Thursday, October 29, 2009

Atheism and Agnosticism

I consider myself to be both an atheist and an agnostic. Most people would consider that to be a contradiction - that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. They're going by definitions that are something like "Atheism is being sure there is no god" and "Agnosticism is not knowing whether or not there is a god." I don't like those definitions. I don't think they're useful, for two main reasons.

  1. From a practical standpoint, they're the same. Neither the atheist nor the agnostic pray or go to church, or do anything religious like that. In terms of how they live their lives, there's no significant difference between the two. But internal belief can be just as important as external behavior, which leads to point 2.
  2. It excludes a middle ground. Under this scheme, it seems there are two options of non-belief. Atheists think there is absolutely no possibility that god exists, and agnostics think it's fifty-fifty between there being a god, and there not being a god. Some people are somewhat more inclusive and consider any uncertainty to be agnosticism, so if you think there's a 10% chance of god existing, or a 1% chance, or a 0.0000001% chance, you're an agnostic. But then, virtually no one is actually an atheist, and it's a pointless distinction.
So, here are the definitions I prefer. Atheism is not believing in god, not necessarily being sure he doesn't exist, just probably. Agnosticism is believing that it is not possible to know for sure either way. Atheism is about ontology - what exists. Agnosticism is about epistemology - what we can know.

My reason for being an atheist is simple: I don't see any evidence for god, and the logical default is to conclude non-existence, unless there's reason not to.

My reason for being an agnostic is somewhat more complicated. First off, I'm talking about gods that are supposed to be omnipotent. Most everyone will agree that an omnipotent god can't be disproven. It's possible that he could just be hiding. Using his unlimited power to evade any attempt at detection. I also contend that it is impossible to prove that god does exist. Suppose god did reveal himself, and to prove it, switched the positions of Earth and Jupiter, but preventing any adverse effects on the Earth. Astronomers could verify that in fact the Earth and Jupiter had been switched. But this could merely be the work of some super-powerful alien. Not enough to prove god's omnipotence. So, god moves the whole solar system to another place in the galaxy, an even more powerful feat. But that again doesn't prove that he's all-powerful. So, he moves the galaxy, or a hundred galaxies or a billion galaxies. No matter how powerful a miracle was performed, there is always another one just a little bit more so. Now, all this would of course prove that there is some super-powerful entity, who from our perspective, is effectively omnipotent, but there's no way to show actual omnipotence, and if it's not omnipotent, it's not god.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Liberals and Conservatives

Have you ever heard of TED? There are lots of cool, thought-provoking talks. To the point, this (follow the link for a transcript).

Jonathan Haidt talks about the different foundations of liberal and conservative morals. Everyone's morality is based on five different foundations: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Liberals mainly consider harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, but not the other three. Conservatives consider all five approximately equally.

He didn't say exactly how he determined these things, so maybe the studies involved were biased or something, and this is actually inaccurate. But in my experience, this seems mostly accurate. I know I care far more about the liberal foundations than the conservative foundations. Most of the people I know too. And when it comes to actual political policies, it seems that way too. Liberals support gay marriage for equality. Conservatives oppose it for authority.

But Haidt continues that building and maintaining social order requires all five foundations. The first time I listened to the speech, I didn't believe him. But as I've thought about it more, I've come to think that maybe he's right. Or at least, not totally wrong. I still disagree with purity/sanctity, I don't see the point of it. But in-group/loyalty and authority/respect, while they might not be strictly necessary, they are definitely helpful. In particular, the authority bit.

Consider a country with a strong, powerful leader, compared to one with a weak, impotent leader. The former country will be able to do things, and get things done. The latter country won't. Large groups of people need to be organized in order to acheive anything, and people just aren't good at self-organizing. A strong authority and group loyalty help them do that.

Then the question is which authority. Not all authority is good. Stalin was a strong authority and maintained a social order, but his authority isn't exactly desirable. So, you can't just point to authority to determine morality. But neither can you simply switch your desired authority at a whim, since that's the same as having no authority at all.

It's a tricky thing. You can't question all authority, nor can you question none. Like all things in life, it's a balance thing. Question authority when it is necessary, and respect it when it is necessary.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I've decided to start a blog. Why? Why not? This blog will be about anything that happens to catch my fancy. Philosophy, computers, books, linguistics, politics. Whatever.

A little about myself: I'm an existentialist, atheist, socialist, twenty year old male. I'm currently a senior studying Physics and Computer Science at Purdue University.

The blog is named after Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.