Posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Blasphemy, Everyday life, Family, Human Rights, Morality, Religion, The Conscious Disbeliever

What flipped your switch?

English: Dead Sea Scroll - part of Isaiah Scro...
English: Dead Sea Scroll – part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 – 59:9), 1QIsa b (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The road to non-belief is not straightforward, it is in most cases a slow journey. It is the lowly drop of water and not the majestic wave that slowly erodes the stone and in this way our belief in the supernatural is whittled down until one day we realize that what was once incontrovertible, now is an argument that holds no water.

It seems to me that although non-belief is the result of a long list of things that make us question the validity of that which we hold true, many times there is a first question a first doubt. In my case, I think that the first question was something that I would later learn is called the problem of evil.

When I was a kid, I would always think that nobody could ever go to Hell because God being an all-knowing, all-caring and all-powerful being would not allow it. How could he? He knew everything before it happened. He loved everybody so he did not wish bad things to happen and of course he could do anything.

He could do anything and did everything. So where did bad things come from?

What?! You mean God created evil? No way! Well, yes way.

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I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.

Jewish Publication Society Bible    YISHEYAH (Book of Isaiah) Chapter 45

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I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

 Isaiah 45:7

 King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Pure Cambridge Edition

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Evil exists and God created it. How can that be?  Well this leads us into the problem of evil.

The existence of evil is a contradiction in logical terms to a god that is omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent.

  1. God exists.

  2. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

  3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.

  4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.

  5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.

  6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.

  7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.

  8. Evil exists (logical contradiction).

So following that logic. God is a logical contradiction.

And of course we also have the problem of Hell, but that is another question.

There are many defences and theodicies that theists use to get around this problem. One way that they defend this problem is through the free will argument: It is a very good thing that God has created persons with free will. God cannot eliminate evil, because in doing so he would remove the possibility of free will and making correct moral choices. 

Ok we have free will and can choose good or evil.  We are imperfect and at least one time, if not many, we will choose wrong. God being perfect and endowed with omniscience knows this before we do it, in fact even before we come into existence. Or maybe he cannot know this, but that would strip him of omniscience. Of course this would resolve the problem of evil, but would render God imperfect.

And talking of free will. The concept of free will beyond the constraints of the physical universe is childish, downright stupid. Free will must be understood within the constraints of a physical universe as we are physical beings. To think that we could have absolute free will would make us supernatural, would make us in fact gods. The matter at question is: do we have the ability to make free choices within the constraints of a physical universe? That is the true question of free will.

We do not have conscious free will as has been stated elsewhere, and that seems to destroy the free will theodicy, but we are agents capable of decisions, albeit these decisions are made in a subconscious manner.

And I never even got to the question of natural evil, that is a whole new ball-game.

So what got you started? What flipped your switch?

Portrait of Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean...
Portrait of Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean school. Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”
Epicurus

See you next time.

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Posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Everyday life, Morality, Neuroscience, Religion, Science, The Conscious Disbeliever

Borrowed Morality

Code of laws of Hammurabi. Louvre museum, Middle East antiques.

Most Christians say that Atheists borrow their morality from the Bible. Without the enlightened teachings of the Bible, we would be no more than instinctive animals, killing and raping, our daily deeds.

Well, let us take a brief step back in time. The revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai took place around 1312 BCE or another possible time was 1280 BCE. It is assumed by modern biblical scholars that the written books were done during the exile from Babylon 600 BCE and it took around 200 years to complete.

It looks like the Torah has been around for a very long time. If we take the earliest possible time for the revelation to Moses, that would be 3324 years ago. So that would take us to believe that humanity before this was nothing but an uncivilized rabble.

So let us concede, for the sake of argument, that there were no moral codes before the era of the beginning of written history in Mesopotamia around 3100 BCE. What happened from this point on, until the revelation and later writing of the Torah? Did humanity live as savages for close to 18 centuries?

The Egyptians had Maat as a concept of truth, balance, order,law, morality and justice around 2375 BCE and 2345 BCE, although there are little surviving writings on the way of practice of ancient Egyptian law.

We don’t know about earlier codes, but the first legal code in recorded history is attributed to Urukagina, who reigned Lagash in Mesopotamia from 2380 BCE to 2360 BCE.

Assuredly the most famous set of laws from antiquity must be the Code of Hammurabi, enacted by the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi about 1772 BCE. It had 282 laws dealing with a diversity of situations of daily life, including things like marriage, commerce, slavery, divorce, among others. It also has one of the most famous laws in article 196:

If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. [ An eye for an eye ]

So it seems that long before the revelation to Moses and even more so than the written Torah, there were codes of conduct not derived from  this text.

Well, the problem is you are not using the Christian Bible and are forgetting the Golden Rule.

OK, lets take a look at the most famous of rules, the ethics of reciprocity, that has been attributed to Jesus of Nazareth: “Therefore all things whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law of the prophets.” Matthew 7:12 or “And as you would that men should do to you, do you also to the likewise.” Luke 6:31.

Well, it seems others got to that conclusion a bit before the times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Zigong asked, “Is there a single saying that one may put into practice all one’s life?”

The Master said, “That would be ‘reciprocity’: That which you do not desire, do not do to others.”

Confucius(551–478 BCE) Analects XV.24

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”

Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama 563 – c. 483 BCE )Udanavarga 5:18

Or maybe, just maybe, Confucius and Buddha were the so called prophets Jesus referred to in scripture?

Most inevitably, even in tribal societies well before the bronze age, there was an intuition towards this rule. It would not be a very large stretch of the mind, even the primitive one, to consider that being killed is not very good. So if I don’t want to be killed, I suppose that my neighbor does not want to be killed either. It is just plain common sense; although I have heard that common sense is the least common of the senses. And the list would go on and on of things that we would not like done to ourselves.

