Friday, December 14, 2007

Life-Affirming Perspective as an Atheist

Having come to terms with atheism, the most difficult aspect is making sense of life from the completely materialistic perspective. By Materialism, I am not speaking of acquisition of wealth or status, but of living in a non-dualistic, physical universe, which is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. In general, for all the mysterious phenomenon of the universe we don't easily understand, I'm not quick to pile them into a corner and label them as supernatural. Being aware that very little of the vast network we call the universe is understood, grasping a greater knowledge requires a foundation in empirical, evidence based science. So far, no religion in the world has ever explained our universe better then science. Science however is not to be confused in the same light as religion and spirituality. Unlike science, religion, with no need for evidence requires complete and total faith. Faith however, as noble as some believe it to be, cannot and is not an objective stance. Those whose faithful convictions are unassailable have often proved to be wrong. Science on the other hand thrives on rigorous proofs and any theory that turns out wrong is progress because it can be ruled out. Just believing something then does not make a rational explanation of the universe. Early on in Western Civilization, especially during the development of Greek Philosophy, much was made of theorizing. Generations of pederasts would sit in circles speaking of complex topics in a form we now call a dialectic. They would debate about vast topics that covered the length and breadth of human knowledge. Yet, without experimentation and verifiable proof, all their theorizing had little evidence based proof. Many concepts then, such as the atom, surely came to be proven correct, but only through the rigorous and empirical tools of science and mathematics. Furthermore, their ideas, though influential, where not grounded in the true material universe. In the case of atoms, they may have theorized that if you continue to partition matter into smaller pieces, eventually you will reach an end point. Similarly, atoms as we know today, are extremely exotic particles, and can in fact be further partitioned into subatomic particles like quarks and gluons. Yet, we do know that atoms form the basis of all matter and that in one aspect, the early philosophers were correct. Eventually, the belief in atoms that was propagated by Democritus was overtaken by the more elegant and appealing Aristotlian theory of the four elements. They may not have understood the nuclear processes that form the atoms as we know today and to them four elements made more sense than the 120 or so that we have in the periodic table. The false Aristotlian model was carried with us for nearly 1500 years, until the advent of the scientific method and the rigorous experimentation that went along with it.

With a solid belief in materialism then, the warm comfort that religion and spirituality provide is suddenly uncovered. To some, the cold, unforgiving universe is just too difficult to bear, and even though they have reasoned for the possibility of a material universe, they would rather the universe have a pre-purpose (an intelligence at work often referred to as "the primary mover"). They can compartmentalized their illogical beliefs to allow them to function even within the realms of science, but the psychological comfort of religion and spirituality are difficult to break. The inevitable truth however is that the universe truly is a hostile place to live in. There's only one way to be born (when sperm meets egg, at least for now), but incomprehensibly vast ways to die. As the famous contemporary astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has described; on a galactic scale, one can be torched by supernovas, gamma ray blasts, active galactic nuclei, black holes, etc. Even just on a global scale, one can succumb to hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, tornadoes, volcanoes, ice ages, tsunamis and other such natural disasters. Within just our daily neighborhood and social interactions, one can suffer in the hands of carjackers, murderers, school shooters, swat officers mistaking addresses, drunk drivers, sinkholes, etc. With all of these seemingly malevolent forces at play, it is a wonder we continue to survive and thrive. Many liken this survival to a god-like entity, but they ignore the violent universe in which we've come to exist. This is not a perfect place that's created just for us to enjoy, but nevertheless, we must make the most of it. Life then is so fragile, even so much as a cosmic whisper can sterilize it without malice or criminal intent. Knowing all this, and rejecting the supernatural does lead to a dilemma of sorts. How are we to continue on with our lives knowing and accepting that we live in such an ambivalent, unforgiving and apathetic place?

