…the Stupidest Man in the World:
…the Stupidest Man in the World:
A few months back I wrote about a visit of some Jehovah’s Witnesses to my house. We were short on time, and my challenge to the question of why I should accept the word of the bible as true threw them off them a bit, but they promised to get back in touch. In the interim they did return, as promised, but I was not at home. This morning two Witnesses again arrived at my front door. It was a lazy fall morning, a perfect chance to sit down and talk.
Bill and Jen were pleasant of course. I would guess Bill was in his mid 40’s, Jen maybe 30-ish. We sat down on our back porch. It was a little cool to be sitting outside, but I always get a little too animated in discussions such as this, so I preferred the outdoor session. Bill asked about my religious history, which I related fairly accurately: raised Catholic, sort of a hippy-kumbayah-deist for a number of years until I became acquainted with real arguments regarding the probability of the existence of a god, any god. And that subsequently led me to where I am today, an agnostic atheist. I also related the particulars of my first encounter with the JW’s, and in particular that I simply asked why I should believe anything that is written in the bible.
Bill began heading down the road toward the argument from design. I admit that this argument can seem quite compelling, but when presented with counter arguments it falls apart pretty quickly. It comes from the 200 year old idea called “Paley’s watchmaker argument”, which posits that if one finds a watch in the woods one immediately recognizes the design in the watch. The main point of this argument is that one can recognize design. The gears, the springs all suggest design. While this can seem quite compelling, it falls apart pretty quickly. The most intesting counter argument is to ask who designed god? After all, one would expect the designer to be more complex that his creation. Also, one sees design because it is different that the rest of the world, different from nature. So if it is different from nature, nature must not be designed.
I made this point to Bill, and also made the point that while I find nature full of wonder and complexity, I do not need to invent a god to explain it. I can simply say I don’t know.
Bill took another route of questioning. He asked why we age, why do we get old. Certainly, scientists have identified mechanisms that cause the aging. But why do we age? I don’t know. I don’t know why time only runs forward, when there is no reason why it should not run either direction. Certainly physicists have identified the concept of entropy, but why entropy always increases is not fully explained. Bill then asked a most interesting question, one that I had been thinking about a bit lately. He asked if I want to live forever.
I don’t think I do.
When I imagined heaven as a child if always seemed to involve infinite bliss. That seemed like a good thing. I had not thought about it much in the last few years, but the idea has popped up in discussion on a few different podcasts that I listen to. And I have come to the conclusion that infinite happiness just wouldn’t be that great.
There are those heavenly moments in life. Often they are unexpected. Sitting in the garden, with a beer that I made in hand, watching the bees do their work and listening to the birds singing, watching the sun slowly set. What makes moments like that special is the fact that they are transient. They don’t last. And as I savor those moments it is knowing that moment is special is what makes it so. If it lasted for a million years it would be no good. Forever? Forget it.
The conversation moved on from there, but it didn’t go too far. My JW friends had other souls to see, souls that might just be candidates for the 144,000. I explained that even if there were some god out there, I cannot believe he is the god of the bible. I explained how a god who is loving would not command his people to commit genocide, he would not give the rules for keeping slaves. Jen asked if I was truly seeking answers on how such a loving god could do these things, I smiled and said no, not really, no words you could say could convince me. They thanked me for my time and excused themselves. I went to the kitchen and started prepping for dinner.
“You add up the laughter in minutes and days, but the deal out the sorrow in lifetimes…” – Tonio K
This is the first time I have watched The Point. This segment discusses atheism in detail, and I found it useful in consideration of my own thoughts.
I woke at 6:44 this morning. Saturday birthdays are the best. Just lie in bed, and think about things. Fifty two years old and what have I learned?
I guess that is pretty self-evident, but maybe we are all living in the Matrix and existence is an illusion. If we are, great, because it is one interesting illusion. But lacking evidence to the contrary I believe I exist here, and now.
I am conscious.
Big whoop. So is my cat.
I am self-aware.
This narrows things down quite a bit. The mirror test has shown that only a handful of animals in the world seem to be self aware. I am not surprised that great apes and dolphins are self aware. Magpies surprised me.
