Although it came out late last year, Alex Rosenberg’s book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions hasn’t been getting the press it deserves. Indeed, the comparative attention lavished on Alain de Botton’s much less interesting Religion for Atheists seems downright unfair. Probably Rosenberg’s title is largely to blame. He has all but admitted choosing it as a marketing ploy. This was probably a mistake. The title does the book no justice, since one thing The Atheist’s Guide has relatively little to say about is atheism. This has led people like this Independent reviewer to focus on complaining that the book offers little to atheists (more sensitive to logical solecisms than de Botton, Rosenberg declines to offer them religion) while ignoring its real topic.
Do we need adjusting or can we deal?
The latest movie I’ve seen is The Adjustment Bureau. Moving past the cliched love story, it circles around the concepts of Determinism and Free Will. The movie is a an interesting adaptation of Philip K. Dick short story infused with suspense and imagination. Let’s start with the line I consider to be defining:
Thompson : We actually tried free will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman empire, we stepped back to see how you’d do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought that maybe we just needed to do a better job with teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you raised hopes, Enlightenment, scientific revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason. Then in nineteen ten, we stepped back. Within fifty years you’d brought us World War One, The Depression, Fascism, The Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuba missile crisis. At that point the decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn’t fix.
Atrack and don’t deviate. They are the helpers of a Chairman (we might assume this is another name for God). So, this rekindles the problem of Free Will vs. Determinism that has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years. On the level of conscience, liberty can be defined as the possibility to choose. The principles used in the movie can basically be found in Leibniz’s doctrine: God predetermined broadly all the actions of the human beings, but leaves them with the choice of little things such as what to wear, what to eat, etc. He believes that the universe is created by God according to a divine plan and that freedom and determinism are compatible with each other. People have freedom, but they are limited by their imperfection and passions.
Using the idea of freedom as spontaneity, Leibniz argues that our reliance on voluntary action by a chain of causes does not exclude a wonderful spontaneity. To exercise one’s free will means to act under one’s own wishes and inclinations, regardless of outside influences. Since the divine order prescribes classes of acts and not particular acts, we is free. However, this freedom of action manifests itself on God’s predetermined territory.
Deviating a little from Leibniz, but in the same area of subject: Did you knew that if people are told that free will doesn’t exist, their brains will follow?
Machine vs. Afterlife
Well-known scientist Stephen Hawking gave a rather controversial interview recently. Saying that there is no afterlife to look forward to, classifying this as a fairy tale arose a lot of criticism and controversy.
He isn’t the first notable person trying to detach from the conscience of people the image of the luxuriant Eden Garden promised after death. Paradisiacal notions are cross-cultural, often laden with pastoral imagery, and may be cosmological or eschatological or both.
But these words coming from one of the most respected people in history – transmitted by means of a special technology which transforms thoughts in sounds – gave another meaning.
This is the frequent statement of a scientist. He’s not saying “God isn’t real”, he’s only saying there is no need of God to explain the world. This is a scientific allegation, with its foundation back in time: in the theory of Occam’s razor to be specific: We should seek the greatest value of our action. The idea born in the Middle Age asserts that we shouldn’t multiply hypothesis in order to explain a phenomenon.
The same thing is said by Hawking – implying that modern physics doesn’t need a God means it would be an over and above hypothesis in this system of explaining the world.
For most religions, Paradise is the image of a non-spatial, non-temporal, fairy-like place, where only the ones who live their lives accordingly to the moral code of each religion wind up. Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom believes that human beings are cabled to the fear of death and because of this fear they invented philosophy and religion, but also a fairytale terminology.
I think the phantasm of immortality is a mental construct necessary to the human condition which helps them deal more easily with all the bad things that happen and also counter-attacks the fear of death and the relationship between the individual and the world.
However, a scientist who refuses the religious horizon is disqualified. It’s like a scientist that rejects from the start a hypothesis. But what is science if not the disclosure to any hypothesis until the discovery that it can or can not be sustained. On the other part, asked by the interviewer “If this is the situation, what can we do?” he responded :
“We should seek the greatest value of our action.”
And how is this different form any other moral percept of religions?
