Did You Ever Consider The Possibility That Maybe God Is A Parasitic Worm?

There’s a little kid, infested with a parasitic worm
His extremities are swollen and in pain
But this doesn’t pose a problem, or disprove a loving God
As philosopher Plantinga will explain:

See, God created Eden, which his favorite—Man—beheld,
But of course, the fruit of knowledge, He forbids
It was absolutely perfect, but humanity rebelled
As a consequence, there’s parasites in kids

You can treat the kid for parasites, and have the worms removed
And observe their squirming bodies, tightly curled…
Rejoicing in the agony that must be God-approved,
Knowing this is His created perfect world

From the horrible interview at the NY Times Opinionator Blog:

A.P.: I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.

I would *not* say that such a world would be truly magnificent. Far more people are suffering than in a world I would create if I could. But then, I care about people; I am a person, myself, when I’m not a cuttlefish.

Maybe it is a perfect world, for parasitic worms.

Random Thoughts On Alvin Plantinga’s Rambling Thoughts

So… there’s an interview with Alvin Plantinga on the New York Times’ “Opinionator Blog”. It’s… horrific. Embarrassing. Such a national platform for arguments from ignorance, false dichotomies, and special pleading. Really, it’s astonishing.

The questions, by Gary Gutting, are reasonable, and are followed up nicely; if anything, Gutting is not brutal enough, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for Plantinga.

There are so many times when Plantinga’s claims have reasonable answers in readily available science. One (or at least this one) gets the feeling he actively avoids the scientific literature. Ok, really, that’s unfair–science is so broad and specialized that if he were not both exposed to an extraordinarily broad swath, and sufficiently knowledgeable in depth about that broad swath (which, given time constraints, might reasonably mean that he would have no time to develop any expertise in his own philosophical areas), it is perfectly reasonable that he might miss the answers to his questions.

Fortunately, cuttlefish are very deep generalists and experts in everything, so I opened a word-processor and read the interview. (I would say “so you don’t have to”, but I actually really recommend you read it, so you can try out your own critical analysis. The weird thing is, Plantinga is not exactly a bench-warmer; when you–not “if you”–when you tear his arguments into tiny bleeding slivers, you are up against one of the best the theistic side have to offer.) Yeah, so it just so happens I take notes in rhyming verse…

In any debate between two points of view
Fifty-fifty, the odds must apply—
If we can’t prove it’s Christmas, beyond every doubt,
Then it’s likely the Fourth of July

Now, maybe the scientists figured it out
And it’s all there to read… which I won’t
Perhaps they have answers for all of my doubts
But I’m gonna assume, here, they don’t

It’s possible someone has studied this stuff
If they have, clearly, I’m not aware
So there may be a paper that proves me quite wrong
I’d go looking, but really don’t care.

My assumption is simply that nobody knows—
If they did, that would really be nifty—
In the absence of knowledge (well, knowledge of mine)
Let’s assume that it’s all fifty-fifty.

So my views on psychology? Pretty much crap
And biology, mostly, as well—
But let’s call it philosophy (really, why not?)
If it’s bullshit, most readers can’t tell.

So… go ahead, read the interview. Try commenting here–in verse, or not in verse, I don’t care. What do you think is Plantinga’s worst? Best? Anyone think he has a point?

Just for fun, two earlier bits worth mentioning:

When Alvin Plantinga’s Car Won’t Start
It’s All So Simple, Really

In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Strong-ily, wrong-ily
Tout their position:
“The self as the brain”

Finding our cause in our
Sadly, it’s fictional:
Lemme explain….

(tl;dr–“brain as self” models are dependent on a particular philosophical model; the conclusions are more a factor of the requirements of that model than of the evidence.)

Mano presents a clip from the Colbert Report, in which neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland tells Colbert that neuroscience shows there is no such thing as, among other things, a soul.

True enough… but damn, does she have to say the brain is responsible for consciousness? That is just plain… well, dependent on a set of philosophical assumptions that are rarely if ever questioned. Which leads to bad questions, which leads to crap answers, which leads to “deep philosophical questions” that are a pile of horseshit.

