I grew up as a fundamental Christian, and the longer I remained in my wonderful yet strict culture, the deeper my true self became pushed down. So far that by the time I hit my late 20s, I didn’t even know who I really was anymore. In this video, I want to start unpacking what its like to be an atheist coming out of a fundamental conservative Christian background and the challenges I faced in this.
Well, this year has been amazing. Leaving a church that didn’t like us showed me how important it is to know yourself. Traveling to Pakistan and India taught me about who I am and introduced me to some new things, people and possibilities that I want to pursue. Reading science and psychology books opened my mind to a new way to look at the world. And from those things sparked a me that has been kept quiet and hidden for, well, ever. And a peace, joy and love came with it that I’ve never experienced before. So….all that to say…people its time for me to be honest and expressed the feelings I’ve had since the spring. Thanks.
Though it seems absurd, this brings out an interesting point of our existence. This aspect is that it is terribly difficult to be certain of anything in our lives. People are afraid of uncertainty and strive to find absolutes to lay their lives on. They might turn to God, the Bible, logic, reason or something else that seems to be unchanging, credible and reliable. But they are not. We have a large problem, and it is encased inside our skull.
The mind is unreliable. When was the last time you were certain of something only to be shown that you were incorrect? Was it a dream you had that was so vivid you didn’t even think that it wasn’t real? Or perhaps it was an illusion where an artist fooled your mind into thinking that something disappeared or reappeared. And what about the mentally insane who are absolutely convinced that they are someone they clearly are not? Or are convinced that their invisible friend is real? Can you distinguish that from your own state of believing that your name is what it is or that your best friend is real? How about the fact that our memories are so easily manipulated by suggestion? Or can you refute that you were just poofed into existence ten minutes ago with false memories, and the people in your life were also given false memories of you? These assertions, though we act as if they are not true, are not falsifiable. There is no way of disproving any of these instances.
What about those absolutes that are above and beyond our minds? What about God, or reason, or the Bible or logic? There may be such absolutes out there, but we are left with only our minds to interpret whether these things are true or not. How do we know that God is real? Someone may say that the Bible testifies it. So how do we know the Bible is true? Well, we have copies of it that have been verified by scholars. And we trust the scholars because they follow good logic. But how do we know that it is good logic? There is no escaping the conclusions that our minds tell us this. People say to start from the Bible, but in reality, you always start from your own mind confirming to you that the Bible is true. Even if God were to implant the correct version of truth into our minds, and we felt a hundred percent certain of it, we would still be forced to doubt it in the face of other people who have also been absolutely certain of contradictory ‘truths.’
All these questions about the reliability of our minds leads to the ultimate conjecture presented to us in The Matrix. Perhaps our entire lives are spent inside a virtual world that isn’t real. Reality itself is under attack. So if reality itself is unreliable, what are we left with? The answer is my consciousness. This is of course Rene Decartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum” statement, or, “I think, therefore I am.” My consciousness is the only thing I can be certain of. My senses are untrustworthy, I do not know if anything else is conscious. All I know is that in some manner, I think. I do not know if I am dreaming, or inside the Matrix, or if I am a crazy person. But I know that I am, that my mind exists.
We can be certain of nothing else (This viewpoint, by the way, is called solipsism). However, we can build a working model of reality using relevancy. It may be impossible to disprove that we are inside the Matrix, but is it relevant to us? What if that movie had focused on the life of someone inside the Matrix who never found out that he was inside the Matrix? (That would be a pretty boring movie!) Is the existence or non-existence of that person’s reality relevant to him? In fact, this may just be a case of semantics of the word ‘reality. It is no different to say that what is outside the Matrix is irrelevant than to say that this person’s reality is the Matrix, assuming that he has no knowledge or interaction with anything outside the Matrix. We too have the same question before us. As physicists dig deeper and deeper into the fabric of the universe, they search for what the universe is really made of. And the deeper they dig, the more meaningless that answer is. Solid objects aren’t really solid, but mostly empty space. Our universe is like a Matrix in that our minds give us a picture of reality that conforms to mathematical formulas and rules. The only difference is the complexity of the universe over the Matrix. This, in fact, is a good refutation of the Matrix. It is a lot simpler to assume that the universe actually exists than to assume that we are inside a giant computer program. The more we expand our minds through science, the more we find how giant this computer program would have to be. It leaves fewer questions if we assume it is reality itself instead of only part of reality.
Another assumption that is difficult to prove is the consciousness of other beings. There is no way to disprove a claim that I am conscious and everyone else is a robot programmed to act as if they were conscious. I know that I am conscious, but only by observing that others act like me do I infer that they also are conscious like I am. This part seems unintuitive to me. I cannot understand how I live in a universe where there are trillions of conscious beings and yet I am only conscious of me. It seems that either I should have the consciousness of everyone on earth, or that only I should be conscious. Nevertheless, neither of these conclusions is really very viable because of scientific studies that link brain activity to consciousness. These can help verify that since I have the same brain as everyone else, everyone else is conscious in the same way that I am conscious. This is the most probable conclusion. This conclusion helps my picture of reality. It reinforces the idea that the universe is real and is in turn reinforced by that same idea. If I were the only conscious being, it would be much easier to believe I was in the Matrix. But knowing that other people are conscious just like me and are part of the same reality as I am helps to expand my reality. Reality is not only what I know and interact with, but also includes those things that others interact with. The experience of someone else claiming to have spoken with God or seen a ghost is as much a part of reality as the scientist who claims that three quarks make up an electron. Since other people share the same reality as I do, I must take their observations into account as I attempt to understand reality.
