My experience with religion: Part 3


As I described earlier, I grew up as an atheist, I described my early experiences with religion, and why I finally chose to believe in God.  I’d like to reflect on some interesting side-effects.

Shortly after I chose to believe in God, I came across the Atheist Experience video podcast.  I have been an atheist for the most of my life.  It wasn’t a big deal for me.  I did not have to “break the spell”, break relationships with my family or face judgment from my friends for being an atheist.  I did not realize that people could be very passionate about their atheism and even confrontational with believers.  That was an interesting discovery for me.

To be honest, I did not like the tone of the show.  The hosts of the show ridiculed religion, religious beliefs, and religious callers.  There was a general overtone of arrogance and superiority.  I visited a few atheist forums.  What I saw there was even more shocking.  Once I identified myself as a believer, I was treated with scorn and contempt.  For some reason, people in these forums were prepared to refute my “stupid claims” even though I did not make any.  I was assumed to be a right-wing conservative who rejects evolution and supports YEC.  Now I realize that this, perhaps, was the kind of believers these people were used to deal with.  But I found it a bit narrow-minded for people who claimed to be “rational” to treat all believers according to their own stereotype.   I was bombarded with dogmatic cliche statements which sounded rational on their face, but did not stand a simple analysis.  For instance,

  • “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Hitchens)
  • Burden of proof principle (even though I did not make any statements)
  • “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (“Clifford’s Credo”)

I thought about these statements.  I read Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” and William James’s response “The Will to Believe”.  I have a notebook full of notes on these essays which I hope to share some time later.  I read about epistemology, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism.  I read about cognitive dissonance.  I read Karl Popper to understand scientific method.  I thought I may be making a huge mistake believing in God.  But I concluded that there are as many reasons to believe in God as reasons not to believe in God.   The question of God’s existence is not scientific because it is unfalsifiable.  People who know how science works, know this.  People who are confused about science, try to present “evidence” for God or claim that science “proves” that God does not exist.  Some people know that existence of God is not a scientific question, but deliberately require “evidence” from naive believers just to get them entangled in their own arguments.  It was a good experience.  Most notably, I learned what not to say in online discussions.  I tried to understand why we believe, how we make decisions in uncertain situations.  I concluded that all people have unjustified beliefs.  So, the lack of evidence for God is not a sufficient reason to reject belief in God.  After a lot of thought, I did not find any epistemological reasons to reject belief in God.

Another hard claim I was confronted with was the claim that “religion causes harm”.  I was presented with countless historical facts of religious wars, crusades, witch-burning, Inquisition, antisemitism, Holocaust, honor killings, acts of terrorism, allegedly caused by religious beliefs.  In other words, I was confronted with moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, being skeptical about my prior beliefs is a good habit.  But for me, it has a different meaning than for most atheists in those forums: I have to be skeptical about atheism, not religion.  That religion is “opium for the masses”, I know quite well from my Soviet schooling.  After reading about causality, I have concluded that religion is not the cause of the atrocities associated with it.  So, there are no sufficient moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, religion is very powerful.  And, as any power, it has many dangers.  But these dangers can be avoided and are not sufficient to disregard the power of religion which exists independently of what we think of it.   I’m going to write about it soon.

I was told that science tells us where morality comes from and that it can help us answer moral questions.  At that time, I have not heard of Sam Harris, but a short internet search lead me to this pivotal TED talk where Harris tried to suggest that science can help us solve moral issues.  Essentially, it was a promotion of Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape” which was going to be published at that time.  It was the first TED talk I watched.  Something did not sound right in this talk.  I smelled too much agenda.  It lead me to discover Sean Carroll’s response to Sam Harris which lead me to read Hume on the topics of beliefs, empiricism, “ought vs. is”, etc.  Watching TED videos and participating in TED online discussions opened a new chapter in my learning.  TED folks are a lot more diverse and open-minded than folks from atheist forums.  I found a lot more understanding there.  A lot of topics discussed are thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time participating in TED discussions.  These days however,  I find too many Utopian ideas discussed in TED conversations and too many idealistic discussions.

In atheist forums, I was also confronted with scientific theories of the origins of the universe and with claims that the universe started from “nothing”, according to the laws of physics.  And that the whole thing was started by a random fluctuation (of what?).  There is so much nonsense in this belief that it may take a few posts to cover them.  I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang).  That was a quote from an atheist forum that I thought is worth remembering.  I won’t go too far here as Sean Carroll has done a fairly good job already.  By Lawernce Krauss’s own admission, the title of his book “A Universe from Nothing” is only intended to stir up a controversy and get people thinking and talking about it.  It’s the same tactics Sam Harris employs with his claims regarding science and morality, free will, etc. which deliberately contradict centuries of philosophical thought on these issues.  This tactic may stimulate thought on these topics, but I find it a bit cheap and self-promoting.  It sells well, but it’s alike the cheap “popularity” gained by Internet forum trolls and Miley Cyrus antics.

