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I never meta eulogy of an idea I didn’t like April 21, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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In dealing with periodic depression and even moments of feeling invincible, powerful, and brilliant (which I know I am not), I sometimes have this sensation of this overwhelming sense of certainty concerning the thoughts which inhabit my mind.  When I feel confident, I believe it.  When I feel powerless, I believe it.  And sometimes, not often but significantly, I have another kind of experience associated with a different kind of certainty; not of the nature of the world, but of my relationship to it.

It is a feeling of transcendence, being able to comprehend issues in a way which are barely articulate, but which my mind is able to dance with freely for a little while.  And then it goes away, and I am unable to describe it well in many cases.  Sometimes, these ideas turn into blog posts.  This is not an example.

In fact, the idea I did have earlier today, while at work, fizzled away as I had no time to jot down the mnemonic phrase which would have stored it for me for later.  This post is, in fact, started as an attempt to resurrect this idea, but is turning into a meta-idea about a dead idea.  A eulogy of sorts.

The ideas contained here are the neighbors of this idea, vaguely related by adjacency and possibly kinship, but missing it almost entirely.  Like the dead, I can now only speak of it in vague, impersonal terms.  I knew this idea, for a moment, but it is gone now perhaps to never be met again.  So, rather than merely despair at it’s loss, perhaps we should meet it’s family and perhaps a piece of it will shimmer through them.

There is a feeling that I have, sometimes, which I could call spiritual.  In fact, I used to think of it in this way (sort of), until I started to think about the concept of spirituality and found it to be an empty, meaningless term.  It simply does not point to anything.  It seems to point to something, and this seeming is tied to very powerful parts of our mind, and so this seeming is overwhelming and convincing.

I am not sure, but I think that this type of experience is what people refer to when they talk about having spiritual experiences.  I’ve had them all of my life, but never associated them with either god or anything else supernatural.  What association I used to have with them, while younger, would have been with some sort of Buddhist enlightenment, Taoist insight into the Dao, or perhaps even apprehending a part of Tillich’s Ground of Being.

But don’t worry, you have not lost me to any religious rebirth, or even a crisis of lack-of-faith.  In fact, I have been aware of such concepts, both intellectually and experientially, for many years.  I just never interpreted them as anything (much) more than my brain being weird.  In centuries past, I might have had little choice but to choose a religious life of sorts, having the proclivities to think about things in the ways that many mystics have in the past.  I’m glad I’m alive now.  This life is much more to my liking than that of a monk or strange religious hermit.

Yeah, I’m some sort of atheist mystic.  HA!  Saint ShaunPhilly, indeed.

This sensation usually leaves me with a strong feeling of community and connection to others.  I feel stronger emotional ties to people in my life after such experiences.  I have the sensation of being tied to people around me by some bond, almost tribal in nature, which is almost compelling enough to give the spiritual-but-not-religious some slack.

Almost.

But because I’m also very prone to self-challenging moments of skepticism (OK, cynicism too), I realize that this sensation is an illusion.  And so when I talk with people who get caught up in describing things this way, and tie it to some religious worldview, vague spirituality, etc I am both amused and annoyed.  In such moments I’m watching people rationalize a completely natural brain phenomenon (an interesting one, no doubt) as a spiritual experience, and they are interpreting it as some truth about the universe, and not just a truth about how consciousness often does NOT correlate with reality.

Yes, such experiences teach us things about ourselves, but usually mostly in the context of how the brain processes which make us up operate in relation to reality, and not about reality itself.  Self knowledge and perspective are important, but we do need to have a skeptical method (science) at hand to check our conclusions against.  We need to check our biases, as well as we can, to make sure that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions.

Because when we draw conclusions (which often occurs in a cultural context which is drenched in religious and theological baggage) without skeptical checks, we start to divide ourselves into doctrinal tribes via the similarity of our conclusions.  But we have to be careful to not think I’m talking about religion per se here, because this is a thing we all do (atheists included) and is not limited to religion.

The tribalism which religion utilizes in order to build community, but also to build walls, seems tied to this sense of connectedness which I was describing above.  Granted, for some this connectedness is associated with a human family (these tend to be liberals) rather than a nationalistic or truly tribal connectedness (conservatives).  This sense of tribalism is more fundamental than religion, but religion uses it well.

Religion is not the source of anything accept its own peculiar theological logic puzzles.  Religion is, rather, a strange combination of various cognitive, emotional, and social behaviors and processes.  Getting rid of religion would solve nothing.  Instead, we need to be focused on improving our awareness of how the basic parts of human behavior–emotional blind spots, cognitive biases, and social herd behavior–influence our worldviews and beliefs, so that we can be sure that those beliefs are rational.

In short, we need to be more aware of how our private experience leads to emergent properties in human behavior.  We only have control (limited though it is) of our own mind, and our influence of others will grow from this.

