Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A little bit more about sex and advertising

After mulling over the thoughts in my previous blog for a few days, there are a couple more things I'd like to say on the subject.  First, on the subject of non-persons and dehumanizing:

I don't like the word "dehumanize."  It gets tossed around very easily, and I think that is undeserved.  Humans are very complex creatures, capable of very generous and kind acts as well as very cruel and despicable acts.  Mass murderers are being just as "human" as human rights activists.  They're just being particularly cruel humans.

Here's an important distinction to make.  In some situations, individuals can have their "humanity" taken away.  Examples of this would be sensory deprivation or extreme isolation.  Humans are social creatures who rely on our senses and human contact for our sanity.  When a human is deprived of these things, they are (in my use of the word) being dehumanized.  What's important to bear in mind is that the people doing these things are being very human.

Point two:  treating people as less than intimate friends is not dehumanizing them.  Humans are designed to have a hierarchy of intimacy, from that of a complete stranger from another culture to that of an intimate long time lover and friend.  We recognize that other people are humans, but we don't accord them the same level of intimacy we would someone more familiar.

Point three:  Sex is not magic.  Particularly in America, we tend to think of sex as something either above or below other kinds of human interaction.  For many fundamentalist Christians, it's something that humans basically have to do, but it's not something we talk about, and certainly not something we try to enjoy too much or give into more than occasionally.  For many others, it's something sublime and wonderful that's above the mundane, and is proprely reserved for only the most special people to experience, and only the most intimate to discuss.

I maintain that it is neither of these things.  While sex can certainly feel magical, the reality is that most people will have far more "normal sex" in their lives than they will the intensely romantic, erotic, and adrenaline fed sex they did when they found their first "true love" and had that perfect night.

In reality, many people never have that night.  Sex is not magic.  It's two people and nerve endings and heart rates.   There is no inherently correct way to view intercourse, either.  It is not true that sex within marriage is always better than casual sex, nor is it true that all married couples become bored with each other and have only infrequent mundane sex.  It's not true that monogamy is the best way for people to have sex, nor is it true that open relationships will save all marriages.  The fact is, sex is a highly subjective experience, and our perceptions of it are directly caused by our environment acting upon our genes.

This, I think is the crux of why I get aggravated by people who assert that sexual advertising, or porn, or see-thru tops, or swingers, or confirmed bachelors, or any other "unusual" variation on human sexuality, is degrading, humiliating, or dehumanizing.  What we need to remember is that the only thing we can rightly say about a particular aspect of sex is that it feels degrading to us personally.  The truth is, we cannot say that it is universally degrading, nor can we say that because most people find it degrading that anyone who doesn't find it so has something wrong with them.

Finally, I want to make clear that I recognize the difference between morality and taste.  I, for one, get kind of tired of seeing Girls Gone Wild commercials during every commercial break after midnight.  I find the videos to be overload, to be honest.  I like young attractive females with breasts as much as the next guy, but after the first hundred and fifty, they start losing their appeal to me.  It's not my thing.  However, I will defend to the end the right of women to show their breasts to anyone who wants to see, and I will defend the right of men to masturbate to videos of them doing so.

To those who will say, "Yeah, but you have to draw the line somewhere," I submit that the line draws itself in two ways.  First, there's the law.  Girls under the age of 18 are not permitted to be in sexually explicit media.  I support the law even though I quibble with the implementation of it from time to time.  (I'm thinking of a case where several teenagers were charged as sex offenders when one of their friends, also a teenager, sent a topless photo of herself to several cellphones.  That's ludicrous.  These were clearly not sexual predators.  But I digress.)

More importantly, the line draws itself by virtue of the fact that there are different tastes.  If I choose to, I can get in my car and drive to a neighborhood where everyone is rich and white.  I can drive to another area of town and have my choice of eighty or so bars.  I can go to the mall and see nothing but photos of beautiful people wearing expensive clothes and jewelry.  I can go to the seedy part of town and have my choice of adult toy stores.

The world has never disintigrated into a giant orgy despite the fact that everyone thinks about, and most people like, sex.  There is a natural limit to what people want to see, and this is reflected in our society.  It isn't that the laws prevent us from turning the world into a giant billboard for "Pussies R Us."  It's that even the most sex crazed people have other things to do and other interests.

Sure, there will always be debates over particularly risque ads, and someone will always push the envelope when it comes to advertising their product.  The important thing to remember is that human nature is not infinite.  We won't turn the whole world into a brothel.  We've got other shit to do.  Most of the fuss and worry is unfounded because sex isn't magic, it's not dehumanizing, and it's not all there is to being human.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sex and Advertising

I've been reminded again recently that sexual advertising offends a lot of people.  To be honest, I've always been a little bit puzzled by this.  I'm still working on a genuine book chapter dealing with Evolutionary Psychology's possible explanations for this, but for the moment, I'm just going to bounce a few thoughts off of the blogosphere.

I hear two objections more than any other:

1) Sexual advertising objectifies people (especially women) and "dehumanizes" them.
2) Sexual advertising imposes a false sense of beauty on us, and pressures less than perfect women (and men!) to obsess too much about their looks.

First, what does it mean to "objectify" somebody?  Webster says it means either "to treat as an object" or "cause to have objective reality."  Alternatively, it can mean "to give expression to (as an abstract notion, feeling, or ideal) in a form that can be experienced by others < class="Apple-style-span" style="font-style: italic; ">objectify differing facets of the child's emotional experience -- John Updike>"  Clearly, we must be talking about the first definition, so let's work with that.  What does it mean to treat someone as an object?

What is an object?  Webster has a lot to say about that question.  It can be something material, perceivable by the senses.  Clearly, all people are objects in this sense, so that's probably not what we're talking about.  It can be something mental or physical toward which thought, feeling, or action is directed, as in "the object of my affection."  At first glance, maybe this isn't what people are objecting to, either.  Most people like being the object of affection and admiration.

Even so, are the models on billboards objects in this sense?  I think they certainly are.  When I see a male underwear model with six-pack abs, I sometimes think to myself that I am far short of that goal.  Sometimes it causes me a sense of envy.  Gosh, I think.  If I had abs like that, women would line up to have sex with me.  In reality, it's not clear whether my sex life would be more fulfilling if I had six-pack abs, but I certainly do entertain the thought from time to time.  So in a sense, I'm making that person's body the object of my envy.

Is that bad?  Is that what women are objecting to?  Perhaps it is, in the sense of the second complaint I listed.  I'll return to this idea later.  In the meantime, we need to hash out what it means to objectify someone in a bad way.  In browsing through several dictionary sites on the web, I've had a hard time finding a definition that fits this use, so let's just play around with making our own.  The sense I get when someone says an ad objectifies women (or men, or whatever group is being portrayed) is that some generalization or stereotype is being emphasized to the exclusion of other traits.  That is, a Victoria's Secret model is nothing more than sexuality.  In the pages of the catalog, there are no minds.  There is no camaraderie.  There is no love, no self-respect, and there certainly aren't any shared goals in the context of a loving monogamous marriage.

I think this gets closer to the meaning of "objectification" in advertising.  For the time being, it's what I'm going to use.  Now, let's ask the obvious question.  Is this kind of objectification bad?

If you've lived in the real world at all, you've probably known a man who objectified women.  That is, he treated them as nothing more than sex toys, and didn't invest any kind of energy into forming deep emotional bonds.  (In fairness, we've probably all known women like that, too, but we'll go with men for the time being.)  These kind of men don't often make good husbands, so we can say that if all men treated women that way, it would be very bad for monogamous marriage.

The thing is, all men don't treat women that way.  Most men are looking for a monogamous lover who also happens to be a great friend.  Sure, they'll take casual sex along the way while they're searching, but the ultimate goal of most men is long term meaningful relationships.  Considering the huge number of sexual ads, it's safe to say ads don't turn all men into objectifiers.  But do they turn some men?  Perhaps, but even if they do, we have to ask the question, do these men objectify because the ads are bad, or do they objectify because they were socialized poorly and don't have healthy views of women?  It's a chicken and egg problem that probably doesn't have a clear cut answer.

Instead of trying to find a clear answer, let's approach it from the other angle.  Do most men look at sexual advertising and still manage to have healthy relationships?  Yes.  They do.  Perhaps we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by blaming the existence of sexually selfish men on billboard ads.  In fact, psychologists have made a very compelling argument that images are not the main cause of emotional dysfunction in men or women.  One of the best indicators of relationship health in any person is the relationship health of their parents (or whoever raised them).  Religion also plays a much larger role in shaping sexual identity.  In America, people who think sex before marriage is inherently harmful are almost all religious, and those who aren't have almost all come from religious backgrounds and given up the organization.

In fact, there's a lot of new and compelling evidence that sexually vivid advertising, erotica, and even downright smutty porn are a significant part of a lot of healthy relationships.  It appears that emotionally healthy people are not only not "dehumanized" by sexual advertising, they incorporate it into their own healthy lives!

Since I just used the word, "dehumanized," let's define it.  Webster says "to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit."

Hmmmm.... did you notice something there?  That's what most people mean by "objectify."  Ok, I admit I kind of snookered the reader a little bit here.  "Objectification" is not really the right word for protesting sexual advertising.  The real argument is that it deprives people of human qualities or personality -- that it reduces them in some way.  (I'm leaving out the spirit part because spirits don't exist.  Sue me.)

So, let's ask another pointed question.  Is depriving people of human qualities or personality always a bad thing?  Ask yourself that question next time you get annoyed with a waiter for getting too much into your business during lunch.  When you're asking yourself why he won't just refill your tea without talking, remember to consider whether we ought to treat every human as equally "human."

The fact is, we dehumanize people everyday.  It's part of the lexicon of modern psychology.  Servers, taxi drivers, gas station attendants, people standing next to us on the train, and any number of other people are less than "whole people" to us.  Road rage is another great example.  We simply don't think of other people as entirely human when we're insulated by our automobiles.

If we're honest, we have to admit that humans absolutely do dehumanize other people.  In fact, it's necessary.  If we had to take the time to develop deep relationships with everyone we encountered in our lives, we'd never get anything else done.  Relationships take a long time.

