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Everything I Believe about Religion III: The Personal Turn

[The third in a continuing series. Here are parts One and Two.]

I.

Just how close do I get to religion? Let me tell you. Travis Thornton writes:

I read that you have never experienced a relationship with a deity. From what you have written in the past, I don’t think that’s true. Last week I heard that the whole of philosophy boils down to one thing: Love. Love is the unexplained element in life. When people talk about finding God, or seeing God, I think what they mean is the experience of “sensing a love beyond reason,” and unconditional love. Love is the source for our sense of morality, in the way we interact with others of course, but even with the way we interact with ourselves… Is love an illusion? Feel free to interchange the words “Love” and “God” in this paragraph to see what I mean; you’re on your way to a sermon.

If God is love, then I have experienced God, because I’ve clearly experienced love.[1]

I have likewise experienced the deep urge that entropy should have no bite: Let us be eternal, already, because we appear to be the only entities in the universe who would deserve it. Or to whom it would make the slightest bit of difference: Why are electrons eternal, and not humans? Why must there be an end of me? Why must there be a last human being? The very thought of it is an obscenity.

Sometimes, I really really hate that all there is is just atoms and the void. I want an Ubik — I want the preserving grace, the anti-entropy, the remedy for death.

200px-Ubik(1stEd)

I’m pretty sure that I desire the Ubik in exactly the same way that believers do. Only I have never experienced it, and I don’t believe that it exists. There is no Ubik. We are all going to die, and one day, we are all going to be forgotten. And the same goes for everything we love. All of it marches steadily to the void.

We can entertain ourselves in the meantime, and it is right that we should. When we do, all sorts of meaningful questions open up. A finite life need not be senseless. Still, I do really wish I had some Ubik.

II.

In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer writes:

[Humans] practice what I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. That is, we often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of the bottom-up causal laws and randomness that make up so much of our world. Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world… [p 87]

We practice agenticity because evolution has adapted us to do so: When bands of proto-humans first developed consciousness, it became imperative also for them to develop a theory of mind — an understanding that other entities possessed minds more or less like their own, minds whose reactions could at least potentially be predicted. Making successful predictions about the minds of others became more and more important as these others were guided less and less by instinct, and more and more by ideas.

Theory of mind was thus a damn good evolutionary trick. It allowed humans to develop concepts that have remained with us ever since, including family, language, morality, justice, obligation, property, and trade. The ability to act more or less consistently on the inferred content of other people’s minds is one of the things that appears to separate us from the animals. Where animals sometimes seem to show flashes of a theory of mind, we do it habitually. We recognize as unwell all those whose theory of mind consistently fails.

Theory of mind allows humans to be both social and flexible about sociality. Many animals are solitary except for reproduction. Others exhibit a highly organized sociality, but they are almost completely incapable of adapting the set pattern that biology has given them. Humans are among the very few social animals who exhibit multiple patterns of sociality, and I do think both that this versatility has been one of our strengths as a species and that it comes to us thanks to our highly developed ability to infer the presence of other minds.

Evolution, though, does not appear to have set any limits whatsoever on our ability to infer the existence of minds, even when no minds exist. As a result, we clearly do it to excess. Prescientific humans have seen Mind in the winds and the waters, in birth and death, in the corn and the locusts.

Given that they had society — the good trick that ensured the trait’s survival — these other inferred minds hardly mattered much. It wasn’t as if any better explanations were on hand for natural phenomena. And sometimes inferring a mind actually did offer a useful reminder: Plant your crops on time, the ancient Greeks knew. Recall the abduction of Persephone.

To those who say that God is love, or that God supplies an Ubik, I must reply with the evolutionary account. We see love. We see that there is a pattern to it. We infer all too easily a mind behind the pattern. We desire an Ubik. We understand that life would be better if it existed. We infer a Person who would supply it. All too easily. God is a trick that we have played, beautifully, unwittingly, upon ourselves.

III.

“There is a person behind this” serves as a human’s first explanation for nearly everything.

I observe, though, that whenever a competing explanation is even barely able to pass the weakest tests that we set for it, we readily welcome it in. We then discard the earlier, person-based explanation: Long before the germ theory of disease was well-established, Europeans had begun discarding the idea that God personally ordained each of the plagues that they periodically suffered.

Were bad smells to blame for malaria? It is an explanation, even if it’s a totally wrong one. And, as an explanation, it did pass certain tests: Places free from the stink were often free from the disease named after it.

