Monday, 31 March 2008

Spirituality needs no God or religion

John Remy
John Remy at Mind on Fire is one of those atheists who don't deny their religious history. John puts it this way, calling himself an "Atheist-Quaker and secular humanist, cultural Shinto-Buddhist-Christian, and former Mormon." Wow, thats sort of a lot more religious background than I can claim for myself. It seems that his position is quite similar to mine when it comes to coexistence between believers and non-believers. He is assisted by co-blogger xJane.

John is host of the Humanist Symposium #17, the carnival that probably fits best the fundamentals of Free Thinking Joy. This edition presents a bunch of nine great posts on amazingness, honey and vinegar (the ingredients of Peking duck marinade), hidden freethinking power, teaching the controversy, lunching with believers, justice, and emotional truth. Every single post is a must read.

I added Mind on Fire to my blogroll today.

Friday, 28 March 2008

What a wonderful day!

It has been a wonderful jog this morning, with sun rays bursting through the trees in a crystal clear cold air. I enjoyed it, and when a straight piece of forest road was ahead, I sped up my pace a bit, and - ouch! A nasty chest pain, radiating to my left shoulder. Just this kind of symptom known as warning sign for a heart attack. My last medical checkup is nearly ten years back. My heart has been okay then, but who knows what may have happened meanwhile?

I slowed down to a walk immediately. All of a sudden, the wonderful morning sun appeared kind of differently to me. Not that I really feared of suffering from a heart attack. But the possibility came to my mind, and I remembered all these guys I heard of having died suddenly, even after a visit to the doctor where nothing has been found.

I mused about what if this were my last morning jog ever. I tried to intensify the carpe diem feeling. But I came to the conclusion that there are limits, partly because of my own limited capacity of intensity, and partly because I did not really guess that I had a heart attack.

I also came to sort of a quiet feeling in view of the inevitable and final fate, as it would be in the worst case. Struggle? Despair? Regret? All would lead to nothing, wouldn't change anything. The only reasonable way would be enjoying the last moments in the sun.

After walking home and taking a shower and breakfast, I called my doctor (what I had planned anyway) and got an appointment later this morning. He made an auscultation, a blood troponine check, an ECG, and a thorax X-ray. Result: All! Is! Ooo-Kay! What a really, really wonderful day!

Photo credit:

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the joy of freethought?
The positive primordial feeling of using our own brain on the so-called last questions before it has been replaced by imposed religious beliefs, and after it has been regained by deconversion. A view that emphasizes the good sides of living with a free mind as opposed to attacking bad sides of religion.

Dare it? Is it dangerous?
No. At least not more dangerous than religion. But for most adherers, religion implies a big value which will cause fear of loss if threatened. Only a shift of view will show that the real values of religion will not be lost, and that the gain of freethought will exceed a possible loss by far.

Do it? Do you want to proselytize?
Not quite. Rather encourage. I have the impression that many out there are not really comfortable with their religion. Instead of living it in a compromised, undecided way, they could be happier with undogmatic freethought and a full commitment to a secular humanism. But for all those who are happy with their religion, it might be better to stay with it.

Do you hate Christianity?
No. I have just grown out of it, and I still appreciate its content that is relevant to humanism, and I admire the great cultural achievements such as the music of Bach. I am also comfortable with my first name and with the reasons of my dad to choose it for me. The spiritual world in which I have grown up is and will forever be part of my life, and I do not deny this part of my personal history.

Are you an atheist?
This question may be less important than you may think, but yes. At least at the moment. Freethought is a thinking mode, not a belief, and for a freethinker every belief is subject to a possible change. But it is not very likely that I'll come again to believe in a personal God who has planned my life and who does guide it.

Do you believe in a soul?
Yes, but not in one that is separate from my brain and that has existed before my brain and will exist after my brain has disappeared. The soul is a function or phenomenon of the brain, and this is not meant as a depreciation but, on the contrary, as admiration and awe of natural wonder.

