Saturday, June 15, 2013

Brett Keane's Atheist Challenge

I thought I'd give a response to Brett Keane's atheist challenge from here:

1. Where do you get your morality from? Please explain your morality.

I see morality in general coming from 5 sources, of which I personally derive something from each of them. I'll talk a little bit about each source and how they relate to me personally:

1. Instinctual moral intuition

Non-sociopaths will find murder/assault/theft/hypocrisy unpleasant. We have evolved this way so that we can use cooperation in order to survive.

Moral intuition has its faults however. For example, a child receiving an injection might think his parents are wronging him by insisting his skin be pierced with a needle, despite their intentions being truly compassionate.

I believe I make some use of this intuition. I am naturally upset over harming others, seeing what I perceive to be injustice, and I am uncomfortable around those that I believe have harmed and/or will harm me or others unjustifiably.

2. Upbringing

Many people get moral lessons from their upbringing usually from their guardians, siblings, or various other adults. Our parents and grandparents try to teach us right from wrong. Our teachers enforce rules in school. Interactions with friends and peers establishes boundaries and consequences. The social atmosphere that one is raised in has an undeniable impact on a person's moral values.

I believe that I personally was given a reasonable set of moral values from my parents, relatives, friends, and teachers.

3. Stories

I use the term "stories" rather generally, but these are the morals that we find in books, movies, television, in stories told by others, and our own stories as well. They very often include moral lessons and cultural ideals.

Almost all TV sitcom plots are based on deception, which makes it clear the perils of not telling the truth. Villains almost invariably do immoral things, and the heroes do moral things to try and stop them.

I was born in the early 80's, and growing up I watched a great deal of children's shows on television, movies in the theater, and read many children's and young adult books which often included moral lessons. At this point, the amount of 'media' that I've been exposed to is extremely likely to have influenced my moral outlook. It would be naive to think otherwise.

While the media shouldn't be trusted outright to impart good moral values, I see what I have taken from its lifelong influence as being mostly positive.

4. Logic

Logic is a powerful tool in assessing moral questions, and one that I feel is often used but rarely mentioned.

Logic can be used to calculate the impact of one's decisions on others and I believe that most if not all morals can be arrived at logically given the right initial premises.

I personally use logic extensively in assessing moral questions. Once simple premises are established, many questions can be resolved. Premises such as "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", or "Turn ignorance into wisdom, greed into generosity, and ill-will into loving kindness."

5. Religion

Obviously many people derive their moral values from religion. It may seem counter-intuitive but atheists can do the same. The term "atheism" simply refers to the number of deities a person believes in, which in the case of atheism is zero. It says nothing about what kind of religion that person participates in if any.

They may for example believe the Christian bible to hold moral values they agree with and adopt for themselves, even if they do not believe in its deities.

I personally have found many beneficial values from Buddhism, in fact the quote above (the 'ignorance into wisdom' one) is Buddhist in origin.

2. Why do you accept evolution? Explain how you came to your conclusions.

There is nothing about 'atheism' that states that an atheist should accept evolution. I find this an erroneous assumption given atheism's definition. However, I myself do accept evolution as a fact of nature. As to why goes to my epistemological orientation.


First of all, I want to explain how I view mind. Mind is a simulation of reality. Reality contains mind and not vice versa. As such we are trapped in our simulation and cannot touch reality itself. We are not completely cut off though, since our senses allow us to gather information about the reality we're in. Our senses could be tricked of course, meaning that we are in yet another subset of reality (another simulation), but we cannot know this for sure if no evidence for it presents itself. So for now, I will assume that our minds are in fact submerged in "the" reality.

We can reflect reality analogous to the way a mirror reflects light. We do so by constructing mental models, which are then verified against reality via evidence. Models form sub-models, and grow in complexity and breadth as their descriptive and predictive powers increase. At the most basic level certain assumptions must be made. These are:

1. Reality exists.

This can also be stated as I exist, or that the universe exists. Same sort of premise. It is not possible to prove existence, non-existence is non-causal rendering it an assumption (A cannot be justified by B if B does not exist).

No progress can be made without this assumption. What can be known about something that does not exist?