So, we've taken a long route to get here, but we have to admit that dehumanizing in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.  We can't say sexual advertising is bad because it dehumanizes the models.  Just to hammer the point home, realize that if you passed a supermodel on the street, you wouldn't think of her as any more human than if she was on a billboard.  She's just another face in the crowd, just like 99% of the people you'll ever meet.

I'll be mercifully brief on the second objection.  Does sexual advertising impose a false sense of beauty on us?  In a word, yes and no.  Mostly no.

Scientists have known for quite a while that humans' perception of beauty is not arbitrary.  That is, we don't just like what society tells us to like.  Across all cultures, scientists can pick out the people that will be judged most attractive by a random sampling of judges.  They can do it by measuring symmetry and comparing facial features to a "cultural average."  People whose noses are average sized and very symmetrical will be judged as more attractive than people whose noses are very small or very large, but very symmetrical.

Culture certainly does shape our perceptions of beauty, but only within the bounds that already exist.  To put it bluntly, there has never been a time when grossly obese people with large warts on their noses have been considered highly attractive.  Yes, Titian painted "healthy" women by today's standards -- and that's about where the outer boundary lies.  With the very occasional exception, virtually every society values physically fit bodies and symmetrical features, though they have quite a bit of leeway.  In America, we've gone from Twiggy to Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss to Britney Spears in just a few decades.

Does sexual advertising cause people to obsess about their looks?  Sure, some people.  Again, though, we have to ask a pointed question.  Do the people who obsess about their looks do so because of advertising or does the advertising bring out an existing insecurity?  In the same way that males become sexual "users" because of their family and peers, females become obsessively looks conscious because of their family and peers.  To hammer this point home, we should realize that we have female jewelry going back to the beginnings of human tool use.  Before TV, there were looks-obsessed women and women who just went with the flow.

Is it possible that the information age has exacerbated the situation for certain women?  Sure.  Does that mean the advertising is bad, or does it mean that some women have been raised with an overly looks-conscious mental outlook?  I can't answer this definitively, but a quick scan through history tells me that men have always gone after the prettiest women, and women have always wanted to be the prettiest.  

Finally, I'd like to return to the spirit of the original question.  Is sexual advertising in and of itself a bad thing?  I think no.  Humans are products of natural selection, which is inevitably going to produce lots of 5s, a couple of 10s, and a couple of 1s.  Almost everybody is average looking.  Just as in any other species, the standouts are going to... well... stand out.  We can't blame them for being better looking than us.  It's genetics.  Nothing else.  If we're honest, we have to admit that they're more sexually attractive to more people than we are, but does that mean we're dehumanized?  No.  It means we're realistic.

Humans are walking sexual advertisements.  If you're in a relationship, the odds are really, really high that you are (or at least were) attracted to your mate sexually.  If you hadn't been, you wouldn't be in a relationship.  You'd be friends and nothing more.  We dress up so that we're sexually appealing.  It's just what it is.

This brings me to my last (and hopefully most convincing) point.  As you've hopefully read and understood in my articles on human sexuality (links to follow) it is patently wrong to say that human nature is above sexuality.  Sexuality is literally what makes us who we are.  Were it not for sex, we wouldn't make art and music and poetry.  Sexuality isn't the basest part of our nature.  It is intrinsic to everything we are.

Freud was right even though he was horribly wrong.  Everything really does come back to sex, but he just had no idea how or why.  (If you're reading this and thinking, "No, it isnt!" I'll ask you to please read my other articles thoroughly and come back to this one.)   In other words, we are all walking sexual advertisements.  Even when we don't try to be sexual, people look at us sexually.  We're human.  That's what humans do.

So next time you look at a billboard with a scantily clad woman selling something that seems completely unrelated to sex, remember... sex is what makes the world go round, and we're all sexual advertisements.  The one on the billboard just got paid for it.  No biggie.  Really.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christians and Projection

Projection is the psychological defense mechanism of assigning one's own bad qualities to someone else, usually the opposition.  For instance, a hypothetical football player (cough... cough... T.O.) who is well known for selfishly wanting all of the spotlight for himself might suggest that his team is somehow conspiring to keep him from his just rewards by selfishly not throwing the ball to him enough.  By assigning the quality of selfishness to the quarterback, he absolves himself of his own selfishness.

Christians are particularly good at this.  I read an interesting post this afternoon, in which a Christian said that he thinks consumerism at Christmas is due to a secular materialist worldview.  I admit, I almost choked on my iced tea when I read that.  A short trip through Googleland produced 387,000 hits for "Christian Merchandise."   Curiously, "Secular Merchandise" spawned only 171 hits.

Ok, I know, that's not fair.  Nobody labels their stuff "secular merchandise" but the point is still quite valid.  Christianity is big business, and anybody who doubts it needs to have their head examined.  The point I want to make, however, is not that Christians are particularly evil in their consumerism.  As I mentioned in my blog about scary atheist morality, Christians operate on the same principles as everyone else.  They just think they're different.

We're all materialists.  We have to be.  We live in a material universe, and our only way of staying alive is to consume.  We must have clothes, shelter, and food.  We accumulate resources because we recognize our own fragile mortality.  We want to have enough tomorrow.

The fact of the matter is that the only thing separating one person from another is the degree of materialism.  Some people want "stuff" more than others.  This goes for Christians, atheists, Muslims, and Buddhists.  Some versions of Christianity preach a much more materialist worldview than others.  TV evangelists promise that if we just send in enough money, God will give us so much money that we'll never want for anything again.  Other churches preach the value of an almost ascetic life, eschewing the trappings of the material world.  It's the same with non-Christians.  Some people think the one who dies with the most toys wins.  Others think we have an obligation to preserve the earth for future generations.

The point is that the distinction between "secular materialism" and "Christian ethics" is a non-distinction.  It simply doesn't exist.  We're all people, and we all have our own values.  Once again, Christianity proves divisive for no good reason.  It's not us and them.  It's just us.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Selling Christmas and Christianity

Christmas time is here, and I thought it would be a good time to think about what Christians say that Jesus did for us.  First, let's talk about it the way they say it in church:

From  (The best hit I got on a google search for "God's Plan of Salvation."):

The Bible specifically says, without any other possible interpretation, that there is only one God, one faith, one baptism and one way to God the Father - and that is only through His Son Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross. Jesus says that He, and only He, is the way, the truth and the life leading to God the Father and that no one comes to the Father except through Him!

Many people, including some Christians, believe that God the Father honors all other religions as long as people try to live a good and godly life and try to stay out of trouble.

As you will see in the Scripture verses I will list below, this is not the way God the Father has everything set up. God will not honor any other religion, and He makes it very clear that it is only through His Son and His sacrificial death on the cross that will give people eternal salvation and thus eternal life with Him in heaven.

So Christmas is a time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, God who became man.  We celebrate the fact that he came to earth to die at the  hands of men so that all who would come after him would be free from the law and free from sin.  It all sounds pretty amazing when we hear it in chucrch.  I've been there.  I lived it for over twenty years of my life.

I'm trying to make this blog about what it is to be human, and not another rant about how much religion sucks.  To that end, I want to help explain a little bit of what's going on with the whole salvation-Christmas thing.  Take a couple of minutes and watch this video.  Seriously... it's very important for you to do this so that what I say afterwards will make sense.

Ok.  What I want to discuss is how there can be two completely different tellings of the same story, and though they both have the exact same content, they are perceived quite differently.  When you go to church to see a Christmas production, what do you see?
1. Pretty Lights.
2. Angels
3. Mangers
4. Adorable children with big doe eyes.
5. Cute little baby Jesus
6. The pure virgin Mary.
7. The loving supportive Joseph

What do you hear?  Beautiful music.  Some of the best music ever written was written for Christmas.

What is the message from the pulpit?  Love.  Lots of love.  So much love that God paid the ultimate sacrifice for us to save us from ourselves.  So much love, he was willing to be born in a common stable!  The Lord Of The Entire Universe lowered himself soooooooo much that he was willing to be born IN A STABLE!!!

For you.

Just you.

He loves you that much.  Personally.

Ok.  Enough of that.  You get the picture.  Now, think about the last time you decided to make a major purchase.  Suppose you were going to buy a car.  If you are like most people, you were greeted personally by a salesman who immediately wanted to learn your name and a little bit about you.  You were led to a glittery salesfloor where everyone was dressed sharply and all the cars shone of fresh polish and smelled of leather.  Someone immediately scurried off at butler's speed to fetch you any drink you wanted.  You were shown fancy brochures with snappy photos of "your new car" doing feats of incredible maneuverability, protecting children from harm, and safely delivering the whole happy family to visit the smiling grandparents.

We are all familiar with the manipulation that goes on with salesmen.  We expect it because we know it's their job to sell us their wares.  However, we don't trust them.  We only go there because we want a new car, right?

Well, that's not entirely true, is it?  How many commercials have you seen for new cars in the last week?  I have TiVo, and I fast forward through commercials, yet I'm sure I've seen at least a few dozen ads in one form or another, whether at a bar, or in print, or on billboards.  Car ads are everywhere!  They are all designed to show me exactly how wonderful my life is going to be when I get a new car.

Folks, this is brainwashing.  Pure.   Simple.  Brainwashing.  It's exactly the same phenomenon used by preachers, salesmen, and interrogators at Gitmo.  Whatever it is you're trying to sell, the important thing is to make the buyer do the selling!  Make the buyer believe he was the one with the idea.  He thought of it.  That way, the ulterior motive of the salesman doesn't matter.  The salesman is irrelevant.

That's why we buy cars, and that's why we buy religion.  So what if Ted Haggart fucks male prostitutes in his spare time.  We have an empty place in our life, and we want Jesus.  We feel it deep down inside.  Ted Haggart doesn't matter.  Neither does Jimmy Swaggart, Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson or anybody else.

Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.  Religion is dressed up for a pageant.  We have huge churches with amazing architecture.  We have choirs singing beautiful (by some tastes) music.  Everyone wears their "Sunday best."  The hymnals have fake gold gilding.

I want you to do one last thought experiment.  Think of one of those late night infomercials where people are trying to sell you real estate or male enhancement pills.  Forget the words for a moment and think of just the images you see.  Men in nice suits.  Charismatic, strong gestures.  Pictures of huge mansions, nice cars, attractive women... everything we want that we don't have in life.  And we can have it, too... for just $19.99.

Is it clear?

