Atheist Climber Prominent People Project

September 24, 2010 § 7 Comments

Atheist Climber Blog is turning One year old on October 10! Yay! And I remember like yesterday thinking “Do I have anything to write about? Will anyone care? Will anyone read it?” I just wish I had taken more baby photos!

Well you have all spoken to me by visiting and commenting on my blog. My measure of success has been reflected in the blog stats with over 60,000 page hits, over 100 subscribers, and more than 1500 comments for the 100+ articles and videos I have posted. This far surpasses my expectations and for that I thank you all.

To celebrate, I am in the process of interviewing a selection of prominent figures in humanism, atheism, science and critical thinking. Most of these will be in the form of written interviews, but who knows? I might, down the track, do some video or audio interviews too. This will be dependent on how these interviews are received by my readers.

I don’t want to say too much at this stage, but suffice to say, I already have confirmation from a few very prominent and important people who I’m sure you’d recognise. More information to come. So stay tuned!

The first interview will be published on Atheist Climber Blog’s first birthday, October 10, 2010. So come celebrate with me, and feed your brain with the words of some great thinkers.

Thanks again,
Atheist Climber

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Unintelligent Design

August 31, 2010 § 6 Comments

The human body is testament to the absence of determinism in the evolutionary path of animals. And there are several vestigial examples of evolutionary leftovers within the human body. Couple this with the imperfect state of the human eyeball (complete with a blind-spot at the back of the retina), and we have plenty of examples of the way that evolution works. Bodies are not redesigned every time an evolutionary change in a species occurs. Adaptations only hold on if they are advantageous, or at a minimum not harmful to the creature or plant.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve is an odd example of evolution that due to the evolutionary path of mammals takes a much longer journey than it should if evolution were about being efficient then things like this would never happen. Humans seem to be much more like a crammed together mess of spare parts than a divinely designed being.

And there are countless other examples of odd evolutionary quirks. Watch Dawkins’ dissection of a giraffe’s neck to reveal the epic journey of the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

Richard Dawkins: An atheist’s call to arms

August 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

One of the more entertaining and funny talks by Richard Dawkins, this time from TED talks in 2008. I’d be interested in what you think of this one. I tend to agree with him, though BadAstronomer and Sam Harris don’t seem to be 100% in line with him either. Is there room for all types of discourse? Or should we be looking to find a united voice?

The Atheist Re-Enlightenment

August 18, 2010 § 12 Comments

I have often wondered why it is that we are seeing an uprising of voices in the world of skeptical inquiry and atheism in the mainstreams of the world. And I wonder why it is that I am so heavily entrenched in this to feel it is important in my life to put so much effort into this blog at this point in time. Maybe I’m a little slow on the uptake, but it seems to me that now, more than ever in my lifetime, is the appropriate time to stand up for reason and rationality in the face of bad information and outdated dogma.

There is now, in any bookstore, a religion section which not only contains some bibles and stories about Mary MacKillop and her ilk, but a large array of books which question the very fabric of religion itself. Authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling et al. are touted as attacking the thinking of the religious, or criticising the religions and their dogma. In addition to this there are many authors whose books may be found outside of the “Religion” section who tackle other pertinent topics which have ramifications for religious people and their beliefs,  (Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Micheal Shermer just to name a few).

Scientific discoveries in cosmology, neuroscience, medicine, physics and biology are speeding forward at an unprecedented rate, and the advent of very powerful social-media tools like Twitter and FaceBook have allowed for the propagation of information in a way never seen before. We can watch things as they happen! Earlier this year I watched as a space shuttle took-off from the USA in real-time (with some delay, my internet connection is not great at home). And millions in Australia are now Tweeting about the current election campaign as the debates take place on our TVs.

So there is an upsurge, and the information can spread fast, but why is this movement happening now?

On August 14 The Australian Online published this article titled “Reason on the offensive” written by Luke Slattery. He compares the changes happening in mainstream society to The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and America, where academics of the time fought against dogma and doctrine in favour of reason, rationality and free-inquiry. The article uses this quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the book and film Nomad:

“The intellectual tradition of the European enlightenment, which began in the 17th century and produced its greatest works in the 18th, is based on critical reasoning,” she writes.

“It employs facts instead of faith, evidence instead of tradition. Morality in this world view is determined by human beings, not by an outside force.”

Indeed, and this is what I strive for now. But the article goes on to suggest that we are now in a similar situation to those that led up to the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment. It suggests that one of the reasons that this “re-enlightenment” is occurring now is because of the Post-Modernist movement of the 1980’s, which was a rejection of  the Modernist ideals of globalisation and objective truths among humans. Other reasons for it to be occurring now, according to the article, is the lack of people challenging the ideals of faith, and the  political agendas which are at the forefront of western societies interactions with the rest of the world.

