Not-so-good books

QualiaSoup has made another beautiful video on the subject of morality. This time addressing the claim of morality from scripture (and in this video, specifically the Bible).

Answers to three questions for humanists

On the online Straits Times Forum, two letters were posted in response to the news article on (Secular) Humanist Society. The following is a response to one of them, titled: "Three questions for humanists" The online story can be found here.

Three questions for humanists

MR PAUL Tobin rightly observes that one does not need to believe in God in order to be good ("'I've no God - and am proud of it'"; last Saturday).

We know this from our interactions with friends and relatives, and from news of prominent people in public life. And we need only look at history, past and contemporary, to observe how much harm religion can do.

Nevertheless, I do have a few issues with humanists.

And I'll try to address them.

First, Ms Catherine Lim says she prefers to have faith rather than a faith. But the two are not mutually exclusive. "A faith" refers to an organised religion. One can believe in God (or gods) without belonging to an organised religion. Until not so long ago, the secretary of the British Humanist Association was an Anglican priest.......

Yes, it is correct to point out that (blind) faith is not exclusively in the domain of organized religion. One can have faith in the existence of god(s) without subscribing to any particular religion.

But I believe that wasn't her point -- she was merely stating she has a preference for having trust in the potential of humanity to guide the world than any particular religion which would claim to be able to do so. She was probably being inaccurate with her language when making that point -- I will concede that.

......In the West, Christian humanism has been around for many years. So, more precisely, humanism as described in the article refers to secular humanism. Even so, it is difficult not to ascribe the values of humanism to its religious roots.

Many of the values of Western humanism can trace their roots to Christianity.......

Honestly, I don't care if humanism's roots can be traced back to Christianity. I am not clear what relevance that would have.

I doubt that the proposition is meaningful. The most important aspect of Secular Humanism is its rejection of dogmas and propositions without evidence. In this respect, it stands completely at odds with organized religion where the very existence of a god is asserted without evidence.

In view of this, the values that Secular Humanists stand for are not grounded in the existence of any god but in human empathy, reason and evidence. So, in a sense, to say that Humanism has its roots in Christianity is to have it ass-backwards. Christianity has values which roots are in humanity -- Humanism merely holds onto those values and hack away the supernatural weeds that have grown around them (strangling them).

......Secular humanists may say these values would have been dominant anyway, since they have proven to be the most adaptive for human survival and religion has only been the vehicle through which such values have been transmitted. This may be true, but in itself is not an argument against the existence of God.

No one is arguing that Secular humanism itself constitutes evidence against god. That would be ludicrous. Strawman?

Another member says he will let science rather than religion lead his thinking. This is fine so long as we do not go into the science versus religion debate. This is a false dichotomy. As astrophysicist Paul Davies reminds us, science describes the "how" while religion answers the "why".

Well, Paul Davies is wrong . Well, on the face of it, he may appear to be correct.

Religious people have no problem rationalizing scientific data and theories into their respective belief systems. Religious doctrines and scriptures have been interpreted to death by their adherents to conform (or at least, not contradict) other beliefs (scientific or otherwise) that they have.

However, that is also where science definitely clashes with faith and religion. Science requires that conclusions be drawn from observations and biases should be eradicated to avoid distorting data. Faith contravenes that important principle by requiring that a priori religious beliefs be brought to bear on the evidence and, in some cases, reject the evidence if it contradicts those religious beliefs. In this sense, science and faith are fundamentally at odds -- the same reason why fundamentalists versions of religions go after science with such fervor.

The history of science is peopled by God-believing scientists. Indeed, the first person to postulate the Big Bang was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaitre. Another Catholic priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, took the evolutionary theory on a radical path. Not so many years ago, Pope John Paul II pronounced the theory of evolution to be more than a theory. And we know that the person who headed the genome project, Dr Francis Collins, is a staunch Christian.

These people also did not believe that science contradicted their religion and that their religion offers an interpretation of scientific data that they are comfortable with. The "false dichotomy" still stands.

How do secular humanists respond to the following questions:

- Why is there something rather than nothing?

Don't know. (More honest than religions, eh?)

I actually think it's a trivial question  even though it sounds like a deep philosophical question at face value. If there must be something to cause anything to happen, then the very existence of anything indicates that there was never nothing to begin with. That is, the question makes no sense. This is not a formal philosophical argument, just my opinion if you want it.

For the people who ask that question thinking that it somehow justifies belief in god, you're arguing for the god of the gaps. The honest answer is still "I don't know" not "therefore, god must exist!"