And that’s all it takes to banish agenticity from our explanations! It doesn’t matter that mosquitoes transmit malaria. We don’t need the right explanation, or even a good explanation. We just need a not wholly implausible explanation, and when we have it, we will readily set aside the Mind. To explain something by saying God did it is thus a lot like farting in public: We mostly try not to, even if our animal bodies really, really want us to.

Note

[1] Or perhaps I haven’t experienced love. It’s a topic I’ve covered in the past. How, after all, would I know? “When it happens, you’ll know it” sits badly with a philosophical skeptic like me, who often must be exceedingly modest about the claims to similarity between his mind and those of others. Asking how I will know love immediately outs me as someone who doesn’t know love yet, although this sort of summary judgment does seem more than a little unfair.

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54 thoughts on “Everything I Believe about Religion III: The Personal Turn

  1. Still, I do really wish I had some Ubik.

    This is the number one thing that I fail at communicating to some of my theist friends. The choice to live forever in heaven with my loved ones with all of the ice cream I can eat is *NOT* the difference between choosing to believe that it will happen or not.

    Yesterday, they were listening to comedian Tim Hawkins sing “Atheist Bible Camp Songs” and having a good laugh about it and I thought better of explaining exactly what they weren’t grasping… sigh. Friggin’ theists.

    ( http://youtu.be/eVnFMy7A9mY (if you’re inclined to listen))

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    • Jay,
      I once reduced a Catholic schoolgirl (around my age) to tears with the idea that I “didn’t care” whether heaven existed or not. She could understand me not believing in it…that wasn’t the issue.

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      • I think a lot of atheists and skeptics dispense with diplomacy when having these sorts of discussions with theists. We should bear in mind that theists are intelligent human beings with powerful emotions about their world views (emotions ingrained in our evolutionary legacy, as Jason points out in the OP) and who are acting on good intentions (or at minimum, who sincerely perceive themselves to be thus motivated).

        It’s so easy to go from “There is no evidence for God’s existence” to “There is no evidence for God’s existence, you dummy” that a lot of theists will mentally insert the last two words into that assertion even if those words are not spoken, intended, or implied. And then they feel like they’ve been insulted. If you’re an atheist undertaking to to engage with theists, it’s worth it to take some time in your preparation for debate to find a way to offer the theist an acknowledgement of dignity. You may even find that your arguments become more persuasive that way.

        We should also reserve a degree of intellectual modesty about our own position: true, it is exceedingly unlikely that there is a God, but no one can state without making an irrational leap of faith that it is certain there is no God. It is fair to request a theist to move from a position of claiming rational certainty about God’s existence to one that acknowledges that theism requires a degree of faith, by which term I mean assuming the truth of something notwithstanding an absence of objective evidence for that proposition.

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      • “I once reduced a Catholic schoolgirl (around my age) to tears…”

        I can’t help but picture you as Wednesday Addams. “Yes, but are they made out of REAL girls scouts?”

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      • Burt,

        I don’t think that atheists should abandon diplomacy and basic decency when speaking to believers, but there is a certain element of incredulity at the special treatment religion receives in our society.

        We rightly identify and shame people who believe unreasonable things about climate change, history, and other issues. I can’t fault people who also think it’s about time to hold religious irrationality to the same standards.

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      • In my experience, some religious people simply can’t grasp basic facts about atheism unless you’re blunt. Really blunt.

        Not because they’re dumb, but because lacking a belief in God is often a very alien concept to them.

        They often struggle to grasp your point of view at all, so being blunt is often necessary because otherwise misunderstandings will propagate. They will…insert concepts..into what you say, so it makes sense from their perspective.

        They’re struggling to understand a worldview that lacks a central tenet of theirs and thus will distort what you say in an attempt to understand it. (And I freely admit, I don’t get how they see the world and struggle not to do that to them. And as an atheist, I’ve got a lot more experience at being genuinely misunderstood like that).

        So you can’t give room for that, and it gets repetitive and old at times.

        Doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about it, of course.

        But I’ve had religious people genuinely upset over my lack of faith, like they’d learned I had just been blinded — I was, in their eyes, missing something critical. Handicapped.

        I used to be a bit more sensitive about it, but as I got older I understood it a bit more from their perspective.