I can express my thoughts and feelings in language and words.
OK., maybe those squeaky dolphins are talking to each other, but until I see one post on Facebook I am claiming that the ability to express ourselves is what sets humans apart.
Beyond that, my knowledge becomes a little dicey. Sure, I know that Star Trek is way better science fiction than Star Wars could ever hope to be. Or that a well crafted English bitter is the most sublime and satisfying beverage ever created by man. But really, what do I know?
I look at the world around me, look at a beautiful sunset, gaze through the lens of a telescope and recognize that the universe is one magical place. Not Harry Potter magical, but magical in the sense of watching a conjurer execute a well designed feat of magic. You see the trick and watch in amazement, and you say to yourself ‘how did he do that?”. There is an explanation, but you don’t know what it is. For me, knowing that an explanation exists fails to diminish my joy in watching the trick.
The world is a lot like that. Sure, a full explanation of the trick of the universe does not exist, but that also does not mean it is unexplainable. And just like a magic show, I can say “I don’t know” and still be fully satisfied. Sure, when I get home from the show I might do a google search and try to find out how the trick was done. Similarly, in life I can look at the universe and say “I don’t know” and not be scared or embarrassed – but all the while trying to learn a bit more and figure out the trick.
Some argue that as a magic trick must have a conjurer to execute it, so must the universe. All I know is that when I go to a magic show the magician introduces himself before he begins the show. If the universe has a conjurer, it has not offered me an introduction, it has only allowed me to see the trick. I guess almost all cultures in history have claimed knowledge of the supreme conjurer or conjurers. I have found all of these explanations lacking. When I examine the evidence, I find these conjurers not to be the supreme conjurer, but merely a reflection of what the culture envisioned the conjurer must be.
So I will continue my search for the explanation of the ultimate trick of the universe for as many more times around the sun as this trick may last. And I will never be afraid to say “I don’t know”.
I am a regular reader of the Daily Dish, a blog by the gay, British, Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan. I love the insights that Andrew brings to his blogs. His political and social commentary is quite astute, in my opinion, probably because he so often manages to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Or maybe the chicken came before the egg, and my thoughts and feelings coalesce around Andrew’s writing. But I have one serious disagreement with Mr. Sullivan – his theism. Not that I do not sincerely believe that he is fully entitled to it, but that a person with his logic and grasp of reality somehow manages to imagine a deity when the evidence is so firmly stacked against it.
There was a recent thread on his blog written by Zack Beauchamp, entitled Arguments Against God. To his credit (and sanity, I think) Andrew often allows his blog to be a platform for other writers. In the follow up to the original piece, Zack shares the comments from a number of readers. Zack seems to be an atheist himself, but his says the following which troubles me:
this is precisely why I don’t think agnosticism is meaningfully different from atheism.
And I could not disagree more. Agnosticism relates to knowledge of god. Theism/atheism relates to ones belief in god. In a perfect world, knowledge would lead to belief. For many theists, the beliefs to which they have been indoctrinated for their entire lives leads them to believe that they have knowledge. The fact is they have belief and hope.
When it comes to god I am happy to say “I don’t know”. I have no knowledge, no evidence outside of my existence. And what does that tell me? The universe is a strange and interesting place, full of mystery to be sure. But this does not force me to believe in a deity. There may be a reality beyond the grave, but nothing I have seen or read leads me to believe that gods exist, except in the minds of men.
One of my favorite podcasts is Reasonable Doubts. They bill themselves as ‘your skeptical guide to religion’, and they provide well reasoned analysis of topics related to dogma and belief. They focus mostly on Christianity, but they also have regular segments about other gods and god stories.
Late last year, host Jeremy Beahan gave “An Atheist’s Sermon” at a local church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where the podcast originates). It is so well presented, and so well expressed I just have to share it here. I hope you have a chance to listen to Jeremy’s presentation, as he does an excellent job. He expresses ideas that align perfectly with my thoughts and feelings. Even if you are not an atheist, I would hope you would listen or read the transcript to gain some insight into why we do not believe.