Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Spinoza, gimme a break

I had set aside this summer to read Spinoza’s Ethics. I have seen it referred to in many places. It is usually held up in high esteem. Will Durant, a historian, recommends reading it through once, studying it with a study guide, then reading it again slowly. It is no easy summer read. In mid-summer it gets so buggy, I usually spend a week or two sitting by the air conditioner, reading, so it seemed like a good fit.

Spinoza dared to say some things that no one else would at the time. He did it with precision, using a system of reference in his work so he could make a statement and say it was supported by Chapter X para 4. It made it difficult to argue with his conclusions. Somewhat difficult to read also, but anyway. For his effort, he was ostracized. He was Jewish, and I don’t remember what they call it, but he was “kicked out”.

He is often referred to as an early atheist. He was accused of it by Christians and officially of writing things about God that didn’t fit the official doctrine by Jews. I expected to start reading it and find some primitive psychology, a little existentialism and maybe he would skirt the god issue, saying just enough in the hopes he could later argue that he was still a believer and avoid the ostracism.


He spends the first three chapters basically doing classic arguments FOR God. Everything must have a cause. Our sense of morality must have a basis. Our ability to reflect on the universe must have been instilled into us from some cosmic source. He considers some arguments to those but frequently dismisses them as “absurd”.

Spinoza is pre-Darwin, pre-Faraday, pre-Big Bang Theory, but he was a contemporary of Galileo. He was post-Protestantism. He offers little to today’s discussion of what ethics are and what god is. But I can forgive him for not adding to the 21st century conversation. I can’t be so light on his modern day evangelists.

Most of his admirers will call him a pantheist; a believer in “god is everything”. I think you can glean that from Spinoza, but he doesn’t come out and say it. He doesn’t even disguise it in a way to attempt to avoid excommunication. He says God exists and speaks of knowing God by observing the laws of nature. He defended himself to the Jews, saying he did believe in God. Many writers ignore these facts. This kind of selective exposition is no better than cherry picking the Bible and claiming God is always merciful.

Why Jews and Christians had a problem with him, I can’t tell. I’m sure I could look into it, find the specific things that Spinoza said that went against doctrine. There are probably things about how miracles happen, or something that indirectly diminishes God’s all knowing and all powerful nature. Should I care? No more than I should care if someone who broke a traffic law in Virginia in 1776 was dealt with justly and morally. There were dirt roads and horses back then. I would have to do an awful lot of research to understand the situation.

There is something to be learned from Spinoza. At the moment, my free time is extremely limited so I probably won’t be discovering that. Primarily, we can learn that as recently as the 17th century, if you even hinted that God might not be what the Bible says, you could forget about marriage, a job, or any kind of community support. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Dutch. About that same time, some other Dutch folks were setting up shop in little town that we now call New York. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Philosophy of Atheism

Kinda busy for anything this week, but I stumbled upon this essay from 1916. (They didn't have blogs back then, so that's what they had to call them).

Emma Goldman 1916

Yep, I got nothing new. Emma was doing this when my Grandmother was a child. Prometheus, epistemology, she's got it all. And she writes better than me too. Well worth your time.

A few bites:
God, today, no longer represents the same forces as in the beginning of His existence; neither does He direct human destiny with the same Iron hand as of yore. Rather does the God idea express a sort of spiritualistic stimalus to satisfy the fads and fancies of every shade of human weak- ness. In the course of human development the God idea has been forced to adapt itself to every phase of human affairs, which is perfectly consistent with the origin of the idea itself.
Thus the God idea, revived, readjusted, and enlarged or narrowed, according to the necessity of the time, has domi- nated humanity and will continue to do so until man will raise his head to the sunlit day, unafraid and with an awakened will to himself. In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God.
Have not all theists painted their Deity as the god of love and goodness? Yet after thousands of years of such preach- ments the gods remain deaf to the agony of the human race. Confucius cares not for the poverty, squalor and misery of people of China. Buddha remains undisturbed in his philosophical indifference to the famine and starvation of outraged Hindoos; Jahve continues deaf to the bitter cry of Israel; while Jesus refuses to rise from the dead against his Christians who are butchering each other
 The philosophy of Atheism expresses the expansion and growth of the human mind. The philosophy of theism, if we can call it philosophy, is static and fixed. Even the mere attempt to pierce these mysteries represents, from the the- istic point of view, non-belief in the all-embracing omnipo- tence, and even a denial of the wisdom of the divine powers outside of man. Fortunately, however, the human mind never was, and never can be, bound by fixities. Hence it is forging ahead in its restless march towards knowledge and life.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Truth is that which is true

Truth is that which can be objectively verified. It can be objectively verified that the previous statement is true. Nothing can be said to be true with 100% certainty, so the circular nature of that argument is true for any other system of finding truth. The questions are, which system is better and how do you determine which is better.