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      • Perhaps it’s because I’m a lawyer and I’m used to phrasing things in a way that is both friendly and professional in tone but still as direct and powerfully persuasive as possible. I see no reason why a statement’s being direct and unambiguous is mutually exclusive with its also being friendly and respectful.

        Basically, I’m in the Phil Plait camp here: don’t be a dick. If you have to be a dick to get your point across, it’s unlikely that you’ve found the most persuasive argument available to you. I generally reserve (intentional) dickishness for responding to an overt threat, and my threshold for interpreting what constitutes a threat may be higher than others’.

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      • Burt,

        Some people take “I don’t believe in your God” followed by “or any God” as a personal attack.

        Literally, stating my own personal beliefs is, in effect, being a dick to them.

        I don’t mean I sneered and said “I don’t believe in God [subtext: because I am not a gullible fool!]” followed by an evil, villain laugh.

        Even more seem offended when their best arguments don’t sway you, even when you please ask them not to try to convert you because you have no interest.

        Honestly, the people that get most offended seem to be the ones who have their religion as the keystone of their life. Not believing at all — not believing wrongly (anyone can make mistakes) but not believing at ALL can bring that into question, which is — judging by some reactions — often upsetting.

        I’d say the most dickish I get these days is an overly patient response to “Isn’t atheism just a religion like mine?” or “So you don’t believe in good or evil/How can you be moral” or the ever favorite “You’re just mad at God”.

        No, seriously guys. I just don’t believe in God, the way I don’t believe in Zeus. The only reason it even comes up, in the way not believing in Zeus doesn’t, is because it’s a big deal to virtually everyone else. I literally don’t think about God until someone brings it up.

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      • There’s an interesting conundrum here. Most people who are atheist are quiet atheist, or so it seems to me, simply because atheism is met with so much ‘how can you be moral?’ bigotry. Most of my closest friends probably do not realize I don’t believe in the same God they do, their presumption is that, since I’m not obviously some other religion and come from the area, I’m Christian.

        The phenomena of “New Atheist,” the in-your-face, religion-is-the-root-of-much-evil atheist make headlines because they often delight in upsetting the apple cart; and I do agree with , that’s not necessarily helpful.

        But when it comes to rudeness on the topic, I think there’s a gaping double standard here; while it’s not okay to be rude to believers by belittling their belief, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable for them to belittle my non-belief.

        I agree with on the lack of understanding atheists often confront when they’re honest with theists, and the only way past is some certain level of bluntness. But I’d find this world a much nicer place if the theists also learned to refrain from rudeness, too. Because I don’t have deity to forgive me, my goodness/badness rests squarely on my own two shoulders, and I take that responsibility very, very seriously; when I step into oblivion, it would be nice to have left this world a bit better than it was when I came into it.

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      • Yeah, I get that sometimes too. Or I get a look of shock and concern, as though I were injured or ill or somehow in need of immediate emergency assistance. (“Assistance”? No, that’s not quite the right word. “Saving.” Yeah that seems more like what those folks want to do.) But mostly, since the topic of non-belief is generally pretty boring to me, I typically don’t raise the subject with someone; if the subject comes up I’ll often weave around having to disclose anything about myself which often as not gets noticed and respected. After all, mostly other people don’t set out to be dicks, either; most people want to be liked and so they practice being likable.

        I recall one such conversation — with a bright, friendly, and very Christian student in my business ethics class, natch — in which I was able to quote and refer by allegory to a variety of Bible stories and moral lessons from the Bible. “You really know this stuff, for someone who says he doesn’t believe it,” she said. “Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I’m ignorant,” was my response. It was really that she just hadn’t thought it through — of course an atheist could read and understand the Bible, and even to a degree respect at least some of what was in it; she just hadn’t realized that a) an atheist might be interested in what the Bible had to say, or b) someone might read it and walk away from the experience still not believing.

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      • Isn’t this assuming that all religions believe the same thing? I’m a not a particularly religious Jew but don’t see religion as a great big evil thing either. The thing that sometimes annoys me about the more militant sort of atheist is that they blend every religion together even though they are quite distinct. To a certain extent this sort of thought process makes sense because if you see all religions as false than it doesn’t really make any sense to distinguish between them. Its still frustrating to deal with people that can’t tell the basic differences between religions apart.

        , your going to have to parse that out a little. What society are talking about and what sort of special treatment does religion get? I’ve known people from very secular and irreligious European countries that complained about the special privileges that religion gets.