So you do not believe in afterlife?
No. I did not exist before I have been conceived, and I'll return to this same state after my death. But, due to my life, the world has changed its state - see also my remarks on butterfly effect. I think that the finite duration of life, as opposed to a supposed endless duration, adds more value to it. When there is no life after death, life before death becomes more important and precious.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Why I respect beliefs that are not mine

Disrespect of others' beliefs seems to be common in the blogosphere. Even more, there has been some reasoning recently (see links at the bottom) to justify such a stance. I do not agree, and I have missed two points in the discussion so far. Firstly, respect only makes sense if both sides disagree in their views. Secondly, I can only expect to be respected if I am ready to respect others.

As a passionate chess player I have learnt that mutual respect in a situation of extreme disagreement is a vital part of this game. And I don't see why this concept should not be used in philosophic dispute as well.

One important point is the fact that a player who disrespects his opponent may still win but probably will not play his best chess. Most strong players always assume the strongest replies to their moves, even against weaker opponents and even if they doubt whether the opponent would find the strongest reply. Applying this principle to online disputes, I think that it is cheap to attack the weakest points of the opponent, and that it is much more rewarding to look for the strongest points and attack these.

Respect and disagreement

If someone shares my view, there is no need at all for respect. Why? Because there is no conflict. Even in the case of self-respect, a conflict is required. There are two situations where self-respect is of vital importance: Being attacked by others or being "attacked" by an inner conflict, for instance by doubts about the own value. Thus, the function of respect is handling of conflicts, and in the absence of a conflict there is no need for it.

Self-respect and self-esteem are often used as synonyms. But I think my point is exactly about the difference between them. I think that conflict makes the difference. There is a basic feeling of well-being that can be described as self-esteem. If it is still held up in a conflict situation, the same feeling may be called self-respect. But I think that conflict adds a different flavour.

My own beliefs are a matter of self-esteem as long as they are not challenged. In a dispute, they become a matter of self-respect.

Respect is no form of agreement

As a consequence, I also reject the idea that a belief deserves more respect if it is close to mine, or if it is more likely to be "true", or if it is shared by a lot of people, or if books have been written about it, or the like. What I reject in particular is the idea that respect is a somewhat weaker form of agreement.

I respect people who believe in God. I respect them as persons, which never has been disputed in the posts that I have come across. But I also respect their belief as such. I do not share it. But I respect that it is up to every person to set up a system of belief to live with, and that for some people this may be a belief in God or gods.

In turn, I also expect theists to respect my atheism, in particular, that I have my good reasons not to believe in God or gods, and that for me, such a view is best for coping with the ultimate questions of life, moral, and death.

Mutual respect is a matter of the Golden Rule: Respect others as you would like to be respected by others.

The limits of respect

One major reason not to respect a belief is one that disrespects my own belief. Tit for tat. You respect my belief, I'll respect yours. You disrespect my belief, I'll disrespect yours. That is, not the whole content but only the part involved with disrespect. But this may be difficult because it would imply a dialogue or dispute, and disrespect is a dispute killer in most cases.

The problem with mutual disrespect is that both sides, usually, only see the disrespect on the other side. A disrespectful response seems to be justified, then. But it may not be easy to figure out who has started the disrespect war.

Another problem is the anonymity of the web which does not favour a polite, fair dispute but facilitates disrespect and ad hominem attacks.

Besides violation of the Golden Rule, there is only one reason for me to deny respect: violation of human rights and threatening humanism in a wide sense. But I guess that all these are just special cases of violating the Golden Rule.

Other views

There is much more to be said about the matter, and others have done so in a better way than I possibly could, so I just try to review what I have found.

Simon Blackburn's paper Religion and Respect (PDF) has been published in 2005 already, but has gained new attention recently. It comes to the conclusion that respect is a case of true or false, rational or irrational, close to my own or far from my own belief.

