How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals.  Or at least good ones.  The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take.  In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics.  And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time.  If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science.  I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science.  The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.

The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong.  Imagine a godless world.  One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are.  Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us.  Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder.  Thou shalt not commit it.  Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody.  Randomly.  Without provocation.  Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.

Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard.  Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there.  They’ve chatted a few times.  Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim.  There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.”  She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.

The scientists watch in amazement.  Suddenly Jim’s front door opens.  His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding.  Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done.  Deprived his two boys of their father.  She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself.  Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door.  She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done.  Susan’s anger though is understandable.  Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father.  She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger.  The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this.  A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan.  One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan.  He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end.   They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly.  Both of them end up having addiction problems.

As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold.  They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans.  They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.

They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris.  In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder.  Now they find murder is happening more often.  Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime.  This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.

The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.  There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody.  The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong.  Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him.  Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard.  The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them.  They are also in grief at the loss of the victims.  The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well.  The loss will be felt.  They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own.  To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time.  The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him.  Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.

As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too.  Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own.  The scientists conclude:

  • there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
  • people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
  • PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
  • murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed.  The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
  • a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur.  In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental

The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad.  Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.

Thus concludes my little thought experiment.  I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart.  Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good.  There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way.  The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.

The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment.  We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years.  The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed.  Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices.  And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats.  Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.

Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are.  Mammal – primate – human.  We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs.  And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.

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A Re-framing of Faith

After my previous post about faith, which led to a fruitful discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of faith to humans and how it might be framed in a more useful way.  A couple summers ago I presented a series of posts about 8 virtues or qualities that make a good human, and faith was the last one I discussed.  I think that if I were to do that series again today I might change the word faith to “prediction”.

In the discussion we had on my most recent post about faith, we talked about the difference between religious faith, and the sort of everyday way we might use the word faith.  One of the things that I talked about as a difference between how a scientist might use faith, and what a religious person might call faith are two different things.  The most important difference being that a scientist would be willing to change what he has faith in, based on evidence.  I have always argue that while faith is important we should be willing to change what we have faith as we learn.  The other thing that I argued was that faith is built on evidence and there is a very big difference in having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and faith that there is a supernatural divine being.  The difference there being the weight of evidence, and the quality of evidence used in building those two types of“faith”.

But I started to think about it at a deeper level and it seems to me that at the heart of faith is really something else when I started to ask, “Why do we have faith at all?”  Faith is a representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future.  When I had my son, I wrote a post called Love and the Future, about how when we love we start painting pictures of the future in our mind.  It happens in romantic relationships too.  According to a friend of mine who is a counselor, one of the hardest parts of counseling someone after a difficult breakup is for them to let go of those “future plans”.  I have also written a post before about “expectations”.  In the post, I talked about the benefits of expectations in that we rise to meet them.  By having a future goal in mind, we make better progress than none at all.  Of course, there are many who would say you shouldn’t have expectations, because they will only lead to disappointment, but I am not sure it’s possible to live a life without any expectations.  It’s natural that we’d have some, but I think that it’s true we might have limits into how many failed expectations we can shoulder.  Either way it seems to me that expectations are also a type of “faith”.  A desire to place some certainty in the future based on our desires and wants.  It is something we expect to come true, even if it doesn’t.

For the past few months I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, and it has been an enjoyable experience.  I’ve been using an app called Headspace.  It avoids a lot of the new age type stuff and really focuses on the philosophy of meditation and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in getting into it.  The goal is to be more focused on the present, to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment.  A thought struck me yesterday when I was practicing it, as that one of the things they tell you in the guided meditation is that you want to think about “what are your goals with the meditation” and after it’s over they suggest you think about what is going to the very next thing you do.  So even in something that is supposed to be about the present, we cannot help but look forward at least a little bit in our thinking.

I have come to the conclusion that it is natural in humans to be forward thinkers.  I have had the thought before that one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species.  Now one could argue that we are also still pretty awful at it, but the fact that we try is actually impressive.  We look for patterns in the universe and we try to project those patterns into the future so that we can be less uncertain and fearful about it.  While Farmer’s almanacs would like us to believe that squirrels can predict months in advance about the severity of the winter, it is clear in an evolutionary sense life on average are poor forward thinkers.  If they were good at it, I’m not sure extinctions would happen as often as they do.  For instance, an animal can only assume a winter will lie between certain climatic norms.  Some portion of the population will develop mutations better equipped for let’s say surviving a larger range of conditions, but when change becomes to extreme large proportions of a population if not all, cannot adapt and die out.  Humans are better at it, unfortunately we are also deeply conceited and that leads to problems.  So given this human propensity to want to predict, the best thing we can do is to build value systems that allow us to be successful more often.