Just in case, try this on for size.  The world is an evil, nasty place.  You don't have everything you want.  You're afraid of dying.  Your family feels like it's a complete mess.  What if I told you that there's a super-awesome King of The Whole Universe whose biggest desire is to make you completely happy for the rest of eternity?  You get everything you want.  Just look at all these people in nice clothes who will be your friend for the rest of this earthly life.  When you get to heaven, there will be millions more!  Just look at this huge building.  We built it for you.

All you have to do is believe that the Super-Awesome King of the Whole Universe came to earth to die to save you from your sin.

Sounds really great, doesn't it?  Yeah... so does the new Super-Awesome-Turn-By-Turn-Super-Duper-Satellite navigation system in the Brand New Ford Excessive NINETY TWO THOUSAND!!

Yet somehow, without all the ads, the glitz, the glamour, how many of us would spend a year's salary on a new SUV when the car we have is fine, if a bit outdated?  Car companies, male enhancement companies, and religion need to advertise.  Not just a little.  They need to constantly show us how awesome they are, or we wouldn't buy them.

Now, go back to the simple stick figure movie and watch it again.  See if it rings more true now than it did before.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Morality and Fear

I'm afraid I've gotten off topic more than I'd like in the last few weeks.  This blog is primarily for discussing human nature, science, and what it means to be atheist.  Today, I'd like to briefly discuss one of the most volatile issues between theists and atheists, namely godless morality.

A fellow blogger recently voiced his discontent with Christopher Hitchens' standard response to the accusation that godless morality is a scary thing.  Hitchens reply is usually that he is appalled to think that anyone would be good just because they're afraid of a big supernatural hammer.  True morality, he asserts, comes from within oneself, not from without.

I have also felt a vague discomfort with this response for years.  The thing is, it's only partly true, and it's skirting around a bigger issue.  Theists are right to be afraid of godless morality.  Yep.  I said it.  Godless morality is a scary thing, and theists are right to fear it.  Atheists also ought to fear it.  It's scary.

Unfortunately, it's the hand we've been dealt, and making up stories to make it seem less scary doesn't accomplish anything -- nothing good, anyway.  Atheists debating morality with theists make a fundamental mistake out of the starting block.  They allow themselves to be caught using theist models and trying to make atheist morality fit.  When a theist speaks of the difference between theist and atheist morality, he is literally not saying anything, for there is no difference.  There is no god, so morality cannot derive from it.  All theists are functioning within the same moral paradigm as atheists.  They're just lying to themselves and others about it.

This is why I don't like invoking the Crusades.  All of the atrocities attributed to God are directly attributable to humans and human nature.  We do have an evil side.  It's really nasty.

The reality of human morality is that it is subjective.  It is not, however, arbitrary.  As I've previously mentioned, killing is not always wrong to humans.  Most people get turned on by Dirty Harry or James Bond or some other hero from that genre of movie.  There's a reason we spend millions of dollars to watch the good guy shoot all the bad guys.  We like killing bad guys.

Young men join the army in droves, and not because of the health insurance.  They want the chance to kill, or the chance to help someone else kill.  It's exciting and sexy.  They'll get laid more because they are in an organization formed with the express purpose of killing other humans.

We are animals, and animals kill.  It's a fact of life.  We also steal, rape, embezzle and defraud.  It is part of the human experience.  Everyone reading this blog has done something that they knew was wrong, and they knew it was wrong while they did it.  Nevertheless, they did it, and they would do it again if put in the same situation.

So yeah, theists are right to be afraid.  Humans are scary creatures.  The thing is, we're also good creatures, and we are instilled with empathy for others.  More importantly, we have amazing intellects which are capable of recognizing our own dark drives for what they are -- evolutionary adaptations.  We are not bound by our natures in the same way as dolphins who gang rape females.  We have the choice of looking at our own bad behavior and deciding not to do it anymore.  More importantly, we have the capability of building societies which encourage good behavior while making bad behavior less appealing.

There are human societies in which murder has been all but eliminated.  In a recent television program about a certain city in Japan, the commentator mentioned the collective shame felt by one city -- a city of millions of residents -- in which eight murders were committed in one year.  (I believe it was eight.  It was less than ten, at any rate.)  It didn't take god to do this.  It took human ingenuity and good planning.

The fact is, with knowledge, humans are capable of great engineering feats, and we should not exclude human society from the discussion.  Humans work just like anything else -- we follow natural laws.  We have set natures which give us the capacity for good and evil, and we do good or evil based upon our environment, not our inherent goodness or badness.  This simple fact can change the world if we only embrace it instead of fearing it.  Change the environment, change the behavior.

This is the true explanation of morality.  It's a little scarier than believing everything will be ok because God said it would, but let's be honest.  God's had his chance.  He failed.  It's time to see what humans can do on their own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Response to John Loftus Historical Jesus Blog

John W. Loftus has been receiving rave reviews for his acceptance of a historical Jesus, and this is a bit of a puzzle to me.  You can find his blog post on the matter HERE.

I'm going to quote John directly so that the reader will not have to continually refer back to his blog, but I encourage you to read his whole post before continuing on with my response.

I know fellow bloggers here at DC may disagree with me, perhaps even Biblical scholar Hector Avalos. But let me very briefly outline the case for the historical person of the man Jesus. Even though I think the Christian faith is delusional, I think a man named Jesus existed who inspired people in the first century who is best seen as an apocalyptic doomsday prophet.
There certainly are a lot of modern scholars, including Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Thomas L. Thompson, all with very good credentials, who put forth very good arguments against a historical Jesus.  I have nothing to add to their arguments.  History is not my primary interest.  Good critical thinking is what I try to encourage in all disciplines, and this is where I think John is falling short.  I do not intend to argue for the a-historicity of Jesus.  Instead, I feel there is far too little justification to make the positive claim that Jesus either certainly did exist or very probably did exist.

Before continuing, I should point out that the Burden of Proof is always on the positive claimant.  This is not just in history, but in everything involving the acquisition of knowledge.  It is so fundamental, in fact, that if we attempt to overturn the Burden of Proof, the necessary and inevitable result is incomprehensible nonsense and paradox.

Where a lot of people seem to get confused is in the identification of positive claims.  Many atheists claim to be "weak atheists."  That is, they see no evidence for a god, so they don't believe.  This is not, in an epistemological sense, a positive claim.  It is the absence of a positive claim.  

Think for a second about a globelrafk.  Do you believe in it?  Unless I have inadvertently made up an existing word, you do not, for you have no idea what a globelrafk might be.  Technically speaking, you are an aglobelrafkist, since you do not make the positive claim that globelrafks exist.  Through complete ignorance, you simply do not make a claim either way.

For all the potential gods we've never heard of, we are similarly atheists.  For the Christian god, or Allah, it becomes more problematic to say that we're simply not making a positive claim.  We've been presented with the evidence and rejected it.  Most atheists are not blank slates that simply have no thought of god(s).  They consistently reject specific god claims.  What we must bear in mind, however, is that in terms of the burden of proof, we are simply rejecting insufficient evidence.  We are responding to a positive claim by saying, "I'm sorry.  You have not met the burden of proof."

This can get very tedious, since the claim "You have not met the burden of proof" is a positive claim, and is subject to the same kind of scrutiny.  Even so, it's important to note that this chain of proof eventually stops somewhere, and that is the initial claim.  That is, we can argue all day about the burden of proof being met or not met, but all of those arguments hinge on the initial claim -- in the case of atheists, the claim that a god exists.  The reason I mentioned globelrafks is to illustrate the point that without an initial positive claim, the default position is disbelief.

With all that in mind, we must realize that the claim that Jesus existed is the positive claim.  We do not begin by claiming all that does not exist.  Though it certainly feels like a lot of historical figures are taken for granted as existing, from an epistemological position, the evidence is simply so overwhelming that it never occured to anyone to bother making the positive claim.

Obviously, with Jesus, this is not so because many people do question the positive claim of his existence.  The fact that there is not a consensus means that the positive claim of his existence is perceived by a great many people as not having met the burden of proof.

I think pure historical studies cannot prove whether Jesus actually existed or not. That something happened in the historical past doesn’t mean we can show that it did. That something did not happen in historical past does not mean we can show that it didn’t. You’ll have to read my chapter on “The Poor Evidence of Historical Evidence” to know why I think this, where I argue that if God revealed himself in the historical past he chose a poor medium and a poor era to do so. Historical studies are fraught with difficulties. Even Christian scholar Richard Bauckham acknowledges in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that “Historical work, by its very nature, is always putting two and two together and making five—or twelve or seventeen.” (p. 93)

Strictly speaking, no historical study can "prove" that anybody did or did not exist.  It's always an inductive conclusion based on the weight of the evidence.  History is more nebulous than physics because there are no immutable natural laws of historicity.

The very fact that several scholars have reasonably concluded Jesus probably never existed is proof that historical studies is a slender reed to hang one’s faith on. Historians disagree over a great deal, even over mundane things. Christian, your faith is based upon so many conclusions about history, including whether Jesus even existed at all, that with each question the probability of your faith diminishes. Why don't you admit this fact and then turn around and say something like this: "I am willing to stake my whole life on the basis of a probability from historical investigations. It's probable that my conclusions on a whole host of historical issues are true by, say ____% (insert the probability)." [51% 55% 60% ???].
I know John is being loose with his terminology, but I don't like the use of the word "faith" in this context.  Hanging a belief on probability is not faith in the theological sense because probability is math, and math is based on deduction.  While I agree that Christianity has very low probabilities on which to rest belief, I hardly see this as a valid analog to the argument over a historical Jesus.  How do you even begin to discuss the difference between a supernatural claim and a matter of science?  Yes, I am invoking science in the question of Jesus' historicity.  The most compelling of all historical evidence is scientific, not literary.  That is, if you have twenty stories of an African man who did such and such at a certain time, and you uncover the actual remains of the man, and DNA testing reveals him to be Asian, the only reasonable conclusion is that the stories were in error or were fabricated.  Evidence of historicity is weighted, and archaeology trumps literature.

