Awe & Wonder as nonbelievers can know them

The late Christopher Hitchens waxing poetic on the awe-inspiring wonders of the universe, and how nonbelievers in religion are most certainly and acutely aware of the fantastic, in the form of the very, very real discoveries in the sciences.

It’s something that puts the lie to the silly notion that the numinous sentiment is exclusive to the religious, somehow forbidden to those of us skeptical of religious claims.

For my part, I don’t believe that there is or needs to be a supernatural dimension to reality — consistently, as soon as we have understood any phenomenon we’ve ever looked into, it’s been shown quite nicely to belong to nature, not supernature.

Science itself may not apply to everything, but I think that similar methods of inquiry can and should be applied to all areas of human knowledge, not just our understanding of the universe and human behavior…

…and if it can’t?

We won’t know if it can’t unless we look, so until then I ask, “Why not?”

Let’s look and see before we give up trying.

Truth isn’t Boring

flendish2The above was something I’d posted to Facebook earlier today, though in plain text, on the wonder felt even — no, better — especially by religious nonbelievers toward our connection to the universe, not the trivial sorts promised by mysticism or supernaturalism, but our actual, deeper connection and our awareness of it.

This feeling of the sublime I think is something that anyone who’s seen the night sky, or beheld a waterfall, seen the Earth from orbit, or better still, seen it from the orbit of another planet in our solar system though a spaceprobe’s camera, can relate to.

There’s the serious misconception (I think it’s myopic) that reality is dull, lifeless, drab, uninteresting, and that another world, an ideal perfect world beyond this one, is far better and much to be preferred over this life, this ‘vale of tears.’

I understand this, but I also think it’s wasteful and shameful — reality has both beauty and horror, not one or the other — and the phrase “none are so blind as those who will not see” applies just as easily to dogmatic belief as dogmatic denial, and many times in the same individuals.

The desire to believe fantasy as truth, to denigrate the real, and to spead this desire and denigration to others by indoctrinating the young and vulnerable, is one of the greatest — if you’ll excuse my use of the word — sins — against the human mind, crippling its ability to appreciate what actually is over what never was nor likely will be.

Supernaturalism promises wonders, but it only promises them — there is no instance it it ever having fulfilled that promise — and I think it would take better evidence than someone’s favored holy book to show otherwise.

In the entire recorded history of our species, brief flash of time though that’s been, no mystery that has ever been adequately looked into and explained has ever been shown to have an occult or supernatural cause, and the cases that haven’t been explained are just that — only unexplained, and only through a lack of data — not vindication of anyone’s pet doctrine.

Supernaturalism poisons the mind, and dulls the imagination, starving it of and blinding it to the real wonders and feeling of awe that comes from understanding of what is, supplanting these with unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of centrality to the universe, imposing on us a false sense of purpose and meaning rather than letting us find our own, endangering our personal integrity and intellectual honesty in uncritically accepting tales told originally by those ancients whose knowledge and understanding of the world pales before our own in the modern era.

To be frank, even with what little I’ve learned about the worlds discovered through science and philosophy, I find reality far more interesting and preferrable to believing the evidently unreal. As a former religionist, I’ve thrown off the chains of doctrine and dogma, freed my mind from its demons — and its gods — and my only regret is not having done it before I did.

I’ve no reason to believe in anyone’s god, least of all the one I walked with as a child and now without as a man, no idols, no gods, no devils, no celestial saviors nor tyrants, no myths except those I may free myself of whenever they are brought to my notice.

It seems so strange now, having been so focused on an imagined  hereafter that both the awesomeness and terror of the world around me seemed dull and distant, but now seems so sharp and clear.

I’m not a scientist, not yet, but from what I see now, reality, however it turns out to be, is far preferrable, far stranger and for more interesting that anything any human mind can imagine.

Even mine….especially mine.

And to me, the unending search for truth is far more important than the supposed guardianship of it by those absolutely convinced they’ve already found it in millennia-old books or the claimed revelations of bronze-age hermits.

No one owns a sense of the numinous, no matter their belief or conviction. Appreciation of the truly wondrous can happen to anyone, and belongs to us all as a species.

Fear of the Light

Faith, of the sort involved in religion, is said to be free from doubt, as many fathers of the early Christian church have asserted.

Faith is certain.