When we say we have faith in our partner, our ourselves, we are making a statement that there is an expectation that based on existing evidence that we will continue to handle some future situation in the same way we have before.  Making a statement like, “I have faith I will do well on my exams”.  Presumably you have taken enough exams to presume a similar outcome.  More than that, to make sure it isn’t blind faith, you have examined the patterns to your success through various study methods, getting a certain amount sleep, etc to make sure your faith is not misplaced.  Your faith is a type of prediction.  A value system that aids in this faith is your ability to be introspective and also perhaps learn from others as to how they study and learn what are good and bad practices.

So where does religious faith fit into all of this?  Hopefully by now it is pretty clear, but let’s look a little closer.  I have read several atheist and agnostic scholars speak about religion as a type of model.  This is how religion has always made the most sense to me. What is the purpose of models?  In science models are things that model scientific processes that give us more predictive capabilities.  The better we understand a process, on average, the more predictive we will be.  This is why a scientist’s ‘faith’ might be quite different than a religious person’s faith because the success of a scientific theory is its predictive capability.  The poorer it is at prediction the less certain we are about our understanding.  In my field of meteorology one of the main reasons we try to model atmospheric processes is to become better at prediction.  It is helpful to be more aware of what weather and climatic patterns are coming in the future.

Religious faith, at its root, is a kind model.  One constructed a long time ago, built largely on false patternicity errors, but given how little we understood about the universe its weak predictive capabilities (in line with empirical evidence) is hardly surprising.  Nevertheless it is an attempt to know the future.  It’s full of prophet predictions, it speaks of what happens to you when you die, how the world will end, what consequences your actions might have.  People pray or plead for diving intervention for their future endeavors.  ‘Please get me this job, please make it rain so our crops come in, please don’t let my mother die of cancer.’  These are all  attempts to give us certainty in an ever changing universe in which are predictive capabilities, especially at an individual level, are extremely limited.  The statement “God has a plan for you” is a prime example of how religion has the course of your life worked out already.  There is no need to worry about it.  Just have faith.  People find it soothing to pray, people find it peaceful to know the purpose of the universe, to know what will happen to them when they die.  In fact, on the whole, religion gives far more certainty than science, which is why I expect it is much more popular.  Science rarely claims 100% predictive capability, but religion does, and to this end religion can be easily used to exploit people.  It is a panacea to all the uncertainty in the world.  Religion pushes people to have more and more faith in times of doubt and confusion.  What they are really saying is “Be more and more certain that (religious claim x) is the truth.”  And if you’re successful, not surprisingly, you feel better.  With mental effort we can convince ourselves to be more certain of things whose outcome is uncertain.  Human history is rife with such examples.  There is no doubt in my mind that we have better models for how humans can live their lives now.  Nevertheless, we have maintained these old models, trying to ignore the worst bits of them, and developed an entire field of apologetics whose main purpose is to try to convince people that these old models still not only have value, but that they are actually superior to other models out there.

Now just because prediction is something humans do, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a virtue.  I guess I see it as a raw instinct that needs to be tamed, which is how I have approached all beneficial human qualities.  I think it’s clear that while much happiness can be found in getting lost in the moment, we need some sort of value system that gives us a direction.  We might get there and find we have to go somewhere else, but it seems beneficial to always have some sort of idea of where we might go next.  In my life it seems that the people I have admired most are the ones who can take pleasure in the moment, but also keep their eyes ahead of them as well.  It’s dangerous to get lost in times that have not occurred, just as it is unhealthy to dwell in the past.   So if I were to choose this 8th value that makes a good human, perhaps the word “prediction” doesn’t quite do it justice, but until I come up with a better word it will have to do.  There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future.   It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.

Additional reading:

So you’ve been persecuted…

church-christian-persecutionLately I have been trying to push my mind to the other side of the aisle on the issue of Christian persecution in America.  I know that for most of my readers you will wonder what for.  Maybe it’s because my mother is a Christian and feels that this is the case and so I always like to take what my mother says with more consideration, because I respect her.  My mom, for instance feels, that forbidding certain Christmas songs to be sung in class is an example of going too far.  The holiday is after all a Christian one and about Jesus Christ.  When she was a pre-school teacher she says that mothers of multiple nationalities didn’t have a problem with it back in the day, so why should it be a problem now?  Then I came across this article that tries to be academic, by Mary Eberstadt, about the situation and was recently in Time magazine.  I have not read her book, It’s Dangerous to Believe (Religious Freedoms and It’s Enemies), but tried to get a more expansive idea of her views by reading a longer article she wrote on religious intolerance.  I do find there are some legitimate cases where things have been carried too far and these are referenced in her articles.  That being said there are some big picture things that I see being ignored in these articles and are typical of many opinion pieces even when written by scholars discussing what Christianity faces in an increasing secular America:

