A New York Times article covered a recent retraction from the religiously righteous (alliteration of the day, perhaps?). Ten years ago, then-archbishop of the archdiocese of New York, Archbishop Egan offered an apology during Mass with respect to child abuse. Continue reading
Image taken from http://imgur.com/bFvIF
As I think these words, even before my fingers strike the keys, I feel like I’ve said this before. I feel like I’ve felt this same frustration before. How is it possible that in 2011, nearly 2012, we have countries with laws that jail a woman for infidelity? To add the most reprehensible insult to injury I’ve ever heard of in my whole life, the “infidelity” is a result of being a rape victim. Continue reading
Should medical professionals be able to pick and choose which procedures they perform? I’m not talking about specialization. Cardiologists don’t perform brain surgery because it is not their area of expertise. What about medical procedures that are part of the expertise? Should the specialist have the right to refuse them on moral or ethical grounds? Continue reading
Recently, I was reading about one of the more well-known thought experiments produced by John Rawls. It is called the “original position”. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s remarkably inspired. The idea is to come up with principles of justice and fairness to structure a hypothetical society. The hypothetical question is posed to the reader: How would you structure a society, and what ideologies become manifested, given no previous knowledge of where you will fit into this society; often called: “the veil of ignorance”. Stated differently, the reader does not know his/her gender, ethnicity, social status, aptitude, IQ, beauty, etc. before creating the social configuration.
Given that the audience to our blogs is composed primarily atheists, one’s initial thoughts (certainly my own) diverge from actually answering the question and move towards anxiously posing it to people known to have different ethical and political views. And herein lies the fallacy; to answer this, one must be “reasonable”. What do I mean by this? Continue reading
Be insightful. This is what I have been repeating to myself for the past few days. After a conversation with Zak, I found myself actually (read: desperately) searching for a subject for my first blog. What may sound like a perfectly natural and normal way to begin such a thing was a relatively new feeling for me. On Facebook, I’ve never had trouble posting anything – and frequently. It seemed as though I was either taking this much too seriously, and/or was experiencing (for the first time since the mandatory writing in high school) “writer’s block”. What immaculate timing, as I had just promised my first post.
It’s not as if there is nothing to write about, either. Between South Sudan becoming a new country, the debt ceiling and market-crash talks from our neighbours to the South, Breivik’s murderous killings in Norway, and David Eagleman’s new book Incognito (I’m currently waiting for the slowest delivery truck EVER…), I shouldn’t be lacking topics – and I’m not.
So what then? What’s the problem? Honestly… it’s you. Yes, you. I’m slightly afraid of you. So, let’s hope we discover that I can be (at least) half as insightful as I am (evidently) neurotic. With that out of the way, here’s my first post. Continue reading
I was eating Chinese food with some pretty girls the other day. I should note (beyond my innate inclinations for sexism) that when I say pretty, I don’t just mean physically attractive, these were highly intelligent and educated women. The best kind, and pretty.
Some days, being a man is just awesome.
We were talking law, one is a law student, and that led to my own fanboy-like obsession with Michael Sandel and his Harvard Justice series, and then to the Philosophy Bites podcast, another personal favourite. The conversation moved along nicely… then the bomb dropped.
PG1:…but that just leads to relativism.
Me: Well, yes, I’m a relativist.
PG1: You’re a relativist? Really? But…
And so we discussed the relative merits of Utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. I’m afraid I may have mangled a few of Sandel’s points on Aristotle, but it was interesting conversation, none the less. Sandel is of course a big fan of the Virtue ethics, whereas being a relativist, I view them all as ‘useful’ strategies for making moral decisions.
But that brings me back to Philosophy Bites. Today, I got around to listening to the podcast that includes: Professor John Mikhail from Georgetown University.
He talks about universal moral grammar, hypothesizing that humans have a system of innate principles or rules that guide our morality. “Young children are intuitive lawyers” able to distinguish acts based on the intent of the person committing the act.
He uses the example of the idea of Universal Human Rights, but also distinguishes between ‘acquired moral grammar’ and what he considers more basic and innate. So ‘freedom of speech’ might be the acquired, more complex idea that depends more on culture and ‘nurture’; whereas the more basic idea ‘freedom from harm’ may be the universal.