Lindsey, at regardant les nuages, interestingly, has been convinced by Blackburn, counter-intuitively, to respect beliefs that she does not share. Lindsey is a theist and does respect atheists as far as they are ready to respect her theism. She says: "It is because of our fallibility that we should respect opposing beliefs held by others."

Chris, at Mixing Memory, says that it is important how someone comes to a belief. The reasons, and also the consequences of such beliefs are important when it comes to respect. I agree. I'll never respect a belief that implies bad, inhuman behaviour.

The Uncredible Hallq, at the group blog God is for Suckers, (no wonder) argues against respect, stating that truth is what counts, but missing the point that for different people, different truths exist, and that there is no (God-like) instance that may tell us which one is really true.

Harry, at Crooked Timber, just points out this uncertainty about truth, stating that "there is a gap between certainty of one’s own infallibility and very-close-to-certainty that one is right, and that gap is what makes respect possible".

Richard, at Philosophy et cetera, agrees to respect a belief only in so far as it is reasonable. While most religions are based on irrational assumptions, he also admits that he would respect a reasonably mistaken deist more than an atheist who is so without a good reason.

Brandon, at Siris, in addition to reasonability, also sees the beauty of content respect-worthy. This is not exactly what I would say, I rather would take respect as the default position and look for cases of disrespect. Brandon gives links to a number of other posts.

Photo credit:

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Feeling more mortal these days

This has not been a normal week, because three persons have died, with two of them I have been on hugging terms, and with one on handshake terms.

It is sad, and it is final, and with every one of these three men, a whole world has disappeared. They have disappeared to non-existence, but their traces remain, and they have changed the world forever.

Two died from an aggressive disease, one only three years and the other twenty-one years older than me. One died from old age, three years older than my statistical life expectancy. I knew it already, but this last week leaves no doubt about the fact that the black area in the graphic of my life is black because it is completely unknown. It might well be as small as one pixel.

One of the obituary notices began with "Carpe diem" (seize the day), and I tried to figure out how I would live this very day if I knew that it would be my last one. Frankly, I am not yet ready. I don't think that we can live every day of life as if it were our last. Just because such an intensity would be very exhausting. I also doubt that the imagination of a last day can produce the same feeling as really knowing that it is the last day.

Anyway, on my usual morning jog, it came to my mind that, some years ago, I had used a pulse meter to monitor my fitness level, and that I do not use such a device any more, and that its use on a hypothetical last day of my life would be very, very absurd. Instead, while jogging, I try to reach a state of flow which cannot be achieved when out of breath.

By the way, my breath seems to have got a bit shorter recently, and I have some unpleasant feeling in the upper left part of my trunk. I am not sure how come. Could it be sort of mortal empathy, powered by the awareness that death may come very quickly? One of the deceased, on our last encounter, had looked at least as healthy as I do. It may as well be my rusty muscles, so I have started with some very basic arm and shoulder gymnastics yesterday. Today, I feel better, fortunately. But I think I should go for a medical checkup after the Easter holidays.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Collector of freethinker videos

Robert McNally
Robert McNally, over at Ironwolf, is a software programmer, boundary explorer, juggler, and a prolific collector of freethinker videos. I found some very good embedded stuff on his blog. Plus his reasoning for atheism is quite similar to mine, as far as I can tell from the posts I've seen so far. That's why I added him to my blogroll today.

Besides collecting videos, he also debunks false prophets and writes about philosophy and many other issues.

Here's an example I like so much that I decided to repost it here. It is about the fact that evolution is not atheism, the first of a series about the Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism.

This fits exactly my view about false mental ties where I stated that:
  • Being religious is not being good.
  • Being religious is not living a meaningful life.
  • Religion is not always helpful in coping.
  • Mind outside of matter is not necessary for free will.
  • Existence of God is not existence of afterlife.