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      • writes of a double standard: “while it’s not okay to be rude to believers by belittling their belief, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable for them to belittle my non-belief.” I’ve encountered this, too, and that’s a place I get my dander up a little bit. It’s not socially acceptable that your belief is privileged over my non-belief.

        And it’s when this happens that I’m glad that I adhere to diplomacy as a baseline standard of behavior. When I get the “atheism isn’t worthy of respect” attitude, I can say, “You know, I’ve shown you and your religion respect, so even though we don’t agree, I think you owe me the same courtesy.” Typically, they don’t even realize that they just crossed the line into assholery, and they’ll apologize and try to do better.

        Note: this play is only available if you in fact have not been a dick. If you have been a dick, your interlocutor can respond, “No, you’ve pretty much been the dick here, so you’ve set the tone for this conversation.” So, once again, don’t be a dick. (Doesn’t mean you have to be a pussy, either: a little Team America joke for y’all there.)

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      • I’m speaking from experience in American culture, but this seems to cut across cultures. Religion enjoys a certain level of reverence and immunity to criticism that other types of ideologies don’t. There is a much greater tolerance for religious dress, actions, and attitudes than for other types of beliefs, particularly when those attitudes or actions would be considered illegal or inappropriate without the use of religion as a justification.

        People who defend bigotry toward gay people or women get much more sympathy when they claim their attitudes are founded in religious belief. People who wish to withhold basic medical care from their children can cite religious belief as a justification to avoid child abuse charges (although this does appear to be changing slowly). The lack of progress in protecting basic reproductive rights for women is due in part to religious objections to women’s private healthcare choices.

        In political discussions, moderates usually seem to understand that people on the other side of the spectrum sincerely hold their beliefs and respect them for it. It’s accepted that political ideas and policy stances can be held up to scrutiny. The same is true of scientific research, consumer goods, and most other topics.Try that with religious belief, and you’re branded as intolerant or attacking someone’s faith. So why the level of protection that very little else seems to receive?

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      • In order to read stuff that I don’t always agree with, I have taken to reading Rod Dreher’s blog on a regular basis. It has been an enlightening (heh) experience.

        One of the real conversation-stoppers is the concept of damnation. There are commenters there who appear to sincerely believe that homosexual acts will lead to eternal damnation. As a result, one of the most important battles this person can fight is a persistent vehement rejection of the normalization of gay marriage. (I will also note that the host is very interested in same-sex marriage as compared to, say, divorce rates.)

        Personally, I think the idea of a god obsessed with people’s genitalia is just absurd and a gross misreading of the source material.

        But it’s very difficult to have a dialog with a person who asserts that he is acting in the best interests of gay people because he is trying to save them from eternal torment.

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      • “It’s so easy to go from “There is no evidence for God’s existence” to “There is no evidence for God’s existence, you dummy” that a lot of theists will mentally insert the last two words into that assertion even if those words are not spoken, intended, or implied. And then they feel like they’ve been insulted.”

        This is very true, and boy does it bug me. The whole “New Atheist” thing bothers me, actually.

        I feel like I’ve spent my entire lie with friends, neighbors, dates, and elected officials telling me that when I die I will face eternal torment and that I absolutely deserve it. I’ve heard people announce that I shouldn’t be allowed to hold public office, shouldn’t be allowed to mange people in the workplace, won’t be able to stay married, shouldn’t be allowed to raise my own children (or hold a job reaching others), and any time some nut job takes a rifle to a post office, mall, or school, I have to hear that I’m really no different.

        And then, like, two or three guys write books saying that religion is numb, and suddenly everyone gets their noses all bent out of joint and suddenly making that kind of public statement about someone’s belief is somehow suddenly off limits.

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      • The double-standard bothers me too. We laugh, but there is a lot of truth to the pie chart meme that gets dredged up from the depths of the internet in response to Christian outrage. It’s almost like the mere existence of people who don’t believe and the temerity of those people to make their opinion known triggers feelings of oppression in some Christians.

        One of the points made in some “New Atheist” works is one that goes unnoticed in these discussions. There’s a large about of “believing in belief” supporting the prejudice against atheists. While some people are highly intolerant, there’s a larger population that is willing to accept you, as long as you believe in something, even if it’s not their particular flavor.

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      • , this might just be because of the circles I inhabit but I haven’t noticed that one bit. From my observations religious misogynists and homophobes get no more breaks for their beliefs than the less religious ones. The law and policy isn’t exactly going the way they want it to.

