The duality of humanism and atheism

2014/10/07

P.Z. Myers has a touching reflection on the two sides of being a nonbeliever these days.

On the one hand, there are so many things in the world – attitudes, laws, beliefs, and actions – that can drive you to the rejecting, negative stance embodied in the term “atheism”.

On the other hand, the world abounds with amazing facts to discover, delightful experiences to savour, and inspiring goals to strive for – all things that fuel the more affirming, positive stance that is captured in the term “humanism”.

Like Myers, I oscillate between the two. Sometimes it is important to rally around the flag of No, to assert the value (sometimes even the simple right) to withholding assent or belief. I am an atheist. At other times, it is more fulfilling, more productive, and more honest to focus on what we do value, what we do believe. I am also a humanist.

It sounds like Myers is beginning to despair at the state of organized atheism lately – the prevalence of sexism, tribalism, and of unthinking, reflexive responses to criticism. This is disappointing. Not that any other community is better, but we like to define ourselves specifically by our self-correction, our openness to criticism, and our freedom from dogmatic groupthink.

But, just as I refuse to let religious conservatives own the language of morality and family values, I am not about to let the negative elements own the atheism brand. Neither is Myers.

Atheism does not justify sexism. It does not have prophets or irreproachable spokespeople.

Nor (contra what Myers seems at one point to suggest) does humanism ignore the ugliness in the world.

Still … like Myers, I find myself sometimes drawn to one of these labels, sometimes to the other. Do you find that? Are you more inclined to cling to one label in certain moods, and another in other moods? Do your oscillations fit the angry=atheism, optimistic=humanism map that Myers expresses, or do you have different associations (or labels)?

Podcast review: Quirks and Quarks / Science Friday

2014/10/04

As a kid, I remember CBC radio being a regular background in our kitchen. Particularly on Saturdays, there was always an interesting lineup. Basic Black is one show I remember fondly. The other – the one that fit with my already-healthy love of science – was Quirks and Quarks. It has gone through at least one change of hosts since then (the current host is Bob McDonald), but the same basic structure remains: a science news show with interviews and the occasional cheesy pun. There are two podcast feeds – one with the whole hour in a single download, and one with a separate download for each segment.

When I lived in Scotland, I was pointed to another show that has an almost identical format, but is based in the US: Science Friday, hosted by Ira Flatow. Its podcast feed has each segment in a separate item.

Both of these shows are essentially no-frills world-science-news digests. Each news item is normally given only a few minutes, so they are very digestible. Quirks has a slightly Canadian bias in its topics and guests; SciFri has a slightly American bias. But they are essentially the same show from different sites. And because there is far more science news than can fit into a single hour each week, they often cover completely different news items. It’s worth listening to both, if you have the time.

There are other science shows that are more … well, showy. But these two are reliable news sources which I feel I can trust to give me a relatively bias-free survey of what’s going on.

Can you tell up from down?

2014/10/01

Secular morality is relative.

Therefore, there is no ultimate, absolute, universal right and wrong in secular morality.

Because of this, there is no reason for anyone to follow secular moral rules.

It amazes me how often I hear something like this line of reasoning trotted out as a defeater for secular morality. I have long seen that it’s a completely vacuous argument, but I haven’t been able to articulate the problem with it.

Now I think I have a nice illustration that can demonstrate why it fails.

Consider the concepts of “up” and “down”.

These are obviously very useful concepts. They are important directions when dealing with actions like standing, lifting, dropping, flying, etc. They also serve as anchors for other concepts like “above/below”, “top/bottom”, “upside-down”, and so on.

It is often very important for someone to be able to identify which direction is “up” and which direction is “down”. To pilots, for example, it is regularly a matter of life and death.

But “up” and “down” have a dirty little secret: they are relative. “Up”means “away from the centre of the Earth”.

But no, even this is too geocentric.* If you’re on Mars, “up” is “away from the centre of Mars”. And if you’re in space … well, it becomes muddier. Does an astronaut experiencing microgravity in orbit around the Earth consider “up” to be “away from the Earth”? What about if you were orbiting the Sun away from any planet? What about the Voyager probes, shooting away from the Sun in orbit around nothing (except, perhaps, the galactic core)?

