Sunday, May 24, 2009

The 37th Humanist Symposium - Brought to you by the Internet

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the 37th edition of the Humanist Symposium! We've got a lot of good reading for the evening, ranging from the informative to the contemplative, vitriolic to humorous, historical to speculative. Rather than attempt to unite these by a thematic thread, I want to tie things together tonight with some thoughts on the wonderful mechanism that makes this type of gathering possible: the internet.

But first, a man who needs no introduction: Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism sends in the latest entry in his ongoing series "The Contributions of Freethinkers," recounting the life and times of Abner Kneeland, the last person in America to be jailed for the imaginary crime of blasphemy:
Kneeland argued, unsuccessfully, in court that he was not an atheist but a pantheist. The prosecuting attorney, meanwhile, argued that if he were not punished for his opinions, "marriages [will be] dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundations of society broken up". (See any parallels?) In 1838, he was found guilty and sentenced to sixty days in jail.
With the possible exception of the ecosystem as a whole, the internet could be seen as the single largest network on the planet. I say "possible exception" because some may consider it cheating to allow the planet Earth itself to be considered a network contained within itself. As my roommate once remarked, after playing video games with some friends in Ireland, "Man, the internet is so awesome! I've just been talking with two guys in Ireland, a quarter of the world away, as if they were in the same room with me." I think the internet's ubiquity has detracted somewhat from the marvel of it - we take it for granted because we see it, use it, and talk about it every day (or almost every day), the sheer achievement of it drowned out by routine use.

Next, we have news from the field of medicine. Andrew Bernardin of The Evolving Mind tells of Christianity's failure to deal with depressing events by irrationally blaming them on others in Medicated Out of Hell:
...I heard a Christian football coach explain to the sad/distraught female interviewer why her friend had died of cancer. Adam. It was Adam’s fault. We now live in a fallen world and bad stuff happens to good people because of it.

If you ask me, that guy is delusional. But because he is not personally suffering, or an obvious danger to himself of others, and because his relationships are intact . . . . the state won’t involuntarily institutionalize him.
Mike of Brain Stimulant discusses possible mechanisms for a spirituality-boosting drug in Religious Pill:
Does a selective drug exist that could increase a person's spirituality and religiosity? Are there pills available that would allow a person to suffuse their perceptual consciousness with a feeling of the presence of an otherworldy supreme being? Will the very same drug increase feelings of serenity, peace and magic? I mentioned previously about a British psychiatrist who argued that we could use drugs to enhance specific traits of humanity. What does neuroscience have to say about human spirituality?
Like a good scientist, he sticks to the facts without getting too deep into the ethics. Like a good philosopher, I would love to talk about the ethics at great length over several beers. As if in answer, we have a piece from Colin Timberlake, born of just such a bar-style discussion, entitled Suicide and Organ Donation: A System to Save Lives?
The idea sounds difficult to stomach at first. But if we, as a society, have the potential to save lives - quite possibly the lives of children in desperate need of organs - then it is immoral not to explore such an option merely because it seems…icky.
The internet is not exactly a "new" thing, however. In a lot of ways, it is simply a logical outgrowth of that which came before it. Phone lines connected the world before the internet piggy-backed on top of them; before that, electrical grids powered cities, every house a node that connected to the nexus of the local power plant; before that, indoor plumbing connected everyone to water towers and sewer systems. What's "new" about the internet is that it is an informational network, not simply a power delivery system or a combination water delivery/waste disposal system like its aforementioned predecessors. The information one can find on the internet was previously stored, not in computers accessible from home terminals, but in libraries private and public, places you would have to travel to in person to find the information you sought*.

Next, from frontiers literary, we have two book reviews. The DC Secularism Examiner, Paul Fidalgo, reviews Eric Maisel's The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods, in 'The Atheist's Way' is a crucial message in a light tome:
This book offers a vital message that I think any nonreligious person needs to hear, even if they don't realize they need to hear it: There is no inherent "meaning of life," existence really is a random, pointless phenomenon, and any meaning for which we may pine must be created by ourselves. Maisel levels with the reader, and insists that we establish our own parameters and values based on our consciences and intelligence, and encourages us to live these to our best ability.
GrrlScientist of Living the Scientific Life provides us with an in-depth and insightful review of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, reminding me that I need to buy it:
Even though Coyne's initial motivation to write this book stemmed from his annoyance with those who claim that intelligent design is science, he doesn't attack religion. Instead, as demonstrated in some of the passages I've quoted here, he does what scientists do best: he makes predictions. In this case, he makes predictions that naturally arise from evolutionary theory as well as from creationism and "intelligent design" and details how actual scientific data conflict with religious beliefs.
Even the networks of phone lines, electrical power grids, and indoor plumbing may be seen as natural out-growths of the human societies in which they were invented. These societies, too, though anticipated by other social animals (and inferior to those of social insects until we got into some serious technology) are but natural outgrowths of the networks that preceded them: tribes, families, brains, organs, even the most basic multicellular organisms are networks of eukaryotic cells, themselves in turn networks of prokaryotic conglomerates that merged for mutual benefit some time in the vast uncertain chapters of history.

