Thursday, September 30, 2010

Holy Guacamole!

An earth-like planet has been found in a solar system 20 light years away.  It's right smack-dab in the goldilocks zone (meaning it could easily have liquid water), is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and is about 50-80% the size of the earth.

This is amazing!  There could be life there!  Or we could colonize it!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Trouble with God's Laws

I have some major objections to the constant appeals to god that I encounter.

God is the only source of morality/value?
I am frequently told that without god, there is no objective morality or purpose in life.  I myself found that upon seriously doubting god's existence, I was floating without a compass, morally.  What is there, without god's "eternal law" or something equivalent, besides arbitrary values with no true rational basis?

However, upon further thought, I realize that I could no longer be satisfied even if I were convinced of god's existence once again.  I list a few possibilities:

1) God creates the law and all values through his divine will.  In this case, what he tells us to do is no less arbitrary than if we were to select our values on intuition, or at random.  If there is no possible rational justification for any system of ethics, what does god have to make his system any better?

2) God conveys and reinforces already existent eternal laws defining what is of value.  So god is the divine police constable, essentially, serving some higher master.  But what of this master?  A list of eternal laws that god subjects himself to is just god's god, is it not?  Why mess around with god in the first place, if he is a middle man?  And returning to the previous point, what justifies this greater force of law as anything other than arbitrary?

3) God is not concerned with morals so much as accomplishing some personal goals through our actions.  In this case, we are no better than slaves or an ant farm to god, to be used and abused as he sees fit.  He certainly lies when he expresses concern for our happiness or salvation if this is the case, just to get us to do what we want.
3a) "God can't lie?" you say?  Who told you?  God?  Let's review a few possibilities:
       -God must lie.  Then god will tell you "I cannot lie."
       -God can lie.  There is nothing stopping god from telling you either "I can" or "I cannot."
       -God cannot lie.  Then god will tell you "I cannot lie."
Is it not disturbing that "I cannot lie" is a possible response for any scenario, and a necessary one for most?  In addition, if god is incapable of lying, what of lies of omission?  If I shout to the sky "Hey, god, remain silent if you approve of my theft of this Ferrari," why is he not constrained to explicitly speak his will?  Anyone experienced with lies knows that the very best lies involve no explicitly untrue statements, but calculated omissions and strategic nonverbal cues.  Finally, if god cannot lie and we can, in what way exactly is he superior to us?  I thought omnipotence was arguably a fairly important trait of god's...

4) God is concerned only with our good and happiness, and tries to direct us toward such.  This is a subtler argument that nevertheless runs into my points discussed in possibilities 1 and 2.  Why does god value our happiness?  Is it an arbitrary whim, or some higher law?  And if some higher law, again I ask how this can possibly set our worries to rest, as we wonder the exact same things about this "meta-god."  Who is god to create us and give us the possibility of unhappiness, or a world in which unhappiness is possible?  And if anyone thinks "free will," just wait until my next post, when I will explain my objections to that questionable concept.

So, even if there really is a god who cares in the least about our actions, why do we care about this?  Fear of punishment?  Wow, real nice... We're rats subject to electric shocks.  My reaction if this is the case is that true courage would be to stand up to god's tyranny and assert my own individuality!  I'm no one's slave, and god can't make me be anything through any degree of carrot-and-stick, and if he wants his way, he'll have to persuade me like a reasonable person of the merits of his views.  If god is some cosmic terrorist, sending hurricanes, lightning, disease, and wrath upon those who don't do what he wants, he could at least be a little clearer on what his demands are, to the point where there wasn't so much confusion over morality in the world, even among his self-proclaimed "followers."

So, to anyone who would tell me that belief in god is the only way to have a firm moral grounding, I challenge you to explain to me precisely how god solves anything on the ethical front.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Few of the Typical Arguments

I was taught about "God," with a capital G.  He has various fatherly attributes, and we violate all standard rules of written and spoken English when we talk about Him (note the unorthodox capitalization of the pronoun), like referring to Him as "thee" and "thou," though these archaic pronouns were actually the informal versions of "you."  The justification for this is to show respect for God by using language like that found in the King James translation of the Bible, namely antiquated English.  The apparent inconsistency of this doctrine is ignored, as is the apparent lack of required unorthodox grammar in conjunction with the reference to God in many other languages.

I was taught about God, but when I write about a "creator" or "supreme being" or "first cause" as a concept, I will use the orthodox English capitalization to refer to "god."  I wonder why I do this; I believe it is out of a rebellious feeling toward the religion of my childhood and a desire to reject apparently arbitrary rules of worship with no justification beyond tradition.  It might, however, be out of some fear of God, the God of my childhood who I still superstitiously cower before in my subconcious mind.  To refer to god, the lower-case, version, is intellectual and not a direct attack on the vindictive being at whose wrath I may still feel irrational terror.

