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Category: metaphysics (page 1 of 3)

The problem of evil and the incompetence of supernaturalism

Two articles crossed my screen today, and they’re a great example of the divide between rational thought and superstition.

They’re both about the gun tragedy at Sandy Hook, and the first one is written by a Catholic priest.

Now, believers in the Christian god have a bit of explaining to do when horrible things happen. That’s because they claim there’s a god who’s good, loving, and all-powerful, but who somehow fails to prevent evil things from happening. So after a tragedy, a reasonable question is: where was he? Is he really all that good if he has the power to prevent grade-school massacres, yet chooses not to? Here’s the theologian’s answer:

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger.

Well, that’s a bit pathetic. He doesn’t know? All that theological training, and he can’t answer a question that belongs in his discipline?

Seriously, read it; it doesn’t give any more than a shrug. And it’s not just this writer. This is literally the best they’ve got. (Oh, there are other religion guys out there who do claim to know, but their answers are so morally callous as to be not worth repeating.)

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

Great, so if you help others, it’s actually god’s love; not yours. (Hat tip to Stephanie for this thought.) And why would ‘soothing’ be a consolation? I’d exchange buckets of after-the-fact soothing in order to not have had that tragedy happen. Who wouldn’t? What’s wrong with this guy? But all we’re left with is: I don’t know.

It’s good to admit when you don’t know something, but if you have no way of finding out, and no way of telling whether your answers are good ones, you have a bit of a fucking methodological problem. And this is a sad sign of the inadequacy of supernatural thinking. See, I do science because science is good at scientific questions. People may say that science isn’t good at moral questions or spiritual questions, and we can argue that. (My answer is that it does just as well as anything else.) But by gum, science is good for doing science.

Spiritual reasoning, on the other hand, isn’t good at answering scientific questions, but it’s also terrible at answering spiritual questions. It’s incompetent within its own domain. It is a shitty way of reasoning. Pardon my language, but spirituality/religion/supernaturalism has one job, and it sucks at it, and this incompetence makes me angry, especially when we have people telling us that it has the answers to life’s great questions, and then when it comes down to it, all that its professionals can tell us is “We don’t know.”

On the other hand, here’s the same issue handled by someone who’s intellectually honest: the scientist, Laurence Krauss. He doesn’t have the same problem as the priest because he doesn’t have to tap-dance around demonstrably untrue theological claims. That means he can deal with things more directly, including the superfluity of gods in times of tragedy.

Why must it be a natural expectation that any such national tragedy will be accompanied by prayers, including from the president, to at least one version of the very God, who apparently in his infinite wisdom, decided to call 20 children between the age of 6 and 7 home by having them slaughtered by a deranged gunman in a school that one hopes should have been a place or nourishment, warmth and growth?

We are told the Lord works in mysterious ways but, for many people, to suggest there might be an intelligent deity who could rationally act in such a fashion and that that deity is worth praying to and thanking for “calling them home” seems beyond the pale.

We don’t need faith to empathize with the grieving in Newtown. We can feel real connections, whether we are parents, or neighbors of families, or simply caring men and women. And we can want to help simply because of our common humanity.

Note that he identifies ‘common humanity’ at its origin: with humans. The difference in approach is striking. So is the relative capability of the authors. It helps if you’re not burdened by outmoded dogma and superstition.

The case against the word ‘spirituality’

I’ve had lots of talks with people about ‘spirituality’, and the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to figure out what they mean by that.

If by ‘spirituality’, they mean

  • ‘a feeling of wonder and awe at the universe’, or
  • ‘a sense of being interconnected with all things’, or even
  • ‘a focus on worthwhile but non-material things, like relationships’

then they’ll get very little argument with me, because I like those things too.

If, however, by ‘spirituality’, they mean ‘a belief that our material reality is overlaid with an invisible realm of spirits and incorporeal beings’, then that’s just crap. Nobody has any evidence for that.

Well, Sam Harris is making an argument that we should be reclaiming the word ‘spiritual’ to refer to my first bracket of concepts above.

We must reclaim good words and put them to good use—and this is what I intend to do with “spiritual.” I have no quarrel with Hitch’s general use of it to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more transcendent sense.

Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But there seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic “mystical” or the more restrictive “contemplative”) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: “Spiritual” it is.

Neologisms (new words) may indeed be pretentious and annoying, but the reality is that they’re also very difficult to implement. It took a good 30 years for Richard Dawkins’ meme to catch on, and even then it’s likely to refer to a picture of a cat. Curse you, semantic shift!

What Harris doesn’t allow for is that reclaiming a word is very difficult as well. It only seems to work with taboo labels for people (queer and nigger come to mind), and only then to be used among people it was formerly applied to. It takes a lot of people to make this kind of change happen, and I just don’t see the impetus for it. If the word is moving at all, it’s moving toward that group of people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’, meaning that they believe in a god, but not a church. And they’re much more numerous than us pantheistic-leaning Sagan fans.