Have you ever been socially talking with a bunch of liberal-minded people about religion?  You know, the types who are not religious themselves (or only vaguely so), but who will speak very respectfully about religions and view criticism as some angry and irrational hatred of other people’s beliefs? They don’t believe any of it (or most of it, at least), but they will not tolerate criticism of people’s sacred cows.  You know, those shouting “Islamophobia” recently.

No?

Well, I have.  Hell, I graduated from  a Quaker school in liberal Philadelphia, so this was my upbringing.  What I learned, over the years is that in many cases what is happening in such encounters was that these spiritual thoughts, feelings, and experiences are somewhat common, especially among sensitive and educated liberals (remember, I’m a liberal in many ways myself, so this is in many ways an internal, and in some ways a self-,criticism).  To criticize the concept in general, and not just specific theological claims, is to criticize their own experience (and thus to criticize them).

And I hope I don’t need to tell you that while liberals are much better, at least where politics comes in, at maintaining a rational scientific literacy and understanding, they fail in many ways.  Profoundly.  Big Pharma, sophisticated theology, theistic evolution,  and…dare I say it…New Age….

This “spiritual” awareness it pretty ubiquitous, and pulling away the curtain to reveal the “wizard” behind it is pretty unsettling.  And when people are unsettled, they act tend to act poorly.  All people have qualities, deep inside and unchosen, which are good and bad.  The problem is that religion allows you to rationalize the bad ones, while giving you the sensation of having provided the good ones in the first place.  The sense of community of an idea, of connectedness and belonging, makes it feel acceptable to rationalize terrible thinking.  Because while most of us have the impulse to think certain things, having an organized group of people who call that idea the truth is a means of escape from thinking more about it.

Skeptics and atheists are not, qua skepticism or  atheism, mean or overly-critical people.  But without a doctrine to appeal to, a skeptic is forced to use reason (and hopefully they will do so) when faced with a challenge.  But those who are attached to the spiritual, the religious, and to theology have a bubble around them which keeps them further away from the skeptical tools they have access to.  They are capable of using those tools, but when emotions come into play, they seem to be too far away to get  hold of.

Here’s to more people abandoning that bubble.

And here’s to an idea, lost, but which was born within the family of these ideas and which may one day be raised again.

Maybe on the third day.  I do go back to work then, so it would make it most annoying for it to be then since I’ll likely forget it again.

I swear, if the universe is somehow conscious, it’s a total dick….

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Thorough and Perpetual Skepticism March 26, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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Skepticism is a method.

I’ll repeat.

skeptical-method-by-amySkepticism is a method.  It is not a set of beliefs or even tentative conclusions (it leads to the latter, however).  You cannot be a skeptic for a little while, come to some conclusions, and stop being skeptical.  OK, well, you can do that, but doing so is counter-productive, assuming you care what’s true and not merely a little better than what you used to think. I mean, if all you want is to ditch Christianity, and you use skepticism to do that and get to Scientology, then it did it’s job, but you left the job partially done (and poorly, in that case).

You have to keep that toolbox open all the time, apply it to new information, and make sure that old information is challenged in light of new data.  It may sound tiring, but being a skeptic is perpetual, and should be applied periodically.

I mean, sure, enjoy your life and don’t constantly analyze information skeptically, but when you hear new claims, be skeptical and either talk it through then or investigate it later.  Assuming you care about whether that thing is true, which brings me to the other thing.

You should be skeptically thorough.  

You should question your assumptions, carefully analyze your worldview about all sorts of things.  Again, not constantly, but periodically at least.  You should be willing to apply the tools of skepticism to all of the important ideas and behaviors you have, because you might miss some set of assumptions if you fail to do so, and end up living a silly lie for no good reason.

What happens if you don’t do this?

Well, being around the atheist community for many years, I’ve seen people find skepticism, apply it to their religious beliefs, and either accept some other religious or spiritual belief because they didn’t follow through or simply stop after doing so.  This is how Christians become Pagans or atheists who oppose inclusiveness in our community and larger skeptical movement.  I’ve also seen tons of skeptics become atheists (as they should) and then fail to apply that skepticism to other things, like Men’s Rights Activism, for example.

No! just no....

No! just no….

Or monogamy.  You know, the acceptance of possessiveness and exclusivity in romantic relationships.  That doesn’t make any sense, except as a rationalization of jealousies, fears, and other unsavory behaviors towards people they supposedly “love.”  I both laugh and cry when I see someone declare love with words clothed in possession (you are “mine”, you “belong to me”, etc). It’s absurd.  I mean, sure, if you simply are not into anyone else, then fine, but if so you don’t need to be possessive or jealous because your happiness with monogamy has nothing to do with the fact that it’s not all about you.

If you love someone, them loving other people should not matter.  Hopefully, they love you too, and you should be willing to share.

I’ve seen the same thing, in reverse order, in the poly community.  Somehow these people come to realize the absurdity of this possessiveness and exclusivity, but don’t think to criticize their basic beliefs about the nature of reality.

I know, I know, I’m weird because I think about stuff like that naturally.

