Another Year Blogged

Happy New Year! As is quasi-traditional, we will ring in the new arbitrary chronological signifier by recapping some of the greatest blogging hits of the last year. For last year’s list I actually did a bit of work, organizing things into sub-lists and using multiple criteria. What was I thinking? Without nearly so much effort, here are my personal faves from this year’s blogging.

I don’t know, there seems to be a lot of science in there. I’ll never hit it big as a multi-tool cultural commentator if I keep talking about quantum mechanics and cosmology and entropy.

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21 Responses to Another Year Blogged

  1. Doc C says:

    Sean,
    Your respectful discussions and efforts to move naturalism forward, while certainly smushed between a lot of fascinating discussions of cool ideas at the edge of scientific research, are nevertheless one of the most powerful programs for helping real people in our everyday culture learn how to better conduct their everyday lives. I hope you will pursue and enlarge that effort. I believe an open conversation among people who seek to create a world where meaning and human fulfillment imbue is indeed the challenge of all time, and whether one chooses to assign religious faith to the role, or scientific reasoning, the achievement of the goal must satisfy all who ask. I thank you for working so diligently on it.

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  2. Bob F. says:

    You might never be as culturally significant as the Kardashians (and that’s a good thing), but you’re making the rest of us a lot more educated. So thanks and have a great 2013.

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  3. Tony Rtz says:

    You have to admit that Atheism is really a belief system, it’s not really a belief in nothing, but has its own set of commandments to which one must agree. It’s a faith in the universe and how its laws relate ultimately to life itself, maybe in the hope that in some far off time the particles that make up your being will come together again. Just thinking. It really isn’t a belief of nothing.

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  4. Bob F. says:

    Tony, saying that atheism is a belief system is like saying that fasting is a type of eating. Some atheists may have beliefs in this or that, but not in atheism. There is no need to have “faith in the universe”. There is either knowledge or ignorance of natural laws. And speculation or educated guesses about natural laws aren’t faith; unlike faith, knowledge can be overturned by evidence.

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  5. Richard M says:

    Tony:

    Commandments?

    Can you be more specific? What are these commandments and who issues them?

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  6. Doc C says:

    I do think that a naturalistic philosophy is a system for creating beliefs. Sean himself has said that naturalism must have normative and meaning enhancing goals for it to be useful in human culture, but that normative or meaning creating ideas for a naturalist would always be consistent with what we know about the way natural world operates. They would not appeal to any inscrutable supernatural authority or source for meaning.

    The problem I see with that stance is that there is nothing natural that prohibits something like what Hitler tried to achieve. He was using perfectly natural methods to lead a tribe who followed in perfectly natural ways and whose members even demonstrated biological altruism in their actions to further the cause. Under nature’s rules, if Hitler won, it would simply indicate better fitness to the environment of the time.

    How does a naturalist counter the inscrutability of Darwinian fitness with values that might be more “humanistic”, but not necessarily “natural” in the Darwinian evolutionary sense? Once a naturalist appeals to a higher authority than pure nature for their values, they have entered the sphere where religious faith can be as valid, and indeed may have as much to teach, as pure reason. Pure logic is naturalistically useless for creating meaning or setting normative standards because any such logic must rely on fundamental axioms. In any culture that tries to create meaning or normative standards, such axioms will perforce be arbitrary rather than strictly linked to natural laws that really allow anything that can survive to “go”.

    I see this as the single biggest challenge naturalism faces. I believe the solution is for naturalists, who can inform us about the many ways that nature does work, must engage constructively with religious believers in our culture in order for humans to make progress toward discovering whatever meaning and values a loving God, if one were out there, or loving natural humans, if one is not, would want. The “tribes” must put aside their perceived differences and find the common ground that unites them in the larger cause.

    In 2008, just 42 short years after harboring toward the Japanese the fear and hatred that enabled us to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the people of America bestowed one of their most cherished honors, World Series MVP, and affectionately cheered in a parade up the canyon of heroes a Japanese man, Hidecki Matsui. The same kind of forgiveness and connection, empathy and understanding will eventually bring atheists and religious believers together because those are the values both groups hold dear.

