It’s finally winding down. The US has been on this 4-year nightmarish national experiment: what would happen if the top leader of our country never tells the truth AND doesn’t give a shit about major problems plaguing the people, problems which are society-wide, national, and even global in scope? We’ve been getting the answers to that question. But, it may be that the damage we know now is just the tip of the iceberg. I suspect a lot more damage will be uncovered in the weeks, months, and even years to come.
There are people who voted for Trump, in 2016 and 2020, who knew he was a jerk (arrogant, lying, misogynist, racist), but either preferred his political positions or were afraid of the other choice being too extreme to the left and “socialist.” To these people I ask two things. The first is: can you see how the degree of a person’s human decency has a huge effect on how said person would do an important job – regardless of political views? Surely, a lesson to draw is that the content of a high officeholder’s character really matters, even to the point of life and death.
Second, the pandemic has especially shown a number of issues in our society that need rectifying, and that’s in addition to overcoming the pandemic itself. In all of these issues there are things that can be done personally as individuals. We can each do our part toward a cause (e.g. wearing masks and social distancing). But, that’s never enough. These kinds of problems are institutionalized, and to be addressed to some significant, meaningful degree, it takes much more large scale coordination than can be done with personal, individual efforts. The most efficient way for effective, large scale coordination to address major problems is through the CENTRAL GOVERNMENT. This, however, is contrary to the pervasive sentiments that smaller government is better (Republican principle especially since Reagan) and that collectively coordinating and helping the people through a central institution (denigrating this as “socialism”) is bad. Those sentiments have been put to the test numerous times in recent decades, usually alternating with modestly backing off of those sentiments when Democrats are in charge. Objectively looking at data (both in our country and in other countries around the world), one can see that the smaller government with weaker and less central coordination has not worked out better. The strongest proof of that is the Trump presidency; and the strongest proof within the Trump presidency is the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. (Just one quick example: there have been numerous SINGLE DAYS in the US with more covid deaths than the nation of South Korea has had during the ENTIRE PANDEMIC.)
Voting for smaller government and being against a strong, central government has had major negative (and even deadly) consequences. Nothing will be perfect, but these ideas of less government are clearly and demonstrably inferior with respect to human beings’ quality of life. At the very least, the next time someone is elected advocating smaller, less involved central government (it’s inevitable), let’s hope said person, while unfortunately being less wise about their views, is at least basically honest and gives a shit.
If you’re fortunate enough to have survived 2020 and the ongoing pandemic with your life, house, health, and income intact, that’s great. But, if you’re going to philosophize about how you’ve faced the challenge and learned the “lessons,” I say: that’s easy for you to say. You did some things well AND you got lucky. Others haven’t been so lucky.
More than 1/3 of a million Americans and counting are dead from the pandemic. A couple of million more are left with long term health problems. Millions have lost their jobs, record numbers are going to food banks, and who knows how many thousands or millions can’t make the rent or pay the utilities. These people, and those who have lost loved ones, don’t need to hear from us lucky ones about the “lessons” we’ve learned. Very easily, they could have been us, and we could have been them.
Nonetheless, there is a universal principle that both the fortunate and the unfortunate should heed, and it’s a very serious one: Nature kills. That’s what it does. Other than recirculating molecules, nothing survives. Eventually, all things die. Nature relentlessly succeeds in this; and its success rate is 100%. Sometimes it’s a trickle here and there, and sometimes it’s death and misery on a more massive scale. And everything in between.
This boils down what’s important to two things: 1) How long can we prolong and lengthen our window of time before our inevitable death? And 2) How enjoyable/comfortable and meaningful/productive can we make this window of time and do so without adversely affecting the length of it?
The current pandemic is one of countless examples of calamities in the 4.5 billion year natural history of planet Earth. It would be a mistake to think that once we get through this, then the next thing of this magnitude won’t be for another 100 years. That kind of thinking is one of the main reasons we’ve handled this event as poorly as we have. We were caught not well prepared. We didn’t take seriously the principle about nature, that it’s relentlessly going about the business of finding ways to kill us, be it weather, disease, or other ways. Sometimes the effects are mainly in a local region and sometimes it’s global. But all of it relentlessly goes on every day of every year.
All we can do is look at this from the palliative point of view. We can’t stop the inevitable, but we can push on the inevitable and make things better along the way. We can stop being fooled by temporary periods of good luck and stay more vigilant. We can use the best tools and be as cooperative as we can. The best tool, of course, is science. And cooperativeness is our choice to make or not. Science and cooperativeness together is our best effect.
