The meaning of life, the universe, and everything

From What is your theory on the meaning of life?



…What, you want a real answer? Okay then. Life has no inherent meaning – it has whatever meaning we choose to give it.

*bows again*

…Alright, I really just wanted to devote the 42nd post of Blogathon to the meaning of life question because I’m a big Douglas Adams geek. Not only am I tired, but I hate answering these sort of philosophical questions when I’m awake. So I leave it to you guys:

When asked what is the meaning of life, how do you respond?

This is post 42 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Dealing with death

From How do you personally come to terms with “having to close the book before it reaches the climax”?

For anyone who’s confused, that’s a line I use in a post earlier today for describing death.

And to be honest, I don’t have a very satisfying answer. I just kind of… don’t think about it.

That doesn’t seem like a good method, but it’s the best one I have. Obsessing over death can be paralyzing, and I used to fret about it way too much when I was younger. But one of my mantra’s in life is “Don’t worry about anything that may happen that you have absolutely no control over,” and I’ve learned to apply that to the issue of death as well.

Since I’ve done that, I’ve been significantly happier. It just does not help to stress about the inevitable. I will die. You will die. We can take actions to increase the probability of that happening when we’re much older, but we can’t achieve immortality (at least not yet). Wasting the precious time we do have on our planet worrying about the inevitable seems like a shame to me.

People often give atheists a hard time, saying that our outlook on life is bleak because we think this way. They say even if we enjoy life and aren’t all committing mass suicide, the lack of an afterlife is just too dreary for them to ever be an atheist. There may be many good arguments against religion, but that comfort alone is enough for them to believe.

To an extent, I think they’re right. Certain ideas about the afterlife are very heartwarming. Like I said before, I’d much prefer reincarnation over ceasing to exist. Even heaven would be nice. That’s an area I think atheists really need to work on if we’re to deal with our growing numbers, and keep them growing. We need psychologists, philosophers, poets, artists – whoever – to come up with equally comforting but true messages about atheism.

But to be honest, I was much more depressed, worried, and stressed about death when I was an agnostic and deist. Basing my philosophy on unknowns just led to constant pondering – no, obsessing about death. I’m not saying all agnostics and deists are this way, but it just did not work for me. “Nothing happens when you die” was a much more comforting message to me than “You have no idea what happens when you die, so constantly freak out about which outcome is actually right.”

Thinking about death still makes me a bit melancholy. I’ve been lucky to not lose anyone extremely close to me yet, and I do worry about how I’ll handle it when it happens. The Flaming Lips have a line that goes, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” It still gets to me whenever I hear that song because, well, it’s not exactly a cheery thought. But then I think of some of the religious people (granted, a minority) who are actually happy when people die. Who rejoice when their love ones pass away because they think they’re actually in a better place. Who can’t wait for death themselves. I rather know the truth and appreciate the true loss and sadness of a friend dying. To deny that, to me, is more terrifying than death.

This is post 21 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

This is exactly why I hated my philosophy class

From SMBC:
Replace “Engineer” with “Scientist” and this is pretty much what Biomedical Ethics was to me. In fact, we had this exact scenario, and I replied the exact same way.

Or maybe I hated my philosophy class because we never got a single moment to ask questions during lecture, and during recitations we spent the whole time being fed answers to the quizzes and never had a single discussion about the material. Maybe I would have liked the class if it was more, well, philosophical.


Oh well. Got my A.

Abortion & the value of human life

Abortion has been on my mind a lot recently. Not for personal reasons. We’ve been discussing it in my biomedical ethics class, though I’ve unfortunately missed a lot of the discussion because of my grad school visits. On top of that, Angie the Anti-Theist, a blogger I follow, has been generating a media storm because of her decision to live-tweet her abortion. I fully support what she is doing – it’s sad that talking about a legal medical procedure results in shock, hate mail, and death threats.

It probably does not surprise most of you that I am extremely pro-choice. The odd thing, though, is I don’t talk about it a lot. I’m always wary of getting into abortion debates, because I feel like it’s one of those topics that’s a lose-lose situation. No one is going to change their minds, and I’ll just get cranky at the particularly stupid comments. But I also know how important it is to speak up about how I feel:

Even if you could convince me that biological human life begins at conception, I would still be pro-choice.

Emotional arguments about beating hearts and fingers and brainwaves don’t affect me at all. Abortion is unfortunate, but when it is the lesser of two evils, it should be an option. The whole “when does life begin” debate is totally irrelevant to me. And why do I say that?

Because I don’t think we can honestly say all human life is of equal value.

I’d love to be a perfect liberal and say that all human life has infinite value and can never be compared or weighed, but I’d be lying to myself. I’d wager that none of us treat all human beings as having equal value when it really comes down to it. For example, think of this thought experiment:

You have the choice of killing one person or killing five people. They are equivalent in every way (job, age, personality, number of family of friends, etc). Do you kill one person or five? Most of us would say to kill the one. While killing anyone is unfortunate, in this case it is best to minimize the amount of total harm done.

But let’s change it up a bit. What if the one person was a loved one – one of your parents, one of your siblings, your spouse, or your best friend. Would you still kill that one person to save the other five? Most people would not. This illustrates that there is something more to our decision making process than all humans having equal value.

Maybe that’s a bit subjective because of our biology – through evolution we’ve slowly adapted to favor kin over non-kin. And since I don’t believe we should simply be the product of our biology, let’s use a more telling thought experiment: how we treat age. If there was a burning building and you could only save one person, do you save the 25 year old or the 80 year old? Most people say they would save the 25 year old, with their reasoning being that the 80 year old has had time to live a long, fulfilling life.

Replace that with an fetus and a 25 year old.