On this basis it is reasonable to work from the assumption that the universe we experience is real, that our minds are presenting us with some form of the truth. There is now at least one more obstacles to overcome before we can use our minds to know anything. This is the problem of induction. Why should we expect things that happen in the future to work in the same way as they worked in the past? The sun has always risen in the morning, and you can even predict the exact time it will rise, but why should you expect it to? It is not a good enough answer to say “Because it always has,” since that begs the question and assumes the very thing it seeks to prove. In fact, there is no good answer to this problem except to say that without relying on induction we can do nothing at all, and therefore, it is reasonable to assume that induction is valid. If it is not valid, it is simply irrelevant to us. Suppose you are hiking in the wilderness with a friend and stop to pick a mushroom that you think you recognize as something you’ve eaten before. Your friend turns to look at you as you swallow it and informs you that there is a fifty percent chance that you just ate a poisonous mushroom that will cause death before you can reach any help. You can’t even call anyone, because there is no cell phone tower within reach. Despite your fear, this information is actually useless and irrelevant to you, since there is nothing you can do to prepare for the outcome. If it was a hundred percent chance, you could at least jump off a cliff or do something dangerous you’ve always wanted to do. This is the way we live our lives. There’s always a chance that the entire universe will disintegrate tomorrow, but why worry about something you can’t prepare for? Why discuss something that no one can make any predictions about? So it is reasonable to work on the assumption that the laws that were upheld yesterday by the universe will be upheld tomorrow.
Because of all this, we now have a foundation on which we can base knowledge. This foundation consists first of our minds. We know that we exist, and that we think. The second foundation is that of reality. By studying what has happened before, we can make inferences about what will happen in the future. In other words, if the sun rose every morning up till now, we can infer that it will rise tomorrow. Or if logic works today, tomorrow that logic will work in the same way. To a lesser extent, but still an important one when it comes to finding truth, you know that if someone was trustworthy about one subject, they are likely to be trustworthy about a different, related subject. This is very important to remember when it comes to truth. It is not valid to say that I rest on God’s authority while you rest on man’s authority. In fact, the foundation for each of us is our own minds, nothing more or less. I appreciate the strength of an omniscient God behind a claim, but if the foundations below him are faulty, then there is a problem with the knowledge. If you tell me that God told you to place chickens on your head, I might question your mind. If you say the Bible told you to place chickens on your head, I would first question the authors of the Bible, then the interpreters of the Bible, and then your mind. If any one of those is suspect, then the claim that God told you to place chickens on your head is also suspect. My mind must be the starting point for understanding the world (otherwise I would have to trust you when you tell me to place a chicken on my head).
This is where I stand. At best, this position is shaky but it is difficult for me to come to any other conclusion. This is a Western position (an Eastern religion with its origins in Hinduism would claim that this reality is an illusion), so I assume that most people who are reading this would agree with me in saying that everything we know is filtered by our minds, the reality we experience is true and not an illusion, and that other people experience consciousness in the same way that I do. When all else fails, this is what I fall back to. It is the basis of the search for truth.
I took a different spin this week and made a music video with my kids. But it actually ties into the chapters we are about to read in Impossible Evolution! Hehe. So, watch the video, and here’s my question for the week:
How sheltered should we keep our children? And, how do you know that sheltering really helps in the end?
So, I’m going to share a few personal thoughts from my own life, understanding the fact that I only have little children, so I don’t from personal experience yet understand what its like to worry about a teenage daughter going to high school and all that. My personal thought is this: stop sheltering your children and start teaching them to use their brains. With Emma, I don’t hide anything from her, I don’t act like bad words or mean people or cigarrettes or sex or violence doesn’t exist. I just talk a lot about how to be smart and that although its super fun being a teenager (something she wants to be…16 in particular), you also can’t make dumb choices.
Emma, who is 6, gets some bullying at school. She’s been called names. She’s currently being stalked by a little boy in the other Kindergarten class who wants to be her boyfriend. She is being exposed to lower income “near-ghetto” families and attitudes and music. But here’s the thing: at home, Emma is taught to think highly of herself and she knows that she doesn’t need everyone to like her. Emma tells the bullies to leave her alone (and they actually have become a lot nicer to her); she doesn’t let it get to her much. She’s also told the boy that wants to be her boyfriend that he’s creepy because he doesn’t really know her. And she avoids the kids that make her feel uncomfortable. And yeah, I know its only kindergarten, but at the same time, I feel that her self-esteem and self-awareness, along with the fact that her parents never react much to all those “secular” “bad” things out there make her a stable child. She’s not judgmental. She’s not mean. She’s not scared of people who are different.
That’s how I want all my kids to be. Not judgmental of people who might swear or drink or smoke or be “sleeping around”. I want them instead to know exactly what THEY should be doing and who they are. They aren’t who WE tell them to be; they are who they decide to be. And I hope that is a smart, secure, happy adult.
Anyhow, some general thoughts. But please let me know your own thoughts on sheltering!