Faith is without questioning, perhaps beyond it altogether. Indeed, many major religions, particularly the Abrahamic ones, forbid any questioning, any doubt, of their core tenets and punish those who do accordingly, often harshly in fundamentalist or conservative sects.

Doubt is seen in a mostly negative light. Certainty of conviction is often thought virtuous. Faith is often thought superior to knowledge for its lack of doubt.

As a former religious believer, I once thought this way myself. I was frightened by doubt, fearing eternal punishment for it. Terrified by it. Doubt was a thought-crime. Or so I thought.

Now, I disagree. Now I embrace doubt.

Doubt is seen in some sects as something that should be applied only to alien religions or to religious nonbelievers and dissenters from one’s own group. This sometimes includes vilification of ‘the wrong religions’ in disputes over even minor points of doctrine.

Science, however, uses doubt and questioning as tools, as ways essential to its process of inquiry. Philosophy does likewise, though in a different manner. But disagreement and dissent are important to both.

Science asks questions about testable reality, those things that at least in principle can be known, and be shown to be when they are in fact known. It then uses a set of tested, reliable methods to answer the questions it asks of nature…methods of querying the universe and noting the answers we get by careful observation and measurement of what the Cosmos tells us.

Throughout this process, both creativity and reason are at various points involved: Creativity to spin new and original explanatory hypotheses, a creativity limited only in that the explanations proposed must conform to as well as explain the data uncovered, and the use of the best reasoning at the time to infer what it is we have found and what it means, in finding the best answers to our queries.

All human beings can fall victim to confirmation bias, but convincing yourself that it is a good idea, even worthy of praise, much less respect, to reject facts in favor of what seems good is never an effective way to succeed in life, however reliable it is at comforting you, and those who believe likewise.

Sooner or later, we must all accommodate facts that confute our intuitions, our gut feelings, our faith, our wishes, or be held accountable by an implacable universe that neither knows of nor cares anything for us or what we believe.

There’s that whole thing about stopping, looking, and listening at railroad crossings even when we intellectually and vocally dismiss reality as a humbug…

Science, however, while useful, and being very effective at what it does — to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, “It works, bitches.” — isn’t a font of endless blessings either.

Science is morally neutral, a double-edged sword, and while both powerful and essential to the upkeep of a global civilization like ours with billions of people, it is dangerous when misused, or used with harmful intent — especially for use in warfare or the dangers of industrial pollution and waste disposal.

But that does not mean we are free to dismiss or reject it altogether — we have let the efreeti free from its lamp, and it will not be put back, not without serious consequences. — any problems caused by science’s use will not be solved by promoting ignorance of it in the people of those nations so dependent on science and technology for their economic future and well-being.

Each and every faith-claim made, on the basis of authority, of revelation, of intuitive ‘gut feelings,’ or of mystical experience, has its rivals, and there exists to the best of my knowledge no reliable way within such faith itself to distinguish true faith-claims from false ones.

Unfortunately, outside the confines of a given belief system, faith claims subjected to testing by something other than faith, (and they must be…) have a distressing tendency to be shown wrong. Those that cannot be tested at all do not even merit the honor of being wrong.

There is the expression “the gods will not be tested,” but what’s really being tested here is not gods, but the claims we make, including our claims about gods, all special pleading aside.

I’ve learned since my deconversion that there is no non-ideological reason that any claim should get a free pass, no free ‘get out of jail’ card.

Faith and science. As ways of thinking, and of gaining knowledge; no two things could be more opposed. The former brooks no questioning, and admits no error. It’s claim to certainty absolute.

The latter thrives on questioning and depends on its ability to seek out and find out error so that it may correct itself with newer, better information and sharper reasoning than before. It depends on probabilistic matters of contingent fact rather than deductively certain truths.

Both can be and often are riddled with error. But at least science has ways of letting us know this so that we may pick up the pieces and put them together somewhat more soundly than before, to build a stronger foundation of knowledge that needs no absolute self-justification by logical necessity.

With faith alone, we are left with no worthwhile way of telling truth from falsehood, save by whim, or prejudice, or the commands of an authority, guided only by a subjective feeling of certainty and never really knowing our way outside the sometimes rigid confines of our own beliefs.

I know, because I’ve been there, and I know personally, as Plato noted, what a tragedy it is to be afraid of the light.

What Matters Most: Part I

A friend of mine is dying, recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. He’s got a life expectancy of two years or so at most, I’m told. It doesn’t look encouraging. It started me thinking today about some of the things that matter the most, and I thought I’d post a few words on one of those here.