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  7. Tony Rtz says:

    Well let’s say the first Commandment is:
    The first: Thou shalt not believe in a Creator God of any kind.
    The second: Thou shalt believe the universe is self created and self sustaining.
    The third: That man is the created from the laws of the Universe.
    The fourth: That human reasoning is all that is necessary for the Universe to know itself.
    The fifth: That human reasoning is sufficient to create moral law.
    I suppose I could add a few more if you desire.

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  8. Sean Carroll says:

    Tony, it’s hard to tell how serious you are trying to be. You might look up the definition of “commandment,” since these are not those. You’ve listed “things people believe are true on the basis of evidence and reason,” which is a bit different.

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  9. meh says:

    http://www.ebaumsworld.com/video/watch/82607682/
    :P

    “You have to admit that Atheism is really a belief system, it’s not really a belief in nothing, but has its own set of commandments to which one must agree. It’s a faith in the universe and how its laws relate ultimately to life itself, maybe in the hope that in some far off time the particles that make up your being will come together again. Just thinking. It really isn’t a belief of nothing.”

    That’s not true. That’s a way of marketing Atheism in the same format as religion. Not necessarily you Tony, but most who believe in a religion don’t understand what atheism is because they can’t break their mind free from the religious format of belief systems being a necessity of life.

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  10. Tony Rtz says:

    I’m quite serious, the ten commandments are based on a belief in a God and by that belief, a certain moral code. While Atheism has yet to develop such as yet, other than following that which has been developed in historical Judaism, it would seem that it would be a necessity if it is to be taken seriously, to a greater degree by more people. Unless of course Atheism is merely a belief of Godlessness and let the chips fall where they may. I do enjoy your blogs.

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  11. Meh says:

    “Unless of course Atheism is merely a belief of Godlessness and let the chips fall where they may”

    That’s exactly what it is.

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  12. Ahab says:

    The lack of a standard “moral code” is one of the strong points of atheism. An atheist isn’t required to adhere to the opinions and conjectures of others, and that’s unlike the case with most people who accept (or even desire) that others come and tell them what and how to think. It’s precisely the freedom to think and modify existing structures that draws people to atheism in the first place.

    By accepting the overwhelming evidence for evolution you automatically accept that morals are relative and subject to change. Moral codes are dictated by evolutionary pressure and human reasoning, and attributing them to a skyfairy does nothing to change this fact. Religions themselves have been tweaking their codes every now and then to conform to social change, as the change in attitudes towards issues like slavery and homosexuality has resulted in the relevant barbaric texts being either abandoned or (as in most cases) re-interpreted.

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  13. Ahab says:

    Once a naturalist appeals to a higher authority than pure nature for their values, they have entered the sphere where religious faith can be as valid, and indeed may have as much to teach, as pure reason.

    If religious faith is of a naturalistic origin, then its values remain, like any other set of values, nothing more than human/evolutionary constructs. The crucial point here is that theists have always tried (and failed) to justify a special treatment for their religious values.

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  14. Richard M says:

    “Well let’s say the first Commandment is:
    The first: Thou shalt not believe in a Creator God of any kind.
    The second: Thou shalt believe the universe is self created and self sustaining.
    The third: That man is the created from the laws of the Universe.
    The fourth: That human reasoning is all that is necessary for the Universe to know itself.
    The fifth: That human reasoning is sufficient to create moral law.
    I suppose I could add a few more if you desire.”

    Tony, you still didn’t say who issued these. As far as I know, everybody who believes these things does so by choice. Please name somebody who was commanded to believe them. (Being commanded by force of reason does not count.)