Next on the hit list is our meditative group, led by Moody of with a humanistically spiritual rumination on the Tree of ├ćons, opened with a sentence the length and poetry of which would make Dickens blush:
From so humble a beginning as the blind dance of chemicals may represent, from out of the depths of unconscious ages in life’s Ultima Thule, the Tree of Life arose from the primordial chaos, sui generis, to grow through countless ages, to diversify its fruits, to send tendrils of spiral DNA, winding and raveling, into every niche, every nook and cranny of exploitable space, to thrive even in the face of massive threats to its very existence, to return from setbacks on scales that in their enormity beggar the imagination, to reach in its endless adaptations this age, this milestone, where we—but a part of its neverending, ever wending growth—may gaze upon it and perceive, however dimly, the ground from whence it rose up, while still not finished, and as yet remaining all but blind to the future of its existence.
Greta Christina poses a properly philosophical question, What does it mean to believe in something? I found her answer both illuminating and satisfying, as she spots a critical conflation of two distinct meanings of the term, "to believe in":
A while back (I was still calling myself an agnostic, which gives you an idea of how long ago it was), I wrote a piece pointing out that the question, "Why are we here?" has two very different meanings. It can mean, "What caused us to be here?", or it can mean, "What is our purpose?" And I pointed out that religious belief tends to conflate these two meanings -- the answer to both questions is, "God" -- but that, for non-believers, those two questions have completely different answers. What caused us to be here is the process of evolution and the physical laws of cause and effect; our purpose is whatever we decide our purpose is.

I want to make a similar argument about what it means to believe in something.
Julian Sanchez makes use of some demographic research and capitalizes on the fact that, for any finite data set, infinite interpretations are available, in outlining A "God-Shaped-Hole" Shaped Hole in his life:
It looks like we have some data here, in the form of the Pew survey (and the ensuing New York Times op-ed) to which Stuttaford is responding. That poll found that while the “unaffiliated” are the fastest growing “religious” group, children raised without an affiliation are more likely to end up with one than those raised within a faith are to switch religions (or abandon it altogether). The problem is, “unaffiliated” isn’t all that helpful a category—it’s easy to conflate with “secular,” but a closer look makes clear that this isn’t the case: Lots of people who lack affiliation to any particular church hold religious, or at least “spiritual” beliefs, and even attend religious services at least sporadically.
And VJack at Atheist Revolution has some words to say on the way that categories work and being out with one's beliefs, in Coming to Terms with One's Atheism:
Do you believe in any sort of god(s)? If your response was anything other than an affirmative one, you are an atheist. Yes, you.
Depending on how far back we wish to go, and how fast & loose we like to play with our labels, we can see networks dating back to before even the Earth itself was formed. What are galaxies, after all, if not vast networks of stars connected by invisible threads of gravity? These galaxies themselves sometimes collide, showing that even these most vast of superstructures are still connected in networks, and through them, all the universe is connected to itself.

Our penultimate category waxes humorous, and to avoid spoiling any jokes, I'll be sparing the introductions:
Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry writes of awkward party conversations in "What's your sign?" When Good Conversation Goes Woo.
Cubik's Rube lets fly a Grade-A rant (the "A" is for "atheist") in More than we can handle. OK, it's probably not deliberately humorous, but I've been in this type of situation before and his rant really makes me smile, so I'm including it here.
Jennifurret the Blag Hag regales us with a consideration of just what exactly An uncontroversial atheist ad would look like.

Looking into the past, when there was nothing but stars connected by nothing but light and gravity, I think the future of the internet may not be too much different. Things are becoming increasingly wireless, and I would not be surprised at all to find our ever-changing information network consisting simply of some form of broadcast node (whether a tower or a satellite), metaphorically orbited by satellite devices (both servers and terminals) with no wires involved at any step of the way. At any rate, I think it's fantastic that people from around the world can sit in the comfort of their own homes and share ideas both in real-time and at length (by AIM, Skype, e-mail, or blog) because of something our civilization has built.

Speaking of the future, our last category has but a lone entrant, who also happens to be the host of the very next symposium on June 14th: Viktor Nagornyy writes a future-based historical fiction piece entitled 2121: the age of reason. Viktor's short story speaks for itself, so I'll leave him to it.

So that's that for the 37th Humanist Symposium; I hope you've enjoyed your visit! Please direct any questions, comments, or death threats to the comments below. Y'all have a good night, and a pleasant holiday tomorrow!

* - Yes, yes, I'm aware that I'm ignoring all the chaff on the internet, but that's OK. There's a lot of chaff in libraries, too: just look in their metaphysics, new age, or religion sections. Also, on networks in general, I kind of ignored post offices. I didn't realize this until I had only a paragraph to go, though, and couldn't really find a nice place to fit them in, so I'll just skip them (but for this brief acknowledgment, of course).


Ebonmuse said...

Looks like you've got a great lineup of posts for the carnival. Thanks for hosting! And thanks to the inventors of the Internet, as well, for making it possible. :)

moody834 said...

Can't wait to dig into these links! Wow. You did a very nice job tying them all together. Great stuff. And thanks very much for the kind words about my offering. Much appreciated. :-)

D said...

Hey, thanks for the votes of confidence! Ebon, thanks for starting this grand tradition; Moody, thanks for writing in!

Sister Twister said...

You go girl...thanks for the links.

D said...

You should pop on by the writers' sites and thank them - they did the bulk of the work here. I'm sure they'd appreciate your saying so. Thanks for the comment!