2. Reality is capable of being understood.

We can "reflect" reality in our simulation like a mirror. A bad model being analogous to a distorted mirror. At best, mind can be the clearest of all mirrors.

However, we must assume that our manipulations of the mirror are not completely futile in ending its distortion or our motivation is lost.

Alternatively, I think this second assumption can also be expressed as "Our perceptions of reality are sometimes correct", since we use our perceptions to gather information about reality. No proof can be provided here since we cannot be 100% certain that everything we know about reality isn't wrong. This is a side effect of mind being a subset of reality. By claiming that we are incapable of understanding reality no further progress could be made.

3. Physical evidence is a valid way of justifying beliefs.

Like #2, no proof can be provided for it since we cannot be 100% certain that everything we know about reality isn't wrong, so we cannot ultimately evaluate the strength of this ideal.

This assumption is necessary since one cannot learn about reality without gathering information from it. From this third assumption, an important philosophy is derived, and that's that:

3a. Models with predictive capabilities are more useful than models without predictive capabilities.

Predictive power is the mechanism for correcting the mirror of our model/simulation. To use an analogy think of an arm in a wavy mirror (wavy like a flag) looks like 3 limbs, one upper arm, one forearm, and one hand. When we see that each "piece" moves with the other we can create a model that hypothesizes that these are one, and that actually the way the mirror should look is more or less a straight line (a single limb). We can then correct the mirror (model) accordingly, and when the mirror is straightened we may even see some things we didn't know about, leading to more evidence and more models.

We value correct predictions, and define a useful model as one that not only makes predictions of importance, but also predicts correctly. We test whether a prediction is correct by taking actions and considering if the results of said action are in line with the prediction. In this case the "models" are analogous to beliefs, and the results analogous to evidence.

This is really the only mechanism known with which to verify that our models reflect reality accurately, and is therefore the "how" for the assumption that reality can be understood.

Another result of mind not being able to 'touch' reality is that mind cannot escape beliefs. As close to having knowledge of an absolute fact of nature can come within mind would be a representation of it, a shadow of the real thing.

Note: Internal consistency appears to be necessary condition for useful models, since it would appear that our reality is also internally consistent.


So, when I said earlier that I accept evolution as a fact of nature, here I mean fact as a sufficiently justified belief. It is justified due to the large body of evidence supporting it, and due to its internal consistency.

Even if I chose not to trust scientific articles and text books on the subject, my own observations would lead me to a model similar to evolution. I know that children have some features of both of their parents, and their children so in turn will have some features of them. I see similarities between myself and my parents, so it stands to reason that some traits are inherited.

I see countless adaptations in nature: the long neck of the giraffe, the sleek hydrodynamic body of the dolphin, the eyes of a cat. I have seen defects, such as mental retardation, mental illness, deformities, propensity towards disease, poor eyesight, and I have seen advantages such as high intelligence, low propensity towards obesity, long life, and high energy. Without heavy research, I might hypothesize that mutations that lead to survival and therefore increased chances of reproduction have an increased chance of being passed on.

Evolution is consistent with my own personal observations and ideas, on top of being internally consistent, with a large body of supporting evidence and the backing of science. So I consider it a justified belief and a strong model.

3. What is the meaning and purpose to your life?

I think that I share the same meaning and purpose that nature has, whatever that may be. It could be anything, or nothing. Perhaps meaning and purpose are entirely mental concepts, only useful when applied to specific scenarios and not so generally.

4. What is the greatest thing that you have done for others?

I find this question a little unfair, since just about any statement I would make would seem arrogant, and make me look as if I believed that thing to make me altruistic and saintly. I choose not to answer on these grounds.

5. Would you kill for atheism? 

I assume this means to kill another human being. The only circumstances in which I could envision this happening are:

1. Via a freak accident.

The most likely place for this to occur being in traffic, since I do not handle firearms, go hunting, or work with dangerous materials in which I could theoretically endanger a co-worker's life. The traffic accident example in this case would have to result in a death, and the accident would have to be decidedly my fault. Of course I hope that this never happens.

2.If I agreed to be an executioner for the state.

I don't foresee myself doing this.

3. In self-defense of myself, someone I care about, or someone I believe to be unjustly threatened by lethal force of another.

I hope never to find myself in such a situation.

