Sunday, March 25, 2007

Q&A: Can an atheist find meaning in life?

As an atheist, isn’t life absurd and meaningless without the promise of an afterlife? What is the point of living if you know your ultimate destiny is dust?

I know that I will someday die, but I don’t believe that any part of me will survive death. I know this sounds depressing, but I have come to a place of inner peace with this realisation that one day I will be no more. I haven’t experienced cynicism or bitterness as a result; rather, life has become more meaningful, every day more special – simply because I know that this is the only life I will ever have. Experiences have become more poignant: to know that I will experience a limited number of sunsets makes the sight of one that much more breathtaking. As an atheist, life has become precious and worthy of living, simply because I know that it will one day come to an end.

Sure, I believe that my brief existence does not matter in the context of history and the greater cosmos. But – and this is the important point – my existence matters to me. Those things that I value in my life – such as relationships, memories, achievements, wonder and discovery – don’t have to be eternal to be meaningful; they can be just as meaningful in the here and now. And I’ve learnt to find meaning in these things for their own sake, rather than in the context of some greater spiritual scheme or plan.

As the philosopher Raymond Bradley writes:

. . . my answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is akin to the answer I would give to the question ‘What is the meaning of such and such a book?’ The meaning of a book is to be found in the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and the chapters it contains. Likewise, the meaning of life is to be found in the meaningful moments, episodes, and achievements that occur within our brief appearance here on earth. A book doesn't lack meaning because it comes to an end on the last page. Nor do our lives lack meaning because they come to an end when all neural activity ceases.”

Am I afraid of death? I’m afraid of the moment of death, of the unknown related to the process of death itself. But I’m not afraid of what lies thereafter. Mark Twain was once quoted as saying:

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

In conclusion: I do not need the promise of an afterlife to provide me with a reason to live; being alive is reason enough.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Using the fear of Hell

There are many tools of persuasion. Think about it: if you want to try and convince someone to follow through on a certain action, you can either appeal to their moral sensibilities (“it is the right thing to do”) or you can provide some form of incentive (“I will give you X if you do Y”). Or, if you are trying to convince someone of your position, you can take the time to collect evidence and compile logical arguments (“if X and Y are true, then we can be fairly certain that Z is true”).

Unfortunately, these methods take time and effort, and there is always the chance that even after all your hard work the person will walk away unconvinced. There is, however, another tool that is more effective and incredibly easy to implement. On its own it requires little effort and thus it is often used by the lazy.

It is the tool of fear.

Fundamentalist Christianity is one institution that is extremely effective in using fear to persuade people to accept various beliefs. It is the fear of Hell that it uses so well. Thinking back to when I was a Christian, I clearly remember two instances when I came across a negative concept of Hell.

The first was when I was in high school. One weekend, our entire church youth group went camping on a farm near Heidelberg in Gauteng. One night, while we all sat around a raging bonfire, our youth leader gave a talk on Hell. He asked us to imagine jumping into the bonfire, and to imagine the torment of our skin peeling off our bodies. We all shivered at the thought. He then added that Hell would be a thousand times worse: we would be encased in small enclosures – alone, cut off from everyone else – and we would burn in agony, for eternity. I remember everyone being numbed at this thought.

The second time was a few years later, at an evangelical rally at a large charismatic church in Johannesburg. A group of us went to the church to see the much talked about play called Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames. The entire play was based on the fear of hell: characters in the story would either be sent to eternal damnation or eternal glory; when a character was sent to hell, the lights would dim, a ruddy glow would envelope the stage, and the sound of screaming would emanate from the speakers. After the play a preacher stood up and for half-an-hour pleaded with us to accept Jesus in order to escape damnation. Many people stood up at the alter call, including one of my friends. I remained seated, feeling angry at the blatent emotional manipulation that was going on.

Why so much gory detail on the terror of hell? Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, provides a possible answer:

. . . the extreme horribleness of hell, as portrayed by priests and nuns, is inflated to compensate for its implausibility. If hell were plausible, it would only have to be moderately unpleasant in order to deter. Given that it is so unlikely to be true, it has to be advertised as very very scary indeed, to balance its implausibility and retain some deterrence value.” Pg 321

Fear ensures that people remain obedient: it discourages dissent and questioning, it eliminates open dialogue and honest persuasion. A person often resorts to the use of fear when they realise that their position can no longer be defended by logical argument. It is the coward’s method of persuasion; it is a sign of incredible weakness.

It was that night of the play when I decided that I would never again consider any argument that is based primarily on fear. You know, I think I lost my fear of Hell that very night; no longer do words of eternal suffering and damnation hold any power over me.

