Philosophy


If no one can prove that God exists, then how can God can be the ultimate authority? When the occurrences that could be called “Divine Retribution” fall equally on the “evil” and the “innocent” it appears that the only authority of “God” is the fatwa, the inquisition and the burning at the stake. “Acts of God” rain indiscriminately on humans. Theologians cherry pick and memorialize the cases supporting their view and suppress the instances where the innocent are struck by brimstone or the nasty guy gets ahead.

The font of morality comes from a successful human species. What works for a society is good. What is bad for human society is in the long run, rooted out of both the genome and the society. A fixed (over tens of generations) morality is no more than a fable. The rules of acceptable behavior (morals) of the middle ages are wildly different from modern western society. Huckleberry Finn thought he would go to hell because he helped the slave Jim escape. Infanticide was the solution to deformity 100 years ago in Oceania. Jesus was crucified because he because he claimed to be the Son of God. It is no longer permissible for Catholic priests to molest children.

So much for rules: Perhaps more important, altruism is a trait which has been selected by natural selection. It does not mean that the trait is universal, but that it is prevalent in the population. Its value comes from societial benefit. Societies will usually reward altruism and shun sociopathy in its members. I know that there are scientists who argue against group selection, but there is enough evidence for it that it should be permitted as a working hypothesis

Religion and the supernatural have recorded some rules of behavior (morality) which are clearly evil. (Slavery, sexual slavery, ethnic cleansing, intent to commit filicide (human sacrifice of a son), killing of war prisoners – just in the Bible – we can find lots more in the Quran and Talmud, and that is just the Abrahamic religions).

Religion has instigated many of the worst evils on the world (9-11, the Cathars, Kosovo, Sikh pogroms, the Thirty Years War, the Crusades, Witch burning, the Inquisition, the Lebanese Civil War, the Irish Troubles etc.) all because “God told them to do it!” The fact that the Nazis and the KKK are Christian organizations has been repressed.

When a society shows children the acceptable rules of behavior for its members – that is where morals come from. Some old books serve only as props and justifications for parents and leaders who are unwilling to take the effort to search out what is important for themselves. Hewing to a tradition is easier than rational analysis. Tradition brings a stability that damps out sudden changes which may have unintended consequences. Unfortunately, religion becomes ossified – particularly when it tries to apply tribal Bronze Age morals to global Information Age life.

Religion has no guidance for morals beyond the tribe, no guidance for technologies that can wipe humankind off the globe and change the nature of what it is to be human, such as radically extended lifespan, cloning, cyborgs, gene modification, artificial life, enhanced consciousness, human actions which effect the entire world, multinational corporations, monoculture food, global climate change, WMD.

Just as important, Religion is especially blind on how to interact morally with people and sentient animals who are very different from ourselves. When the extent of a person’s actions never extended beyond ten kilometers Bronze age guidelines were OK. When the president can blow North Korea or Iran off the face of the earth with a pushbutton, we need a revision of morality – one that can be shared among all peoples. One that does not murder abortioners, stone rape victims, exterminate whales, hang homosexuals, blow up Buddhas or burn witches.

Thomas Jefferson prepared his own “New Testament” bible by pasting the words and story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth by razor cutting from a King James Bible and his personal translations from Greek.  The “Jefferson Bible” is  a chronological amalgam of the four New Testament  books.  His first attempt to extract the philosophy in a less successful work The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth which he edited in 1804.  It appears that this first forty three page pasted book does not survive.

In the winter of 1816-1817 he produced a handsome morocco-bound volume, labeled on the back, `Morals of Jesus,’ which contained parallel texts in four languages.  This book is held by the National Museum, and 9000 copies were produced for the Congress.  Jefferson kept the book a secret from the public during his lifetime, but reportedly read from it each night before retiring.

Jefferson said his task was:

“… extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense.”

The original bound manuscript is held by the US National Museum in Washington,   The actual manuscript has been scanned and can be viewed online, with the Greek and Roman next to the English King James excerpt.  Its age and old fashoned printing make this great as a reference, but hard to use to just read.

VATICAN CITY, Holy Thursday – Watching the pilgrims arrive for Holy Week, queuing through the metal detectors at the ends of the arms of St. Peter’s Square, I feel like a teenager watching the little kids line up for Santa Claus. It is remarkable how we are willing to cast aside the sweet myth of Santa, for the reality that it is the sure love of our parents that provide gifts and good cheer, yet the myth of religion clings with most of us until death.