Be warned, I may ramble a bit here…

Onward then.

First, there’s integrity. To me, that means something…If I can’t be trusted to be honest with myself, how can I be with anyone else? To me, the first and worst sin, if you could call it that, isn’t pride — it’s self delusion, and from that the deception of others.

If there were any sort of god or gods in any truly evidential, objectively incontrovertible, unambiguously obvious sense, knowable to all, then I would have no problem accepting the fact — it would after all be a fact, one that would not require me to believe first, either by conversion experience, or mere accident of birth, for it would be knowable despite unbelief to the contrary.

But the source of my unbelief in gods is a glaring lack of real evidence for them, and without that evidence, demonstrable by anyone no matter what anyone else personally believes, myself or anyone else, I’ve simply no grounds at all to believe in any sort of supernatural agencies or beings, not without surrendering my integrity.

It seems to me that the universe is not given to granting wishes, mine, nor anyone elses, and I have to live with that. The cosmos doesn’t care about me, and isn’t even aware that I exist. Like it or not, I must face reality, glorious, terrifying, depressing, stark reality, whether I like it or not. It’s a source of contentment to me, to live to change what I can and accept what I can’t.

I’ve often argued against faith as a way of knowing. And for a good reason, for the sort of faith I argue against denies knowledge to preserve belief. It’s that sort of intransigent faith I oppose, that which rejects evidence and closes the mind to inquiry, to believe, to paraphrase one father of the early Christian church, “…because it is absurd.”

My religious nonbelief is not something I chose, something I decided to do merely because it was cool or trendy. When it happened to me, it was neither cool nor fashionable. It was not something I wanted at the time.

My unbelief was a realization that came upon me over my adolescent years. It was a thing imposed on me by reality itself and the necessity to say goodbye to my need to believe, to let go of something that was no longer me, and could never be me…ever again.

It meant giving up a part of myself that now seemed out of place with my understanding of the world and myself. I said farewwell to my naivete, not without some regret, and never looked back, even after I tired of looking into other religious and spiritual traditions. None of them were suitable, none of them fit my needs — and I explored a more sensible, pragmatic, secular worldview.

Truth to tell, early on, I flirted with absolutist views of philosophy and had mistakenly absolutist views of science, but those proved just as spurious as anything else I found myself giving up.

Then I flirted with relativism, before finally noting the flaws in it, the very incoherency that made it untenable as a philosophical position — even on it’s own merits, it made no sense — too many glaring logical holes.

Neither absolutism nor relativism were sound positions — one led to dogmatism and bigotry, the very things about religion that repelled me, and the other led to fuzzy thinking and mistaken tolerance of bigotry.

So I rejected both.

An understanding of the history of philosophy and the sciences reveals that the search for absolute truths about the world is forlorn, and holding all ways of knowing as equally valid means that none of them at all are valid.

A viable way of knowing needs methods of revealling error and miscalculation, and the outcome of our observations must make a difference or they tell us nothing of any real worth.

I’m human, of course, as much as I may imagine otherwise in my frequent science fictional musings, and so I err, I slip from time to time — but don’t we all, whether we admit it or not?

I would betray my integrity, whatever it’s worth, if I consoled myself with false hopes and wishful thinking that all will be right, and that my friends, especially those seriously ill, will get better, and I’ll see them again someday in somebody’s version of an afterlife.

But given what I’ve come to understand of the different concepts of the soul and afterlife, the history of those concepts over time, and the nature, history and origins of the various holy books of the major religions, no good reasons present themselves for my willing acceptance that any of them are true.

I cannot make myself believe, cannot force myself to believe in spite of the evidence of reality.

Rather than identifying myself with any sort of doctrine or creed, I’ve chosen ethics, conscience, and my rational empiricist values as my guide to the path I walk. Where I wind up is anyone’s guess, and I know not where or when that will be.

But I won’t betray myself, and by extension, those who trust me. If I lied to myself, tried to convince myself that all will be warm and fuzzy if I believe in the unbelievable, realization and cognitive self-chastising would quickly follow. That’s no boast, that’s just how it’s always been since my deconversion.

Every. Single. Time.

So with my obligatory skeptical arched eyebrows (a la Jack Nicholson…), I have to say, that however uncomfortable it may make me, I wouldn’t give it up for the world — or the afterworld.