October 11, 2014
After playing basketball in the gym for several hours today, I found that someone had left a Christian tract on my car window. We’ve all seen them. It basically said that I needed to repent, and asked me what I’d do if I died and had to stand before God.
I haven’t worried about that sort of thing for a long time. The Bible claims that we all descended from Adam and Eve, and that we’ve all inherited some form of original sin. This innate sin condemns us to hellfire for eternity absent us calling on the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ to save us. Is that reasonable to believe? In light of all we know today, I don’t think so.
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. You can look at it all from several different fields of study, whether it be comparative anatomy, embryology, fossils, DNA/genetics, or the distribution of species over the planet. They all point toward the fact that life evolved on this planet by natural selection. Just to give you a taste, check out this video.
When I think about the issue and consider the evidence, there is no original sin, Adam and Eve never existed, and the whole idea of needing to be “saved” is unnecessary. Saved from what? The whole premise of the Christian faith seems to be misguided.
As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I saw the group of young men who had placed the tracts on my car. They had made these posters, “Jesus Saves”, and other young men were holding posters, “Hell is Real”. They were attempting to get the attention of cars passing by.
I can remember growing up as a kid and people from my church would do similar things. Sometimes they’d ask me to come along, but I was always too embarrassed to join them. Thinking on it all now, it all seems like a strange dream. There was a point when I actually believed those same things. Driving past them, I felt like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone.
October 10, 2014
The other day Michael asked me,
“Can you explain more what you mean about reality justifying itself. How does it do that? To whom? How is there no interpretive layer there from a person?”
I’ll begin with a few minor clarifications. When I use the word “justification”, I’m meaning that it can be shown to be right and reasonable. By reality, I’m referring to the sum total of what everyone living in the world consciously experiences. If there is some “outside” world of which no entity, not even God is experiencing, I don’t see any point talking about it. Primacy is given to the subjective conscious experiences of individual living entities (animals, people, etc).
I want you to imagine a very different sort of world. Imagine you simply “wake up” and find yourself as this flower sprouting in a sea of color. Slowly you’re watching this color around you coalesce into other flowers and soon you’re surrounded. Everything is glimmering and you feel pure joy and ecstasy. Soon stems grow from your base and it’s a glorious sensation. It’s soft, warm, and very pleasant. Soon you’re standing on this stage of flowers and they’re all twirling. As time passes, other “flower people” are being born and they’re joining you.
You and all the flower people go into this vibrant dance, skimming across the glowing waters, hopping onto flower petals, and spinning your partners. There is a wind, and as it skims through the leaves, a musical melody plays in the background. Everyone feels loved and adored, with a part to play in this dance. Also, everyone just knows what to do. There are no mistakes.
After several such dances, everyone takes hold of one another and falls into the water, painlessly dissolving like ink into a sea of bliss. This process just keeps going on and on with new conscious observers coming into this reality and leaving.
Compare that to our world. We’re born as a bloody mass which is painfully shoved out of our mother’s womb in agony and pain. We males then have our penises mutilated and enter this world of confusion, violence, and death. We look around us and every living thing is at war with everything else. The powerful oppress the weak. There is no justice. Being good is often not rewarded at all. Evil people get ahead. As for the animals, they’re all eating one another for nourishment. Every other life-form before us has died and most all species have went extinct. The world we live in is violent, and doesn’t seem to care about our existence at all.
There are storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes. There is cancer, ebola, and ISIS. It’s hot and then it’s cold. Giant fireballs burn in space, shooting out cosmic rays which will give us cancer if we’re exposed to them directly. We’re fragile and watch our bodies slowly lose strength as we age. We have a weak intellect with no inkling what to do. We don’t know who we are, what we are, or how all of this came into being. We have no purpose or plan. We cry out for these things, and even make out bearded men and women in the sky to give our lives meaning. To exist we have to take jobs which are boring, tedious, and exhausting. Need I go on?
So what do I mean by reality standing alone? What am I talking about when I talk about reality justifying itself?
It has nothing to do with the the laws of physics. There’s no reason to care whether a particular conscious experience is made of matter or something else. What matters is the quality of the conscious experience.
Instead of thinking of physics as describing some world “out there”, think of it as a way of predicting what you will experience next. There is a stream of conscious experiences and you’re in that flow. Physics can give you probabilities of what will happen next in certain types of situations. It’s patterns of conscious experience, not reality itself. You and your experiences are the true reality.