  1. not-persecutedThere is rarely a discussion about why some people might feel anti-religious or anti-Christian sentiment.  Perhaps you are one of the good Christians out there and that’s wonderful, but given the history of Christian oppression in this country and in the west in general, might there not be some reasons for concern?  If we are going to talk about legitimate instances where good Christians were punished simply for a harmless expression of their belief, should this not be balanced against instances where those who claimed they were Christian also caused harm to others?  If we compiled a list of those two types of instances, who would have the most?  And I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but I’m saying there has to be a more honest discussion, because if Christians fail to understand why might not want their beliefs in the public sphere anymore, then it will appear to others that they are uninterested in taking responsibility for the harm their belief system has caused or how alienating it might make some people feel.  Again, this always brings someone out who says, well if they were causing harm they weren’t really Christians, because Jesus said this or that.  All that is great, but it’s of little consequence to those being marginalized, hurt, or oppressed, when the perpetrator claims their actions are justified by their religious beliefs.  It means your belief system isn’t making friends, and if you truly believe in the peaceful message of your religion it as much your responsibility as anybody else to oppose people wrongly using your religion.  We don’t see this as often as we should, from any religion.
  2. In a transcript of one of my favorite speeches given by Douglas Adams he says the following:

“Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.”

I think this is a very real thing to remember.  Religious beliefs are protected in a way that other ideas are not.  It is a relatively new thing to simply be able to challenge religious ideas.  I think it’s a good thing.  Notice the language that Eberstadt “…a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs”.  That phrase itself implies that there are certain rules which apply to religious beliefs that don’t necessarily apply to others.  Now I’m not saying that uncivilized criticism is effective, but you would hardly see a lot of angry protests for uncivil criticism for highly tested scientific theories.  There are no biologists out there claiming there is a war on evolution and complaining about the mean things Christians have said about people who accept the evidence for evolution.  And while I do get upset when I see atheists insulting and demeaning religious people, in the end these are just words.  The past and present is full of less than tolerant reactions by the dominant religion to even civilized criticism which Eberstadt is asking for from others.  So as much as I would like to see people with religious beliefs not attacked personally and only the ideas, this has not been the case historically when religious ideas have been criticized in the past.  Just looking at the past 100 years, the Scopes Trial in 1925 had a teacher jailed for teaching evolution, and it wasn’t until 1966 that the Supreme Court deemed state statutes unconstitutional that prevented teachers from teaching evolution in public schools.  Presidents have to be open about their Christian beliefs to have a reasonable chance to be elected.  Currently 7 states have it in their state constitutions that atheists can’t hold public office.  And while this is clearly unconstitutional, the fact remains that this is a much higher brand of intolerance than that which is being shown towards Christianity.  In such states, trying to fight those unconstitutional state constitutions will simply alienate yourself from voters even more. How many politicians can be openly gay?  How many people of other religions can make it to office in the U.S.?

  1. And finally, it’s a point that many make, how many Christians would be equally sympathetic to the teacher that was suspended for giving a Bible to a student if it was a Koran?  How many Christians in this country would be okay if a coach decided to lead them all in a Buddhist meditation session before a game?  How many people would care if that City Fire Chief was let go if he published a personal book saying Sharia Law is great, even if it didn’t impact his work?  The work of the Satanic Temple has formed to challenge this attitude, and we find that all of a sudden, a lot of Christians don’t believe in freedom of religion, only the freedom of Christianity to go unfettered, remaining unchallenged in a position of privilege.  Now it may be that Christianity is under attack more than other faiths but it is only because it is the faith in a position of privilege in this country.  Most secularists would have an equal problem with any religion enjoying such privileges.  When one faith or ideology is proselytized over others in the public sector, that depends on faith and belief, without evidence, this is a dangerous path to go down.

Can a push from one direction go too far?  Certainly, and we do need people to keep that in check.  Nobody should be persecuted. But losing privilege is not persecution. It also seems there are parallels between the reaction to the loss of Christian privilege as there are to the loss of white privilege or male privilege.  So any conversation about how Christianity is treated should include a discussion about how other religions are treated, and see if they are on equal footing.  And I don’t mean just according to the law, but from a cultural standpoint.  Because even if the law did allow a teacher to give a Koran to a student, I think we can agree that this teacher, even if not punished might be in a lot more danger in certain communities than he would by passing a Bible to a student.