Nature is still going to win, and for every one of us. Count on it. Expect it. We can hold it at bay to some extent, lengthen our window, and improve our experience. That’s the most we can do, and we might as well do it as much as we can. Certainly we can do a better job going forward than we have with the current crisis. Nature won’t stop. But together, using science, the hope for 2021 and beyond is to up our game.
I have thought, especially since 2016, that a root cause of our societal ills is our electoral system. The Electoral College, winner-take-all, 2-party system has bad outcomes. It needs to be replaced with ranked choice voting, proportional representation, removal of power/career incentives with term limits and reducing other benefits, removal of private money from campaigns and officeholders, etc. These things would dramatically improved our government and our society. Dramatically.
But, there may be a root cause deeper than electoral reform. That would be education. I have great respect for educators. At the same time, there are things not right. First, we need more equality, more equal access, more equally distributed resources, including money and facilities and equipment. More emphasis on helping and encouraging education at all levels for minorities and for girls and women would make a huge difference. We surely know how to this part.
We also need to prioritize differently what’s taught. Important stuff: 1) Critical thinking — the ability to discern and investigate and determine accuracy with proper skepticism and methodology. 2) Science literacy — including understanding the philosophy behind the scientific method, the tool of randomized control trials, evolutionary biology, principles of chemisty and toxicity. 3) History — not just typical sutff, but the history of the cosmos, the 4.5 billion year history of planet Earth and how massive changes in life over the last few billion years came about by freak accidents, as well as more recent history but told from the point of view of the oppressed, not the ruling class. 4) What might be more controversial — the study of Ethics from a purely secular point of view. There are thousands of manifestations of religiosity, both formal religions and not. And no two are exactly the same, and there are many, many disagreements. Yet, there are ethics principles that can be shown to be beneficial from actual data learned through history. Secular ethics is better because it’s totally INCLUSIVE. Not only is any particular religious slant not necessary, it’s counterproductive because if one particular way is emphasized, large groups of other people will take offense. Secularism is the place where EVERYONE can meet. We cooperate, serve one another, create true equality, clearly see what’s going wrong and fix it, not because a faith or any spiritual belief says so, but because with critical thinking, science literacy, and understanding long-perspective history, we actually KNOW that these things produce the best society-wide results. We can show this clearly and graphically, and that will be readily understood with a properly educated populace. The reason we embrace principles of ethics is because, without any religious referrence, it demonstrably WORKS and gives us — all of us — a better quality of life. We can therefore all unite around what is the right thing to do.
My thinking is that a better educated populace would produce better election results, even with the bad electoral system that we have. Unfortunately, there is a Catch-22. If you don’t know these things, you don’t know what you don’t know.
There’s so much work to do.
“Your personal astrophysicist” Neil deGrasse Tyson is always reminding people to think with a cosmological perspective. When looking at the global pandemic, this perspective seems largely missing in the public discourse. So, let’s take a look at it.
Planet earth is about 4.5 billion years old, about one-third of the age of the entire universe. For almost all of that time, planet earth has existed without our species. Homo Sapiens have only been around for about the last 200,000 years (.004% of earth’s history).
For much of those 4.5 billion years of earth history, the conditions were not conducive to supporting our species. We’re currently in a window of time in which the conditions are conducive. For example, this is a period of tens of thousands of years between Ice Ages. However, it needs to be said, humans are messing up that window with our causing of climate change.
During the history of life forms on earth, about 99% of all species which have existed have gone extinct. There have been 5 major Great Extinction periods identified in earth’s history, and many expert observers think we have now entered the 6th.
To speak the obvious, Homo Sapiens is a species; and planet earth has gone along its merry way throughout its history no matter what species come and go or suffer. And, it will continue to do so.
Further, there have been a number of times when our species took serious hits on our numbers because of events like plagues. And once, around 70,000 BCE, our species came very close to going extinct. That was due to a massive volcano erruption which wreaked havoc on the weather for several years. Scientists think our numbers may have dropped to under 20,000 people in the entire world.
Recovery from these events has always been long and arduous. Technology and medical science were not well developed until relatively quite recently. From that low point, it took all the way until the early 1800s before the world human population hit 1 billion. Then in a mere century and a half, the population tripled to 3 billion by 1960. Now, just 60 years after that, we’re at 7.5 billion, with estimates of 9 to 10 billion by 2050.