Robert is host of the Carnival of the Godless #87, categorized and summarized, about books, Christians, debate, faith, history, morality, personal journeys, politics, science, and the supernatural.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

A double-edged word of comfort

peace dove
Yesterday, at a funeral service, a word of comfort has provoked some thoughts. "He entered the house of peace", said the priest. There is much truth in this picture, but also much potential of horrible misconceptions. It is very double-edged, this word of comfort.

It may have soothed the grief of the widow and her children and grandchildren, because nobody can deny that peace has many positive connotations. Peace is the absence of struggle, but struggle is a part of life, and life is the most precious gift we have. Peace, it seems, is a word with a very broad spectrum of meanings, and not all of them are positive.

When death is the end of struggle against a painful disease, such a word about peace has its merits of comfort. It's fine this way, and I have nothing to say against it. But the "house of peace" makes me feel uncomfortable. It is pushing the idea too far. House of peace sounds too positive in my ears.

Of course, the issue of afterlife has been omnipresent in the funeral service. But I did not spend much thought about this irreal idea but put my focus on the real things. In the comforting word, two very real things meet: death and peace. More precisely, selling death as peace.

As said before, death may also have positive aspects when it ends a period of suffering without any hope of cure. And this one has been such a case.

But what I dislike in the "house of peace" is the idea of a positive value other than the end of suffering and pain. It sounds like a "better world than ours". For a reality-bound mind like me, the idea that death equals peace, and death is not life, and peace is positive, all this leads me to the conclusion that this word of comfort, in trying to make death more acceptable, takes away some value from life. And this is exactly the opposite of how I see these things.

Much worse! The clergy meets terrorism in this aspect, without bad will, of course. But good will of some people may have the same bad consequences as bad will of other people. Terrorists, too, are ready to equal death and peace. Needless to say that they mean the death of their enemies. Remember that "peacemaker" is a Wild West slang word for a gun? And every protester-killing terror regime will contend that they have "made peace". Using death and peace as synonyms can be very tricky and dangerous.

Photo credit:

Monday, 17 March 2008

Graphic view of a day in my life

day in my life

I am about to leave for a funeral in Geneva. So it may be appropriate to post a small memento mori in a graphical format. The whole area is my statistical life expectancy. The upper greenish area shows the time I have lived. The lower black area is the time that remains until my expected death. The one little bright green spot of 2x2 pixels depicts this very day of my life.

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Genesis of Skeptics' Circle

Genesis is a great piece of narrative when it comes to describing something that has been created. For the Universe, it is very unlikely to fit, but Skeptics' Circle, this is for sure, has been created. And Bing McGhandi, the hypnotoad, tells us what happened in the very beginning. And his version of the Genesis definitely has more drive than its biblical model, because he lets jackrabbits do their multiplying work and proceeds right to the 82nd edition, which he presents in a very elegant and creative way. In search for hints whether this is his usual writing style, I came across that he teaches writing at a university. Aha.

Whenever I find unusual blog names, I try to figure out how come and what may be their meaning. This one is quite a bit of a puzzle. Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes. Hmmm. As we have no pancake chain here in Switzerland, I must resort to Google and of course it tells me a bit of the story: Come hungry, leave happy. So it's me, the reader, who is supposed to be happy with this blog. And who is not happy when his post has been included!

Jihad also makes sense, meaning war meets religion, or religion meets war. And Bing is a lionhearted fighter against ignorance, woo, superstition and other dangerous mental states. And, unlike the real jihadis, he won't sacrifice himself. We are too few. Every one of us is needed. Take care, and go ahead, Bing!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

One-sided blindness of Muslim leaders

A conference of the world's 57 islamic countries has put Switzerland on a black list of the most islamophobic countries, together with Denmark (Mohammed cartoons), the Netherlands (Koran-critic film), and Austria (anti-islamic statements of a far-right party). The reason against Switzerland is a popular initiative for a minaret ban, pushed by our right-wing Swiss People's Party.

