I was quite proud of my response to Annie (quoted in my previous
blog entry), but I never received a reply. Perhaps I was too direct
-- I notice now that I never complimented her on her earnest thoughtfulness.
Instead, I chided her for having a stereotypical view of atheists.
"I do not feel obliged to believe
that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and
intellect, has intended us to forgo their use." -- Galileo
sir, are obsessed with reality." -- said to James Randi.
off, I offer my apologies for taking so long to respond! My day
job has required a lot of travel, so my free time has been severely
limited. Plus, you spent a long time on your response, and I wanted
to respond in kind.
am NOT Spock" -- Leonard Nimoy
reading your response, I want to re-read my own website to see
why you've obtained such a one-dimensional view of me and my philosophy.
Could it be something I said or implied on my page, or are you
painting me as a straw-man based on what is, frankly, a cultural
stereotype? It's a sad and unfortunate preconception of my rationalist
brethren that we are cold, calculating logicians completely unwilling
to listen to the music of life. (Substitute "rationalist"
for whatever term you prefer: secular humanist, naturalist, non-theist,
bright, heathen, skeptic, infidel, atheist, deist, reality-based
communitarian...) Spock is the embodiment of this point of view,
someone who may be valuable in his ability to think through a
situation while desperately eliminating all emotional aspects
of life. I try not to be offended when I'm pigeonholed like this,
since 1) too many rationalists get an immature kick out of being
coldly contrary, and 2) the few examples of them in the media
reinforce this stereotype. (Look at the Bill Pullman character
in the latest made-for-TV movie.) You might be surprised to hear
that I'm not a cold demagogue in a lab coat.
only difference between you and me, is that I believe in one
less god than you do." -- Dan Barker
have you know that I, too have appreciated Leonard Cohen, and
at one point toyed with becoming a professional musician. My life
is enriched by art, literature, film, and above all, music. I
even do yoga. To me, these aren't mere diversionary entertainments,
they are ways of enriching my life and broadening my perspective.
They, like science, logic, and reason, are tools used to discover
I don't buy the notion of rational and non-rational tools for
discovering truth as being separate-but-equal. Winston Churchill
once said about democracy (paraphrasing): "It's the worst
political system in the world, except for all the others."
Similarly, Science/logic/reason are the worst tools for finding
truth -- except for all the others. The other tools may feel better
to use, but they are flawed in fundamental ways.
is particularly good at determining whether things exist, and
whether things have truly happened. Here's an example. Because
I'm on travel today, my wife and I are in different states. Let's
say that the weather's bad and I know she's out driving to visit
her mother. How do I know that she's alive and well? I could use
non-rational tools and search my intuitions: is there a hitch
in my sense of well-being? Or can call her cell phone and obtain
a solid, scientific data point? Is this method foolproof? No.
She could be crushed by a boulder in the moment after she hangs
up on me. Are non-rational methods entirely useless? No -- I could
have a strong hunch that there might be boulder-laden landslides
in the area in which she's driving. But if I was given the choice
of using one method over the other in this case, I'd pick science
hands-down. So if this is the best method for determining my wife's
existence from afar, why not God?
all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that
our brains drop out." -- Richard Dawkins
and other non-rational approaches may feel compelling, but they
are full of pitfalls. People are adept at bamboozling themselves,
often adopting the philosophy, "If it feels good, think it."
Humans seek patterns even in pattern-free situations (hence the
Man in the Moon, the Mother Theresa sticky bun and the Elvis Presley
taco chip), and as a result are naturally compelled to believe
things which are compelling but untrue . As a result, it's better
to be aware of these pitfalls than to succumb to them without
reflection. Being human, I know I am prone to these truth-seeking
mistakes. So when an issue is important, such as the existence
of God, I do my best to see where I may be allowing wishful thinking
to cloud my judgment. This is partially the reason for my insistence
in evidence for the existence of God. (The primary reason is rhetorical:
I had too many fundamentalists responding with absolute certainty
there was a God, so I decided to call them on it.) This isn't
to say that I probe all important issues with scientific / rational
/ logical methods. Rather, when I don't use those methods, I try
to be sure to remind myself that my conclusions aren't airtight.
isn't as cold and calculating as it sounds. If anything, it requires
a very deep level of self-awareness. Not only do I know what I
think, I have a good sense of why I think it.