—-

Strengthening your tools

I think that the more aspects of your life you apply skepticism to, the better skeptic you can become.  The more ideas you get over, the easier it can become to think through other ideas.  Don’t stop questioning just because you gave up religion, monogamy, or chasing Bigfoot (seriously, does anyone still really do that?).  Keep applying those tools, and you will be better for it in the long run.  It can be tiring, emotionally, cognitively, and socially, but there are others out there who are willing to help, befriend, and accept you as one of us weird skeptics.

The Devil, Lies, and Atheism March 20, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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“The Biggest ruse of the devil is making us believe that he doesn’t exist,” said Baudelaire.  Except the devil does not exist.  The ruse here only makes sense within a very specific framework; Christian mythology.

H/T atheistcartoons.com

H/T atheistcartoons.com

There is a meme, a lie, really, within much of the Christian world that atheists are Satanic, or at least deceived in this Baudelairesque fashion.  According to this meme, the devil is a liar, thus atheism is a lie.  This idea is rooted in Christian scripture where Satan is seen as the father of lies:

43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. 44 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”

(John 8:43-47)

So, if you accept this mythology as true, or at least inspired by a god that tells the truth, then thinking of atheists as living a lie makes sense, right? Well, I suppose, but let’s look at it this way.  The devil is a character in a set of stories–the mythology which emerges from the biblical collection of books.  This character is, by definition, evil and wrong; the narrative of the story is such that he loses, eventually, and in the mean time his power in the universe is based upon deception and lies.  Those who do not believe the story of YHWH and his various acts through “history” are seen as, essentially, conspiracy theorists who do not accept the “truth.”

But this myth cannot be stretch onto the terrain of reality.  Christianity is simply not true, and to try and live it as real can only go so far before the fabric tears and reality pokes through.  But for those who are deluded in this strange and inhuman form or LARPing, those of us who are not playing by the rules of that universe will be pegged as a kind of “muggle” who has been projected as wearing a devil mask.

We can’t seriously despute the reality of the story, can we? We can’t really actually not believe that God exists and that Jesus is our savior, Mohammed is the seal of prophets, or whatever Mormons believe, right?  Because they are convinced of the truth of their worldview, when we enter their periphery we are forced into their role-playing and seen as playing characters which represent us in their narrative.

We are devils, liars, and we have been draped with a cloth of deception to make us fit into their worldview.

But from the atheist point of view, we are a bunch of people who wandered into their D&D, Harry Potter, or Christian universe where everyone within it is LARPing fully in character. So while we know it’s all pretend, from the point of view of the players we have to play the role of muggles or devils, otherwise they have to break character.

atheismExcept, in the real world, there are people who don’t know they are playing a character, they think that the role-playing is real.  And that’s religion. Atheism is simply being aware that the script(ure) is just pretend, and we cannot believe that so many people take it so seriously.  We simply want them to break character, and enjoy reality.

If you are interested in a great book about the history of the concept of the devil, see Gérald Messadié‘s wonderful book A History of the Devil.

Poly Living Conference this weekend and thoughts on atheist blogging February 6, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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I really should be getting to sleep, considering I have work in the morning (11AM, but that’s still morning!), but before I do I wanted to post a few thoughts.

Thought #1: I’m going to my first poly conference this weekend, the Poly Living Conference which is in Philadelphia this year.

I’m planning on taking ample notes, talking to many people, and trying to get a sense of the state of skepticism within the polyamorous community, you know because I’ll be speaking about that in about 5-and-a-half weeks at the Atlanta Poly Weekend Conference.

Centered around this upcoming weekend is some amount of anxiety, because despite a recent comment on this blog, I don’t see a lot of overlap of skepticism and polyamory (especially among those at Loving More, who are running this weekend’s conference).  Now, I know some of the people at the Atlanta conference next month are skeptics and atheists, but I am not sure about the people at the conference this weekend, the keynote speaker of which is Kamala Devi (from the recent Showtime series), a person who seems to be pretty into the woo side of things [Feb 10 2013 edit: my preconceptions here ended up not being fair or true.  I hold Kamala in high regard after having met her this past weekend, and apologize for the prejudice], including tantra. (information about the speakers can be found here).

I’m anxious because I am interested in the conversation about skepticism in light of sexuality, relationships, etc and want to talk with people about it, but in my experience those on the liberal side of religion, who call themselves spiritual, or who are pagan, tend to be pretty sensitive about criticism in general, and I don’t wish to make the conversation impossible by, well, being myself.

I’m anxious because I really don’t want to dislike the polyamorous community, and in some of my experience I have been rather disappointed in polyamorous people when it comes to skeptical thinking.

Though#2: I’m not sure about atheist blogging, sometimes.

There are some wonderful blogs which are primarily about atheism and skepticism, despite the various splits and interpersonal issues that have surfaced in the last few years.  But there are some atheist writers who are still plugging away at the atheism 101 topics, addressing the same old topics that we were all plugging away at back in 2005 or so when this new atheist thing became all the rage.