The Sacred and the iPhone
Since its release, the iPhone has managed to take charge of most of its users’ lives, and now it seems it will take charge of their souls as well. Once a simple device that granted you access to phone calls, text messages, emails, social networking and twitter, the internet, weather forecasts, news and sports results, music, photos, books and other reading materials such as comics and PDFs, simple yet surprisingly addictive gaming, organisational tools such as calendars, notes, lists, and memos, and a wealth of other apps including of course the vital ability to turn your phone screen into a visual representation of a pint of beer which slowly empties as you “drink” it, now the iPhone has ascended to the sacred status of a divinely-endorsed religious tool. Where once the inbuilt google maps (complete with location indicator and integrated compass) enabled the iPhone user to navigate the temporal world trouble free and with contemptuous ease, now “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” – developed by Little iApps and released last week – will enable its user to navigate the inner-world of your conscience, leading you to your desired destination sin free and with, well, perhaps not with contemptuous ease, but at least the iPhone’s functionality has made the journey slightly easier.
“Confession” provides the user with a “personal examination of conscience” that is tailored to each individual penitent. Continue reading “The Sacred and the iPhone”
When you really need someone to do the right thing, don’t pick an atheist. That, anyway, seems to be the opinion of the majority of Americans. According to a 2007 Gallup Poll, 53% of eligible voters would not cast their ballots for a well-qualified atheist presidential candidate endorsed by their party. In fact, American voters are less willing to vote for godless candidates than they are for a homosexual (43%), a seventy-two year old (42%), or a Mormon (24%).
Although the poll does not reveal the reasons behind the public’s suspicion of atheists, a variety of arguments endorsing suspicion of atheists can be gleaned from public discourse. Perhaps the most common motivation for questioning the moral commitments of atheists is a certain view of the relationship between God’s will and morality: morally good actions (character traits, etc.) just are the ones God wills, and morally bad ones just are the ones God forbids. This view of the basis of morality, which philosophers call Divine Command Theory, is often used to condemn various practices believers find unsavory, such as homosexuality. It also gives believers a way to explain their suspicion of atheists: being moral amounts to doing what God commands, and atheists don’t care about that – they don’t even believe a god exists!
Despite its appeal to certain segments of the American public, philosophers have long noted that Divine Command Theory has its own serious problems. After all, we can ask, does God will actions because they are good, or are actions good because God wills them? If it’s the former, then Divine Command Theory doesn’t give us an account of what makes things morally good or bad, and the grounds for denying atheists moral motivation or access to moral truths dissolves away. If it’s the latter, then we are committed to apparently implausible conclusions, such as that sacrificing and torturing a few children for a community party would be morally good if God willed it. Although contemporary philosophers have developed more subtle versions of Divine Command Theory as part of an attempt to avoid these problems (see Mawson 2009), the existence of plausible non-theological accounts of the foundations of morality indicate that the atheist is nowhere near being on the ropes.
Indeed, atheists have started to throw punches of their own. This holiday season in New York, a billboard financed by the group American Atheists greeted passersby with a challenge. Over a depiction of the three wise men walking towards a stable, was the message: “You KNOW It’s a Myth. This season, celebrate Reason.” The British Humanist Association ran a similar advertising campaign, emblazoning buses with the slogan “There’s probably no god. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Philosophers are currently exploring questions about the rationality or reasonableness of religious belief that could help us evaluate these claims. Does the existence of rational life on Earth give us reason to conclude there is a divine creator (see Manson 2009)? How can we rationally decide which religious tradition, if any, actually gets things right (see King 2008)? Is it morally responsible to be a believer even if we cannot give evidence to justify our religious beliefs (see Bishop 2006)? With any luck, careful attention to these questions will help us get closer to deciding what, if anything, being religious or believing in God has to do with being rational, reasonable, or moral. At the very least, we can hope that public debates about such things will move beyond mere jabs and unreflective suspicion.
Bishop, John (2006), “The Philosophy of Religion: A Programmatic Overview,” Philosophy Compass 1/5: 506–534.
King, Nathan L. (2008), “Religious Diversity and Its Challenges to Religious Belief,” Philosophy Compass 3/4: 830–853.
Manson, Neil A. (2009), “The Fine-Tuning Argument,” Philosophy Compass 4/1: 271– 286.
Mawson, Tim (2009), “Morality and Religion,” Philosophy Compass 4/6: 1033–1043.