Monday, January 29, 2007

Invisible bunnies in my computer

I get up in the morning, bleary eyed and ready for another day of work. As I stumble into the shower I turn on the water. Suddenly, without any particular reason, I find myself wondering what I would do if one morning the water came out of the tap and, instead of spraying down into the plug, actually floated in mid-air and drifted around the bathroom. Can something so bizarre actually happen? From my own experience of how water acts, and from my knowledge of how gravity works, I conclude that such an occurrence might be possible, but it is highly improbable . . .

After eating breakfast I take the short walk through the morning air and stand at the bus stop. As with many mornings before this one, the sun starts to rise slowly from behind a tall building just east of where I’m standing. I look to the west towards the peaks of a mountain range and wonder: what if one day the sun suddenly rose from the west? Can I say with certainty that it won’t? From what we know about planetary motion, and from the consistency of our historical records, we can say with a high degree of certainty that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. However, it is possible that there is a law of nature that we are not yet aware of, a law that suddenly changes the direction of earth’s rotation once every 4,5 billion years. So I conclude that the sun rising tomorrow from the west might be possible, but it is highly improbable . . .

I get to work and I’m asked by my boss to fix a computer that is not working. I examine the computer in question and start to hypothesise, in my mind, various possible causes of the problem. I then test each of these possible causes. If the computer isn’t working at all, it might be the power cable that isn’t plugged in. How do I test this? I plug in the cable and switch on the computer. If it still doesn’t work, I theorise that it could be the plug socket that is at fault. How do I test this? I try another plug socket. And so the process of eliminating possible causes of the problem continues, until I find the solution.

This is how I, and any rational human being, solve problems that we encounter every day. This kind of thinking is based on the premise that we live in a universe that is held together by predicable laws, and that effects have natural causes. At no point do I theorise that the computer’s problem is caused by the supernatural, at no point do I hypothesise that small, malicious, invisible bunnies are inside the computer, wreaking havoc with the hardware. It might be possible, but it is highly improbable . . .

At the end of the day I finish work and head out of the office into the street. I’m suddenly confronted by a man carrying a large book and wearing a golden cross around his neck. With kindness in his eyes, and with a soft, caring voice, he tells me an incredible story: a story about how a donkey once spoke; how the sun once stood still; how a woman turned into a pillar of salt; how a man from Galilee was born of a virgin, walked on water, died and rose again; how every human has an undetectable immaterial soul; how unseen creatures, called demons and angels, wage war around us; and how an invisible supernatural being, who created the universe in seven days, sent his only son to die for all of humankind.

Interested, I ask the man a few questions and find out that the only source for most of the story is the book he is holding, translated from manuscripts written thousands of years ago. I find out that the man from Galilee, who is supposed to be alive after two thousand years, can not physically visit us – the only way we can detect his presence is by experiencing him within our hearts.

Disappointed, I walk away, and suddenly realise that the claims of this story are so totally alien to my experience of the world, so totally against the faculty of reason that I use everyday to make decisions and solve problems, and so totally opposed to what we currently know about the universe, that I can only conclude that the story within that book might have possibly happened, but it is highly probable that it didn’t . . .

It is possible that water might float upwards when I jump into the shower next time, but I don’t believe this will happen. It is possible that the sun might rise from the west tomorrow morning when I wait for the bus, but I don’t believe it will. It is possible that invisible bunnies are the cause of computer hardware problems, but I don’t believe they are.

It is possible that Christianity is true, but I don’t believe it is.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Your Bible is not my compass

I was listening to a discussion on 702 talk radio the other day about homosexual couples who are planning to have children. In December last year South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalise homosexual marriage, and naturally it has become easier for homosexual couples to raise their own families.

It was an interesting discussion, but what really worried me was the type of on-air calls the station was receiving during the show. There were at least three individuals who called in and immediately started preaching about how evil and sickening homosexuality is, how un-spiritual and sinful homosexuals are, and how the gay lifestyle goes against God’s will and his creation. The host of the show calmly asked each of these callers what was the basis of their beliefs. The answer was the same in each case: The Bible.