“We (some mammals) have the same neural mechanism for pair bonding” (paraphrased from Churchland’s interview) is not at all the same thing as “the brain is responsible for pair bonding”. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. And, oddly enough, the difference is philosophical.

If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist. The notion that your life history is stored, is somehow represented in the structures of your body, is mechanistic. The requirement that any change in your behavior is necessarily the effect of some immediate cause, some proximal cause stored in body or mind or wherever… is mechanistic. That is, these things which make so much sense, make sense because they are framed in terms of a mechanistic world view which you (not just you , of course) have been fed since you were knee high to a jackalope.

But, you see, mechanism is not A) the only philosophy you can use in such scenarios, nor B) the way you live your life and learn the terms used back in that mechanistic scenario. See, the thing is, events in your life unfold over time. And that time need not be compressed and represented as some instantaneous thing. Mechanism’s metaphor is a clockwork, and you can stop a clock, look at its gears, and infer what happens in present, past, and future. A clockwork represents all of that information in an instantaneous slice of time/space. That’s a requirement of the model. That’s not a requirement of reality.

You see, there are other models. A contextualist model recognizes the contributions that happen across time and across situation, and does not require that they be “stored” inside you, since they actually do exist outside you, and are part of the context of your actions. Your actions can only be defined as embedded within context—the environments that promote or suppress a given range of behavior, the consequences that select for or against a range of behavior…

In other words, what you do in a given situation depends on what has tended to work in similar situations. An evolutionary model, really.

“Fitness” is not stored within an individual; fitness is defined across populations, across generations, with respect to environments. Fitness is necessarily dependent on variables that are defined across extended time and space. To place “fitness” inside an individual, as the presumed cause of their success or failure at something (sex, say, or foraging), is to misrepresent the concept. (alas, yes, I have seen it presented this way—that is precisely the problem I am writing about.)


The same, exact misrepresentation is constantly used in human behavior. There are concepts (again, like “fitness” in biology, and “consciousness” in behavior) that are only definable in a manner extended over time, and dependent on environment. Those wonderful brains that are the “cause” of the self? They have been shaped by the environment, in (at least) two very important ways, across two very different scales of time. One, of course, is evolution—this is at least given lip service in the “brain is self” camp, though it seems all too often as if they want to think of our modern brain as the ultimate product of evolution, rather than an ongoing work. But yes, over millions and billions of years, the environment has selected this behavior over that, and the brain structures that support this behavior have thus been favored. It is not, of course, the brain itself that is being selected for or against, but the behavior (and in our case, the flexibility in behavior) it allows.

The second sort of environmental influence, I don’t think I have ever seen credited in a “brain is self” claim, although it is every bit as important as the evolutionary history. Every brain that a researcher runs through a PET scan, CAT scan, X-ray, FMRI, or EEG… is part of an actual person, a whole organism that has been interacting with an environment, including a culture, for all of its lifetime thus far. This brain is part of a person who behaves—over time, and with respect to environment (including social and cultural environment as well as physical environment)—and whose behavior can only be seen as unfolding across time.

You cannot slice open a person’s leg to see where they have walked. A person’s accent is not stored in their vocal cords while they are not speaking. Where they have walked, and how they talk, are dependent on where, and with whom, they lived. We speak of stored abilities, or traits, or habits, but these things are only seen unfolding across time, and their “storage” is not observed but inferred under the assumptions of that clockwork model. The inference comes as a requirement of the model, not as an obvious part of the behavior—where is my walk stored, when I sit down?

Consciousness does not arise in the brain. It is a property of our interactive behavior, unfolding over time. Everything about what it means to be conscious, what it means to be aware, takes place across time and in interaction with an environment; to say it is caused by some brain part is to neglect the history of the environment shaping the brain. “Brain as self” is, functionally, as dualistic (and as wrong) as Descartes’s substance dualism. The brain does not control the body; the brain is part of the body. If there is metaphorical puppetry going on, it is not the brain as puppet master—rather, the environment (across genetic time as well as individual learning) is the puppet master, and the brain acts as the strings.


Scannily, cannily,
Use pretty pictures to
Search for the mind;

Sadly, it’s no more than
Looking for lumps of a
Different kind

I think if I read one more article using fMRI (or any other brain scan) to find the substrate for this that or the other experiential phenomenon, I may have to hurt somebody.