It’s easy to see from above how things like recent advancements in technology, food systems, and medical science have been hugely successful. Maybe too successful, in the sense that now the large number of humans is stressing everything, especially noting the ramifications of human caused climate change.
This kind of growth is extremely fast on a cosmological scale. Climate change with (suddenly) this many resource consuming humans will have a variety of far reaching effects. And there are a few things which should be noted here. One is that the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology continue to go about their merry ways. They go about it based on all conditions at a given time (whatever those conditions might be), and they go about it with complete impartiality and absolutely no regard for desires, wishes, or needs of any species, including us.
It seems quite clear that there isn’t anything “out there” (deity, karma principle, any sort of coordinating “Universe”) that cares at all about how anything works out for anyone, anything, or any species. There is “no hint of anything that will save us from ourselves” (Carl Sagan). And I’m saying this about the entire 4.5 billion year history of this planet. Clearly, large catastrophic events can and do happen. A huge asteroid hits the earth and most of the living species of the time go extinct. Volcanoes erupt, geologic faults move, more and more severe weather events happen, viruses evolve, new diseases appear, epidemics and pandemics happen.
This is the situation we find ourselves in. Now it is a pandemic that is serious. But if you think that once we get past this pandemic, then the next thing on that level of seriousness won’t be for another 100 years, you are fooling yourself. The current mix of conditions has way too much potential for misery. Physics, chemistry, and biology are in charge, and the laws of those sciences have no care or regard for anything one way or another, and they always have their way. This has been amply demonstrated for billions of years.
On the one hand, we humans alive today have won the lottery of birth with the freakishly lucky accident to be a relatively highly evolved living being on a tiny little planet in one solar system among billions in a remote corner of one galaxy among billions to experience existence for a precious, cosmologically brief moment. How grand!
On the other hand, looking at this precious, brief existence at this point in time in a serious, rational, cosmological way shows that our existence is extremely precarious and fragile. While our population may be so large that extinction is unlikely, major degrees of suffering and deaths are quite possible. This pandemic and the myriad of other potential things on that level of seriousness are no joke.
There is so much we cannot control. The few things we can control are brought to us by scientists and experts in specific fields of study for the purpose of working with the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology to make our situation less precarious and fragile. That’s all we have. I say we make use of what we can do as best we can.
I just finished reading a great book called The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova. You can see it on Amazon here. The book chronicles the author, who is a psychologist, on her journey to learn the game of poker on a high, professional level. The idea was to explore poker, and specifically No Limit Texas Holdem (the version of poker played at professional tournaments), as a metaphor for life.
In poker, and in life, you get dealt cards which are random and unknowable ahead of time. The cards you get dealt you can see, but the cards for the other players you can’t see. Then, there are community cards in the middle that everyone sees. The goal is to put together the best 5 cards combining your own cards with the community cards. The trick is, there is some information you know, some information you don’t know, but maybe you can make some rational guesses about, and there’s luck. You can’t control the luck. But there are skills that will bring about good decisions based on the partial information that you have. However, even with the best possible rationally based decision, things still may not turn out well.
The book is entertainingly written and gives the reader a great understanding of the metaphor. To give you a taste, I’d like to give you a few quotes from the book that show the insightfulness of this metaphor. When reading these, you can imagine a poker game; and you can also see how it’s good wisdom for living your life.
You can’t control what will happen, so it makes no sense to try to guess at it. Chance is just chance: it is neither good nor bad nor personal. Without us to supply meaning, it’s simple noise. The most we can do is learn to control what we can––our thinking, our decision processes, our reaction.
Admitting to unknowing, accepting a lack of agency without resorting to gimmicks, and instead attempting to analyze the unknown as best we can with the tools of rationality: those are some of the most powerful steps we can take.
And then there’s this:
We have won the impossible, improbable lottery of birth. And we don’t know what will happen. We never can. There’s no skill in birth and death. At the beginning and at the end, luck reigns unchallenged. Here’s the truth: most of the world is noise, and we spend most of our lives trying to make sense of it. We are in the end, nothing more than interpreters of static. We can never see beyond the present moment. We don’t know what the next card will be––and we don’t even know when we see it, if it’s good or bad.
And I have to love her quoting Carl Sagan:
Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who wish to pretend to non-existent knowledge and control and a Cosmos centered on human beings, will prefer superstition. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from our wishes and prejudices, to those people belongs the future. Supersitions may be comforting for a while. But, because they avoid rather than confront the world, they are doomed. The future belongs to those able to learn, to change, to accommodate to this exquisite Cosmos that we have been privileged to inhabit for a brief moment.
