Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Transcendental Mental Masturbation

People who straddle their primitive belief system with all that science and engineering and logic have put forth have always put up a sort of wall between the reasoning skills that guide them towards acceptance of scientific facts and the shameless elimination of reason that guides them to believe in the supernatural.  Without some sort of barrier, you end up with a sort of universal cognitive dissonance.  Often times, it's the margins of scientific knowledge that give one room to erect a barrier, but this is also the route that creates a lot of dishonesty.  If your god exists in the margins of science, you end up with a need to make those margins appear wide, and whatever inane mental gymnastics you do to convince yourself of that only means you're sabotaging your capacity to think.

So another avenue you've probably all heard is this whole "transcendence" bollocks.  This tries to erect the mental barrier between brilliance and bullshit by creating this alternative context that is largely unexplored by any rational system of thought because it isn't rational in the first place.  This is exemplified by the quote posted here in the G+ Anti-theists community --

I should add that the original poster is merely quoting someone else and asking us how we'd respond to a thesis like that.  Below the jump is my response.

I'll deal with this in pieces to some degree.  But whether you click on the link above or not, you'll see the full content of the original post below, albeit in pieces.
Breaking one of my rules today and debating an atheist.
Nice to know that this person has a rule that he shouldn't ever debate an atheist.  Wonder if he has any worries about having his beliefs challenged for even an instant.  You think?
Not entirely sure why, but this seems to be actually sharpening my own beliefs, so there's at least something to be gained from it, for me.
Well, I have no information about how your discussion might have gone, but that doesn't entirely surprise me.  Depending on where you go or who you came in touch with and so on, there might have been a wide array of attitudes coming from the atheist whom you "debated."  However, if he made you feel like an idiot at any point, whether it's because you said something genuinely stupid, or because he was just plain rude about it, or you're one of those people who frames any challenge to your position as persecution no matter how mild (i.e. a conservative sheep), it is likely to only cause you to dig your heels in a little further.  There's virtually no chance whatsoever that you're justified in doing so, but faith is something people hold to with emotion, and you can't argue that away in a reasonable fashion.

Anyway, all that was just setup.  The real meat of the posting is right here --
It strikes me that I actually agree with everything he says regarding science.  Yes, evolution happened, yes, the Universe is 15 (or so) billion years old, yes to all of it...  but that still doesn't tell us why, just how.  And that question will never be answered by science, because in a hundred million years, everything will be gone anyway.  Science tells us that, too.  So without some kind of transcendent meaning, what's left?
Well, that's all well and good that you accept scientific facts.  BTW, the universe being "gone" in a 100,000,000 years...  it's quite a bit more than that, and it's not as if it'll be "gone" so much as most likely enter a state of heat death, but nonetheless, your point is taken.  No, it is not pleasing to think that the universe is simply going to reach a thermal equilibrium with no local gradients and everything just becomes a soup of matter and nothing more is possible...  No, it is not pleasing to think that your death is basically nothing more than the screen going blank...  Guess what?  That doesn't matter.  How happy you are to hear that has no relevance to whether or not it is true.  If there is some sort of "transcendent meaning" to look for, would it be better for it to be in your head alone, or for it to be something in reality actually worth thinking about?  If you cannot get beyond the pointless pondering and pontificating about patently preposterous propositions of personal purpose, you are basically wasting your time.

Indeed, this person is correct that science will never likely answer any of the "why" questions.  So let me respond to this with another question.  Through what sort of reasoning do you establish in your mind that the "why" questions are even valid questions in the first place?  It is a common feeling and a sort of in-built aspect of human nature to seek out and find meaning and purpose in things, but that doesn't mean that this is part of the very fabric of existence.  Anybody reading this would glean meaning from the sentences on this page, but those aren't an intrinsic quality of the symbols, but something we, as humans, created.  Without that internalized context of language, King Lear is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless curves on sheets of paper.  If you have a kid, you probably see that child as a driving source of motivation in your life that gives you a sense of purpose, but there is nothing "objective" or "transcendent" about that feeling.  There's no reason why I should have to feel anything on account of your life, and the same applies with your beliefs.

The real takeaway here is that there is no reason whatsoever to presume that there should even be such a thing as a "transcendent" meaning or purpose to life.  Meaning and purpose are things that are entirely constructs of the mind, and that too, they're generally confined to a certain scope.  In order to have such meaning that transcends our mortal lives and the existence of this universe, you'd need to have this scope and context and a mind that is actually able to perceive things within this scope to construct that meaning.  Well, within religious belief systems, that's essentially a role that gods fill.  By no means can you argue that this is an established truth.  Without that, the expectation of a transcendent meaning is completely nonsensical.  As I've said before, a question regarding "transcendent meaning" makes no more sense than asking me "What is the square root of a puppy?"  There is just no way anyone can really honestly say that this is a valid question to begin with.  This is really where being scientifically literate, and not merely being aware of what scientists generally say makes a difference.  It's the point where you start piecing things together and start knowing what are the reasonable and smart questions to ask.