So, science fanatics, sorry.  Science does not tell us how the universe came about and does not help much to answer moral questions.  Which, again, leaves me with freedom to believe what I want to believe.  The result of this investigation was reading a few books by Stephen Hawkins and Roger Penrose, articles by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin, lectures on cosmology and vacuum physics which was a fun refreshment of my college education in physics.

All in all, my experience with religion is very positive.  I learned a lot about myself, science, politics, and philosophy with its many branches — epistemology, ethics, etc.   It’s been an interesting journey which I hope to continue.

Do we have free will?


Daniel Dennett has recently published a detailed response to Sam Harris’s book “Free Will”.  As one can see from the reviews, the book was received with enthusiasm by many scientists.  E.g. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, also chooses the point of view that free will does not exist.  I like how engineer Jacque Fresco explains this idea in the first part of this video (the second part where he mentions how a person may decide to borrow a weapon to protect himself from a wild animal despite being preconditioned by society that stealing is unacceptable seems somewhat inconsistent which is OK considering that, according to himself, he did not choose what to think or what to say).

The popularity of incompatibilism (the notion that deterministic laws of nature are incompatible with free will) among scientists and engineers is not surprising.  It is not a new idea and has been known for many centuries as shown in  this review on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy web site.  All good and well… But…

We still make choices, don’t we?  What do you say, yes or no?  How come?

I tend to agree with Dennett on this issue who espouses compatibilism, the notion that we can consider that free will exists for our practical purposes despite the determinism of laws of nature.  Although Dennett has a few good explanations of his view, I’d like to offer my own.

If we accept that every event is strictly determined by the laws of physics and all circumstances of that event, we must reject also the concept of probability.  There is no likelihood of occurrence of any event because, according to determinism, there is certainty whether and how this event will happen.  Nevertheless, probability is one of the most important concepts in science and everyday decision making.  Why?  I think, it has to do with predictability.  Determinism implies that all events are predictable in principle, if we know all circumstances leading to this event.  However, in practice, we never know all circumstances.  Therefore, we estimate probabilities.  This distinction between in practice and in principle also seems to be the source of confusion about falsifiability of scientific theories.

Let me ask you to name a random integer number between 1 and 10.  Can you do that?  I bet you can.  Now, that you picked a number, it’s not random for you any more — you know what it is.  But for me, the number is still random because I don’t know what number you have picked.  I can still talk about probability of what the number is, whereas for you there is no probability, there is certainty.

Once a lottery has been drawn, there is no longer any uncertainty regarding what the winning numbers are.  The probability of the numbers being what they are is 1.  Probability of the outcome of the lottery only makes sense before the lottery is drawn or if we do not know the results of the drawing.

Imagine a deck of cards face down on the table.  When I take a card from the top of the deck, what is the probability of the card being queen of hearts?  1/52, right?  Now imagine a deck of cards face up on the table with the top card being jack of spades.  What’s the probability of the card being queen of hearts now?  Now it’s zero.  Why?  Because we know it’s not queen of hearts.  But why does it matter whether the deck is face up or face down?  Isn’t the top card what it is regardless of what we think about it?  Why is it reasonable to talk about probability in the first case and unreasonable in the second case?

Perhaps, that’s enough of examples.  In summary, I think, probability, free will, and determinism are  ways to describe the world in a similar way as color is a way to describe the length of electromagnetic waves hitting our eyes (Dennett’s analogy).  In a similar way, imagining that electron is a wave or a particle or forms a cloud is a way to describe certain properties of electron.  But in reality, electron is neither like a wave in the ocean, nor like a cloud in the sky at all.  Thinking that an electron is a particle is incompatible with thinking that an electron is a wave.  Yet, scientists manage to use both models successfully, without contradiction.

It’s important to consider contexts in which concepts are meaningful.  Concepts lose meaning if they are used in a wrong context.  E.g., abbreviation “CD” can mean “compact disc” if we talk about audio records, “certificate of deposit” if we talk about banking, “critical dimension” if we talk about semiconductor processing.  In a similar way, the concept of “free will” is meaningful in most contexts of every day life, but not so in some specific contexts.  “Free will” and “probability” are all mere concepts.  If we argue that they do not exist, we might as well dismiss all other concepts and ideas we may have.