If we’re using a simple metric of “total years lived,” you could argue the fetus would win – the 25 year old already has lived 25 years, after all. But is number of years lived the only thing we use to assign value to human life? Again, I’d argue no. If there was a burning building and you have to save one of two people of equal age, who would you save: An elementary school teacher or a brain-dead person? A charity worker or a sex offender? A cancer researcher or a grocery bagger? The President or a unemployed alcoholic?

We feel bad about making judgement calls about people’s worth, but it’s something we do. That grocery bagger could be a great human being – but all things being equal, we see the cancer researcher as contributing more to society. Likewise, there are other negative traits we see as detracting. These traits all have fairly subjective value – what’s worse, a sex-offender or an unemployed alcoholic? – but most of us still make these judgements. I’m not at all advocating eugenics or the widespread purging of unemployed alcoholics – I’m just trying to make a point that unless your answer to those questions is “I’d flip a coin,” then you don’t view all human life as having equal value.

So back to abortion.

To me, a fetus is on the bottom of the totem pole. A fetus does not feel emotional pain, does not have conscious thoughts, and does not have dreams to be a big shot football player some day. It does not have friends or families that it has made intimate connections with. It does not have career or life goals. It does not fear death because it does not have the mental capacity to understand what death is. It does not have a fated trajectory in life (you can’t argue that this was the person who would go on to cure cancer). And in the case of a woman seeking abortion, it will not be missed by loved ones because it is not even wanted to begin with.

And to me, these are the things that make us human and give us worth. Not heartbeats or brainwaves or unique genetic composition. If a woman decides that continuing a pregnancy will severely detrimentally affect her life, she has every right to have an abortion. She has all of these attributes, and her quality of life far outweighs the existence of insentient cells.

Yes, quality of life, not just her life itself. To me, the value of an unwanted fetus is low enough to not outweigh quality decisions. An unwanted pregnancy going to make you have to drop out of school? Quit your job? Be depressed and stressed? Feel free to choose an abortion.

Obviously not everyone is going to agree with me. There are women out there who can see four cell zygotes as God-sent little babies. And to those women I say: Great! That’s why I’m pro-choice. If you don’t see unwanted fetuses as parasitic clumps of cells, then don’t get an abortion. But this is one of the few areas that I will concede that philosophy does trump biology – that DNA and physiology alone cannot answer this ethical issue.

Note: There are many points about abortion that I have not addressed in this post, and they will likely come up in the comments. I will probably cover them in the future.

Guest post: Evils of constructive empiricism

This is a Guest Post by Frank Bellamy, a reader and content manager for the eMpirical, the newsletter for the Secular Student Alliance. He recently wrote an interesting article on why Humanists should not deliver invocations, but today he’s going to talk a bit about philosophy. So, discuss your hearts out while I’m away!

Evils of constructive empiricism

Philosophers routinely entertain and foster ideas which are not only stupid, but also an affront to science: dualism, intelligent design, qualia, the list goes on. Another item on that list that I have only recently discovered is constructive empiricism. That phrase may sound harmless enough, after all, scientists like empirical evidence, and being constructive is good, right? It’s anything but harmless when one looks at its meaning. According to the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, “the constructive empiricist holds that science aims at truth about observable aspects of the world, but that science does not aim at truth about unobservable aspects.” In other words, science gives us no reason for thinking that the unobservable constructs posited by scientific theories actually exist.

A few concrete examples may be useful here. According to the constructive empiricist, we have no good reason to think that atoms exist. After all, no one has ever seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled an atom. Atoms may be a useful computational tool for determining what will happen when we mix two substances together, but that is not a reason for attributing actual existence to them. Scientists may even believe that atoms exist, but if they do they go beyond what the evidence warrants.

Evolutionary biologists are in equal trouble. Since we can’t actually observe history, we have no reason for believing historical claims. The idea that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor more recently than humans and cats may be useful for explaining and predicting various features of the genomes, morphology, or cognitive capacities of these species, but that is not a reason for thinking that any of these species share common ancestors, or indeed that they even have ancestors at all.

To use a more every day example, I have a theory that Jen believes that the christian god does not exist. This theory may be useful in predicting what sorts of things Jen will write on her blog in the future. It allows me to predict, for example, that the next time Jen writes about some amazing new scientific discovery, she will explain it in naturalistic rather than theological terms. But according to the constructive empiricist, that is no reason for thinking that Jen actually has such a belief. Since I can’t directly observe any of Jens beliefs, I am completely unwarranted in believing that she has beliefs at all. So much for theory of mind being a positive aspect of human cognition.

Lets set aside the fact that constructive empiricism entails that scientists are liars and consider its practical implications for science. A scientist who believes in constructive empiricism doesn’t have to waste time considering such irrelevant questions as whether his pet theory is true or not, or how it relates to other theories in other parts of science. All that matters is whether his pet theory can account for the available data.

One implication of this is that it completely undermines the motivation most scientists have for doing science in the first place. Scientists don’t just want equations and models that predict data, we want to understand whatever phenomenon we have chosen to study. We want to know what’s actually going on in the world. We want to know how what we’re doing relates to other parts of science. If constructive empiricism is true, then we are deluding ourselves. Science isn’t in the business of telling us how things really are.

Another implication of constructive empiricism is that it doesn’t really matter how well theories in different domains of science match up with each other. If we explain the movement of objects on earth in terms of forces and masses, and the movement of objects in the sky in terms of Ptolemy’s spheres, so long as we can predict the data that’s ok. If we have physically, neurally, or evolutionarily implausible theories of human cognition, that’s ok, so long as we can predict the behavioral data. If scientists were to truly adopt this view, it would change the face of science forever, and not for the better.

And why would I, a grad student with many other non-philosophical demands on his time be worrying about constructive empiricists you may wonder? It’s because I’ve recently discovered that my adviser is one. Frack me.