Archive for July, 2011

My Story

One of the problems with being an atheist is that you’re always perceived as something negative. And that perception really isn’t that far from reality. I mean most of what you hear about atheists is that they’re usually arguing or fighting against something. They’re trying to remove the 10 Commandments from government buildings, or getting prayer out of school, or they’re writing books blasting traditional religious thought.

While I do believe this is necessary at some level, there’s really nothing substantive about atheism or non-religion in general. There is secular humanism which does have positive core values, but that usually just gets lost in the mix.

I’ve also struggled to come up with something positive while at the same time promoting critical thinking. It’s kind of contradictory to lay out a set of positive values, but then saying “and be critical of everything, even what I just said”. Imagine if a Christian said, “God loves you and wants to save your soul, but also question everything. Even question whether this God exists in the first place.” It just makes it confusing.

So, what I thought I’d do was simply tell my own story of how I got to where I am today in my atheism. Well, not just atheism. Atheism is practically nothing. It is a mere sentence in the thick novel of my personal beliefs. I am a secular humanist, a transhumanist, and deeply convinced of the value and correctness of scientific methodology and of the ongoing scientific endeavor.

First, my parents. I grew up in a non-religious household. My mother is also an atheist, though not much of a critical thinker. She’s into things like Carl Jung and Carlos Castaneda; fairly flakey things about consciousness and perceiving the universe. But she’s not really hardcore into these things. She’s like the moderate Christian version of them. Sort of believes it, but isn’t devoted to it. My father was into Scientology, but was never a member; mostly because he had no money and they wouldn’t have him.

After my parents divorced, I lived with my mother and she decided to take me to the Ethical Culture of Brooklyn. If you don’t know, the Ethical Culture is a group dedicated to ethical ideas. Everyone was accepted, and no one was made to feel inferior because of their personal beliefs. It’s sort of a non-religious Unitarianism. But its main focus is on ethics: what is right, what is wrong, how we should act, etc, but also the discussion of those ideas, not just swallowing it whole without thought.

We stopped going after we moved to California. We tried the Ethical Culture here but didn’t it interesting enough to stay. A year later, when I was 12, I met a girl (now my wife) who asked me to go to her and her friends to church, which was the Methodist Church. I agreed, and found it kind of interesting. I eventually went through confirmation and joined the church, but I never really believed in it. I had just done because that was what everyone else was doing so I figured why not.

As it turned both she and her friends really didn’t believe in it either, and stopped going. I found myself alone there now, continually pressured to go by my mother. She obviously didn’t believe either, but she said I made a commitment to them and so need to see it out. Eventually I convinced her that I hated going and she let me sleep in again on Sundays.

It was during this time that I really started questioning religion and whether God exists. I hadn’t believed them before, but I hadn’t really been critical of it, and mostly didn’t even understand the concepts. I was an “implicit atheist”, where my non-belief was simply due to the fact that I hadn’t been indoctrinated into it. It was here where I shifted to “explicit atheism” where I did begin questioning and coming up with logical reasons why there is no God, and understanding just what “God” is. I now knew what I was rejecting.

So for a few years I did that until my sophomore year of high school when one of my friends, who was pretty devoutly Catholic, invited me to his church. I decided to go, but due to curiosity about what Catholics believe, not because I thought it might be a way to the truth. I went there for a couple years, and, I have to say, I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t think any of the Catholic dogma was true, but they were nice friendly people to be around. They weren’t pushy at all about their beliefs. I mean, I went to their youth group, called Life Teen, and there was a lot in there about what the church’s teachings were and how to be a good Catholic, but I was never singled out. I felt part of a group that was being taught. And I definitely learned a lot more about Catholic teachings than I did about Methodist teachings at the Methodist Church.

But I eventually decided to move on. During this time I had also really learned a lot about critical thinking and the scientific method, both from my teachers at school and online articles (particularly about.atheism.com). It was in these that I saw the true majesty of the universe. The fact that we have the tools to objectively understand the very fundamental nature of reality is astonishing.

The true power of science is in its ability to test and verify theories, and to discard those that do not conform to nature. It is this that really distinguishes it from religion. There is no faith, there is no condemnation of questioning, and there are no logical gaps and fallacies. There is just no comparison. Science is adaptable. It takes this premise that we don’t know anything about the universe, and tries to figure it out. It doesn’t claim a dogma, then try to work backwards to find the evidence for that dogma. Everything is open to investigation.