The article states that the current push, I’ll call it the “Re-Enlightenment” push, comes in part from:

“… fear that the enlightenment’s contemporary enemies have grown more powerful, in part because they have gone unchallenged, and that the virtues of rationality, liberty, free inquiry and free speech — of democracy itself — need to be re-invigorated. But the challenge is multifold. Grayling, for example, believes that the gravest threat to civil liberties in the West stems from the policy responses of British and American governments to the threat of terrorism.”

Now that is an interesting thought indeed. I’m not a political expert by any means, nor have I ever pretended to be one, but it definitely does seem that somewhere in the political agendas of the American, Australian and some European governmental policies is an intentional leveraging on the fear of possible terrorism from Islam. And by leveraging on this fear, we see suspicions rise, fingers pointed and people becoming more insular in their communities and their beliefs, and more vocal about how they need their rights protected. People are more fanatical about their special-interests in the west than I have ever seen. And it seems in reaction to the terrorist attacks on “friendly soil” that people have become more fundamental in their beliefs. And very vocal.

Yes, we need to protect the rights of the individual, but not at the expense of the masses. Much of the rhetoric we see screamed out by these people who claim they are discriminated against is actually coming from a fundamentalist viewpoint. Be it Christian or Islam, the loudest words are possibly some of the scariest ideas, ones which aim to impose religious dogma on all. Some even cry for death to the non-believer, a positively bronze-age idea at best.

But I’m not writing to decry the fundamentalist ravings of the minority of religious believers, as most people who call themselves “believers” are good people, and who moderate their ideas with some empathy of others. But what I am saying is that these loud voices from those who see their religious ideals as being threatened by spurious interpretations of their holy books, and those who claim that their “way of life” is threatened by what people do in their bedrooms or in their homes, it is these loud voices that have been a catalyst to the uprising of the atheist voice and the voice of reason, rationality and free inquiry.

From the article, with regards to the obstacles faced by reason and rational thought:

“The traditional adversaries of the enlightenment — obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism — are like the heads of the Hydra that keep growing back as they are cut,” Todorov writes. “This is because they draw their strength from characteristics of human beings and societies that are as ineradicable as the desire for autonomy and dialogue. People need security and comfort no less than freedom and truth: they would rather defend the members of their group than subscribe to universal values; and the desire for power, which leads to the use of violence, is no less characteristic of the human species than rational argumentation.”

Todorov in this quote suggests that the desire for power over others, including violence, is as natural in the human being as the quest for rationality and reason. So is it hopeless?

I don’t think so. Every day I am greeted with a friend request on FaceBook from yet another atheist or skeptic, every day I get pro-choice activists following me on Twitter. Every other day I read a news piece, like this one in The Australian, which lightens my spirits a bit and makes me realise that I am not alone in this quest for rationality and reason to prevail. And in fact, I have some of the smartest people on the planet in my corner.

So I welcome, with open arms, a New Re-Enlightened human society, a place where every man and woman is equal, where religious dogma is the exception to the rule, where politics don’t play on the baseless fears of the masses. The Re-Enlightened society knows there’s no “Reds” in the closet, no bogeyman under the bed, and no terrorist on the train. Or at least, we don’t go into a panic the possible threat of other threats.

And while there are real threats to our safety and happiness in this world, the important issues should lie in how we as a whole species will overcome these challenges, not whether my god is the true god, not whether I’m in “your” land, not whether I have more rights than you do to be here, or to be alive, or to be happy. We need to look to the culture and how it affects our expectations as human beings. We need to look at humanity to see how to fix it, not to look skyward and pray for intervention, or worse, the end of days. And I really do think we can do this; we have the knowledge, we have the means, let’s make this thing work for all of us.

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Further Reading
The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism

Double Rainbow Guy and The Insane Clown Posse

August 15, 2010 § 15 Comments

“Double rainbow, all the way! WHOOOOAH!!!” – Hungrybear9562.

“Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” – Insane Clown Posse.

Above are 2 examples of seeing the wonderment of the world around us, and appreciating that all we have is amazing, but with one big difference. The former is someone expressing wonder in a beautiful world, the latter is a stupefying display of ignorance proclaiming that everything is a miracle, so stop asking questions about the world.

