) because I have no (a) knowledge (gnosis) of any. (knowledge also meaning evidence) This chart will help explain…

Agnostic v Gnostic v Atheist v Theist

 

In other words, I don’t claim that there are no gods. I claim that the current lack of evidence is such that no gods have been proven to exist and it is because of this that I lack a belief in any. What you are looking for are gnostic/atheists. They lack a belief in gods and also claim that they don’t exist. Which, depending on the gnostic/atheist that you talk to can violate your “Well you don’t know everything” argument. So in a sense, I agree with you. Who knows what’s out there in the land of the undiscovered? Maybe there is a god, I don’t know, and I don’t think you do either. No one does. I am open to the possibility within reason.

So there you go Tommy. Asked and answered. I look forward to your response.

Demons and gods and the Big Bang oh my!

Arushi asks…

Okay so I am an atheist and I am 13 yo girl from India !! Yes , India but my mom and dad were quite supportive of my act … I read about different stuff from the Internet and then I read about Stephen hawking and all his books and he says that the universe just blurted out of a Big Bang and he’s an atheist the question is who really created the Big Bang or designed humans . Then why are there so many evidences that God is present ?? And even if there isn’t y r demons present and I can’t stop myself from believing all this after I saw some real exorcism tapes !! What happens to our body when we die coz atheists don’t believe in afterlife ?? Is there a hell or heaven ?? Pls answer my queries I’ll be really grateful to and I could answer them when my frnds inquire me 🙂 I am really interested in science , physics , philosophy , paradoxes but I love knowing about myths , demons and legends so pls help me end my search !! Thank you xx

Thanks for all of the questions.

You’re problem here is that you have a little information but it’s obvious you haven’t actually studied them for yourself. I know from having a teenager and from once being one, that studying isn’t something that you like to do unless you have to (there are exceptions of course). You are probably used to people telling you what to think instead of learning things for yourself. I get that. You’ve got a lot going on with school and friends and family, who has time to learn? However, if you really want to begin to understand the world you live in, you’re going to have to do more then just “read about Stephen Hawking”, you’re going to have to actually read his books, or at the very least, listen to some of his lectures. You see, the internet is full of disinformation. You have to be willing to verify claims by doing a little research. I know that seems like a lot to do, but it is infinitely better then relying on what other people tell you about things. Look at it this way, the more you know and understand about the world around you, the clearer your perspective becomes. You can either choose to live blindly, or choose to try and understand. The choice is yours alone either way.

With that said, I’m going to answer your questions in a short manner and encourage you to go and learn these things for yourself instead of just accepting what I tell you.

First there is no evidence for any gods. Evidence for any claim of existence requires objective, verifiable proof. If someone told you there was a teapot circling Pluto, you wouldn’t believe it unless you had hard evidence for it right? Same thing with gods and demons. What people like to do is point to something that they don’t understand and say “god did that”, instead of actually trying to understand it for themselves. For example, for a long long long time people thought that those who screamed out, and shook on the floor and suffered from seizures were “possessed by demons”, but it wasn’t until science came around that we came to understand what causes seizures. Guess what? Demons weren’t involved.

Let’s take for example the “exorcist tapes” you referred too. What science was done to confirm these were people actually possessed be “demons”? How do you know the film wasn’t edited to make you think the demons were real? Why is the default explanation “demons” instead of just saying “I don’t know why this is happening”? An extraordinary claim like “demons” demands extraordinary evidence to verify it. Where is the verification? The James Randie Foundation offers a million dollars to anyone who can scientifically verify their claims of gods and demons and magic and psychic powers. Many have tried, and not one has ever succeeded. Their claims always fall short when studied in an objective manner. You might want to ask yourself why that is?

The rest of your questions are easy. There is no evidence for an afterlife just like there is no evidence for gods or demons. Don’t take my word for it though. Go learn these things for yourself. Start with learning the scientific method (systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.) and learn to apply it to your questions and ask if the evidence you’ve been given is justifiable. Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

I know these aren’t the answers that you were looking for, but the direction I’m pointing you in will allow you to learn these things for yourself instead of relying on others to tell you what to believe. Feel free to read through this website. Use the search function. Read, learn, and try to understand. That’s the best advice I can give you.

Secular devotionals, or the equivalent

Question from Ashley:
Can you direct me to any atheist — or, more likely, secular humanist — devotionals or inspiring readings? I have been asked to do a (3-5 minute) devotional at one of the monthly meetings of parents at my daughter’s Christian school and I would really like to do it — not to rub anyone’s face in my atheism or challenge their beliefs, but just to show them that atheists can provide thought-provoking and inspirational ideas without including references to God, religion, Christ, etc. I can probably come up with something on my own, but I’d love some resources to consult. Any suggestions?

