Atheism Part III

Many who attack religious people know little about them or about why people come to believe things in general.  Educating yourself before labeling a group of people is important. 🙂

I can see why modern atheism gets a bad rap.  Part of it of course has a lot to do with the fact that for a very long time in human history, religious beliefs could not be safely challenged.  People who hold religious beliefs are not used to being challenged in public forums.  If one completely believes that something in society is right because of some book they believe to come from the divine and you challenge that belief in addition to trying to prove that the divine law is actually unjust, people lose privilege in addition it simply doesn’t make sense in their brain.  Once beliefs in our brain are well formed we actually get dopamine released in our brain when those beliefs are reinforced.  Neural pathways become forged and your brain is so used to that dopamine release, that trying to forge new beliefs actually becomes physically troubling and is cause for being unhappy and upset.

That being said there are a lot of assholes out there, and atheists comprise of piece of that asshole pie.  I see many atheists who ridicule and mock those with religious beliefs and it annoys the crap out of me for several reasons:

  1.  It’s not nice.  Any time you really don’t know a person, what they’ve been through, and try to understand why they believe what you believe then it is just cruel to attack them by name calling.  Even if they attack you.  It’s the old “why go down to their own level”.  It’s your responsibility as a good atheist to show the world that morality is not contingent on the existence of God, and when you are not kind to all people even in the face of personal attacks you reveal yourself as to be no better than the typical eye for an eye religious person you claim are foolish for their beliefs.  How can you ask for tolerance when you demonstrate intolerance?
  2. It’s not smart.  If someone says “Abortion is wrong because you are killing a child and God says murder is wrong” and you respond “You are an idiot”.  You have actually just taken the intellectual low ground.  If you feel an intellectual argument will have affect on the mind of the pro-life person, then all you’ve done is been “not nice”.  This person has at least given you their view and given a reason for their view.  In your name calling, you appear not only to not be nice, but you also appear to not have any reason for your opposing view other than you don’t like religious people.
  3. It’s a waste of time. Do something useful.  Help somebody.  Even if it’s another atheist because you can’t stand religious people.
  4. It hurts other atheists. If you have no love of religious people you could at least show love for your fellow atheists who actually want to try to get along with people and help make this world a better place for all.  Even if you think you are making a comment on a thread in which only atheists or similar minded people might be reading it, you reveal a pettiness in your intellect that weakens all atheists.  Grow up and be a part of the world and not try to remove yourself from it.

The world has religion.  The world has believers.  We are all naturally evolved to hold beliefs.  It is better to understand why people form beliefs.  While I think it is reasonable to think that beliefs have a great potential for danger when differing beliefs collide and that we should look to a way of thinking critically and investigation that can lead all people to a more unified understanding of how the universe works.  Beliefs are not tore down through name calling and abuse.  They are tore down through education, they are torn down most strongly by being a good citizen of this world.  Be kind and respectful, be loving and generous, be reflective and forgiving, be courageous yet humble, and demonstrate compassion as often as humanly possible.

Atheism Part II

Many who attack atheists know little about them, or about atheism in general.  Educating yourself before labeling a group of people is important.

Atheists have no moral guidance

Well I am not going to go into too much detail here.  You can watch the qualiasoup video on YouTube called “Good without Gods” if you want some excellent explanations for how morality is self-evident without God.  If being good didn’t have its earthly rewards and benefit our survival we probably wouldn’t do it.  Or perhaps a better way of saying it is that the increased chance of survival and increased happiness we experience from our morality is what defines what good morals are.  Dawkins refers to it as reciprocal altruism which is the more scientific way to look at it.  If we look at our actions in terms of the harm they cause in this existence, what does commandments from another plane of existence matter?  If only the threat of punishment from a plane of existence that only exists due to faith is the reason for you being good then to me that sort of cheapens humanity and is sort of worrying.  Does the smile on people’s faces not mean something to you?  Does the love you get in return for putting love out into the world not give you pleasure?  Does the quality of your life not increase when you treat other kindly and with respect?

If you’re an atheist you must have no purpose in life

Many people feel that with a hierarchal structure to the universe with a creator on top means that all this is for some reason.  That there is a purpose to the universe and thus it makes your daily life filled with purpose.  Once again, as a species that has evolved to benefit from having compassion for my fellow species, purpose can simply be derived by not only the need to survive, but to survive well.  The best chance for me to survive is to work to increase the quality of life for all my friends and family and hopefully beyond if I can.  The world is fascinating and amazing and I am extremely fortunate to even exist for a short time in this universe to appreciate some of it.  What difference does it make if the universe itself is indifferent?  What matters if there is no intentionality to it?  What does it matter that no supernatural being cares about whether I live or I die?  I experience love now.  I experience existence now.  I experience.  I have wandered no longer for purposes than anyone else in the world.  It takes time to find that…for anybody.

Atheists are empty spiritually

This is simply untrue.  The dictionary describes spirituality as being mostly being tied to religion, but this I believe is simply because religion has taken a hold of the definition of spiritual.  A secondary definition describes spiritual as something that is incorporeal which means having no material body or form.   Do I have feelings or moments which are unexplainable, or in which I am overwhelmed with emotion for which no expression captures that moment?  The answer of course is yes, and when people of faith describe “spiritual experiences” the essence of those experiences makes me feel like I have those similar moments.  I may not feel the presence of an angel or God but I feel like there is some presence so strong I could almost touch it.  I can even feel this knowing it is a conjuring of my own mind, because it is very human to have these moments and experiences.  People have them of all different faiths, so why can’t an atheist have them too?  Because I can explain the chemistry of love does not make me feel it any less.  Because I know why I cry, doesn’t prevent me from crying.  Being overwhelmed with emotion is natural, and very often a spiritual event.  For the record I don’t believe there is actually a spirit, but rather it is a good word which encompasses these moments I have tried to describe.