I’ve read the relevant passages in Tacitus (64 AD), Pliny (112 AD), Suetonious (49 AD), Rabbi Eliezer (post 70 AD), the Benediction Twelve (post 70 AD), Josephus (post 70 AD). I’ve read the Christian inscription in Pompeii, too (79 AD). I understand the debates about them. But consider the majority scholarly consensus about the two-source theory of synoptic gospel tradition (Q and Mark) that predate the Gospels, and that we have early creeds inside Paul's writings (I Cor. 8:6; 12:3; 15:3-4; Galatians 4:4-5; I Tim. 3:16) that predate his letters. Consider also the close connection between the New Testament era with the early church fathers like John the elder, Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and others. We have to date these texts, no doubt, and many of them are indeed late, and some were forgeries. But they still offer some kind of early testimony to the historicity of a man called Jesus. Even a tradition is based on something. I just don’t see why we must discount the various independent writers of the New Testament itself on the historicity of Jesus. Why, for instance, should we not believe anything at all in the New Testament unless there is independent confirmation from outside sources? 
We certainly don't have to discount anyone out of hand, but what we must do is consider the weight of their testimony against their potential for having reliable information and their motivation for accurately relaying the information they had.  In the case of Jesus, many historians seem to get hung up on the fact that there are a lot of relatively early sources mentioning Jesus.  What they seem to miss is that there are only two significant sources within the first several decades of Jesus alleged existence -- Paul and the author of the Gospel, whether Mark or some lost "Q" document.

The gospel hardly counts as a historical document by any stretch of the imagination.  It is riddled with magic, deities, demons, and clearly fictional events.  Many of the themes are clearly metaphorical, or would be if not for the presumption of Jesus historicity.  Twelve apostles?  Twelve tribes of Isreal?  Coincidence?  I think not.  The notion of a dying and resurrected savior was clearly not new, and recently Hellenized Jews (at least those capable of writing the first gospel) would surely have been aware of previous models from both Jewish and Classical mythology.  It is an ad hoc rationalization to suppose that the gospel was meant as anything other than a fictional story.

Paul was a cunning man who clearly enjoyed being the center of attention.  We have it from his own pen that he spent most of his time after his conversion preaching.  Let's not kid ourselves about this.  Paul's testimony fails on two levels.  First, he never claims to have met Jesus.  He had a vision.  Exactly how trustworthy are the thousands of preachers who claim to have had personal contact with Jesus in the 21st century?  I'm sorry, but just because Paul was removed from Jesus alleged existence by a couple of decades (give or take a few years, depending on your beliefs) his proclamations are no less suspect.

The fact is, our only sources that fall anywhere within the reasonable bounds of "contemporary" to Jesus are highly unreliable and certainly fail the test of motives for honesty.

Strike one against the burden of proof.

Furthermore, what Jesus may have did and said seems to correspond to the Jewishness of that era as best as we can tell. E.P. Sanders in his book, The Historical Figure of Jesus, even thinks there was nothing strange about his message that would've gotten him killed by the Jewish authorites (he argues instead that the Romans were the sole actors). He argued that "the level of disagreement and arguments falls well inside the parameter of debate that were accepted in Jesus' time." (p. 216). He adds, "If Jesus disagreed with other interpreters over details, the disputes were no more substantial than were disputes between the Jewish parties and even within each party." (p. 225).
So?  I hardly think it surprising that a fictional writer would attempt to create a believable character.  This is not evidence for historicity.  It is not evidence for anything, since there is an equally plausible explanation for both fiction and non-fiction.  If anything, there's less reason to believe it's factual since most of the gospel resembles fiction much more than fact.

I could be wrong. But here is why I think I’m right. Passionate cult-like religious groups are always started by a cult figure, not an author, and not a committee. It’s always a single charismatic leader that gathers passionate religious people together. So who is the most likely candidate for starting the Jesus cult? Jesus himself is, although Paul certainly was the man most responsible for spreading what he believed about his story. And even though Paul never met Jesus and only had a vision of him on the Damascus Road (Acts 26:19), his testimony is that there were already Christians whom he was persecuting in Palestine in the first century.
But you are wrong.  Passionate cult-like groups are not always started by a cult figure.  L Ron Hubbard?  Author.

Furthermore, why is Jesus the most likely candidate for starting the Jesus cult when we have the words of Paul himself stating that he was responsible for spreading the word to so many places?  Not only that, we have a good psychological profile of Paul from his own words.  He was a driven and charismatic man who thrived on being the center of attention.  This sounds an awful lot like the kind of man who could run with a fledgling religion and make it his own.  To the claim of persecuted Christians in first century Palestine, this is all well and good, but if Paul is being honest, (that's a big "if") this is evidence that there were people in first century Palestine who were following a new religion -- not evidence that the figure in the gospel was the originator of the religion.

I think if we look at the New Testament texts it's clear Jesus was an apocalyptic doomsday prophet who's message, like that of John the Baptist before him, is for people to "repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Is it really clear?  How is it so obvious that this was a real man and not a fiction set in contemporary times? It only seems obvious if we presuppose the conclusion.  Otherwise, we're just guessing.  Let's not forget that a clever author could easily make use of the messianic expectations of his audience.  Also remember that even in 20th century America, thousands were fooled by a radio broadcast into believing that aliens were invading earth.  It's not so implausible to think that in a time far, far before radio, an author could fool a few hundred people with a cleverly written story.  Also remember that War of the Worlds was not originally intended as a giant hoax.  It was just a made up story.  After it was written, it developed a life of its own, so to speak.  We must remember that the author's intent is not necessarily relevant when we consider the historical ramifications of his work.

That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet has been the dominant Christian view since the time of Albert Schweitzer and given a robust defense recently by Christian scholar Dale Allison in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. For an excellent overall treatment of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet see Bart D. Ehrman’s book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
It's also been the dominant Christian view since the time of Albert Schweitzer that God exists and watches us when we masturbate.  Is that also true?  I'm aware that all of these scholars have big books on the historicity of Jesus, but have there not been consensus opinions before that have been fundamentally flawed?  I'm speaking of methodology and critical thinking here, not consensus.  I have not yet read a reasonable treatise that compels me to disregard the paucity of contemporary evidence coupled with the unreliability of the closest "witnesses."

So even though historical studies are fraught with some serious problems, I think the evidence is that an apocalyptic prophet named Jesus developed a cult-like following in Palestine in the first century. I cannot be sure about this though, from a mere historical investigation of the evidence. I could be wrong. But that's what I think.

Fire away now, on both sides. I stand in the middle.
I hate to say it, John, but your arguments (in this blog, at least) don't hold water.  I'm happy to admit that I have not read much else of yours, so perhaps you are simply not making this particular argument well, but none of what you have said here passes muster as proof of anything other than a lack of proof.

I'd like to point you to my official statement on Jesus' Historicity in this very blog.  In THIS POST, I explain why I believe that though it's certainly possible that there was some figure in history that served as inspiration for the Jesus myth, there's no compelling evidence to suggest that this figure in any way resembles the figure in the Gospel or Paul's epistles.

I disagree that there must certainly have been a single apocalyptic preacher who got himself killed.  There were tons of mystery cults floating around in first century Palestine, and there's no particular reason to believe that Christianity either did or did not revolve around a significant historical Jesus.

It may not feel particularly satisfying, but the correct position with regard to the existence of a man whose life closely resembled the gospel in any meaningful way is a shrug of the shoulders.  There simply isn't enough evidence.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Ball Is In Our Court

I can't stress enough that if progressives, secularists, and freethinkers want political respect and clout, the ball is in our courts. 

President Elect Obama is not going to take it upon himself to restore the church-state separation intended by the founding fathers.  He is a religious man himself, and will not turn his back on the Christians without being able to justify it in a way that makes everyone happy.

The ball is in our court.

Atheists, progressives, freethinkers, and secularists represent somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent of the population in America.  For comparison, that's about the same as the number of Fundamentalist Evangelicals.  Yet, who has all the political power?

The Secular Coalition for America has approximately fifty thousand members, of which only a small percentage contribute anything at all.  There are churches in the DC area that could drum up a million dollars for a cause, and not bat an eye.  Lori Lippman Brown, the nation's only atheist lobbyist, works on a shoestring budget because you and I, gentle progressives, have not stood up for ourselves and demanded attention from the White House.

The mechanism is in place.  It lacks support.

Learn from the past.  Eight years of religiostupidification, fights over stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage, and evolution is long enough.  Let's let the religious have their religion, but for the government, no thank you.

Friday, November 7, 2008

What Can We Do?

It occured to me this morning that maybe my last blog, while an effective call to action, was less than effective at telling people what they can do.

First, you should know that we do have a lobbyist in Washington.  Lori Lippman Brown is the director of the Secular Coalition for America, which is the national lobby representing the interests of atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans.  Their website has updates on the political efforts on behalf of freethinkers as well as the all too common attempts by various government entities to blur or tear down the wall of separation.

Get involved, people.  Now.  Today.  Be loud.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Hardest Job In The World

I generally try to avoid politics, but this is too big.  For the sixteen to eighteen percent of Americans who don't subscribe to the belief that God has chosen America to do whatever it is we're supposed to do, this is a momentous time in history.

At no other time in the foreseeable future will those of us who call ourselves freethinking progressives have more power than we do now.  President Elect Obama needs to know that we expect more than we have gotten from the Democrats in recent memory.  We expect decisive leadership away from the failed policies of the Reagan to Bush era.

Personally, I will not consider this presidency a success unless at least the following things happen:

1) The Patriot Act must be repealed. Period. It's an abomination and an affront to everything America is supposed to stand for.

2) Gitmo must be shut down. Period. It's an abomination and an affront to everything America is supposed to stand for.

3) Nothing less than the Geneva Conventions must apply to all enemy combatant prisoners held by the U.S. for any reason.

4) No Child Left Behind must be scrapped.

5) There must be an end to the senseless waste of resources, life, and American credibility in Iraq.

6) Global Warming must be rationally addressed.

This is no time for inaction. We don't have the luxury of gloating.  So far, we have done nothing.  Already, there are hateful messages pouring out over the internet urging Christians to fight against the new godless government.

God removes His hand from the United States, it is now time to act! With the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the next President of the United States, yesterday marked a watershed day spiritually for this nation. For decades now, this country has been operating in rebellion to God and His Truth. We legally slaughter 4,000 babies every day. We have made a mockery of God's Holy Institution of Marriage. God's plan for the family has been decimated. We have totally given ourselves over to the lusts of the flesh and the pleasures of this temporal world. We have bowed down to and worshipped every false god and idol created in rebellion to the God of the Bible.