And there many still be a reason for them to be doing so, because so many still don’t understand this basic stuff, but as a long-experienced atheist activist, writer, etc I find it pretty boring.  Those blogs are not for me anymore and I am less interested in addressing the same issues as I did like 8-10 years ago.  I think that we should still have those resources available for those interested in those basic questions, but I think that we all need to keep our eyes on the larger prize: an intelligent, informed, skeptical world that tries to address injustice wherever it lives.

Others have moved on to try and not only grow the community, but make it better.  By trying to broaden the scope of skepticism and atheist activism, many writers and activists have started to realize that’s it’s not just about being an atheist (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but about helping create better skeptics all around.  I will continue to write about atheism in this sense (and possibly, occasionally, in the other sense), and try to make a world where tehre are mature, aware, and quality atheists; not merely atheists.

Those are my thoughts for the night.

Seeking Quality over Quantity (or why most people are not worth my time) January 6, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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For many years I have thought that through determined effort, rational thinking, and patience, it was possible to change people.  And sure, people change their minds in the face of facts, or more likely experience which includes emotion and reflection, but this happens through appealing to a central set of values, inclinations, and other emotional considerations.  I once thought that it might be possible to actually change the core emotional values people have; to make them more prone to caring about self-improvement, authenticity, and thus to become better skeptics (and thus better people).  Granted, I never thought this was possible for all people, perhaps not even most, but now I think such a thing might be impossible, or at least vanishingly rare.

Much of what I have written here at polyskeptic.com, even before the creation of that newer URL nearly a year ago, has been in the hope of making an argument for the application of self-challenging skepticism in order to show that faith is perhaps the worst human trait, as well as to explore the  social and cultural predominance of an often stifling and broken view about sexuality and relationships.  I was hoping that through a combined application of rational argument and a perspectivist’s critique of cultural norms, I could demonstrate that skepticism was a tool for our improvement as people, and hopefully create some new atheists and polyamorous people, because I believed that the truth of atheism and the promiscuous inclinations of the vast majority of humans was universal and that more people should be able to see that.

And while such actions may create new atheists and polyamorous people, what I am leaning towards concluding is that the underlying skepticism is harder to inspire.  There are certain sets of inclinations, desires, and fears which either make a person more or less likely to utilize skeptical thinking, and if some personality traits are not present, you might as well try and yell down a wall.

So, as a result of this leaning (which is even more cynical than I have been previously), I am leaning towards an updated approach to writing about the topics of religion and relationships.  The casual reader may not notice much of a difference, but anyone who knows me will notice the importance of the subtle distinction.  Rather than try and find people who are stuck in the cultural milieu of theism and monogamy, and try and convince them that they would, perhaps (and probably), be happier giving up such things, I want to focus on finding people who display certain personality traits, in order to grow a better atheist and/or polyamorous community.  Rather than transform people, I want to cultivate certain types of people in the hope of finding ways to educate and inspire them, while looking for others to inspire me as well.

Because in many cases, such communities have done a fairly good job at growing (especially the atheist community in recent years), but in doing so it seems we are more interested in quantity, rather than quality.

 

Build Quality Rather Than Mere Quantity

Here’s the thing; the atheist community has become a cultural phenomenon.  it’s not quite mainstream yet, but it is on the path towards it.  But many people seem to think that we just need to grow, rather than actually improve, what exists. The goal is not to create more atheists per se, the goal should be to find and cultivate better people, and better people will become atheists because atheism is rational (and if it isn’t, those better people will discover that).  Similarly, the goal is not to create more polyamorous people, it is to have people better understand their own romantic and sexual desires, and show them how to find a more healthy way to explore and express those desires.  Thus, better people will tend towards polyamory (or accidental monogamy).

Getting numbers for our communities is an important part of the larger cultural shift, and I will not disparage it altogether as a strategy, but there is a point when the community needs to pause and take note of the shape of the community, rather than its mere size.  What values do we have? How skeptical are we being? Are we keeping in perspective the larger goal of cultural improvement, rather than merely caring about our immediate concerns? Etc.  And I think that many in this community have got caught up in squabbles about stupid shit, and frankly I don’t want to associate with some of them who do not display traits worth wanting.

So, having said that, what types of qualities do I want to seek out and help cultivate in our communities?

1) Attention and empathy.

You know, like mirror neurons and shit.  I want to seek out people who have the capability, and desire, to see the world through the perspective of others.  This means listening, yes, but more importantly trying to understand concepts like privilege and cognitive biases.  By empathy, or even compassion, I don’t mean merely being nice and gentle with people, because sometimes people need a (metaphorical) kick in the ass, and accommodating is not always a good solution.  I mean that we need to make a genuine attempt to understand what is being said, including  the context of those ideas, so that when we do unleash our raptor-like wit and eviscerating critiques, we can hit as many of the actual weaknesses of their position, as well as be aware of our own weaknesses.

Also, it’s possible that we are wrong, or at least partially wrong, and understanding the argument of others might actually teach something about ourselves, including our own privileges and cognitive biases.

In short, the best means to criticism is to make sure you understand the other positions as well as they do (if possible), and the best way to know such things is to listen carefully and try to understand their perspective, especially if it seems ridiculous.  Makes me want to quote some Sun Tzu or someshit.