Atheism is a belief just like any religion

This one bothers me more than any other.  As the definition I put part I clearly demonstrates atheism is a lack of belief in a God.  Now this of course doesn’t mean that atheists don’t have beliefs.  We all do.  What it does mean though is that I live my life as if there was no god.  The idea of believing in the absence of something that only exists because people believe in it seems strange to me.  Let’s use an analogy:

                Me:  I believe there are mermaids

                You: I believe there are no mermaids.  Do you have proof of your belief?

                Me:  Well they are in books, and other people believe in mermaids too.

                You:  But I’ve never seen a mermaid.

                Me. Neither have I, but they are definitely real.  I know it.

Truth has to be evident from observation.  It shouldn’t require belief.  If we took the books about mermaids out of the situation you would just have two people who had never seen mermaids and thus have no reason to believe in their existence or believe in their non-existence.  There are no observations of mermaids and therefore one can conclude that there is no such thing as mermaids.

I for instance can believe that gases expand when heated.  I need never have experienced it myself, but I could believe that, but still we don’t know if it’s true.  Now if you come along and say you don’t believe that, well now we have something that we can actually observe and measure.  We would find that my belief is correct and yours was incorrect.  Furthermore someone with no beliefs about the subject of the behavior of gasses when heated could walk into the room during our test see what happens to a gas when heated and conclude based on his/her observation that gasses do in fact expand.

An atheist can have a belief about something, but a good atheist will seek out knowledge to test whether that belief holds because ultimately an atheist tries to be inductive in their reasoning and not deductive.  Meaning we try to make conclusions based on the evidence.  We may think we know what the outcome will be beforehand but evidence may prove us wrong, and any atheist should be willing to change their stance based on new evidence.  I do not believe in evolution.  The evidence of evolution is staggering thus I cannot help but conclude that evolution is a real process.  Nobody had to tell me it is real.  I do not believe in anthropogenic climate change.  The evidence for it is also overwhelming.  Now if new evidence was found that truly contradicted the theory of evolution I would know that a new theory had to be adopted because if a theory cannot explain all the evidence it isn’t a very good theory.  A good atheist should make their arguments with evidence and with respect.  Next let’s talk about atheists that worry me.

Atheism Part I

With even the title of this blog I wonder how many people will bother to read it.  It’s still not popular today and can even leave a bad taste in the mouth of some people that I know to be quite intellectual given the pomposity of many atheists today.  However, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about atheists and I also wanted to sort of describe my personal journey, and then in two additional posts talk about what annoys me about what people think about atheists and also even make some complaints about atheists that are often seen on public forums and social media. So for anyone who chooses to read this, I thank you.

 

I tend to start with the bare bones, but I think this time I would like to start more personally.  Nevertheless I think it is worth starting out by simply defining the term atheist as I see it and will refer back to this definition later.  Theism is belief in the existence of a deity or deities.  The dictionary definition also adds in things like someone who believes in a god or gods as being responsible for the universe and also having a personal relationship with his/her creation.  The last part is arguable, as many might say that someone who believes in a god who sort of just passively watches is also a theist.  The word atheism thus simply put is the lack of a belief in a god or gods.  The best analogy that I think can be used to describe theism vs. atheism is to say it is the same as between symmetry and asymmetry.  Something is symmetrical or it isn’t.  Someone believes in a god, or they don’t.  Now on with the story.

 

As I have told many friends in the past, my questioning of religion happened well before my questioning about God.  So I’ll start with religion since this tends to be tied with the concept of a God, but certainly doesn’t have to be.  As a biracial child I am fortunate to have both sides of my family love and respect me.  And it is this love and respect that first raised doubts in me that religion had some problems.  Not that I could think intellectually about it as a child, but I remember thinking:

 

“Here are two sides of my family from completely different cultures and they were born into two very different stories about spirituality and God (Christianity and Sikhism), and they both seem to love me very much.  I saw them all as good people.”

 

When from the very outset of your life you know good people of two different faiths it tells you that goodness is not something contingent upon a particular faith.  And as I grew older and learned more about the faiths in particular, it seemed clear to me that since both stories can’t be right, then both stories must be wrong.

 

Certainly also having an impact on me is when I gave my heart to Jesus Christ, because I was told that if you prayed hard enough it will happen.  Not sure why they tell kids that, but in retrospect I think it is quite cruel.  So what did I want?  I wanted my alcoholic dad to not drink.  I think we can all agree that this is something pretty normal and somewhat virtuous for a kid to pray for.  On top of that it’s something that I kid will pray for pretty hard; really hard actually.  I was in lock, stock, and barrel.  I was 12 at the time so I can remember pretty vividly what I was like.  Still being a kid, when the heart of a child decides to do something there is no hesitation, no doubt.  He believes.  Kids believe with so much more certainty and of course that is how a kid’s brain is designed; to take in information regardless of its truth and believe it.  So for a good year, I prayed and I prayed.  Well I am sure you can guess the outcome.  When the religious people you know tell you that something is true and it is not, it feels like a betrayal and it is hard to believe them again.  And when you ask them why it doesn’t work, either they have no answer or they tell you “just to keep having faith” or in the worst case they tell you “it’s because you didn’t pray hard enough” or “God only listens to boys who are being good Christians”.  This is a terrific message isn’t it?  Now it’s somehow your fault that your dad is still drinking.  Children of alcoholics already internalize their parent’s drinking and this reinforces it at the spiritual level.