I have thought at some length on the arguments posited by religious (particularly Christian) apologists.  I thought I would post some thoughts I had typed up a few weeks ago about a few of these.

Argument from complexity:
This line of reasoning argues the extreme improbability of the spontaneous existence of life, which is inarguably complex.  Many appeals to currently-accepted chemistry are made, and much abuse of the laws of thermodynamics takes place.  The existence of life is held up as proof of the extreme likelyhood of the existence of god.
The first problem with this argument is that it solves no problems.  However unlikely the existence of life, god and his tools would have to be at least as complex as life itself in order to "intelligently design" such a complex system from the top down.  To assume the spontaneous existence of god flies in the face of probability as much as the assumption that life spontaneosly came to be through the unlikely development of complexity.
Another problem with this argument is our lack of understanding of the universe; after all, the accepted age of the universe has been modified multiple times in the last century alone.  Some models of the universe assume the existence of a universe that collapsed before the Big Bang, and this could extend back indefinitely.  Given a potentially infinite (for all practical purposes) span of time, the probability of any possible event occuring approaches 100%.  Therefore, there are conceivable models of the universe in which the existence of life is inevitable.

Argument from beauty:
This is an argument that appeals to the aesthetic beauty of the universe.  The stars, the planets, the trees and flowers, etcetra, all point to a divine artist, an intelligence who shares our love of beauty.
This argument appeals to very little that is logical; "beauty" is not a measurable quality, and is subjective.  There might well be perfectly rational people who see so beauty whatsoever in the universe; the argument would have absolutely no effect on even the most open-minded of these individuals.  Unless the human race can come to a concensus on what is beautiful and why, there in no need for further argument.

Argument from desire;
The is one of C.S. Lewis' pet philosophies; we desire to know god, and therefore it is logical to assume that he exists, much as food exists in conjunction with our desire known as hunger, and water exists to satisfy thirst.  This is often referred to as the "god-shaped hole" in our hearts, our lives, etc.
While somewhat compelling, this argument holds no proverbial water.  Many evolutionary psychologists have devised hypotheses to explain the human tendency to seek after gods that are at least as satisfactory as the above theory.  Other desires are almost universal to humanity, for example the desire to use supernatural powers for personal gain.  Most cultures have some sort of magic or belief in psychic powers, yet science has repeatedly discredited the various purported powers of psychics, magicians, witch doctors, and the like.

Religious experience:
Religious experiences are personal, often euphoric exteriences that convince an individual that a particular religion, along with its stance on god, is true.  The take many forms, including apparent answers to prayer, various forms of babbling in "tongues," shaking and lurching, feelings of peace, and the coincidence of religious practice with fortuitous events.
The first problem with this argument is that anyone who has failed to have a convincing experience is expected to completely rely on the accounts of others who have had these experienced.  The expectation is that every person must spend their life, if necessary, trying to have this experience. In any other situation, all sane individuals would agree that multiple fruitless attempts at the same goal by the same method would indicate that a new course of action would be advisable.  With religious experiences, however, individuals are expected to try the same things over and over until they die.
Another major problem with religious experiences is the existence of many mutually-exclusive religions.  Any given religion teaches, either directly or indirectly, that most (if not all) other religions are mistaken.  Even a religion that purports to accept "multiple roads to truth" is in this very point of doctrine at odds with most of the world's religions, and therefore cannot be true without most others being false.  In having a religious experience that convinces one to adhere to a particular religion as "correct," an individual is effectively denying the validity of a majority of other religious experiences (since no religious sect constitutes a majority of religious people).  However, if one is so willing to dissmiss most of the religious experiences of others, what lends validity or credibility to one's own religious experience?
These arguments do not invalidate all religious experiences, but do encourage the earnest seeker of truth to approach such experiences with a degree of skepticism.  It is up to the individual to test this particular phenomenon for his or her self.