2) Judgment

We need to be able to be authentic concerning what we think, and be honest with our conclusions (tentative as they may be).  We need to exercise our abilities to discern rationality from irrationality, rationalization from explanation, and good from bad.

There are bad people in the atheist community.  There are bad people in the polyamorous community.  These people have bad ideas, treat people badly, and make rationalizations and excuses for why they are not bad, and for some reason people follow them.  Yes, those people are still part of the larger community, but they should not be our inspirations.  But mostly, there are people who have a mix of bad and good ideas and behaviors, and we need to be able to separate those things.  There are many people who have contributed very much to our success as a community, but who maintain ideas which are damaging.  We need to be able to criticize them without eschewing them, but we should be able to eschew when necessary, at least in terms of our support or respect for such people.

We need to encourage good ideas and criticize bad ideas, and be able to not divide into camps which no longer talk with each other because of disagreements.  We need to be able to take judgment, give judgment, and not create battle lines because of judgments made against us.  In short, we need to accept judgment as a good thing, rather than as a thing which divides us.

Judgment being a bad thing is a religious idea, more often than not, and we need to re-appropriate it for our use as a tool, not a weapon.

3) Expanding our domain of understanding and concern.

Battle lines create quasi-dogmas.  It prevents communication, yes, but more fundamentally it prevents us from taking seriously the perspectives of others.  We need to be perpetually broadening our arena of concern, even if our actual arena of action remains small.  That is, we might only fight for the rights of polyamorous people in the workplace, church state violations in your state or city, or focus on the relationship between race and religion in your culture.  All of these things (and many more) are worth doing, but if you are doing those things, it is important to be aware of how the concepts that you use in your work map onto other parts of our struggle for social justice.  And yes, you should care about social justice in general, and apply skepticism to such questions.  If you don’t care about such things, then there is no point in talking to you, is there? I can’t make you care about something that you don’t care about.  Similarly, if you don’t have the basic emotional capability to empathize, talking to you about morality would be futile except as an intellectual exercise.

The idea that religious people have a privileged status in American culture is not exactly like the privilege that men have, but the concept is transferable to some extent.  How some people understand one while rejecting the other makes no sense to me, and strikes me as a fundamentally conservative mind-set which acts to undermine the larger goal of improving our culture.

Self-improvement is not always linear, in the direction of your personal goal, it is more like a network, where concepts and efforts that we use are related to other things around us, and we should see that the effort to solve issue X is related, in some way, so solving Y and Z.  Skepticism is a tool to be applied to religion, astrology, and homeopathy for sure, but also to gender, relationships, and many other cultural concepts that are too often unquestioned or not analyzed.

4) Exclusion.

There are some people I don’t want at my party.  They simply don’t care about the perspective of others and are unable to comprehend the problem and so they mock it, they either judge in only one direction or pretend not to judge, or they see no reason to expand their scope of applying skepticism and rational analysis to their lives.  Whether it’s fear, apathy, or simple cognitive or emotional inability to understand, there is no point in exerting much effort on some people; they just don’t want the discussion, and it will just be time wasted on your end.  The resources will exist, on the internet, in books, and in your head, if they start to care, but before they do care it’s not really worth the effort.

Such people may still be atheists, they may be non-monomagous, they may be skeptical about some things.  But they are probably not worth my time when it comes down to explaining nuanced concepts which they will not retain even if I tried.  We have to be willing to cut our losses in some cases, and realize that some people simply are not equipped to be real adults with the ability to understand certain concepts.

Fuck ’em.

I’m not wasting much of my time fighting them anymore.  If you want to, then by all means do so.  But I wash my hands of people who don’t have the fundamental values and desires to make themselves better people.  They won’t be going anywhere, it’s just that they are not worth arguing with so I leave them to others who still feel like they can do something to get through to them.  I certainly did for many years, and I can’t change their mind for them either.

I want to see more effort in improving what community we have, rather than merely get more attention and attract more people.  Yes, we want more people, but we should make sure those people are worth wanting.

Meh, call me an elitist if you will, but I think that many people just are not capable of being good as people.  I view relationships the same way; some people are not really worth pursuing.  Why would I try to date a person who I didn’t respect (or wasn’t attracted to)?

This is not a universal creed, it’s just where I stand on this issue at the moment.  And like I said before, I will not decry anyone who wishes to howl at the moon or yell down walls (hell, it sometimes even works!).  I’ll just be watching, paying close attention, judging openly or quietly (depending on the circumstances), while trying to expand my own understanding so that I can keep growing myself.

I’ll hope to meet others doing the same.

An unchallenged value is not worth much; or why your values might be wrong December 11, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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In recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the question of the relativity of values.  What do we value? Why do we value those things rather than other things? Might we be more content, happy, or more mature if we were to value other things? Can we change what we value? What the hell are “values”?

Today, I want to sketch out a rough analogy which may pave the road for future posts (or not, if the analogy breaks down or if it just ends up being a stupid idea).