 

At this point I am going to skip over a lot, because it would require going over all that I have learned in school and in life, and it’s a long story.  I simply wanted to explain the things that I thought were important in sending me on my path towards atheism.  It was a long journey and for most of my 20’s I still believed in God but sort of formed my own definition that I was comfortable with.  It was peaceful in some ways to believe in a God because it was helpful when things were out of my control I could simply say to myself “It is in God’s hands”.  At some point though you realize you are using God as a tool for your own peace of mind and so I had to say to myself, “Well Swarn, what does all that you’ve learned about the world and its history really tell you?  There is no god.”

 

With that being said I knew that I was in a very unpopular spiritual position in this world.  It’s not something that I cared to share because I didn’t even feel intellectually equipped for the possible confrontations with people who were worried about my soul.  I felt I needed to get even better educated.  Since then I have delved into more books about anthropology, evolution, history, psychology in trying to understand the nature of belief, and also trying to understand how the brain works in general.  When I add this to my formal education that is steeped in physics I can say for certainty that no particular religion had all the answers even if there was a god.  I came out as an atheist around the time that I read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion as he inspired me to brave.  We fortunately live in a society now where one can be an atheist and not get burned at the stake so I feel quite grateful for that.  Moreover there is a lot of discrimination against atheists and while atheists feel no need to preach and thus keep to themselves, there is value in organizing and being vocal.  I’ll let you look that up if you like, but suffice to say there are 6 states still in this nation who explicitly state in their constitution that an atheist cannot hold government office.  I even came out to my mother who is a devout Christian.  She has always given me freedom to by my own person and I thought it was better she know who I truly am than to think of me as illusion.   I also do not want to try to imply that as atheist I face the type of discrimination that homosexuals face for who they are, so when I say “came out” I make an analogy only in terminology not in circumstance.

 

Stay tuned for Part II

Categories – where do you belong?

I have been messing around with the concept of categorization lately, and have decided that it has dangerous consequences.  So I’d like to investigate the topic a bit more and perhaps offer a solution as to a perhaps a better way of thinking about things.

 

First of all let’s look at why we categorize.  It is clear that putting things into categories is an inherent quality of how we think.  And there are a lot of good arguments for categorization.  Let’s face it.  The world is a noisy place.  There are a lot of: people, other animals, plants, types of weather, places to see, dangers to be aware of, things to learn, beliefs, truths, languages, cultures…well you get the picture.  The list goes on and on.  What we can gather is that the world is a noisy, chaotic place.  Quite honestly we never would have started to walk upright if we didn’t categorize, because the sheer volume of information alone would overwhelm us.  I would argue that we probably had to rely on categorization more as our intelligence grew because we became aware of so many more things.  But I maybe wrong about that and it is beside the point.  Categorization makes sense, it is useful, and it is natural and evolutionary.

 

So that’s great.  But now let’s look at how it can get us into trouble.  In my previous blog entry (it feels good to say that now!) I talked about placing things into the category of normal, which by default causes us to put things that don’t fit into a category as abnormal.   I argue how this might impacts our thinking and it certainly does.  I think this type of simple categorization does harm in other areas of thought as well.  In fact I am going to argue that the more simply we try to categorize the more difficult and harmful it is.  We can think of many simple categorizations we do every day; bad and good, good and evil, tall and short, smart and dumb, etc.  Any system of categorization has two inherent problems in that, firstly, it does not take into account all the points in between, and that secondly it requires us to have a good definition of the each category and an appropriate context.

 

Let’s take something simple like tall and short.  This is a physical quality.  Calling things short and tall can be difficult if we include let’s say all animals and then try to separate tall ones from short ones.  How do you compare a giraffe to a koala bear to a microbe?  There we will reduce the sample size to just humans, and to eliminate gender differences in height, human men.  Now we all know well the definition of tall and short in a general sense, but for the purpose of our problem we need to come up with a boundary for the category.  Now we hit our first real problem.  This separation point is subjective.  But let’s say we do some statistics and find that the average height of all men is 5’9”.  This may not even be a good way of doing it, because it is more relevant to determine what tall and short mean amongst men of different cultures.  It would not be a very good average height likely if we were only talking about Scandinavians or Chinese.  But since we’ve decided to make “all men” the context here then let’s just roll with it.  So now we can start going around to other men and telling them “Hey, you’re tall” or “Hey you’re short” because they fall below or above a certain criteria that we’ve decided is meaningful.  Well of course the problem is that the range of heights amongst men starts at the shortest man to the tallest man, and about 3.5 billion points in between.  So there is a guy, who if we measured very carefully is the barest fraction of an inch under, and one that is over, and likely one who is exactly 5’9”.  What do we say of these men?  Do we label one as tall and the other as short even though we can see no difference with our eyes?  And what if a taller man hunches most of the time, and a shorter one has good posture, or bigger hair, thus changing our perspective.  I am sure you can find many more other problems with the categorization, and this is only for a simple physical quality, and even this physical quality often has associations that can lead to stereotyping.  “He’s short, he’ll never play basketball.”  “Ooh he’s tall dark and handsome.”