By the time I was in college I was pretty set in being an atheist. I still say that I would believe in God if there were sufficient evidence (and given the nature of the claim, the evidence would have to be extraordinarily good), but nothing has made it in so far. There are just no good reasons to believe that a supreme being exists in the universe, and a great many reasons to believe otherwise.

I still struggle with personal beliefs, though. I first discovered transhumanism when I was 19 through Marshall Brain’s web pages. At first I didn’t like it. It just seemed too bizarre and undesirable to me. But, eventually, I sorted through it with my mental critical thinking tool kit, and found there was something here. We could make people better, or rather, develop the capabilities to let people make themselves better. We could develop the technology to upload the human mind to become immortal. We could develop the technology to create vast simulated realities and live in them as literal god-like beings. It is practical.

I’ll close out here with my rejection of my belief in extraterrestrial life, and not just because it’s my latest personal discovery. I had believed that aliens must exist in some form somewhere. Given the incredibly vast number of stars in the universe, coupled with the relative ease it is to make life, the universe must be teeming with life and other civilizations. But, as I started to investigate the consequences of those beliefs, I found that they were incompatible with the universe I saw around me. Where were these aliens? I believed aliens would colonize a large volume of space, as large as they possibly could, and do it quickly, since their only limited by the speed of light. So why aren’t they here already? Eventually, I realized that the simplest explanation was that they didn’t exist at all. It was devastating to me. I wanted to believe that alien life existed so badly, but the evidence just didn’t bear it out. I had to discard that belief, but it was actually not so bad. Because of my experience with having to prune my beliefs when necessary, I found that I was glad I came to a logical conclusion. Critical thinking gets easier, the more you do it. Changing your beliefs that you hold dear, gets easier.

And it’s a good thing too. We don’t know the nature of the universe when we’re born. It makes no sense to then pretend to.

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Two Technological Steps Away from Virtual Space

In thinking about how we might get from today’s technology to the technology I’ve envisioned in the future, it’s often useful to work backwards; envisioning how to step back from high technology to lower technology.

For virtual space, it seems that we might accomplish the transition from today with only two “stepping stone” technologies. So, what exactly is virtual space? Simply a fully immersive, artificially created simulation of the world. You can interact with it just as you do the real world. You can see, hear, smell, feel, taste, etc, everything in the simulation just like you would in real life and, above all, have abilities that are impossible in the real world (flight, teleportation, instant creation of anything, etc.) So what would one step back from that be? Maybe a less-immersive type of virtual space.

Like say, portable, light-weight virtual reality glasses. These glasses simply give visual and auditory feedback, like playing a video game, but operated completely through audio and tactile command (with something like a virtual keyboard, which the glasses create, much like what can be done today). These glasses will be used to surf the internet, play games, make video and audio phone call, perhaps even be used to travel though a primitive version of virtual space. They could also be used as a real-world HUD (Heads-Up Display), which can overlay important information about real-world things, appearing on the things themselves (for example, lets say you’re at a restaurant and you don’t know what to get. You might use the glasses to go online, look for reviews of specific dishes, which the glasses will then point out by apparently projecting some sort of highlighting feature on the physical menu in front of you. I say “apparently” because the “projection” is entirely contained between the glasses and your eyes meaning only you can see it).

So how might we get to this technology? Well, I can see it growing directly out of cell phones. Basically, imagine something like this, but as an add-on to cell phones, like Bluetooth. Instead of looking at your screen, the information is relayed by Bluetooth, or similar technology, to these glasses that you are wearing. But you still have the phone and everything on you.

So that would be only two steps: electronic glasses connected to cell phones, electronic glasses without cell phones. The final transition comes at the end. It’s likely that real virtual space won’t come about until people start uploading. The demand just won’t be high enough to encourage a large percent of the population to undergo major surgery just to have the latest high-tech gadget (also, what do you do when the next model comes out a year later? Go through surgery again?). But if you’re uploaded, the transition from one set of virtual space hardware to the next becomes much simpler. Being uploaded means that your mind and your brain will already be easily accessible in the future.

So, what do we need to start on this path? Well the electronic glasses would be a considerable piece of technology in their own right. In order for there to be wide demand of these, they would have to be very similar to existing glasses of today. They would need to be just as light-weight and allow just as much visibility out of them, and be just as easy to take on and take off. They would also have to be very cheap, possibly no more that $100-$200 in today’s money. That might take some time, but we do have a few decades for this to be developed. Maybe in fifteen to twenty years, we’ll all have glasses like these.