4. If I was in the military and it was my duty to kill enemy combatants.

In this case I would be killing for my country. I am not in the military, and I do not foresee myself joining it (I have nothing against, and the utmost respect for those who do though).

5. In an extremely hypothetical circumstance in which the exact ramifications of a person's death become known to me, and it results in the saving of many lives and/or is of enormous benefit to the human race.

This is essentially the same as #3, but the "attack" is less direct and less clear. To know the exact ramifications is likely impossible, so I don't foresee anything like this actually happening.

6. Killing someone to relieve their extreme, ongoing, endless, and verifiable suffering.

I would have to somehow find myself in the profession of assisted suicide to do this, which I do not foresee.

Those are the only circumstances that come to mind in which I would kill another human being. Since "atheism" is not one of them, the answer to this question is "no."

6. Why are you an atheist and consider your position valid?

I'm an atheist because I place a high value on holding only beliefs that are justified or necessary, and my epistemological orientation finds that a belief in a god or gods to be unjustified.

7. If you died and discovered that a god exists, what would you say to he/she/it?

Why would words be necessary?

8. What religion is the most dangerous in your eyes, today and in the past?

This is very difficult to quantify given the vast area it covers. It might very well be an ignorant opinion, but Islam feels particularly dangerous in this era.

As for the past, all the major theistic religions have committed many atrocities. Perhaps these would have still occurred if they were not present. There's no way to know for sure.

9. Name three peaceful religions that you have no issue with.

This task is problematic, since within any large group of people you will find those who have and make use of poor moral judgement, and those with strong moral judgement, whatever that may mean. Religion does not necessarily render a person peaceful, nor a lack of it render a person disruptive to peace.

I know that Jainism and Buddhism have peace as their core tenants, however I can't say that I have no issue with them. Nor am I without issues towards the irreligious.

Really no group or individual is perfect and given enough information I'm likely to take issue with some action they've taken or some ideal that they keep. I subject myself to the same criticism. I think this is an honest and healthy approach.

10. What would it take you to believe in a god?

To be suddenly exposed to what appears to be an intelligent being that could read my mind, appear to have complete control over matter and energy, and also claim to be a god, or even the god would not convince me that a supernatural deity exists since I would have to consider that I may be encountering an entity that is sufficiently superior technologically such that their abilities appear as magic, or that my mind is being manipulated in some way.

If such a being were to yield to some predictable models, I might consider them to be of "godlike" power and may loosely refer to he/she/it as "a god". However, as long as "I" remain "myself", I don't see any way that I could be convinced of the kind of god that is found in popular monotheistic religions, and the more anthropomorphic the god figure the more absurd the idea becomes for me. Panentheism (god as nature/reality) might be easier to accept but as to how that would be conveyed in a convincing manner is not clear.

As an agnostic atheist I do not believe it impossible that there could be a god, but that there is not sufficient evidence for a belief in one to be justified. It very well might be the case that such evidence is impossible, but I feel that to be a separate, debatable issue. Perhaps such evidence does exist, but without encountering it I have no conception of it.

11. Would the world be a better place without religion?

This is impossible to quantify given the vast area it covers. I don't think religion should be totally eliminated, nor do I believe in laws against religion. Everyone should be free to have and practice their own religion, and only not permitted to do so when it impedes on the rights of others.

As the world is right now, I believe that it would benefit tremendously from less religion. Reason and evidence are the best tools we have in changing the world for the better, and current religions very often reduce their use.

12. How do you feel about government/politics?

I am not sure how to answer this. I'm glad governments exist as opposed to anarchy.

As for my political position, I tend to vote democratic although I am an independent. I have voted for republicans when I have considered them the best candidate for the position. I tend to be more liberal than conservative, but I'm rather middle of the road when it comes to libertarian vs. authoritarian. I suspect that I lean more towards the libertarian side.

13. If you could go back in time and kill Hitler or Stalin as babies so they never kill the millions in the future, would you do it if time travel was possible?


Besides the moral issues surrounding the killing of an infant who has yet to do anything wrong, these actions would have unknown consequences that may be very far reaching. It's incredibly arrogant to consider that someone could know the complete ramifications of such actions and be able to weigh them morally.