Friday, March 09, 2007

I am my brain: a rebuttal

The two articles of mine, I am my brain and Morality based on the here and now inspired fascinating discussion on whether consciousness is simply a by-product of the physical brain, or whether consciousness is a separate entity operating outside the confines of the brain.

Currently, I fall into the materialistic camp, but the discussion prompted me to look for arguments against a materialistic view of consciousness. I didn’t have to look very far: one of the books in my shelf is Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, and at the end of the book Strobel interviews apologist Dr J.P. Moreland, who presents a number of arguments for a dualistic view of consciousness.

Briefly, his major arguments are as follows:

Prisoners of determinism
If consciousness is simply a by-product of the physical brain, then all our thoughts and actions are simply following the laws of physics and chemistry. Thus, we do not have free-will. I’m currently working through Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves which is a response to this argument.

Trusting consciousness
If consciousness evolved by purely random, natural forces from matter without any direction from a Superior Intelligence, then how can we trust anything from the mind as being rational or true? How can we trust something that is a product of random forces and non-rational laws?

Embracing panpsychism
Some materialists argue that consciousness is simply a by-product of the brain’s complexity. Moreland argues that by advocating this argument, materialists are no longer treating matter in traditional scientific sense (i.e., that matter is ‘brute stuff’ that can be completely described by the laws of chemistry and physics). Instead, materialists are attributing mysterious ‘spooky’ or ‘proto-mental’ attributes to matter. Moreland argues that this view, which he calls panpsychism, is a view that sits closer to theism than atheism.

The unified self
When we partake in any activity, many different centres of the brain are activated, producing separate experiences. If we were simply a product of our brains, then we would be a confusing crowd of different parts and experiences, happening all at once. In reality, there is something that keeps all these different activities in a unified whole, a unified experience of oneself. Moreland argues that the existence of this binding agent, the experience of a unified self, suggests that there are two parts involved in consciousness.

Mental states are different to brain states
Moreland argues that brain states – which can be observed by doctors using brain scanners – are not necessarily about anything in particular. Although a doctor can see which parts of the brain are firing at any given time, the doctor cannot say what actual thoughts (i.e., mental states) the patient is having. The fact that mental states are different to brain states points to a dualistic nature of consciousness.

For those of you who have read The Case for a Creator: have I correctly outlined Moreland’s arguments? While writing this post a list of objections to some of these arguments immediately came to mind, and I was tempted to include these in the post. However, I have decided to exclude my opinions for the time being and ask what your thoughts are regarding these arguments.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Book: A Short History of Nearly Everything

With witty humour and an entertaining prose, Bill Bryson manages to condense 13 billion years of history – from the Big Bang to the evolution of modern man – into just a few hundred pages. Bryson’s main aim is to answer the question of what we know about the world around us, but more importantly: how we know what we know. In the beginning of the book, Bryson recounts a childhood memory of staring at a picture, in a school textbook, depicting the different layers of the earth’s interior (i.e., the crust, the mantle, the outer liquid core, etc), and although he trusted what the book said, he could not help wondering:

“how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye has ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of” pg 21.

How do we know the earth is 4,5 billion years old? How do we know that living creatures evolve? How do we know that the atom consists of electrons, neutrons and protons? Not only does the book provide a history of the universe, but it also provides a history of science in an attempt to answer the question of how we know what we know. Bryson recounts the many stories of the brave, and sometimes incredibly strange, individuals who contributed to our knowledge (for better or worse) of the world around us.

The book also stresses how vulnerable life is on this planet. A few chapters discuss the potential threats to life: super volcanoes, asteroids, and climate change. After reading the book, one is left with a sense of amazement at the fact that we are here at all. As Bryson notes:

“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life at all in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans, we are doubly lucky, of course. We enjoy not only the privilege of existence, but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a trick we have only just begun to grasp” pg 573.

The only slight concern I have regarding the book are the multitude of facts that are included in the text. Although the facts make for fascinating reading, some of them – and I could be wrong here – seemed a bit dubious, and I found myself wondering if Bryson used reliable sources for one or two of the facts listed. For example, Bryson writes that Robert Broom, the South African palaeontologist and physician, buried his dead patients and then exhumed their bodies later on to conduct experiments on them. I’ve read a little on the life of Robert Broom in a number of other books, and this is the first time I’ve come across this macabre fact.

Otherwise, this book is easy to read, and also highly entertaining. If you are interested to know a little more about the history of science, but you don’t yet feel ready to tackle more comprehensive works such as John Gribbin’s Science: A History, or Ricky Kolb’s Blind Watchers of the Sky, then this book might be a good start.