And not just because it is technologically inadequate; it is also that they are looking at the wrong thing. What we call “mind” is not (and, I would wager all my ink, can never be) found in snapshots of the brain–it is extended both in time and space. Don’t get me wrong–I am not proposing any sort of supernatural mind, of non-physical stuff; rather, that which we call mind is inferred from our own and others’ behavior, as we and they interact with a changing world over time. Such things are no more reducible to instantaneous brain states than “War and Peace” is reducible to a limerick.

“Christmas and the Religion of Atheism”

There is nothing religious Americans hate
Like the phrase “separation of church and state”
Their claim, if they note the construction at all
Is that Jefferson wanted a one-way wall
Now the latest new step in the desperate dance
Is “religion is one ontological stance”
Thus atheists’ faith in material stuff
Is the same as religion—at least, close enough.
(Though he’s wrong, there’s an aspect he’s clearly neglected—
He’s just made the case that our side is protected:
After all, it’s religion, or such is his claim,
So if one is protected, the other’s the same—
A point I’ve been trying to make all along,
So maybe he’s going to be happy he’s wrong.)

A particularly poorly written essay, “Christmas and the Religion of Atheism” at PewSitter.com, misrepresents what atheists want, misrepresents the first amendment, misrepresents both religion and atheism, and ties it all together with a ribbon on top, in a paragraph beginning with “thus…”

He begins (ready your bingo cards):

With the Christmas season approaching, the now predictable protest by atheists against public displays of creches and the like already have begun. The city of Santa Monica (ironically “Saint Monica”) was sued by a Christian group for no longer permitting a nativity display which had been allowed for over sixty years. Elsewhere, in Arkansas, a single parent stopped students from seeing a Charlie Brown Christmas play even though she simply could have opted out her child.

Ah, yes, the “look the other way” argument. Familiar ground. (mark your cards!) Note the “Santa Monica” parenthetic; we’ll revisit it later. Also, note the twist on “public displays”; a church’s yard is a perfect place for a nativity scene, and it is very public. My uncle’s yard is a perfect place for a solemn display of a creche, standing out against his neighbor’s miles of bright lights, illuminated reindeer, and inflatable Santa (Claus, not Monica) displays. A town hall or public school? Not so much; those are owned by all of us, and it is not acceptable for me to put up my display on your property.

Atheists often cite the so-called wall of separation of church and state and the way in which they do so completely turns the idea upon its head. The phrase nowhere appears in the U.S. Constitution, but in a private letter written in 1802 from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

“Separation of church and state does not appear in the constitution” (mark your cards!)… no, it was only the concise way Jefferson described what is in the first amendment.

The problem is that the Danbury Baptists had contacted Jefferson to obtain reassurance that the state of Connecticut, that is the government, could not stop them from worshiping. Thus we have the first point: The primary function of First Amendment of the Constitution (and the “wall of separation”) is to protect religions from the government, not the other way around.

The “one way wall” gambit! (mark your cards!) Oh… readers here will be well aware, that keeping religion out of government is how you protect religion from government. When the power of government is allowed to support one religion, other religions suffer. The first amendment was not designed to protect believers from non-believers; atheists were few, far between, and powerless. No, the first amendment was designed to protect Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Lutherans, etc., from one another.

One might also note that Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment. This period believed that reason was a pure thing in itself and it alone could prove moral norms as well as do scientific investigation. However, a number of thinkers have since demonstrated that reason left to itself ineluctably ends up in going in circles, even in scientific theories. This fact has demonstrated itself amply in current debates over morality. Reason needs a ground or a starting point. Therefore whether you believe in God or not, you must make basic unprovable assumptions about how the world works and why.

That’s actually quite an admission in that last sentence. For someone who thinks objective morality can only be grounded in god, admitting that this is an unprovable assumption is big.

Thus atheism is every bit as much founded upon a belief system just like any deistic religion. The difference is that its central doctrine is that matter is the ultimate reality, not a deity. Consider this telling quote from Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewonton, an atheist: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.”

