Archive for February 23rd, 2012

Nature: Is that all there is?

February 23, 2012

That’s a rhetorical question, for me and many of my cohorts in A&P. The answer is a resounding and undisappointed Yes! Thomas Clark, on our reading list today, says “for the naturalist, nature is all there is, and therefore it’s enough.” More than enough, considering how much of nature’s code we still haven’t begun to crack.

We’re also getting a report presentation today from Daniel on Nietzsche, whose “eternal recurrence” thought experiment was designed in part to reinforce our sense of nature’s sufficiency. It’s a gift, he told his shrink.

We’re also discussing four other short essays today.

For John Harris it’s personal: “My father died when I was 12 years old, and I became an atheist overnight. It was immediately obvious to me that God was either wicked or dead…” Or both? Let’s be clear: if God is dead it’s because He never lived in the first place. What’s the point of pinning wickedness on a fiction? Atheists’ animus is misdirected, if aimed directly at God. But there’s no shortage of suitable human targets.

Harris rejects agnosticism about gods for the same reason he rejects it for fairies and the Great Green Arkleseizure (he’s an Adams fan) or Russell’s teapot (YouTimages). They’re possible, sure. Most fictional entities are. So? So, he’s a “one god further” atheist. Like most of us he spurns Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But like Dawkins he doesn’t stop there.

Harris invokes the distinction, so crucial for maintaining amity amidst diversity, that we’ve already endorsed: “respect for persons does not entail respect for their beliefs.” Mitt Romney’s ok (though I’ll not be voting for him), Mitt Romney’s religion is inane. OK?

In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one- year-old man of being “a disorderly person and an impostor.” That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or “necromantic” powers.” –Christopher Hitchens

But four years later Smith “found” the Book of Mormon, and now we’re all supposed to respect the Latter Day Saints. Time lifts boats that otherwise just won’t float.

I have found a “skeptic Mormon” online, and plenty of generally-sensible ones, like joanna brooks @askmormongirl. It seems to be an unshakable cultural identity for many, who must think Joe Smith’s story is somehow peripheral to the faith. But how can that be?

Adele Mercier opens with Protagoras, an agnostic “because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.” Some of us think life’s too short to waste on obscure fantasies of eternal ever-after in Neverland.  After all, “most first-order religious beliefs are daft.” But most believers in virgin birth (etc.) have never been encouraged to notice and are liable to think they’ve posed a stumper when they call the skeptic’s attention to the miracle in question. It simply hasn’t occurred to them that biblical and traditional authority is inconclusive at best. “How do you explain that?!” Same way I explain fairies and arkleseizures: humans have active, credulous imaginations.

In fact, we’re “evolutionarily programmed” to believe what our parents tell us. That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Another fact, presaged by the foregoing discussion of LDS: religion is much more about “social identity” than about the real nature of the cosmos. “People spend a lot more time defending and justifying their right to religion than defining and justifying their purported religious beliefs.” They believe in believing, as Dennett says. I do too. I just prefer to believe in believable things. Is that so unreasonable?

J.J.C. Smart, distinguished and emeritus, has the shortest essay in the book. But he rings a lot of my bells: unitarianism, pantheism, Russell, Clifford, Hume, anthropocentrism and life in the universe.

Graham Oppy says “mind and purpose are not ground-level ingredients of the universe” and quantum mechanics is not “a true theory that postulates a key role for consciousness.” He’s no fan of flapdoodle.

The aforementioned Thomas Clark sensibly says we should insulate factual claims from bias and wishful thinking. “We’re at risk of projecting our human hopes and categories onto the world instead of grasping its true nature.” Pure objectivity may elude us but intersubjectivity is the next best thing. But is “the view from nowhere” a constructive ideal? Human hopes have a place, and it’s not “nowhere.”

“The absence of God and the supernatural simply highlights the presence of nature.” A ubiquitous presence. So let’s occupy the universe.