I should say, I find the use of the word ‘universal’ problematic, but mainly because of the philosophical problems that the word implies, not so much because I think his actual position is a bad one. To describe what Mikhail is talking about, I’d prefer the word ‘instinctive’, as in evolved reflexive behavior. I think modern science has put the lie to the idea that as children we are simply blank slates, although obviously how we are raised can have a huge influence on our beliefs.
I’ve stated before that I’m not a fan of Sam Harris’s warmed over utilitarianism, but I do think one can study human morality with science, both from behavioral observation and via neuroscience. In that sense I think we can come to describe certain common features of human moral behaviour, but I don’t think observed commonalities or averages tell us anything more than ‘what we think’ is moral. Ultimately right and wrong are up to the individual to decide, and as much as we are going to agree, we are also going to disagree.
Mikhail also has an interesting take on the trolley problem.
Is free will real, or is just one of our happy illusions? As it turns out, the answer might not matter as much as our belief in the answer does. A recent study showed that, when people’s belief in free will was experimentally reduced, pre-conscious motor preparation, or that activity that precedes action, in the brain was delayed by more than one second relative to those who believed in free will – an eternity in brain time.
So even if free will doesn’t exist, our brain wants to think it does.
While I’m still not sold on the idea that we have evolved a need for religion, research like this seems to suggest a preference for belief. But believing something doesn’t make it true, so even though I worry our opponents will claim they have a scientific basis for their dogma, organized religions can still easily be debunked on their own grounds.
h/t Big Think
Vancouver atheist Derek Miller publishes his own obituary.
I haven’t gone to a better place, or a worse one. I haven’t gone anyplace, because Derek doesn’t exist anymore. As soon as my body stopped functioning, and the neurons in my brain ceased firing, I made a remarkable transformation: from a living organism to a corpse, like a flower or a mouse that didn’t make it through a particularly frosty night. The evidence is clear that once I died, it was over.
So I was unafraid of death—of the moment itself—and of what came afterwards, which was (and is) nothing. As I did all along, I remained somewhat afraid of the process of dying, of increasing weakness and fatigue, of pain, of becoming less and less of myself as I got there. I was lucky that my mental faculties were mostly unaffected over the months and years before the end, and there was no sign of cancer in my brain—as far as I or anyone else knew.
Dealing with death is a problem atheists haven’t quite figured out how to solve. While atheists are comfortable admitting nothing happens others aren’t satisfied and drift towards the fantasies that religion provides. The afterlives that religions have created aren’t real but they provide a powerful sense of comfort that atheists can’t possibly match.
Derek’s obituary is a good example of how atheists focus on life instead of a selfish and superficial promise of eternal happiness. It’s the experiences and relationships we live every day that matter, since we know they exist. It’s this focus on reality and living with the responsibility that comes with knowing that your actions have consequences that I think makes atheism more satisfying than anything religion provides.
In the good ole USofA, they have this document of some note, that guarrantees a person’s right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’, amongst other things.
Although its a nice little document otherwise, I find this idea wrongheaded.
Julia Galef, over at Measure of Doubt, wrote an article on the topic of happiness recently, with this interesting premise:
With only a few exceptions, people tend to return to the same level of happiness over time, regardless of what happens to them — even extremely good events like winning the lottery, or extremely bad events like becoming a paraplegic, only seem to bump people’s reported happiness up or down for a limited time
So if no matter what we do… our situation stays the same… whats the point?
It could be that we are hardwired, or biochemically disposed to this baseline, but I’m most curious about how the outliers, the exceptions, made the change. Are they special in some way, or are they just doing something the rest of us are ignorant of?
I tend to think part of the problem is that most of us just don’t understand what happiness is. We think its something to accomplish, or some reward we get for accomplishment… and that leads us down the wrong path like in this article from Science Daily:
many people buy products thinking that the items will make them happier and transform their lives
Either by transforming their self or how they are percieved, by transforming their relationships with others, by directly making their life more ‘fun’, or by making them more effective in their lives.
People who have strong and unrealistic transformational beliefs are more likely than others to overuse credit and take on excessive debt
So, materialism is bad… blah blah… unless you’re a banker.
But if accomplishment doesn’t increase happiness longterm, what then? Maybe a more general sense of happiness requires a less goal-oriented basis for valuing.
Accomplishment is, and should be, its own reward. But I think being happy in a general sense is more about accepting both your successes and failures, and you’ll excuse me for sounding all self-helpy, accepting who you are.