Tag Archive | "naturalism"

On Proof, Presumption, and the Existence of God

The debate on the existence of God cannot be resolved on the basis of proof. While atheists claim that theists fail to prove that God exists, theists respond by saying that atheists fail to prove that he doesn’t. Atheists would then say that the burden of proof lies on him who asserts and not on him who denies, and theists would point out that saying there is no god is also a positive claim that equally requires proof.

And so the outcome of the debate will most likely depend not on proof, but on presumption, because presumption determines which side has the burden of proof to overcome such presumption.

Presumption is defined as “an act of accepting that something is true until it is proved not true.” In law, this refers particularly to a rebuttable presumption (as opposed to a conclusive presumption), that is, presumed as such until defeated by proof to the contrary.

But are presumptions arbitrary? For instance, can atheists just presume that God does not exist while theists can presume that he does, leading to yet another stalemate? Another definition of presumption says that it’s not: “a legal inference as to the existence or truth of a fact not certainly known that is drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact.”

If we are to apply the above definition to the existence of God, it would help to focus on the operative words and phrases: an inference drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact. In other words, based on our present knowledge of the universe, which is more sensible to presume, that God exists, or that he doesn’t?

Centuries ago, before Darwin published his theory of natural selection, it would seem utterly foolish to presume that there is no Creator given the beauty and diversity of life around us, from the largest mammals to the tiniest anthropods. Today, however, our scientific knowledge would easily overcome any reasonable presumption of truth on the biblical story of creation.

Centuries ago, when Hume said that we cannot derive an ought from an is, it would be reasonable to presume that morality (or what we ought to do) can only come from the dictates of a Creator who defined right and wrong and bound us with the duty to do what is right. Today, with the achievements in evolutionary biology, while we do not claim to derive moral oughts from the acts that tend directly or indirectly to help perpetuate our genes, we can at least point out that the claim that God is the good is not just an unwarranted presumption but an empty tautology, a matter of arbitrary definition and not a logical conclusion.

Based on the above examples which show what we presently know of some other facts about this world, it would seem more plausible to infer that there is probably a naturalistic explanation for things that seem to require supernatural supposition to make up for our ignorance, such as the beginning of life and of the universe itself.

And while some philosophers might point out that the above arguments presuppose that all truths are scientific truths and all proofs must be empirical proofs, and that such assumptions cannot themselves be proven by the scientific method, it must be pointed out as well that science does not claim to hold a monopoly on truth. However, if one were to presume, science deserves the presumption of veracity because it has consistently been shown to work: cure diseases, predict typhoons and tsunamis, make our lives longer and better. On the other hand, would philosophers board an aircraft whose navigation and safety systems have only been logically proven to exist?

The God question then becomes a matter of presuming the negative until a clear and convincing proof that can survive scientific scrutiny surfaces to defeat such presumption. Of course, one can always presume the existence of God, but such presumption cannot be said to be supported by science. And while science does not claim to know all the answers, it is nevertheless associated with finding answers that can be verified with reasonable certainty.

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Image credit: Jong Atmosfera

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Physics for the Soul

As the United States shuts down its eastern seaboard for Cyclone Sandy, the Philippines will be shutting down as well, for completely different reasons. November 1 marks All Saints’ Day, when many establishments close up, since most people head to cemeteries to gamble and eat among the remains of the dead.

What comes with the holiday is the belief that when our bodies cease to function, even after we are laid into the soil or burned to ash, something survives. We are not just bodies, supernaturalist believers claim. There is a ghost in this machine and it breaks free from its mortal shackles upon death.

Some people claim to see these surviving entities, these spirits or souls, dwelling among the living. Ghostly apparitions are reported with disturbing regularity. Disturbing, in that even in the age of ubiquitous photography, no one has ever gathered any credible support for these ectoplasmic assertions. The reality of disembodied souls would necessarily overturn everything we know about physics. Any scientist would be itching to find evidence for the supernatural—evidence that never seems to turn up, despite the most adamant and most confident protestations of believers.

Human visual perception works because of light, and light works through electromagnetism. Electromagnetic/light particles called photons travel at the speed limit of the universe. When they hit objects, the energy of the photons is absorbed by particles in the object (such as electrons). These particles then release some energy back as another photon. The energy of the photon released determines the color and intensity of the light humans perceive.