Perhaps a question that might lead to further posts, is how easily can religions be inclusive to other religions and consider them equal if by definition a religion sees their beliefs as the true ones, while others are false?

The Ritualistic Human

Every morning I, or occasionally my wife, start off the day by making tea.  Specifically chai tea.  As an aside the word chai means “tea” in Hindi.  In my dad’s language of Punjabi it would be cha.  So in a way saying chai tea is like saying “tea tea” which makes no sense, but I am starting with the familiar, but I usually just say chai.  I am half Punjabi and should say “cha” but communicating my caffeinated beverage of choice gets more difficult if I am used to saying cha.

chaiSo first thing in the morning I wash the pot, if it is not washed already, and measure out the amount of tea I want to make.  Usually about 4 mug fulls of water.  I put the water on the stove and turn the burner on.  As the water heats up I add an equal number of heaping teaspoons of loose Yellow Label Lipton tea.  Then I take some green cardamom pods, whole cloves, fennel seeds, black pepper corns, and piece of cinnamon stick and put it all in a big stone mortar, and then take the heavy stone pestle and grind the spices and add it to the pot of water with tea in it.  Once the water boils for a few minutes I add the milk.  Whole milk, because chai without enough milk fat in it is wasted chai. 🙂  I add enough milk until the color looks right, and then I add a little bit of honey to sweeten it slightly.  After the tea comes to a boil, I turn the burner off and pour the tea through a sieve leaving the spices and loose tea behind.  Drinking that first sip of hot tea in the morning is a glorious feeling.  Not only does it wake me up, but the taste which mixes the slight bitterness of black tea, the rich silkiness of milk, a blend of distinct spices, and a hint of sweetness from the honey has a solidness, a wholeness to it that I can’t quite describe.  It feels like home to me as invokes many memories of growing up drinking tea with my family.  At that time in my life I usually didn’t have morning tea, but late afternoon tea with my parents when they come from work.  I introduced it to my wife when we met and she fell in love with it, and it is now as important to her as it is to me, and so it is now a shared pleasure.  And on mornings when I haven’t had a lot of sleep, I may find making the tea to be a bit of a chore but that first sip in the morning makes me feel like I have the strength to face the day.  The making and drinking of chai is a ritual for me.  I think my only one.  If I’m away from home I miss it and genuinely get excited for that first cup of chai when I get back.

We all have our rituals.  In many ways I feel like rituals are like beliefs, they are like habits, they are repeated actions and thus forge neural pathways in our brain which when activated release dopamine.  I think we need ritual in our lives to a certain extent.  A repeated activity that simply brings emotional comfort should never be seen as a bad thing.  Of course the way ritual can feel so solid and tangible can also be dangerous.  As I wrote out my ritual for making chai and how it makes me feel I think to myself how I could never be vegan.  But perhaps I should be vegan.  There are many positive scientific and ethical arguments for being vegan.  This clash is at the heart of how are beliefs or our rituals impact how we rationalize away good arguments in favor of those practices and beliefs we hold dear.

I think it’s also important to recognize that the tangible feelings those rituals give us are therefore an illusion.  I remember when I was about 16 a friend of my mother’s, who was Greek Orthodox and cut hair in her home was giving me a haircut and talking about an upcoming Easter celebration.  They were big meat eaters, especially lamb, but she announced to me that on Good Friday they don’t eat meat.  She said “I don’t know, but not eating meat, makes me feel closer to God.”  I found this to be such a strange statement, because I really felt like buddying up to God should really be more about helping people than whether or not you eat meat on Good Friday.  It struck me at that moment how ritual influences our emotional state.  And while I think we can afford some fantasy in our lives, when we get mired in ritual it is very much like an addiction. Ritual is like a drug for which we trade a certain euphoria we get by performing the ritual instead of actions that might be more productive to the lives of ourselves and others.  The oft used example is quite true, that going to church every Sunday does not make you a good Christian.  Many religious movements begin as an offshoot of other religions that seem to dogmatically get lost in ritual over more pragmatic practices that actually produce.  Sikhism is a good example of this.  This religion developed out of need to rise up from the oppression of the Mogul Empire in India at a time when the Hindus simply bore the oppression and turned to ritual and prayer for help instead of doing something themselves.  Of course as the religion aged it too has become more mired in ritual as well, even though it began as a rebellion against it.

ritual

To see how easy we can get caught up in ritual the following text appears below the picture above at the website for this image.  While I’d say that there is some hint that you should be doing good things in your life, I think words like these make it too easy for people to think they can bypass practical applications of a positive spirituality over performing rituals:

“A ritual is a formula which is meant to dovetail our consciousness to the supreme consciousness of God. The whole purpose of a spiritual ritual is transformation of the heart – from selfish passions to a spirit of selfless service to others, from arrogance to humility and from envy to having the power to appreciate others. If this transformation doesn’t take place in our heart, to create good character, personal integrity and ultimately love for God, then these rituals are all a waste of time.