[Also, apparently I was thinking about this last December.]

 

The Analogy of Tastes and Values

In order for our bodies to function, we need to eat food.  But the kind of food we eat, how much of it we eat, and how often we eat it will have an effect on the efficiency of that functioning, the body such a diet will maintain, and will effect our general mood and ability to accomplish various tasks.

In order for our brain to function as a contributor to our personality as part of a social landscape, it needs information.  The kind of information it receives (especially early in its development) and how (and how often) we exercise it will influence what kind of mind we have.  It will effect how we react to new or old information, what we believe about the world, and what we value.

In terms of our diet and our health, what we want to eat (both what we merely desire and what we think we should eat) is our set of tastes.

In terms of our worldview and moral inclinations, what we think and feel (both what we are inclined to and what we think we should believe and think right) is our set of values.

 

Desires and Wants

I want to make clear the distinction between what we unwillfully desire and what we want.  If I see a piece of chocolate (especially dark chocolate), I desire it.  My mind is inclined towards eating it, and it is by act of will (free or not) that I either eat it or I do not.  My set of beliefs, values, etc will be responsible for that decision.

In terms of values, there is also a difference between my unconscious, automatic reaction to information and my conscious deliberation about information with emotional content.  It is unconscious and automatic that I feel annoyance, even disgust, when seeing an obvious injustice perpetrated by someone against others (an unequal set of behaviors based upon a logical contradiction, for example; a violation of Kant’s categorical imperative as one rationalized example).  But there is a difference between that feeling of annoyance or disgust and my subsequent deliberation about that behavior.  I, for example, have a visceral feeling of annoyance, sometimes leaning on anger, at seeing some level of clutter (especially if ignored for some time).  But rather than start Hulk-smashing (which just creates more clutter) I take a deep breath and remind myself that this anger is not rational;  that I can either clean it, ask the person responsible to be aware of this emotional response I have and request they clean it, or I can distract myself with another task or activity (and hope it will be remedied in the mean time).

That is, what I desire to do when seeing clutter is to express my anger at the person responsible (a symptom of my personality disorder), but what I want to do is motivate my behavior towards healthier solutions, with the long term goal of correcting the automatic reaction to doing those more pragmatic solutions.  I do not merely bow to my destructive desires, but try and re-orient my emotional reactions to something healthier, and over time it works with diligent effort.  It has become essential and necessary for me to do this every day, and sometimes it’s easier than other times.

Similarly, what I desire is to eat salty snacks, chocolate/ peanut butter, and low fat wheat thins ( much better than the regular ones, IMO) while drinking a couple of delicious beers.  I desire sweet, salty, (low) fatty foods all the time, but what I actually eat is much more healthy and I feel better because my wants govern my desires.  They don’t repress or stifle them, but I feel that mitigating the effect of my desires is wise.

 

Authenticity

There are things that we desire and want.  There are also social structures around us, with many competing (and sometimes harmonizing) ideas about how we should behave.  Some of those ideas tell us to repress or even eliminate certain desires, because those desires are wrong.

But I think that we need to accept our desires as a given, and decide how we want to act while 1) not pretending those desires don’t exist 2) trying to find a way to express these desires in ways which do not non-consensually harm others and 3) not allowing those desires to consume our life such that we ignore what else we care about.  These guidelines can be applied to conservative religious repression of homosexuality, social stigmatization of our innate sluttiness, or even the use of drugs (including alcohol).  If you are gay, bisexual, or asexual, then you should find the ways you want to express those sexual inclinations.  If you are slut, then you should be a slut. If you like a drug, then if you can do it without it being destructive to the world around you, then do it.

In short, we need to start deciding how to behave, what to believe, and what to value by being authentic.  We cannot ignore the truth, even if we don’t like the truth.  Because in many cases, the part of us that doesn’t like the truth is a part of us that is either broken or was imposed by an exterior idea (such as conservative moral views).  We should care about what is true about our desires, and form our wants based upon those truths.

 

In Case Your Values are Wrong

If you find yourself living in such a way where you have desires which are unrealized, then you need to ask yourself why they are unrealized.  If you go to church regularly and find yourself plagued by skeptical questions in response to what a religious authority says, then you might need to seek out alternative views.  If you are in a monoamorous relationship but find yourself attracted to others, and even thinking about acting on those desires, then you might need to reconsider how you think about sex and relationships and consider some sort of nonmonogamy.  If you can’t just have a couple of drinks, are getting high every day, or even if you never tried getting high but are curious about it but have always been afraid, then you might want to reconsider your association with those things.

There are diets which are good for us, others which are not.  There are values which are good or us, and those which are not.  How do you know that your values, your emotional relationship to the world, are the best set of values for your inclinations?  And even if they are, have you considered if they are damaging to people around you? (That is, are they moral values, rather than Randian selfish values?).  Do you even care if your values affect other people in ways they don’t want? Also, if they do affect others in ways they don’t want, are their current values, with which yours currently conflict, wrong? If their values are wrong, how can you demonstrate this to them in a way that will not result in them being defensive, yelling at you, or punching you?