Out of our rebellion to God, the people have now elected a man to lead this nation who is a staunch supporter of legalized infanticide. Speaking to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund on July 17, 2007, Senator Obama said, "The first thing I'd do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing that I'd do." President Obama will repay the support of those in the baby killing industry by insuring abortion on demand at any stage of the pregnancy, and through executive orders, he will wipe out any progress individual states have made in trying to ban abortions in their state. As President, he will elect judges to the US Supreme Court who will insure Roe vs. Wade is never overturned, as well as activist judges to the Federal Courts who will rule on the side of death in any abortion cases.

President Obama is also a great friend to the homosexual community and will be a champion of their radical agenda. President Obama will make it easy for gay couples to adopt children. I remember years ago warning people in my Daily Devotional that the homosexual community was targeting your children. People said I was over reacting. Today, an entire generation of children has grown up being brainwashed that being gay is normal and acceptable. They are being indoctrinated as young as kindergarten that there is nothing wrong with this choice of deviant sex. Again, through executive orders he will wipe out any gains made by various states to insure gay marriage will quickly spread across the nation, and the judges he appoints will help the radical gay agenda to move forward
This is what we're fighting against.  Rush and Laura and FOX News and a hundred other conservative pundits are going to attack President Elect Obama from day one.  We're already seeing it happen.

Bill Clinton was a Republican's Democrat.  Even so, he was crucified by the neocon right.  Forgive my southern roots showing, but how much more will Obama be attacked when a good ol' fashioned lynching would thrill the hearts of so many good Christians south of the Mason Dixon?

The new administration is going to face terrible opposition, but we must not pity them for this.  It has been nothing less than the systematic failure of the Democratic Party for the last eight years that has put us where we are today.  We can blame it on the neocons all we want, but the reality is that the Democrats haven't had a goal.  They have simply wimpered quiet opposition to the very well formed Republican plan.

Obama is an organizer and a negotiator.  We need to make sure, as progressives, that he understands just how many of us are out here, and just how insistent we are that we have a voice in what will hopefully be the beginning of the end for Neo-Conservative rule in America.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Logic-Resistant Belief and Three Steps to Freedom

    I am an atheist. I used to be a Christian, and then I read the Bible, thought about it, and left Christianity. Soon after that, I examined the concept of “the supernatural” and became an atheist. Hearing my story would probably be interesting to some people, but apart from some minor variances, it’s no different from the stories of thousands of other “de-converts.” Most atheists are well versed in the logic necessary to rid the mind of religious delusions. What I want to discuss in this essay is the number of theists who fully comprehend the same logic, and yet remain theists. Clearly, this phenomenon should be of great concern to the freethinker who would like to see friends, family, and society in general rid themselves of the poison that religious thought injects into culture.

To begin with, let us briefly examine the reasons that people follow religion. Some people are afraid of death, and gain comfort from the belief that they will not really die. Others want some truth to help explain the pain and suffering they or their loved ones experience. Many people attend church for social reasons – Christianity is, after all, the biggest social group in the country. Many people accept Jesus into their hearts because they’re afraid of hell. Obviously, there are also many people who firmly believe that they have spoken to God, witnessed a miracle that only God could have performed, or felt a “presence” they believe to be the Holy Spirit within them. All of these reasons, and many more, would be listed if you took a poll of believers.

I submit that close examination will reveal that virtually all of these reasons can be reduced to fear. Some are easy. Fear of death, hell, pain and suffering, and the unknown are easy to understand, but what about the other reasons? Do people who have spoken to God also believe because of fear? I believe so.  The real question is, why would a person either try to hear God’s voice, or upon hearing a perceived spiritual voice, be inclined to believe it? The answer is still fear – most likely one of the ones I’ve already listed. Why would a person be inclined to believe that there is a supernatural force that performs miracles? Again, fear -- the fear of being in the position of needing a miracle would certainly make one more likely to believe in miracles.

I’ve left out one big fear, and it’s the primary focus of this essay. I noted earlier that many people attend church for social reasons. This fact is, I believe, the key to understanding why theists who understand the logical reasons for disbelief continue to profess belief. For a moment, think about as many of your friends as you can. If you are a Republican, are most of your friends also Republican? If you are a Christian, do you spend most of your free time with other Christians? Here’s a nasty one. If you are white, are most of your friends white? Unless you are one of a few very rare personality types, or are forced into living in a culture that is not your own, you must admit that the majority of the people you surround yourself with are very similar to you.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It is built into the survival instinct, and is an intrinsic part of human nature. Also part of this survival instinct is the fear of being ostracized by the group. In the earlier days of the human species, exclusion from the group meant death in most circumstances. Even in more recent recorded history, there are many examples of places and times when banishment from a group would cause real mortal danger. In America, this is no longer true, but the instinct remains. Most people, given the choice between conforming to the group and leaving the group, will choose conforming. This isn’t speculation. It’s scientific fact.

Here, then, is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning. Why do theists who understand the logic of atheism remain theists? I suggest that it is fear of being ostracized. If you are a Christian, think of everyone you know who is also a Christian. How would it feel to be hated and distrusted by all of them? Am I being overly dramatic? Sadly, no. A recent survey showed that a very large portion of U.S. citizens would rather see a homosexual president than an atheist one. Furthermore, they rated atheists as the least trustworthy group of people – lower than lawyers and politicians who profess faith in Jesus Christ. If you are an atheist, you know these facts from personal experience. It is fair to say that a rational person, given the choice between believing in a deity or joining the most distrusted and disliked minority in the country, will choose to believe in a deity and be part of the largest and most well-regarded social group in the country.

Am I suggesting that there are “believers” who don’t really believe and use Christianity for social status only? Absolutely. But I’m also suggesting that there are many people who clearly understand the reasons for not believing, and perhaps even grasp the inherent danger posed by modern Christianity, and subconsciously create layers of apologist theory to shield themselves from having to face the seemingly awful truth that would force them to abandon the comfort of the group. Any atheist who has debated a Christian has seen the layers of circular logic necessary to answer even the simplest question of faith. For example, examine the question of an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful deity. Did this deity know before he created the universe that he would create literally billions of people who would not profess Jesus as their savior and would therefore be tormented for eternity for not believing a book riddled with inconsistencies and improbabilities? The correct answer is “yes,” but try to get a Christian to say it.Once we establish this, can we describe this being as “good?” Obviously, the answer is “no.” This being would be so atrociously evil that we would have to put Hitler on the list of “pretty ok people.” At least Hitler’s torments only lasted minutes for the lucky ones who got the gas chambers, and years for those forced to endure medical experiments and grotesque abuse in the concentration camps. Again, many Christians have a ready-made answer – “We cannot understand the ways of God. Good doesn’t have the same meaning for him because he is love.” This is obviously circular logic, and is nonsense even if we accept it. If God is truly beyond human comprehension, how do you know that he is good, or bad, or anything, for that matter? The answer to this – “Because he told me.” If you respond by asking if that doesn’t mean that God has given us the means to understand him, you’ll just get more circular logic.

Eventually, most Christians, when backed into a corner, will resort to saying something like, “Well, you just have to have faith, and I can’t make you believe, but I do.” In other words, “You’re right. I don’t have any reason to believe this, but I do, despite the logic that has defeated my arguments.” Faith, by definition, then, is believing something despite all evidence to the contrary. Many Christians will balk at that definition, but it’s true. Not only is there no evidence that the Christian god exists, there’s no evidence that any god exists. None! Even so, they will believe this book of myths that tells them that God made the earth, populated it with people who were predestined to sin, sent himself down to the earth to be sacrificed to himself so that people who believed that he had done this bizarre thing would be saved from a place of eternal torment designed by God for the people who were predestined not to believe such rubbish.

If this seems ludicrous and possibly even insane, it’s not exactly. Believing that all Christians are insane would be, well, insane, but we must be careful of how we're using the word.  Many people with mental disorders are not called insane.  Think of how many people you know who take a mild antidepressant.  Many people with mild bipolar disorder function very well in society, and we don't call them insane. This is where the issue of social pressure becomes paramount. It is much easier to postulate that many people will accept the circular logic if they can convince themselves that A) Christianity makes them feel good, so it’s ok if it doesn’t make sense, or B) Everybody believes it, and it doesn’t do any harm, or C) It’s too scary to think about leaving Christianity, or D) It isn’t worth bucking the system because it wouldn’t change anything for them to leave.

All of these reasons are hedges for the real reason – they are afraid to be ostracized. This fear is so pervasive that their subconscious will not even allow them to consider the possibility that not only are they wrong personally, but that our entire culture is wrong for basing so much of its morality on an ancient fairy tale. The question for atheists who would like to see change is this: “How do we, as atheists, help to create an environment conducive to de-conversion?” I don’t have all the answers to this, and I hope that this essay will spark discussion. I do have some suggestions, though.

First and foremost, it is important for the potential de-convert to see that there is a large group of freethinkers who will happily welcome her to “the group.” She needs to see that not only will her social life not end by leaving religion, but that she will have a strong support group that will be loving and fun and permanent. The best first step in this direction is for atheists to “come out of the closet.” We as a group should be proud of ourselves, and should display our disbelief to anyone who cares to look.

Second, it is important for the potential de-convert to be drawn away from religious influences as much as possible. Think of it this way. It’s a lot easier for a man to think about religion in a critical way if everyone around him has already done it, and seems no worse for wear. The more a theist can retreat to the religion that enslaves him, the more he will want to remain a slave.