Now to talk about reality standing alone. The world of the flower people stands alone. If you’re born and living in that world, it doesn’t need you to “fix” it. In some sense it’s already perfect. To exist and flow within it is a state of perfection. The flower world takes you, holds you, and guides you through a series of perfect conscious moments. Our world does not.
In our world happiness is used as bait. It’s held out like a carrot on a stick. You have to chase after it and hope that your actions eventually lead to a reality which is enjoyable. Considering the human condition, no matter what actions you choose, you will watch everything you love and care about rot as well, assuming you don’t die and rot first. Overall, it’s a quest we all have to eventually fail.
We exist in a state of ignorance rarely knowing where our decisions will lead us. Our happiness is deeply intertwined with chance. Our most important life choices are gambles and we live in a state of constant apprehension and worry.
Our world’s game is, “Fix the world around you or suffer.” And if you make a mistake, you will suffer. Like slaves, we’re beaten with suffering, and “hope”, as much as it’s praised, is really a belief that hopefully that suffering will relent and we’ll experience joy once again. Short periods of relief and happiness are what we live for.
So why do I use the term “stand alone”? As you probably know, I’ve worked as a computer programmer for most of my life. When you compile computer code into an executable program which can run on a person’s computer, you can either compile the code stand-alone, meaning the executable is able to run on its own, or you can make it dependent on other code libraries in order to function. Without those libraries, if you double-click the executable to run it, it will say, “Error: blah.dll is missing”.
As far as conscious experience goes, our world is not stand-alone. Living observers can’t plug into it and be pleased with the outcome unless they really play this game of life well. You may say, “But Jason, this universe can run itself. It was here a long time before any of us were born.” Yeah, and it’ll be here after we’re gone too. That’s not really saying much. If none of us are here to experience it, who cares? And if we are here to experience it, why is this place such a fixer-upper? Why do we have to fix anything up, especially considering this world is temporary and will eventually fade back into nothingness?
Maybe I can put it all another way? Reality stands alone when happiness is assumed and given without any conditions. To exist, you should be happy and not suffer. In a stand-alone world, happiness is not a pursuit. It’s not hoped for, it just is always there. Reality no longer stands alone when happiness becomes a capricious fairy which comes and goes on its own whims.
The flower people live in a stand-alone, perfect world. They don’t have to earn anything. They don’t have to hope for happiness, they simply have it at all times.
One last point before ending this. I’ve often used the word “stand-alone” when talking about consciousness as well. I often find myself saying that all conscious experiences stand-alone. As you sit in your room, petting your cat, sipping a cup of tea, no words are necessary to tell you what it’s like to be you. You simply know what it’s like to be you, having the experiences you’re having. Words will only distract your attention away from who and what you are, dulling the experience of being you.
That may seem to contradict what I said earlier, about us not knowing who we are. It’s true, we live in a state of ignorance in this life, but that’s not really what I meant. That’s more referring to an understanding of your desires, expectations, etc. We don’t know what will make us feel happy, so we just go out and try different things. Slowly we learn things about ourselves and this world, but that’s just another way of saying what I was saying before. We’re chasing after happiness, like bait on a string. But we all know that we’re having experiences and that we’re alive, in this world, at least for now.
September 28, 2014
I’d like to take a brief moment to write about life and meaning, or more specifically, that feeling we all sometimes get when we sense ourselves saying, “What’s the point of it all?”
That emotion swings back and forth within me, depending on what’s going on in my life. If I were to try to define it, I would say it’s when reality fails to stand alone and justify itself. Maybe I should explain what I mean by that?
If you’re doing something you really enjoy doing, sort of lost in the moment, totally immersed in that thing, whatever that may be, you’re not thinking, “What’s the point?” That’s not when you’re searching for meaning. During those times, you’re not searching for anything. You’re in alignment with something beyond yourself, and reality justifies itself. Life has meaning during those times.
Life seems to lose meaning when that feeling of inner satisfaction is gone. Life no longer justifies itself. We start asking, “Why am I experiencing this?” There’s something intrinsically lacking in what we’re experiencing and our emotions are reacting to it with disgust and disappointment. We may even ask ourselves, “What did I do to deserve this?” It seems so pointless that we’re suffering, and we try to use our reasoning to make sense of it, even invoking our moral reasoning. Why am I suffering like this? Why am I feeling so miserable? It must’ve been something I did!