Understanding morality as a set of rules, a code to determine what is good or what is bad for an individual and a group, makes it easy to see how this can come about without divine intervention. A sense of fairness , the so called “Fellow-Feeling” of Adam Smith, must have evolved as a necessity of human groups as a means to achieve more cooperation between its members. This has been imprinted on our brains.

Being fair, moral, is evolutionarily sound as it benefits the collective.

As I stated in a previous post called Freewill, the network within our material brain is hardwired through nature and nurture to respond and have the ability to acquire new information and adjust the decision process accordingly. The areas that intervene in this decision making process are mainly the posterior superior parietal lobe (pSPL) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in value-guided decisions.

Aside from the aforementioned cortical areas, there is another cortical area called the insula, that has been shown to have a critical role on the onset of this fairness, this egalitarian behavior.

This has been studied in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS April 9, 2012),and I quote from this paper:

“The fact that the insula is directly involved in physiological, food, and pain-related processing supports the general notion that prosocial behavior, which is important for survival of both the individual and the group/species, is implemented on a fundamental physiological level similar to breathing, heartbeat, hunger, and pain.”

And the fact that this was grasped in the writings of Hippocrates back in 400 BCE is astounding.

Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what unsavory; some we discriminate by habit, and some we perceive by their utility.

          HippocratesOn the Sacred Disease

So why look up to the  heavens looking for a set of rules, or wait for somebody to give us “divinely dictated” rules on a set of stone tablets, if we have them written down on our evolved cerebral cortex? We can and do have morality without deity. Morality comes from mankind.

Yes my morality is borrowed, but not from a religion, rather from each and every human that has walked the face o the earth and has given his little grain of sand in the ongoing hourglass of evolution and progress.

see you next time.

REFERENCES

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesopotamiahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torah

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maat

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urukagina

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/hamcode.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lex_talionis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule

http://ctext.org/analects/wei-ling-gong#n1504

http://books.google.com.mx/books?id=PPSPEgXj3gcC&pg=PT95&lpg=PT95&dq=buddha’s+golden+rule&source=bl&ots=NVt7qQnv7n&sig=cgkV69SAbKSNzgRyDy4Ps7YFzCI&hl=es&sa=X&ei=QHufT7afA4jS2QW4y7m3Ag&ved=0CFwQ6AEwCDgK#v=onepage&q=buddha’s%20golden%20rule&f=false

Dawes CT, Loewen PJ, Schreiber D, et al. Neural basis of egalitarian behavior. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2012

Hippocrates (400 BCE). On the Sacred Disease. Francis Adams.

Posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Neuroscience, The Conscious Disbeliever

FREEWILL

 

Do we have freewill?

That simple question does not have a simple answer it seems, and has been cause of a centuries long matter of debate in many fields of human knowledge. It has pitted determinists and libertarians against each other for ages, with compatibilists in between.

If we look to science for an answer, the evidence is in favor of the deterministic view, as neither the libertarian o compatibilist theories pass muster.

In a strict sense we don’t have free will. Our choices are dictated by our circumstance, that is by genetics and environment. The laws of physics put constraints on our actions. In fact many of our choices, ascribed to free will, are initiated in a subconscious manner a few milliseconds before we actually think of doing them.

In the deterministic world in which we live free will is a perception. We have the sense of free will inasmuch as we do not feel externally compelled to decide or to do some action. But it is only that, an illusion, a preception. There is no Ghost in the Machine or Soul as you will, controlling our decision process but rather a series of neural circuits within a large network that are responsible for our decisions. The network within our material brain is hardwired through nature and nurture to respond and have the ability to acquire new information and adjust the decision process accordingly. The areas that intervene in this decision making process are mainly the posterior superior parietal lobe (pSPL) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in value-guided decisions. And in motor decisions they are originated in frontopolar cortex from where they influence the buildup of decision-related information in the precuneus  (a posteromedial portion of the parietal lobe)and later in supplementary motor cortex (SMC)

So should we abolish the concept?

Well, one thing is in vitro and a very different one is in vivo. We must strive for knowledge and understanding through science but at the same time we must preserve social coexistence. If we decide that free will, selfhood and personhood are invalid, then how can we expect a person to be subject to the norm. If each and every decision is dependent on an external force, I am responsible for nothing. And this is a very irrational argument that goes directly in contravention to basic self preservation and self interest.

So in the end we cannot throw free will in the trash even though science does not support its existence.  We have to refine the definition of free will and accept the importance it has on our day to day lives. We may have to thank cognitive polyphasia for that.  It may be an illusory state but it serves us well. Maybe it is a decision made from a neural circuit in the brain that is limited by the laws of nature, but it is MY brain. Is my brain not me?

There is much that we do not know and much more that I do not know.

See you next time.

Recommended reading

  • Fried, I., Mukamel, R., & Kreiman, G. (2011). Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition. Neuron, 69(3), 548–562. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.045Hunt L. T., Kolling, N., Soltani, A., Woolrich, M. W., Rushworth, M. F. S., & Behrens, T. E. J. (2012). Mechanisms underlying cortical activity during value-guided choice. Nature Neuroscience, 15(3), 470–476. doi:10.1038/nn.3017
    Newell, B. (2009). Can Neuroscience Inform the Free Will Debate? Indiana Undergraduate Journal of Cognitive Science.

    Pearson, J., & Platt, M. L. (2012). Dynamic decision making in the brain. Nature Neuroscience, 15(3), 341–342. doi:10.1038/nn.3049

    Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J., & Sakura, O. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 543–545.