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      • If you’re not a Dick, you’ll certainly never get any Ubik.

        He was a theist, of course, largely because of certain experiences he had that he couldn’t explain any other way than as a direct communication from God.

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      • There also different ways of saying no about God.

        I would say that for many types of God belief there is insufficient evidence, or even nothing that can properly count as evidence at all. As an example, I can easily imagine the sort of evidence that would lead me to believe that the dead can be restored to life. I can also easily imagine the sort of evidence that would lead me to believe that either of the two creation stories in Genesis was correct. But while I can imagine the evidence, it isn’t out there to be found.

        I would say that other types of God belief ask us to affirm things that are logically impossible. I can’t even conceive of the type of evidence that would lead me to affirm a Trinity, for example.

        I’ll have more to say about this soon.

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  2. I wish I had some Ubik too. Ain’t none on offer anywhere; ain’t any more likely to be offered than the Joe Chip coin I don’t have to buy it with. But there are a lot of vendors claiming to have it available. As you described in the previous “Everything I Believe About Religion” post, there’s no particular reason to believe any of them.

    Also, I like Shermer’s phrase “agenticity.” The concept he attaches to that neologism is important. The hand of God no more guides the creation of complex patterns like evolution than it does the creation of a simple pattern like the formation of a sugar crystal from syrup.

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  3. Agenticity.

    It’s nice to have that word, thank you. It was definitely missing from my vocabulary.

    I pretty much love everything about this post. First, Ubik may be my favorite book ever. Yet the only other person I’ve known who loved it too is my sweetie, and that’s probably only because he’d spent years living with me under the influence of Ubik that I don’t ever have.

    The second thing that shines through here is the ‘who’s them?’ questions that arise. They are doing something to us. They’re hiding in the closet or under the bed. Most conspiracy theory roots in a ‘they,’ and it’s that grasping for a controlling mind, a pattern, reason where there is none (or none obvious, unless you’ve got some sort of system for viewing sub-atomic particles as wave by.)

    The third thing is that’s awesome is the concept of love as god– really, the concept of spirituality, connectedness and the miracle thereof is the essence of god. Atheist that I am, I think recognizing that spiritual experiences are part and parcel of being human. Of Being. Though this is the place where theists claim dominion, that’s a false and faulty claim to my mind. Equally important, though are loves’ antipodes — hate, spite, and domination; the dark and evil impulses are equally part and parcel of religion, of spirituality, and often done in the name of god, and almost always by those who think that God’s top-down authority somehow gives them the right to curtail others’ inalienable rights; done in agenticity.

    Because we are Being, it is so hard to accept UnBeing. Oblivion. Limbo. Purgatory. Even hell, eternal torture and punishment, seems better then the nihilation of UnBeing; all these things I’ve witnessed — how can that be temporal? Once we lived at the center of the universe, and now we live in the edges of a spiral arm of a minor galaxy, the stuff of spent stars we never saw glow on the Universe’s horizon.

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    • If I could I’d move Michael Shermer up a few notches in the canon of new atheists, and probably bump Sam Harris down a few pegs too, if I’m being honest. “Agenticity” is a big part of why I’d do it — it’s an incredibly useful idea to have on hand.

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      • Until very recently, when I thought of “New Atheist,” I thought only of Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins. All other atheists, like Shermer, were intellectually honest, and therefore not “New Atheists,” but people to be respected.

        However, a few weeks ago, I read Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” whose main character is called, in the novel, a “new atheist,” but who is not a Hitchens-Harris-Dawkins guy. On some level, I thought that was a misrepresentation of new atheism (and it’s also possible the novel is over my head and I’m not getting it all). But now I wonder if I’ve just been too sweeping with the term “new atheist.”

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    • I have been completely non-bothered by my eventual non-existence since I was a teenager.

      I figure I have been non-existent before and I don’t remember it being so bad.

      Certainly better than eternal torture.

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      • But at the same time, you take convenient steps to avoid a sooner non-existence. You don’t go stepping in front of moving cars and such.

        The possibility of not existing for a time is unterrifying to me. Indeed, if I could enter suspended animation and re-emerge a century later, I might very well do it, save only for the fact that my family depends on me in the present.

        But the possibility of never experiencing any future at all — that I find appalling.

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      • But the possibility of never experiencing any future at all — that I find appalling.