Third, and possibly most controversial, I believe theists need to be exposed to embarrassment for their beliefs. Factually, their beliefs are ridiculous, and this needs to be pointed out clearly and often. Logically, their beliefs are nearly insane. This needs to be drilled home at every opportunity. This is difficult, because it’s hard to separate the person from the belief. Remember, we’re talking about people who can understand the logic, but are resisting because of social pressure, so we’re not talking about idiots. I think it’s crucial to remember that the beliefs are stupid. The people are just victims of a mass movement to believe in stupidity. Educate them in the same way you would someone who had never been taught history. (Because many of them are people who heave never been taught history!) Remember the mantra: Build up the person, tear down the belief. {edit: I've already received criticism on this one on my livejournal, but I stand by it. First, let me emphasize that these steps are in chronological order. If you start making fun of their beliefs before they're attached to your group, yes, they will run away as fast as they can. Second, if you think I said we should make fun of Christians, go back and read it again, and again if necessary until you see that I didn't say that. Nowhere in the paragraph did I say we should belittle the people. We should belittle the beliefs and do our best to point out that it's a shame that a person with enough intelligence to be an atheist would believe such silly things! Tear down the belief, build up the person!! I don't know how I can say it any more clearly.}

I think one of the biggest mistakes made by atheists when debating Christians is that they overlook the simple fact that all the logic in the world will not overcome the fear that pulls Christians back into the fold. It takes a two-pronged approach to successfully pull a sheep out of the flock. They need to be exposed to the illogic of their belief, but more importantly, they need to be shown that there is another side of the fence, and that it’s greener – not just from an intellectual standpoint, but from the all-important social standpoint. They need to know that they will not be alone if they choose to leave. They need to know that even if they lose many, or even all of their friends and family, they are not alone, and they will be accepted and loved. In fact, they will be loved based on the intrinsic value of their life, not on their acceptance of someone else’s system of beliefs and morality. There is freedom in atheism, and theists need to be shown how amazing it is to be free.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thoughts on Jesus' Historicity

I've recently stepped a little out of my comfort zone and entered into a couple of discussions about whether or not there was a historical Jesus.  You can find those discussions here:

I'd like you to look at both of these after you've read a few of my thoughts here.  First, I'd like to state my position very clearly.  I don't know if there was a historical Jesus.  There simply isn't much evidence that there was, but that doesn't mean there wasn't.

My main problem with Jesus historians like James McGrath is one of methodology.  If you read through my comments on his blog, you'll see that for each point he tries to make about one of his proofs of Jesus, I can make one using the same information yet pointing to ahistoricity.

To put it plainly, here are my primary objections to the arguments for Jesus:
1. They invent their own criteria.  
That is, you see things like the "Argument from crucifixion" or "Argument from somebody who claimed to be related 20 years later."  When historians examine other historical figures, they have a fairly straightforward way of determining whether it's a myth or a real person.  Jesus historians bypass this route and make up their own rules.  That bothers me a lot.  Sounds like special pleading.

2. Each argument can be flipped around.
Jesus historians will say that the sheer number of references twenty to fifty years after Jesus supposedly lived point to him being historical.  I can flip that around and say that the complete absence of any contemporary evidence during his life, and for twenty years after, point to the story being a myth.
The same is true for pretty much every argument I've encountered.  Jesus historians seem content to examine only one side of an argument, and when I've pressed them, as I did Dr. McGrath, they accuse me of not understanding history.  Particularly when dealing with people who are supposed to be educators, it seems odd that they don't wish to educate me if that is indeed the case.  
I also notice that when I've asked similar questions of Jesus A-historians, they've been eloquent and informative in explaining why they feel their position is epistemologically more plausible.  So, that leads me to the next point:

3. Jesus A-historians seem to be much calmer about their position, and actually answer my questions.

Typically, people who seem calm and have good answers, even when pressed by the opposition, tend to have better positions.  And like I said, I am not in either camp.  I don't have enough background to make an informed authoritative statement.  All I can say is that the A-historians seem to have their shit together and their arguments seem more coherent.  (And I can make authoritative statements about the coherency of arguments.)

Finally, I'd like to make a really important point by way of analogy.  Wonder Woman is based on a real person.  Elizabeth Marston was the wife of Wonder Woman's creator, William Marston.  He admired her sense of loyalty and honor, and was amazed by her ability to tell when other people were lying.  He created Wonder Woman with a magic lasso and an island of magical Amazon Goddesses.

Here, we must ask a very important question:  Is it fair to say that Wonder Woman was a historical figure?  She's clearly not, even though she is based on someone who actually lived.

Ok, so to everybody who comes down hard on either the side of the Jesus debate, ask yourself what you're really asserting?  Is it possible that there was a homeless guy who preached rebellion and got himself killed by Romans two thousand years ago?  Sure!  There was lots of that kind of thing going on in those days.  

Would that two thousand year old homeless guy resemble the Jesus in the Gospels or Epistles?  Of course not.  Jesus, regardless of the origins of the myth, is just as historical as Wonder Woman.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Free Will, Determinism, and Choice

Matter moves from instability to stability.  This is a basic physical truth.  Sodium is highly unstable, and when it encounters moisture, it changes states rapidly to form more stable compounds.  Rocks last a long time because their atoms have reached a level of high stability.  Eggs fry because the added heat causes their atoms to be in an unstable state, and they naturally move to a more stable state.  Because of the incredible complexity of matter, there are lots of ways that it can be arranged, and because of the incredibly complex systems of movement in the universe and the incredible amount of energy it contains, it's going to take a really damn long time before the eventual state of "complete stability" is reached.  (Assuming, of course, that the universe isn't going to contract again.)

What has this got to do with free will?  Everything.  The first replicator on earth, whatever it was, came to exist because it was following this principle.  The configuration of the first replicator was stable enough that atoms "wanted" to move into it, the same way that salt wants to form cubic crystals.  At each step of evolution, the next level of complexity was reached by the same process.  You can think of it as two laws working together.  The physical law of "survival of the stable" interacted with the mathematical law of "survival of the fittest" which actually ought to be renamed "survival of the best equipped to survive."  It is so simple as to be perfectly obvious when we say it that way.

Anyway, at some point, replicators developed rudimentary walls to insulate themselves from the environment.  Eventually, cells developed.  Eventually after that, some cells developed the ability to work together with other cells, and the inevitable math of Game Theory was set in motion.  What is crucially important to bear in mind is that all of this happened completely without consciousness.  It was the inevitable result of the interaction of survival of the stable with survival of the best able to survive.

Jump ahead in evolutionary history, and you get to a huge moment, where eukaryotes and prokaryotes split from each other.  After that, plants and animals split.  Here's where things started to get really interesting.  Plants, for whatever reason, never got around to moving very fast, or being able to perform what we can call "free movement."  They pretty much just grow.  Animals, on the other hand, discovered the benefit of much faster movement.  The earliest animals (which would have been a lot more like a paramecium than a rat), "learned" how to eat other animals and plants.  Remember, all of this happened without consciousness because matter always moves from instability to stability.  It's really, really important that you keep this in mind.

Soon, through natural selection, some individuals developed very rudimentary senses.  Perhaps it was the ability to detect a chemical in the water which indicated that potential prey was nearby.  Perhaps it was the ability to react to the intensity of light.  It doesn't matter.  What matters is that this was a HUGE advantage.  Through nothing but blind matter interacting with other blind matter, the senses came to exist.  Soon, complexity added to complexity and early versions of what would become nerves developed.  Once animals had muscles and nerves, they were able to perform astounding feats of independent movement.  Their eyes developed into the complex organs they are today.  Their hearts, lungs, and livers all developed in complexity, and one other extremely important organ developed as well -- their brain.

At first, brains were very rudimentary, but the engineering advantage of having a central "control station" are undeniable.  Through millions of years, brains grew in size and complexity.  At each step, the animals became better and better adapted to their environment, still following the principles of survival of the stable and survival of the best able to survive.  The way brains work is really astonishing.  Specialized cells called neurons link with other neurons into long chains, through which unbroken chains of reactions can take place.  You can think of it like a row of dominoes.  An outside stimuli (your finger) knocks over the first domino, and without any further influence, the entire row topples, one at a time. This happens because of the laws of physics. So it is in brains. When light enters an eye, the cells in the eye have no option but to do what they naturally do. Light triggers a change in one cell, which triggers a change in another cell, and so on. The matter which makes up an eye must move from instability to instability, and the only way to do this is to react in the way it has been arranged to react.

The earliest brains didn't produce anything approaching what we call consciousness. They were just control centers made of matter that couldn't help how it had been arranged. However, through the inevitable laws of matter, increasingly complex brains were bound to develop. If it is beneficial to be able to see prey and chase it, it is more beneficial to be able to see prey, chase it, and make rudimentary predictions about its future actions. Such a leap in brain development may seem huge, and perhaps in terms of time, it was. It isn't that hard to conceive, though.

Memory is something that happens in very simple animals. Even simple worms can be “trained” to react to certain stimuli. All we need to do to imagine the birth of memory is to imagine an arrangement of matter in an early animal in which repeated occurrences of the same stimulus would create a permanent change in the animal itself, thus altering the way it behaved. No consciousness is necessary, and the exact mechanism is extraneous to this discussion. All we need to be concerned with is the fact that it's not hard to imagine rudimentary memory coming into existence.

Once memory existed, it is not hard to imagine it becoming more and more complex as brains became larger and more complex. The first predictive behavior, then, is easy to imagine. After chasing several prey animals in exactly the same pattern, a permanent change happened in the hunter such that the next time it chased a similar prey, it “anticipated” the movement, quite automatically.

With memory and prediction came great evolutionary advantage, so it's not hard to imagine these kinds of creatures proliferating. We can imagine two kinds of creatures, however. The first kind of creature could see its prey, chase it, and predict its movements, and would pursue relentlessly, even to the point of exhaustion or death. The second kind of creature, with the same abilities, also had the tendency to stop chasing its pray when its own energy began running low, but before exhaustion set in. This simple modification to behavior patterns needs no grand explanation. Again, all it takes is imagining a small mutation which produced the behavior once. It requires no consciousness, but it is the beginning of something amazing. From this simple change in behavior, the ability to weigh options developed.

Suppose that a creature encountered two potential meals at the same time. It could only chase one of them. Any creature which had a rudimentary ability to judge the chances of success for each of two chases would have a stunning advantage over those which just randomly chased one or the other. This is a big leap in brain development, but again, it does not bring us to the point of consciousness in the modern philosophical sense. These animals were still what Richard Dawkins has called “survival machines.” They were doing what they did because the matter in their bodies (now arranged in staggeringly complex ways) did what it had to do.

Hopefully, you can see where I'm going with this. Each step of brain development happened through the same process of survival of the stable combining with survival of the best able to survive. The discussion of what exactly constitutes consciousness may seem like a huge concern, but it is not. In the same way that there is no such thing as the single ancestor of humans that was the “first human,” there is also no exact divide between consciousness and unconsciousness, at least from a biological point of view. This may seem controversial, but please make sure you understand precisely what I'm saying, and more importantly, what I'm not saying.