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  15. Doc C says:

    That won’t be true unless religious faith is proven to be of a non-naturalistic origin (good luck proving that!). Until then its values remain, like any other set of values, nothing more than human/evolutionary constructs

    Ahab,
    I could not agree more. The question I ask is whether we are wise to simply jettison the evolutionary history which included religious faith. If religious faith evolved into us, what says evolving it out will be more adaptive? And as to tht same kind of question, combined with the question of discerning moral values, how do we assure that a morality such as that espoused by someone like Hitler does not become more prevalent? If all morality is relative, could there be a situation where such morality would be more useful? Usefulness simply cannot be the only criterion for how morality is chosen or imbues.

    I think you have accurately described the dialectic between social evolution and biological evolution. Biological evolution is changed by the environmental change that reason and social/cultural connections create. Part of that change was the rise of religious faith and religious institutions, and also the rise of a naturalistic approach to the world. Those stances have created groups whose members feel tribal emotions toward each other and toward those of differing tribes. However it seems to me that the wisest of the human religious traditions have espoused a universalism that breaks down tribal emotions so that we see our commonality and care for each other totally regardless of which tribe we belong to. If that is the goal, our focus would seem to be less usefully applied in deciding the winner of the debate on whether there is a transcendent and loving creator or not than in trying to discern the common ground where all of our tribes find meaning or morality.

    In fact, that ground has already been staked out by many wise people, including both religious leaders and atheistic political philosophers. Think about democracy and governmemt of the people, by the people and for the people. I think the hard part is avoiding a sort of tragedy of the commons. That requires a lot more sophisticated thought and cultural commitment. The founding fathers of the United States, including the enlightened rationalists among them, could not abolish slavery. Could slavery have been abolished without the religious believers like William Wilberforce, who so fiercely advocated for that cause? Was it not a combination of enlightened reason and religious emotions that propelled both democracy and the abolition of slavery and rise of equality in civil rights? That some fundamentalist religious believers may be wrong in their moral principles does not invalidate religion as an approach to the ambiguities of the world any more than some enlightened rationalists not escaping the paradigm of slavery invalidates enlightened rationalism as an approach.

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  16. Tony Rz says:

    I would hope that we are more than just intellegent apes.

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  17. doc c says:

    We’re not, but that shouldn’t bother you. Intelligence as an evolved trait is just as wonderful, if not more so, than intelligence as a granted one. It’s as gift either way, and one can imagine an gift evolved from a stochastic cluster of random interactions, as well as a gift delivered by a loving creator as equally valuable.

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  18. Richard M says:

    Tony,

    I don’t know what “more than” means in your sentence. It’s sort of like saying “I hope this material is more than a liquid”. But we are definitely not intelligent apes, unless there are gibbons, chimpanzees, gorillas, or orangutans posting here.

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  19. Y. Santens says:

    Regarding Darwinian fitness vs moral mentioned above. Evolution doesn’t necessarily exclude some sense of moral from what I’ve read. They have studied several animals who displayed traits similar to compassion. The conclusion was that this arose during evolution since these animals were social thus the group is important. So taking care of others in that group comes as an instinct since a stable group is an advantage to the individual. There are also examples of some taking care of a totally different animal.

    And they’ve also observed that wolves, to name one example, throw out individuals who attack needlessly, break the rules of the pack etc. So I just don’t think that they do this because some book guided their morals. Rather that the moral code is part of who they are. And sure, some of those social animals hunt for food but we also do something similar on an industrial scale so there’s no big difference there ;)

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  20. doc c says:

    Y – moral sense as an evolutionary trait is likely useful, but not necessarily adaptive in all environments. Humans have a sense of fairness/empathy/caring that can go beyond simple biological utility. The question is whether such rules belong in our culture as absolute values regardless of the environmental circumstances, and how do they get encoded into our culture. As I noted before, if an Autocratic Cult of Personality like Nazism were to lead a large group of followers to dominate the economies and societies of the earth, would that adaptive culture be better than a democratic, socially caring society? Evolutionarily it would at that point, but not morally, at least by our current moral standards. How does that conflict get resolved in a purely naturalistic way?

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  21. Crapbag says:

    A lot of good stuff in 2012. Low point was “which particle are you?” in which gravitons were confidently stated to exist while glueballs were speculative at best.

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