We all seem to crave a world where everything is meaningful and delightful but instead we’re left in a world where most things leave us exhausted, bored, and frustrated. To find things infused with meaning and joy requires a real search, and even then, the joy they offer is so often ephemeral and transitory.
That got me thinking why spiritual lessons are so important. The first would be to be thankful. When you find something wonderful, enjoy it, but expect to suffer a lot in life. And when you do find yourself in a dark time, don’t make yourself and everyone around you more miserable than need be. It’s very easy to make things even worse by raging, complaining, and whining.
My mother used to always tell me that this life is God’s way of testing our character. We’re put in trying situations and we’re being watched to see how we’ll react. Personally, I find all of that hard to believe, but it is a beautiful thought. I doubt the universe has any sort of simple purpose or meaning, but I do know that she’s right about this world testing your character.
Life often seems to be testing me. There’s always this “dark road” I could go down, offering me all kinds of nice things, only if I’ll compromise on values I hold. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but when I look up on the walls of the physics building, there are all these posters. Come work for the U.S. Defense department! We’ll pay for all your school, we’ll pay you lots of money while you’re in school, and we’ll guarantee you work once you graduate! I look at that and it’s like I see the devil’s face, baiting students.
They do the same thing to computer science students. Just recently it was announced that the NSA is offering millions of dollars in scholarships to comp-sci students at my university, but only if they’ll come to work for them once they graduate. If you’re willing to give your life to big brother and the surveillance state, they’ll set you up for life.
And after all, why not live an easy life? Why should you worry about all these other people around you? Build weapons of mass destruction. Build chemical weapons. Build an infrastructure of spying and monitoring of innocent civilians. Do it! You’ll earn lots of money and won’t have to graduate with $100,000 in debt. C’mon, it’s so easy!
I oftentimes want to rip the posters down, but I don’t. My life would be easier if I took an offer like that, but it’d be a worthless victory. How can you be happy when you know your success came at so many other people’s misery?
This reminds me of a Buddhist concept called Indra’s net.
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.
We are the jewels hung in Indra’s net. None of us exist in isolation. In the Rg Veda, Indra used this net to entangle and trap people. When you turn away from the light, you become trapped in this web, lost in darkness.
I know this is an overused cliche, but things are deeply interconnected in this world. When you turn away from the light, you start shaking the web and others get trapped as well. It sets off a nasty chain of events. I refuse to take part in building weapons and waging war. Other people deal with similar trials of their own. Sometimes I see these young female artists being interviewed and I worry about them. They tell how they didn’t want to dress skimpy for their music videos, but they were told they had to in order to be successful. You have to refuse those sorts of things. This world will never stop. It will keep demanding more and more from you until everything around you is so ugly and dark, you’ll wonder why you ever sold your soul to the devil. Respect yourself.
No amount of success is worth your integrity. We’re all nodes on Indra’s web, but people are confused about who they are. They get this mistaken belief that the only way they can succeed is by dimming the light which is trying to shine through them. It’s the opposite. You have to let it through you. And if there’s no light around you, it’s time to find a new place on the web. Don’t stay there.
September 17, 2014
As many of you have probably gathered over the years, I’m not a fan of political correctness. The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris recently got himself in trouble over a few comments he made. People (primarily feminists) are claiming he’s sexist. He’s written a book on spirituality without religion, and so he’s been touring around, giving talks and interviews. He gave one interview at George Washington University with the Washington Post religious reporter, Michelle Boorstein.
She asked him why the vast majority of atheists, and many of those who buy his books, are male. Then she went on to accuse him and the secular community of sexism. I just rolled my eyes and thought, “Here we go again.”
I simply want to use it as an example of why political correctness is often a terrible thing. As Betrand Russell said,
When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only, and solely, at what are the facts.
– Bertrand Russell
So what are the facts about atheists and secular thinkers? I would recommend this post by the Friendly Atheist.
But when we take the existing corpus of sociological, psychological, and anthropological data together — from the past sixty years — there is clear empirical support for the claim that men are more likely to be secular than women. As Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce note in their book Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? (Oxford University Press, 2012), “since 1945 the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men, and not by small margins.”
