Monday, May 30, 2011

Reading Ethics Without God: Keeping the Wolf at Bay

I just finished reading the first chapter of Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen.  This chapter discusses the idea that we need religion and God to keep us from tearing each other apart, hence the "wolf."  Nielsen takes on some pretty easy arguments in first chapter, but I think he had to take them on because people continue to make them.  I think he does a good job of taking these arguments down although I can't give him too much credit for doing so, since they aren't very convincing arguments.

In this first chapter, he tackles arguments like the seeming decline of Christianity after World War I and the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism (which these arguments call godless ideologies) are the reason we find ourselves in such a horrible world now.  Another argument is simply that we need religion to keep it all together.  I think his demolition of the arguments is pretty complete.  For the first, he thinks that this is a misreading of history which I do agree with, but he also talks about how there are happy and moral secular nations.  The examples of nations that fit this description are the Scandinavian nations.  He also uses the case of the Scandinavian nations to argument against the second argument.  I'm not going to repeat every detail of his arguments here, but those details are some of the ones I remember.

In this chapter he also discusses the natural moral law tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and the neo-Thomists.  natural law theory is a religious moral argument that is a little different from the typical divine command theory.  I'm not going to go into detail about it here, but I will say that Nielsen does a good job of arguing against it.  He also talks about another variety of natural law theory that doesn't involve God at all.  He argues at length that this reformulation of natural law theory isn't really a natural law theory at all because it would not include natural law theorists like Aquinas but would include people who argument against natural law theory like J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham.  I thought that it was an interesting argument, and he made a good case.  That argument in particular made me think about some conclusions that I had come to about some different things.  We'll see where that leads.

Overall this was a good and interesting chapter, and I'm sorry that this entry didn't go into more detail.  It said some things that I think needed to be said.  This book isn't as accessible as other philosophy I've read.  Nielsen is a pretty good writer, but I think sometimes he can get bogged down a little too much in philosophical jargon.  I think that non-philosophy people would have a much harder time getting into the book.  And that's not a criticism of them either.  It's a common problem with philosophy texts.  But, nonetheless, I thought he did a pretty good job, and I'm looking forward to reading the next chapter.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Atheism and Theism Are Not Ideologies

I often hear talk about atheism as if it is an ideology.  People often think that atheism is the same thing as communism  and must be bad because of that.  I don't think this is the case.  I don't think either atheism or theism are ideologies.

Theism is simply the belief in god or gods.  And atheism is simply the lack or rejection of that belief.  Theists believe for many reasons, and atheists disbelieve for many reasons.  But there is nothing else that is, in my opinion, inherent in either of these positions.  What I mean is that someone being an atheist or a theist only tells you one thing about that person.  And that's their belief with respect to god or gods.  I don't want people to pack anything else into this position because I think it's dishonest and disrupts the integrity of already easily usable words.

Because atheism and theism can only tell you about one aspect belief system, I don't think either can be ideologies.  Ideologies are packed full of extra views and values about a great many things.  Ideologies can contain atheism and theism.  There is no question about that.  But they cannot be ideologies in and of themselves.  It seems silly to me to even make that claim.

Now I do think that religions are ideologies or, at the very least, a type of ideology.  Religions have a lot of values and beliefs about the world in there, and I think this is basically the same thing that ideologies have.  And because of this, I don't think that atheism can even be called a religion.  Atheism can be part of a religion sure.  There are religions like Jainism that are totally atheistic.  Jains might carry around a bunch of other metaphysical baggage around, but they don't carry any baggage called God.  And as we know, most religions are theistic.

There have been terrible ideologies and/or religion (however you care to think of it) that include either atheism or theism along with them.  Stalinism is a great example of a terrible ideology that included atheism as part of its inherent belief system.  And Inquisitional Catholicism is an example of a terrible ideology (or religion if you prefer) that carries around theism.  But the terribleness of both of these ideologies says nothing about atheism or theism.  Only the ideologies themselves are responsible for the crimes that are a consequence of that particular ideology and can be judged by those crimes.