I am the last one to support an islamic view of anything on this planet. This said, I also state that I support this particular view of the islamic conference: I think that islamophobia is a threat to the world's security. The reason is simple. Islamophobia strengthens Islam, above all the rigid, terror-oriented forms of this religion. And islamophobia blocks the inter-cultural dialogue which may help to promote a more moderate form of this religion.

Therefore, I am strictly against a minaret ban in Switzerland. We are a secular democracy. We have freedom of religion. We have Christian church steeples, thus Muslims should have the equal right to build minarets as long as they respect the building regulations.

There is another point. Minarets beside church steeples emphasize the relativity of faith. They strengthen the view that religions are parts of different cultures and not absolute values. Plurality helps deconversion and freethought. Thus, I don't think that the construction of some minarets in Switzerland will lead to a higher influence of religions as a whole.

And what about steeples in Saudi Arabia?

But I cannot help wondering about the one-sided blindness of Muslim leaders. They claim the right to build minarets anywhere in the world but deny the according right to other religions in their own countries. Church steeples in Saudi Arabia, unlike minarets in Switzerland, are beyond every dispute. They are unthinkable. My comment: Better stop whining about islamophobia and respect the golden rule of religious plurality!

Photo credit:

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Why does litter hurt your eyes?

Litter in a beautiful landscape hurts my eyes. I had some email debate about this example with Michael Mary, author of a German book about being manipulated by values. My point is that litter hurts my eyes because the beauty of untouched nature is a value for me. He says that this is pure self interest because I dislike litter. To which I replied that values and self interest are fully compatible. In fact, they are closely linked because values always are values for somebody. There is no such thing as an absolute value. For the litterer, the beauty of nature has no value at all.

When I stow my used drink can in my backpack, I think I am guided by a value, the value of untouched nature. But Michael Mary does not like this idea. He replies that I would not hesitate building a house in a nature reserve area if I had the opportunity. According to him values do not guide us, they do not bind us, but may be changed as soon as we have the impression that we fare better with a different value. They are used as tricks to conceal self interests and to make others accept these interests.

Conflict of values is the issue

I disagree with Michael Mary in so far as I am convinced that values in fact do guide the behaviour of people. Without this being the case, the trick of selling values simply would not work. With conflicting interests on both sides, every side, of course, will appeal to values that they (1) know that will help their own side and (2) will be respected by the other side. That explains everything. Values do guide us. But values are often incompatible, conflicting. Therefore, values are used to manipulate others. This does work, but only because values are more than simple camouflages of own interests. This does work because values are important elements of human motivation.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Values in sheep's clothing

values in sheeps' clothing
Last week I listened to an interview with German author Michael Mary, talking about his new book "Values in Sheep's Clothing - Uncover the tricks by which we all are manipulated". I pricked up my ears because, as a secular humanist, I always have thought that values like human dignity, solidarity, honesty, tolerance and the like should be important guidelines of my own life. I also expect others to respect the same values.

If anything useful may be retained from religions of all kinds, it must be just these basic values of humanity, I thought. And now comes this guy and tells us that this is all bullshit? After having listened for a while, I learnt that he, Mary, still finds values useful and indispensable for social life.

Values, according to Mary, do not guide human behaviour. They are used in negotiating diverging goals, when one side tries to convince the other that a certain decision helps both sides, trying to conceal that the other side suffers from a disadvantage. Thus, values are not made for decisions but for talking about decisions. They are indispensable for social solidarity in a society of individuals with diverging goals and interests.

This has given me some food for thought these days. Not only can I follow easily this line of thought. It also supports my post of yesterday where I said that the difference between theists and atheists is only minimal when it comes to the real backgrounds of behaviour. I said that values such as imaginated God's will are not the real reasons for trying to be good, but only "illusionary" reasons, and that most of them will not change after religious faith has been abandoned.