The value of a ritual is to the extent we please God. Its not the ritual but the content of what our consciousness puts into that ritual. The real essence of all spiritual practices is to purify our heart and awaken the innate love of God. If our rituals are performed with that aim in mind, that ritual, like a vehicle, will help to transport our consciousness to the supreme destination. There is the analogy of a package. If you give a gift which has beautiful decorations outside but a horrible gift inside, the one who receives it will not be happy. The content of the package is all important. So our motivation for doing the ritual is all important, otherwise its just a ritual. So if we have the proper motivation to perform the ritual then it will have a tremendous substance. What is that substance? We access the empowerment and the mercy of the Lord. Thus by giving our heart to the Lord through that ritual, then that becomes the true content of the ritual.

In the beginning of our spiritual life we follow rituals for our purification. When there is proper philosophy and service behind it, it can awaken love of God. It is a way to express our intent to love God, to serve and please Him. So when we have the right enthusiasm and intent, then the ritual becomes something very deeply spiritual. If it is done under the proper guidance and with the right purpose, it purifies our heart and motivations and gradually real genuine spiritual experience awakens from within.” – Radhanath Swami

It seems that it is human nature to gravitate towards ritual.  They make us feel good.  They are comforting and safe.  But like all things moderation is important.  Introspection and reflection on these rituals is important.  And some rituals are wholly harmful in practice and simply are inexcusable to allow them to continue.  Maybe we simply need to make doing good in the world a ritual instead. 🙂

Feel free to share some of your rituals and how likely you are willing to give them up! 🙂

Shepherding the Earth: Fallacies That May Destroy Us All

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts called The Hidden Brain on NPR and they were talking about the climate change situation in a great episode called Losing Alaska.  Basically they were saying that scientific arguments have little merit anymore in talking about climate change.  I would have to say that I agree.  As WhiteEarthWhite EarthAlaskaMuirGlacierDisappearingFast194120040001Asomeone who holds a Ph.D. in the Atmospheric Sciences I can most certainly say that few people that I have debated with on the subject truly understand the problem scientifically and I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, this is simply the truth.  My field is applied math and physics.  Not only that, the climate system is complex.it   Involves interdisciplinary knowledge as well in chemistry, oceanography and geology.  To change someone’s mind from a scientific point of view, it would take a lot of study and learning.  Now you may be saying, wait I accept man-made climate change, and it it’s pretty obvious.  Well I would argue that you don’t really understand it, but it’s easier for you to accept because it already fits in with your ideology.  And I don’t say that to be demeaning, especially I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad ideology to have.  Specifically the one in which we recognize that something is very complex and we don’t have years to study it on our own so maybe I should listen to what experts are saying.  Much like we tend to believe our doctor when they tell us we have cancer as opposed to learning the requisite knowledge we need in order to test ourselves.

Instead of a Heavenly Father, maybe a Mother Earth isn’t a bad person to start worshiping.

But more to the point it really does come down to our personal ideology whether we accept the science, because let’s face it the science is telling us some pretty harsh things.  Not only is the Earth in a lot of trouble, but we actually might be responsible for it all.  And in order to combat the problem we are causing we are going to have to give up a great deal.  Transitioning away from a fuel source we heavily depend on will require large shifts in business and industry affecting the jobs of many.  And of course such a transition cannot be made overnight, but even at a moderate pace will require a cultural change at a rate faster than many of us would have a hard time adjusting too.  That of course does not make it any less compulsory.  Interestingly this podcast made the argument that we all are capable of great sacrifices at times of war or crises, and that dealing with man-made climate change requires an approach that is used by religion rather than one that is used by science.  I find myself having a hard time disagreeing.  While I would love to live in a society where science had a much more powerful influence on changing minds ultimately it does seem that we need to change minds at an emotional level over an intellectual one (which is to me what the podcast suggested by saying a “religious approach”).

In that vein, I wanted to address some of the main arguments I see used by climate change deniers, which tend to be more ideologically based instead of arguments that attack the scientific data on the subject.  They are more dangerous to me, because they seem reasonable.  They seem irrefutable.  This is not the case.

Science had been wrong before, why should we trust scientists?