I know theists like to pretend this equates to a cold and unfeeling outlook, but that's the exact opposite of the reality.  Just as we can not do anything to change the fact that billions of years from now, the universe will be a cold and dead place, it similarly follows that what will be true of the universe billions of years from now does not affect us in the here and now.  Anywhere that you find meaning, purpose, and value in life is not something that is a property of the thing itself -- it's you who is creating that.  It exists nowhere other than in your head.  That is also true of a god, when you get right down to it.  Whatever else a person might think about religion, one thing we'd all agree on is that a person's faith is a very personal thing.  What sort of value and meaning you find out of it is your own.  And without any real hard evidence that any of it is actually true, even the "transcendent" value you speak of doesn't even transcend the boundaries of your own mind.  It's a bit difficult for religious people to swallow that truth, because they've never been brought up in religion in that way.  It was always someone else telling them "this is how it should be," which makes it hard for someone to truly own their beliefs.  Who says that "transcendent meaning" is even necessary in the first place?  I certainly don't.  People who do not believe in an afterlife or any other supernatural construct necessarily operate on the position that they have to own whatever sense of meaning and purpose they have in life.  The only sense in which our existence transcends our own life is the effect we have on others.  It's why people still remember the name Archimedes today.  It's why people will still remember the names of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates going forward.  That doesn't necessarily mean that you can only find meaning on that scale.  I spent quite a few years making Lara Croft look better than before and giving Hiccup and Astrid better hair and making your virtual dashboard look less virtual.  Not exactly curing diseases here, but it's something I happen to like doing, and that's one of the avenues in which I find my sense of meaning.  Someone else has a different story, and you may not value it to the same extent that I do, and that's fine.  But one thing is for certain -- all of those things I've worked on actually exist.  That alone means that as little impact as I might have on the world going forward, there's more value I offer by doing the work that I do than I ever possibly could retreating behind a pew effectively doing nothing for nobody.
I don't worship science.  I can't.  That would be like worshipping a creation rather than a creator.
Who on earth worships science?  There is no scientist or scientifically-minded person who worships science itself.  There is a huge chasm of difference between valuing and stressing the importance of something and actually worshiping it as if it's some edification of greatness.  There is a huge difference between being enamored of science to the point of showing off your geekiness about it and actually deifying and submitting to an authoritative deference towards science.  I know you live a life in which worship of your deity is kind of a given, but that doesn't apply to others.  Especially not people who find your belief system and your deference to a deity to be absurd on every level.  Why on earth would I do the same things that you do that I know to be a colossal waste of time and energy on a different target?  What do I actually do with science?  I friggin' use it.  I apply scientific and mathematical background knowledge and principles and I engineer new techniques based on that.  There is not one element of similarity between that and kneeling in worship.

For that matter, why should a creator be worshiped in the first place?  I happen to have created my own spherical probability distribution function (for purposes I'm not allowed to say at this time), but I'm not demanding that you prostrate yourself before me and give me money for the privilege of basking in the glory of my creation.  Well...  I wouldn't much mind the money part, but that's neither here nor there.  If your Bible is any indication, the god to whom you pray may have created something wonderful and all, but he himself is quite the apocalyptic asshat.  What possible reason could you give to say that that puerile prat of a deity is worthy of worship?

Furthermore, what purpose does worship actually serve?  If I take your scripture at face value, it doesn't really say anything about this, when you get down to it.  Sure, it says that it is through faith and worship of Yahweh that we get to heaven, but then it goes on to say that in heaven, all that will happen is that we'll end up praising and worshiping Yahweh again forever, without ever actually explaining why.  We know that there's no real functional effect of it in reality, so assuming that there is some "transcendent" purpose to it, what exactly is that purpose?  Are you really going to base your acceptance of the supernatural on a purported meaning that you can't even define or identify?  On the flipside, we can define the value of science as supplying us with more knowledge about the world around us and giving us the tools to create new things that improve our lives.  It has no "transcendent" value, and no goal of attaining one.  In fact, it has no value at all unless people actually use and apply it.  If there are people who actually do "worship" science for this as you seem to imagine, then they are every bit as useless then as you are when you sit and pray.