Goldfish have memories, and can recognize individuals of their own species, as well as other species. Their brains transmit impulses through nerves in such a way that they can perform feats of apparent purpose like traversing a maze to get to food. I doubt many people would suggest that they are fully sentient beings. One of the main reasons for this is that even though they show apparent purpose, they do so predictably and mechanically. If they're hungry, and food is placed at the end of the maze, they will move towards it and eat. Higher animals, however, show a lot more autonomy – that is, ability to take one option over another based on analysis of sensory data. An ape, by all appearances, spends time “deciding” whether or not to attack another ape, and we can only assume that his brain is processing data from the ape's memory, and is weighing the potential for victory against the potential for defeat, and perhaps even the possibility of personal injury in either case.

While this may be an incredible dilemma for philosophers, it's not that big of a deal to biologists. Goldfish have less complex brains than cats, which have less complex brains than monkeys, which have less complex brains than dolphins, which have less complex brains than humans. The measure of an animal's ability to perform predictive analysis is a measure of their brain's size and complexity. Period. There's no such thing as a really smart earthworm because earthworms don't have complex big brains.

Before we can finally address free will, we must perform a couple of mental exercises. First, think about an ant. Do you have any problem thinking of an ant as a creature that simply reacts to its environment based on its genetic programming? I would hope not. Ants simply don't do things like quit their job or decide to move to another anthill. Ants do what ants do, and nothing else. They do it predictably, and when we do experiments on their genes, we can reprogram them to do other things just as predictably.

Ants have brains that were “designed” just like every other part of their body, as a natural result of the survival of the stable combined with survival of the best able to survive. They are alive, but not sentient, according to every philosopher I can think of. Yet, even these simple creatures show remarkable behaviors that seem “intelligent.” Some varieties of ants engage in “tandem running,” a process by which one ant leads another ant to a food source. It requires many adjustments, and happens methodically, as if each ant “intends” to find food. Still, we can imagine that the ant genes have programmed their carriers to perform this way, and they do so because they have no choice in the matter. They are ants, and their genes, like everything else in their bodies, must obey the law of survival of the stable.

Bees, as most people are now aware, have a system of communication that is virtually unrivaled in the animal world. They do an incredibly complex dance to indicate to their hivemates the distance to food, quantity of food, and exact direction. Still, it is clearly a genetic behavior, for all bees do it the same way, and they do it predictably, without the ability to “decide” to do otherwise. They have genes that dictate their behavior by causing proteins to be built in a particular way, and those proteins, acting entirely according to the law of survival of the stable, react with other proteins in exactly the “correct” way, on up the line of complexity, until the amalgam of all those chemicals, a bee, behaves precisely as it must behave.

At some point, though, we're going to have to address the philosophical leap that comes with the existence of what we call “sentience.” For our purposes, it won't matter precisely what sentience is, but it is important to note something of critical importance. Whatever sentience is, it is that way because there are genes within the sentient animal which, according to the law survival of the stable, caused chemicals to interact in completely predictable ways to “build” a being capable of sentient thought.

The last paragraph is staggeringly important. We must realize that whatever a brain allows us to do, it does so because it was built to do so by genes. Every stimulus that a creature encounters causes a series of unavoidable events to occur. When an eye opens, chemicals react with other chemicals to create nerve impulses that must go to the brain, where the brain must render them as images, and the creature must perceive the external world in whatever fashion it has been built. Once that image has been perceived, the same kinds of neural impulses unavoidably travel through the brain in complex patterns, triggering still more reactions, and still more, until the entire organism can be said to have reacted (in whatever way) to the stimulus.

Finally, now, we can address free will. The first thing we must do to address it properly is to define it. This might prove to be much harder than we first imagine. We can say that free will is the ability to make choices, but this is unsatisfactory. When a spider walking across the forest floor encounters a log, it can either turn left, turn right, turn back, or climb up. Alternatively, it could just stay right where it is. It has quite a few “choices” and will make one of them. It cannot avoid making one of them unless it suddenly dies. Because time moves forward, and there are many potential actions for any creature at any given time, we can say that all creatures make choices.

Clearly, we need to work on our definition of choice if free will is to have any meaning. Perhaps it means taking one option over another based on rational choice, rational meaning “conforming to the laws of logic.” This is also unsatisfactory because many animals who are not aware of the laws of logic do precisely that. Apes, when sizing up a potential opponent, very often make the “correct” decision based on the size and strength of the potential opponent and the “chooser's” memory of previous battles. Yet, most people are unhappy with the conclusion that apes have free will.

Perhaps for free will to exist, the creature must be able to think in the abstract. That is, it must be able to run “simulations” in its brain, and must be able to think of concepts, not just objects or actions. This easily eliminates most creatures from the discussion of free will, although not necessarily all. Dolphins, apes, and even parrots have shown the ability to understand the concept of rational numbers. Dolphins and apes have both demonstrated rudimentary ability to predict the outcome of an action based on abstract thinking, and both have demonstrated the ability to imitate with modification.

In any case, I said that the philosophy behind sentience was irrelevant, and it is. By illustrating the problems with these definitions, I hope to show you that the definitions aren't really flawed. The concept itself is flawed. If you've followed my somewhat tedious tour through evolutionary history, you've realized that at every step of brain development, new abilities were added naturally through immutable physical forces. This is in direct opposition to thespirit of any argument for free will, regardless of the exact definition.

When I speak of the spirit of the free will argument, I mean this: humans possess consciousness and sentience, which allow us to control ourselves in any way we desire, and to enforce our “will” upon the universe. What I want you to see is that this kind of thinking is backwards, for it assumes something existing independently of the law of survival of the stable. For us to be conscious, impulses must move through neurons in our brain. These impulses exist before consciousness. They must. The inescapable conclusion is that our brains cause us to be conscious.

Let's think now about what happens when we humans make a choice. Suppose I am at a restaurant, and am offered the choice of chicken or fish. The waiter asks me which one I want. My ears receive the vibrations caused by the waiter's mouth and vocal cords. Without any external “will” causing it to happen, the vibrations are translated into nerve impulses which travel, completely on their own – because they are obeying the law of survival of the stable – to the part of my brain which, through no conscious will of its own, processes sound. I cannot help but comprehend the waiter, for my brain is doing what it must do. It is sending neural impulses to and from various parts of my brain, all of them unavoidably doing what they must do because they are matter and they are seeking stability.

Once my brain has translated the vibrations into a concept, I cannot help the reality that follows. My brain is now in a state. Either I desire chicken, or I desire fish, or I desire neither. I cannot change this state, for I am matter, and my brain has done what it had to do, and my preference is now a reality in time. I cannot help but move forward in time, and I must act in one the thousands of ways potentially available to me. If you think about it, there are probably hundreds of thousands of things I could do in the next second after entering the state of being aware of my preference.

I will do something in response to the question. Most likely, I will speak, expressing my desire for one or the other. The important question is this: Did I decide to speak, or did I speak because my brain caused me to do so? Here is where the survival of the stable plays its trump card. We really have two choices here. Either my brain caused me to have a preference, and then caused me to speak, or something else caused me to have a preference and then speak.

To suggest that something else caused me to have a preference is to defy time, for we have already recognized the simple truth that uncontrollable interactions of matter happen in the brain and then a state is reached. To put it another way, a “choice” in the religious or philosophical sense of the word would really involve moving backwards in time! First, a state would have to exist, and then act upon the brain in some way so as to put the brain in the chosen state. However, as we've seen, perceptions cause neural impulses which cause brain activity which causes a state.

Perhaps an even bigger problem with the idea of an independent choice is that it violates the law of survival of the stable. If matter is unstable, it must move to stability if that move is available. If several possible stable states are available in the environment, we can predict which one a particular piece of matter will “choose” based on its atomic structure. (For illustration, notice that even though there's plenty of carbon available from the operation of an internal combustion engine, there has never been an exhaust pipe that randomly spewed diamonds instead of carbon dioxide.)

Some might object that I am being overly reductionist. To this accusation, I would make two responses. First, the accusation of reductionism is not an argument. It's an objection. There's no reason that a reductionist viewpoint is inherently wrong. Second, I would say that reductionism need not eliminate broader interpretations of the same phenomena. For example, I can say that a computer program is nothing but ones and zeros, and that is true. This does not mean that I cannot use a computer program to write a book.

The broad point that I'm attempting to make is not that humans do not make choices, or that we are not highly autonomous creatures. I am trying to establish the unavoidable reality that humans do not control brains. Brains control humans. Before I can decide on a course of action, my brain must perceive the situation, and having perceived it, go through the unconscious and uncontrollable series of chemical events that will put me in a state of awareness of the options. Any decision I make is the result of brain activity, not the cause of it.

It might be helpful at this point to think of the brain as a computer. Just as a computer has a series of ones and zeros that “make it work,” so do our brains, only the brain is built on four letters instead of two numbers. The code for our brain is DNA. Also analogous to a computer, our code is set up in such a way that it causes a series of events in the material universe.

Think of a chess playing computer. The binary code for such a program doesn't include instructions for every possible chess scenario. This would take an astronomically large code, and it would be so slow that a single game of chess would take as long as the time our solar system has been in existence, even if we imagine a stupendously fast processor. Instead, the program includes general instructions – rules for piece movement and strategic advice, for instance. It might say something like, “In general, pawns are expendable before queens, but if the payoff is high enough, sacrificing the queen is advisable.”

Of course, all of this is rendered in ones and zeros, and it's not important to explain the exact mechanism by which they translate into a computer program. We all know that this is the way it works, even if we don't know exactly how. Our brains are very much the same way. We are built with simple sets of instructions: Avoid that which causes pain. Seek that which causes pleasure; Attempt to mate. Seek companionship; When your stomach rumbles, eat food; When your mouth is dry, drink water. Of course, in a human, there are far more complex sets of instructions, and many of the instructions clash from time to time. For instance, if one has to reach into a thornbush to get fruit, the instruction to avoid physical discomfort is in conflict with the instruction to obtain food.