I just don’t think ‘spirituality’ is a good choice to refer to the transcendent and ineffable. It’s so fuzzy and imprecise — it could mean anything. And that means that when you use it, you’re leaving yourself open to misinterpretation. Why use a word that you have to explain every time you use it?

Not only that, it’s going to be very difficult to uncouple the word from a set of associations people have about it; memories of being in a church, an implication that religion is positive. These are implications I don’t intend and don’t want to reinforce.

And of course, the link between the word ‘spirituality’ and supernaturalism is well-nigh insurmountable. It has ‘spirit’ at its root. How is someone not supposed to think of spirits whenever you use it?

Instead of trying to redeem the word ‘spiritual’ out of the muck of supernaturalism and religious tradition, why not use another word: transcendent. Or transcendence, if you need a noun to replace ‘spirituality’. These convey the transportive sense of wonder and awe most adequately.

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling is a philosopher, and the author of “The Good Book”.

The title of his talk was “What Next for Atheism?” We’re seeing a swelling in our ranks, but how do we make sure this healthy atheist trend continues? Grayling suggests three ways:

  • Metaphysical debate, where we talk about rationality and evidence,
  • Secularism, where we discuss the role of the religious voice in public life
  • And most importantly, ethics, which involves how we live our lives and how we make decisions about our relationships.

Metaphysical Debate

Grayling suggested some ways that we can talk about religion to show how vacuous it is.
Instead of ‘God’, try substituting ‘Fred’.

Who made the universe? Fred. 

I have a deep personal relationship… with Fred.

Another suggestion (that I customarily use myself) is to refer to ‘gods and goddesses’.

I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in gods and goddesses

You can be moral without having to believe in gods. (And so on.)

This job involves getting people (especially children) to think critically. We can do this, says Grayling, by inviting people to think about the history of religions, and whether that justifies the case for them. Religions customarily obscure the facts about their past. Consider how the Church of England (and many others) have abandoned hell, and the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned limbo. I’ve seen this in the LDS Church as they’ve changed or abandoned doctrines with little fanfare and less detail, hoping no one would notice or remember. (It’s that memory hole again.) Grayling observes that this amnesia is very useful to them because it allows them to present themselves well. Religions, he says, are like the Greek god Proteus who could change his shape; Menelaus (or Aristaeus, or both) could only conquer Proteus by holding onto him tenaciously until, having gone through all his changes, he was exhausted. You just have to hang onto them until they get tired.

Yes, the religious will complain when we engage in metaphysical debate. But even this represents a positive change. A modern atheist could say, “When you guys were in power, you didn’t argue with us; you just burned us at the stake. Now when we present challenging arguments, you complain.”


Religious people have the right to believe what they like, and to make their voices heard in the public square, says Grayling. But their influence is currently out of proportion to the number of actual believers. With bishops sitting in the House of Lords, and money going to ‘faith schools’, religion should see themselves as they are: “Lobby groups!” Like trade unions and other interest groups, we shouldn’t be paying for them — they should be supporting themselves. Grayling says this is a point we should be making constantly.

Grayling related how, in debates, there are frequently four clergymen on the panel, and then him, the lone atheist. There are four of them because they can’t agree with each other. And yet they’re willing to make common cause… because they want the public money.


Grayling points out that religious people think they have a social area of morality and human experience cordoned off for themselves, and they claim that they own those things. We need to take back possesson of them.

Religions teach that all the good things come from gods, and all the bad things come from us. In fact, all the things come from us, and there’s no need for mumbo-jumbo.

So in closing, Grayling outlined the way forward for atheism:

  • Challenge the claims of religion, challenge their history, pin them down about what they think
  • Demand that voices in the square are proportionate to their actual participation, and
  • Take back human experience.

Atheist Bake Sale 2

If you like these cartoons, I have others.

Atheist Bake Sale 1

The UWA Atheist & Skeptic Society had a bake sale today. The cost of the baked goods: your soul.
We wanted to spark some discussion about souls; what it means to people, why we think we have one, and why people are so attached to the dubious notion that there’s a little ghost inside us making all our decisions. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reactions. Even though we were clearly ‘taking the piss’, many people showed a strange reticence. It looks like ‘selling your soul’ is a cultural taboo.
But we did give out lots of cookies.

Follow on to Atheist Bake Sale 2.

Atheist Bake Sale

The UWA Atheist & Skeptic Society is having a Bake Sale on the UWA Oak Lawn this Wednesday (21 Sep 2011) at 1 pm. There’s an unusual twist: Rather than accept money for the baked goods, the club simply requests… your soul.