You see, the concept of “up” is relative. Even if you’re just on Earth, “up” is a different physical direction for someone in Ghana than for someone in Siberia.

An obvious and necessary corrolary of this is that there is no ultimate, absolute, universal “up” or “down”.

So far, “up” and “down” are the same as “right” and “wrong” in a moral system with relative underpinnings (such as one that is based on the shared psychological underpinnings of human nature – ie, relative to the species): they work only within the local frame of reference.

So, is the idea of “up” basically meaningless? Does it have no bearing on individuals? Do we have any way of deciding whether one direction is objectively “up” in a given situation?

Of course, the answer is obvious. If I am in Edmonton, Canada, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Edmonton. If I am in Kumamoto, Japan, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Kumamoto.

Similarly, for many secular moral systems, even if there is a relative element in them, it is still relative to something concrete. For example, my current inclination is to base my moral reasoning on principles that I think most people would share, such as valuing individual freedom and preventing harm. So, although my moral system is relative to these human values, the reasoning works as long as I’m talking to people in the same location: that is, as long as the people I’m speaking to share these principles.

This is not proof that secular, relativist morality is superior to theistic alternatives. I don’t know if one can prove such a thing about moral systems (except in cases where a moral system is inconsistent with itself, of course – that is a mark against any set of ideas).

But I hope that the “up/down” analogy will help people understand the faults with the most common objection to relative systems of morality.

Footnote:

* It’s also very imprecise. Due to gravitational effects of mountains and other stuff, the gravitational pull at any particular point on the Earth’s surface isn’t necessarily straight toward the Earth’s centre.

Greta FTW

2014/09/30

This is why I like reading Greta Christina.

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

(If you don’t know the backstory, do follow her links. It’s an interesting back-and-forth.)

This is a sentiment that I need to express more often. It’s something more people – especially those in positions of authority – need to say (and mean it) more often.

I’m so glad we have people of this calibre in the humanist/atheist community. We’re all human, all fallible and emotional and irrational. That’s just fine, so long as we are ready to change direction when we make mistakes.

Sometimes this means setting aside your ego. Or, perhaps even better, learning to see this sort of self-correction as a win. To really feel that owning up to a mistake is a noble and rewarding act.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Yay Greta Christina!

Podcast review: More or Less

2014/09/28

The BBC in general is a rich source of content – I imagine anyone reading this could benefit from a perusal of the Radio 4 offerings. Pretty much every show has an associated podcast you can subscribe to.

More or Less is unique among podcasts (or shows in general). I have listened to mathematical podcasts that were fascinating, but shortlived. Other shows have a passing interest in math, but do not regularly cover math topics. On More or Less, host Tim Harford and his colleauges not only do numbers, and do them regularly, year in and year out; they do them in a topical, fun, engaging manner. They show how important numeracy is in day-to-day life. Not only that; their focus is on statistics, one of the most-maligned areas of mathematics. The general format is to probe numbers that have been presented by prominent figures, or disseminated in the media, to see whether they stand up. Listeners will learn, almost by accident, what sort of questions to ask when someone tries to convince them of something with numbers.

 

What really matters

2014/09/25

Dug up from the draft pile – the opening is a little out of date, but the content is quite relevant.

Here is an interesting piece in the Calgary Herald on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but fussing over that is not the point of this post. (See here and here for some thoughts on that.)

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, my MP3 player for podcast listening on my commute, the bicycle I often commute on, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important than any of that is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I can get stuck in computer games or TV shows when there are people I could be visiting with.

I fight such tendencies in myself using the framework of my humanist values and worldview. I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

Christmas is a good yearly reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give last year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game – a gift that, itself, encourages socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with others to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not find personal resonance in religious beliefs.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings or Unitarian church, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. The odds are that you do too: have a look around. Join a Meetup group. Start your own. Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids. They are growing up in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.

Microedits and Macroedits

2014/09/22

I’ve been dipping my toes in the Stand To Reason apologetics website – mostly through its podcasts Stand To Reason (with Greg Koukl) and Thinking Out Loud (with Alan Shlemon). This post is a response to Shlemon’s assertion in this episode that macroevolution is a whole separate thing from microevolution.