If ghosts (under which I include saintly apparitions) can be seen, that means ghosts interact with photons! Electromagnetism is a physical phenomenon. This implies that at least some aspects of ghosts are physical, and therefore investigable by the methods of science. What kinds of photons are these spirits carrying? Are they different from everyday photons?

When people claim to hear ghosts, either through spooky screams or through elaborate homilies about the current geopolitical situation, they are actually claiming that physical objects are being moved by supernatural events. The perception of hearing occurs when the pressure of the air around us is locally fluctuated. When people talk, their vocal folds vibrate and push around air molecules. The air then vibrates the eardrums of animals within earshot. These vibrations correspond to what we hear as sound. The case is similar for those who report interacting with apparitions through touch (except that objects apart from air molecules are being moved, such as a uterus).

The Earth rotates on its own axis at around 1,674.4 km/h. It revolves around the Sun at 108,000 km/h. We don’t even feel these exorbitant speeds because we are moving with the Earth. We move with the Earth because we are on it and its forces are acting on us without variation. Should the Earth suddenly change in speed, however, we would definitely feel a calamitous disturbance. The Earth is tumbling around our galaxy, which is itself moving with respect to the rest of the universe. Should the Earth’s motion stop, we’d fly off into space—like a tetherball released from its rope. For the most part, we can happily ignore that we are hurtling across space because we are physical objects that obey the laws of physics. It is curious, therefore, when even immaterial ghosts follow physical laws.

When people claim to see ghosts, nobody ever reports them appearing one moment then zipping out into space the next, left behind by the Earth’s motion. Rather, people claim to see them stay in place long enough to scare the bejesus out of them, or tell them about some magic water that would heal people. Again, ghosts are eerily physical in all convenient aspects.

Imagine now that you have died. Ignore the paradox that you could not do such imagining because that would be imagining that your imagination could not imagine any longer. For the sake of argument, let us say that souls do exist and you are one right now, formerly in control of a body, currently disembodied.

Where are you? What do you see? Let us suppose that even though you are supernatural, you have some sort of particles that interact electromagnetically. Can you blink? It would be odd to do so, seeing as your soul would need to have eyelids.

At what direction are you looking? When you had a body, your eyeballs would sense a local cone of vision. Now that you’re a ghost, do you see all of existence at once? If so, where in the world are you? Certainly not floating just above your corpse.

When you had a body, you used your vision (and other senses) to determine where you were. You were limited by the local area that could be perceived by your physical sense organs. Now that you are without a body, the question of ‘where’ becomes meaningless. If ghosts exist, then they must be everywhere. They cannot otherwise be.

If these ghosts cannot exist as they have been claimed to be, then it must be that they are wholly in the mind of those who see them. They don’t have photons bouncing off of them, they don’t fly through space, because they’re not in the outside world! They do not exist objectively. These disembodied souls are figments, like how optical illusions, while very convincing, do not really show moving objects.

Our brains are easily fooled into seeing things that do not exist. People who claim to see ghosts often truly believe that they have experienced such a thing. I do not believe that they are all liars (though some must be). However, even though their brush with the supernatural must have felt very real, that does not mean that it was anything more than a psychological episode. The human brain is so adept at pattern recognition that it sees patterns everywhere—from clouds to dog anuses. It is no surprise, then, that ghosts follow the patterns we are so familiar with and that they are so much like normal natural objects, except for that little difficulty of being able to show them to others.

The supernatural world is suspicious to the scientifically literate because it is too convenient. It looks exactly like the natural world except when it’s favorable not to be. It looks like bad science fiction. Ghosts can hover, but not be left behind by a moving Earth. Ghosts can pass through solid walls, but can affect air molecules to produce sound. Ghosts can be perceived but not leave behind any independently-verifiable traces.

Surely some scientist must have left from the spirit world by now to show all his skeptical journal-publishing colleagues that the supernatural does exist. And yet, no scientist has ever come back from the grave to do so. Instead, we have saints who supposedly cure comatose patients, almost 400 years removed.

The vastness of space and time is available to the dead, if we are to believe the claims of the religious. Despite that, what is regularly professed to be done from beyond the grave is so vapid that miraculous claims are barely worth a 30 second spot on the evening news. The deep incongruence between the scale of the universe and the parochial concerns of people betrays the very human imaginations that spawn these stories.

