Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Illusion of Free Will

Does Christianity hold its value without the presumption of free will? Does God have any right to reward or punish us on the quality of our soul if we hold no control over our actions? Does the appeal to Christianity ring true without one of its most essential precepts? Well, I think the most reasonable answer would be, no. According to Christianity, we as humans are judged by our actions (well, actually only one action, that being our belief, or lack there of, of Jesus, but this is beside the point) under God and subsequently placed in either Heaven or Hell, depending on God’s judgment. Yet if our brains have somehow tricked us, and each and every thought and deed we supposedly author is actually determined by the likes of nature, does Christianity and religion at large hold any value? I think not. And undoubtedly, this notion of free will – or more accurately, the lack there of – is appearing to become a scientific truth.

This proposition is probably not the most pleasant to most people, particularly to Christians. Additionally, it seems rather preposterous, let alone unpleasant, at first glance. No free will? We don’t control our behavior? Absurd! However, science has a way of continuously astonishing us with new developments – a trait religion can lay no claim to.

Studies have shown that through certain neurological testing, scientists can accurately predict a person’s actions before he does them, or even decides to do them. For example, participants in a study were hooked up to a brain scanner and asked to press a button whenever they felt the urge to do so. Remarkably, scientists were able to track their decisions even before they reached consciousness, by noting brain activity indicating that a certain action would be made. The observation of such activity came 7 seconds before the person actually decided to execute the decision. What this study as well as others conclude, is that each and every thought that arises in our consciousness is determined by our brains even prior to us having any knowledge of it at all.

Once one considers the actual lack of freedom he possesses over his behavior, several commonplace practices come into question. Two distinct aspects of society that warrant particular scrutiny, given this knowledge, are religion and the justice system. Our whole perspective on justice changes when one considers that each person is merely a victim of his biological assets. In short, consequences for lawbreakers become focused more on the actual threat that the criminal poses to society – not the retribution we naturally think he deserves, out of the pervasive human impulse of revenge. Even more so than the justice system, however, religion – one of society’s oldest and most prominent cultural constructs – seems to be flipped on its head with the recognition of this concept. Given that the theory about humans’ lack of free will is true (which cannot be stated with 100% certainty at this point), Christians must believe that God bestowed evildoers with a faulty brain, rather than the mainstream idea that each person has a choice between good and evil. If this choice does not exist, however, then God, I would contend, has no right to punish us for our bad deeds. Of course, I am of the opinion that only a wicked god could send a person to Hell for merely doubting his existence anyway, but this is beside the point. What punishment is one truly worthy of if he has no control over his actions? I would suggest that the debunking of free will completely undermines the entire foundation of Christianity, given that its primary component is the CHOICE to accept Jesus Christ as savior.

To conclude, I will delve a bit further into this notion of no free will, which initially appears preposterous, given the choices humans appear to face daily. The theory is based on the idea that self-control is an illusion. Yes, we have consciousness, and yes, we seem to use it to make choices, but in reality, each thought that arises into consciousness is determined by prior neural activity – activity that we hold no control over. Therefore, say I would like to buy a cup of coffee. I have no idea where this desire came from – all I know is that it is there. This may seem uncontentious. However, once I recognize the desire for coffee, don’t I have the choice to either succumb to this desire or resist it? Isn’t this where the human faculty of reasoning is in full force? It would certainly seem this way. However, unbeknownst to our conscious selves, even these thoughts of self-reasoning are determined by conditions that are in no way in our capacity to control. I may end up deciding to buy the cup of coffee. I may end up resisting. However, regardless of the decision that is made, it is not my conscious self that has the power to choose. My conscious self is merely a medium between the natural functioning of my brain and my behavior.

Ostensibly, many will argue that the realization that humans have no actual power to choose will give rise to a frightening and destructive outbreak of nihilism. If there are no consequences, what is the motivation for one to resist any sort of temptation? What reason is there to do good? While it is certainly possible that this theory could be used as an excuse to bypass morality and live in senseless self-indulgence, it does not supersede the importance of morality and the ideas and feelings that make for a happy, functioning society. Just because we do not necessarily have the choice to do good does not detract from the fact that morality is critical to a healthy, enjoyable life. History has demonstrated that it undoubtedly is. And despite the knowledge of our powerlessness, the feeling that we are making choices will likely never cease. Therefore, the rejection of free will has somewhat limited, but certainly necessary, outcomes. Accepting that people do wrong because of conditions that our beyond their control can help us maximize the feeling of compassion, particularly for our enemies – a central precept of Jesus’ teachings. Furthermore, through this knowledge, we may learn to maximize the things that contribute to the happiness of our lives and those around us, and minimize the needless elements that only corrode our lives. Additionally, we are able to more rationally analyze what is best for society, rather than coming to conclusions based on the fixed, immutable principles of religion. When one abandons the rigid adherence to past principles, he can more effectively judge what will maximize human happiness in the long-term. I contend that no one would agree that recklessly harming others or blindly pursuing one’s self-interests is the best route for a healthy, happy individual or society. The notion that we lack far more control than we originally thought does not detract in any way from the benefits of being moral and compassionate. In fact, I believe that accepting this concept can only help humanity develop, as we grow in social and self understanding, and leave behind the concrete standards that we stick to only out of fear that abandoning them would coax the world into anarchy.