I agree with Mary that we should keep a watchful ear on the value preachers everywhere, trying to sell values in order to push forward their own interests and trying to keep us quiet and submissive. He is right, we must be suspicious. Fighting for democracy in Iraq? No, for oil.

Yet I have the impression that things may be not so simple. Values may be used as sheep's clothings, for sure. But are they really irrelevant as guidelines for our behaviour? Just an example, littering. I do not throw litter away because I hold up a clean environment as a value. I think that it is this value that guides my behaviour. Or queuing: I do not push in because I follow the golden rule of mutual respect. Isn't this a value, too?

I think this may be settled by looking at the levels of values. Those I have mentioned are more down to earth than the highly abstract values Mary deals with in his book: Freedom, fairness, democracy, solidarity, tolerance, and the like. Thus, my job as a humanist is having a watchful eye on all those conflicting values and trying to separate wheat from chaff.

Photo credit: Amazon

Monday, 10 March 2008

The difference is not that great

Most theists and most atheists have more in common than most people may think. At least more than may be assumed when following all the god-vs-no-god disputes in the books and in the blogosphere. I think that the relevance of these discussions is much overrated.

We have been invited to lunch with a theist family yesterday. Kind of very strict and obedient theism, as far as we know. We had just normal small talk. Of course they mentioned that they have been in church in the morning, and we mentioned that on Sundays we use to get up late. And of course grace has been said at table. That's it. No talk about God. No hint that God may have influenced any of the decisions and what they told us they did or did not in their everyday life.

I have the strong impression that God is less important for them as they may think. When confronted to a situation that demands an ethical decision, they most likely will believe that God tells them what to do. They feel it inside, and they believe it is God's voice. In the same situation, I most likely will do the same because I feel inside that it is good to do so. The difference, thus, is not in the doing but in the post hoc reasoning why they or I did so.

As an ethologist, a couple of years ago, I have dealt a lot with the question of motivation. We all, theists and atheists alike, are humans, and we all have very similar brains. We eat when we are hungry. We seek company when we feel lonely. We engage in sex if we are turned on and have a consenting partner who is turned on, too. We love each other and we hate each other when we have reasons of doing so. These are the things that guide us.

In everyday life, there are thousands of things that have known or unknown reasons. But there is not a single thing that without any doubt has been caused by an act of God. Some may think so, but they won't say it openly because every theist knows that his view is not generally accepted. That's why theism or atheism does not make a big difference in everyday life.

Where the difference begins

The difference is not in the reasoning but in acting. The Pope banning condoms and helping Aids to spread. People hating gays because of certain anti homosexuality content of the Bible. Trying to push creationism in and evolution out of schools. Stuff like that is what counts.

And there are many, many theists on our side in these things: They oppose the Pope, they stand up for humanity and for the promotion of science. It's the act that counts, not the reasoning behind it.

Further reading

In the Humanist Symposium, hosted by the Glittering Muse, the question of atheism or anti-theism is debated, and Greta Christina dismisses the fundamentalistic view that atheists have reason to feel morally better than theists. Well said.

Photo credit:

Friday, 7 March 2008

Laugh with your kids about religion!

piglet book
Little Piglet and little Hedgehog are two cute beasties that do no harm to nobody, live a happy life and like to explore the big world around them. On a billboard they read “He who knows not God is missing something". So they start out to go looking for God...

The title of this charming book for kids reads "Which is the way to God please?, little Piglet asked", a book for all those who won't let themselves be fooled. It's a book for kids and also for irritated parents of kids arriving at home with strange talk about "sin", "being saved by the Lord" and the like. It is good to have such a book then, which can be pulled from the shelf and looked at with the kids. Humor and laughter as a powerful antidote to religious indoctrination. Online, it is available in English. Enjoy!
Dawkins for kids

To my knowledge, this is the first religion-critic kids book ever. The publisher sells it as "huge fun" ("Heidenspa├č" in German which literally translates to "heathen fun"). Dawkins for kids. Really intelligent, really great. But the German Federal Family Administration has labeled this book as "threatening to youth" and "morally misleading" and wanted to put it on the index. Yesterday, this plea has been rejected by the Federal Inspecting Authority. Just after the decision of the jury, the publisher has placed the order to start printing of the delayed fourth edition. Yeah, well done!