So many are unable to cast off the myth of religion – perhaps the stakes are too high, or unlike the Santa myth, our parents believed their entire lives. We, as a race, need to recognize that the bounty that we enjoy springs not from some supernatural entity, but from our spaceship Earth. We are simply one organic part of it. The value of our lives depends on how good a tenant we are: Our contribution to human society, to good stewardship of Earth, and to posterity are all measures of that tenancy.

Religion serves to unify a group. The godhead set down rules for life, and everyone in the group recognizes that following or breaking them has consequences – multiplied by the concept of an eternal afterlife. The problem with this is that religion causes an us / them organization of thought. For example, the Ten Commandments were meant as rules for behavior between the tribes of Israel, and had no force with respect to other tribes. It was fine to rape or plunder the Philistines.

Religion ossifies rules. Leviticus held the best rules known at the time for Bronze Age Man. Don’t eat cloven hoofed animals, you will get trichinosis; you are unclean until dark if you handle roadkill, since you have no “sanitizing wipes”; two men should not lay with one woman, we won’t know the father; etc. These made excellent sense at the time and place. The problem is that there is no mechanism for editing to add new guides and remove irrelevant ones or ones whose purpose is no longer valid, such as “go forth and multiply” when we have already done that and the Earth’s population is burgeoning.

Even when religion comes from a single source, such as the Abrahamic faiths, there arouse differences that not only separate peoples, but cause great strife and bloodshed. Muslim, Judaism and Christianity all share the same roots, but have seen terrible bloodshed in the name of God. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Caliphate conquests, the Ottoman wars, the Papal wars all were driven by religion. Recent conflicts such as that between Israel and the Palestinians, the Irish troubles, and Serbia vs Bosnia and Herzegovnia, and Kosovo are all driven by religion as well. Even within a single faith Shiite vs Sunni, Catholicism vs Protestantism the power struggles divide peoples.

With a death in my family only last night, I see how the myth of “life after death” holds a powerful claim on our beliefs. Not only is it packages of toys we are talking about, but the continuation of “MEness” contained in our sentience after death is at stake. This is a powerful question.

Don’t we surrender sentience daily in sleep? How is sentience to return after death if it has been lost in the dementia of Alzheimer’s? Do we not leave bits of ourselves in everything we do, particularly everything we teach? Are not my thoughts borrowed by everyone who reads these words? Is not the sum of a life the totality of what that person has done, and its effect on the world and humanity? Perhaps this is the true meaning of the final judgement, and not some standing before a god, but simply a clear understanding of that tally.

No promise of dancing with angels before god holds sway with me. It is inconceivable to me that so many people hold this myth firmly based only on wishful thinking and some verses in a book sustaining it. I suppose the same could be said about Ptolomy’s celestial spheres, yet people believed them for years after Copernicus and Gallileo showed them to be false.

I for one, am content with the idea that my sentience, that I hold most preciously, will most likely fade at my death or before. I measure its purpose by the good I do, and by my failures, using as a measure the best information on the “right course” I can find. This, I believe is a successful and fulfilling life plan, sans any need for supernatural interference. I will go to my final sleep knowing the good and bad I have accomplished will weigh the scales on how much of that life was used well and how much wasted. Those scales are mine, not of some supernatural being, and free of obsession will show the truth.

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, a collection of notes made towards the end of his life, that when making a life wager on the existence of God, belief in God is the best bet.  This is known as Pascal’s Wager.  Using the first formally structured decision theory and probability theory Pascal started from the proposition that reason and experiment cannot establish the existence or non-existence of God.  He developed the proposal that no matter the state of existence of God, it was a better bet to behave as though there was one.  In his other writings, Pascal expressed his belief that in comparison to other options, like stoicism, paganism, Islam, and Judaism,  the Christian faith is the only one that could be correct.  A corollary of Pascal’s thesis is “If it is impossible to know whether God exists, it follows that it is also impossible to know (in the case that God does exist) God’s expectations of us.” This corollary makes Pascal’s belief in the correctness of Christianity unsupported by his own logic.

Pascal’s wager has been attacked and defended by philosophers over the ages,  Voltare – treatied it as a proof, as opposed to a pragmatic analysis.  Denis Diderot, and J. L. Mackie point out that the same argument could be said about any religion, many of which each claim to be the only true path to salvation.  Richard Dawkins further challenges the scope of outcomes by proposing the possibility of a God who rewards honest search for truth, and punishes blind faith.  You see, taking these refinements into consideration, the decision matrix no longer supports Pascal’s clear odds.

My contribution to this discussion is to show that there is a third choice.  When the decision matrix is evaluated with my “third way”, it can be seen that this is the only sure bet.