“The Bible says . . . “

“The Bible does not condone . . . “

“According to the Bible . . . . “

The three callers are not alone: many in South Africa who argue against homosexuality appeal to the Bible when they present their arguments. The host of the show then patiently pointed out to each caller why this type of appeal is fallacious: she simply stated the fact that not all people subscribe to the precepts of the Bible, not everyone in South Africa is Christian. In other words, Christians don’t have the right to impose their moral code and biblical beliefs on unbelievers.

It worried me, listening to the show, that there is still much hatred shown towards homosexuals in this country. Ironically, the most intense hatred is expressed by those who preach love on Sunday mornings – this is a contradiction that for the life of me I cannot understand.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I know it’s not all Christians. I know there are many Christians who, although they might have reservations about homosexuality, understand that they are living in a society characterised by many cultures, religions and beliefs. They use the Bible as a positive guide for their own lives, but they are aware that they cannot force, or even expect, others to do the same. It is these Christians, Christians who view tolerance as a virtue, for whom I have respect. The Christians I am concerned about those who believe that they have the moral high ground to dictate, from their own interpretation of a religious book, how others should live.

The Bible is a fascinating book, but – as long as there are people living in South Africa who do not subscribe to the Christian creed – certain teachings of the Bible cannot be imposed, or even suggested as possibly becoming, a universal code of conduct for all persons living in society.

What do you think?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Finding an internal locus of control

John 5:30: "I can do nothing on my own authority; I judge only as God tells me, so my judgment is right, because I am not trying to do what I want, but only what he who sent me wants”.

In this article, Daniela Kramer and Michael Moore highlight areas where religion and secular psychology are in conflict. One of the main contrasts between the two is that of the concept of locus of control. According to this article, locus of control orientation . . .

“is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)."

In other words, individuals who are said to have an internal locus of control believe that they control their own destiny and that they make things happen, while those with an external locus of control believe that their successes, failures and other events in their lives are caused by luck or fate, and that circumstances are beyond their control.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both, but secular psychology generally considers an internal locus of control the healthier position of the two. Those with an internal locus of control tend to take more responsibility for their behaviour, while those with an external locus of control tend to be more anxious about the world around them.

Kramer and Moore argue that Christianity promotes an external locus of control by discouraging the individual from exercising her/his own will. Thinking back to when I was a Christian, I can easily remember how I was encouraged to adopt an external locus of control by (1) submitting to the belief that God knows better: no matter what happens, I should trust him; (2) thinking that events in my life happened according to God’s will; (3) adopting the beliefs of the church without thinking them through (on topics such as homosexuality, evolution, abortion, etc); and (4) viewing Christ as the final authority of my life. In other words, I believed that the course of my life was directed by an outside source. The question is: was this a healthy belief?

One can argue that it is easy to submit your life to someone else entirely, for them to make the decisions and to tell you what to do, whom to marry, where to go, what to say, and how to live. It releases you of responsibility. It allows you to blame something else (e.g., the devil or sin) for your mistakes. But doesn’t such extreme submission - which fundamentalist Christianity preaches - destroy one’s individuality, pride and self-esteem? As an individual, is it not healthier to make your own decisions and your own mistakes? Is it not better to take charge of your own life and to carve out your own destiny?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Book: Freedom Evolves (1)

Chapter 1: Natural Freedom

This Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams expresses one of the problems that many people have with the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism (or materialism). If we do not have souls, as materialism preaches, and human consciousness is simply a product of material atoms bouncing off each other according to the laws of physics, then can we really claim to have free will? If we don’t have free will, can we truly accept praise for accomplishments that we achieve, or be held responsible for acts of evil that we perpetrate?

In his book, Freedom Evolves, contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett tackles these questions, and argues that materialism does not pose a problem for free will; in fact, it can provide a positive account of free will that is better than traditional views.

In chapter one, Dennett outlines his belief that humans don’t have immaterial souls, and that many people feel uncomfortable with this view:

“But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don’t really have “free will” and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.” pg 1

Dennett argues that the main driving force behind most of the resistance to materialism, and to neo-Darwinism in particular, is concern about free will. These fears have led many to misunderstand and misinterpret current philosophical and scientific discoveries in this field.

This is the first book of Dennett’s that I’m reading, so I’m going to take it slow, and I will provide a summary of each chapter as I go along. I’m very interested to discover the finer details of his argument. I keep you all updated.