 

The problem gets even worse when we start to look at things like good and evil.  As an atheist even I have beliefs, so maybe I need to be careful of just saying believers and non-believers.   If I lay out the criteria well, I might be able to get away with it.  But even then I would be hard pressed to make every person fit into one category or the other.

 

Things get a little bit better when I try to go into more categories.  As a professor I actually like having greater grading resolution.  This means that I like to have the ability to be able to differentiate more acutely with one students’ work or grade in comparison with another.  A better way might be to categorize heights might be to say, less than 5 ft, between 5 ft and 5’2”, between 5’2” and 5’4” and so on.  Often by tying numbers to our categorization we don’t have positive or negative associations, but of course we usually end up associating meaning to those numbers.  Nevertheless by increasing the number of categories we get closer to the truth which is that there is a whole spectrum of sizes that is nearly continuous from shortest to tallest.   This type of categorization for height once again is relatively easy.  How do we categorize something like good and evil?  Are those even realistic categories?  Is there an ultimate in good and evil? In the world there is definitely a shortest and tallest man, but good and evil is not so clear.   Is there even an agreeable definition to those things, especially as it applies to humans?  Many religions have this ultimate concept of good and evil by having a God and a Devil.  Of course even the definition on the nature of those extremes of good and evil cannot be agreed upon.  In the bible God does some terrible things, which according to the writer’s perspective are good because from the perspective of his culture it’s good.  I am sure the other culture is not too fond of their God at all.

 

Categorization is extremely challenging and yet we still do it.  I re-watched the movie Hotel Rwanda recently and I began thinking about these things even more strongly.  Whether you’ve watched the movie or not doesn’t matter (although you should watch that movie), but it is about the civil war and attempt at genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda.  The difference in appearance between the two people are subtle if even there, yet one side was willing to eliminate the other.  Of course we don’t need different colors of skin to hate or to have prejudice and so it made me think about the futility of categorization.  Because even if you are a white supremacist and clear all those colored people away, over time you will still start categorizing people who are different even if those differences are slight.  And I think this is especially true in a culture that is centered on intolerance.  You will only breed more intolerance into your culture which will eventually cause you to even hate the same group of people who were your brothers in the fight for “white power” not too long ago.  Even Christianity has fractured from its beginnings into many denominations, many of who have fought wars and still fight today in one way or another.

 

So I think the best plan of action is to remember first that categorization is a tool and not truth.  While it might help you organize things in your mind, your division is likely subjective, arbitrary, and insufficient in understanding any truths about the world.  I think it also important to let your categories be fuzzy or living.  What I mean by this is recognize that there is likely no absolute and that things do not fit very neatly into any one category, and that as you grow and learn your categories may change definition or even lose their meaning altogether.  In the end one must accept that the world is chaotic, that it is noisy.   Beautiful harmonies do not occur when everybody is exactly the same.  The best harmonies are woven together by a range of keys and octaves.  That unifying voice of humanity can only be heard when we accept that there is no amount of force, fear or violence that can make everyone the same.  We will only hear this song when we have tolerance for diversity and truly try to get to know one another to find out what things we truly all share.

What is normal and natural?

The following is a complete rewrite of something I posted on Facebook before about natural and normal.  I wanted to be a bit more comprehensive in my arguments.  Which also means its much longer.

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I remember when I engaged the gay basher that came to our campus last academic year, one of his many arguments included the idea that “being gay was not normal, that it was not natural”.  I am the type of person who thinks a lot about even what I know to be incorrect.  This is because I accept that what I know might actually be wrong and so I want to be always asking questions.  At one point in the argument he even claimed victory because he had got me to admit that it’s not normal.  It took me some time to understand exactly why he hadn’t won his argument and that I had not proved his point.  It comes down to the way in which I see normal, and the way he sees normal.

The word “normal” is one that I’ve come to see as a rather dangerous word and I think that I even need to be more careful about how I use the word.   The first part of the dictionary definition describes it as conforming to the standard or common type.  However it also defines normal as being “not abnormal” and “natural”.  This is where the problem lies.  Allow me to try to make the argument for what “normal” shouldn’t be, before making the argument for what it should be.

The word abnormal has a negative connotation to it, and anything that we define as normal implies those things that do not meet the defined criteria for normal, by definition are abnormal.  And since normal and natural are often used synonymously that thing becomes also unnatural.  Once we’ve reached this place in our mind we have created two categories.  In one is the category of things that belong in our world, and in the other category are things that don’t belong.   And once we decide what things don’t belong in our world, it becomes a very dangerous notion.

Now as a quick vocabulary aside, by definition I believe normal has a broader definition than natural.  Natural does only pertain to things that happen, well, in nature.  So normal can apply to nature, but it can also apply to a lot of other things.  For instance one can say “It is normal for Jim to be late to a party”.  Unless we were sort of being sarcastic or funny “It’s unlikely we’d say “It is natural for Jim to be late to a party”.  So all things natural could also be said to be normal, but the reverse is not true.  And the dictionary definition supports this line of thinking.