The seemingly drug-addled words of Hungrybear9562 (the Double Rainbow Guy), while maybe a little overly emotional are heartening in that he is brought to tears by a particularly beautiful rainbow. I have felt this kind of wonderment before, and revel in it when I do. It’s the feeling that something is so beautiful, so awe-inspiring that words fail, and it’s all you can do admire this beauty. And sometimes we feel the need to get “back to nature”, to get away from the trappings of the modern world, computers, blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc., and simply be in a natural environment.

In the latter half of the 18th Century there was a movement in literature, art and music, dubbed Romanticism, which arose as a reaction to the Age Of Enlightenment and all the upper-class trappings of that period, and which sought to bring this kind of wonderment in the beauty and power of nature to the forefront of people’s minds. From Wikipedia comes this description of Romanticism:

“The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities.”

"A mountain scene, Val d'Aosta" - William Turner

"A mountain scene, Val d'Aosta" - William Turner 1845.

The Romantic movement gained momentum during the Industrial Revolution, I think partly through fear of the industrialisation of the time, and partly because people felt there was a disconnect between man and nature, and wanted to bring this back into the sphere of the arts, hopefully to remind people about the grand wonders of the world. And while much of the Romantics works were of a given religious significance by the artists, writers or musicians, the fact is they were dealing with subjects that are universal among people, because these subjects are about our world and what it means to be human.

I find the reaction of Hungrybear9562 to be refreshing in a world driven by economies, products and politics. He asks “What does this mean?” repeatedly, in a naive and almost endearing way. And while it was perhaps an overreaction to the chance refraction of light through drops of water in the air, to see someone sufficiently moved by this act of nature and physics is endearing, albeit a little uncomfortable.

In contrast to this honest reaction to the wonders of the world is the pseudo-philosophical song by The Insane Clown Posse “Miracles“.This brazen spouting of inane rhetoric is an embarrassment to all the progress we’ve made as a species. It asks questions about the world, and proclaims everything to be a miracle, but anyone with an 8th grade education should be able to refute most of this drivel with at least some kind of plausible answer. proclamations such as “Music is all magic,You can’t even hold it, it’s just there in the air, Pure motherfucking magic Right? This shit’ll blow your fucking mind.” And blow my “fucking mind” is exactly what it has done. Surely they can’t be dumb enough to call the interaction of sound waves in the air causing the vibrations inside your ear magic right? Wrong. Consider mind shattered. It goes on:

“Music is a lot like love, it’s all a feeling
And it fills the room, from the floor to the ceiling
I see miracles all around me
Stop and look around, it’s all astounding
Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

(You can see the full lyrics here.)

The most embarrassing thing about this verse in the song is the fact that the question of how “fucking magnets” work can be fixed with a simple Google search, but then again, they give the game away with the next line. They are touting living in an ignorant and insular world, one where science is wrong, and all that is real is what we perceive to be real, and nothing more. This kind of willful ignorance is not only embarrassing, but really seems plain lazy. If they spent as much time thinking about the world as they spent doing their freaky clown make-up they might have an actual thought worthy of some merit. And to get angry because a simple physical process like magnetism is beyond their grasp shows the level of intelligence we are dealing with here. To say everything is a miracle is much like the religious view of the world, where instead of really making a concerted effort to try to discover why things happen a person will throw up their hands and claim “God did it”. Richard Dawkins has variously stated things like this:

“One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all.”

And I can’t see how not knowing is better than knowing, especially when it comes to basic principles of physics, chemistry and biology. While I can’t fault ICP for trying to draw attention to the wonders of the world as I think the idea itself is quite good, to look around you and see that everything that exists is special, what is problematic is the way they portray this is in a dumbed-down quasi-philosophical manner, or at very least, in such a non-intellectual way as to make me embarrassed for them in their complacent and willful ignorance. This kind of rhetoric, where you can’t believe ANYTHING you are told is dangerous, because bring too close-minded means you are not willing to accept facts. It’s this kind of attitude that has given rise to the emergence of anti-vaccine lobbyists and the teaching of creationism in the classrooms of our kids. I really hope this is not a sign of the dumbing-down of society, and I hope that the kids that listen to this trip are smart enough to know blatant stupidity when they see it.

Luckily the song is completely laughable to anyone who went to highschool. And besides, who would not believe a grown man in clown make-up?

And we do live in an amazing world. One can feel a sense of wonder and amazement at the natural world by simply taking a walk in a forest, swimming in the ocean, sitting in a serene park or watching a thunderstorm. And I think it is really very healthy for our minds and bodies to feel this, it can put into perspective some of the things we take for granted, and also make us wonder why we worry about the trivialities of modern life. But while this awe of our natural world can help to keep us humble, one should not be so close-minded (or open-minded for that matter) that facts are dismissed as propaganda or lies.