The problem with with religions and ideologies is faith and certainty.  It's the lack of questioning and the ability to accept something on authority along regardless of what any evidence to the contrary may say.  Monolithic and unquestioned beliefs are the problem.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why I Love Doctor Who

In case any of you didn't know, I'm a gigantic Doctor Who fan.  I've been a Doctor Who fan since I was a child.  I was introduced to Doctor Who by my dad.  At first, I didn't care for it.  But soon I fell hopelessly in love with this quirky British science fiction television show.  My dad and I used to spend our Saturday mornings watching Doctor Who while my mom and sister occasionally went to church.  My dad had taped a bunch of episodes when it used to come on PBS, so had a decent amount of episodes to watch.  And we have some great episodes on tape.  We had every Doctor on tape except (this was before the New Series mind you) the First and Second Doctors.

The reason why I like Doctor Who so much is because of the Doctor himself.  The Doctor is my nearly perfect idea of a hero.  He is ultra smart and solves most problems using that intelligence instead of brute force.  There are times when he uses brute force, but those are usually last resorts.  He also uses his force of personality to solve problems and get people on his side.  If the Doctor doesn't know the answer to the problem, he'll figure it out.  The Doctor also is a force for good and has a strong moral sense.  He hates to see injustice and will almost always fight it.  But I also enjoy it when the Doctor acts like a cosmic chess player, moving pieces around the board to fight evil.  This comes up more in the Seventh Doctor novels, but it is really interested to read about.

I also like Doctor Who because it involves time travel which has always been one of my favorite sci-fi concepts.  The TARDIS is such a cool idea for an alien spacecraft.  I don't think I would have ever though of a ship that could travel through time and space and was also bigger on the inside than it was on the outside.  Only in the 1960's could someone have come up with that idea (well, not really, but it's fun to think that).

Well, that's it for now.  I might turn this into a series when new things come to my mind.  Good day!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reading Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen

My past with Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen has not been a successful one.  I have attempted to read the book a few times since I purchased the book from a Borders in Georgia so many years ago.  I'm not really sure the furthest I've read into the book, but I assume that it wasn't terribly far.  The last time I tried to read it was a couple of years ago.  Well,  I'm attempting to read it  again.  I'm more focused on reading philosophy than I have probably ever been.  I am going to try to accomplish this task in addition to my normal activities.  I want to read at least some of it each morning I don't have to read anything for class.

I will also attempt to write a post on here after I finish with each chapter about the contents of that chapter and what I thought about it.  The book is fairly well written, but it can get a little dry at times.  The ideas seem pretty sound, but I'll have to think about them more and probably reread a couple of pages if I don't understand exactly what he's saying the first time.  This book is about one of my favorite issues in philosophy, so I really want to read it all the way through.

Book: Being Good by Simon Blackburn

I know some of you have heard me talk about Being Good: A Introduction to Ethics by British philosopher Simon Blackburn before, but that's because it is a really introduction to ethics.  Being Good is a short (with the main part of the book being 135 pages) but comprehensive book about ethics and morality.  It covers many of the major topics in ethics in a very clear and informative way.  If I were going to teach an Introduction to Ethics class, I might consider using this book.

Being Good is separated into three parts.  The first part is "Seven Threats to Ethics" where Blackburn discussion at seven ideas that "destabilize us when we think about standards of choice and conduct" (p. 9).  This included in this part are ideas such as morality without god, relativism, determinism, and evolutionary theory.  These seven threats are clearly and fairly discussed for the most part.  The main issue I have with this is that Blackburn misrepresents Richard Dawkins' position in The Selfish Gene.  But it doesn't detract that much from the part as a whole.

The second part is called "Some Ethical Ideas." In this part, Blackburn discusses some ideas that are very important to ethics such as birth, death, desire, utilitarianism, and so on.  Blackburn discusses these ideas and brings up different arguments and objections to these arguments.  Blackburn addresses these ideas well.

Being Good's third part is called "Foundations."  Blackburn tackles various foundations for ethics such as the Categorical Imperative and their relationship to reason.  Once again, this section is handled well and Blackburn closes up the book on a positive note.