I argue that this categorization into normal and abnormal is not only dangerous, but also faulty.  Many of the things that people consider abnormal and normal are actually better served by using the word probable and improbable.  For instance,  only about 10% of the world is left-handed.  Now 10% is still a decent percentage in my opinion, and for a long time in our history even though 1 out of every 10 people were naturally left-handed those people were often oppressed and demonized as being unnatural.  People who are left-handed still are often inconvenienced today, and it wasn’t that long ago before parents actually let their kids be left handed (and I am sure there still kids being forced somewhere in the world to use their right hand).  I was actually a natural lefty, and my dad, not knowing any better forced me to use my right hand (I could have been an artist, or at least a much better writer!).  Language and culture favor right-handedness so much that it’s not surprising that left-handedness was looked down on for so long.  Therefore if we didn’t have this concept in our mind of what was normal and abnormal perhaps we could have avoided this type of discrimination.  Of course the truth is that being left-handed is just as normal or natural as being right-handed.  It is simply the fact that one is more probable than the other.  If we are going to use the term natural we might be better served saying that, “it is natural for humans to have a preference to use one hand more than another.”  Of course then we still might be lumping ambidextrous people into the unnatural category unfairly.  Because about 1 in 100 people are ambidextrous, this too is also natural.  Thus I would argue in situations like these that probable and improbable are the preferred words to use.  Something that is improbable is hardly something that we would consider sinful, bad, evil, or even something that didn’t belong.  It may be that we don’t want an improbable event to occur, but by looking at it as an improbable event means that we don’t have any inherent “wrongness” of the event, but we can study it and its effects and then make a decision about what if anything we need to do about it.  Some events are very improbable, but they happen, and that makes even the improbable events both normal and natural.

One could also make the broader argument that everything can be considered natural to a certain degree, even the things that are purely human products.  As a natural species on this planet, anything that we might do or construct could be said to be natural.  Since it all lays within a realm of probability of what we are capable of and what we can become.   One might be able to get away with saying, “It is unnatural for an object to not fall to the ground once it is no longer suspended in air”.  But using the word “highly improbable” would just be as acceptable and probably safer because hey you just never know. J

In Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain he makes the argument that we believe first and rationalize to support our beliefs rather than use rationalization to form beliefs.  Without an objective tool such as the scientific method we are left to trying to make sense out of the world as quickly as possible and then doing our best to preserve that world view through the process of rationalization.  Thus it could also be that things we learn to fear might lead us to rationalize those fears and label things normal or abnormal.  People who are religious and are belief driven tend to do this more often, but we are all capable of it from time to time.  It’s important to remember here that while I think letting belief dominate your life is dangerous, belief is also natural.  It is normal.  But so is science.  It is also normal.  While some scientific advances happen accidentally, most processes require refinement and attention.  If it was not for careful testing and experimentation one could not make the bow and arrow shoot farther and more accurately, let alone make a better iPhone.

So if fear can lead us to categorizing things as normal and abnormal, what do we fear?  I think that humans do naturally fear improbable events.  For most of our evolution, improbable events were probably a bad thing.  A natural disaster, the occasional lion who developed a taste for human flesh, an unknown disease or sickness.  Like all animals we want to feel safe.  Safety means survival.  Improbable events reduce that feeling of safety.   Even if an improbable event didn’t pose any real danger, such events are also harder to predict.   Humans through most of our evolution lived in small groups.  Events that had a 1/1000 chance of happening would not have happened very often, giving even early man very little chance to try to understand why it was happening and what to do about it.  It is only a luxury of large populations and sophisticated technology that we can study low probability events and still have a statistically significant number of cases to reach some good conclusions.  Therefore I also don’t deny that our tendency to categorize things as normal or abnormal is extension of what we fear especially when it comes to improbable events.  This too is something we naturally do.

Finally I think we also, regardless of the probability of an event, tend to regard negative things as unnatural.  Violent  behavior, sexual abuse, genocide just to name a few.  At an emotional level I have also heard many people refer to feelings, for example, like lust, anger, and apathy as unnatural.   Unfortunately science reveals that all these things are quite natural, not only to our species, but to other species as well.  Now, so what do we do if we say it is natural?  The naturalness of something, however, is not necessarily the basis of morality.  I think there is this feeling that once we accept something as being natural that we have to let it happen because there is nothing we can do about it.  We know from our studies of chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative, that they also practice genocide.  Does this mean we should just let genocide happen?  Of course not.  In chimpanzee societies the practice of genocide often is triggered by competition for territory and resources.  However, we have the advantage of coming up with other solutions to resolve differences, make resources and territory available to everyone without the need for killing.  Even primates realize that through cooperation they are better at surviving than without.  If they had the intellect to come up with other solutions, they would perhaps choose alternative solutions too, instead of ones that can end in their own deaths, and reduces the power of cooperative growth.  Therefore all these terrible things that we do should not be evaluated based on whether they are natural or not.  They should be based on what harm they actually cause.

To argue that homosexuality is not natural, or not normal is simply not a valid argument.  And if you are going to allow only natural things in the world, then you have to accept that things like abortion is normal (since even anthropological evidence even shows the abandoning and killing of one’s young when resources are limited).  For humans to kill each other is also normal.  The boon that is granted by the day we live in and the civilization we have built is to understand the reasons for behaviors that cause harm and find alternatives to that behavior when dealing with problems, or to learn how to change our behavior so that we can all live peaceably together.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I’ve put into the category of natural and unnatural, or normal and abnormal, and it has certainly changed how I look at the world.  I am sure there are many other thoughts that I have that need revisiting that could use a glance through a different lens.  Do yourself a favor and spend some time thinking about how you use those words, how you think about those concepts and what things in this world you tie to them.  It’s worth the effort.

