Letters

Re: “Religion Is an Empirical Question—Finally,” by Robyn E. Blumner (FI, August/September 2017). Religion has been studied in the social sciences for over a century. The problem that we face, however, is not religion as such as an aspect of world culture but rather the ontological content of religious doctrine. It is the latter that provides the compelling interest that fosters intractable ideas, fanaticisms, repression, purges, and the like.

In the past, there have been attempts to study the ontology of religion empirically. Psychoanalysis is perhaps the most notable example of this. But such attempts have never really been successful and at best have amounted to nothing more than a tirade of metaphysics glibly disguised with scientific language. None of these escapades have really been testable by scientifically tenable means.

With continued progress in mass communications and education, organized religion, ontology notwithstanding, will eventually become mere poetry, as it already has in Western Europe.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas


The Problem with ‘Privilege’

Re: “The Problem with ‘Priv­ilege,’” by Valerie Tarico (FI, August
/September 2017). Tarico has written a wonderful piece on good intentions, especially with respect to “privilege.” She finds “struggle”—suffering—a far more important issue.

As for privilege, how about this perspective to strengthen her position? Material inequality was made inevitable by the agrarian and industrial revolutions. They defeated abject poverty. Unfortunately, the victory could not be made perfect, i.e., equal for all. Nevertheless, the most important “equality” of all is still invincible.
All who are honest are equally human.

All who are dishonest are unequally human.

Piers Woodriff
Somerset, Virginia
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Philosophy Symposium

Free Inquiry generally is a robust and accessible magazine, but the latest one featuring a “symposium” on philosophy was curiously conducted and instantly recyclable (“The Fight for Our Philosophy, Part 1,” (FI, August/September 2017).

Daniel C. Dennett’s puncturing of philosophical “phoolishness” (“Philosophy as the Las Vegas of Rational Inquiry”) served as an ironic lead-in to the arid discussions of this or that naturalism, but his own statement was equally unsupportable. He maintains, “I have inveighed against a lot of ill-considered and dire talk about how free will is an illusion, for instance, since I think that many folk think that if science has shown this, then everything is both fated and permissible—a (self)-destructive frame of mind that some people really fall into.” Too much truth “can do serious mischief,” in his words?

No, social reality is doing all the serious mischief by itself. Not many people become heedless libertines and sociopaths by “imbibing” too much philosophy. The culture of corporate capitalism, abetted by the blandishments of its supportive institutions such as the judiciary, politics, higher education can claim credit for that. Violence and other forms of social destruction come from the corrupt and deleterious workings of our social world, not from would-be intellectuals making hugely considered existential conclusions about meaninglessness.

Martin White
Salem, New York


 

Stephen Maitzen (“Naturalism and the Fundamental Question”) posits that the Fundamental Question (FQ) as to why there is anything rather than nothing at all has no answer. I totally disagree!

Despite the popularity of the idea that either “God created the universe” or that there was a “big bang” (from an equally unsatisfactory premise of an unexplainable infinitely dense tiny core of matter), both of these explanations lead to “infinite regress” of circular argument searching for a “first cause.” The only possible solution that brings an end to the circular search for first cause is to accept that the universe is the intrinsic ultimate fabric of physical reality, which has always existed. An eternal universe isn’t “created,” has no beginning, fills space to infinity in all directions, and satisfies the Occam’s razor doctrine of the simplest explanation being correct.

How did I come to this conclusion? If the first cause was “God,” how did “God” exist without a universe to exist in? Common sense also dictates that not even gods can self-create themselves, or speak a universe into existence.

It also defies all rational logic to posit a pre-universe condition where there was nothing at all—because you can’t get from nothing to something—let alone a universe-size something!

While it is not possible to refute big bang theory point by point in a three-hundred-word-limit “letter,” suffice it to say that positing the existence of a tiny mysterious exploding dense core of matter has no more credibility than positing a God out of nowhere. An equally absurd proposition is that an entire universe spontaneously and suddenly burst into existence!

John Williamson
Wichita, Kansas


Humanists in the Data

I take issue with the definition of “religious Humanism” as presented by Ryan T. Cragun in “Finding Humanists in Survey Data” (FI, August/September 2017). He says they are “Individuals who identified as (a) having no religious affiliation, (b) attending religious services more than never, and (c) believing in an afterlife.” I consider myself to be a religious Humanist, and as a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I do have a religious affiliation, I do attend religious services regularly, and I most emphatically do not believe in an afterlife. I am an atheist and a humanist but not a secular humanist because I belong to a very freethinking religion. I follow the dictates of William R. Murry, who has written several books on this subject, including Becoming More Fully Human: Religious Humanism as a Way of Life.

Helen Bennett
Rockledge, Florida



Ryan T. Cragun replies:


I appreciate Helen Ben­nett’s response to my article and the definition I provided. As I noted in the article, the definitions are problematic in large part because the data are problematic. Since the data are not collected specifically to examine the characteristics of individuals who identify as humanists, I had no control over the questions asked and was not, therefore, able to use ideal measures to distinguish between different types of humanists. Her concern perfectly illustrates why a study like the one I outlined in my article needs to be done. Until then, we won’t have a good sense of what percentage of humanists fall into the various categories mentioned in the article.




Institution of Morality

Re: “Morality as a Human Institution,” by Ronald A. Lindsay (FI, August/September 2017). Just because moral laws are binding on us does not mean that they are objective. Reality offers guidance that there are no moral facts. There are actions that are basically morally wrong, but it always allows for extenuating circumstances.