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“Don’t be a dick”? Sometimes we need to…

July 10, 2010 § 17 Comments

I have no idea what Bad Astronomer Phil Plait said at TAM 8 today, I was not there, in fact I am on the other side of the world right now. But the news I got is that Phil was trying to put forward the position that being overtly aggressive when addressing any kind of wrongly held belief is not the way to go, that you don’t catch flies with vinegar, you catch them with honey. Some people apparently took this as a criticism of Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, and the twittersphere was filled with tweets about his talk. I can’t comment on the talk itself, but I know that PZ likes to be overtly assertive in his standpoint and is not one to avoid a topic for the sake of being polite. I’m sure also that there was more to Phil’s talk than just puppies and hugs.

But it does bring forward an interesting problem. What voice should we use?

As overtly critical thinkers, is it better to be aggressive toward people who hold ignorant or skewed views about the world, society and the universe, or is it better to adopt a “soft touch” approach?

Personally I tend to go for the latter, and for this reason. I think it is very important to see where the other side is coming from in debates about religion, society or science. In my experience in dealing with people if you go at someone hammer and tongs from the beginning they stop hearing what you are saying, they get defensive. It’s ineffective, and they tend to resent you for attacking them. If you approach them by listening and understanding, people will tend to listen to you in return. A civilised conversation does not involve a knife-fight.

Having said this, there is a time and a place for ridicule. Some people only respond when they have their faith in irrationality shattered. And some people need to be publicly humiliated before their peers before they can see just how ridiculous their viewpoints may actually be. But keep in mind, this will not change the mind of the individual being ridiculed. What it can do is change the minds of those who listen to the irrational person, people seeing both sides of the debate can evaluate both sides of an argument and come to a conclusion for themselves.

For me the biggest problem is that people who hold certain irrational beliefs will go into a state of denial about their situation or beliefs. As I said in an earlier blog “Pitfalls in debate – the difficulties we face” in relation to dealing with loved-ones’ irrationalities:

  • People’s core beliefs are very precious to them, because this is what they base their assessments of their universe upon. If you stomp on these, you stomp on all they hold dear.
  • When discussing topics of belief, people with strong views which you are addressing or opposing can tend to “clam-up” and stop listening to you. The more insistent you become, the less they hear.
  • Aggressive attacks only cause the other person to feel threatened. If you get too emotional about a topic or during debate, you lose, the other person will claim victory based on your lack of self-control.

This applies to all people, not just your grandmother. Because so many base their understanding of the universe on what they were brought up to believe, by smashing these beliefs you are threatening to destabilise the very foundations of what they consider to be themselves, their core being. As ridiculous as this may sound, it’s true, and to try to smash someone else’s beliefs with heavy-handed insults will only make people feel belittled or “not heard”. People hate to feel their views are not heard or are dismissed.

There is a place for both the heavy-handed approach and the softer approach, and I think it comes down to the situation, who you’re talking to, what it is that they are saying, how much influence this may have on others, whether it’s a public forum or a private conversation. Likewise there is room for both Phil Plait’s approach to debating, and that of PZ Myers.

There are two key factors in debate that DO matter; the facts that we bring and the language that we use. If our facts are sound, and the language we use is persuasive, we may not win over the nay-sayers we are debating, but we may just win ourselves some converts in the audience at large. But again even if we have the facts and the persuasive language for our arguments, the noise coming from opponents may be so loud as to require aggression and ridicule.

One thing that is important to note is the reason why Phil, PZ, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, myself and many, many others are debating irrationality, religion, bad science, bad medicine, dogma and ignorance. We all come forward with a certain understanding that these irrationalities cause more harm in this world than people give credit for. As I’ve said before, we are on a teetering point on this planet, where if we continue to make one bad decision after another about the way we evaluate what is important, the way we treat one-another, and the things we hold as true, then we are surely doomed to much further hardships. We have the information to make a real difference. We have to be effective and we have to be unwavering in our resolve. And we need to use all the tools at our disposal to do this.

I don’t think it matters whether we as individuals employ the same style or fervor in our debates. I think it comes down the the commitment we feel, the information we have and the way we phrase our facts. I don’t think we need to pander to the ridiculous claims of the delusional, but at the same time, with just the right measure of respect and the right amount of ridicule when needed, I do think progress can be made. The right tool for the right job. You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to butter your toast would you?

The Search for Hollow Unicorns

June 23, 2010 § 3 Comments

People like to feel that their lives have meaning.