This is a familiar trope among those of us who try to keep an eye on the creationist pushback against the science of biological origins. Many many people have countered it – in books, in articles, in encyclopedias and FAQs, in blog posts and videos, in debates and other personal interactions.

I have nothing new to add, really: the science is in, and creationism fails the test. There are ways to work God into your worldview without contradicting reality, but many people aren’t willing to adapt their beliefs to the evidence. Their loss.

Anyway, as I was listening to Shlemon smugly dismiss the scientific objection that macroevolution is simply the accumulated effects of microevolution over large enough time spans, I was thinking how I might respond. If an acquaintance were to offer that argument, how could I respond in a way that might get them past the cognitive block they have?

Here’s what I came up with:

Imagine that each species can be described by a (potentially very long) line of letters. Let’s say we only use letters corresponding to the four basic elements: A (aqua, for water), C (combustia, for air), G (gasea, for air), and T (terra, for earth).

Now, imagine there are ways of changing the sequence of letters, so that a child doesn’t have exactly the letters of its parent or parents. Let’s call a single letter change “microevolution”. That could be, for example, a “C” changing to an “A”. Or a “T” being inserted between a “G” and another “T”. Or an “A” being lost altogether.

And let’s say that “macroevolution” means a wholesale change of the sequence: no letter is the same as it was before.

Can you imagine a way to do microevolution over and over again and eventually get macroevolution?

I sure can.

And that’s it.

Oh, there are some constraints. Biological evolution requires that each stage – each mutated offspring – is viable and is not at a substantial selective disadvantage relative to the other variants present in its population. So, in the real world, it is not the case that any species could evolve into any other species by any textually-sufficient chain of genetic mutations. But that’s not the claim of modern evolutionary science. The strongest claim it makes is that there has been at least one such path leading from life’s early progenitor(s) to each species that has ever existed on Earth.

Anyway, what do you think of my illustration? Does it replicate what someone else has produced? If so, please point to them in the comments. Does it seem clever? Useful? Scientifically accurate?

Podcast review: Grammar Girl

2014/09/19

As a linguist, I am trained to look at language descriptively. I am also inclined to dismiss the prescriptions of grammarians and language mavens; they often reflect a narrow view of language. I found the Grammar Girl podcast because it was given as a model of the prescriptive attitude in a colleague’s slides. In it, Mignon Fogerty gives advice about how to use words and grammatical constructions in English. I thought, “Excellent. I’ll listen, and get a window into the other side – see how the prescriptivists go wrong, and be able to formulate arguments against them.”

But Mignon Fogerty foiled my plans. Rather than advocating a blind adherence to arbitrary rules (as some prescriptivists do), She and other contributors make an effort to understand language as it actually works. They tell listeners where forms come from. They advise based on how language is actually used. They do sometimes fall back on usage guides. (See this article from a far more accomplished linguist than me to understand why “usage guides” are not held in high esteem by linguists.)

I had to listen for some time before I came to a full appreciation of the subtleties of her perspective, and I’m afraid I offered her one or two snarky tweets along the way (from my other Twitter account, @TimPhon).

I still don’t agree with everything she says, but I stay subscribed because I know there’s plenty that I can learn from her. And because the episodes are short and fun.

Anyway, here was one attempt to redeem my behaviour to her:

(Yes, someone has already pointed out my idiosyncratic spelling of “weird”. Thankyou.)

God and morality: beyond Euthyphro

2014/09/16

I am currently trying to deepen my understanding of the basic nature of morality. My main go-to for this investigation is philosophy. Yes, you can read that as “secular philosophy”, but only in the sense that I’m not presupposing any gods exist or play a part in morality. I’m not ruling them out either.

Many people (now and in times past) have thought that the existence of a god or gods was important to morality, and many people have pushed back on that idea. I’ve had a thought or two on that back-and-forth that I’d like to share.

I’ll start at the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato. It is a response to the claim that morality comes from God, and it has two prongs:

1. Is something moral because God commands it?

If so, then God could command the reverse and that would be moral. This goes against our intuitions. For example, rape is bad, whether God commands it or not. So this prong seems to fail.