And now back to Konnikova and her main point:
Nothing is all skill. Ever. Luck will always be a factor in anything we might do or undertake. Skill can open up new vistas, allow us to see the chance that others may miss. But should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage. And the biggest bluff of all? That skill can ever be enough. That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up.
So…skill is only one part about how things turn out. Things we don’t know about other people and luck play huge roles. To carry on in the face of bad luck and with lots of unknowns, one option is to use “the biggest bluff” and pretend that skill is everything. This delusion can take us to another moment where, perhaps, the luck turns out better. By understanding the role of luck and understanding that it’s not personal, we can carry on with the controllable aspects, most especially decision making using the best possible rationality.
In previous posts, I’ve written about pseudoscientific positions that many people have on food and agricultural topics like organic food and GMOs. On this post, I’d like to take on commonly held beliefs that so many people have, beliefs that are more in the “spiritual” realm. People hold these beliefs, I think, because they feel good. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not pseudoscientific nonsense. Because they are. Here are some of the most prevalent.
When one door closes, another door opens.
Sure, there are metaphorical “doors” opening and closing all the time. But that doesn’t mean that a closed door and an opened door are connected at all, implying that some kind of Cosmic Coordination is happening. For example, you could say when something you’ve been trying for doesn’t work out, but soon after that another opportunity comes around: aha! “The Universe” said you don’t get the first thing, but in exchange for not succeeding in that, here’s another shot at something else. What utter nonsense. For every story of one thing failing followed by something else that might or did succeed, there are probably 1,000 other stories in which another “door” did not open.
The truth is: it all happens. People succeed in what they try for sometimes right away, and sometimes it’s more “doors” down the line. And sometimes people don’t ever get what they’re trying for. Sometimes a person has to look hard to find something else to strive for, as no new doors seem to appear. And sometimes, something just falls in your lap without even going after it. It all happens. If it looks like an open door has the appearance that it is directly following a closed door, it’s just one of many, many possibilities. If that does happen, great! But don’t think it’s the Coordinating Universe doing its thing. You’re making up an explanation that only — after the fact — coincidentally fits, while thousands of other scenarios can and do happen all the time.
It was (or was not) meant to be.
This is related to the above. Anything and everything can and does happen. There is no Cosmic Justice Decider (or Cosmic Determiner about what is the “highest good”). Things can happen that, after the fact, appear to be proper justice. But that’s merely post-event interpretation. If you strive for something, and it doesn’t happen, there’s no reason to say it was not meant to be. It just didn’t work out, usually due to many factors beyond your control. You can accept what happens, and move on (usually a good thing to do), but saying something was meant to be or not meant to be is nonsense. Every minute millions of different outcomes happen.
You can achieve anything you put your mind to.
No you can’t. You might, or you might not. You can make efforts toward anything you want, and put your mind to it as hard as you can. But you may or may not get it. If it does work out that something you tried very hard to achieve succeeds, it’s easy to proclaim, see: let this be a lesson, that if you put your mind to something, you can achieve anything. Utter nonsense. For every feel good story of someone triumphantly getting something they worked really hard for, there are lots of stories where someone worked just as hard — and deserved it just as much — but didn’t get it. It all happens. But it’s completely delusional to think that all you have to do is try hard enough and it will happen. There are way too many factors beyond a person’s control and countless different outcomes possible in any given situation.
Everything happens for a reason.
No it doesn’t. Unless you count physics combined with lucky or unlucky coincidence as the reason. Again, what happens here is: a story unfolds, and then after the fact a person constructs a “reason” that fits the outcome of the story. It’s pure made up, post-outcome interpretation. You can choose to derive a learning from an experience, but don’t mush that into “The Universe” issuing a “reason” for what happened. No such thing is happening. You get into a car wreck because of physics and human actions and imperfections coinciding. Just stop there.
Anything astrology, and effects of the full moon.
Astrology is total pseudoscience. It’s been around for thousands of years, and has not evolved past its state from the time of Ptolemy about 2,000 years ago. At that time, the accepted understanding was geocentrism (Earth as the center of the universe). Astrology says that the position of the planets and stars at the moment of one’s birth dictates personality and behavior. It divides the year into 12 zodiacs, looking at which star constellation the sun rises in during a given time of year. Trouble is, due to a wobble of planet Earth, that’s changed since 2,000 years ago by something like 23 degrees. Yet, astrology, and the attributes of human behavior in a given sign, have not changed. If astrology were true, these behaviors and personality attributes would change also. This is just another indication that astrology isn’t real science.