Let me just examine that statement. In this context, people like to feel that their lives are worthwhile, that their actions are of some consequence, that there is a reason to get up in the morning, to go to work, to earn money, to go through the daily routines that we do to support ourselves and our families. We need to feel that there is a sense of purpose to our daily existences or we can feel that, without a life of some small consequence, that there is no point in existing at all. I too feel this need and know that it is an important part of being human.

Not only do we feel the need to feel some sense of purpose, likewise we value those around us, and we engage these people, our loved-ones, our families and our colleagues, in our sense of purpose. We want to be needed by those around us. We depend upon this.

We are also very empathic animals, we can identify in others fear, pain, love, gratitude, anger, lust and all the other human emotions, and we act and react accordingly. We can relate to others, and this is what helps us to be able to give value to the lives of others. We want for those around us to be happy, healthy and successful, as we want to be ourselves.

So we need to value our own lives, we feel the natural need to see the value in the lives of others. This is what gives our lives a sense of meaning, purpose and consequence. What we do for ourselves and others is what sustains us as human beings, and what drives us onward.

So life has meaning?

I would say yes, life does have meaning, in the sense that we can continue forward with our lives and not feel like we have a pointless existence.

I was asked recently by my friend Jonathan, and I paraphrase, “As an ‘existential nihilist‘ how can I say to someone that there is no innate value in a human life, but that I believe in human rights?”

This is a tricky one, as he pointed out, for it lacks a consistent basis, and seems contradictory. However I see no problem in saying that the universe and life, like rocks, hold no innate meaning or purpose on a cosmological scale, and yet still maintain that there is value in a human life. And this is because I am human and am empathetical toward my species and to others, as we all are to a greater or lesser degree.

In my last blog piece “A Universe Without Meaning” I countered the idea that the universe has innate meaning and took it to its logical conclusion; the answer to the question “what is the meaning of the universe?” is that there is no meaning, and the question is not valid for it gives no premise or context from which to extract a meaning. The question is a bad question. In my comments, in reply to a commenter I said:

I cannot see how you can extract meaning from something like the universe, which can only answer questions which have a possible answer like “Why is the universe the shape it is?” or “How old is the universe?” or “What is the meaning of background radiation in the universe?” The question needs context.

This is similar in mood to the quote from Richard Dawkins who said in an interview with Salon:

“Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word ‘why’ does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, ‘Why are unicorns hollow?’ That appears to mean something, but it doesn’t deserve an answer.”

While Dawkins has a reputation of never being one to mince words, his point is clear. The questions “Why are we here?” and “What is the meaning of the universe?” are perfectly good sentences in English, but they lack any validity for they lack any context. We need to ask questions like “given X what is Y?” or “given Y, what is the meaning of X?” Or we could ask something like “What is the meaning of the expanding universe?”

I think the biggest stumbling block in the whole “meaning” debate is what is actually meant by “meaning”? As I understand it, meaning is the implications of a thing or situation given the context it is in. A quick web search gives me this:

1. Something that is conveyed or signified; sense or significance.
2. Something that one wishes to convey, especially by language.
3. An interpreted goal, intent, or end.
4. Inner significance.

When I ask the question “What is the meaning of the universe?” I am talking of the first definition. Those who have a problem with me saying that the question is invalid or infantile refer to the meaning as the third entry. The problem I have with the idea of the universe having a meaning in the third context is that in order to have an implied meaning, then there must be a plan to which this meaning applies, and that this plan therefore must have been created by something which as intent. It invokes the existence of a creator god for which I seen no evidence, and therefore the question in that context is invalid.

Now, while I bring nothing new to the debate here, I do think it’s important to point out to my readers that just because I see no innate “meaning” in the universe does not mean we cannot have meaning in our lives. The idea of our lives having meaning in as described by point four being “Inner significance” is very important to us as a species. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s crucial for us to have a sense of significance in our lives, and to have that feeling about the lives of others. And it is no wonder that people react with shock and horror when I say to the world that life has no meaning. To them it must be like me saying “There is no point to living, you might as well end it all.” But as you can see, this is not what I mean at all.

It is in our nature to ask questions of our lives and our universe, starting with the basics, and as we learn more and more, our questions get more and more complex. We also complicate things because we have the ability to abstract our questions, and synthesise meaning from seemingly unrelated ideas. And sometimes the words we use in the English language carry more “meaning” than others in different contexts. I think that in order to go forward, we need to stop looking for a “higher meaning” and concentrate on the meanings of our of lives, how we interact with others and the planet around us.

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