Consider, for example, that according to the American Religious Identification Survey, men currently make up 58% of Americans who claim “no religion,” 70% of Americans who self-identify as atheist, and 75% of those who self identify as agnostic. Or consider the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which found that 86% of American women claim to be religiously-affiliated, but only 79% of American men claimed as much; 77% of women believe in God with absolute certainly, but only 65% of men do; 66% of women pray daily, but only 49% of men do; 63% of women say that religion is very important in their lives, but only 49% of men say as much; 44% of women attend religious services on a weekly basis, but only 34% of men do. The differences may or may not be significant — social science gets fuzzy here — but they are consistent. And for one final example, consider the fact that the Freedom From Religion Foundation reports that 79% of its members are men (see Melanie Brewster‘s essay “Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality” in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, 2013, for further details).
In short, whatever measures one uses to assess religiosity — frequency of prayer, belief in God, church attendance, or self-identification — men in the United States are more likely to be secular-leaning than women, on average.
And the “on average” is key, folks. The above studies do not illustrate that all men are more secular than all women. It is just an average. A percentage.
These same trends are pretty much found all over the world. Harris wasn’t sure why most of those interested in his work are males, but he has noticed that about 70% are men and only 30% are women. Is this evidence of sexism in the secular community? Hardly. Since the majority of atheists and secular thinkers are men, it sort of makes sense that most people showing up to these sorts of events are men.
Though I hate being too general, I tend to lean toward the opinion that, on average, women have strong inclinations to be caregivers and nurturers. They seem less likely to engage in careers, movements, and ideas which lack those features. This tendency may be biological in origin, or it may be purely cultural, though I’m guessing it’s some of both.
Take for instance the field of psychology. There are three times as many women earning PhDs in psychology as men. In developmental and child psychology, women PhDs outnumber men five to one. It’s hard to deny the nurturing and emotional connection argument. Check out this article.
Since a lot of religion deals with caring for the sick, helping the poor, and taking care of the needy, it may appeal to women more than men. Religion also has emotional aspects, such as God’s life-force and presence being everywhere and in all things. That gives a feeling of connection, which I think is more important to women than men, on average.
Compare that to physics. It’s mostly about mathematics and patterns, having little to do with interactions with people, family, children, etc. What you do deal with is “cold”. It’s about objective facts and a lot of abstract concepts and mathematics. Engineering. Many things in physics are impersonal. So my first guess would be that women would be less inclined to be physicists. Is this true?
It’s nice to see more and more women getting interested in physics, but it’s still a field almost totally dominated by men. What percentage is that? I’d guess we have 80-90% men, and only 10-20% women. Why? Are all of us physicists sexist? No. There’s nothing stopping women from majoring in physics and advanced mathematics, but they just don’t seem to be all that into it. The women I’ve met who are physicists are brilliant, there’s just not many of them.
My friend Greg and I used to notice that women are put off by libertarian ideas. For example, if you attend libertarian events, where the core ideas are self-reliance, beating the competition, entrepreneurship, etc., there are very few women there. As for those you do find, they’re with their husbands, not really there on their own. If you study the numbers, almost 7 out of 10 libertarians are male.
The thing about freedom is that its heights are limitless, and its lows are bottomless. Libertarians, I presume, look at that void and never consider that they will do anything but rise. And “communalists,” as the Research Institute dubbed the other end of the spectrum, probably look and are horrified by the many eventualities that could sink them. This is Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature”: The strong snap up all the firewood and nuts and berries and whatnot, and the weak die starving and shivering in the cold. But what does that have to do with gender? In any state of nature that today’s libertarians would like to return us to, women seem as well-equipped to succeed as men, their paucity of brute strength not being such an issue thanks to modern amenities. So the divide must be more between how women see themselves and how men, especially libertarian men, see themselves—not how they actually are.
Way back then we figured that this was because libertarian ideas do not stress nurturing, caring, and connection. They primarily stress beating the competition, getting stronger, and dominating your market. Women seem less drawn to those ideas and ways of life.
Sam Harris is known for being critical, and to many in religious circles, his ideas are divisive, and may even sound angry. He doesn’t have nice things to say about Christianity or Islam. I don’t think the critical approach to sharing and discussing ideas appeals to a lot of women. That may be part of it. Also, Harris sometimes features articles on self-defense and guns, himself being a skilled martial artist. Those things appeal to men but far less to women. That’s another thing to consider.
Are there other factors? Definitely. This is all worth discussing, but let’s not play the sexist card.
September 16, 2014
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker recently wrote a brilliant piece for The New Republic. In it, he discusses his views on education. I found one passage particularly important.
It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.
On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.
I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning.
– Steven Pinker, New Republic