Sorry I didn't cover the last two sections in as much detail as I did the first one.  I read the book over the course of about four months, so my memory of  the entire book isn't as clear as I would like.  I do know that this is a book that I would recommend to everyone regardless of whether they are interested in philosophy or not.  I think books such as this are important and very accessible to people not involved in academics.  Books like this also challenge our ideas about morality and ethics which I think is very important.  Personally, I would require every high school student to read this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book: Against All Gods by A.C. Grayling

One of the things I'll be doing on this blog from time to time is writing about some of the books I read.  I recently  checked out a copy of Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness by the British Philosopher A.C. Grayling.  I've become very interested in A.C. Grayling recently after hearing him on some podcasts and hearing about his new book (which I want) called The Humanist Bible.

Against All Gods is a really fast read.  It's only 64 pages.  I read it in about two or three hours the other night while a big storm was terrorizing the area.  It's very well written and pretty easy to read.  But it is not for religious people who get offended very easily.  Grayling pulls no punches in this book.  As the subtitles suggest, there are seven essays altogether, and six of them are very critical of religion in general.  And that's putting it lightly.

Grayling tackles issues such as the respectability of religion, "fundamental atheism," definitions of terms, and humanism.  I think he does a fine job addressing all of these issues.  I don't know if I necessarily agree with all his arguments, but I think he presents them fairly well.  I do want to note that this book isn't meant to be an in-depth critique of religion.  He explicitly mentions in the introduction he has other books where he has done that.  This book is meant to be "brief and blunt."  And it accomplishes that task quite nicely.  I don't think this book will convince anyone who isn't already inclined to disbelief or skepticism, but I think it contains some nice decent arguments however brief.

One of my favorite things about this book is that talks about faith in basically the same way I have been thinking about it recently.  He talks about why, for Christians,
a deity impregnating a mortal woman who then gives birth to a heroic figure whose deeds earn him a place in heaven, is false when applied to Zeus and his many paramours,... but true as applied to God, Mary, and Jesus. (pp. 43-44)
He goes on to talk about how this kind of story has been around longer than the Greeks.  So why should we accept the account of the New Testament as true instead of the other mythologies?  His answer is:
Do not expect a rational reply; an appeal to faith will be enough, because with faith anything goes.
And this is exactly how I've been thinking about faith lately (which I will probably make a post about in the near future).  You can justify any idea with faith simply because it is immune to reason.  He thinks that this is a terrible way of thinking, and I'm inclined to agree.

One thing he mentions that I'm not sure that I entirely agree with (though for not explicitly rational reasons) is that atheists should stop calling themselves "atheists" and start calling themselves "naturalists."  He wishes this to happen because he thinks using the term "atheist" means that you meeting the theist on his terms.  He thinks that by using the term "atheist" you are giving the theist's belief in God a privileged position that hasn't been earned.  He gives the example that we don't call people who don't believe in fairies "a-fairyists," so why should we call people who don't believe in God atheists.  He presents the case much better in the book, and I think he has a point.  But I have a certain aesthetic affinity for the word atheist.  I actually like the way the word looks and have been using it for so long that I'd rather not switch.

Grayling ends the book with a wonderful and positive essay on Humanism and how to find a rich ethical outlook based on being human.  It's about being good not because there is a God waiting to punish you for your crimes but because they are humans and we should wish them well.  And I wish you well in your endeavors.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It Doesn't Matter What You Think, It Matters What She Says or Doesn't Say

About a month ago I attended the Take Back the Night march with one of my friends who has been three other times.  And even though we didn’t march because of inclement weather, we did go inside to hear some of the stories of some of the women there.  First, I have to say how strong I thought all of these women were for telling their personal stories of abuse and rape in front of a lot of people.  While it was incredibly heartbreaking to hear these stories, I’m glad that I heard them.  I needed to hear them.  I don’t think you really realize the extent of the problem until you hear about it first hand.  I wish there would have been more guys in attendance because men need to hear these stories as much as woman do.It was a very interesting and powerful experience that I will never forget.  I'm really glad that I ended up going.