So, although, what I do is determined, I don’t know it, and it gives me the freedom of choice…  Or an illusion of freedom of choice which is as good as freedom of choice for all practical purposes.  There is no difference between free will and the illusion of free will just like there is no difference between real intelligence and fake intelligence.

Related links

 

Reason is a tool of emotion


Thanks, SelfAwarePatterns, for posting this.
Why am I reblogging this? Because I agree with it. And why do I agree with it? Because I find it reasonable. And why do I find it reasonable? Because I agree with it. OK. Time to stop… The whole rationale comes down to “because I like it” (an emotional statement).

A lot of people believe these days that we need a reason to believe something. But I don’t understand the reason for such belief. For example, Steven Pinker in this video, tries to demonstrate how unreasonable was human sacrifice in ancient societies by providing possible reasons for such practices, which, he believes, are wrong reasons. But he cannot say that this behavior was “unreasonable” because he himself has just provided reasons for it. He believes human sacrifice was unreasonable, likely, because, human sacrifices cause negative emotions in people and not because human sacrifice lacked any reasons behind it.

One of the criteria for truth is coherence — lack of self-contradiction. A good way to check for coherence in logic and hypocrisy in morality is to apply the statement to itself. I find this Hume’s idea coherent. It does not lead to self-contradiction, unlike the belief that all beliefs need reason which contradicts itself. Hume’s thesis is also coherent with my fundamental belief that fundamental beliefs do not need reason or evidence.

And I like it because it’s a liberating thought. I can believe whatever I like to believe! (Within reasonable limits, of course).

SelfAwarePatterns

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
David Hume

Reason, logic, is a tool.  It is a means to an end.  It is never an end unto itself, never the goal.  It is the journey, not the destination.  When we use reason, we use it in pursuit of some goal.  That goal may be truth, it may be self aggrandizement, or it may be rationalizing an intuitively held opinion.

Our goals come from our instincts, our intuitions, our emotions, from the base programming that evolution has given us.  First you feel the motivation, then (maybe) you deploy reason in pursuit of the motivated goal.  Reason may have informed your instincts.  It might have played a role in the formation of the urge, but it didn’t itself create it.

Without instinct, you…

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My experience with atheism


Perhaps, to clarify my views on religion and atheism, it would be useful to describe my personal experience with them. When people do not know each other’s background, a lot of time can be wasted to explain and argue about things both sides already know and understand.

I've seen many of these portraits in school classrooms above the blackboard.  I remember staring at this portrait while bored in class and thinking that Lenin's ear looks somewhat weird here.  It's not in the right place.
I’ve seen many of these portraits in school classrooms above the blackboard. I remember staring at this portrait while bored in class and thinking that Lenin’s ear looks somewhat weird here. It’s not in the right place.

I grew up in Soviet Ukraine. If I was indoctrinated in any ideology, it was Marxism-Leninism. Every classroom in every school had a portrait of Lenin above the blackboard. Most children’s books were required to have an ideologically slanted story about Lenin, Communist Party or a hint about class struggle. As a child, I was extremely happy to be born in the Soviet Union – a country that builds “bright future” for the working people. I was terrified at the thought that the “evil” Western imperialists were escalating the nuclear arms race aiming to destroy my country which promoted friendship between nations and solidarity of the working people.

In elementary school, all children in my class were accepted in a youth “organization” called “Oktiabriata” (something like “children of October” – the word “Red October” often meant “the Great October Socialist Revolution” – the Bolshevik putsch of 1917). Children did not do much as members of this “organization”, there were no leadership or formal activities, but wearing a red star with the portrait of “young Lenin” imposed “duty” to behave properly lest you be found “unworthy” to wear the token.

In middle school, all children were accepted into the “Pioneer Organization”. The ceremony of “initiation” was solemn and pompous. It was held at the Lenin Museum – an institution present in any large city dedicated to the life of the leader of the world proletariat and to the history of the Communist Party. There were flags and solemn oaths pronounced in unison like the Creed or Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone was “accepted”. To be “excluded”, a child would need to do something really horrible. The word “pioneer” did not have the same meaning as in the America. It meant “the first” in terms of “example to others”. Pioneer organization was modeled after Boy Scouts. Pioneers wore red neckerchiefs meant to symbolize a piece of the Red Flag (red, of course, meant blood of the “freedom fighters”). Pioneer motto was “be prepared” – just like the one of the Boy Scouts. However, “be prepared” meant “to fight for the cause of the Communist Party”. On the upside, there were summer camps and the fun Boy Scout stuff.

A pin worn by "Oktiabriata" in Soviet elementary schools.  Young Lenin reminds me of baby Jesus, for some reason.
A pin worn by “Oktiabriata” in Soviet elementary schools. Young Lenin reminds me of baby Jesus, for some reason.