If you've ever seen a computer play chess, you know that it can predict its opponent's moves. In fact, if you could bring someone back to life from a time before computers existed, and show them a screen with a game in progress, they would likely swear on their life that humans were controlling the moves. Chess programs give every outward appearance of being sentient because their programming is sufficiently complex to create those appearances. Here, we can ask a very pointed question: Is there a difference between a game of chess played by two humans and one played by two computers? The answer is that there is not. The mechanics of the game are exactly the same, as is the strategy and the outcome. In fact, we could easily build robots to move physical pieces on an actual chess board, and for the purposes of winning a chess game, there would be absolutely no difference whatsoever. A game of chess is being played. There is either a winner and a loser, or the game is a draw.

Humans are chess playing computers. Our circuitry is much more complex, and we are able to do far more than play chess, but that is the reality of it. Our genes carry instructions for building a human being with a brain that causes consciousness to exist. Our brains operate from a set of instructions given to us by the same genes. A brief examination of all the humans we've ever seen will bear out the reality of this. All1 humans do many things in exactly the same way. All humans feel roughly the same set of emotions, and they feel them as a result of roughly the same kinds of events. All humans come with a complete set of plans for understanding and utilizing language.

To put it succinctly, we are sentient, conscious, highly adaptive animals because our genes made us that way. We cannot be anything else. To extend the computer analogy even further, at any given moment, our brains contain an unalterable set of data. When we make a choice, just as when a computer makes a choice, our brain is processing all the relevant data it can access through an algorithm that has been set by the program (genes and binary, respectively). Once the computation is finished, the brain and CPU put their machine into a state that once again, has been set by the program.

Where humans have a distinct advantage over computers is our immense capacity for learning and adapting to our environment. What we must realize, however, is that our adaptability is not limitless. We are still bound by the limits of our programming, and some things cannot be undone. Two sobering examples are sexual abuse and drug use. To put it bluntly, show me a woman who was sexually abused as a child, and I'll show you a woman who isn't over it. Just like the simple animals whose bodies physically change because of external stimuli, so to do our complex human bodies. Particularly during the formative years, when new neural connections are still being formed, our environment has a huge impact on us. Some environmental factors, like drugs, exert their effects regardless of the age of the person. Methamphetamine is a perfect example. Regardless of when a person takes it, there will be permanent, irreversible changes to the brain, which will result in permanent changes in the way the person perceives and thinks.

With everything we have learned about human behavior, we must realize that we are at a milestone of human history. The knowledge of evolution has taken us leaps and bounds ahead of where we were two hundred years ago, but we have been violently opposed to accepting the natural and obvious conclusion evolution gives us about human nature. We are not conscious beings who happen to have a body to go with our mind. We are incredibly complex programs that have the ability to perform remarkable feats of mental computation. We are animals that have evolved so much brain power that we can think of ourselves as having “free will.”

In closing this essay, I feel that it is necessary to refute some of the most common objections to this line of reasoning. The one that comes to mind immediately is this: If we really have no free will, than what justification do we have for laws, or punishment, or rewards, or anything like that? The answer ought to be obvious, but I will explain it for the sake of being thorough. Our programs include self interest and the ability to conceive of strategies that will harm others for our own benefit. Like all animals, we tend to do those things that we can get away with when they benefit us. We are also programmed to be intensely social animals. We are smart enough to realize that without disincentives, some people will take advantage of other people. Laws and jails and social stigma are all disincentives, and they often have exactly the desired effect. People avoid doing things that would benefit them and harm others when they know that they are very likely to be punished. The question of free will is irrelevant.

Knowledge of punishment changes behavior, whether that behavior is motivated by free will or programming. Think again of the computer analogy. It would be easy to invent a computer game in which both players have chances to cheat. It would also be easy to invent periodic “referee checks” in which a third player would check the field for evidence of cheating and penalize the cheater accordingly. Even a modestly good programmer could design code to instruct the computer players in the best way to avoid being punished. As the frequency of referee checks increased, cheating would decrease accordingly. Consciousness is not necessary for this simple set of principles to work.

Another common objection I hear is that scientists cannot prove that humans are not different than the animals. Perhaps we do actually have something that has risen above the level of animal consciousness. Maybe we really are different in kind. Of course, this argument commits the same fallacy as the argument that atheists can't disprove the existence of God. In all cases, the burden of proof is on the claimant, and anyone who claims that human consciousness is different in kind from any other animal has a brobdingnagian task set for himself. Certainly we can do mental tasks that other animals can't, and our powers of abstraction and conceptualization are unrivaled, but this is no justification for the statement that we are not completely under the control of our genes, just like every other animal. We must remember that any mental ability we have is the direct result of our genes building us this way. If we have the choice to act in illogical ways, or contrary to the dictates of our nature, it is because it is in our nature to be able to do so!

When the previous objections fail, people often say that lack of free will makes life meaningless, since we're just mindless robots running around doing exactly what our programming tells us to do. This is a good example of finding the nearest pool and taking a belly flop into the deep end. Our programming gives us consciousness, and our consciousness gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. We get up in the morning because we're programmed to have sleep cycles, but we also get up in the morning because we want to make money at our jobs. We want to make money because we want to have a house and attract a mate and be able to buy status symbols and gadgets to make our lives easier. Purpose comes from living, regardless of what causes us to live.

Finally, I want to address a question rather than an objection. Many people may ask why I am so intent on going through all the trouble of explaining this if in the end, the question of free will is ultimately meaningless. If it doesn't matter that we are programs, and that our programs give us the sense that we are free willed, why bother refuting the concept of free will?

To answer this, I must first say that the distinction is not meaningless. From religion to politics to economics, people make broad sweeping decisions based on the notion that people really can decide anything they want. Personally, I think the flaws in this thinking are most obvious in politics. Lawmakers often assume (falsely) that humans will change their behavior if only the right law is enacted. Even though history demonstrates repeatedly that this is a false assumption, we continue to see bad policies enacted. The reality is that people do not and will not behave outside of their programming. Laws demanding that people not act like humans are doomed to cause suffering.

At the time of this writing, there is a very good example of this kind of thinking in my own city. Over the past several years, the city council has passed several draconian policies regarding the consumption of alcohol by minors and the selling of alcohol to minors. The feeling is that it's an awful thing for college students to drink, and that by punishing drinking severely, they can stop the behavior. Unfortunately, the laws are ill-conceived and doomed to failure. Rather than curb the amount of drinking done by college students, they have forced students to drink in private. Unlike in bars, where bartenders can refuse service to anyone who appears too drunk, there is no supervision at all in private homes, and young drinkers are actually drinking more than they did before. Drinks at a bar are more expensive than bottles of liquor from the store, so for the same amount of money, students are drinking more, without any outside influences to try to slow them down if they're drinking too much.

College students will drink because drinking is fun for humans, and is generally harmless if they don't drive afterward. Trying to stop them is generally futile, unless extremely drastic measures are taken. Rather than enforce a police state on campus and in the bars, a better solution would be to enact policies that encourage college students to drink responsibly. Perhaps an even better solution would be to look at the rest of the world and see that eighteen year olds are allowed to drink in many places, and civilization has not collapsed because of it.

In religion we see another clear example of this faulty concept in action. Abstinence only education, as I've mentioned before, is a monument to the stupidity of trying to get humans to act far outside of their nature. We are designed to have sex, and we're designed to want it most fervently in the years before most people are getting married these days. Still, Christians insist that premarital sex is wrong and that nobody should ever do it. They insist that if only we teach children how to behave, they will behave that way.

The evidence could not be more clear. Abstinence only education doesn't stop people from having sex. It only stops them from using condoms. Humans are literally alive to have sex, from a gene's point of view. That is why humans are obsessed with sex. It's not because we're evil, or that society is corrupt, or that we've gone “away from our nature.” Of course, this is not to say that humans ought to go out and have orgies with complete strangers every night. That's not in our nature either. The fact is, regardless of the laws or teaching policies, people do what people are going to do. I've addressed this at length in the chapters on human sexuality, so I will not belabor the point here.

This brings up a counter-objection. If we can't stop humans from being humans, how can we ever expect to make society better? After all, some things that are perfectly natural for humans are also very, very wrong. Humans are capable of committing rape and murder, and these behaviors are just as natural as giving money to the poor and sending baby pictures to the proud grandparents. To answer this question, I will again point out that recognizing that we are programs does not lead to the conclusion that we can only act in one way, or that we don't have purpose. We do have purpose, and one of the most noble of those purposes is the betterment of society for the good of all citizens. If we decide (because of our programming) that we ought to build a society where everyone has healthcare, then we can do that. The fact that our genes programmed us with the ability to reach such a decision doesn't make the decision any less valid.

Furthermore, the prohibitions on sex and drinking are not based on empirical reality. They are based on a very old religion. Humans have been drinking and having sex before marriage since the invention of alcohol and marriage. Society has not collapsed, and there's never been any evidence that either activity damages either individuals or society as a whole in any significant way. In fact, both sex and alcohol have been important parts of rituals that have cemented various societies for thousands of years. Murder and rape are empirically bad. Murder ends a life and rape causes extreme mental trauma and possibly passes on STDs or causes serious physical injury. As I've explained in another essay, morality is subjective, but it is not arbitrary. With more scientific understanding of what human nature is, we can use our critical thinking to decide what is right and what is wrong based on the results of the actions, and try to mold society in such a way as to reduce the bad and increase the good as much as possible.

Humans have the capacity for good and for evil. They decide which to do because of genetic programming. The environment is the main factor that determines how the programming will manifest itself, just as a chess machine's next move is dictated by the current state of the board. Now that we are aware of these facts, we have, for the first time in human history, the chance to use science to help us predict the best ways to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Rather than taking something away from humanity, the knowledge that we are gene survival machines has given us the chance to mold society in exciting new ways. Instead of trying to metaphorically fit a cube into a round hole, we can now think of how to change the shape of the hole so that the cube will fit. We can flip our thinking around and work towards building an environment that triggers our programming in ways that will improve things for everyone. Science can teach us how to improve society. We only have to embrace the previously discomforting thought that we aren't as free willed as we would like to believe.



1For the remainder of this paragraph, the word all means “virtually all, excluding those humans with genetic disorders that exclude them from this group.”


Rationality through Fluffy Fur and Pointy Claws

Is there such a thing as a God or Gods?