Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Conundrum of Emphasizing What You Are NOT

Here's a baffling conundrum of modern society:

I have a complete lack of belief in
but I don't emphasize that I am an A-Muslim (a- means "without").

I have a complete lack of belief in
but I don't emphasize that I am an A-Calvinist-Augustinian!

So why do so many now
emphasize what they have a complete lack of belief in
that they are A-theists?

It reminds me of a short reflection by the astronomer,
Neil deGrasse Tyson,

“You know, the only ‘ist’ I am, is a scientist.
“It’s odd that the word ‘atheist’ even exists. I don’t play golf.

Is there a word for non-golf-players?
Do non-golf players gather and strategize?

Do non-skiers have a word and come together
and talk about the fact that they don’t ski?”

Atheists are now claiming that all human infants are Atheists at birth.

And I might add, are all infants at birth
A-Golfers, A-Skiers;-), etc.?

Thanks, Kurt V.

In Light-hearted satire against this weird Trumpped world,

Daniel Wilcox


mcc1789 said...

The existence of God is very different from playing golf, or skiing. Some might say it is the ultimate question. Your stance on that affects many other issues, and the belief in God is something that touches even those who don't believe. So the fact that some identify through disbelief is not really that surprising to me.

Regarding infants, that depends on how the word is defined. Implicitly, infants might be considered atheists. However, this isn't what most people mean by that. I have come to accept the philosophical view, that atheism is a positive disbelief in God. So this is not a stance I take.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello mcc1789,

Thanks for stopping by and making a comment.

I agree that questioning about God--ultimate reality is very different from brute facts such as golf or skiing. I think that Tyson wasn't giving any philosophical point, but just making a satirical comment on the general negativity of individuals who emphasize what they aren't.

The latter also puzzles me. Why focus and identify what one isn't?

Infants might also be considered a-ethicists or a-mathematicians;-)
There are loads of human behaviors and achievements and beliefs that infants lack, besides the lack of complex philosophical analysis related to the cosmos and reality.

Because infants lack a sense of ethical understanding, does that make them a-moralists?

I think not. This calling a new-born infant a term of lack seems to be a category error.

Also, would you agree, one first has to define the word, "God"?

Often what atheists mean by the term isn't what the first definition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary means--M-W. D.:
"1 capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality:"

It would appear that infants are neither atheists nor theists, just as they are neither a-moral or moral.

I'm curious about what your lifestance is, if you care to share.

mcc1789 said...

I gave reasons why in this case people would identify with what they aren't. Philosophically anyway, atheism isn't a negative, but a positive. I realize though most atheists do not hold to that definition.

I agree that categorizing infants this way is silly, and as I've said I personally reject the definition of atheism that would make them so even implicitly.

Yes, the definition of God matters, though I think people do have a general idea about this when they speak either for or against it: a being that is all good, all powerful, all wise, etc. I'd venture to say what most theists mean by the term also isn't "ultimate reality". For me, I'm not even sure what this means.

As for me, I am an atheist, if that's what you mean by a lifestance. I'm some other things too of course-a humanist, rationalist and overall someone fascinated by these issues. Knowledge is what I seek, and there is so much yet to be known.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello mcc1789,

Responding to your comment--
You wrote: "people do have a general idea about this when they speak either for or against it: a being that is all good, all powerful, all wise, etc. I'd venture to say what most theists mean by the term also isn't "ultimate reality". For me, I'm not even sure what this means."

I think the first general definition of "God," given by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "1 capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality:"
is far more common than you think.

But then maybe you were referring only to the public in general? Or only to conservative Christians?

For your definition--"a being that is all good, all powerful, all wise, etc." is very popular with conservative Christians and conservative Muslims.

But many Christian theologians, a number of philosophers, etc. wouldn't define the term, God, in that way.

For instance, my own upbringing emphasized that God essentially and primarily love, only secondarily powerful.

But most Calvinist leaders hold to Divine Command Theory--that God only loves a limited number, and that whatever God says/orders is what is true. So God isn't "all good" in the human sense of the word, "good."

On the contrary, Calvinist leaders emphasize (as they have to me, too) that God foreordains ALL evil, plans every rape and murder, even introduced evil into the world.

Thus, they will state (as they have personally to me over the last 55 years) that God's goodness is different
from our definition of "good."

And they will emphasize--as one leader did to me when I was 17--that whatever God calls us to do is "good" even if it is evil to us, and isn't good to us humans.

At the time the Calvinist leader directly told me that God is calling me to do what is immoral, what is not good from a human standpoint. Then he quoted from the Old Testment.
I was so utterly shocked!

Definitely not my own definition of "God" by any stretch of the imagination. Yet there are millions of Calvinists.

To be continued--

Daniel Wilcox said...


And then I went off to university and studied philosophy, comparative literature, and anthropology. There I discovered that the word "God" has many, many different meanings to various religions and various philosophers.

So, basically, I quit believing God means "a being that is all good..."
and came to the view of the definition of the Merriam-Webster.

I did continue believing that God is "all wise," etc., but I became convinced that God isn't a "being" at all.

Also, if one looks at Hindu philosophy and religion, one will quickly there are all sorts of gods, some very definitely not "all good."

And that in philosophical Hinduism, the ultimate God, Brahman is actually the cause of both good and evil!

Brahman is the "creative principle which lies realized in the whole world," "the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena."

Then there is the view of God as defined by Spinoza, etc.

As defined by the Christian theologian Paul Tillich...

As defined by Christians and some Muslims as "limited"...

As defined by the Christian scholar John Dominic Crossan (definitely not the "God who is all good, all wise...")

And then there is the view of process philosophy (such as Alfred Lord Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, etc.) Often in process philosophy, "God" is the "limited software" of reality, while matter and energy is the "hardware."

At this point in my life, I don't think "God" is like the common conservative Christian/Muslim definition, don't think God is "all loving," etc.

In fact, I am a hard atheist toward the God as defined by Augustinians, Calvinists, creedal Christians, and Muslims.

The view I got from various philosophers and thinkers I've studied is this:

God is the reality beyond/within matter and energy, from which/by which humans (and any other alien species) get life, are conscious, capable of reasoning and doing mathematics, and having a sense of ethical "ought, and from which come human rights, etc.

Sorry that this is a longer comment than usual, but "God" is such a difficult term to discuss quickly.

Daniel Wilcox said...

There are so many different views of ultimate reality according to human thinkers.

Here are a few:
What is "ultimate reality":
#1 All reality came about by cosmic chance. Seemingly the view of the French biologist Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity, a powerful book I read a few years back, and the view of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

My take on this as an average person: I think this view is possible. I guess given cosmic time even the "laws" of nature, math, reason, life, ethics, consciousness could all blip into existence.

#2 All reality came about by a cosmic determinism of meaningless matter and energy which is eternal. Everything is lock step. There are no choices, not for what I supposedly ruminate on having for lunch or whether or not to commit murder or what to choose for my career.

Based on our studying this at university, and for many years since, and many times trying to imagine my "I" as an illusion who is only 'done to' by the cosmos, I think this is one of the least likely views of reality. But the view is very popular these days--sort of an atheistic version of Calvinism.

#3 All reality came about somehow by a temporary, finite, imperfect, even distorted, expression of the perfect eternal Ideal Forms of Platonism.

I already explained that I've been influenced by Platonism.

#4 All reality came about by emergent possibilities in a quantum singularity vacuum or some unknown ultimate reality. But where did the quantum singularity vacuum come from? Here goes "turtles all the way down."

This view seems to posit an eternal physical reality with no "super" reality 'transcending' it.

Like in #1 humankind is a "fluke," an "accident," a "lucky" break.

Daniel Wilcox said...

#5 All reality came about by an impersonal ultimate reality of cosmic beauty. Scientists such as Albert Einstein stated this was his view, that he thought the impersonal god of Spinoza was true. But this seems similar to a combination of #3 and #4.
Unlike #2 and #4, the emergent-possibility cosmos isn't meaningless and purposeless, but filled with meaning.

Interesting, but I doubt it.

#6 All reality is coming about by the everlasting but limited cosmic reality that is becoming. This is the view of thinkers such as philosopher and mathematician Alfred Lord Whitehead, philosopher Charles Hartshorne, etc.

This cosmic but limited God who is far beyond human understanding works toward changing matter and energy and conscious life such as homo sapiens into increasing patterns and forms of beauty, meaning, and purpose. This is also the view of some Reform Jews.

But where is the evidence for this?

Process thinkers explain that consciousness, reason, ethics, mathematics, natural law, creativity, aesthetics, life itself, etc. are the evidence.

This view is appealing, but most of the technical philosophical explanations are BEYOND me. I'm a relatively average literature teacher (who got born with a "why" in his throat;-)

#7 All reality came about as just one of an infinite number of universes of an infinite multi-verse, the view of some modern cosmologists. What is the ultimate of the multi-verse is unknown or maybe the multiverse itself is ultimate.

Intriguing, but seems too speculative for me. However, I'm not as skeptical as Martin Gardner, one of the co-founders of the modern skeptical movement who wrote a scathing dismissal of this view.

#8 All reality came about by the impersonal Brahma God of Hinduism and some modern New Age leaders such as Ken Wilber with his Integral Theory, and Deepak Chopra, etc. .

The impersonal God Brahma is conducting a cosmic dance in which it forgets its self and dreams into billions of separated forms including in one minor edge of the universes, thinking humans.

But all is illusion. And all events both good and evil are produced by Brahman. That is why Ken Wilber and other such leaders claim that Brahman caused 9//11, causes all murders, all rapes, etc.

Given that I am a human rights worker from way back, for about 55 years, obviously this isn't my cup of philosophical tea. Also, I still vividly remember as a Gandhi devotee being shocked when a Hindu priest in L.A. tried to persuade me to go to Vietnam to kill (when I was drafted), saying insects are killed all the time in reality.:-(

#9 All reality came about by unknowable factors. Everything beyond and before the Big Bang is such a complete unfathomable mystery that it will probably not ever be solved by finite humans at least not for a very long time.

Allegedly the view of the Mysterians such as Gardner, Penrose, etc.

#10 All reality continually comes about by infinite impersonal reality which never had a beginning. No creator god exists. Some forms of Buddhism (though other forms are theistic).

Daniel Wilcox said...

At this point in my life, I lean toward some view of #3 and #6, though I am open to #1 as a real possibility.

And that, as I already said, maybe we finite humans don't have enough knowledge to even decide this question.

Oh, and one further thought about your definition of God--
The Baptist ministers at the churches I attended in Nebraska (while at university) and in California, also, didn't view God according to your definition.

And, last, but not least, most of the Quakers I've known since leaving liberal Baptist religion and becoming a Friend, don't think God is "a being that is all good, all powerful, all wise, etc."

Heck, some of them define "God" as within us humans!

Thanks for the dialog. Your comment really got me thinking and writing:-)

mcc1789 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mcc1789 said...

I remember you posted this same list on The Secular Outpost, and they're interesting. #1, #2, #4 and #9 seem like the most plausible to me.

mcc1789 said...

Perhaps it is more common, though from both philosophers and laypeople mainly I've seen the classical theist definition. I admit though I'm not that familiar with theologians. So far I've only read that Paul Tillich defended a definition resembling this, God as the "ground of all being". To me however I'm not sure if that's even necessarily theistic. Again though, I don't know much about it yet.

All-loving seems to be a common characteristic given of God as well yes. I should have included it.

I agree, that definition of God is bizarre, and does not seem to be one most non-Calvinists hold to (thank goodness).

Of course once you get into other religious beliefs, the gods are often very different. I should be more specific and say here I'm addressing the common Christian conceptions of God here that I've seen, though as you say others exist too.

I feel like your perspective is one that I'd accept, because for me if a god is neither mind nor being, it makes no sense to call it a deity of any kind. For me it seems like a god must be at least an entity. Atheists could say that the ground of all being is nature, and perhaps more specifically natural forces, matter or whatever else in their view. Or perhaps (as is quite possible) I just don't know enough at this point to understand this perspective. Maybe this is why Tillich apparently thought God, thus defined, is already something everyone believes in. That is probably true, but I don't agree with calling this God.

Sorry about the deletion-I misspelled something. Grammar nazi :)

Daniel Wilcox said...

But it would seem God is "mind" of some sort--otherwise, it is difficult to see how reason, mathematics, etc. exist. They appear to be inherent in reality.

For instance, scientists were able to mathematically calculate how to send a rocket into space to travel for 10 years! and hit Pluto on the nose so to speak. And such complex mathematical accomplishments have happened many times.

This does seem to show that math is inherent in reality, otherwise, humans, a conscious species wouldn't be able to use their brains to accomplish tasks which align with matter and energy.

As for the difficult issue of "being," and whether or not God, (in the M-W dictionary sense, "ultimate reality") is a being or is beyond being or is Being, or something entirely different, who knows?

Also, God may be Process like Alfred Lord Whitehead and other philosophers think--ie. God is primarily becoming, not being.

I don't know, nor do the philosophers and theologians who write about this.

It's all educated speculation. Most people haven't even achieved the skill of doing calculus including me. How in the cosmos do we think that we can know about before the Big Bang, or what the final answers are?

It's great to hypothesize, but unwise to state one knows.

Some brilliant mathematicians are theists, some are atheists.

After reading a number of books by Paul Tillich and other liberal theologians, for years I tended to refer to God as the "Ground of All Being,"
but now in my elder years I'm less inclined to think that the phrase really explains anything. After all it is a metaphor. And metaphors, while wonderful, can mislead.

The theist and skeptic Martin Gardener, one of the founders of the modern skeptic movement wrote in his powerful book, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, that Tillich was really an atheist who used religious language. But another well-known Christian theologian, Roger Olson disagrees, says that Tillich was a theist.

Then you wrote, "Atheists could say that the ground of all being is nature..."

? But then they wouldn't be atheists would they? For that appears to have been what Spinoza meant, and he was a pantheist. Recently, I completed reading two biographies on Einstein for our thinkers' book club here. Einstein, also, appears to have been some sort of pantheist, at least he wrote that he believed in Spinoza's God, and emphasized that he wasn't an atheist.

Daniel Wilcox said...

And you wrote, "1, #2, #4 and #9 seem like the most plausible to me."

As I mentioned earlier, I think #1 is possible, but I don't think it is probable.
Still, it is preferable to #2 which then means that I am not choosing to type this, indeed, as Sam Harris so infamously claimed, "I" am an illusion.

And all talk of personal achievement, ethics, justice and human rights is just so much delusion.

It's possible, but I don't know of any determinist who actually practices his belief in reality. They claim everything is determined but then moment by moment act as if they can choose. For instance the biologist Jerry Coyne claims no human can choose what to have for "lunch," and he states that individuals who rape and kill don't have any choice but to rape and kill and "aren't morally responsible."

But then in other places, he berates other scientists for what they think, condemns various groups of humans including Muslims for their actions, and even bans commenters when he thinks they are being discourteous? They ought to behave differently.

I think this comes down to the other philosophical idea that existence is an illusion. But how could we possibly know, and if the people who think that still act daily as if it isn't, what is the point?

mcc1789 said...

Yes, a mind beyond or emanating in reality seems to be the sina qua non of theism, whatever the details.

If the "ground of all being" is thus defined as requiring a mind, then yes I don't think atheism is consistent with that. However it wasn't clear to me that this was the case.

I haven't heard Harris say "I" is an illusion. However, he also seems to be into Eastern thought somewhat. Buddhism also says this. I've only yet read a couple of his books (The Moral Landscape and Free Will) and some articles. Those books seemed more compelling then than now, after I learned more about these issues.

As for determinism, it doesn't seem inconsistent, for if it's true they can't help but act that way. I'm not saying it's right, mind you. As one joke put it "We must believe in free will-we have no choice." Even those who don't have no choice but to act like this.

How it affects ethics is another matter. Harris says this can be reconciled. I won't defend it though. Nowadays I'm more a compatibilist, and looking into libertarianism as well. They may hold more water than I've previously thought.

I don't think determinism requires existence to be an illusion, only that free choice is an illusion. Claiming existence is an illusion seems like a self-contradiction. Who is saying it if existence doesn't exist?

Daniel Wilcox said...

Starting at the end and working backwards--
Some forms of Hinduism and modern New Age thought emphasize that existence is an illusion, that existence is a dream of forgetfulness by Brahman. We are all actually God but dreaming this existence.

I discovered this when in the late 60's. When disillusioned with Christianity, I went on an extensive in depth search of other worldviews including Hinduism. Also, I admired Gandhi for his nonviolence.

But the idea that I was actually the God of all of existence really struck me as ludicrous. Plus, a Hindu priest told me I ought to go and kill Vietnamese because insects are killed all the time! Whew. One of the major leaders of the current New Age movement thinks God planned 9/11. Obviously, if everything is God, then who else? Plus the thinker--who in other ways had some intriguing ideas--was strongly for Bush's invasion/first strike Iraq War.

Yes, determinism is an endless loop. After many years of trying to fend off Calvinists and Atheist determinists, I finally, started pointing out that it must be determined that I not think determinism is true;-).

I suppose the endless looping of determinism is one reason why Nietzsche came to the idea of the eternal return--the idea that all of time/space will keep repeating over and over endlessly.

It does sound like Sam Harris' claim that everything and everyone is so determined that even every minor finger movement would happen again a "trillion times" (his words) if the world/space came again and again. From "Tumors All the Way Down" or his interview with the hard determinist Jerry Coyne.

The statement that "I" am an illusion comes from one of those two pod-casts. I forget which.

His version of Buddhism is very different from the Buddhism I admire. Like Christianity or atheism, Buddhism comes in all sorts of various contradictory versions.

And, yes, it is possible, but not a view of reality that I plan to choose.

mcc1789 said...

Yes, that idea has always struck me as ludicrous as well. I've never been able to understand how they think that makes sense. Even some atheist idealists/New Agers have this, again with no understandable explanation (at least to me). Many now attempt to justify this with quantum physics, though according to physicists they are talking nonsense.

I was under the impression Hindus thought killing is wrong (insects included) but then again they've had plenty of wars too. Perhaps that was Jains or Buddhists. Perhaps this Hindu in particular liked Bush because they had a common enemy in Muslims.

Indeed, as the joke says, the belief in free will would itself be determined. In particular, determinists claiming we can no longer justify punishing people seem to forget themselves. Ambrose Bierce wrote this poem about it:

There's no free will, says the philosopher
To hang is most unjust
There's no free will, assents the officer
We hang because we must

I had not heard of whether Nietzche also was a determinist. About that eternal return, it was stated to be simply a thought experiment in what I read.

I've heard Harris say, that. Actually its' sort of the opposite from what Steve Gould once said about evolution, that you could go back and alter things so that would play out in a different way. However this was probably just a thought experiment too.

I've heard that, yes. As I learn more, the very romanticized Buddhist idea people have in the West has slowly faded away.

Ah, but if determinism is true you cannot choose that :) Yet in any case, I've come to doubt that it's true.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Yes, I thought that Gandhi got his nonviolence from Hinduism, but it appears that it came to him via Jainism (according to one scholar I've read), the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus, and elsewhere.

Some Hindus seem open to nonviolence, but the Bhagavad Gita actually has the God Krishna ordering Arjuna to kill his relatives in war:-( The Mahabharata is full of war. I've read a little of it. Depressing, like other religions.

Ambrose Bierce! Great writer. I used to teach several of his short stories to students and selections from his Dictionary, but I haven't seen this poem before. Thanks.

I'm not an authority on Nietzsche, but only referring back to when I studied him in the past. According to a couple of philosophy sites I checked, Nietzsche was contradictory, depending on which writings of his you check.

Yeah, I've read a bunch of Gould. It wasn't a thought experiment for Gould.
Gould was strongly opposed to hard determinism.

He wrote a whole book against determinism. And here's a couple of quotes from an interview with Gould:
"We wouldn't be here if the impact of a large extraterrestrial body hadn't removed the dinosaurs. That wasn't adaption or natural selection. That was just a bad break.
Mammals happened to survive because they were tiny little creatures that could hide. And so its lucky
that we're still around...
History is quirky, full of random events...We're a little twig on the bush. If replanted from a seed, that twig would almost certainly not grow in the same way again."
Literary Cavalcade Interview

A little semantic humor:
In my life time, thousands of determinists have been determined to make me change my mind about determinism for 55 years. But I am more determined to not be determined.;-)

mcc1789 said...

That makes sense. I heard he was influenced by Thoreau's Civil Disobedience as well.

I remember reading that, it was pretty eye-opening.

I greatly enjoyed The Devil's Dictionary.

I don't know much about Nietzsche besides him often getting held up as the "honest" atheist or things like that. From what I've gleaned, I'm not fond of him.

I didn't realize that about Gould, very interesting.

That's the trick with determinism, isn't it? I had recognized its circular nature pretty quickly. Some still seem not to though.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for the intriguing discussion. Your quote from Bierce has got me thinking about his writing. This morning, I'm going to dig out his short stories from our booked garage and re-read one of my favorite, and look up his poetry on the Internet.

mcc1789 said...

You're welcome, it was a pleasure.

I'll have to read more of his work too.