To determine that objective verification is valid, you use it and have others check how you used it and compare your results. For example, people have recorded the Sun coming up in the morning for thousands of years. Many reasons for it have been proposed. Currently the best explanation involves the motion of our planet. Even without the explanation, the odds that the Sun will not rise tomorrow where it is expected to rise are so low that there is no reason to doubt it as fact. Although I can’t be absolutely certain, I consider that “truth”.

Many other experiments have been done and much data has been collected for similar phenomena throughout the universe. That these experiments have proved to be consistent in their results proves that we can rely on the premise that physical laws are consistent throughout the universe. Many questions remain. Every day earlier experiments are corrected and new results are obtained. That shows that we are learning, not that the system of learning is wrong.

Perhaps, tomorrow, the Sun will not rise. If that happens, we will need to use our system of reasoning and objective verification to determine where we went wrong. Most likely, something in our local solar system will have changed. Maybe a giant asteroid flew so close that it halted the rotation of the Earth for a few hours. But, if we abandon that system, submit to wild speculation, and jump to a conclusion that demons are taking over or God is bringing on an apocalypse, only harm will come of it.

I hope I made it clear that this system does not lead to 100% certainty. It does not lead to a fountain of knowledge. It only gives us a way to obtain knowledge, one little bit at a time. I have avoided any religious language so far, but here is why I bring this up:
On YouTube and maybe in your local area, there are people going around claiming to be able to prove the existence of God with 3 or 5 or 6 questions. The first one will be something like, “Is it possible that you are wrong about some things?” or “Do you know everything?” The next couple ones vary, then they get to how God is the source of all knowledge and if you accept his love, you will know it and be able to verify it through his word. Basically they are taking my two opening statements and changing it to “Truth is God. Truth is verified by God.”

As I said in the beginning, nothing can be known with 100% certainty. People who follow the above line of reasoning are taking that fact and misconstruing it to mean God exists. It is something along lines of the ancient idea that we don’t know everything, but somewhere, somebody must know everything, therefore there is an entity somewhere that does know everything, therefore God. This was seriously discussed by intellectuals in the 15th century, but should be dismissed as backward thinking today.
So the answer to that first question is, “No I don’t know everything, no one can know everything, everyone is wrong about something some of the time. Your question is mal-formed. The question is, how do we learn? How do we best discover truth?”
Those who propose these arguments can’t explain the mechanism for how God’s knowledge gets to you. It is not in scripture, although they might say it is or read something cryptic and explain to you that it does. There are claims and assertions, but no instructions. It will come down to, “you just have to read the Bible and pray”. If that doesn’t work, you are reading and praying wrong. They can’t demonstrate anything about how this works, although they might tell you about miracles they have witnessed. Just google them, if you have that kind of time to waste.
If you want to spend your time more productively, google the scientific method. The history of it is quite fascinating. High School did not teach it very well, if you went to the average American High School. Terms like “hypothesis”, “theory”, “empirical evidence” and others are not well known to the average American. They should be. As E.O. Wilson recently said, “We live in a Star Wars world where people think like the Middle Ages. That’s dangerous.”
Thanks to Aron Ra and JT Eberhard for help with this one.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Disaster Blog

As my profile notes, I live in Northern Minnesota. Also, I live on a river. One of the ones that flooded higher than the previous record set in 1950. I have spent my life on the volunteer or donator side of such events and hoped that I would never have to experience how it felt to be on the receiving end.

I have not been disappointed by the generosity of people. I’m still too busy to stop and be overwhelmed, but it is what I would have hoped to have seen from my fellow human beings. It is after all one of the things that defines us as human. Other animals in need of help will attack a person who is trying to help them. We have to shoot bears with big darts and sedate them before we can rescue them. Human beings work together with perfect strangers and don’t think it is strange at all.

It is the rest of the world that continues to look stranger as each day brings a new challenge. When I log in to check my emails and let friends know how things are, I see the news about politicians arguing over a 1 or 2 percent change in the budget, or the latest squabble between celebrities that I’ve never heard of. That always seemed strange to me but looks all that much weirder now.

I live where others come to play.  As I take my car load of mud soaked laundry in to wash, I see people biking or boating by. On the one hand it seems crass, like they don’t care. On the other hand, we need that to continue like normal. It will keep our local economy vibrant.

I understand that not everybody can drop what they are doing and come help me. I’m not suggesting that is what is needed. We all have jobs and mundane daily tasks to tend to or important life events to experience.

There are those who might ask,” but what can I do”. Or say, “I feel so helpless just watching it”. That’s fine. We’re fine. But if you aren’t already, do something. If you have time, but can’t make it here, go help somebody else. Do whatever you can do. It doesn’t have to hurt. If 49% of the people helped the 50% of the people who are worse off than them, the 1% would be standing there with their jaws flapping around. We would be having a very different conversation.