                          The Geocentric Universe

This is quite true.  Scientists have been wrong before.  In fact progress is actually built on that very premise.  But notice the word “progress”.  It always strikes me as strange that people overlook this aspect of science.  Much like we learn from our own mistakes and grow and get better as people, this is how science works as well.  So we do get things wrong, but we also get a lot of things right.  Your daily lives in this modern world are a living result of that.  From the car you drive to the device in which you are punching out your arguments.  Now you could be right that someday we will discover that we were all wrong about this, but if we do, it will not because we were willfully trying to mislead people, but rather a new discovery has allowed us to view the world in a different way thus disproving our theory.  So unless you’ve got that said discovery I can guarantee you that our assessment about the state of the climate system is based on the best available knowledge we have about how it works.  And personally I see no shame in acting in the best interest of all on this planet based on what we know of it.

Finally, just because you don’t trust science or want to focus on the things it got wrong makes it your problem, and not science’s problem.  To refute climate change science on those grounds is to commit the genetic fallacy.  Directly address the assertions being made by those advocating the position in terms of their conclusions analysis of their data.  That is really your only option.  To explain it more simply “Al Gore is a democrat, and I hate democrats.  Al Gore gives evidence for why man-made climate change is happening, but since he is a democrat, he must be wrong.”  That’s not how it works.  Sorry.

Scientists are just doing it for the money. IPCC is corrupt.  Liberal media…

This argument is the same as the genetic fallacy because it is again an attempt to discredit to the reliability of the source to simply argue away what the source has to say.  I’ll admit that in such instances I will use the same fallacious argument back, because, quite honestly two can play that game, and I can play it better.  Let’s say all of us scientists are ego driven money-grubbing bastards.  My options are renewable energy companies and liberal governments, or oil companies.  Hmmm…I wonder who has more money.  Not only that with all the other scientists clearly in the wrong camp, all that sweet oil money could be mine (as it was for Wei-Hock Soon) as there are even less people to share it with.

In terms of fame, the fallacious argument made by deniers fall even shorter.  If I had definitive proof that all the other scientists were wrong.  I would be the one who was famous.  I’d be on all the news programs, giving talks around the world on a sweet oil company payroll, and even the liberal media would have me on their shows even to abuse me while I valiantly stuck to my guns with the full conviction that I was doing my science right.  I would be the hero of deniers everywhere.

Sometimes even fallacious arguments are hardly worth the effort.

The climate has changed before when humans weren’t around.  It’s natural.

7wG9WakThis is the first part of an argument constantly used.  It’s also known in logic as a type of naturalistic fallacy.  Just because something can happen naturally, doesn’t mean it can’t happen unnaturally.  Do floods happen naturally?  Sure.  Can floods also happen because of human activities?  Absolutely.  Natural selection happens in evolution.  But you know what also happens?  “Unnatural selection”.  The fruits and vegetables we eat, the dogs and cats we have as pets, and the horses we ride are all examples of this.   The same thing can happen with or without intention.

We cannot have an impact on something as big as the Earth.

                                                       The ecosystem formerly known as rain forest.

This argument is made without any substantiation at all.  It is often also used by people who are trying not to be religious but would rather take the James Inhofe argument that God controls the climate!  Of course examples of how we have changed climate locally can be found all over through the building of structures like dams on rivers, cutting down forests and poor farming practices.  In terms of the climate change issue specifically this person does a pretty nice break down of looking at how the amount of carbon we produce can quite easily explain the increase in carbon since pre-industrial levels.  There is no reason to believe that we couldn’t have such a global impact.  In fact that argument always seems to me a way of insulting or discrediting scientists again because it’s a pretty important question to answer before we would even start putting out evidence about climate change.  I mean if the amount of carbon we produce paled in comparison to the amount of increase we’ve seen then I am not sure how the scientific consensus could be developed in the first place.  It’s like when people say, the warming is being caused by the sun, and I think to myself “Oh my…we scientists all forgot to take into account the sun.  I better make a few calls.  Can’t believe we missed that one!”.

The Earth will survive.  We’ve had major disasters before and life persists.  Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

This is the most insidious arguments, because it’s not fallacious at all in a logical sense.  However it is apathetic and immoral.  A lot of times people will say things like…”we’re just another species.  Whatever we do is natural, and whatever happens will happens.”

Let’s say you are an emergency manager who works at a national park in a mountainous area.  The weather is starting to warm and there has been heavy rains in the mountains and typically when such rains occur, especially in combination with some ice jams in the water flash flooding occurs.  It’s not a guarantee, but likely.   A town at the foot of the mountain in which the river runs through is going to get flooded, people could easily die if they are not warned.  This is a natural event, it was going to happen whether humans are around are not do you warn them?