Unexplainable occurences are often used to justify the existence of god.  Notable to me are the miracles of Jesus, who according to the New Testament changed water to wine, healed the chronically ill, produced food from nothing, raised the dead, and finally conquered death himself.  Often, the existence of multiple accounts (like the four canonical gospels) is used to lend credibility to these miracles.
The very same people who accept ancient miracles, however, might be very skeptical of newer miracles.  If four formerly obscure journalists, followers of a recently murdered religous reformer named Chris, suddenly started publishing accounts of how "Chris lives!" and how they and others (unavailable for comment) had seen him in various private appearances, how many would believe?  Some, undoubtedly, including the typical cult fanatics.  But how likely would you consider it that these four friends did not collude to write their stories together consistently, conspire to secretly exhume the body of their leader to lend tenuous credibility to their incredible stories, and retroactively invent Chris' miracles?  The traditional martyrdom of any of these dubious witnesses is not particularly helpful, cult suicides happen even today, as well as martyrdoms, in religions that afterwards fizzle out (or are all dead because everyone drank poisoned kool-aid).

This list is in no way meant to be exhaustive, of course, and I have not been logically rigorous to the point of ending all possibility of debate, but I think my reasoning seems sound in regard to each of these points...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Small World

I like to read blogs and stories of other LDS individuals who have questioned or lost their faith.  I feel a bit less alone and I like to know a little bit of what to expect in the next couple of years while I decide what to do in relation to my church activity.

Tonight, I was reading
I felt like I really understood a lot of what he was talking about.  Here is a man who is honest with himself, a family man who wants the best for his wife and kids, but still wants to live how he believes.  I thought I'd like to talk to a guy like this, as I am concerned about how my lack of faith will affect my wife and any children we have.
Anyway, as I read, things got more and more familiar.  The schooling, the dates, his mention of his children...
It couldn't be Rob...  I looked at the name in his profile.  Rob.

He's my sister's husband.
I knew he'd had doubts and stopped attending church (gossip spreads fast in big mormon families, no doubt my extended family has heard about my apostate thoughts, as I've mentioned them to my parents and sister.  I'm sure they pray fervently for my return to the light).

I've been meaning to call him up and talk to him sometime, and tomorrow I think I will.  It's nice to hear his side of the story, because when I heard about it from family members it was as if it was this huge calamity, and even though they didn't say it, there was an unspoken feeling of "what could have gone wrong?"
And Rob, if you ever read this, know that everyone still speaks of you with the highest regard, so don't take that the wrong way.  I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, though, because I myself am already occasionally subject to patronizing lectures from my parents.  I know it is all out of love, concern, etc..

Calming Down

For a while, I was convinced that I couldn't stand going to church for another year in order to stay in school.  I'm a member of the LDS church, living in Utah, at BYU.  Not the best place to be an agnostic or atheist.

However, lately I've calmed down some.  I don't like church, it feels uncomfortable to me.  I still read my scriptures and pray every single day, but all I seem to do is analyze what I read and feel and conclude more and more that everything I was brought up to believe is just not that likely.

Still, I'm feeling better.  My wife is wonderful and accepting of me, and I know she'll stay with me even if I don't end up in the church.  My mother told me recently while I chatted with her on the phone that she thinks I am being prideful, and that I want god to be and do things my way.  I thought she might be right...
That week, we had Stake Conference, which in this case was a televised broadcast of leaders of the church speaking specifically to members in and around Utah Valley.  My attitude was not great, and my wife was at work.  Eventually, during the last talk, I decided I was getting nowhere by listening skeptically to a mostly-harmless old man tell boring stories.  I left early and determined to climb up a mountain and try to talk to god, or whatever might be listening.
I went home and changed and then drove up to Squaw Peak.  I had to hike a ways to get away from the Sunday afternoon frolickers who were thickly packed into the few hundred yards nearest the parking lot.  I found a spot in the woods a ways from the trail that looks over the valley (pretty, if a little smoggy).  I sat down and thought and just started talking to god, or whoever.
I talked and talked and really talked a lot about my life.  Taking inventory of my feelings occasionally, I never got the impression I was actually being listened to, answered, or was anything but alone.  However, the experience was not entirely negative; I felt better after the hour or so I spent up there just discussing my life with myself, if no one else.  I guess it is good for my peace of mind and emotional stability to occasionally take time to take a detailed, humble inventory of my life and thoughts.

So... I still don't really believe in god, but I guess I have some sort of "spiritual" side that needs attention.  Not that I really believe in any immaterial component to myself... but I have recently admitted that emotions and irrational needs are never something I can escape from or completely suppress.

Also, recently, I have been more open about my thoughts and feelings with my cohorts at school, and I am surprised at how accepted I have felt.  Not that I attack the faith of my friends, I think they are free to believe whatever seems best to them, but I can talk about little concerns I have, little philosophical quandaries I encounter, etc.  I still get answers like "Well, Joseph Smith said...,"  but I think I can handle it.  As long as I can talk a little bit about what I think, I'm not so frustratingly alone all the time.