In order to prosper, we must first recognize that even though our existence is truly an accident of chance, we are actually alive and have the ability to scrutinize our environment. We can reason, and through our linguistic abilities perpetuate our knowledge to countless others. As all animals, we are geared towards survival, even if it means crawling and clawing our way out of a deep dark hole in the ground. This inherent ability to survive (after all, without this inborn drive, life and the scarce competition of resources would not be possible) has not only provided us with instincts that can help protect us, but with the tools to apply our reasoning, intellect, and social bearing on the perpetuation of our existence. Almost every single species that has ever evolved on Earth has gone extinct (99%), yet, of all of those creatures, we are alone in the ability to look beyond just our local environment. We, above all other Earthly creatures have within us the potential to develop technologies that could avert major global catastrophes like an asteroid impact. With our developed sense of perspetive, other more menacing developments have also evolved. We not only have the potential ability to protect the world from catastraphic accidents, but also have the potential for destroying it. With our arsenal of nuclear bombs, we are but hours away from completely voiding the planet of dominant life. Yet, if we apply ourselves to more benevolent purposes, we can enhance the protection of our planet. Looking at life through this perspective tends to irk those who view such notions as egotistical. They claim that by acknowledging our superiority above mythical beings, we are leading delusional lives of megalomania and self importance. They feel that such a stance will lead to moral and ethical errors in judgement. Yet, as mentioned in my previous blogs, our ethics and morals don't come from any holy books, or any mythical beings. They lie somewhere in our biological makeup, but as of today, a well encompassing theory has yet to materialize. There are many good theories, but few have been tested against empirical research. What is known is that there has to be some link to our evolutionary past, and observing the behavior of our closest living relatives, such as the Great Apes can prove useful. In truth, accepting materialism is a life-affirming process, not a selfish mode of thought as perpetuated by the religious. Recognizing that all human beings have the same inherent rights, freedoms, and privileges upon birth is more intuitive to those embracing a material universe. Praying for invisible entities to come to the rescue when in need is a lot more frustrating then accepting that what all humans share is a bond called humanity. As a member of a single species, it is upon us to protect each other, the environment, and ultimately all our resources for survival.

We must accept the liberating fact that we are in charge of our own destiny. How we treat other human beings, the environment, and our potential towards a prosperous future of discovery and progress is in itself a wonderful sense of purpose. There was no consciousness behind the creation of the universe and life, but now that we are here, we can use our consciousness and self awareness towards the future. We must look at the universe in mystical awe, and realize that our existence is so unbelievable, we must do everything in our power to apply our inherent potential. Of all the possible humans that could have formed in our species' history, each of us as an individual is a unique development provided by the universe. We shouldn't mourn for those who've passed because the simple fact of they have existence is far grander then their non-presence. Even our existence, as fleeting as it is in relation to the universe as a whole is vastly important to the social network we interact with. Rearrange just one atom in any of the previous stages of life that lead to our development (from the first multicellular organism to one's conception) and our existence would be utterly nullified.

In conclusion, to some degree, religion and spirituality provides people with a type of psychological comfort, but science, although intuitively more difficult to grasp has rewards beyond mere dogma and faith. Science allows us to view the universe beyond the physical tools of our evolutionary past. We have come so far, not just as creatures with 4.3 billion years of evolution behind us, but as a culturally dominant force with just 10,000 years of major growth. Evidence for our external phenotype (to borrow a concept from the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins) is all around us. The genes of the beaver (their genotype), for example, have evolved to provide it dense fur for warmth, an oily coat for better insulation, perpetually growing front teeth for gnawing wood, etc. These external characteristics, called the phenotype, can be furthered by the actions of the beaver on its environment. Beaver dams are a result of all of the special genes within a beaver allowing it to construct such a complex structure (external phenotype). Likewise, humans have also evolved certain genes that allow us to not only alter our environment for comfort, but expand on our genetic template. Our cultural evolution is unprecedented in the biological world, and our reasoning abilities provide us the tools to expand beyond our genetic constraints. I believe that it would be a shame to have evolved, both genetically and culturally to such an introspective point, and then throw it all away because of our need for comfort and warmth. We can derive comfort and warmth knowing that life is so fragile and fleeting that we must do all we can to appreciate it to the fullest. Of prime importance is understanding who we are, where we come from, and where as a species we're headed. Keeping such an optimistic view in light of a random and chaotic universe can by hard at times, but humans prosper and thrive under adversity. After all, adversity is the invisible hand that guides evolution and natural selection. Thus, adversity can also guide our cultural, ethical, and moral behavior.

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