2. Then does God command it because it is moral?

If so, then the morality of an act is logically prior to God’s command. God becomes the messenger of morality, but doesn’t really ground it. So this prong undermines God’s role in grounding morality.

That’s it.

In my experience, most atheists see the Euthyphro dilemma as fatal to the religious position that God grounds morality. I lean this way myself.

And, so far as I can tell, most theists disagree. (For samples of their responses, see Wikipedia, Stand To Reason, or CARM.) The best responses I’ve heard are along the lines of this: “Things are not moral because God commands them. Rather, their morality or immorality is derived from God’s very nature.”

I don’t know. On the one hand, this certainly avoids the first prong: morality doesn’t hang simply on God’s commands. But what about the second prong? I feel that one could restate the defense like so: “God’s nature partakes of the moral grounding, and so morality is fundamental to who God is.” So, while not temporally prior, the moral grounding is logically prior to or separate from God.

This response probably has holes in it too – I’ll leave that to more detail-oriented philosophers.

But, regardless of the nature of morality – objective, subjective, external, internal, whatever! – there is one thing an all-knowing God could help us with. They could share that understanding. They could say, “Actually, morality is fundamentally subjective. I’ve shared My top ten in this Holy Book, and I have a special prize for anyone who chooses the same morality as Me. But you know, take it or leave it. It’s not Ultimately better or worse.” Or, They could say, “I ground true morality, and it works like XYZ, and anyone who goes against it is Objectively Wrong.”

In other words, God could be a teacher.

So, while I’m not sure that gods’ existence has any material implication for the nature of morality, it would certainly have implications for our understanding of morality – if any god were inclined to communicate such things.

Based on this, and contrary to things I have thought and perhaps voiced in the past, I’d have to say that it would be nice if an all-knowing, good god existed.

So … why don’t I then look deeper into the morality of the Bible, or the Koran, or the Gita? Same reason as before: all the evidence suggests to me to point that these books came entirely from the minds of humans. And I have found better human expressions of morality elsewhere: more thoughtful, more humble, more true.

What would convince me that this ever-so-handy teacher-god existed, and was behind a particular work of moral philosophy? I don’t know. I suppose the appropriate kind of evidence would depend on the proposed traits of the god. But, as others have said before me, it is unlikely that a finite mind (like mine) could competently identify an infinite anything (which most modern conceptions of God are), so I don’t think there is any rational basis for me asserting to know that some perception of mine corresponds to an infinite being.

On the other hand, someone doesn’t have to be unboundedly good, knowledgeable, or powerful to be a valuable teacher. So even a more limited god might be handy to have around.

Still, I see no evidence even for that more modest, more comprehensible being.

Oh well. I guess I’ll have to carry on doing my best with what I’ve got.

 

Podcast review: The Atheist Experience

2014/09/13

The Atheist Experience is actually a public-access cable television show based in Austin, Texas. But if you’re just after podcasts, there is a regular podcast feed and an iTunes feed. They also have a blog on Freethought Blogs.

I listened to the Atheist Experience podcast for several years. It is an hour-long show that generally starts with a brief discussion between the hosts, followed by interaction with callers. Some of the callers are atheists asking advice; many are religious people wishing to argue or discuss points of disagreement. Some calls are very short; some take a large part of the show. The hosts have no control over who calls (though they can and do hang up on people who are clearly wasting their time).

It is a great listen, because the hosts are able to articulate responses quickly that address callers’ questions or comments. I have picked up some useful tips for such discussions listening.

Over time, it became a little repetetive for me. I knew how the hosts would respond to most callers. I wasn’t getting much more out of it personally, so I stopped listening. I may pick it up again – it is still a valuable resource for atheists and believers alike who want to hear a clear, quick articulation of atheist perspectives on various topics.

I think that new atheists and people looking for arguments and responses to arguments for belief could find this useful. I expect that most believers would find the abrupt style of certain hosts grating – though from my perspective I really can’t fault them for their approach.

Though I don’t currently listen, I think this is a superb resource and I recommend you check it out.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers