Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guest blog: How an Atheist finds meaning and purpose in life

In my debate blog, a friend of mine posted an extraordinary response to the question, "How does an atheist find meaning and purpose in life?"  This is Mande Hubbard's response.  If you like it, tell her so on her facebook page.

No purpose to life? The first assumption is that we gain understanding of life through evolution, which we do in a biological and scientific manner, but if you're speaking to a philosophical perspective, evolution doesn't address that.

 What I will say is that nowhere in evolution is there 'no purpose' to life, nor is there purpose. Evolution is not an entity. Evolution is a method or system by which organisms continue on, natural selection is the way that this works most effectively in a changing and stable environment (some environments are stable, some are not, see the red queen hypothesis for more information regarding the outcome of different environments on parasites, asexual reproduction and sexual reproduction). The purpose of life from a purely biological standpoint, is to survive and produce viable offspring that can further your genetic makeup for generations. So in essence, the biological standpoint would place the continuation of one's genetic makeup as the sole purpose. If you mean to ask what the purpose of life is on a grand scale, I ask...does it matter? This is my first question because you can't delve into purpose and meaning on a grand scale immediately. We have to conclude whether or not it matters what the end result of all that is and will be, is important, or if there would need to be a purpose. To that I say it doesn't matter. Whether the universe has no sentient purpose, or does, is irrelevant to us, because we are so small and insignificant that we will never really take part in anything on such a massive scale. Our minute lives will not change or alter if we discover that the universe and all of time has no purpose. Nor will our lives change if we discover that the universe and all of time has a complex purpose. Our lives are small in comparison to time. Humans live, on average, about 80 years. When we examine the time line of the universe, 80 years is merely a microscopic piece of time that on its own is meaningless, in the way that a speck of dirt is meaningless to the whole of the earth. It would be pointless for a speck of dirt to base it's life or existence on the purpose of the earth, as it's presence is neither felt nor missed. So if you're asking what evolution (because you seem to think we derive all values from evolution for some reason) has planned and what is the purpose of all time and the universe, I say it's irrelevant. A curiosity, certainly, and one I think we should examine, but it's not going to alter or change the fabric of anyone's life if we discover it.

But let's move that and ask the question in a smaller scale. What is the purpose of life on earth? We should also define by what we mean when we say purpose. Do we mean, what is the value of everything on the earth in the context of the whole picture? Where does each individual life lead? In that we have to further define purpose. Do we mean, what is the ultimate end result of the earth? What does each life before that moment mean in the context of the end result? How does each individual life contribute to the end result?

Already we're having trouble defining such an abstract idea. Sure we can examine the dictionary to define it for us, but then we run into further problems. The best form of the definition which will give us a more concrete understanding of purpose essentially defines purpose as a goal, or intended result. This is going to pose problems because 'intended' implies consciousness (something we're not entirely sure even we have). Consciousness implies sentience (again, a loose term). So the problem with the concept of 'purpose' is that we don't really know what 'purpose' is, even in a definitional way, we still come to a very loose, abstract idea that is difficult to define in a way that we can all agree.

So in a way you could say that evolution has no purpose, largely because it is not sentient and has no intended goal. That still confounds problems because you're implications are that somehow we attribute evolution to the basis of our ethics (I don't say morality because I see ethics and morality as the same, except that morality is religious and ethics are secular). This is a false idea. Evolution does not work on ethical behavior, it functions to maximize behavior that is conducive to the spreading of genes from one generation to another. More specifically, it further behavior in the individual which provides the most 'fitness' (which is measured generally by how many offspring survive and reproduce, in a basic sense). Evolution then builds on behaviors that are both ethical and not ethical, because evolution is amoral (not IMmoral, A moral, meaning it has no morality much like the wind, or water, or gravity). Ethical behavior can only be exhibited by sentient beings (again, a loose term, and not going to extrapolate it further to define sentience), so evolution can not have ethical behavior. It can only create and propagate the best ideas for survival, such as, the motivation different ethnic groups have to eradicate each other due to limited resources.

My point is, evolution is not the basis for ethics and therefore not the basis for the purpose of life, because it has no stake in it. It's the same as using gravity as a way to define purpose and ethics. They don't fit together. Now we can examine the evolution of ethical behavior in animals and find out why ethical behavior is programed (we have done this already) and utilize the human and animal behavioral models to maximize ethical behavior so that all can benefit from the positive aspects of the universe (if that makes sense to anyone). But to assume that anyone basis their ethical behavior and meaning on evolution is to invoke the naturalistic fallacy, which is absurd.

Ethics and 'purpose' are and individual preference. Religious find purpose and 'ethics' within their doctrines, which when read fully and not cherry-picked can call into question the legitimacy of the claim being presented. There are several passages in the bible where even Jesus condones murder, while then turning around and condoning kindness to others. Gaining morality from a book is a questionable procedure largely because few religious people take extensive amount of time to work out the logic of such a moral choice. If we take gay marriage for example, some will say it's wrong because the bible says so, and when pressed, will express that it's not a natural state for animals. This is generally as far as it goes, because there are hundreds of species which engage in homosexual behavior, including homosexual pairing. If you were to ask these same people, after showing the act being done by other animals, routinely, in nature, there is little reason to have a negative opinion other than to invoke god. I don't see this as commendable, because then you are gaining your 'moral' behavior from someone purely on the basis of 'I told you so.' This is blindly obedient and can lead far more to immoral (such as genocide, see WWII as a more recent example) behavior because these people do not question or invoke rational thought to explain their behavior. This happens more often than someone might think and there is plenty of psychological evidence to support the fact that people will do horrendous things if they view the person as superior and as having authority. Putting religious people into this position their entire lives, concerns me, because good people, do horrible things out of this 'I told you so' mentality.

My ethical behavior is derived from continuous thought. How do my actions effect other individuals? How do my actions effect humans versus animals? Do each of these groups feel pain, happiness, etc, and to what extent? How do my actions effect the environment, and how would that, on a larger scale, impact the future of the earth, and potentially the universe? My list could go on, but this is a sample of the sort of questions I ask. When confronted with my own values, I ask questions that may or may not challenge them, and I pose possible scenarios for the impact of these values on others, negative and positive. My ethics, are therefore derived from continuous refinement, previous philosophers and their logical arguments, and the potentiality for my behavior on an individual and large scale to invoke harm or good to other humans, animals, the earth, and the universe. In the end, my desire for all other life is to see it respected and to see it content. Is this possible? To an extent and my values reflect this. Is there room for refinement and improvement? There always is and that is the difference between myself and someone who takes their pastor's word for it. My values and ethics change depending on new information that is derived about the world about me and how I, as an individual, can improve that world for everyone. I do not require a man in a pulpit to tell me how to do that, as I am an intellectual, and I am a thinking being who as compassion and motivation. I would even dare to say that my ethics and my values, are superior to any who derive all of their values and ethics from an ancient, and I would be prepared to test that any day.

 As far as purpose is concerned. There is no purpose to the universe because the universe is not sentient. It has no goal in mind because it is not sentient. This is not a problem, but a freedom. Consider, if the universe has nothing in mind, this gives us the opportunity to find our place, our individual place, within the world and define ourselves based on how we would that like world to look. If we think of the universe as a pond. A pond has no purpose. A pond is a bowl of water that sustains life, but it has no goal, no purpose mind. It simply is. The fish within it, the algae, the bacteria, the microscopic organisms, are all that is within the universe (if the universe is like a pond). The fish do not define their lives based on the goal of the pond. That would be silly. The fish define their lives based on that which is around them. Their goals, their desires, their motivations, define their purpose in life. Likewise, we define ourselves within the context of our fish bowl. We look to that which is around us, the devastation, the hope, the pain, the happiness, and with our own motivations, we define ourselves and therefore our purpose in life. What are goals besides desires to do something. It is all this which creates purpose on a grander scale.

Now you could say, well, some people want only to hurt others. This is true, no matter the religion of the person, there are, in all species, defectors and cheaters of the system. Religion doesn't make these people better, it obscures them, as they thrive in particular environments if given the chance, and even religious offer the chance to advance oneself despite being a cheater or a defector. However, in the whole of the population, these people are a small percentage as the population can not survive with a large percentage of these people. If they grow too large, their niches start to collapse. Consider if lying was condoned, people would lie all the time and then few people would trust one another, and eventually the system collapses (plenty of science on this, it's a prisoner's dilemma). So you'll always have cheaters and defectors no matter how many religious or nonreligious you have. It's independent of it. So using this would be an invalid critique of defining the self based on personal motivation and desire. 

My point to this entire post, is that purpose can be found in the self, and for many of us, is, and then further defined by outside information. With religious, purpose is defined by the self and the church, which again, is questionable. Ethics can be defined without religion as many of us take a great deal of time and pain to meticulously polish our values to suit what maximizes happiness and pleasure among not just humans, but often other species as well.

The invoking of not having morality or purpose, or any such thing against atheism is an old stone that has been thrown and immersed by plenty of logical statements debunking that fallacious argument.

Bravo, Mande!!  Bravo!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Closet? What closet?

I’m not one to be in a closet.  As soon as I found atheism, I was out.  It never even occurred to be that I ought to consider being in the closet.  I’m just not that kind of guy.  You probably guessed that by now.

But now, things have changed.  My son is getting involved in Cub Scouts.  He really likes it.  I find scouting to be a complete waste of time and energy, but he finds it enjoyable so he can go have fun.  This weekend he went camping with his Nana.  He had a blast.  He went and sold popcorn.  He was very good at it.  He looks forward to meetings and participates well.

Now I know most Scout leaders wouldn’t give a shit if my son is the child of atheist parents.  But even so, I know the official stance of the Boy Scouts of America is to shun those without religious faith.  So for the first time since I became an atheist, I’m in the closet.  Somewhat.

I recently went to a LGBT meeting at my local public library.  It was a really cool meeting.  It reminded me a lot of my meetings for my atheist group.  They told coming-out stories, shared experiences of discrimination, gave support and encouragement to those who had felt lost, lonely or isolated.  That’s exactly what my group does.  They talked about the closet.  It’s never a comfortable place to be.  Now I get it.  I never really did before.

It sucks.  Many of the other parents of scouts are people who we see all the time.  These are my son’s friends’ parents.  We talk often.  Eventually, someone will say something and I am SO BAD at biting my tongue.  It would truly suck if I got my kid kicked out of a group he enjoys so much.