Actually, no. I know atheists who are not materialistic monists, but a-materialists. I know others who do not take an ontological stance at all, but pragmatically assume an unspecified monism (dualism being logically incoherent). Atheism simply does not require an ontological commitment to materialism.

As for reason needing a grounding point… there is no need for that grounding point to involve a god. I have also seen the argument that it is less unbelievable for Platonic ideals to exist than for God to exist (they are simpler entities, after all), so even if you need grounding that exists separately from our experienced universe, that does not logically imply a god. Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice if the Lewonton quote could continue for just a couple more lines? Selective editing? (Mark your cards!)

Atheists often arrogate to themselves titles like “freethinkers” or “brights,” implying that they are smarter those who believe in a deity. But the Lewonton quote hints that there is an “unreasonableness” to denying realities beyond the merely material. This has been amply demonstrated in any number of books such as Robert J. Spitzer’s “New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.” Spitzer cites numerous respected cosmologists who point out that the mathematics used to describe the workings of the universe practically demand a Creator. A number of these cosmologists have been converted from atheism to belief in a deity by the force of the evidence. (And a number of biologist have been converted through their study of the human genome.)

“Freethinkers” as a term is roughly 400 years old, so that makes it older than Santa Monica. If you get to appeal to history for that name, so do we. But “freethinker”, of course, does not automatically mean smarter, just not bound to a particular dogma. The author of the essay is a member of the Catholic church, as identified with dogma as McDonald’s is with the Big Mac. His writing is not free from that dogma. (As for “Brights”, I thought that was a bad idea from day one. But of course, disliking the “brights” label does not get me kicked out of atheism. No dogma, see?)

“A number” of cosmologists have been converted, as have “a number” of biologists. (Mark your cards!) Of course, a number of believers have lost their faith over the course of their education. In the US, it is a virtual certainty that the number of scientists who have lost their faith is considerably larger than those who found it (there are simply a much vaster number of former believers to lose faith than former non-believers to find it); I would wager that not just the number, but the percentage, tips my way as well. Yes, some of the names that have migrated (or Flew) to religion are well-known. In part, though, they are memorable because they are so few.

Thus the current efforts by some to push religion completely out of the public sphere are faulty on several counts. Secular viewpoints are not “neutral,” are not necessarily more reasonable than some religious viewpoints and making them the standard of public policy is not in line with the intent of the First Amendment. But in the end it should be patently obvious that the more we have pushed religion out of public culture, the more coarse our society has become.

You can recognize a non-sequitur in religious writing–it begins with “thus”. Note that the author has proved that an ontological stance (which need not be held by atheists) is a religion, and thus cannot be made public policy, because it, as a religious view, is protected from government meddling. While religion (of which the ontological stance of materialism is but one example) is protected from government meddling, and therefore can be made public policy (at least at Christmas, because reasons).

Presupposing Zeus

Is there really any reason
We should not believe in Zeus?
Or at least to say he possibly existed?
A professor of philosophy
Believes there’s no excuse,
Though his writing seems, to me, a bit ham-fisted.

If we presuppose existence
Of the Father of the Gods
Or of anything at all, for what it’s worth
Then we find we can’t disprove it,
Though it’s way against the odds,
You can’t kill it, once you presuppose its birth.

So an atheist’s denial,
The philosopher asserts,
Should be traded for a pure agnostic stance
But logic is supposed to help
In this case, logic hurts,
As we watch him make his suppositions dance

And it isn’t quite pragmatic
Just believing something true
Till it’s false beyond the shadow of a doubt
We have vast imaginations;
Our ideas will accrue
Since we never have the leave to weed them out.

A very strange thing, in the NYTimes Opinionator today–Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, writes “Did Zeus Exist?” He notes, first off, that the ancient Greeks certainly seemed to believe Zeus existed:

The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for his existence and so have every right to deny it. Perhaps there is no current evidence of his existence — certainly no reports of avenging thunderbolts or of attempted seductions, no sightings around Mount Olympus. But back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence, enough in any case to make his reality unquestioned among most members of a rapidly advancing Greek civilization.

Further, as this civilization developed the critical tools of historiography and philosophy, Zeus’s reality remained widely unquestioned. Socrates and Plato criticized certain poetic treatments, which showed Zeus and the gods in an unworthy light. But they never questioned the very existence of the gods, and Socrates regularly followed the dictates of his daimon, a personal divine guide. There were many questions about the true nature of the divine, but few about its existence.