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On Pleasure and Pain

Every conscious thing we do or choice we make is somehow motivated by the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. The only variables are the kinds of things that bring varying degrees of pleasure and pain to each individual, the premises on which expectations of pleasure or pain are based, and the ability to delay gratification.

For example, many nature lovers go to work instead of spending the entire week at the beach because the former guarantees some future comfort that outweighs the immediate fun the latter brings. Some smokers quit because they’ve decided that the pleasure they get from cigarettes cannot compensate for the pain of a present or potential respiratory illness. Most people do not normally steal because the initial gain will be quickly neutralized if they get caught (or their conscience takes the fun out of taking things that don’t belong to them). And if they believe in an afterlife, getting away won’t even matter.

Which brings us to a common theistic argument against naturalism-based morality: If there is no eternal punishment, there is no ultimate justice and evil people like Hitler and Stalin can get away with atrocities. But there are many answers to this. One, the fact that there can be no ultimate justice without an afterlife does absolutely nothing to support the existence of either Heaven or Hell. Two, if most people believe in the afterlife, civilized societies will have less reason to be vigilant in preventing another Holocaust because they can just leave justice to God. Three, if Christianity is true, a serial killer who rapes and tortures his victims can still enter Paradise if he repents and accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior just before he dies (while his atheistic albeit innocent victims’ suffering will resume in the Lake of Fire).

As the Holy Week approaches and Christians prepare to meditate on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, many of them claim to worship Christ not out of fear of damnation or the expectation of eternal reward, but because of an overflowing gratefulness for His great love and “ultimate sacrifice.” If this is really the case then why won’t they worship the sun as well, or at least give it some devotion with the same level that Catholics give to the Saints considering the sun is the ultimate sustainer of all life on Earth and that we all get to survive because it burns itself up? Could it be because the sun can be expected to rise every morning and set every evening regardless of what people do or don’t do? If they argue that the sun is just mindlessly burning itself without intending to sustain life while Jesus purposely died so we could be saved, would such salvation be available to those who reject Christ?

No matter how people rationalize worship and obedience to God’s supposed commands, it still all boils down to pleasure and pain. It’s just a matter of adopting the premises set by one’s chosen religion and delaying gratification by giving up on earthly pleasures for the sake of some greater eternal pleasure in the next life. As a response to this, my fellow freethinker Andy wrote a short but profound piece on materialism:

The master passed by a minister preaching against materialism. He was exhorting the congregation on the virtues of sacrificing their earthly desires for the rewards of heaven.

“Our treasure does not lie here on earth,” he said, “But it lies in the bosom of our heavenly Father.”

“Interesting,” remarked the master. “You preach against materialism but yours is even worse because you desire to bring it to the next life. You tell people not to cling to their possessions here by guaranteeing that they will have all those and more in the next life. You are after intangible rewards, but a reward nonetheless. What is so virtuous about that?”

Indeed. And as Bertrand Russell said, “The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others.” In this country, people who officially gave up sexual pleasure preach that couples should not have too much fun while avoiding pregnancy and the consequential responsibilities and sacrifices that come with bearing and raising children. But in fairness to them, they are probably just acting on good faith based on the premise that God does not want us to enjoy life in this world too much because His plan is to give us the ultimate pleasure in Heaven. I just wish that our supposedly secular government would treat this premise with a little skepticism especially when crafting our reproductive health laws.


Image by Jong Atmosfera

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Faith Fails, Science Saves

It is apparently controversial to say that science will be able to tell us what is important in life. Science, as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said, tells us how the heavens go, while religion tells us how to go to heaven. And for the most consequential things, it seems that science must yield to faith when considering what it means to have a good life.

But there is something gravely wrong with this kind of thinking. What it says is that reason cannot be used to distinguish right from wrong, happiness from suffering. But, even if reason, evidence, and methodical thought fail to illuminate our understanding of what constitutes a life worth living, what are our alternatives?

The mere suggestion that science can determine how we ought to behave understandably irks religious conservatives. For the faithful, this is an act of war against religion, which has always claimed for itself the realm of ethics and human values. That this assumption of moral authority still holds sway, when religions have failed in accurately representing practically anything in the world, is baffling. If religious traditions have been completely wrong about what goes on in the universe, why would they suddenly be unquestionably correct about what goes on in the mind?