For a closer look at an actual study on free will, visit this url: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/04/mind_decision


The Value of History

“There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, History

Painted upon the backdrop of our lives are the centuries that came before us, a constant, lingering presence that tacitly reveals itself in every breath of every human alive. The past is not dead as the years press on, but rather, humanity survives as a whole; everything we do exudes the actions of our ancestors, unveiling truths that were just as alive then as they are now, and vice versa. 

Undeniably, we are mere morphed replicas of the figures that have already come and passed. It is through them that we attain any sense of identity, of attachment, of reality. Where would we be if not for the toils of past humans who thought and struggled and dared to carve the world we live in today? Humanity is unified by incessant cause and effect. We are both the effect of the past and the causation of the future, linking us to those who came before us and those who will come after us. 

Such a tragic and beautiful truth this is. Bred from the evil of the past, we grow to create a greater good, and simultaneously set the platform from which our evils may be remedied by our children. The past is a world so distant in minutes and hours from ours, yet so tenderly close in spirit. Ignorant as we may be of historical events, we still reflect them in thought, word, and deed, tending to the same garden and eating from the same apple – that is, the garden of a hopeless condition and the apple of an enduring spirit, feeding on passion, pleasure, and pain to persist. 

Therefore, our history is more than relevant – it is everything. The joys and sorrows of yesterday echo in the pleasures and pains of today. No idea is crazy – for our thoughts today are the subtle rumblings of the voices of tomorrow, and in our deaths, our deeds will be corrected by our descendants just as we improved upon the deeds of our ancestors.

It is for these reasons that I find myself insatiably attracted to history. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you want to be remembered, do something worth writing or write something worth reading.” We recall the words and actions of the past, and in doing so, we attach ourselves to something greater than ourselves. And sometimes, the best way to move forward is to make sure you look back. 


Is Obama’s Reelection the Start of a New Era?

In light of the recent presidential election, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what the results mean for the country, and more importantly, for human rights.

The United States of America had 43 presidents prior to Obama’s original election to the platform. All of them were white males. For decades, white males have unwaveringly dominated the political scene, as racism and sexism have tainted not only our nation’s history, but the history of the world. The 2012 United States presidential election, however, serves as indelible proof that bigotry and senseless hatred are declining and quickly fading into the shadows of the past. The statistics are incredibly heartening: The first black president, Barack Obama, was reelected for a second term in office. 19 women were elected into the U.S. Senate – the most ever. The first openly gay senator was elected in Wisconsin. And for the first time, an all-women delegation was elected by a state, that being New Hampshire, where the two senators, two representatives, and governor are all women.

While this may not seem like a major breakthrough to someone who was born within the last two decades, the spectrum of history ensures us that it is. Up until the late 20th century, blacks were shamefully persecuted in this country, forced to bear the burden of a deeply racist society. Up until the early 20th century, women were denied the right to vote, and are still overcoming gender biases regarding occupation and expectations. Homosexuals have continuously been forced to hide within the fringes of an insecure people, enduring their own brutal forms of discrimination. The indisputable rise of these three social groups, among others, signals the beginning of a new era of equality. It demonstrates that we are becoming increasingly willing to have these people lead and represent us in the highest offices of government, and that we are beginning to judge people not by petty social differences, but by their ability to do a job and the moral compass with which they do it.

One can only imagine the strides we will continue to make in the future. However, it is clear to me that some regions of the country are modernizing quicker than others. Generally speaking, most studies indicate that the most educated regions of the United States are the Northeast, particularly New England, and the West Coast. Interestingly enough, these areas also happen to be the least religious. It is well known that the southern region of this country is by far the most devoutly religious – the Bible Belt encompasses essentially the entire Southeast. Additionally, they tend to lag behind their Northeast and West Coast counterparts in education, including quality of schools and number of college graduates. Southern states also tend to have higher teenage pregnancies than do other areas, indicating a lack of knowledge or education. The political variable in all of this is the stark and bold contrast in political leanings within these regions. The election demonstrated the dichotomy that has existed for quite a while now between the Northeast/West Coast and the Southeast/Southern Plains regions. Each and every Northeast state, along with each and every state on the West Coast voted blue (Democratically), or in other words, for President Obama. Governor Romney’s electoral votes were primarily from the Southeast and the heart of the country, including states like Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.