Rather than being skeptical about the existence of a supernatural being, Gutting seems to turn Descartes on his head, refusing to doubt anything that there is the slightest possibility of being true, or even having once been true.

Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? What decisive reason do we have for thinking that for them divinity was not a widely and deeply experienced fact of life? If we cannot eliminate this as a real possibility, shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?

If we can’t be 100% bulletproof, bet your children’s lives certain (and we can’t), we need to accept the possibility of, in this case, Zeus.

He then considers some objections, which you’ll have to see there. It’s a very brief piece, so I am perhaps expecting too much, but they really come down to “since we cannot unequivocally prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, beyond any possibility… then it just might be true”. Mind, he’s not claiming it is true, but rather that we should keep our minds open.

On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist? He may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine. In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”

Two things, then. One, I’m surprised that a philosophy prof is conflating ideas of belief with ideas of knowledge. Disbelief in Zeus is absolutely grounded. Without convincing evidence (this is where “knowledge” comes in, and where his objections actually matter), Zeus has not passed the threshold for my belief. I have no obligation to believe in something that has no positive evidence for it, just because there is no evidence against it.

Which leads to my second thing. Presuppositional arguments may be logically airtight, but this example shows why good logic can lead to bad conclusions. It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening, in order to examine the natural world. And we, therefore, cannot conclude there is no supernatural, since that would simply be circular logic, assuming our conclusions. And since our conclusions about the supernatural depend on our assumptions, the logic is no help at all.

A pragmatist approach, though, does not ask what is true, but rather, what is useful. A theory that explains more phenomena, or explains with fewer assumptions, is not necessarily “true” in any ultimate sense, but it is more useful than the theory it replaces. And theories are replaced–upgraded, if you will–all the time. They don’t have to be absolutely true or false–really, that is not a concern. And pragmatically, whether you believe there is a god that keeps the universe behaving naturally, carefully making it look as if the naturalistic explanations work… or whether you believe the naturalistic explanations… actually work… it really doesn’t matter. We know that if you start out assuming there is a god, you’ll conclude you can’t deny it, and if you start out assuming there is no god, you’ll conclude there is no need for one. So it really just doesn’t matter.

But (back to point one) that is all about knowledge. Not about belief. So… why would one presuppose the existence of a god? That’s the question we should be asking. Sure, once you presuppose one, you can’t deny it, but the same is true for Zeus, for Russell’s Teapot, for Sagan’s Dragon, and for compassionate conservatives. There may be no reason not to believe, but there is no reason to believe. Atheism is perfectly justified, even for agnostics.

One last thing… the comments at the article are very strange–given that it is the New York Times, the commenters are not what you usually see at, say, FoxNews or CNN. But the article itself is so bizarre, commenters can’t quite tell if it is satire, apologetics, excellent, horrible, or what. Anyway, I understood it all perfectly. By which I mean, you cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not.

Oh, Nothing, Really….

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
Why, their nothing has nothing at all
No time, and no space, and no matter,
Not even the quantumly small

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
It’s a special and magical word
But it isn’t the “nothing” that physicists see,
Cos the thing is, it must be inferred

Now, this doesn’t much bother philosophers
As a rule, they are rarely unnerved
But you see, this philosopher’s nothing?
It has never—not once—been observed

When philosophers argue religion
And their “nothing” implies a first cause…
If you get to assume your conclusions,
You’re not looking for natural laws

If the universe started from nothing
Which it can’t, the philosophers say
Either “nothing”, or “nothing”, is faulty
So… why swing the philosophers’ way?

There are two different versions of “nothing”
Which the sides have us choosing between
One version says God isn’t needed…
And the other has never been seen

So it’s “nothing” to fret about, really
(and “nothing” seems overly broad)
And there’s nothing that needs a creator…
But it works… if you presuppose God.

Y’know, I would swear I’ve already responded to this… but my aggregator says no. Lemme show you a video by Peter Kreeft, explaining that belief in god is more rational than atheism…

Yes, Kreeft starts with Aquinas, because the 1200’s are so modern.