Pascal’s original wager can be shown in a formal presentation as:

God exists (G) God does not exist (~G)
Living as if God exists (B) +∞ (heaven) −N (Pointless actions during life)
Living as if God does not exist (~B) ?? not specified
perhaps N (limbo/purgatory/spiritual death)
or −∞ (hell)
+N (none)

(more…)

Detail of the Pool of Knowledge by Ian Muttoo

Detail of the Pool of Knowledge by Ian Muttoo

John Locke in Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) states that everything we know is from experience.  He identifies two fountains of all knowledge – “the observation of external sensible objects”, and ” the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves.”  As a society, we extend the personal experience by reporting the fact of occurrences upon sensible objects such as news of events, scientific reporting, TV, Radio, The National Enquirer, gossip, blogging, etc.  We also report the results of the internal operations of our minds, such as sermons, fiction, soap operas, symphonies, publications like Relativity, the Special and General Theory, and The Communist Manifesto.

Each of the sources of community experience comes with its own imprimatur and detractors.  The New York Times reporting is considered very factual by many, but political conservatives consider it to be “just a liberal rag”.  Those same folks believe that Fox News is “fair and balanced” while liberals decry it as “a conservative propaganda house”.

Educators have instructed their students to use “standard references” because internet sources like Wikipedia are not vetted by experts, and can contain information which is biased or conjectural.  Using internet sources other than institutional ones, like cdc.gov, census.gov and redcross.org is verboten.

I believe that the orientation to “standard references” in K-12 education is fatally flawed.  Much more important than factual accuracy in eighth grade reports is learning the skills to find and sift the truth in a information environment filled with spin and distortion. (more…)

Numbers are tough to learn as a child.  One, two – many.  That is how you first see the world, and as how lots of other mammals and birds see the world.  Then you learn the numbers and the idea of counting, then connecting the idea that you can count a large number of individual things which makes the number of things.  It might seem that we understand numbers as adults, but unfortunately we cannot easily deal with large numbers. Remember poor Carl Sagan with his “Billions and Billions” of stars, atoms, lightyears or whatever else he was talking about. – We had no clue how many suns, galaxies, base pairs, cells or light years he meant, just that it was a lot.

The goal of this site it to open minds. These are days of change, and the changes should be guided by fact and thoughtful consideration.

Please join in to illuminate the information found here. This is my site, and I want to hear opposing views. Two rules: All posts must be respectful of others and their opinions. No false witness – facts stated here must be true to the best of knowledge of the writer.

Flatland (Illustrated Edition)

This is a seminal little book. Edwin A. Abbott‘s Flatlands, A Romance in Many Dimensions is what allows thousands of us to be able to visualize higher dimensions.
Flatlands is the story of a two dimensional person who has become aware of the existence of three dimensions.  He tells us, from a two dimensional perspective all about his world – its features, science, society, social classes, intriques.

What the story achieves within the first few chapters is to expose us three dimensional beings to what it means to live in a world constrained by the dimensions we inhabit. He lives in two and has learned about three.  We live in three dimensions universe and can be be aware of four or more additional dimensions by extrapolation.

For many, this is a difficult task – even with my hands free I cannot describe a four dimensional square, or tessaract.  Abbott has done this in an easy reading romp through our two dimensional friend’s world.

The world he describes is bizarre but understandable.  The first several chapters set up a framework to visualize higher dimensions, and these chapters should be required reading for every student planning to study solid geometry.

Abbott explores, in a matter of fact way, the social structure of his flat world.  Our flatlander friend’s description and opinions about his society also provide a framework for thinking about the society of our world – by extrapolation.  To understand this concept it is necessary to read the entire short book.  I am sure that his intention was to show that his flatlander’s class structure was just as arbitrary as Victorian society.

Earthrise over MoonscapeWe all have a personal reality, shared throughout society, more or less.

God
I was discussing the basis of religion with a friend at a party. He is a serious theologian and a born again Christian. When the subject of existence of God came up, my friend said that the best argument was made by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his “The Five Ways”. I decided that it is best to go to the source and evaluate it.

St. Thomas was a pretty good logician, but the unscientific and erroneous beliefs held in his time makes many of his conclusions irrelevant now that we know the universe better. St. Thomas used the knowledge of the ancients, mainly that of of Aristotle to form his worldview. He did not have the benefit of modern science. The discoveries of DesCartes, Bacon, Newton, Einstein and other modern thinkers and experimenters had not been made.

One of St. Thomas’ most important theses in Summa Theologica is The Five Ways – considered by some as a conclusive proof of the existence of God. (more…)

Next Page »