Now, I am certainly not trying to label anyone as inferior based on the region in which they live. However, these overlapping trends beg us to state the obvious. As Democrats are more liberal, favoring more domestic freedom that is untampered with by religious dogma, Republicans are more conservative, tending to attract the typical white, churchgoing male who favors a traditional society in which individual freedom is somewhat limited in order to maintain what is perceived as the societal order. Generally, Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, – which hinders the freedom of gays to express love for their partners – and abortion rights – which hinders the freedom of women to exert control over their own bodies. I would contend the the Democratic party is certainly the more socially progressive body, making judgments based on a critical analysis of the issue rather than unfounded religious beliefs. Now, while these are generalizations, they are reflected in the exit polls: Obama won the vote of women, gays/lesbians/bisexuals, and both black and latino minorities. Romney won the vote of both whites and males. What we can garner from all of this is a correlation between higher education, secularism, liberalism, social equality, and human rights.

I am not saying one side is right and the other is wrong. However, I am of the opinion that it is only a matter of time that the traditional, conservative political outlook is trumped by a more secular, liberal ideology that is already pervasive in the Northeast and West Coast. President Obama’s reelection is a strong indicator that this trend is beginning to manifest; no president has ever been reelected with an economy this low. Of course, I am not advocating for a struggling economy – but I am suggesting a shift from religious conservatism to secular liberalism, a shift that is exhibiting its endurance in a suffering economy and a still staunch resistance from an opposing Republican party. Furthermore, this political transition goes hand in hand with a movement of unprecedented social equality, signaling the end to cumbersome traditionalist dogma and the beginning of a movement for secularism, independent thought, and most of all, social equality.

 


Do we want to continue the resistance to social progression? Stand up for women’s rights and vote Obama.

Feminist Philosophers

From my Facebook newsfeed: a pamphlet urging men to vote no on women’s suffrage, and a plea to Minnesota voters on the marriage amendment:

vote no on women's suffrage

 

The history of humankind is a history laced with the impulsion to resist the truth when it threatens the status quo–to resist the testimony of the disenfranchised when its acceptance would upset our view of the world. We resisted the notion that women ought to be treated as persons rather than property. We resisted the notion that denying women an education or the right to vote was an affront to equality. We resisted the notion that even slavery was discriminatory. We resisted the notion that separate was unequal. We resisted the notion, even before the Civil Rights Act, that blacks were treated unequally in our society. In the face of this stunning history of ignorance of what justice calls for — of the true experiences…

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God: The Great Substitute

Despite my openly articulated opinion that religion is a childish, illegitimate aspect of society, I feel that its prominence in human life renders it deserving of attention. Though I generally consider it a manifestation of human weakness and ignorance, I believe that its profuse acceptance throughout our world – and more so, our country – reveals some significant characteristics of human nature that should be considered. Therefore, I pose the question: why do people buy into religion?

Accepting an all-powerful, invisible ruler that actively intervenes in nature and is capable and willing to interact with human beings (his creation), indicates that some sort of psychological need is not being fulfilled in one’s life. If our condition as humans did not render some sort of emotional void, we would have no reason to deify a socially constructed entity. Combine this unidentified psychological need with the question that has plagued human life since the dawn of consciousness – how did existence begin? – and we have the perfect recipe for God.

We have identified two basic human ailments that God fulfills: emotional despair – a feeling of hopelessness or meaninglessness that often arises when contemplating one’s life, and more so, one’s death – and intellectual curiosity – the natural impulse to question the origins of existence. In this post, I will attempt to identify more specific conditions that prescribe a god and also how we can direct our mental energy more valuably than in prayer, churches, Bible studies, etc.

The human condition, certainly from some angles, is a tragic one. We learn to cherish certain ideals that require an enormous amount of emotional investment – love, relationships, etc. – and then are removed from the world as quickly as we were born into it. We form intense attachments to our fellow humans; abandoning such attachments seems incomprehensible. However, the reality of our situation is that one day, we will perish, departing from everything that we hold close. The overwhelming anxiety that accompanies the acknowledgement of death is simply too much for many people to handle. Matthew Alper, in his book, God Part of the Brain (http://www.godpart.com/), brilliantly explores how this anxiety originated in humans and how it has manifested in modern life. Essentially, he argues that this tremendous anxiety about death necessitated a major change in how humans must evolve. In order for humans to survive this anxiety, nature, according to Alper, was forced to modify the human brain and develop a mechanism to overcome this anxiety – that mechanism was spirituality, a means by which to achieve meaning in life while accepting that life, at the physical level, will one day end. Therefore, the theory suggests that humanity’s way of alleviating the anxiety of death was to convince itself that death itself was an illusion and that better days would follow our departure from earth.