No properly done scientific investigation has ever shown any accuracy about astrology. People can be fooled on this quite easily. A person posing as an astrologer can give a group of people the same “information” and each person typically thinks it’s uniquely accurate, even though everyone is reading the same stuff. (There are a number of YouTube videos out there that do just that.) Go ahead and laugh and be entertained if you want. But don’t think there’s anything scientifically legitimate about it. It’s all nonsense.
It’s the same with full moons. Many people think there are more births, more accidents, more crazy behavior, and more difficult situations occurring during full moons. Just one problem: there is no objective evidence for this at all. If that’s what you think, and if a crazy day is perceived during a full moon, then the typical human response is to connect the full moon with the craziness. But everytime we have actually carefully examined real data, we have found no connection between full moons and crazy human behaviors or events. Craziness, it turns out, is evenly distributed among all of the phases of the moon. The full moon is only a geometric effect of reflective sunlight. The moon, by the way, has an elliptical (not perfectly circular) orbit around the Earth, and the full moons only occasionally coincide with the point where the moon is closest to the Earth (called a “supermoon”). The moon affects tides and it looks pretty. But that’s it.
Personal annecdotes are not data! Whatever your personal experience is about something, or whatever you think your personal experience is about something, that has nothing to do with how humankind has determined what is actually true and correct. The only way that is done is through the scientific method, with proper setup, sample sizes, controls, replication, peer review, etc.
Correlation is not causation! Coincidences are not data! Just because an explanation of an outcome makes sense to you or appeals to you or “feels right” to you or happens at the same time as something else, that doesn’t mean your explanation is correct. Chances are it probably isn’t. Making things up after an event that seem to fit the situation is not anything grounded in objective data. You’re making it up!
The rational and responsible thing to do is to assume an explanation or idea is not true until there is good, thorough, proper scientific evidence reducing uncertainty to almost nothing. Otherwise, you’re spreading around falsehoods!
“The easiest person to fool is yourself.” — Richard Feynman, renowned physicist
“No matter how smart or how well-educated you are, you can be deceived.” — James Randi, renowned magician and paranormal investigator
Is the truth pessimistic? A profound film conversation inspires me to claim no #atheism #religion #filmreview
Some time ago, I watched a movie called The Sunset Limited based on a play written by Cormac McCarthy. There were 2 characters, one a religious person, and one not. The nonreligious person (played by Tommy Lee Jones) had been saved from a suicide attempt by the religious man (played by Samuel L. Jackson). The 2 men then went to the home of the man who attempted suicide and began to converse.
The entire movie was their conversation. It was a clash of world views, one based on tradition, hope, and feelings, and the other based on looking at life strictly based on hard evidence. They treated each other with respect and both alternated sincerely listening with rebuttals back and forth.
On the surface, one seemed more like an optimist and the other like a pessimist. But allowing a conversation to develop for that long, after awhile I could see both optimism and pessimism on both sides.
Toward the end, there was a remark by the character played by Jones that could be thought of as the most pessimistic thing in the movie (aside from the fact that he had just attempted suicide). He said that life was basically a series of doors closing, until a final door is shut and a life completely ends. This is, of course, from the character who believes only in the single, one time only life for each of us.
One could say that view of life sounds rather morbid. However, I’m now old enough (and nonreligious enough) where that closed doors metaphor really clicked. And somehow it doesn’t seem pessimistic. A strictly realistic point of view actually seems far more appropriate and sensible for someone with much fewer days in front of me than behind me. Actually, it seems sensible for anybody of any age old enough to grasp the concept. I truly wish I had discovered this way of viewing life long ago.
I look back on transitions in my life, some of which have been long and gradual, some long but ending suddenly, and some short with either tapered or sudden endings. I’ve watched things slowly dissolve and I’ve seen where a phone call or an email suddenly and out of the blue quickly slams a door shut. In all those cases, a door closes.
I see now that viewing life as a series of doors closing until a final, permanent door closes is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It just is the way it is. School ends. Someone leaves a group I’m in. Someone moves away. Someone dies. All kinds of things about situations change, sometimes with forewarning, sometimes not. Or, I leave something or move away and ultimately (who knows when?) I die, closing doors on others.
This brings about a keen awareness that whatever “room” I’m in at the moment, and whomever is with me in that “room,” at some point, in some way, I will be shut out of that situation. It’s totally and absolutely inevitable, even without often knowing when, or how.
