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The End of Why
Posted: 16 March 2005 01:47 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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I am a searcher (read usually confused) and I found Sam's book highly enlightening. It is an urgent indictment of organized religion as it is practiced today. It forcefully attacks the dogmas and closed-minded attitudes that afflict some of the posters found on this forum.

But are modern rationalist much better? How (Sam is best at this question) can they safely ignore the larger questions of meaning and purpose? Is there a purpose to the universe? Is there an answer to the why question? Can an atheist safely ignore the question of why and purpose? Atheists have not convinced me that the universe lacks a meaning or that the love I feel for my daughter is _only_ a mere chemical process.

Sam certainly proves that the Bible and Koran are ersatz keys to enlightenment. Or does he? His principle alternative is the writings of a man older than Jesus. After a reasoned and largely successful attack on monotheism, Sam writes what reads like an epilogue that addresses a lingering need for meaning. In the end, he can't fully dismiss this tension with purpose. Nor can he completely deny the enlightenment gained from the chemical processes involved with meditation. I applaud this effort. I wish he would have separated his polemic from this epilogue.

Talented neuroscientists like Sam will eventually explain every human emotion, motivation, and action in terms of formulas. This is similar to explaining the individual functions of a computer program that performs some complex task. Is this a reasonable metaphor? Are we (all life?) similar to highly specialized and elaborate computer programs that recognize complex patterns? A computer program can be explained in terms of functions and formulas, but it only gains relevance when its purpose is known.

I don't believe that the why question is irrelevant. It seems that the why question is closely related to purpose. My hope is to understand this purpose. Can Sam or any atheist prove that a purpose does not exists and that the why question is irrelevant?

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Posted: 16 March 2005 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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I am not so sure that Sam is an atheist, I don’t recall reading anything along that line. I also don’t remember anything about meditation and chemical processes. Science will never answer the question of purpose, science is not designed to even look in that direction. Each person must find his own answer for the meaning of life through investigation, this is the search which occupies all true seekers. Blindly accepting religious or scientific answers for this question is a failure. Personally I don’t think that the why question can ever be answered, but that requires that one live with the mystery or that one accepts uncertainty as a fact of life. Another way of holding this is to say that life is it’s own purpose or that living has intrinsic value.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 02:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Denial of meaning is not really within the scope of atheism. Atheism is simply not believing in the existance of gods, and by extension (if I may be so bold) anything supernatural at all. You’d have to ask a nihilist about complete denial of all meaning.

I think that the pursuit of human potential is meaning in and of itself - conferred by actual humans as opposed to some supernatural force set apart from humanity. I don’t think that what Harris is talking about is a rejection of complicated questions about existance; what he seems to be saying is that we should not abandon our unique ability to reason as we do pursue those questions.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 03:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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>Denial of meaning is not really within the scope of atheism.

That’s convenient, but is the confirmation of meaning or seeking a purpose within the scope of atheism. Atheism certainly has many valid criticisms of a fundamentalist paper tiger. But can atheism tackle meaning? Atheism shudders and nihilism fails.

>Atheism is simply not believing in the existence of gods, and by extension (if I may be so bold) anything supernatural at all.

I don’t believe in gods per se, but I do believe that there must be a purpose. Purpose is a slippery idea, but humans certainly have a drive to understand why. I certainly enjoy reading authors who explore the how question. Richard Dawkins is an articulate example of this. But I can’t ignore the why question.

I believe that there is a purpose, but it’s difficult to fully explore it given our mental limitations. Perhaps we lack the awareness to fully grasp our world. A good example would be my dog who faithfully barks at an overhead airplane. She can fully experience the airplane the same way I do, but she will never understand its meaning.

What if I “believe” that Christ’s words (the so-called red words) come closest to describing a purpose? Furthermore, I “believe” that a purpose may adequately be substituted for God. Does this make me a Christian moderate similar to the one that Sam rails against in TEOF?


>I think that the pursuit of human potential is meaning in and of itself - conferred by actual humans as opposed to some supernatural force set apart from humanity.

Semantics…?

>…we should not abandon our unique ability to reason as we do pursue those questions.

I reason that our ability to reason is not fully up to this task. Reason also dismisses feelings and emotions as chemical processes. When reason is effectively challenged, it retreats to an appeal to ignorance.  Ironic?

Unless you can question your own beliefs, you have no place questioning the beliefs of others. -Anon

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Posted: 17 March 2005 04:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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” I reason that our ability to reason is not fully up to this task. Reason also dismisses feelings and emotions as chemical processes. When reason is effectively challenged, it retreats to an appeal to ignorance.  Ironic?”

I see this as ironic. Some of my best friends are neuroscientists, even one relative, and they’re on the trail of a lot of interesting stuff. However, they tend to forget that the map is not the country.

I agree that the search for “meaning,” REAL meaning one can rely on, has been the dilemma of the past century. Bruno Bettelheim has a lot to say about this in his book about fairy tales and mentally ill children. Reason alone does not seem to be able to provide answers. Feelings and emotions are a lot more than mere chemical processes. When you get down to it, isn’t reasoning itself a neurological process? “Reason” has led us down some really slippery slopes in the past; the Romantic movement was an extreme reaction against the extremes of the Enlightenment.