Pioneers member pin.  The motto says "Always prepared" -- the response to the "Be prepared!" cue.
Pioneers member pin. The motto says “Always prepared” — the response to the “Be prepared!” cue.

When I was 16, I became a member of the “Young Communist League” (Comsomol) – an organization for youth 16 – 28 years old. The organization was modeled after the Communist Party. It had Statute, formal structure, formal meetings, “elected” leadership. In colleges, Comsomol took charge of social life – organized activities, events, parties, performances, celebrations. Of course, all “under the watch” of the Party members who made sure that all of that was “ideologically appropriate”.

It was considered that only the most “worthy” could be accepted. And, indeed, the first students accepted to Comsomol were the “A” students, with exemplary record. It was considered a “special honor” and they had to take an exam on the knowledge of the Statute, the history, etc. However, the next year, everyone else was accepted as well, in a general meeting, by the dozen, “pioneer-style”. I had a friend who refused to join. Everyone looked down on him, criticized, and tried to “convert”. When asked, why, he said “Why should I? What’s the point?” “But, c’mon! Don’t you want to join ‘the front rows of the Soviet youth?” At that he scoffed which somewhat antagonized people. He was not a popular guy.

Comsomol member pin.
Comsomol member pin.

Comsomol membership card.  Students paid 2 cents in membership dues which were collected with diligence.
Comsomol membership card. Students paid 2 cents in membership dues which were collected with diligence.

Religion was openly discouraged and ridiculed. Clergy were caricatured as corrupt and stupid, collecting tithes and offerings for their own benefit. Religious superstitions were ridiculed. Religion had a stigma of being backwards, believing in nonsense, and “not belonging” to the “front rows of the Communism builders”. Marx’s “Religion is the opium for the people” was a very familiar buzz-phrase. This is why the New Atheist attitude painfully “rings the bell” and, in the minds of people who lived under such regimes, the association between New Atheism and Stalinism pops up immediately. On the other hand, my parents, my family, my friends, and I were all atheists – happy, enthusiastic, with reasonable ethics. So, I do not have the nonsensical stereotype that atheists are gloomy and immoral.

I did not witness any physical persecutions against believers (Stalin’s era ended long before I was born). Religion did exist, but was formally separated from the state. At my school, I recall one year when during Easter, most “worthy” Pioneers were “asked” by the school staff to take “vigils” near the churches to watch if any of the students attended the service and snitch to the school administration. Such students would then undergo some scolding. There are rumors that KGB controlled Russian Orthodox Church and used priests as informants. I guess, those who did not want to cooperate, have been eliminated. Many churches have been closed down, turned into concert halls (excellent acoustic), dance clubs, or vegetable warehouses (in rural areas) or simply destroyed.

In the Soviet Union, education was fairly good. It was free – up to the highest degrees. Students received a small allowance. “A” students received double. Science was funded well. Especially, military research projects (much like in the U.S.)  However, intellectuals were not “trusted” by the Party.  The role of “hegemon” was reserved to “proletariat”.  (I feel that I overuse the quotation marks, but there was so much bigotry that these words were not used according to their dictionary definitions.)  Still, Soviet science made huge advances.  As you may know, the Soviet Union developed a nuclear bomb almost simultaneously with the U.S. (there are rumors that it was not “independent” and there was much spying involved, but nevertheless). The hydrogen bomb is credited to Saharov. The first orbiting satellite “Sputnik” was launched by Russians, the first man in the orbit, Yuri Gagarin, was Russian, the first woman as well. But the U.S. did “beat” Russians sending the first man to the moon. Kudos. The space stuff was, mostly, a political show-off. Many Russian scientists emigrated to the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  As for me, I earned a 5-year bachelor’s degree in physics, completed a graduate degree with major in solid state physics. Emigrated to the U.S., and earned M.S. in electrical engineering specializing in semiconductor device physics and semiconductor processing. Сurriculum at my alma mater in Ukraine was extensive. I took full courses of classical mechanics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, optics, calculus, differential equations, analytical geometry, higher algebra, group theory, solid state physics, cosmology, astronomy, etc. I am writing this not to show off, but, again, to explain my background. Despite the high level of education and science in the Soviet Union, genetics was banned by Stalin as contradicting the principles of dialectic materialism.