My first wedding ceremony

So I was fortunate enough to be asked by two former students and friends to perform their ceremony.  As both atheists themselves they wanted someone who would give a more humanist ceremony.  They are both steeped in science and both educators so I wanted to create something that was both expressed my heart and incorporated why I knew about them.  I am thankful it was well received.  I will leave out their last names so that there is at least some anonymity that is preserved. 🙂

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Today we are gathered to celebrate the love between Matthew —– and Christina —–.  For their union to last love must be shown to be more than just an abstract idea.  They are in love,  but how do we know love exists?  If we present the hypothesis that love is real, how do we go about proving such a thing?  The answer is research. As with any good research, we must first conduct a literature review and see what previous studies about love have found.

Literature Review

Many words about love have been written.  We can find metaphors such as Voltaire’s words “Love is a canvass furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination.”  But words like these often leave us with more questions than answers.  Love inspires imaginative gestures such as Alfred Tennyson’s words “If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk through my garden forever.”  However, such words are often intangible, since they paint pictures of unrealistic situations that do not touch our actual lives.

We also find in literature many who question whether love can be effectively described at all.  The genius physicist and co-inventor of the first laser Ali Javan said “Love can sometimes be magic.  But magic sometimes can just be an illusion.”  The 17th century French Writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld supported this idea when he said “True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about, but few have seen.”  From this we may at least glean that true love is rare and that we can call into question whether written words of love come from a source that has truly experienced what they claim knowledge about.

When it comes to words, many doubt that they are even useful in matters of love. Shakespeare recognized that “One may as soon go kindle fire with snow, as to seek to quench the fire of love with words”. Additionally, 16th century French writer Francois Rabelais said “Gestures, in love, are incomparably more attractive, effective and valuable than words.”  Finally, American writer Zelda Fitzgerald points to the difficulty of our quest when she says “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold”.

Love becomes easier to understand when we define it in terms of our actions.  Van Gogh said “The way to know life is to love many things.”  This is echoed by Mother Theresa who said “Love begins at home and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in that action.”  We can connect further to this idea of love when we consider how love exists even in those actions that seem routine.  Marilyn Monroe said “The real lover is the man who can thrill you by kissing your forehead, or smiling into your eyes, or staring into space”.

But even as we feel inspired and positive about love, listening to what great minds of the past had to say, what tangible evidence do we have for its existence?  Experimentation is the next step and thus we must decide on what methodology will help us demonstrate how real love is.  For love is not just a concept in our mind, or a feeling in our heart.  Love has no value if only kept, it must be shared.  And if it is shared than we can observe it.

Methodology

In matters of love our best way of observing is through our 5 senses.  How do we see love?  How does it taste?  Does love have a smell?  What does love sound like? And finally how can we truly feel love?  These questions we must try to answer in the next section.

Data and Analysis

Visual evidence of love can be seen in many places.  It could be the sight of an object that you built for your loved one to compliment the home, or in a gift prominently displayed demonstrating its importance and appreciation.  It may simply be the sight of the table set and dinner ready after coming home from a long day.  It is the sight of the other person looking especially beautiful or handsome as they put in extra time to make themselves look nice for a night out.

As we turn to taste, we can find evidence when eating at a familiar restaurant where the menu holds some of your favorite foods, and with each bite you are reminded of past memories with each other.  It can be in the taste of a good wine on a romantic evening.  Or, more simply, it can be found in the taste of each other’s lips in a passionate kiss; a flavor that is unique and unlike any other.

Often overlooked is the sense of smell, but it is the one most closely linked to memory.  Love may be found in the smell of breakfast cooking in the morning as you wake up; the aroma of coffee drifting into the bedroom.  It can be in the fragrance of a shampoo in the hair, perfume on the wrist or cologne on a piece of clothing.  But even these things are not required, for just like the unique taste we have, we also have a unique smell that permeates those things that we interact with most closely.  Often it is the quickest way to bring to the fore the memories of the one you love when they’re away…causing you to miss and love them all the more.

Love delights in sounds, for when you are together, sound is what fills the air.  It is in the sound of the voice when sharing feelings and thoughts you would only ever express to each other; knowing that while it makes you vulnerable their love for you is greater.  It is in the familiar sound of sarcasm as you mock republicans together, and it is in the sound of laughter as you both experience good times and joy.  It is the sound of new music that is played for you because the other person knows your tastes so well they instinctively know what you will enjoy.  And sometimes it is in the sound of words “I love you”.  And though we have shown that words are not all, there is never harm in such an expression.

Touch is last because touch is the unique sense that can be experienced by both simultaneously.   And though making love might be an obvious one here, over the course of a lifetime it tends to be the part of touch that gets missed the least.  What we feel when we embrace or hold hands often means so much more. Or that half asleep warm feeling we get when our partner, coming home late after an exhausting day, or maybe a night of carousing, wraps their arms around us as they slip into bed.  It may be in the feel of a comforting caress on the cheek when we are sick, sad, or hurting.

We must remember that grand gestures of love such as this wedding are but a day in the life you have pledged to share through marriage.  Love is experiential, and iterative, and here we have recounted some of the many ways that we can find love in our day to day lives.  Though these days seem ordinary, with careful observation, we can see how filled with love they actually are.  And over a lifetime these simple things grow into something even stronger. This is emphasized by American author Lawrence Durrell, who said: “The richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time”.