A morality that is not based on authoritarian precepts is merely the acceptance that the world is not black and white and actions can have unforeseen consequences. And a science of morality would have to agree with what religious demagogues have been saying all along: there are moral truths to be found and there are objectively wrong ways to act. It seems especially strange then that, while they decry moral relativism, conservatives try to explain away the disgusting depravities in the Bible by calling for them to be placed in “context.” This precisely argues for a relativist morality—justifying mass murders (by Yahweh himself), rapes, and social outlooks by the culture at the time.

Saying that there are objectively good acts means only that there is a difference between an action that can bring about happiness and another that results in suffering. We can be right or wrong on whether homophobia is conducive to well-being. We can be right or wrong on whether misogyny is a good principle on which we should run our society. Our beliefs regarding these matters are, essentially, claims about conscious experience—how the brain responds to stimuli and how well-being is realized in the brain. And in this realm of facts, as in all others, there is no reason to put religious claims on a pedestal.

As we study more about the brain, our opinions on ethics will become increasingly constrained by psychological research and neuroscience. Findings such as those on the effect of corporal punishment on children and on the structural differences between the brains of normal and psychopathic human beings will change how we relate to each other and how we organize our societies. Our traditional views on parental roles and on how responsible people are for their actions may be altered as we continue to investigate how the evolved mind interacts with its surroundings. We might find that our justice system is not conducive to a peaceful society. We might find that our economic system inevitably leads to abuse and suffering. We might find possibilities for moral awareness that were never available to our pre-scientific ancestors or contemporary religious leaders.

There is public trust in science for many things that we’d never look to religion for answers, such as in believing in corrective glasses over faith healing. But, why is it that when the stakes are highest, when we are considering lives and the happiness of conscious human beings, science, reason, and logic take a back seat? The question on what makes a life worth living is, to say the least, hard to solve, but there are answers: based on facts and not on the musings of men who thought that all animals used to be herbivores.

Not only is science considered impotent when contemplating the deeper questions in life, it is generally believed that rationality ruins romance.

Consider the classic challenge against atheists. When questioning the existence of God, atheists are invariably asked to compare God with love. That is, love is said to be intangible and it admits of no rational inquiry, but we know it’s there. We can just feel it. While the analogy is false (love is realized in the brain as the sum total of specific neural activity and, thus, exists in the natural world), it reveals a common perception that scientific scrutiny is incompatible with an awareness for wonder in this world.

But that is clearly not true. The chemical process that results in feelings of love is itself a thing to behold and appreciate. That there is something material underlying our affection for others or art takes nothing away from our experience. And here we can expand our moral circle beyond even just humans.

Since our capacity for love and moral action evolved (not to say that morality should reflect the cruelty of Darwinian natural selection), it necessarily implies that other animals have similar, if not identical, capacities for compassion and cooperation. And here is where Christianity, in particular, is extremely impoverished. That humans (and specific kinds of men) are set apart by God is nothing short of speciesism and bigotry. Though there are cognitive differences between humans and other animals, that is what differentiates our moral responsibility to each other and not the entitlement assumed to be bestowed by a creator.

A non-supernatural outlook emphasizes the importance of our relationships in the here and now. We should thank doctors for healing us; we should thank farmers for providing for us food; we should thank our friends and families for comfort and companionship. These are the people who should matter to us, and attributing our happiness to something that isn’t there steals away from what other people rightly deserve.

Many believe that one day the world will end and that this would be the greatest thing that could ever possibly happen. Every action we do here in life is meaningless outside the goal of eternal paradise. This nihilism is why we must rid ourselves of religion wholesale. How could we ever endeavor to build a lasting society when our neighbors secretly yearn for doom and destruction, leaving all us suckers who never bought into religion to burn in perpetual torment. These are beliefs that are not conducive to mental health, let alone peace and human flourishing.

Science allows us to comprehend the world around us in a way our ancestors never could. Still, many choose to bind themselves to the follies of the past, relying not on evidence but on the servile desire to let other men think for themselves. It is a shame, when available to us now are methods and insights that will allow us to not only have greater knowledge, but a deeper and more meaningful understanding of what it means to be alive and how we must act.

The acceptance that all that there is is this natural world requires from us the understanding that there is no delaying justice to an afterlife. There is no point in deferring mercy and charity to a final judgement. If we yearn for anything that would resemble heaven, our only choice is to create it here.

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