The moral of the story for me, then, is this: I enjoyably soak up every possible thing I can, with particular attention to caring for people who are around me while I’m in whatever “room” I’m in at any given moment. Each moment will never be exactly repeated again. And each unique moment, once it’s passed, is completely gone forever.
In other words, there are actually doors closing every single moment. Some door closings may seem gentle and some not so gentle. But they’re all doors that close.
How precious are the moments before each door closes! I’m paying very close attention. One moment, who knows when down the road, will be my final moment; and at that time, my last door will shut.
The year 2017 has been difficult in some respects for me. I’ve had six friends in my age group (60s) die this year. Death, in my view as an atheist, means absolute death, permanently the end.
To me, this is what all religion, and all religiosity such as New Agey-ness and any other sorts of “spiritual” beliefs are trying to escape from. They’re all trying to escape the fact that death is death. When you’re dead, you’re gone. Forever.
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.” – James Baldwin
Death is a permanent end. To me, that is in all probability the most accurate statement. How? My answer is astrophysics and evolutionary biology.
These are generally accepted understandings from the world of science:
- Our universe began around 13.8 billion years ago in an event we call The Big Bang.
- The Big Bang sent out an explosion of chemistry which over all these billions of years has made the approximately 100 billion galaxies, each with billions of stars.
- The Big Bang is still happening! The expansion out continues at an accelerating pace! New stars are still being born.
- Earth is one planet of one star of one galaxy, in which all the conditions are such that microbial life began at some point after our planet formed some 4.5 billion years ago.
- Since microbial life began on Earth, the process of evolution by natural selection has been taking place, creating complex “branches” of ever varying species.
- Evolution is still happening! This moment in time is not the end of evolution, it’s just this moment in time – one snapshot.
- More than 99% of all species that have ever lived on Earth have become extinct.
- The human species is about 200,000 years old. In cosmological/geological terms, that’s a tiny amount of time.
- The human species gradually evolved from earlier species and it is gradually evolving to something else. Again, this is only one snapshot in time. A human life is too short to truly grasp cosmological time and processes that take thousands or millions or billions of years.
- At this point we are not aware of other intelligent life in the universe, and certainly not within thousands or perhaps millions of light years from Earth. If there is life that is farther out than that, the prospect of our species learning about it, given that sort of distance, is extremely remote and difficult. And, if there is life somewhere else in the universe, it would very likely be different from what we see on Earth because of its astrophysical and biological unique conditions and history.
- Events in the history of Earth indicate that the evolutionary snapshot we see today could easily have been something else. For example, the asteroid that hit the Earth around 65 million years ago wiped out many species including the dinosaurs. If that hadn’t happened, our species might not have happened. The same could be said for different weather events or Ice Ages or other things, which, had they been different, the evolutionary process, with all of its different “branches” could have taken many different turns.
- We humans have a brain which totally controls the life we have. We know that when the brain dies, the body dies. We know that when the part of the brain which controls X no longer functions, then that person can no longer do X. It’s that simple. If dementia sets in, that person changes in their abilities and even in their personality. A part of the brain corresponds to an ability. This is direct and indisputable. What’s really special and fortunate, is that the brain of humans has evolved to the extent that we now have figured out what I have outlined here.
Those twelve items above collectively paint a picture. No one knows how The Big Bang happened. But since that moment, we have a pretty good idea about how we arrived at this moment in these conditions. And the picture that this paints is one of chance, accident, coincidence, uniqueness, and fragility.
Indeed, there is one major principle in the universe which I discussed in this post. And that principle is: every thing that exists – living or not 1) pops into existence, 2) exists, and then 3) dies (or ends). This is what we observe for literally everything, including stars and planets and all things, living and non-living, on Earth. Begin, exist, end. It’s the fundamental principle of this universe.
So let’s review: we’re one species riding along a complex, continuing evolutionary process that might not have happened in the way it did, on one planet that might not have had the right conditions for life taking hold (and we certainly know of thousands of planets which don’t have the right conditions) and which will one day no longer exist, in one solar system among billions in our galaxy in which the star (our sun) will at one point die, in one galaxy among billions (which at one point will collide with another galaxy, the ramifications of which are unknowable right now).
Given all of the above, how is it at all reasonable or logical to think there is anything permanent about a human being like a soul or a spirit? Somehow, there are eternal spirits who waited all these billions of years and are going inside the bodies of this freak-accident species for this minuscule cosmological moment in this one little tiny, remote corner of an incomprehensibly vast universe to have some fun like it’s some kind of cosmic Halloween party?