Conclusion

The evidence you can collect about love in your life is plentiful and thus we can safely conclude that love is real.  And no conclusion would be complete without a look to the future.  As you grow older, so your love grows as well.  Let that love move you to actions not only for each other, but spread that love outward always.  Nineteenth century women’s rights activist Lydia Child said “The cure for all the ills and wrongs, the cares, the sorrows, and the crimes of humanity, all lie in the one word ‘love’. It is the divine vitality that everywhere produces and restores life.”

Our research is complete, and now as you say the vows you have written for each other, reflect on how those words translate into experience.

Vows

Exchange Rings

Matt and Christina, I’m honored to pronounce you husband and wife.

Christina, you may now kiss the groom.

Finally, no research would complete without peer review.  Those that have come today, do so out of that love which we have worked to define.  Therefore I ask everybody here today to applaud in approval of that love which our research has shown to exist for the happy couple.

Ladies and gentleman I am pleased to present to you for the first time as a married couple Mr. Matthew —- and Mrs. Christina —-!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Science is your friend (written August 13th, 2013)

A little while back I posted a quote from Carl Sagan about how we live in a world dependent on science and technology, but yet few people know very much about science and technology.  I wanted to say some more about the importance of science to kind of address some of the other things that worry me in regards to the attitude about science I’ve encountered in people.

First let me say that science is difficult but it is natural.  From a very young age we clearly have scientific principles within us that guide our learning.   You can watch young children play and manipulate objects and see that they are simply learning how those objects move, sound, feel, etc.  This is at the heart of experimentation.  Of course science in practice is far more sophisticated, but every child is a little scientist.  Of course every child is also a believer. A defenseless life form who is trying to survive and doesn’t know that it has the luxury of taking its time to think about things, the luxury to reason.  For even as safe as the world might be for some young humans it doesn’t know that.  And keep in mind for many humans even today it is not that safe.  So we have this scientific side that demands we pause, reflect, test and make conclusions based on this evidence.  Then there is the side of us that takes on face value what our parents or other authority figures tell us, we tuck it away and move on to something else.  Believing has evolutionary advantages because it’s quite simply faster.  Both types of thinking have their value up to a point, but in many ways the believer is most valuable to the self, where as the scientist is perhaps most valuable to the larger population and over a longer span of time.

Of course you actually don’t need to learn about science to survive.  One could argue that you don’t need to learn about science as a member of society if you simply accept that scientists are as right as they can be, based on the evidence that the community analyzes and thus trust the decisions and recommendations that they make.  This would work, except that, at least in the US, everybody still has an opinion about scientific issues and feel that it is of equal value to that of the scientist even when they are illiterate about the subject material and how science works.  No issue makes this clearer than when you look at the attitude of many towards climate change.  Though almost every researcher in the natural sciences find evidence of man-made climate change there are many who find the issue to be one of belief, bias and conspiracy.  So it’s not only a problem that few people know about science, but that many of these uninformed people will form an opinion based on pseudoscience, pundits, or even in some cases intellectuals who are not scientists, and then not support legislation that is based on the recommendation of the scientific community.  The issue of evolution in this country is another example, and it bothers me when people say the phrase “believe in evolution”, because evolution does not require belief.  It only requires an objective analysis of evidence and this is the natural conclusion that anyone would come to based on that evidence.

I have even learned that there are many people who don’t understand what evidence is.  What they consider evidence for something is not evidence and this is where math comes into the equation.  No pun intended.  Part of the reason why science is difficult is because math is at the heart of science.  And I don’t mean just complicated equations although sometimes to really understand a certain area of science it helps to understand some complicated equation.  The heart of math is logic.  Math is in fact cold, unemotional, and doesn’t care one iota about your passions.  This makes mathematics actually quite unique in our world which is actually why I’m passionate about it.  Math doesn’t care what you want, it’s there to tell you what is.  When you try to have a debate with someone about an issue you can see that most people don’t know how to make logical arguments.  Hey I make plenty of mistakes too, and logic, reasoning, math requires us also to be humble.  When someone points at an error in your logic it can be a blow to the ego.  Math may be perfect, but we are not. It’s something you have to get over if you want to continue to learn and grow in this world.  You are going to make mistakes, but you need to keep trying to understand where flaws in your reasoning might lie.  Often this is because you are missing pertinent information.  Logic is also dangerous because entire logical frameworks can be built on faulty premises.  The example I always use is the logical argument:

All A are B

All B are C

Therefore all A are C.

Few can argue here as this is a logical truth.  But let’s put actual information in there now.  All cats are black.  All black things are hats.  Therefore all cats are hats.  This is a silly example of course, but logic can lead us down a road when the premises we use to draw our conclusions are faulty.  However, we can test the truth of “All black things are hats” and “all cats are black” through careful observation and science.  As silly as this argument sounds it could be that any individual might come up with this conclusion if they really had not seen anything black other than a cat.  An authority figure in their life tells them now that “all black things are hats”.  You’ve never seen a hat, but you trust this adult.  So your brain makes the logical conclusion that all cats must also be hats.  The error is not your conclusion, but rather that you A) have seen only a small portion of the things that are black, and that you took at face value what the authority figure said about black things and hats.  Thus what the example actually shows is how easy it is to draw incorrect logical conclusions through having incomplete information about the world.  This person may even begin to argue with other people on the nature of cats and black things, but always remember to be humble and realize that you may not know as much as somebody else in regards to a particular subject.  This extreme example also demonstrates why religion fails to explain how the world works effectively because it generally suppresses the investigation into the truth of promises and relies heavily on simply trusting in what an authority figure as truth.  This is why religious texts have numerous contradictions and outdated information.  Any community which purports a text or set of guidelines that are not open to question, scrutiny, and testing that is a dangerous community.  That community is the exact opposite of a scientific community.

