Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

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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Tastes Of Chicken!

The other day I was idly thinking about the ethics of cloned meat. From a biological perspective, it’s exactly the same stuff, it’s just made in a different way. Often, this way is much more efficient than raising animals, and there’s bonus that cloned meat was never actually part of a living animal, and so was never really “killed” to feed us. From both an ethical and practical standpoint, cloned meat seems the way to go. 

I myself love eating meat, but have always been sort of bothered by the fact that it was once an animal. I mean, I know the animal kingdom is a harsh place where animals compete and eat one another, and that we, arguably, are just competing better. So it hasn’t really stopped me from eating it.

But then I started extending the argument, as I always do, to its logical extreme. If it’s ok to clone beef, pork, chicken, etc., what about animals that we don’t normally eat due to practical or cultural values. For example, is it wrong to eat a cloned horse steak? It was never actually part of a real living horse. A horse didn’t have to die to provide you with the steak, just donate  a small sample of its DNA. Or how about cloning dog or cat or dolphin? Or, what about cloning endangered animal meat.

Or, taking it to the logical conclusion, what if we cloned human meat? Again, a cloned human steak was never part of a person. I don’t know if I’d want to eat human, but I might try just to see. You never know, it might be really good.

Even more bizarre (if you can imagine that), what if you cloned your own meat? You could have a slice of you. I don’t know. I don’t imagine that many people would want to eat human meat, but there probably is at least a small market out there. Maybe that’s one future industry that will develop.

WWFD

There are many times when I’m bewildered by political affairs. Sometimes when events happen, it’s difficult to know, especially with emotions running wild, just what the correct couse to take is. America has traditionally had a stance of isolationism. That, whatever’s going in Europe is their problem. Whatever’s going on in Asia is their problem. That, above all, it isn’t our problem. Of course, such thinking can appear incredibly cruel and sadistic when dealing with, say, government oppression, genocide, or war.

But, really, what business is it of ours? We may wish for all people to act civilized, for foreign governments to be more respectful of people’s rights, but it is our job to enforce such behavior? One such relatively recent event was, of course, the the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. First, we were led to believe he had weapons of mass destruction, even though he didn’t. We ended up invading his country and overthrew his government. Even though he wasn’t creating WMDs, many people still think that he still needed to be out of power.

I would agree. He was a tyrant. But I don’t think it was our place to go and do it. It’s curious that there’s a philosophy that describes this political and philosophical position. It is called the Prime Directive.

I have learned much from Star Trek. Sure it is a television program (actually five live-aciton programs, one animated program, eleven movies, and countless spin-off novels, comics, video games, etc.), but just because it is doesn’t necessarily make the Prime Directive irrelevant.

I quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard, from episode “Symbiosis”: “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History have proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes in a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably distastrous.” and from “Pen Pals”: “The Prime Directive has many functions, not the least is to protect us. To prevent us from allowing our emotions to overwhelm our judgement.”

I think the United States would do well to understand and assume this philosophy. To ask itself when viewing other countries with other problems:

WWFD

Why I Love Science

Simply put: science is awesome. By using our brains and having a passion for experimenting and observing, we are able to deduce the laws of the universe. I am constantly amazed at the very fact that the universe is knowable, in that it is actually possible to figure it out.

But why do I think science is awesome? Many people believe that science is just one way of knowing the universe and that there are other equally valid ways of doing so, or that science only reveals one type knowledge while other types require other means  (i.e. religion/spirituality). I, however, would have to completely disagree with that assessment.

I disagree because of the way science is put together. Science isn’t just this giant tome of facts that you have to memorize, it’s a way of finding out how the world works, a method for rigorously and objectively (meaning, without appeals to faith or emotion) discovering how the universe is put together. Now, there is this giant tome of facts that are important to memorize, but that’s just because we’ve been doing science for several hundred years and have accumulated a vast store of knowledge.

But what is it that scientists do? By which I mean, when scientists go to work, what is the method they use? Many of you may have heard of the scientific method, but how does that work? First let’s explore something in logic called modus tolens.

Modus tolens is a logical argument. It follows the following basic form:

1. If A is true, then B is true.

2. B is not true.

3. Therefore, A is not true.

It is also called denying the consequence. In a logical argument, you have premises and conclusions.  The premises support the conclusion. In this example, (1) and (2) are the premises and (3) is the conclusion. What is important to understand about modus tolens  is that it is deductively valid, meaning that, provided the premises are true, the conclusion cannot possibly be false. It is not logically possible in this argument for B to be false while A is true. Now, of course, one or more of the premises may, in fact, turn out to be false, but that’s a different issue.

The other logical form we must consider is called confirming the consequence. It is similar to modus tolens, except that B turns out to be true like so:

1. If A is true, then B is true.

2. B is true.

3. Therefore A is true.

What is very important is note  is that this argument is deducively invalid. The conclusion can be false while the premises can be true. This is because B might actually be true independently of A. Even though this isn’t deductively valid, it is useful in another type of logic called inductive arguments.

Inductive arguments are basically the in-between arguments, that are neither 100% true nor 100% false like deductive arguments. It’s basically an argument of probability: given a certain set of premises, how likely is it that the conclusion is true? It might seem very very likely, approaching 100%, but never reaching it, or it might seem incredibly unlikely, but never reaching 0%.

