As a lot of the content on this site suggests, I’m an atheist. Being an atheist can be a bit contentious, as many find the lack of an explicit purpose or codified moral laws wrong. So, I’d like to talk a bit about what exactly I believe and why.
First, a bit about belief (my meta-beliefs). Life is a coping mechanism. We’re flung randomly into these bodies and we have to find a way to deal with the existential and practical implications of being alive. We all think differently, although we share patterns of experience and thought. So, it’s only natural that what works for each of us is different (though it may rest on the same foundation).
More importantly, no one is right or wrong about the big questions because no one knows the big answers. Some think they do, but they don’t: they either claim that their particularly well-fitting mechanism is the truth (“How good do I look?”) or push such a broad, vague apparatus that almost everyone can fit in it (“We can’t all be wrong”). The coping mechanism is a private solution to finding meaning and virtue in life.
Now, I’d like to explain why I’m an atheist. These are my beliefs, they are a part of my coping mechanism.
- The Universe operates according to stable natural laws, and it appears to be untouched since its creation.
- I’ve talked about issues with making this induction before. Nevertheless, if you draw a red ball randomly 999,999 times, it’s a safe bet you’ll draw a red one on the millionth try.
- I have no reason to believe that whatever created the universe is an active agent in the sense of being omnipotent, omniscient, omnivorous (wait…).
- The creation of the Universe and its contents from an infinitesimally tiny and infinitely dense point of stuff is incredible. However, it is an unreasonable jump for me to believe that there was an all-powerful, all-knowing God behind it. Some thing or force, yes, but we’re still far from a divine being that deserves worship and fear.
- Life evolved on this planet owing to fortuitous, but not miraculous events (that is, without circumventing the laws of the Universe).
- I can believe this even without conclusive proof because I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume an agent arranged a primitive form of life then waited several billion years for its primate descendents to gain some consciousness and then returned to create man and his soul. We are the chance evolutionary products of a perfect little planet.
- Our existence as conscious beings is owed to the activity of the brain in accordance with the laws of the universe (known or unknown).
- The evidence for this is pretty strong. Our brains are more advanced than primates’ and so is our level of consciousness. Damaging regions of the brain affects associated aspects of consciousness. Similarly, stimulating the brain with drugs has definite effects on consciousness. That the brain operates within the natural laws is assumed based on the fact that its functional unit (the neuron) controls observable reflexes through neurotransmitter release and recognition at the lowest level, and higher-level processes simply utilize more complex neural networks involving the same physical processes (the collection of these high-level processes ultimately producing consciousness). Also, everything else in the universe does.
But, if I am just an instance of a self-propagating species that happens to be conscious, what’s the point of living? While I don’t believe I have a specific purpose, I think my life is a gift. The value of sensing this world, interacting with people, learning and thinking is immeasurable. Living is the purpose of life.
What then is the reason for living morally? Understanding life as this random occurrence lends to a sense of equality among and responsibility for all people. Being virtuous is not a matter of fearing divine retribution, but of seeing myself and my condition in everyone else. Whether it’s Kant’s categorical imperative or the golden rule, basic (perhaps even hard-wired) empathy becomes the predominant source of moral behavior. Every human being is exactly like me in the most important way, and acting morally requires no more justification than doing the same to myself.
I’m really hoping for some kind of Q & A session when this is all over. Here are a few questions I’d ask:
- The Universe: What is it, does it have a purpose, is it in something else, how did it begin, how will it end?
- Time: What does it mean for time to pass?
- Matter: What does it mean for things to occupy space?
- Life: What other forms of life exist in the universe? How do they work?
- Us: What is consciousness?
I found putting my beliefs on paper to be an interesting challenge. What’s your system and why? What questions would you ask?
Why Medical School Should Be Free
There’s a lot of really great doctors out there, but unfortunately, there’s also some bad ones. That’s a problem we don’t need to have, and I think it’s caused by some problems with the...
The Cerebellum: a model for learning in the brain
I know, it’s been a while. Busy is no excuse though, as it is becoming clear that writing for erraticwisdom was an important part of exercising certain parts of my brain that I have neglected...
Conscious Conversation: Philosophy
Daniel Black, author of Erectlocution, was kind enough to chat with me one day and we had a great discussion – have a listen.
The Stuff in Between
I’m actually almost normal when not agonizing over robot production details, and quite a bit has happened since I last wrote an update. First, I’ve finally graduated. I had a bit of a...
The Ethics of AI: Part Three
Is it ethical (or possible) to constrain intelligent life? This part of the argument involves what we think it means to be human, and whether creating and adjusting those criteria in an AI affects...
The Ethics of AI: Part Two
Is it ethical to allow humanity to continue, or to replace our species with machines? This is getting tougher. Why does humanity deserve to exist? The recorded history of the experiences of Homo...
The Ethics of AI: Part One
Is it ethical to create consciousness? In this discussion, I will make the assumption that we can be assured these beings are “personally” intelligent (i.e. just like us). As we see in nature,...
The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence
I am beginning a series exploring some ethical concerns associated with the development of artificial intelligence. Neurobiological evidence points firmly to the brain as the source of human...