Little Piglet has been saved. More than five thousand supporters (me included) have signed a petition against the ban. If you like the book (sure you will), feel free to use the support link above and sign in. The registration form is in German - here some translation help: Vorname = first name, Beruf/Funktion = profession/function, Stra├če = street address, PLZ = ZIP, Ort = city. Street address and e-mail are not published. I think little Piglet deserves some more support because this might not have been the last attack on kids' freethought. And I strongly hope that a printed English edition is under way.

Photo credit: Das Ferkelbuch

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Know your think tool

Steven Novella
This is about the one and only that we have, our brain. And no, this is not about the company Think Tools that hyped 1997 in the Swiss stock market bubble and crashed six years later.

I think every philosopher should know certain things about the tool he uses all the time. About the tool that generates logical conclusions. And about certain features of the tool that may generate false conclusions. Philosophy without knowing the brain basics is careless. That's why I have added Steven Novella's Neurologica Blog to my blogroll today.

Dr. Novella is a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

His blog is about conspiracy theories, Creationism and Intelligent Design, general science, history of science and medicine, logic and philosophy, neuroscience, the paranormal, pseudoscience, science and medicine, science and the media, skepticism, UFOs and aliens.

Some of his posts I like best are those about logic and philosophy. He has posted some very intelligent refutation stuff against dualism, the idea that mind is something separate from the brain. I agree with most of his statements. But I never would go so far to say that we are our brains because the idea of a brain without a body seems quite strange to me.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Beware of logical traps!

I think I've walked right into a logical trap yesterday, reasoning about the status of knowledge concerning theistic and atheistic beliefs. I came to the following conclusion:
As a popperian thinker (...), I am fully convinced that theistic and atheistic beliefs have the same status of knowledge because both of them share the same two weaknesses. Firstly, they are not falsifiable. Secondly, they are positivistic in a sense that they aim at truth as the ultimate goal. In Critical Rationalism, truth is never absolute or positivistic but, in contrast, subject to change as new facts are added to the body of knowledge.

As soon as I have posted it, I had a strange feeling of something being wrong with this statement, yet I did not spot any inconsistency in my logical reasoning: If a statement "A" is not falsifiable, then the statement "not A" isn't falsifiable either, thus, in principle, the status of knowledge must be the same in both statements.

According to this logic, a theistic belief should have the same status of knowledge as an atheistic belief. Which I deny, of course. This leaves me with a paradox to solve. Let's dub it the Theism Atheism Paradox. Such paradoxes seem to arise whenever we apply a certain type of logic in situations where it is not appropriate. Zeno's arrow paradox is a good example, assuming that there is such a thing as a moment not in motion, disregarding Heraklit's insight that "all is in flow" (panta rhei).

A subtle difference

The Theism Atheism Paradox, TAP, in my view, is the result of a false comparison of things that are not comparable. Theism is the belief in a God. Atheism is not the belief in "No God" but rather the absence of a belief in a god or in gods. The TAP is thus the result of a faulty definition of atheism. It is a definition that is appropriate to theism but absolutely irrelevant when it comes to atheism. Atheism is not a religion with a mental vacuum called "No God" as the central object of belief. No definition of atheism could be more wrong than this one. Yet I have run into this trap. Oooops!