        I wonder if a good definition for ‘soul,’ might be the ability to imagine a having a future? Last night’s reading of Kenner was of the ancient’s struggle with soul; it’s like they were trying to figure out neuroscience; looking to understand the mechanism of the brain and it’s relationship to the body.

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  4. As an agnostic with strong atheist leanings, I’ve always found the “God = love” idea to be a bit cheesy and nonsensical. Yes, love is mysterious and powerful, but it’s an emotion, not a being outside of ourselves, much less one of deity caliber.

    Even if the idea is popular as a way to promote tolerance, I think it’s part of the tendency to sweep differences under the rug when discussing religion. In this sense, the fundamentalists are right about one thing, if your god is ok and my god is equally ok, there’s really no strong reason to believe in any of it.

    The strong desire to identify patterns, anthropomorphize them, and assign causality to them if a big part of our nature. But, another key part of being human is being able to use the power of our minds to overcome natural tendencies that don’t help us. We are fully capable of identifying fallacies that lead us to believe in religion, conspiracy theories, and men in the moon. We should be striving to overcome these tendencies and identify facts instead of subscribing to fictions, no matter how well-intentioned.

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    • I think you’re missing the dimension of love as an act of the will. Love is an emotion, but the emotion is fairly meaningless unless there’s a decision, a commitment behind it. I always think of the marriage vow, to love as long as you shall live. That doesn’t make sense if you’re looking at love strictly as an emotion. You can’t guarantee what kind of emotion you’ll feel tomorrow. But love as a priority, that you can promise. To put someone else before yourself. That can be brutal – there’s nothing necessarily sentimental about it.

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    • Eh, darn it, I see I didn’t quite finish my thought there. The idea of God as love isn’t God as wuv. To a Christian, it’s someone dripping blood and nailed to a tree.

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      • I don’t have a problem with the idea that love can inspire acts of self-sacrifice and that feeling love and acting on that feeling are two different things.

        However, I’m not convinced that a god incarnating as a human and enduring execution in order to provide a loophole in a system that he is supposed to have created is an act of profound love. I’m more concerned by the seeming lack of a good answer to the problem of suffering.

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      • Even after I stopped believing I thought the idea of God loving so much he’d sactifice himself to save us was a wonderful myth. Then I realized we’re talking about a God sacrificing himself to save us from a hell he’d created on his own whim, to save them from a pointlessly cruel fate that he’d imposed on his own whim, and suddenly it seemed less like than a perverse sort of passive aggression.

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      • , thats the Christian concept. In Judaism, the need for God to sacrifice himself doesn’t exist because we don’t believe in original sin and are kind of fuzzy on what happens after death. Its all about this life, nothing about the next.

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      • Judaism’s focus on the mortal life is commendable. It’s one of the things I like most about it.

        In my experience and reading, it seems like followers of most monotheistic faiths can’t escape the idea that humanity is incomplete without god. Original sin is probably the most pernicious form of this belief, and it’s one of the things I like least about religion in general. Why do humans have to create a god-shaped hole in themselves?

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      • Lee,
        Oh, I’m aware of that. I was responding to Pinky’s dripping blood and nailed to a tree comment. I get why sacrifice is an act of love. I just don’t get why “see how you’ve made me suffer to avoid the torment I’m going to inflict on you if you don’t love me” is an act of love.

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      • Hanley – What you’re saying makes sense unless there’s something in the nature of sin, something objective, that demands a payment. If justice is just a justification just to give meaning to tragedy or to create a justice-shaped hole, then you’d be right. If justice reflects some truth, though, then what you’re seeing as a whim may be necessary. And see below.

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      • Brooke – First off, see above. But as to the concept of original sin, that’s the one idea in religion that I never had to struggle with. It’s important for any theory to match reality, and the most obvious thing in human nature is that bad action is our go-to move. If it were always selfish, then I could understand it, but our bad actions are as likely to hurt ourselves as others.

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  5. You should wish that *I* had some Ubik. All the rest of you are figments of my imagination, when I’m gone…

    … then where will you be?

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      • iv. The lie of the small light

        Hansa was of sound mind and proud soul and only once asked YISUN a conceited question, when he was very old and his bones were set about with the dust and bent with age. It was about his own death.

        “Lord,” said Hansa, allowing a doubt to blossom, “What is ending?”
        It was said later he regretted this question but none could confirm the suspicion.