I aim to achieve good sense of the degree of certainty I have
in my beliefs. I seek out what I know for certain to be true,
what I am reasonably sure to be true, what I think is true, what
I believe is true, and what I'd like to believe to be true, in
declining order of certainty.
I know for certain the chair I'm sitting in exists
am reasonably sure my lunch won't poison me
believe that I'll make it home without accident, and
would like to believe in a benevolent God and that I have an eternal
biggest mistake, in my mind, is to elevate any of those conclusions
up a level of certainty.
is why I have a hard time with conclusions about God. Given that
God doesn't interact with us directly (in that he doesn't hang
out in my cubicle or call me on the phone), nobody can know for
certain He exists. At best, given the level of evidence, one can
be believe, so anyone who takes a stronger tone has made a serious
error. (If I'm charitable, I would say that at best someone could
be reasonably sure.)
for the existence of God try to set up a rigged game, one no one
would play if it wasn't God they were talking about. If a girlfriend
said she wanted a relationship with me, but that by her own choice
I would never see her directly, never hear from her directly,
and the best evidence of her love for me would come indirectly,
say from transcendent feelings coming through art or the appreciation
of a sunrise, I would say, "thanks, but no thanks."
Why should a leap of faith be necessary when our very souls are
supposedly in the balance?
Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me." -- The Minutemen
(the band, not the movement)
say that "I perceive your world as being much smaller and
narrower than mine...again, I marvel at that extraordinarily limited
notion of 'truth' as being facts and evidence alone." I suggest
that the opposite is true. After all, sure, a single fact or data
point in a scientific description of something may seem prosaic
and uninteresting at its face. However, it bespeaks a lack of
imagination to see the richness that these data present. Without
such supposedly arcane, uninteresting data, we wouldn't have any
sense of, say, the vastness of space, or an appreciation of the
long struggles our ancient ancestors suffered to have offspring
and pass on their genes. We wouldn't understand that within our
DNA resides information about where we came from, how our ancestors
migrated. We wouldn't know that we are made of the very elements
that existed in stars billions of years ago, and that their exploding
deaths led to our existence. Through science, humans have been
capable of leaving our own planet, and looking back at it to ponder.
How is this limiting? How is this prosaic? Indeed, science has
shown that the universe is much broader, more fascinating, expansive
and complicated than any religion could have possibly imagined.
God didn't merely say "abracadabara" over the course
of seven days and rested. That is much more limiting and prosaic
a point of view than the truth: the universe as we know it took
many, many, patient years to reach its current state. And it will
continue for many long years after we are dead and gone. This
truth is as awesome as it is humbling.
scientists often seem antisocial and overly focused on minutiae,
I submit that they are much more interested and appreciative of
the universe than any artist, any shaman, any Pope. Read Richard
Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale," "Cosmos" by
Carl Sagan, or just about anything by Stephen Jay Gould and you
see the richness of their views of life. I have hung out with
artists and with scientists, and I would say that on balance the
scientists possess more of a love for the world and a greater
sense of awe, reverence, and wonder. You may not see the poetry,
the literature in their views, see nothing but alphabets instead
of Dostoyevsky. But I suggest that this is a limitation in your
view of the universe, not mine.
for your time,
"Anything you don't understand,
Mr. Rankin, you attribute to God. God for you is where you
sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges
to our intelligence. You simply turn your mind off and say
God did it." -- Sagan
would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that
some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue.
But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient
and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife,
I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful
thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and
moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves
with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence.
Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look
death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief
but magnificent opportunity that life provides." -- Sagan