What’s more important; standing for the right values knowing that they might actually be ultimately wrong, even if they are better relative to other value sets) or respecting all potential values (even the obviously wrong ones)?  Assuredness or accommodation? (some might call it “temerity or tolerance?”, but that’s simply the other side of the coin).

I don’t have an answer to that question which everyone will accept, or even one that convinces myself all the time.  My inclinations, my desires, often tell me to stand convicted to what I value, because those values are best. But what I want is to actually have the best values, which requires a certain level of uncertainty and skepticism.  I must perpetually challenge my values the way I challenge my beliefs, and thus my certainty about my values is proportional to the amount of beating those values take from challenges both external and internal.  An unchallenged value is not worth much, yet an unchallenged value is worth everything to its owner.

That is, we should be skeptical not only about facts, but also values.  I, along with people such as Hilary Putnam and (seemingly) Sam Harris, think that the qualitative distinction between facts and values is dubious.  Therefore, I also think that the common moral distinction made in our culture between criticizing a person’s facts and criticizing their values is dubious.  I do think that criticizing a person’s values is a harder task to do well, especially if we care about their likely defensive reactions, but it is not an invalid criticism.   There is no logical contradiction to pointing out that values can be wrong, at least in the sense of not matching up with reality and what might provide optimal well-being, emotional maturity, and authenticity.  People are too often attached to their values (as well as their facts), and this should not be accommodated.

In a similar way that what we want to eat (in terms of our health) is something that is subject to criticism, what we value (in terms of being a fully realized and authentic person) is subject to potential criticism.  If you tell me that I cannot tell you what to value, I will nod in agreement with the fact that I cannot force values on you, but that I can tell you that your values may be wrong.

 

 

Putting the Christ back in Christmas December 8, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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I do love DarkMatter2525’s videos, and this latest one is no exception.  This is sort of brilliant.

The Christian story is disgusting and, from my point of view, immoral.  And while I’m no fan of Christmas, it is greatly improved as an old Roman/Pagan holiday about the solstice, gift-giving, and merry-making.

Reading Jonathan Haidt as a “New Atheist” December 5, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book.  I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”

In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc).  He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.

Well, yes of course it does!

I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:

Sam Harris has some thoughts about Haidt’s treatment of morality, as well as how beliefs inform our actions.

PZ Myers has thoughts about Haidt’s relationship to the Templeton Foundation, and thus to accommodationism in general.

Als0, Helian has a good critique which points to another good critique from the New York Times by William Saletan.

I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while.  I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it.  If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.

But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not.  His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group.  Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.

Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012).  Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community.  No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.

Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values).  I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well.  We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.

Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community.  Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor.  Perhaps we should invite him to the party?

 

Progress versus Process December 2, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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Politically, I tend to align myself with progressive thought.  I generally like the idea of progress; moving towards an ideological target.  But when I think more closely about the idea of progress as a concept, I think it lacks something important, and has some potential inherent dangers, when compared to the idea of a process.

One of the dangers of political ideologies is that very distracting idea of a target or set of social and political goals.  Because while those goals may be based upon clear thinking, good values, and hopefully even empirically sound philosophical bases, the fact is that circumstances change and we may not notice if we keep looking at the destination.

See, progress is teleological.  Process is methodological.

Teleology implies intention, design, and is associated with religious theology in many ways.  The presence of intent and purpose, when it come to theology especially, might seem safe because the designer is often believed to be perfect, or at least optimally knowledgeable and powerful.  But progress in the real world involves imperfect people, and so when we think about progressing towards some ideal utopia, or merely a better set of values and policies, we are almost certain to err.  And if we are attached to the destination too strongly, we may not even see those errors.

Instead, we should be focusing on the process by which we solve problems and understand the world.  Goals are nice, and often necessary to accomplish anything, but by focusing on the goal rather than the road we walk upon, we will lose sight of many things.

Many forms of religion, and religious thinking, suffer from this very problem.  The focus on Heaven (or Hell) for many people is a prime example of this.  Built into the worldview of many forms of Christianity, for example, are things like purpose, intent, and ultimate destinations for us in God’s plan.  And even within the Christian world people will criticize other believers for focusing too much on the goal, rather than what God wants us to do here.  By being focused on getting to Heaven (or avoiding Hell), many people are not doing many of the things here and now that they could, or should, be doing in this life.

And, of course, this leads to the common atheist criticism of religion; people’s focus on the afterlife, rather than this real life (the only one we have), leads people to miss all that we really have.  But this mistake is prevalent throughout all of human groups, including some atheists.  It’s one of the many imperfections with how our brains evolved, and I think we can all benefit from an awareness about what methods we use, rather than an ideological goal.

That’s what skepticism and science are good for.  Because skepticism and science are not goals; they are methods.  Granted, it’s hard to avoid looking at the potential horizon in our pursuit of the truth, but we need to make sure that how we think about those goals in the here and now, so we don’t get caught up in the dream rather than the reality.