I’m also glad that I went because it gave me another wake-up call about how our society treats rape.  Our society tends to make all kinds of excuses for the rapist and doesn’t often give the woman the benefit of the doubt.  We will say things like “Did you see what she was wearing?  She was asking for it” instead of “Why couldn’t that guy resist the temptation?  Does he go around humping advertisements?”  This kind of thing needs to stop.  I don’t care what she was wearing, how much she was flirting with you, or how much you thought she wanted it.  I don’t care what your religion or culture says about what women are supposed to wear or how they are supposed to act.  If she doesn’t explicitly tell that it’s okay for you to have sex with her, then IT’S NOT OKAY TO HAVE SEX WITH HER!!!!!  No means no.  Do I need to repeat myself?  How freakin’ hard is it to ask if she wants it?  I know, it’s not because I do every single time.  If you thought she wanted it even though she said no or didn't have the ability to say anything, then you are a rapist and scum.  When you rape someone, you don’t just assault them physically, you assault them emotionally.  You have just made their life one hundred times more difficult than it was before.  And for what?  An orgasm?  Go watch Jenna Jameson if you want one of those.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Parents and the "Rapture"

I learned about this whole rapture thing a few weeks ago from an article on NPR.  And the thing that immediately jumped out at me was that I felt extreme sorry for the children of some of the parents who wholeheartedly believe that the rapture is coming on May 21, 2011.  When I read things like:

Now they are in Orlando, in a rented house, passing out tracts and reading the Bible. Their daughter is 2 years old, and their second child is due in June. Joel says they're spending the last of their savings. They don't see a need for one more dollar.

"You know, you think about retirement and stuff like that," he says. "What's the point of having some money just sitting there?"

"We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won't have anything left," Adrienne adds.
It makes me very angry.  I don't really care if these two people mess up their lives because of some irrational belief, but it makes me angry that they would let their unreasonable certainty potentially make life even more difficult for their child.  They have a moral obligation to care for their child in the best way possible, and what they are doing does not constitute that.  What happens after May 21 comes and goes, and they are still here like everyone else?  They will have just wasted their money and a better life for their daughter because of something they never had any good reason to believe.  It's irresponsible and inexcusable.

Another example of this kind of behavior was brought to my attention in a New York Times article about the rapture.  Parents in this story have quit their jobs and started telling at least some of their children that they are going to hell.
“My mom has told me directly that I’m not going to get into heaven,” Grace Haddad, 16, said. “At first it was really upsetting, but it’s what she honestly believes.”
To have this kind of attitude towards their children is absolutely sickening.  Especially when the children didn't do anything to deserve it.  I cannot understand how anyone could possibly think this way.  But wait, it gets even better.
While Ms. Haddad Carson has quit her job, her husband still works as an engineer for the federal Energy Department. But the children worry that there may not be enough money for college.
So these kids don't just have to worry about their mom saying pretty terrible things to them for no good reason, but they also have to worry about not having enough money for college because their mother was irrational and irresponsible.  I'm not even a parent, and I know that there is something wrong with this situation.  You can't just abandon your responsibilities as a parent because you believe that the world is ending.  The situation is so bad that it's affecting the children.  One of them said:
“I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore,” he said, “because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”
If one of your children is saying something like this, then you are doing something wrong as a parent.  Shame on you Abby Haddad Carson.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Best Video Games: Top 5 of All Time

Final Fantasy Tactics is the best game of all time in my opinion. The game has an incredibly epic storyline that spans across a couple of years. The storyline is very politics and involves an incredible amount of double-dealing and backstabbing which appeals to my need for an interesting and complex storyline.. But the thing that makes really makes the game for me is the Job system which allows for a ridiculous amount of customization and makes the game incredibly replayable. I have never played through a game as many times as I have Final Fantasy Tactics, and every time I enjoy it as much as I did the first time. There is no better game available.

The battle for number two on this list was intense, but Super Metroid won out. Super Metroid is as close to perfect as a video game can get. It had great graphics, music, and sound for its time. It has superb gameplay and is challenging without being overly hard. Super Metroid won number two on the list because I always end up revisiting this game every few years and remember how awesome it is. The music in this game also made an incredible impression on me.

As a kid, I grew up liking both D&D and Doctor Who, and when I heard about a game that included both time travel and magic, I was sold. Chrono Trigger is a classic SNES game. It has a great and interesting story that includes a great and memorable set of characters. The gameplay, graphics, and music are all fantastic. And the fact that it has multiple endings and the New Game Plus option only enhances its status with giving much more replayability than other RPGs.