It’s an interesting experiment in superstition metaphysics. I don’t know if people will gratefully accept a cookie, get angry, or shy away. I told a Christian guy about it, and he said, no, he wouldn’t be interested in a cookie. But why not? Does he really think he has a soul, and if so, what is it? Can it be traded in a Faustian bargain? Does it hit uncomfortably close to C.S. Lewis’s witch, who offers you Turkish Delight but instead only gives you pages and pages of turgid allegory? (Or something. I always was a little fuzzy on Lewis.)

Here’s a blurb I’m working on, to hand out at the event.

Do people have souls?

If by ‘soul’ you mean, a part of you that survives your death, then no, there’s no evidence to suggest that anyone has a soul. But that’s okay. You have a brain, and it does all the things that people commonly attribute to souls.

What happens after we die?

Religions of the world have made up a lot of contradicting stories to answer this question, and some people are happy to believe (and pay) whoever tells them the biggest story. But religions offer no evidence for their claims about any sort of afterlife.

The most likely scenario is that your brain (which is the organ responsible for perception) dies, and your perception stops.

Well, that’s depressing!

It doesn’t have to be. Mark Twain once said, “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.”

Having a limited existence means you have to do all the good you can while you’re here. You need to make the most of this life, the only one we’re sure of having. You don’t get a second chance to learn, to love, to create, to make things better on this planet. So do it now.

If you’re on campus, come on down and say hi. If nothing else, we have cookies. And there’s even a guarantee: If you’re not 100% satisfied, you can have your soul back.

‘Other ways of knowing’

Today on campus, there was a Christian Union talk about atheism, entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist‘. I can’t stay away if atheism is being discussed, and while they’re usually well-read on Dawkins et al. and give a good critique of the Gnu Atheism, they don’t always apply the same critical eye to their own faith. I was hoping the speaker would explain how Christianity improves on atheism, and in this I was (inevitably) disappointed.

A guy named Rory was the presenter. He was a good speaker — enjoyable to listen to, funny at the right times. His main reasons for being a Christian and not an atheist were:

  • He had no compelling reason to doubt his ‘sense’ that a god exists. It seemed to me that if he’d been born elsewhere and -when, he’d have no compelling reason to doubt his sense that Odin or Vashti exists. Beliefs are true to the extent that they are supported by evidence, not hunches.
  • The Christian world-view ‘resonated’ with his experiences. But people who have different world-views also find that their experiences ‘resonate’, whatever that means. Our experiences don’t always mean what we think they mean.
  • He found it satisfying to have someone to thank (after thanking people). I understand that — I feel grateful to the people in my life, and once I’ve thanked them, I like to pour my effort into making things better for them through service.
  • Finally, he found it hard, within an atheistic worldview, to account for things that are wrong in the world. I don’t know why he decided to press that point. Why would he use this as a strike against atheism, when this is actually much harder to explain from a Christian perspective? In question time, I mentioned that it was very easy for atheists to explain evil in the world — people decide to do things that harm people. But it’s very difficult for believers in an all-powerful, good god to explain why bad things happen. There’s a whole branch of theology (called theodicy) dedicated to trying to explain this very thing, yet the Problem of Evil remains. But Rory couldn’t quite get why atheists would see a thing as ‘evil’ outside some kind of ‘god’ frame. Unfortunately, we had to move on before full understanding could be achieved. Rory — if you’re out there, let’s continue this, because I’d like to understand your view.

I did ask one other question, though. His last point in the presentation was that he found it naïve to think that science was the ‘only way of knowing’ something. Now, I’ve heard people say that there are other ways of knowing, and when I ask them what they are, they invariably respond with something that is… not a way of knowing.

In response, Rory mentioned Dawkins’ letter to his daughter, in which he wrote that tradition, authority, and revelation are bad reasons for believing something. But Rory thought that these were okay reasons to believe something, part of this complete scientific breakfast. He also mentioned intuition as something that was important in finding truth.

I explained that intuition was important — say, in coming up with a hypothesis — but intuition is not a way of knowing. If someone has an intuition about something, they do not know that that thing is true. It appeared that he was confusing ‘how you get an idea’ with ‘knowing that the idea is true’, which is a rather serious mistake.

So I want to say this very clearly: The way to know something is by empirical observation. That is the only way. (And even when we’ve observed something, it still might be wrong! Which is why replicable observation is so important.) There are no other ways of knowing. Not tradition — many traditions have turned out to be wrong. Not authority — authorities can be wrong. Not revelation — you don’t know the source of a supposedly supernatural revelation. It could be all in your head. Science — systematic, reproducible, empirical observation — is the only way of knowing.

If you think you have another way of knowing, leave it in comments, and we’ll have a look.

‘Accidental’ affairs

There’s a story about a cowboy who told the doctor he’d never had an accident. He’d been bitten by a snake, though.

“Goodness,” said the doctor. “Wouldn’t you call that an accident?”

“Nope,” said the cowboy. “The varmint meant to do it.”