I think most people would answer that they would.  To me arguing that doing nothing is the only option we have because the Earth is just going to do is thing is tantamount to doing nothing in this example, and simply letting people die.  Many people who accept the fact that the climate is changing but don’t think man is responsible still must accept the consequences to this warming.  Some of the one’s we are more sure of are:

  1. Rising sea levels drowning coastal populations and increased damages and deaths from coastal hazards such as tropical storms and tsunamis
  2. Increased heat waves and droughts
  3. Increases in extreme weather events as climate patterns shift
  4. Increased severity of extreme weather events.

What’s more is that these types of things will adversely impact the most vulnerable of the worlds population.  People who are in poverty.  People who depend on subsistence farming.  When local hazards happen communities do make sacrifices, and do look for solutions, through re-zoning laws, construction improvements, and other engineering solutions to try and make the world safer and have less loss of life.  So even if man has nothing do with the problem it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to act to come up with a solution.

One can be logically sound but be ethically and morally irresponsible.  Ignoring what experts are saying, making sweeping and unsubstantiated statements that there is nothing we can do, that it’s just nature, and the Earth will be fine is really the same as having the power to do something to save lives and not doing it.  And this is why I agree that the conversation about climate change has to shift away from science and facts and be more about compassion, about love for our fellow human beings, valuing equality so that we all have the same chance to adapt and survive the changing climate, and about taking responsibility for the home that sustains us all.  These are important values regardless of what is causing the climate to change and these are things we can address and even already have some solutions for.  Of course I know that is even overly idealistic to think that such a solution of addressing people on an emotional level might work.  Hell it’s difficult to find a religion that unanimously agrees poverty is something we should do something about. I feel pretty bleak in general about us actually doing something about climate change.  It requires people to move beyond nationalism, beyond their own religious beliefs and worldview, which tend to not be very worldly at all.  Maybe we can’t win against the forces of nature, but it sure would nice if we could overcome the forces that divide us as a species.  We can try.  Maybe in the end it really is easier to move mountains.

Feeding Yourself to the Lions

Recently I read a blog by a transgender woman who wrote her post as an open letter to conservative blogger Matt Walsh, making some well-reasoned arguments against some fairly narrow minded views expressed by him in his blog towards transgender people being mentally ill and against the teachings of Christ.  I hit like on her post and went on my merry way.  I was surprised to find that in seeing my “like” she checked out my blog and left a comment on one of the posts where I discussed religion and atheism and left a polite comment, but made sure that the first comment she left was how she wished I could know God the way she did.  I checked out her blog and it made me rather sad, because it seems a lot of what she writes is the typical self-debasement so typical in evangelical communities and she basically justifies her own struggles and flaws being born a woman in a man’s body as a punishment for original sin, and that God is really loving and has done so much but she is the one at fault. She is the failure.  She is imperfect.  Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes wrote about this topic recently.

Believe me, I’m not criticizing this woman, because I can’t even fathom the difficulties that someone like her must face in a world that has so little tolerance beyond the black and white world they see.  I imagine given such difficult struggles trying to find something that will give you the strength to fight, the strength to make some sense out of it all is strong.  What I don’t understand is how one reaches for a religion or continues to follow a religion that is the very same one that has prevented her from growing up to be free to be who she is.  It is the same question that I have for many African-Americans who are Christian and don’t seem to have be bothered by the fact that this very religion was the one that was used to justify them as slaves, as being inferior, segregating them from whites, preventing them from marrying someone who was white and the history of white Christians using their religion to oppress African-Americans continue to this day.

Look, I know the “No True Scotsman” argument is coming and we all know that’s a fallacy, so let’s put that aside.  We all know there are loving verses in the Bible and disturbingly evil verses is well and everybody cherry picks the one’s they want to prove they are the true Christian.  I’m not making an argument against God either, because I can see oppressed groups rallying around a spiritually uplifting philosophy.  But why the very one that oppressed them?  Why not choose Buddhism, or Hinduism, or one of many other choices out there?

I mentioned in a comment on a blog post from Sirius Bizinus recently that it seems we should question the validity of a system of beliefs that produces people from extremely kind, compassionate, and generous to derisive, judgmental, and unfeeling as a questionable system.  That perhaps goodness has it’s source elsewhere than, at the very least, the religion that has essentially made your life a living hell.  For me the psychology of such things is hard for me to grasp.  Is it because they want to turn something that was bad to them into something positive?  Is it a way to directly challenge those who oppress them with the same tool they use to do the oppression?  Like an atheist arguing with a Christian by quoting bible verses to show how their attitudes are not very Christ-like, But even so does that mean that one must actually be a member of that religion to challenge it effectively?  That doesn’t seem like it should be the case, but maybe it is.