How do moral laws come into existence? What is the source of their authority? It seems most likely that moral laws arise from the paradox that we are individual animals devoted to our own personal welfare and are at the same time social animals obliged to live together in groups. Social order and moral principles arise spontaneously through the interaction of people within a given community. We must curb our own self-interest so as not to make enemies. Nor do we want to become the victims of other people’s unbridled self-interest. Moral laws are a pragmatic necessity. In John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, there is a nice description of how moral codes arise naturally within migrant camps:

At first the families were timid in the building and tumbling worlds, but gradually the technique of building worlds became their technique. . . . The families learned what rights must be observed—the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden in the heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or to decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted; the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick to transcend all other rights. And the families learned, although no one told them, what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed: the right to intrude upon privacy, the right to be noisy while the camp slept, the right of seduction or rape, the right of adultery and theft and murder.

These rights were crushed, because the little worlds could not exist for even a night with such rights alive. And as the worlds moved westward, rules became laws, although no one told the families. It is unlawful to foul near the camp; it is unlawful in any way to foul the drinking water; it is unlawful to eat good rich food near one who is hungry, unless he is asked to share. And with the laws, the punishments—and there were only two—a quick and murderous fight or ostracism; and ostracism was the worst. For if one broke the laws his name and face went with him, and he had no place in any world, no matter where, social conduct became fixed and rigid, so that a man must say “Good morning” when asked for it, so that a man might have a willing girl if he stayed with her, if he fathered her children and protected them. But a man might not have one girl one night and another the next, for this would endanger the worlds.

The families moved westward, and the technique of building the worlds improved so that the people could be safe in their worlds; and the form was so fixed that a family acting in the rules knew it was safe in the rules. And as the worlds moved westward they were more complete and better furnished, for their builders were more experienced in building them.

What is regarded as “wrong” is behavior that tends to destroy the social fabric. What is regarded as “right” is behavior that does not damage the social fabric, or even strengthens it.

In order to increase the force and sovereignty of these laws, they are attributed to “divine authority” or “immemorial custom.” What is important about religiously sanctioned laws is that “divine authority” supplements any secular punishment with the threat of divine punishment.

Stephen E. Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico


Post-Humanist Free Will

Paul Bassett, reviewing the book Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (“The Post-Humanists Art at the Gates,” Free Inquiry, August/September 2017), claims that “It is generally accepted that organisms are deterministic.” It’s not clear who is doing the accepting here, but certainly not neuroscientists. Everything about neuron operation is statistical, such as the probability that a transmitter molecule will bind to a receptor and produce a receptor potential, that enough receptor potentials will sum to a threshold before leaking away, and so on. Due to the inherent noisiness of neural systems, individual neurons are hopelessly unreliable compared to, say, computer logic gates. The overall system works because it is massively parallel, such that an output typically reflects the average of many neurons. At sensory detection thresholds, however, where only one or a few neurons are active, response to a stimulus still degrades to a random “guess.”

So there is no need to invoke chaos theory (which only applies to deterministic systems) to get a random response. There are plenty of opportunities for random responses in noisy complex systems, which will give results indistinguishable from “free will.” And for those who insist that such is somehow beyond the capability of present computers, please note that this is only because we carefully feed them with discrete ones and zeros, specifically to prevent random outcomes. /p>

Bob Masta
Ann Arbor, Michigan



 

I enjoyed Paul Bassett’s review but was unconvinced by his arguments for free will. The appeal to chaos theory introduces unpredictability into the deterministic mix, but our actions are no more free if they are the result of random processes than if they are the result of strictly determined ones. To claim that we have free will implies that we have the freedom to choose to escape the chain of cause and effect. Bassett writes that we are “responsible for our actions because the many causal chains to precise external antecedents cannot be established in real time,” but the fact that we cannot explain every link in the causal chain does not mean we can escape it.

Martin Stubbs
London, United Kingdom


A Call to Action on Overpopulation

Many thanks to the comments of Jim Valentine and R. C. Gibson in the last Free Inquiry about my article, “Calling All Wimpy Activists” (June/July 2017). It is great to inspire a dialogue on a topic rarely discussed. Basically, one said the real population tragedy is unfolding in Africa and the other has lost all hope and has already booked passage on the Titanic, waiting for the inevitable collapse of Homo sapiens. They are not wrong. The empirical evidence supports much of what they said. Growth is happening mostly in Africa. The overpopulation forecasts don’t leave much room for feeling anything but despair. But I’d like to respond by saying that overpopulation is a concept, not just a number. It’s a relationship between resources and numbers. The United States is overpopulated by over 150 million people, putting a strain on our water supplies and everything else. Overpopulation is a relationship few understand and even fewer discuss, but ecology demands that we confront it.

If you agree that we are not winning because we have ignored this issue too long, then become a part of this ecologically important journey. Deep pessimism is warranted, but not helpful. We don’t have probability on our side, but if we don’t live in the possibility that we can shed a light on overpopulation and keep us from the cliff of collapse, we should just give up on everything else too. We should give up on the push for a secular world, for a saner political landscape, and everything else we care about. None of it will matter when we climb to eleven, twelve, and thirteen billion or more.

Karen I. Shragg
Bloomington, Minnesota





Re: “Religion Is an Empirical Question—Finally,” by Robyn E. Blumner (FI, August/September 2017). Religion has been studied in the social sciences for over a century. The problem that we face, however, is not religion as such as an aspect of world culture but rather the ontological content of religious doctrine.

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