As I may have shown, Soviet people have been deeply “indoctrinated” and had a lot of stereotypes and unjustified beliefs. There were lots of Soviet “myths”. Lenin was, virtually, sanctified. There was a long line always waiting to see his body in the tomb on the Red Square (I think, it’s still there). Soviet people believed in a lot of nonsense. Yet, note the level of education and science. It’s worth noting also that Newton was deeply religious, Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk, and Georges Lemaître who created the big bang theory was a Catholic priest. These facts make me believe that the claim of New Atheists that indoctrination with religion or other ideology stands in the way of scientific critical thinking and understanding science is simply untrue. Such statements seem to come from a huge confirmation bias.  One needs to deliberately ignore a lot of facts to make such statements.  I cannot call people who make them “critical independent thinkers”.

I will describe my experience with religion in a future post.

Line of people to Lenin's mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.
Line of people to Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.

"Lenin at Subbotnik"  Subbotnik was an unpaid workday on a Saturday, mostly used for clean-ups.  This is an iconic picture showing Lenin carrying a log.  It's one of the "myths" told by communists to portray Lenin as a person "close to working people".  This art genre was called "socialist realism".
“Lenin at Subbotnik” Subbotnik was an unpaid workday on a Saturday, mostly used for clean-ups. This is an iconic picture showing Lenin carrying a log. It’s one of the “myths” told by communists to portray Lenin as a person “close to working people”. This art genre was called “socialist realism”.

The picture (and its multiple variants), perhaps, originates, from this photo.  It's hard to say if the person here is Lenin and, judging by the postures and smiles, the people deliberately pose for the photo.
The picture (and its multiple variants), perhaps, originates, from this photo. It’s hard to say if the person here is Lenin and, judging by the postures and smiles, the people deliberately pose for the photo.

A post-Soviet caricature of the "Lenin at subbotnik" theme.
A post-Soviet caricature of the “Lenin at subbotnik” theme.

Monuments to Lenin showing "the bright future".  Each city had one.
Monuments to Lenin showing “the bright future”. Each city had one.  The bottom-left was blown up recently in St. Petersburg.  I think this powerful blast from Lenin’s bottom is a good allegory for the Great October Socialist Revolution.

Some Soviet anti-religious propaganda posters

Struggle against religion is strugle for socialism.  As usual, religion "stands in the way of progress" -- familiar theme.
Struggle against religion is strugle for socialism. As usual, religion “stands in the way of progress” — familiar theme.

Clergy help capital and stand in the way of the working man.  Some sort of apocaliptic theme.  Devilish characters on one side and red ground, as if soaked in blood, on the other side.  "Blood washing away sin" comes to mind.
Clergy help capital and stand in the way of the working man. Some sort of apocaliptic theme. Devilish characters on one side and red ground, as if soaked in blood, on the other side. “Blood washing away sin” comes to mind.

"Religion is poison.  Save the children!"  The girl reaching for the school -- a sky-high building with an angel-like pioneer figure trumpeting the horn while her witch-like grandmother drags her by the hair to a church falling apart in decay, with crows circling around.  Demonizing "class enemies" was fairly common for Soviet propaganda.
“Religion is poison. Save the children!” The girl reaching for the school — a sky-high building with a pioneer figure trumpeting the bugle looking like Angel Moroni while her witch-like grandmother drags her by the hair to a church falling apart in decay, with crows circling around. Demonizing “class enemies” was fairly common for Soviet propaganda.

"The voice of the Lord serves the purposes of the 'masters'".  The stereotypical capitalist with a whip in his hand pointing to the Bible saying "tolerate".
“The voice of the Lord serves the purposes of the ‘masters'”. The stereotypical capitalist with a whip in his hand pointing to the Bible saying “tolerate”.

"Enemies of the five-year plan".  Another example of demonizing "class enemies".  This is how people critical of the Soviets were portrayed.
“Enemies of the five-year plan”. Another example of demonizing “class enemies”. This is how people critical of the Soviets were portrayed.

And this is an example of counter-revolutionary propaganda.  Lenin (in red) is portrayed as a high priest, Trotsky in bloody apron, with a bloody knife in his hand, ready to sacrifice Russia laid on the altar of the "International".  Everyone worshiping the idol of Karl Marx.  Soldiers of the Red Army sneering with ugly orc-lice smiles with rotten teeth.  Propaganda can go both ways, you know.  This is why I am not particularly fond of the mockery coming from the New Atheists.
And this is an example of counter-revolutionary propaganda. Lenin (in red) is portrayed as a high priest, Trotsky in bloody apron, with a bloody knife in his hand, ready to sacrifice Russia laid on the altar of the “International”. Everyone worshiping the idol of Karl Marx. Soldiers of the Red Army sneering with ugly orc-like smiles with rotten teeth. Propaganda can go both ways, you know. This is why I am not particularly fond of the mockery coming from the New Atheists.

I know, many would say “but this is not atheism. This is communism.” I would address this in some other post.