- If matter is all there is, how can specks of dust (matter) combine to produce a human being with consciousness (non-matter)? Astronomer Carl Sagan's standard response ("billions of years") is unhelpful.

But Carl Sagan's response is probably accurate. Nature is not required to provide feel-good answers.

Secondly, the mind is an emergent phenomenon. It IS matter.

For example, wetness is an emergent property when water molecules get together in a sufficient quantity. Water molecules themselves are not wet. So, is wetness non-matter?

- If matter is all there is and thoughts are a product of a chemical reaction in the brain in response to stimuli, then there is no free will, including the freedom of thought. Every thought we have is an inevitable response in accordance with set natural laws. In other words, we cannot help thinking what we think. In that case, how can we believe anything, since the thinking is "done" for us? How then can we trust what we believe, including the belief in no God?

I'll just point out that you are assuming we hold to the determinist position on free will.

We believe propositions on the basis of reason and evidence. Are you proposing that reason and evidence is somehow not real if we are following natural laws?

Here's a thought. What are "You" if not your thoughts, feelings and experience?

Noah's Ark: Reality Check

The following video, by NonStampCollector, is a response to people who believe that the Noah's Ark story actually happened.

I've no god - and am proud of it

 The following is an article by the Straits Times via Jakarta Globe:

Singapore. A growing number of people in Singapore who do not believe in a God have banded together, determined to be unapologetic about being non-religious.

Registered as the Humanist Society (Singapore) last October, their ranks have since expanded from 10 to 100 registered, fee-paying members.

Their backgrounds are as diverse as their reasons for not professing a faith, but they are united by their belief that morality comes from humanity itself.

Calling themselves 'secular humanists', they are also united in their rejection of a theistic or supernatural explanation of reality, and their embracing of scientific inquiry.

Today is a red-letter day: The society presents its inaugural Humanist of the Year award to author Catherine Lim.

Another recent milestone was the society's application to join the International Humanist and Ethical Union, a European body of humanist societies around the world.

The humanists here include artists, government officials, students and entrepreneurs. The youngest member is 19 and the oldest, 65.

Most describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, though some eschew labels. Others are adamantly definitive. Take Nanyang Technological University student Eugene Tay, 24, who declares: 'I'm an atheist-agnostic secular humanist.'

Statistically, the proportion of people here with no religion has climbed steadily in the last 30 years - from 13 per cent in 1980 to 17 per cent last year.

Since non-believers have no church, temple or mosque to go to, they have carved out their space online.

The founding members of the Humanist Society came together in 2008, through, a social networking website.

The online group they formed has more than 500 members.

Since it was set up, the society has cast itself as the voice for the non-religious here. Its president Paul Tobin, 46, wrote to The Straits Times' Forum page last December, in response to a report that suggested that non-religious young people were prone to violence and cynicism. In his letter, he rejected the claim and concluded: 'One does not need to have a religion to lead a good, happy and meaningful life.'

He told The Straits Times: 'That was a watershed moment. After that letter, our numbers shot up. I feel now that we have a say in what goes on in Singapore.'

Land surveyor Loh Kwek Leong, 58, who learnt of the society through this newspaper last year, said he grew up in a typical Chinese household - one that was 'a bit Taoist, a bit Buddhist, a lot superstitious'.

As an adult, he found putting his faith in science better. He said: 'The questions I had about the world, about life and death - I found my answers in science, not religion.'

The group pulls together because of a shared sense of being alone in a society where four in five people profess to believe in a Supreme Being.

Communications manager Winston Chong, 36, who said he has philosophical debates with his parents, who are religious, said: 'It's about time we had a group for ourselves. I've been waiting for this, to find like-minded people.'

As a recipient of the society's award, Dr Lim joins a list of internationally honoured humanists, including astronomer Carl Sagan and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Asked for her take on religion, she replied via e-mail: 'I suppose if I had a religion, it would be the 'religion of humanity', based on confidence in the indomitability of the human spirit. I would rather have faith, than a faith.'

If I want to be pedantic, I'll take issue with capitalizing the word "god". Excuse me, are you trying to be a bigoted monotheist, dismissing all the other gods other people believe in -- hmmm?

I also take issue with the phrase "putting his faith in science" because it reeks of religious language that confuse the issue of faith, trust and confidence.

But all in all, nice -- a positive article about secular humanism and non-belief is always good to have.

Question Evolution: Answers

Via TheLivingDinosaur, it came to my attention of Creation Ministries International's campaign, Question Evolution. As a response, 15+1 Youtubers came together to produce videos to answer the ludicrous questions in the campaign's pamphlet.

