Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Atheist's Case of Commandment Envy

There's an interesting (and popular) post by Kimberly Winston in the Huffington Post entitled "10 Commandments For Atheists Who Want to Explore Their Values."  There are several aspects of the post that I find interesting.  The first is that this strikes me as yet another example of how unsatisfying atheism must be as a philosophy and lifestyle - so much so that they appear to be in desperate want of ritual and guiding principles. 

This truth is reflected in the spate of atheist books aimed at mimicking theology's (often) enviable mastery of the creation of community and the imparting of meaning to their adherents (see Alain De Botton's "Religion For Atheists" and Terry Eagleton's "Culture and the Death of God").  

So too is there a deep and real human need to live life with purpose and meaning - something atheists can only attempt to do by living according to an agreed upon fiction of their own devising.  As I've said and written many times, if there is no God, then there is no meaning or purpose save what individuals invent to call "meaningful."  Hence, there will be many attempts to co-opt the "good" and desirable aspects of religion to plaster over this glaring (and ultimately fatal) flaw in atheism.  The atheist's only other alternative is to fully accept and embrace the inherent bleakness and lack of hope that is inseparable from his or her world-view - something that most of them are understandably reluctant to do. Therefore, the creation of a 10 Commandments for Atheists is another stab at creating meaning and principle from so much vapor.

Regarding the title, I find it perplexing that atheists would want to explore their "values."  Why?  What values are there to be held in the first place and can any two atheists be said to share a set of these common "values?"  If so, where did they get them from?  From a materialist's perspective, a "value" is nothing more than an electro-chemical impulse that occurs in the three pounds of squiggly pudding encased in the skull.  That pudding produces a lot of those impulses.  Are they in any explicable way different from say a lightning storm?  Does the storm have any "meaning" or "values?"  Clearly not.  It would therefore seem fundamentally paradoxical for atheists to explore their "values."  So much for the title.  How about the "commandments" themselves?

Here's #1:

"I. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief."

Ok, several questions come to mind.  First of all, what is meant by the "world" - presumably just physicality - in essence a lot of electrons, etc.  Why the desire to understand a large amount of random and meaningless particles?  Also, many atheists believe that there is no such thing as free will.  If that's the case, how would we be able to arrive at any conclusions regarding a things's reality or non-reality given that we are just "programmed" to believe one thing or another. Furthermore, how do we know that our faculties (themselves products of random and meaningless forces) are reliable to begin with?  One may have a desire to "understand the world" but what "belief" could that possibly engender?  Belief in what?

It would probably be instructive and interesting to go through each one but I think this suffices for now to evidence the point I'm making - that atheists would be better off (as some have) acknowledging the limitations of their way of thinking and working on ways of unburdening themselves of the (from their perspective anyway) fictitious and erroneous desire for a coherent and meaningful set of principles for living.  Theology has that one under lock and key.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Bias Is a Two-Way Street

A post of mine was recently critiqued as essentially an exercise in wishful thinking.  I had been bothered by the seeming disappearance (or even lack of existence) of the "Paleo-Hebrew" script that we are now all familiar with in the course of Jewish history.  Given that much of Kabbalistic thought is built off of those letters, the idea that they were introduced in the time of Ezra (many centuries later than the Jewish tradition suggests) is potentially troubling to a theist like myself.  After doing some research, I came up with an answer that satisfied me and found a similar approach discussed on a blog called Aish Das.

The blogger known as the "Atheodox Jew" begs to differ.  His contention is that in the same way that hokey alternative medicine practices such as the "dowsing rod" (which he believes the practitioner subconsciously moves in accord with his wishes) are merely the result of below the surface bias - so too is the belief that there was an original Hebrew alphabet that was carefully preserved over time and only introduced to the masses later in Jewish history.

Fine.  This contention can be argued and approached from a variety of historical, archaeological and philosophical perspectives.  What I find irksome about the contention is the (all too common) self-congratulatory style with which many "free-thinkers" conduct their thought.  While leveling the charge of hopeless and wanton bias at the believer, the skeptic often seems wholly unaware of the bias and unsubstantiated assumptions with which he draws his conclusions.

For instance, Atheodox Jew writes that "Billions of years of evolution have imbued us with a formidable intuitive capacity, i.e. the ability to make spot assessments of circumstances, to sense things about ourselves and our environment, in order to take the kinds of actions that will help us survive."  As popular as this belief may be, it is simply an assumption.  There is no formal proof that this is the case, there is no model by which to test it and furthermore, it oftentimes seems that human beings are actually quite deficient in this capacity to begin with.

Though they don't like to explore it much, the history of science and "free-thinking" is littered with egregious examples of gross bias and group-think.  Yoram Bogacz offers a stunning example of this phenomenon in his book Genesis and Genes whereby the entire scientific community concluded that the age of the Earth was 100 million years - largely due to the great influence of Lord Kelvin.  Here were the results:

By the end of the 19th century, there was an entrenched, virtually  indisputable scientific consensus that the Earth and the Sun (and thus the universe)  were at most 100 million years old...the paradigm was pervasive and considered unassailable [much like today's views of evolution].  It was the consequence of fifty years of determined scientific effort, involving dozens of researchers  in multiple disciplines.  This result was repeated in countless books, monographs, journals, symposia, lectures and articles in popular magazines and newspapers.  Virtually all scientists and educated members of the public were convinced of the veracity of the paradigm.  It was almost inconceivable that results from such apparently-independent methodologies, drawn from such a wide array of disciplines and produced by the application of the most advanced tools of science could converge to such a narrow limit coincidentally.

Today it has been totally discarded.  

Despite this obvious truth about people - all people - Atheodox Jew goes on to make various assumptions that he finds meaningful  - about cosmology, and about linguistics.  On the latter, he cites a paper by UCLA professor William Schniedewind on the apparent evolution of the Hebrew letters in question.  In response I'd like to share a salient quote from Professor Schniedewind himself where he correctly affirms that "the assessment of the evidence here - and in other cases - depends quite a bit on the assumptions that we bring to the linguistic data."  (How the Bible Became a Book, P.179)  Indeed.

I once had the pleasure of meeting with psychoanalyst and physicist Dr. Jeffrey Satinover.  Over coffee I asked him how I (as a layman) could make sense of the fact that there are credible paleontologists who draw completely opposing conclusions regarding the fossil record - some seeing it as proof positive of the Darwinian theory and others as a refutation of it!  He made a fascinating assertion to me - that the position of the scientists were not scientific but rather emotional.  Each side viewed the data through the lens of his bias and drew the conclusion he most wanted - same data, opposite conclusion.

Everyone is convinced the he or she is a "free-thinker" and that their beliefs are solely the product of rigorous logic and rationality but we would probably all benefit from a frank admission that we are all blinded by one bias or another.