The point is that, as humans, we are prone to form deep and meaningful relationships. Given our capacity to conceive and interpret our surroundings, we must cope with the reality that one day these relationships will end. On top of that, we are encumbered by the mere strains and stresses of survival. To soften this emotional blow, God comes to the rescue, not only promising us eternal paradise, but intervening in our lives to help us through the trials and tribulations that are, of course, only temporary. This belief assists us by combating the most bitter form of despair life has to offer. And it is a despair that every human is forced to confront. Clearly, one can see the sheer emotional power that a “god” figure is capable of stirring.

So why is this bad? Why, if God induces such euphoric psychological states, is it necessary to debunk him? Well, aside from the fact that believing in a totalitarian ruler of the universe is unconscionably dangerous, as has been proven time and time again throughout history, it is not, in my opinion, a healthy way to handle our emotions and relationships. I think most of us would agree that living in lies is bad. When we accept something to be true that offers no evidence, we put our ability to reason and approach problems in a rational way into question and we skew our entire perspective on life. If you are certain of something that is grounded in no proof, you distort your approach to every aspect of life, by living by living within the narrow bounds of this untrue proposition and assuming its correctness despite any contradictory evidence. Furthermore, putting God, as most Christians do, as the first priority, even above family – as Jesus demands of his followers – encourages us to devalue our immediate relationships and deemphasize the fact that we only have access to these relationships for a limited time. The general outlook of Christian philosophy is don’t worry about your life because a better one is soon to come. This teaches us to take the awesome mysteries and experiences that the universe has to offer for granted, in favor of an imaginary realm that offers nothing but an ambiguous sense of eternal bliss. Additionally, a proposition that Christianity persistently reinforces is to concede the pleasures in this life to secure those in the next. This further detracts from our time here on earth – the only time that we know we’ve got.

Along with God’s role of providing emotional fulfillment, he so conveniently provides answers to every single question imaginable. Why are we here? How did life begin? How did the universe begin? Why did I choose to eat Sushi rather than a bologna sandwich today? While no person of faith will claim to know the details of God’s decision making – after all, God works in mysterious ways, – he will be certain to claim to know how and, to an extent, why, all of this came about. This information sure makes life a lot easier, just knowing the answers before the problem has been explored. Now, everyone can relax – the universe has been solved!

However, we know that this is a cheap way of approaching the questions that our incredible abilities of critical thinking allow us to ask. It is like claiming to know the answer to a math problem before one has begun solving it. It leaves no room for scientific exploration and, worse, provides no reason to think critically and to use reason to question our surroundings. In fact, religion blatantly encourages us to be satisfied with the knowledge at our disposal and to blindly oblige with the demands that are expected of us. Sugar-coated by the characteristics of being loving and generous, God passes as a totalitarian dictator, a figure who encourages no thought for the morrow and no progression scientifically. Even if you insist that God is loving and all-merciful, you cannot – if you are a Christian – deny that your god is a totalitarian dictator who requires that you believe in him in order to avoid enduring the worst imaginable punishment for all of eternity. What a disgusting moral proposition that is.

Although most modern religious moderates will claim that they fully support science and intellect, the very foundation they claim to build their lives on insists that they do not do so. As I hope I have made clear, claiming to know the answers with no proof whatsoever leaves no reason to go out and find the actual answers. Scientists will be the first people to tell you they don’t know something if science has not yet developed the capacity to know it. But they will keep digging, they will keep searching, and they will make steady strides in uncovering truth, a natural truth that becomes increasingly special as we keep learning. If one is certain he knows the answer, however, the curiosity that drives the motor of science runs dry.

God is cheap. He teaches us to devalue the life we live and to stop digging for the truth that makes life meaningful. Although many religious people certainly live fulfilling lives, I would contend that they are doing so despite religion, not because of it. In this modern age, isn’t it time that we free ourselves from these crippling chains that restrain us from cherishing life and love alike? Can’t we accept that our lack of knowledge about the universe is something that must be fostered and contemplated rather than blindly ignored? Isn’t it time we that we focus on achieving happiness in this life rather than procuring it in the next? I’d say yes – the role God plays in the lives of billions around the world is one of unhealthy emotional dependence and intellectual narrow-mindedness. So, I encourage all to muster up the courage to defy this imaginary, mythical, universal dictator, and to demonstrate the boldness to think independently and freely. Let us treasure, not devalue, the things that make us fully human, and let us also have the courage to not surrender our intellectual convictions, even in the face of our greatest fears.


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