        “Ending is a small light in a vast cavern growing dim,” said YISUN, plainly, as was the manner.
        “When the light goes out, what will happen to the cavern?”

        “It and the universe will cease to exist, for how can we see anything without any light, no matter how small?” said YISUN. Hansa was somewhat dismayed, but sensed a lesson, as was the manner.

        “Darkness is the natural state of caverns,” said he, vexingly, “if I were a cavern, I would be glad to be rid of the pest of light and exist obstinately anyway!”

        “Hansa is observant,” said YISUN.

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  6. I’d be interested to hear how people step to non-belief. For me, it was a profound relief, a letting go. I first knew when I was a child; it just didn’t make sense. But children learn to behave the way people around them behave, and my family were essentially non-practicing Christians. We went through some rough times, and I’ve seen most pray devoutly. But I also remember my grandfather saying Mary was just a prostitute; and while I don’t remember when, he died when I was 9. We didn’t attend church regularly, I went until I was 8 with my older sister because that’s what she thought good girls do. (She was one of those teens trying to be a good girl in the ’60’s; and she regrets it to this day. She thinks Easy Rider’s a cool movie, doesn’t see the dystopian in it.)

    Then, I ignored it like most closeted atheists do.

    I tried to re-engage as a young parent. And it did not work for me, again. That’s when I let go, and I was clear to my immediate family — and any others who asked — that I did not believe in a god, but I believed in the wonder of everything; that we exist in this universe. That is a miracle, and since we can’t explain it, we should just marvel at it. It’s bigger then our understanding. Maybe someday; it’s worth striving for, I firmly believe that, so I guess that’s believing in something, and most people would name it belief in science.

    From what I know of science, my guess is that our singularity is not particularly singular; that it’s quite common. Nothing happens just once; why should our big bang? That’s an awfully lonely thought. My guess is that ‘dark matter’ is the weight of nearby universes, like a clump of frogs eggs. But there is no way to prove that now, and I’m comfortable admitting that.

    This moment, real wonder is that I — a little woman in the woods with a rudimentary self-education, can ponder that question before my own oblivion, and not need to ascribe it to some master design, but to chaos settling, building up and settling again. It makes sense to me that universes explode into being, they grow and clump up. Perhaps sometimes, they clump into dense gravity wells explode outward, giving birth to new universes. After they’ve given off energy, they cool down and die. And new universes grow. So I guess I believe in something.

    What Aristotle would think, had he known about the periodic table and the speed of light and the laws of thermodynamics and photons and evolution? Imagine handing him a length of linen rope, and tell him it’s the distance light travels in a microsecond. I think he’d have been easier with the notion of flux. Agenticity looking for who instead of what, is a distraction.

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    • If there is no agent for a particular phenomenon, Aristotle would say, then that is the way things are: all of this advanced science lets you perceive things better than he did back in Greece 2,500 years ago. He would tell you to use your mind to interact with the world the way it is, not the way you would prefer it to be.

      He would remind you that even if there is no agency in things like the evolution of humanity or the fearsome sound of thunder (I doubt Aristotle really thought thunder was the rumbling of an angry Zeus), you are still a moral agent yourself.

      So Aristotle would still tell you to live your life well. He would still tell you to strive for happiness, a particular kind of happiness that is more than pleasure and finds the golden mean of behavior. The lack of gods on Olympus and the absence of Hades below to receive your shade upon your death does not relieve you of your obligation to live well.

      Indeed, if this life is all you are ever going to live, instead of getting more go-rounds after you die, then it is that much more important that you do that.

      …That’s what I think he’d tell us.

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  7. Sometimes, when I’m trying to explain a physical or dynamical concept to Jason more deeply, I say something like “this object, because it is behaving this way, wants to…” at which point he always stops me. Which is fair, but annoying. However…

    Do ants want to seek food for their colony and work all their days doing so? Do female cats want to mate, given that every mating causes them pain? Do we want to breathe?

    The truth is that, perceptually speaking, any given individual cannot easily know, without the assistance of accrued human knowledge, which systems behave according to agenticity, and which obey stricter, predictable laws. It is even hard to know which of our own “actions” involve agency, and which ones are driven by conditioning, with any consideration of the behavior merely rationalization.

    Being part of a community that focuses on what it is–what it “looks like”–to be an agent, and what sorts of actions are right and proper, has value to human beings, who typically do best when they are truly adaptable to changing conditions. We ought to both correctly recognize agency as opposed to instinct and to be effective agents ourselves.