So what does all this have to do with science? Well, all science basically boils down to these two logical forms and assigns different names to them. In science, you work with hypotheses. Hypotheses are an attempt to explain how the world works. They are like the “A” in the argument. Good hypotheses make testable prediction, meaning you can go out and check whether they are true. This is, in essence, the first premise, which is identical in both forms:

1. If the hypothesis is true, we should observe effects C, D, E, F, G, etc.

A lot of work is put into finding testable predictions and in making sure that the predictions do, in fact, follow logically from the hypothesis. It might take days, weeks, maybe even years of work just to find testable predictions. Sometimes no testable predictions are found and the hypothesis has to be junked, no matter how compelling it may seem.

The second part is the experimenting. It’s basically going out and seeing if C, D, E, F, G etc. actually happen. Again, it’s a lot of work, making sure the experiment is set up right, making sure the data collected are accurate. Experiments are run over and over by many independent groups of people, all trying to confirm or deny the hypothesis’ predictions.

When it’s all done, there are obviously only two outcomes: either the prediction is confirmed (in which case B is true), or it is denied (in which case B is false). If it is confirmed, then we can say that the hypothesis has support, but it is not proven. If is it denied, then we can say that the hypothesis–in it’s current form–is wrong, 100%. At that point, it is up to scientists to see if the hypothesis can be modified to fit the data, or whether it just has to be thrown out altogether, and the process starts once more. It doesn’t matter how much we like the hypothesis, who proposed it, or anything else. All it comes down to are the follow two questions “do the predictions logically follow the hypothesis?” and “are the predictions actually true?”. Nothing else matters.

So when can we say that a hypothesis is proved? Ultimately never, but many hypotheses are tested over and over and are continually confirmed without their predictions being denied, so we are confident that our hypotheses are very likely true. At that point the hypotheses might start being called theories (short for “theoretical model”. For non-scientists, you can think of “theory” as being nearly synonymous with “fact”). Not that there’s an official vote or anything on “promoting” hypotheses to theories, it’s more an informal catagory for hypotheses that are really well-tested and have stood up to scrutiny.

That is why I love science. With such rigorous methods, it’s hard to understand why a lot of people don’t accept it. It may be that such people just don’t understand how it works and think it’s just another belief system on par with all the others that exist. But science isn’t built on faith. It explicity states not to believe on faith but on evidence. Simply put, without evidence, how do you know anything is true at all?

Sometimes Being So Smart is a Drag

I’ve been busy playing this online game called EVE Online. It’s basically a massive online space simulation game in which you can do a number of things.  You can mine resources, refine them, make items to sell in-game or use yourself, fight NPCs or PCs (that is, computer controlled characters and other real human players), any and all at the same time.

But being the smart guy that I am I like to ask questions and figure things out. For example: what is the best way to make in-game money? The economy is almost exclusively player-driven. When you sell an item, it is because some other player somewhere in the world has put out a buy order. When you purchase an item, it is because someone else has put it on the market. It takes a bit of mathmatics but I figured out that the best way to make the most money was to go out, mine a certain type of ore (called Dense Veldspar, which is entirely common throughout the game’s universe) and sell it.

Then do it again. And again. And again. You might use the money you get to purchase better ships and mining equipment so you can mine larger quantities exponential growth. But in the end it’s just going out, mining asteroids, and selling the results.

The game now seems incredibly boring. I can go out and keep mining sure, but to what end? It’s not like the money I earn in-game can be transferred to the real world. There are other things I can do, like combat, but that appeals less to me than mining and manufacturing. My own sheer brilliance has reduced a complex game to a simple equation: mining = wealth. Wealth that is ultimately worthless.

Oh well.

Clarke’s Third Law

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

Arthur C. Clarke is probably my favorite science fiction author. I love him because his stories all betray a cool, rational, non-alarmist stance and often present a positive, desirable future for us human beings. He has also written three laws which are meant to Clarke’s Third Law is a saying about the way advanced technology will appear to primitive civilizations. In my own predictions, I’ve often wondered how things like virtual space, neural interfaces, and mind uploading will appear to us.

If we took a person today and unknowingly stuck them in a virtual environment with other people who were accustomed to technology, everything they did would obviously appear god-like. They can teleport to any destination at will, create anything out of thin air, fly.

Neural interfaces will also appear to be magic. People will be able to share information and communicate with electronic devices telepathically. Have access to enormous volumes of information. Be able to remember perfectly everything they’ve ever done. Even exhibit remote viewing, if there’s a camera around where they want to view.

What I find interesting, though it that much of today’s technology would also appear to be magic to an older civilization. Take cell phones. With a cell phone, I can talk to any one else on the entire planet instantly. Even only one hundred fifty years ago, communication was limited to the speed of a horse.

The computer brings the library into the home. Television and radio also lets you get information, entertainment, music, etc. We use the “magic” of radio waves to transmit information, and they travel at the speed of light (because, duh, they are light). The world is powered by a strange material called electricity.

People think that the future is when technology will be amazing while forgetting that we already have a lot of fantastic, inexplicable technology. It just doesn’t seem so to us since A) we are used to it, and B) most of us understand the basics of how it works.