This was the first Final Fantasy game I ever played, and, to me, it's the best there ever has been (inside the numbered franchise). It has a great story with a fantastic set of characters. The story is my favorite part of this game by far. It's a story of redemption, love, and forgiveness. I'm still touched to this day when Cecil becomes a Paladin. The graphics are also good for its time and the soundtrack has some really memorable songs. The gameplay of this game is simple yet effective. Every Final Fantasy fan should play this game.

There is no question in my mind that Super Mario Brothers 3 is the best Mario game of all time. There are so many great things about this game that they are almost impossible to list. Mario 3 is the first Mario game to use the world map which became a standard for platformers for years. The worlds and levels were fun and challenging. There were enough secrets to always keep you busy searching for them. And this game just didn't add the ability to fly but also added the frog suit, the Tanooki suit, and the Hammer Brothers suit. I remember how excited I was when I finally got to play this game, and it definitely lived up to the hype.

It's Okay To Be Takei

It's always great when people are faced with bigotry and stupidity when they can make a totally joke out of it.  A Tennessee Senate Committee, in all its infinite wisdom, has passed a bill that would restrict teachers from "provid[ing] any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality."  Now I doubt there were really many, if any, teachers who were discussing sexual orientation at all with any of their students, but even if they were, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be able to.  Homosexuality is something that is part of reality whether anyone likes it or not.  And if it's part of reality, I don't see any good reason why it shouldn't come up in school.  Teachers don't have to make any value judgments about it to merely talk about its existence.  I think it would be a good thing to inform students that there are other kinds of sexualities in the world we live in.  But learning about something like homosexuality is too much for Tennessee legislators, and they had to stop it from happening.  Good job.

Now here's where the humor comes in.  Enter stage right George Takei.

I think this is the perfect way to deal with the stupidity like the "Don't Say Gay" bill.  Humor and ridicule can go a long way towards making people realize how ridiculous their position is.  There is no guarantee that this will actually change their minds or their course of action, but I think it's a great way to handle it.  Kudos to George Takei!  It's okay to be Takei!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Open Minds and Closed Minds

I have frequently noticed whenever someone criticizes religion or religious beliefs, they are considered closed minded. It seems that the only way to be open-minded in this day and age towards religion is to offer no criticism towards it at all. But what does it mean to be open minded and close minded? I think to be open minded it means that a person is going to listen to the argument presented, evaluate it based on the logic, reasoning, and evidence presented, and then respond accordingly. Closed-mindedness however means to either not listen to an argument, not evaluate it based on the criteria mentioned above, or base an entire argument on prejudice or bias. Therefore, it is not closed minded to reject an argument if the logic, reasoning, and/or evidence are not sound. For instance, it is not closed minded to reject the argument of a bigot about how some group of people are inherently worse than other groups of people.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Do You Have Any Metaphysical Baggage?

Most, if not all, religions carry around some form of metaphysical baggage. Metaphysical baggage is a “technical term” I use for all the supernatural, paranormal, and/or spiritual stuff that the various religions posit. Metaphysical baggage includes such things as souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, gods, karma, heaven, hell, and so on. However metaphysical baggage isn't solely the property of religion. Various philosophies, disciplines, and cultures have their own metaphysical baggage. I just don't think all of this stuff is necessary for anyone to believe. All of this stuff is usually offered as unprovable explanations for things that we do not understand or did not previously understand.. I haven't really heard a good argument for the existence of any of this baggage. And since I haven't heard an argument for the existence of any of the baggage, I'll just keep using my carry-on bag.

Two Names, One Person

Depending on who you ask, I'm either Laurence or Buster. Most of the people in Ohio that aren't family know me as Laurence. Most of my friends from Georgia know me as Buster. It's one of those things that happen when you are named after your dad and given a nickname when you are young. I made the decision to go by Laurence in both iterations of my college career to make things easier and not have to explain why I went by a different name. But in either case, I'm the same person.

In this blog I will cover topics ranging from philosophy, skepticism, politics, and whatever else comes to mind. I'm not going to apologize for my views and opinions. Whenever I attack an idea, do not mistake it for attacking people holding that idea. If you feel like you have been attacked by what I have said, then present me with a rational argument of how I have offended you and I might change my mind. I am perfectly open to changing my opinion on almost every issue, but my mind is not so open that my brain will fall out.