Here are the 4 videos collated:

Links to the creationist's site and pamphlet can be found on the Youtube page of the first part of the video. Links to the individual contributors can be found on the Youtube page of the video part they appear in.

Treatise on Morality

Here's video by TheoreticalBullshit on the subject of morality.

It addresses why I say, Christianity has obedience not morality -- This applies to any denomination or religion where morality is defined by their deity.

Morality: Subjective, Objective

Very often, the debate over morality is bogged down by the issue over the subjectivity or objectivity of morality. Usually, the theists are the ones advocating that morality is objective (and has been made known to them by their gods) while some atheists would deny that.

So, note the (relevant) definitions for objective and subjective.

objective — adj
1.    existing independently of perception or an individual's
       conceptions: are there objective moral values?
2.    undistorted by emotion or personal bias
3.    of or relating to actual and external phenomena as
       opposed to thoughts, feelings, etc
4.    of, or relating to a goal or aim

subjective — adj
1.    belonging to, proceeding from, or relating to the mind of
       the thinking subject and not the nature of the object being
2.    of, relating to, or emanating from a person's emotions,
       prejudices, etc: subjective views
3.    relating to the inherent nature of a person or thing
4.    existing only as perceived and not as a thing in itself

Note the different ways the words subjective and objective can be used. The two different ways is with respect to in/dependence of mind(s) and distortion or lack of it by prejudices/biases/emotions.

Now this means that referring to morality with those terms, objective and subjective, without adequate clarity will indicate 4 different positions. If you said morality is objective, you might mean that morality exist independent of minds or that morality is not biased by subjects. If you said morality is subjective, you might mean that morality is dependent on minds or that morality is based on subjective biases.

The Usual Confusion
As such, without providing proper context, telling me that you believe morality to be objective or subjective is potentially misleading. You MUST indicate what definition of objective and subjective you are using.

Objective (1) -- independent of minds
Objective (2) -- unbiased by subjects

Subjective (1) -- dependent on minds
Subjective (2) -- based on subjective biases

With that clarified, I want to state that atheists (not all, but there is a significant proportion at least) are proposing that morality is subjective (1) but its morals can be derived objectively (2). This would be what Sam Harris is proposing that science can study morality, concerning the well-being of conscious beings which is subjective (1), objectively (2).

Morality and Morals
The purpose of morality, simply put, is to guide human behavior and (social) interactions. I will state that I reject ALL claims of objective (1) morality. Any moral system that ignores the state of the conscious beings involved -- which is what it must entail in order to be objective (1) -- is not a moral system at all.

The purpose of morality is subjective (1) in the sense that morality only matters if there are subjects. It is not subjective (2) as long as we properly define what morality is and thus be able to objectively (2) investigate what is moral and immoral.

I agree with Sam Harris' view of morality where the purpose of morality is to guide human behavior and social interactions in the direction of well-being. Note the well-being is somewhat vague, like the concept of health, which I think is actually a strong point.

Take a look at the branches of normative ethics, at this Wikipedia page, particularly Consequentialist theories, and notice that they emphasize on one particular value to judge whether an action is or is not moral. The idea of well-being cuts through all that nonsense and represents all the values that we hold.

Theistic, Objective Morality
The main issue with theistic, objective morality is that there is no such thing -- it's almost a contradiction in terms.

If morality is based on their god, then it would be subjective (1) -- dependent on god's mind -- not objective (1) which they claim. The Euthyphro dilemma applies either way. Also, this makes morality arbitrary and quite meaningless -- it's obedience not morals.

If morality is not based on their god but simply because god has access to morality via its omniscience, then morality is not dependent on god. It would be possible for us to investigate morality objectively (2) whether or not it is objective (1) or subjective (1). But it also means that the theistic aspect is irrelevant.

Additionally, even if we ignore the previous two points and simply agree, for the sake of argument, that morality is somehow objective (1), it doesn't solve anything. Theistic morality is practically subjective (2) -- interpreting means that there are so many versions of so many religions, each offering a different (slightly or not) moral code. The theistic case for objective (1) morality and morals is just nonsense to begin with and still nonsense at the end.

What's more egregious in the case of Christianity and Islam (correct me if there are sects who disagree) is that morals DON'T matter because belief in god is the sole (or at least, critical) criteria to enter heaven. All the talk about homosexuals, abortion, rape and murder is irrelevant because if you don't believe, living a moral life will do dick for you, you will still fry in hell anyways.

In this respect, traditional chinese religious beliefs trump Christianity and Islam because its hell punishes people for immoralities as opposed to disbelief.