By the way, I am grateful to you for all the resources you supply and for your suggestion, years ago, that I consult Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief regarding raising my children without religion. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I think I’ve found the earlier exchange here, and if so the book wasn’t our idea. Still, glad you found what you were after at the time.

I won’t lie, it was hard to get started on this question. Atheist and secular humanist devotionals are rare, because a devotional is just a (short) prayer by another name. When there isn’t someone to pray to, it seems a bit pointless to devote oneself to, and beg things from, an empty space.

So I started from scratch and simply looked for inspiring and thought-provoking short-form writing. I realised that there’s a common word for that: poetry. I found some great classical poems, and then was shown up when I found most of the best-known ones on a single two-page list here.

Not everything on the list is secular, so to be specific I recommend If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking by Emily Dickinson, The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and In Spite of War by Angela Morgan. They are respectively about living one’s life for others, finding one’s true identity, and finding joy in the midst of adversity and suffering. These are three things that religious people often think are impossible without religion, but a non-religious person could say any one of these poems and absolutely mean it (and therefore the religious beliefs of the poets themselves, if any, are irrelevant).

Depending on your allotted time, you could string the three of them together into one short speech. If any of them is not to your taste, that’s a whole site full o’ poems ya got there, so rummage around to your heart’s content.

Poetry connoisseur I am not, honestly, so everyone’s welcome to add their own favourite secular writings (use links if possible, to save space) in the comments. What could be read aloud in a church or other religious environment and make everyone think or feel something significant, while forgetting about God for a few moments?

Sometimes we’re the only atheists to ask.

Question from Cody:
a) What does it mean to be human?
b) What happens after death?
c) Elaborate on who Jesus Christ is according to your worldview.
d) How does your worldview deal with the concepts of evil and suffering in the world?

These are 4 questions that have come up in my class. The goal is to get the answers for each question for a Christian and atheistic view.

Any help is appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re not the first person who’s asked for help fulfilling an academic requirement to get an atheist’s perspective on philosophical and traditionally theological matters. We did a big piece here specifically to address the questions in a college course called Christian Worldview. I find it interesting how many people are under the impression that they don’t know any atheists. While in some cases perhaps it’s true, in many cases I bet people know more atheists than they think.

Anyway, to the questions. I’ll give my own views, but I’ll also explain where there is any major disagreement among atheists in general.

a) The human being, or Homo sapiens, is a species to which we all belong. Because our physical and neurological makeup is so similar as members of a species, we have a great deal in common. With very few exceptions, we feel great empathy for each other, and at least some empathy for other life on Earth. Systems of law, ethics and morality have come about not just so we can protect ourselves, but so we can help others in society and achieve justice for all. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but we make adjustments and improvements as we go.

b) All known evidence indicates that all behaviour which defines life, humanity and identity is driven by the physical brain and the electrical signals going through it, and not an additional ethereal “soul”. (Consider that physical brain damage can alter or destroy any part of a person’s identity, up to complete brain-death which is equivalent to true death.) When a person dies, the electrical signals stop and the structure of the brain is effectively destroyed in a matter of minutes. Therefore, by all indications there is no longer a person after death for anything to happen to.

c) It’s more a case of who Jesus Christ was, as atheists do not accept that he came back from the dead. And it’s too much to accept Jesus Christ without challenging it, as I understand “Christ” in context means “the anointed one of God” and we don’t believe that God exists, let alone that Jesus of Nazareth had any special relationship with him (that is, more than any Christian claims to have a “relationship” with God). Anyway, there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life since everything we have was written after his death, but on balance I’m prepared to accept that there probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher (or several) on whom the Biblical stories of Jesus were based. Beyond that, not a single event in his life can be established conclusively, let alone his miracles or his resurrection, as historians writing afterwards may have been simply repeating the claims of early Christians. Some atheists don’t think there was any real Jesus and it was all a myth, but this is currently a minority view even among atheists and those who hold it are derided as “Jesus mythers”.

d) Evil is an abstract concept and atheists have all sorts of opinions about it; I try not to label anything absolutely good or evil, only beneficial or harmful to specific people, creatures or causes. Suffering on the other hand is obviously real, and I want to minimise it whenever possible. As for why suffering exists, I don’t have to try to explain it in the presence of a loving god who ought to be preventing it. It occurs simply because people get hurt, deliberately or accidentally by other people, and naturally by the world around them.

That about covers everything. Let me know if you want to drill into any of these topics further, but do search the site first because they’re all pretty popular.