What are your thoughts?

Imitation and Approval

When I was 12 years old I went to Bible Camp.  It was my first time going to camp, going away for a week without having any parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles.  Luckily my second cousin went so I would know someone and that was probably the only reason I wasn’t too scared to go.  I am not sure why my mom chose to send me to a bible camp, but as a Christian I am sure she hoped that I was receive some good education about religion, the bible, etc.  When I was there I was eager to impress the counselors and leaders.  They had a bible verse a day and a contest at the end to give a free camp hat to anyone who could memorize all the verses.  I was the only who could do it.  I used to have a good memory.  Maybe I still do, I just can’t remember.  At camp they also talked a lot about prayer and how praying could help you get the things you wanted in life, as long as you were good and you really believed.  For me the idea of prayer was exciting because I thought maybe it could work to stop my dad’s drinking.  So I opened my heart and let Jesus Christ in.  The counselors were so happy.  All of them congratulated me.  They were so kind and so pleased with my decision.  After camp was over, I was so excited I had made the decision because I knew it was going to make others in my life so happy.  My mother, my grandmother, aunts and uncles.  And on top of that I was told that if I was good and really believed that my prayers would be answered.  I had many tangible reasons to be very happy about it all.  It had very little to do with heaven or hell, or some events on alternate planes of existence, but the way it made others in my life happy, and the way it might help my dad to stop drinking was very exciting.  Of course none of my praying made any difference to my dad drinking and in the end the excitement of my decision to let Jesus into my heart faded and it became clear how the entire belief system had any relevance to life if one of the things they touted the most didn’t work.  I believed as much as a 12 year old could.  But the fact that prayer doesn’t work is not really the subject on my mind, but rather that as I reflect I see how much of a child I really was.  I completely didn’t understand the complexities of the religion or the Bible.  I was clearly caught up more in the joy that the adults in my life felt by my decision rather than really grasping the importance of what a religion means to someone’s life.

Dhyan_forkandknife

It takes very little time with an infant/toddler to see how much they want to imitate others.  And while I am sure there is an evolutionary aspect to this, because obviously if we have survived as long as we have, it makes sense to copy our parents, but what is also clear is our reaction to that imitation.  Because when he successfully uses a fork, or successfully gets up on a chair by himself, climbs the stairs etc, there is much applause.  There is much excitement and happiness.  All in the house are happy and pleased at this ability to accomplish these tasks that move them closer and closer to adulthood.  Every child can’t wait to do things older people can do. They can’t wait to grow up.  As children we are always looking for the approval of our adults.  We may rebel when we don’t get it, but initially, we want to be noticed by those we look up to.  As children we are somewhat helpless and getting adults to like you and notice you, is a way to make sure that they take care of you, teach you, spend time with you.  If you can impress an adult then this is a bonding experience.  Something we all seek.

dhyan_laptopFor all my dad’s faults he was fairly adamant about choosing a religion as being a choice to make as an adult.  That children didn’t have the capacity to understand the decision and thus did not want my mother to influence as children.  This was not something my mother or Mennonite grandmother could really help doing, but it was certainly tempered compared to many other children and I am quite thankful for my dad in that, because it’s clear to me that he was right.  Even at the age of 12 I could not understand a religious belief system.  From my mother I may not have adopted her belief system, but I learned about her charity, her kindness, her compassion, her perseverance, and the fact that she is someone who likes to ask questions and research the answers.  As I watch my child grow I can see that it’s less important what I believe, but rather how I act.  These are the things that will shape him.  Brainwashing him into a certain set of beliefs seems pointless over my actions being moral.  My child was born an atheist and if he decides that he wants to pursue a belief system as a guide to live his life then it will be his own choice, not because I’ve prescribed a doctrine for him to follow.

With the idea of God being “our Father”, I sometimes wonder if God isn’t the ultimate helicopter parent.  A way for people to still constantly seek approval from a parent-like figure.  It seems somewhat unnatural to me now to maintain such an attitude into adulthood.  As children it makes sense to have this attitude, but as adults we are supposed to no longer be seeking approval and be the role models for our young.  I guess as social animals it’s easy for such hierarchies to remain.  The only problem is, if there is no God then all we’re really doing is trying to make a non-existent entity happy and a lot of difficult to interpret texts written by men on what God actually wants to be made happy.  That seems like a wholly unhealthy way to live life.