This example shows how important paradoxes are. They should not bother us. On the contrary, they should always be welcome because they will improve our thoughts.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The algebra of philosophic reasoning

Bryan Norwood
At the 64th Philosophers' Carnival, hosted by Bryan Norwood at Movement of Existence, I have come across an interesting fact: philosophers using algebraic notation for their logic reasoning. Just an example, found in The Space of Reasons:
"An agent i knows that phi in some situation s, on some model M if and only if, for all other situations t, that i considers indistinguishable from s, t entails phi on M. On this approach an agent i is said to know a fact phi if phi is true at all the worlds she considers possible (given her current information)."

I frankly admit that I did not follow this formula juggling with pure logic. I am ready to assume that it is consistent, and the conclusion does not violate the laws of logic algebra. The problem arises when I ask myself what happens when we jump from the formula to the real world. Is still true in the real world what is true in the formula? I have my doubts.

Algebra of theist defense

I even suppose that it is easily possible to defend a theistic belief by algebraic reasoning. I have found such a piece of defense, so-called apologetics, on Bryan's site. Bryan discusses whether a theistic belief may have the same status of knowledge as an atheistic belief. Bryan does not come to a definite conclusion but thinks that this may be reasonable.

As a popperian thinker (thanks Bryan for including this piece), I am fully convinced that theistic and atheistic beliefs have the same status of knowledge because both of them share the same two weaknesses. Firstly, they are not falsifiable. Secondly, they are positivistic in a sense that they aim at truth as the ultimate goal. In Critical Rationalism, truth is never absolute or positivistic but, in contrast, subject to change as new facts are added to the body of knowledge. - Update: Oops, there is something wrong with this statement!

Big Bang or Creator?

There is only one reason why the Big Bang hypothesis is stronger than the Creation hypothesis about how the Universe has come into existence: Big Bang can be falsified or at least refined by adding new facts about the most distant galaxies and about the energy and matter content of the Universe. When I first learnt about the Big Bang, the age of the Universe has been estimated about five billion years. Today it is 13.7 billion years, and I am sure that this figure will change again.

In contrast, the Creation hypothesis never has gained any strength since its invention. Its only purpose is filling the gaps that are left by scientific theories such as the Big Bang. One of the consequences is the change from a strong theism (belief in a personal God taking actions) to a weak deism (belief in a Big Watchmaker God taking no actions after the creation of the Universe). But this shift is due to scientific progress and not to creationism. This clearly shows which of both is the stronger theory about the origin of the Universe.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Loving life and Swedish bees

Felicia Gilljam
Felicia of Life Before Death - her first name meaning happy - frankly admits that this is not a steady feeling of hers, which would be unnatural, of course. Atheists are sad and depressed, sometimes, but this is because they are humans, not because they have no God.

She is a biology student, ethology included, and is thus a colleague of mine. And there is another nice coincidence. She is a beekeeper, and a good friend of mine, the late Mika, has been a well-known bee researcher who has discovered the turn back and look behaviour of the bees: When they have found a source of food and filled their stomach, they take off and, before flying back to their hive, turn back and look at the food source.

Felicia's blog is about atheism, bees, Friday pics, humour, nature, pseudoscience and other stuff, superstition, and Sweden (in alphabetic order). In her Answers from an Atheist, she gives a good overview of her philosophy. I like this quote in particular:
"Atheism isn’t a worldview and writing a whole book on a positive vision of atheism would be like writing a book on the taste of water. Water is necessary for life as well as refreshing when you’re hot and thirsty and atheism is healthy because it’s (usually) rational, but just like you can’t live on water, atheism isn’t a complete set of beliefs to live by."

Carnival of the Godless

Felicia is host of Carnival of the Godless #86 where I discovered an interesting discussion about a creationism teaching ban in Sweden. The Hairy Swede is not quite happy about this ban. I can understand him, somehow. Banning seems not to be a good idea when you are a freethinker. But I think the crucial point is curriculum. Creationism should be banned from biology because it is not science and certainly not biology. But creationism should be taught in philosophical or historical or religious lessons. Creationism is a subject of contemporary history and should be taught and discussed, but in the appropriate context.