I don’t think so. Death is death. Each of us is a lucky blip for an insignificant spec of time living on an insignificant “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” [Carl Sagan] It’s great that our brains have evolved enough to think about how this all happened and figure out so much. But it seems pure folly and nonsensical to think that we’re anything but temporary and insignificant. We have not observed a single thing in the whole universe that is not temporary. Not one single thing. I see no reasonable argument for an exception to this observation. This may not feel good to you, but wasting a lot of your temporary, one-shot, finite existence on a delusion is a high price to pay for a highly questionable shot at feeling better. Personally, I feel much better embracing actual reality.
Of course, in our own little world, my life is significant to me. And yours is to you. And my friends’ and loved ones’ lives are significant to me. And yours are to you. This is why, in my opinion, when someone we love dies, we are sad. I think even people with supernatural beliefs, somewhere deep inside their thoughts, have a sense that the end really is the end.
So, pay attention! This is it! There is nothing each of us will continue as, and we’re damn lucky to have this opportunity at all! And if you are reasonably able and healthy, that’s even more fortunate!
Every conscious moment that passes, is one less in your life that remains. Use your moments wisely, for they’re all you got.
Moving to the position of atheism was my gateway to reality-based, data-based, and science-based living. Once I embraced atheism, I quickly saw that atheists, for the most part, based their views (I’m deliberately not using the word “beliefs” here) on science and actual data. Quickly I applied this way toward everything. Within a few years, many ideas I once had, bit the dust.
I can easily see this happening the other way around, too. A person who has a science/data/actual reality way of looking at life would quite naturally adopt atheism. Atheism is totally logical coming from this point of view. If a person considers him or herself to have a science/data/actual reality point of view and such person continues to put any stock in anything religious or “spiritual,” then such a person has a huge hole in their otherwise reality-oriented mode of operation. There are many reasons for a person to hang on to that huge hole (perhaps that’s a topic for another post). Generally, it will be about hanging on to things simply because it feels good.
But, there’s a problem. There’s a stigma attached to the word atheism and the label atheist. This started, or perhaps had a huge boost, in the post World War II era of the Cold War. Communism was the enemy, and atheism was associated with communism. In the 1950s, in an anti-communist move, the United States added “In God We Trust” to our money and the words “under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance. Those were moves to distinguish ourselves from the evil commies. And, I hasten to add, both of those moves should be reversed as a clear violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s; and I remember absorbing the notion that atheists were evil. As a child I then translated evil to mean and nasty. Those people had no heart and I should never associate myself with them. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an outspoken atheist, might as well have been Joseph Stalin, in the way Americans were conditioned to think about her. Now, as I read back on what she said and did, I see how intelligent and logical she was. She spoke some very well-thought out (perhaps harsh) truths.
Why Normalize Atheism?
Atheism is a logical, consistent position in total alignment with a science and reality-based point of view. There should be nothing negative about it. Religions (and other “spiritual” derivatives) are what should be considered kooky. The anti-atheist conditioning is still with us. It’s faded somewhat, but there is a long way to go. Atheists are still thought of as less desirable in many ways, not the least of which is the atheist label attached to a politician. An openly atheist politician is ranked somewhere in the ballpark with rapists in the opinion of the overall general public. Erasing the stigma attached to atheism would be a great accomplishment for society. For starters, true science and reality-based people could be among our choices for political office!
On this front, I’m grateful for people like David Silverstein (@MrAtheistPants on Twitter), who, as President of American Atheists, is dedicating his life to normalizing atheism. I agree with him. We must proactively use the term while being pleasant, cordial, but consistently science and reality-based people. Science and reality-based orientation needs to be associated with being good and kind. There are plenty of good and kind people who are science/reality-based except for the huge hole of religiosity. Atheists are a good step better: simply more consistent.
Here is an example of something I think goes against normalizing atheism: I listen to a number of good podcasts. One of them was formerly called “Atheistically Speaking.” But it’s now called Serious Inquiries Only. The change of title was ostensibly because many of the topics were not about atheism. But that misses the point! Atheism is inextricably tied to actual reality. The host made a calculated move to attract additional listeners who might be turned off with atheism referred to in the title. This kind of action, however, only serves to keep the stigma going. I would rather see the old title kept. Serious inquiries coming from actual data and reality IS atheistically speaking! The previous title was perfect! The two SHOULD be associated, because they go EXACTLY hand in hand.
Atheism is a consistent, and literally the most reasonable, position. The label needs to be applied WHENEVER possible. Doing so would be a great service for progressing our society.