Ok… I was going to go through the whole video, but I think maybe I’ll save that for later. I want to mention one other thing first.

Now… what was that?

Oh, yeah… nothing. Nothing at all.

Now, Krauss has a book out about nothing. And he’s pretty damned good at talking about it, I hear. But there are those who say he’s talking about an entirely different nothing than the philosophers are.

Which is the point of my little verse. See… Krauss’s “nothing” has the decided disadvantage of being observable. Philosophers need not restrict their nothings with such trivial matters. There is “nothing”, and then, there is “nothing”. One is easy to understand… but has never been observed. The other does not match our expectations, but does match the evidence.

There’s nothing, and then there is nothing. The philosophers’ “nothing” is an assumption, not an observation.

Really…. It’s nothing.

The Effing Ineffable

We need a sort of language
To describe the indescribable—
To build a firm foundation
To discuss what no one’s seen

A light to shine on empty space
To highlight shared experience
So others of my tribe will know
Exactly what I mean

We’ll say it’s all quite cryptic
But that faith will make it knowable
That hearts perceive reality
Our eyes can never see

Since none can quite describe it
Why, it matches to a T…
This effing the ineffable
Sounds effing strange to me

So I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR (This story in particular), and the guest author said something along the lines of (the full transcript is not yet up, as of this writing) “the language of religion, by definition, attempts to describe the indescribable, to give a common language to speak about the ineffable”.

Which is quite an interesting feat. If we all agree that something we experienced was “indescribable”, that does not mean we agree. I mean, two of us could call the same dish “indescribable” and yet disagree whether it was good or bad!

Mind you, having faith that your words mean the same as someone else’s is relatively small potatoes when compared with having faith that [insert religious belief here].

Does Life Have A Purpose?

What does it mean to be alive?
What is life’s purpose, if any?
Material stuff that wants, that strives,
To turn its one self into many

What does it mean to have an urge?
What does it mean to struggle?
Must we ensure that our gametes merge,
Or is it ok just to snuggle?

What does it mean to have purpose or plan?
Who choreographs for the dancer?
These questions have plagued generations of man…
Most of all, cos we don’t like the answer.

This was just a bit of musing in response to a piece (Does Life Have A Purpose?) by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. In particular, my verse is inspired by this bit:

The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.

For those who don’t click through, my comment from there:

In my opinion, the vocabulary of the article is a bit misleading, albeit clearly not intentionally so. In the same sense that “design” in nature leads creationists to infer a “designer” (when in actuality, the process of natural selection suffices), terms like “want”, “urge”, and “strive” perpetuate the notion of a functionally dualistic “self” that drives the process of life. When the larger view (across time and environment) is taken, natural selection discards those individuals whose actions were less conducive to survival and reproduction in their particular environments; those whose behavior matches what we now call “purposeful”–wanting, striving, urge-driven–were the ones more likely to live long enough to reproduce.

“Purpose” is imposed on us from outside. Our mentalistic vocabulary claims this purpose as our own–even when we expand “us” from just humans to all living things. The struggle for life is not always a “struggle” in any meaningful sense, but the phrase we have chosen to describe it.

On Free Will

Our free will, or its illusion,
Is the source of much confusion;
We make choices all the time, but can we say that they are free?
Mind and body in cohesion
Make us think we are Cartesian,
But the whole of modern science makes me want to disagree!
A causal mind’s existence,
Though a meme of some persistence,
Has the weight of long tradition, but the evidence is slim.
Our environment controls us;
Though Cartesian thought consoles us,
The truth is, we’re reactive, and we never act on whim.
Even my creative rhyming
Is controlled by sound and timing
And a history of consequences leading to this end;
Rhymes appear as chosen freely,
When the truth is different, really—
There are multiple parameters to which I must attend!

(Parenthetically, I mention
That “free will” will draw attention
To the action and its consequence, but little to its cause;
The resulting shift of focus
Makes it seem like hocus-pocus;
Through a bit of misdirection, it appears we break the laws!)

Reposted from here (where there are some links and comments worth seeing). Everything old is new again; I’m talking free will in another comments section. Gotta run to class; I’ll throw some links up in a bit.