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    • Very few female animals want to mate, period. That they are not fighting back at their rape is mostly due to a natural instinct to preserve your energy for when you can get free (wrap a cat in a towel, and watch how still they are — yet their eyes gleam with hate).

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    • The truth is that, perceptually speaking, any given individual cannot easily know, without the assistance of accrued human knowledge, which systems behave according to agenticity, and which obey stricter, predictable laws.

      Agenticity is a lot like what Daniel Dennett calls the intentional stance — which is, if I grasp it correctly, the set of tools that we adopt when we believe that we are dealing with a mind, and not with something less than a mind. Consider the difference here:

      Do I say that a rock wants to fall into a gravity well? Never.

      Do I say that Deep Blue wants to control the d5 square so it can restrain the queenside pawns? It would be absurd not to.

      In the very narrow field of chess, one has to adopt the intentional stance when dealing with computers. Chatbots on the other hand… well, just look…

      http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1858

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      • One of my Sweetie’s projects has been establishing a dialogue between two chat bots. Currently, it decays into a loop, usually, “I’m sorry,” and “No, I’m sorry,” quickly. With three, it immediately falls apart.

        I love the AI creation myth in Neuromancer, but it’s too lonely to contemplate, insanely lonely. My retelling of the tale would have to be a community awakening. And the suicide in All Tomorrow’s Parties, the ring habitat — a series of plates around a sun — was a hard place to imagine someone not imagining a future.

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    • Do ants want to seek food for their colony and work all their days doing so? Do female cats want to mate, given that every mating causes them pain? Do we want to breathe?

      Does this get at the difference between agency and agenticity? A rock has no agency, saying that it wants to do something, imbuing it with agency, seems the very definition of agenticity. The glacial tallus that works its way through New England roads are lifted by frost; yet folks are prone to saying those rocks ‘want to bust up the roads.’ Many of my favorite Native American stories give agency to animals in a way I would see know agency; yet those stories also teach of the animals behaviors and habits in useful ways; by knowing how tricksy Skunk is to Glooskap, you learn a lot about skunks behaviors and how to avoid Skunk, or getting skunked. I imagine the kid who got skunked in an Abenaki village suffered no end of teasing for it.

      As we learn neuroscience, it won’t surprise me if we learn that skunk actually does exercise a great deal of agency within certain boundaries of instinct; certainly decisions about this way or that, a rational of skunkliness; because there are decisions, there is some agency, defined as, “action or intervention, especially such as to produce a particular effect.” When we’re looking at instinct, the problem is how much of choice is just random, how much is state of awareness.

      So I would say that agency is having a choice, agenticity is attributing choice where it doesn’t exist or (this is important) failing to recognize it (and falsely attributing actual agency to another agent).

      Take the small agencies of the ant.

      Last summer, I noticed a trail of ants moving ant eggs through my kitchen. I don’t like ants in my kitchen; to just about the same degree that I don’t like using pesticides in my house, leading to hours of ant study so that I could figure out 1) where they were coming from, 2) where they were going to, and 3) how I could get rid of them without poisoning my nest. Of course, this also created opportunity for the ants to totally charm me.

      I could not see any sort of threat at their original location — a hole in the ground outside the basement door to the back yard. The ants taking the eggs from the nest were unopposed; there were no ant battles or ant bodies to suggest an invasion and egg theft. If the ants were moving their own eggs, they must have some reason for to make it worth the risk of moving their eggs from the hole outside, up through my basement, across an exposed expanse of kitchen floor and into a drawer in the pantry. There, the ants that had taken the eggs from the nest turned and went back for more, other ants that looked the same took the eggs from the drawer out the front door, and down into a hole in the ground outside my front door. Relocating eggs or stolen food source, the ants were literally moving from my back yard to my front, through the kitchen, with a relay point.

      So something someway decided this organized activity had to happen.

      Perhaps there is no agency there, perhaps I’m seeing agenticity. But that a halfway house for ant eggs suggests that hive minds have a great deal of agency, and I suspect I’ll never comprehend that agency for a lack of knowledge of ant behavior, so I’m left with the agenticity of ants.

      The accumulation and refinement of human knowledge seems rather hive like; it’s my biggest problem with the concept of individual oblivion; but I can’t quite put my finger on why yet.

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