Any individual scientist can also fall victim to his/her own gospel and this is of course why I don’t advocate that a society simply trust what scientists have to say, but rather is educated about science themselves.  Questions are what drive scientists, and any one scientist would easily admit that they may not have seen all the evidence, interpreted it correctly, or may be subject to bias.  This is where the value of community comes in.  The greater the volume of scientific literacy in a community the more likely we are to arrive at correct answers about how the world works and most likely more quickly.  Any researcher always faces some criticism from others in their field.  People who disagree with them and ask them questions that they may not have considered, which eventually makes them more careful researchers in the future.  Scientists make use of peer-review for their research, as well as the fact that numerous scientists may be working on a particular problem independently but attempting different methods at solving the problem.  This can reveal holes in an individual scientist’s research and this is extremely valuable because once again we can save time and energy by learning which methodologies are inefficient, which question shouldn’t be asked, and which questions we should ask.

Science is most successful when both old questions are re-asked, and new questions are asked.  A continued investigation of old questions that are attacked from new angles and with new information allow us to make sure the foundation in which we tackle new scientific problems are sound.  Science does this all the time, which is why occasionally you find out that something you learned in school may not be true anymore.  Science makes mistakes, but continually marches forward self-correcting along the way.  If you start trying to move forward on a faulty premise you find that you hit a wall. Forward progress can sometimes stall, sometimes even by the ego of a big scientist in the field, but eventually something that isn’t right will fail.

And even if you become scientifically literate are all your problems solved?  Certainly not.  There are a lot of things to know in the world and it is time consuming to be knowledgeable about the all.  There are plenty of areas of science I know little about.  Microbiology, organic chemistry, atomic physics are just a few.  So when I read something that a community of those scientists has said, I have two choices.  I can trust them.  Knowing how scientists work I can feel pretty confident that within their own community they are doing exhaustive and rigorous research to come to the conclusions they have.  However if I’m not satisfied, I can start learning.  I can start reading.  There is a lot of information on the web now so even the simplest of terms in a particular field I can find definitions for.  I could read a few books of course too.  All this takes time.  But perhaps it is worth it.  What seems surprising to me though is all the people who would argue against something like climate change having very little understanding of the subject and spouting off incorrect information from articles which actually prey on the scientific illiteracy of the reader to convince them to a certain point of view.

We live in an age of information.  But as a consequence there is also a lot of misinformation out there.   Science can be most powerful in just helping you understand the quality of the information that you are being given, and help you separate the bad from the good.  I see many people getting their information from terrible sources.  As a scientist here are some of the steps I take when trying to learn about something (this is also how good research is done):

  • Look for consensus.  Try to find independent sources that say similar things.  This can be hard on the internet as sometimes one person’s words get republished (and uncredited) on other sites.  But usually the wording will be very similar.
  • Try to find the author.  Who is he or she?  Do they even have a degree in the area of science they are writing about?  Many critics of something  like climate change do not come from people who actually are knowledgeable about the physics that apply to climate.
  • Does that author publish journal articles on their findings?  Before any science becomes mainstream it always first or at least simultaneously published in a journal.  But also important is the nature of that journal.  Does that journal have anonymous peer-review?  Does that journal seem to fit the subject of the article?  Is the journal regional, national, or international? Many weaker studies that represent bad science or relatively inconclusive findings will be published in small journals, journals without peer-review or in journals only loosely related to the subject area to avoid it being reviewed by other appropriate experts.
  • The best sources of information often site numerous studies and try to culminate those findings to build a logical narrative.

Finally it doesn’t hurt to try and read other contradictory articles, provided that those articles meet some or all of the criteria mentioned above.

A democracy is only effective when its people are intelligent and well informed, and there are plenty of issues that are important to our future and future generation.  Climate change is only one of them.  Learn about biochemistry and understand more about vaccinations, diseases, stem cell research, genetically modified foods.   Learn about Earth Science and understand more about water quality, soil and water conservation, climate change, natural disasters, and pollution.  Learn about physics and understand important issues related to radiation, heating and cooling, lasers, and of course physics is such a fundamental science that it is the root for understand many other scientific disciplines.  Learn about biology and understand how life works such as: the similarities and differences among species, the human body, wildlife conservation, and evolution.  And don’t forget that scientific investigation is used to try to answer many questions in the social science.  Fields like sociology, psychology, education and communication.   For instance we can learn with science that if we want abortions to happen less and less than imposing one group’s morality is less effective than education, good health care, and easier access to birth control.  Learn about math and statistics so that you can understand when numbers are significant, what probabilities mean, and what uncertainties might be associated with a particular finding.

To conclude I would be remiss if I left out all the other amazing things that add color to this world.  In your quest for scientific literacy don’t forget about the humanities and arts.  Get lost in those things that inspire and excite the imagination.  Tell stories and listen to stories because there is insight interwoven into the narrative.  Learn about history and understand the process of discovery through the ages, learn about change, and the rise and fall of civilization so that we can learn well the lessons of the past for a better future.  Lose yourself in music, whether it is by dancing or just letting your mind and heart get carried away by the melody, or even just singing at the top of your lungs in the car.  I don’t expect everyone to get their sense of wonder from science, so make sure you are doing things that keep making you wonder about the world.