What called this story to mind is a curious article in today’s Deseret News:

Facebook is a breeding ground for accidental affairs

Lawyers are using Facebook as a source for evidence in an increasing number of divorce cases, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Of lawyers surveyed, 81 percent noted this increase.

Accidental affairs” are suspected to be the growing result of these online connections, Nancy Kalish, psychology professor at California State University told Bloomberg.

Kalish has found most Facebook cheaters did not set out to have an affair, and even sustained happy marriages before they strayed. But “our brains often romanticize the past, in ways not entirely within our conscious control,” according to Bloomberg. “Recollecting people, places and experiences can affect our neurochemistry.”

“Accidental affairs”? The term smells of the evasion of responsibility. Spraining your ankle is an accident. Having an affair is a string of careful decisions. It’s not an accident, though it might be a mistake.

I used to consort with a group of people who believed in supernatural beings, unseen agents that could influence your behaviour with their lascivious whisperings. For people who believe in such beings, the reasons we do things must be terribly mysterious! You’d never know if you really thought something, or if some succubus had implanted the idea in your brain.

And with your locus of control that far removed from yourself, it would be anyone’s guess why you do the things you do. I remember a talk by a church leader where he said that he’d never give a woman a ride home in a car. He’d go home, get his wife, and then give the woman a ride (in the car, I mean) with his wife right there. Now, props for avoiding temptation, certainly. But how did he feel about thinking that — just because of mere physical proximity — the decision to go for the gusto with this lady was no longer entirely his? How did she feel with a man who wasn’t sure he could control himself?

If someone’s flirting on Facebook, wouldn’t it be better to admit that they’re doing it because they want to? At least then they could get an honest glimpse into their own desires and their horrible marriage, and get some idea of what to do next. Instead of claiming, oh, it was an accident, I didn’t mean to. Perhaps even thinking that some external being caused the temptation. And then praying to another one to help them sort it out.

I just can’t imagine going back to thinking that way. Now that I think the responsibility for my actions is my own, my reasoning about my actions is a lot more direct and controllable. No mysterious beings. No vicarious expiation, either. Just me.

It’s a miracle! Always.

I thought I’d post this handy guide before the inevitable miraculous claims that seem to follow every horrendous tragedy.

Either they deserved it, or they’re in heaven now. Isn’t the divine plan amazing?

Supernatural thinking can be deadly

A horrible story from France reminds us yet again why it’s always a bad idea to jump to supernatural conclusions.

Thirteen people were watching TV in a flat, when one of the men heard the baby crying. So he got up to get a bottle for the baby. Apparently he wasn’t wearing any clothes at the time.

“The man got up to prepare a bottle for the baby when his wife, seeing him, screamed ‘It’s the devil, it’s the devil’,” she explained.

In the confusion following this apparent case of mistaken identity, the naked man’s sister-in-law stabbed him in the hand and he was ejected through the front door of the flat. When he attempted to get back in, panic erupted.

“The other occupants of the flat fled by jumping out of the window,” Faivre said. According to police, one man jumped with the two-year-old in his arms and crawled two blocks away to hide in bushes, screaming: “I had to defend myself.”

The two-year-old died in hospital, another victim of superstition.

If you’re trying to explain something, you can go with natural explanations or supernatural ones. Natural explanations are always better. For one thing, you can check them out. And if you have two natural explanations for something, it’s possible to figure out which one is better experimentally. But how do you distinguish between two supernatural explanations? Who made the world, Elohim or Zeus? Or perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

But supernatural explanations are extremely tempting. They’re easy to come up with and they don’t require understanding anything at all. Saying that a god made the world is easier than understanding biology and cosmology.

In my Mom’s final days, she would sometimes call out the names of deceased family members. My family tended to favour a supernatural explanation for this: the spirits of these people were in the room, waiting to take Mom to a heavenly world. (That they were waiting to take her to Hell didn’t seem to occur to them. Observation: People only arrive at supernatural conclusions that support whatever narrative they buy into.) But there are many natural reasons why she might have called out names. Perhaps she was seeing hallucinations. Perhaps she was calling out lots of names at random, and we only noticed those that were dead. I noticed that she also called out the names of living people, as well as the names of people not in the family. (There was ‘Warren’ — we don’t know a Warren — as well as Charlemagne.) It took a bit of thought and knowledge to come up with these natural explanations, but in general my family liked the supernatural ones better.

The idea of spirits is a very pervasive one, but imagine the implications. There are unseen beings which could possibly be all around you. They might be watching you (yes, even in the bathroom), listening to you, and forming opinions on the things you’re doing. It would be easy to see how this belief could lead to a kind of paranoia. How could it do otherwise? Why wouldn’t you jump out of a window to avoid an evil supernatural enemy?

Supernatural thinking does nothing to advance our understanding. It’s the kind of thinking that kills people.

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