Instead of “Elections have consequences” we should be saying: “Electoral SYSTEMS have consequences.”
The post-election analysis by those of us who dislike Trump commonly include the line: “Elections have consequences.” This is a chastisement of people who did not vote for Hillary Clinton. You see, if you didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, this is what you get! The most horrible President in US history! (And, after George W. Bush, that’s saying something!) And as I said in a previous post, please understand the logical fallacy called single cause fallacy.
Yes, elections do have consequences. But first, generalizing that all people who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton have caused us to have President Trump is just a shaming tactic that has little evidence, reason, or logic to back it up. A vote is not a vote is not a vote. Not in our “democracy.” It depends on what state you live in. But second, and much more importantly, the real root of the problem is the entire electoral system. The consequences of that are huge. And Donald Trump is just the end result of a system that should be, on the whole, completely unacceptable.
Here are some aspects of the electoral system which have consequences and which, in the case of the 2016 election, resulted in President Donald Trump.
The Money. In our system, the rich and powerful have the best chance to succeed in politics. We have few restraints on the way money has infiltrated our elections. Corporations have rights like a person, and money is considered speech. A person of less than wealthy means and power considering a run for office has a hugely intimidating factor to consider: whether enough money could be raised for a given campaign. Imagine if we had 100% publicly (and equally) funded elections. Surely, there are many, many highly qualified human beings of intelligence and integrity, who now generally avoid politics, and who, if we had 100% publicly funded elections, might consider running. Right off the bat, our choice of even who to vote for is limited in a serious and negative way.
The Binary Choice. See my entire post on this issue. We only have a choice of 2 who have any chance of winning. Just 2. Are there any other things where the choice is only 2? If one party is out of favor, there is nowhere else to turn but to the other party. That’s acceptable? Why should we not have a system with 3 to 5 choices. Is an election just a sporting event where one side defeats the other? Couldn’t there be a discussion with a number of ideas spread out on the table, all of which are given equal attention for all to see and consider? Again, the choice of who to vote for is severely limited.
What the choice of 2 is. From a progressive point of view, the choice is like this: Suppose you were given a choice of 2 things to eat. One was an ordinary, medium decent, kind of basically edible sandwich. And the other was a big stinking pile of shit. Given THAT choice, that sandwich looks pretty darn good. But, that’s what we’re faced with in the typical Democrat/Republican choice. With a few notable exceptions (and many of the exceptions are on the state and local level, not federal level), we have a watered down “progressive” (the ordinary, medium decent, kind of basically edible sandwich) against a Republican (the big stinking pile of shit). Yes, Donald Trump is horrible, but look who might have been the Republican nominee had Trump not won. Ted Cruz? Marco Rubio?Jeb Bush? Carly Fiorina? All of them had horrible ideas and each would have made a very bad President. So, let’s have our eyes wide open about this undisputed fact: About 50% of the time, in our system, the Republican is going to win. And, therefore, 50% of the time the winner will be a big stinking pile of shit. The main difference this time is that the big stinking pile of shit is also mentally deranged with an extroverted jackass personality. Very unpleasant, indeed. But it’s just another variation of the big stinking pile of shit theme.
The Electoral College and Winner-Take-All principle. What will it take for us to realize that winner-take-all is undemocratic? There are other, better ways of democratic processes that are demonstrated in other countries around the world. I live in a red state (Kentucky) which votes for the Republican presidential candidate by one of the highest margins in the country. In 2016 a vote in Kentucky for any candidate other than Trump – including a vote for Hillary Clinton – counted for nothing! There are proportional representation systems and ranked choice voting systems which are much more fair and democratic and individual voter empowering than what we have.
Elections have consequences. But stopping there is looking at the situation through the very narrow, myopic lens of not questioning the way we go about elections. The consequences of THE SYSTEM are the root of the problem. Those consequences greatly narrow and diminish the choice and quality of who we can vote for. They greatly narrow the number of ideas that can be evaluated and possibly adopted. They disempower voters all over the place with a bad and unpleasant choice and little, if any, effectiveness with our voting. And at the end of the day, we’re either going to get something somewhat decently edible or a big stinking pile of shit. Each of those results over the long haul will win 50% of the time. We’re now experiencing an unusually unpleasant version of the more smelly 50% possibility.
To change the system we’d have to have people who have succeeded in this system to be willing to change it. So, we’re fucked. And Donald Trump is merely a symptomatic tip of the iceberg.