Not just that but there may be a separate albeit very important moral issue solely related to the changing of past events.

Although it's not relevant to question the feasibility of the hypothetical, I have a lot of problems with the validity of time travel to the past. Remember, any change made to the past invalidates the future from which it came.

14. Why is stem cell research so important?

From them we could learn techniques to feed the hungry and heal the sick:

Stem cells are special types of cells that can be used to regrow damaged or lost parts of the body such as organs or brain tissue.

They could also be used to grow food normally generated from the death of animals, and generate this food more cheaply.

Stem cell research holds great promise in these areas and is therefore important.

15. Is abortion evil?

It is not inherently evil.

There are circumstances in which it is wrong, and circumstances in which it is right. The option of course needs to be available to address the circumstances in which it is right.

16. What would the circumstances be for you to approve of torture?

A. There is a great deal of certainty that the person being tortured has information that can save lives in the very near future.

B. There is a great deal of certainty that the person being tortured is guilty of crimes that could arguably warrant the torture being used.

C. That the torture last for a short time.

D. Incidents of torture remain few and far between, to be used only in the most dire of circumstances.

E. That the torture be documented, and be considered by an external body capable of evaluating and reevaluating the future use of torture.

Even with these reasons, I struggle with this question quite a bit. To voluntarily induce suffering to another in a way not intended to help them (no tough love) seems like it should be wrong across the board. I have yet to reconcile these differing positions.

17. Should we try to save animals from going extinct?

Of course! Any time that we can reduce our parasitic nature and lessen our negative impact on the planet and its life I think we should go for it. Since many animals go extinct due to our impact, we should try to save them.

18. Do you approve of capital punishment? Explain.

I think it is an appropriate punishment in this era. In the future if we become a post scarcity society, or become able to neurologically rehabilitate someone then I would consider it immoral, which is to say that I consider it inherently immoral.

In our pre-scarcity society where resources are important, and one individual can do a very large amount of damage to society I see the death penalty as a reasonable option.

19. Do you believe in aliens, ghosts, spirits, souls, or any kind of supernatural forces?

Given the available information, I believe it is extremely likely that extraterrestrial life exists, perhaps even with an intelligence comparable or superior to our own. However I am also of the position that unless our technological level is such that we are both searching for one another with faster than light travel then we will not have a reasonable likelihood of meeting.

I see no evidence for the typical definitions attributed to ghosts and spirits, nor any plausible mechanism by which they would operate.

The term soul can refer to a person's electrochemical state that is their mind. I do believe this exists. I believe that it is theoretically possible for it to also exist on some other substrate than the brain, although this falls within the realm of science fiction for the time being. I do sometimes entertain the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, but more of as a thought experiment than a belief.

I have not encountered sufficient evidence for "supernatural forces". I am sure that there are forces not yet understood or encountered yet, and perhaps these would currently fall onto the supernatural spectrum, however in this case they would not be inherently supernatural.

20. Would you sacrifice yourself for a loved one, with the chance that you may end up in hell because you are an atheist?

I would sacrifice myself for a loved one. Since I don't believe in hell the rest of this question is not applicable.

21. Explain in detail the process of death.

Death is defined as "the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a particular living organism. The death of an organism also results in a permanent absence of consciousness" Death itself is not a process, dying is. Death is a state of existence, or rather non-existence.

For a person to experience consciousness after being decidedly "dead", would be supernatural. There are no verified cases of a person returning to a state of life after having been dead, unless birth is considered to satisfy this criteria. However in this case it can be said that this person was not yet alive, and therefore is not 'returning' from a state of death.

It would appear that the process of dying involves a loss of consciousness to which there is no restoration. As far as its experience is concerned, it would appear no different than a permanent, dreamless sleep.

22. Have you ever been dead?

I often joke when people discuss events that took place before I was born that I was 'dead at the time'.

The closest "experiences" I've had to death were times when I've been unconscious such as in a dreamless sleep, the few times that I've passed out (once from dehydration, once from being very sick from a virus, once when trying to hold my breath as a silly stunt), and the few times that I was put under anesthesia.

Other than that the question is a bit silly, since once I am dead, "I" cease to exist permanently, so I could not have been dead.

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