Life is just as irrational and messy as it always has been. We have to take our feelings and emotions into account, along with our dreams and our poetry. Maybe what we need is a truly rational way to incorporate our irrationality. We all recognize that a meaningless life is not worth living, and we have to deal with that. Using some mistaken idea of science to try to split off mind and spirit from the material body as mere biochemical processes hasn’t gotten us very far on the path to happiness and enlightenment, has it? Confusing the mechanics of the computer with the program and the program with the purpose of the program is a very good analogy. But keep in mind that this is just a metaphor!

In fact, the notion that there is some kind of trilogy of mind/body/spirit is in itself a metaphor. We’re all just some one entity, aren’t we?

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Posted: 17 March 2005 05:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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quoteth MJ “In fact, the notion that there is some kind of trilogy of mind/body/spirit is in itself a metaphor. We’re all just some one entity, aren’t we?”

Absolutely. Your last point is a persuasive criticism of Irreducible Complexity. IC’s favorite example of the eye assumes that the eye is the only organ that can “see.” That’s not true. In fact, there are blind painters who have mastered perspective and colors. Amazing.

Your comment immediately reminded me of a recent article from the 29 Jan New Scientist article _Senses special Doors of perception_

“Quite possibly, the brain is set up to do exactly [a] sort of “sense-mixing” as part of the road to perception. There is growing evidence that crosstalk in the brain between different sensory areas mixes up things more than we might imagine. We may spot or recognise objects more easily if we hear a relevant sound at the same time. We may even believe we’ve heard something different if we are fooled into lip-reading something at odds with what is spoken…

Of course, none of this is helped by confusion of nomenclature. Some things commonly labeled a “sense” are no such thing - a sense of loss, having a “sixth sense” - but perhaps the circadian rhythm system should be included. Or is that part of perception rather than a sense?

And so, there are at least 21 senses and possibly more. But they could be a distraction. Would we do ourselves a favour by forgetting them, and concentrating on perceptions? As usual, science is fated to challenge everyday beliefs and appear counter-intuitive. We are acutely aware of our vision, smell, touch, so to say they don’t matter initially seems daft. But senses may one day be consigned to the scientific dustbin, along with spontaneous generation, phlogiston and instantaneous events. It’s just common sense, really.”

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Posted: 17 March 2005 07:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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[quote author=“Salerio”]Can Sam or any atheist prove that a purpose does not exists and that the why question is irrelevant?

Why does there need to be a purpose? 

If a any “searcher” wants to spend his/her time and intellectual effort in seeking such a thing, no atheist will stand in the way.  Whether such a question is relevant or irrelevant is up to the searcher…...not to the non-searchers.

On the question of existence, except in the most trivial and countable/finite cases, it is generally impossible to prove a negative.

It seems to me that rather than expecting “Sam or any atheist” to prove the non-existence of a “purpose”, the burden of proof lies with those who think that purpose exists to prove its existence.

Similarly, it should be up to the searcher to prove any relevance of the question to anyone other than him/herself.

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Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful…..Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman (3 BC - 65 AD)

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Posted: 17 March 2005 07:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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[quote author=“Conservative Atheist”]
Why does there need to be a purpose?

For anyone who might want to venture into a scientific discussion of purpose or seeming purpose (of evolution anyway), I’ve posted a skreed in the Science topic area.  It addresses the issue of the apparent fact that evolution does seem to go in a “direction”.

[quote author=“Conservative Atheist”]
On the question of existence, except in the most trivial and countable/finite cases, it is generally impossible to prove a negative.

It seems to me that rather than expecting “Sam or any atheist” to prove the non-existence of a “purpose”, the burden of proof lies with those who think that purpose exists to prove its existence.

Well said.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 07:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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quoteth “Conservative Atheist”

>Why does there need to be a purpose? 

There is that word again. Why is not easily dismissed.  Can I just ignore the why of your question?

I guess there doesn’t have to be a purpose, but all interesting aspects of life are driven by purpose. Evolution certainly serves a purpose.

Without purpose, most (all?) artistic and ethical discussions become trivial. Purpose and desire certainly drive all of my accomplishments. In fact, it’s the only thing that drives you or me beyond ordinary bodily functions.

>It seems to me that rather than expecting “Sam or any atheist” to prove the non-existence of a “purpose”, the burden of proof lies with those who think that purpose exists to prove its existence.

OK-  I believe purpose (desire) drives all humans and evolution. These are certainly nontrivial examples. Do you have any proof of a lack of purpose? 

>Similarly, it should be up to the searcher to prove any relevance of the question to anyone other than him/herself. 

I can’t prove relevance, I searching for relevance. I’m comfortable accepting that you may be correct.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 08:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“Salerio”]Without purpose, most (all?) artistic and ethical discussions become trivial. Purpose and desire certainly drive all of my accomplishments. In fact, it’s the only thing that drives you or me beyond ordinary bodily functions.

Ah, there’s the real question, as far as I’m concerned. Is there an objective meaning to anything - that is, is there any meaning to life, the tasks we perform, the objects we create, the ideas we formulate, other than the meaning we confer upon them?