Focusing on our process, our method, will make sure that we are on the right road, because all-too-often people find that the road they are one don’t lead anywhere; that the location in the horizon was a mirage, and the road (which they were not looking at) just goes in circles, or merely stops one day, nowhere near their illusory destination.

And there are many images of potential futures with science as our road (I’m looking at you, transhumanists).  But we cannot live in the hope that those futures will occur.  We can be inspired by them, but we have to live where we are.  I’ve known Christians who miss too much of life because they are awaiting Heaven, and I have known atheists who let life pass by because they desire their cybernetic bodies or their mind to be uploaded into a different kind of immortality.

In my opinion, we all would be better off by making sure that the thinking we are doing today is connected to real goals and real life, otherwise we may be letting precious time slip by in the name of illusory goals.  I want my goals to be attached to a skeptical worldview, utilized to make this life better for us and our descendants.

All of my distant goals and ideals are subject to change and revision because I keep my attention to what is going on around me, and thus my goals sometimes change.

 

Pwning Bill O’Reilly’s Christian Philosophy November 29, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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This hit the interwebs today

Now, this is not the first time Bill O’Reilly and Dave Silverman have met up to create fireworks.  Remember the tides thing?  I do not know how much of Bill O’Reilly’s on-air personality is an act, or if he really believes what he says in segments such as these, but the things he says are believed by many people, perhaps (in some cases) because Bill O’Reilly says them.

So, O’Reilly claims that Christianity is not a religion, but is a philosophy instead.  This is no different than the dozens of times I have heard Christians claim that their relationship with Jesus/God is not a religion, because religion is man-man and this is the truth.

Let’s start by granting that mere philosophical symbols and ideas are fair to display in government space.  Much of what the Framers of the Constitution were doing, after all, is political and moral philosophy.  Go to the Jefferson memorial and read the walls; that’s  philosophy.  Seeing images and carvings of Plato, Aristotle, or even religious and historically significant characters (such as Moses or Hammurabi) on government buildings is commonplace, because these figures play a part in our culture’s history—but so does religion, right? So what’s the difference?

A Buddhist Christmas?

OK, so let’s consider a non-Christian ideology such as Buddhism, which is fundamentally philosophical in many respects but also has many of the characteristics of a religion, especially where it is mythologized and supernatural components are included.  Would an image of the Buddha, with some quotes from his attributed sayings, be fair game on government property? More relevant here, would Bill O’Reilly have an issue with such displays?

I do not knows what O’Reilly would think here, but my guess is he would be OK with it so long as it does not get in the way of his traditions.  So long as Buddhists were not trying to usurp his holiday traditions, I don’t think he’d care.  But should secular-minded people care? Should I care?

This is tricky, because the distinction between philosophy and religion is thin in many traditions, Buddhism included.  I would say that insofar as any message on government property is not giving privileged or unequal support for any of the mythological, ritualistic, and supernatural aspects of any philosophy or religion, then there is no problem from a secularist’s point of view.  That is, so long as Buddhisms presence in such spaces leans towards its philosophical roots, and not its specifically religious traditions, then I don’t think there is an issue.

But we’ll worry about that when Buddhists start becoming anything near a majority.  So, probably never.

Unlike Buddhism, however, Christianity is clearly a religion.  Yes, it contains elements of philosophy, but I am not sure any religious traditions do not include philosophical ideas.  But the essential component to the overwhelming majority of Christian theologies is the relationship between humankind and “God.”  Christianity is not a mere collection of rational concepts or methods about finding what is true, beautiful, or wise, it is a set of metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe which has many traditional rituals, stories, and moral teachings.

The major distinction here is the presence of theology.  Theology is a type of philosophy–the religious kind–and so if a tradition has a theology it is clearly a religion.

To claim that Christianity is a philosophy is to amputate a significant portion of what it does for believers.  Where a thinker such as Plato used logic and dialogue to make propositions and criticisms about ideas, Christianity does this but it does so much more.  To imply that Jesus was just a philosopher is to say he was just a man with mere ideas about the world.  This view removes the divine messages including the metaphysical significance of the (supposed) sacrifice and makes concepts such as eternal life, eternal punishment, or even ultimate meaning impotent.

Wait…does that mean that this segment of his show reveals that Bill O’Reilly does not believe all of the mythological and metaphysical components of Christianity? Does that make O’Reilly some sort of humanist?  Because if he does not think that Christianity is not religious (thus has nothing to do with supernatural claims) then why all the god-talk?

Again, I think this claim that Christianity is a philosophy is part of a set of cultural/apologetic moves to distinguish Christianity from mere religion.  It usually takes the form of “I have a relationship with Jesus/God, and religion is a man-made lie!” In this case, O’Reilly seems to be doing something similar.  “Christianity,” he might say, “is not a man-made mere religion, it is the true philosophy given to us by god.”  Well, if so, Papa Bear, then that makes it a religion.

I don’t think Bill O’Reilly has thought this through, so let’s consider him appropriately pwned.