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Posted: 17 March 2005 08:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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[quote author=“Salerio”]
I guess there doesn’t have to be a purpose, but all interesting aspects of life are driven by purpose. Evolutionrtain certainly serves a purpose.

“Certainly”?  How do you back up this assertion?  Most evolutionists would not agree there is a purpose.  There are the facts of what has happened (history) and a perfectly reasonable mechanism that adequately explains how the what came about. 

Without purpose, most (all?) artistic and ethical discussions become trivial. Purpose and desire certainly drive all of my accomplishments. In fact, it’s the only thing that drives you or me beyond ordinary bodily functions.

The key word here is drive.  Drive is due to push - the flow of energy through a system drives that system.  Purpose implies pull, something is pulling toward a goal.  What, exactly is the goal of evolution?  Ever read Teilhard de Chardin?  He was a Jesuit priest who was also an archeologist who tried to reconcile his religious beliefs with the facts of evolution.  He, too, needed to envoke a teleological view to do this.  But he also wrote before systems theory was more broadly understood.

OK-  I believe purpose (desire) drives all humans and evolution. These are certainly nontrivial examples. Do you have any proof of a lack of purpose?

Need facts and evidence.

The point is that you don’t need to prove lack of purpose.  All you need do is offer a theory that explains what actually happens without envoking purpose.

George

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Posted: 17 March 2005 08:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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[quote author=“Salerio”]
OK-  I believe purpose (desire) drives all humans and evolution. These are certainly nontrivial examples.

Those happen to be your “beliefs”.......they do not constitute “proof” by any definition of the word. Stating your personal belief is not evidence of any truth or fact other than your stated opinion.

[quote author=“Salerio”]Do you have any proof of a lack of purpose?

As stated in my post above, I cannot prove a negative (nor can you or anybody else) and will not waste my time trying.

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Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful…..Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman (3 BC - 65 AD)

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Posted: 17 March 2005 11:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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> Most evolutionists would not agree there is a purpose.  There are the facts of what has happened (history) and a perfectly reasonable mechanism…

To be sure, there is a perfect set of facts that explains it. I’m convinced that evolution is a significant contribution to this explanation. 

The purpose (ends?) of evolution is survival. The purpose of life is survival, not by traits given by God but, as Darwin puts it, “by very small parts of one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings.”

> What, exactly is the goal of evolution?  Ever read Teilhard de Chardin? 

No - but paint me interested. I need to brush up on my French anyway.

I’m off to enjoy fine Belgian ale and watch the future victims of my Blue Devils.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 05:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Who’s purpose are we supposing to follow? Even if there was such a purpose and/or meaning to our existence (which i doubt) it is our choice whether or not to be led.
People most certainly do have a reasonably clear outlook on what man’s future should be. You are all welcome to post what you envision mankind should aspire to. If you do so i’m sure the ideas will be similar and include advances in social behavour, human rights, health, education, science and exploration…etc, just to name a few.
These goals are not selfish ambitions (such as getting into heaven) because these goals cannot be fully realised within our own life times. We all contribute to mankind’s future in some way even if it’s as little as who we cast a ballot for.
Any well run organization has a plan and civilization is no different. You may call it a purpose if you wish but it is self conceived. Just because the plan is not supernatural in origin doesn’t make it any less noble.

I have found that if I don’t look ahead I tend to stumble and bump into things.

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Posted: 18 March 2005 03:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Hey gang,

Could we look at purpose less from a cosmic perspective and simply look inside us?  We already have a name for the feeling we have when our physical and emotional needs are met. There’s no doubt that our genes compel us to avoid pain and suffering for the sake of our survival, and I would think this applies to the emotional as well as physical. When we achieve it, we call it happiness. And whether we might say we are driven to avoid pain or pulled to experience happiness we end up largely in the same state.  That satisfied state of mind we all try to get to is our real motivator, the biological payoff, that pleasant soup of neurotransmitters that our genes have prepared for us. Our genes however could care less…they simply survive, and this is one way that DNA has found to do it.  I do not accept that evolution has any real purpose… it is simply an odd combination of molecules, that obeying laws of nature, replicate, no good or evil intent.  That they can change over time and eventually produce a brain that sees this as a fortunate chain of events is beside any point of purpose. 

As socially evolved beings however, WE put purpose and motivation and other names to our actions.  We cannot put motivation to natural events. We ask questions and theorize.  But the only real question about evolution is HOW not WHY.  We may someday really understand how evolution works but there is no why, or intent, behind random mutation.  We may understand, in time, how our search for happiness makes us more likely to survive and reproduce, thus benefiting our genes, but the why is easy…because that search does benefit our genes.

So I will simply put happiness as our goal in life because this is the way our genes have found to make us the most productive. But at the same time we must realize this is OUR goal, nature could care less.

Now let’s argue about what is happiness!!

Later,  Rod

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Posted: 18 March 2005 04:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Are you asking what the meaning and purpose of YOUR life is?

Or the meaning and purpose of human life?

Or the meaning and purpose of life?

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