Unjustified True Belief

Epistemologiae

Classroom Edit

Last Tuesday night, Professor Lockwood was leading an undergraduate seminar on the subject of Epistemology. In this lesson, the students were learning and discussing the definition of knowledge when the conversation digressed onto the Matrix and other science-fictions. Nearing the end of class, one especially enthusiastic student, Kyle, who happened to be very interested in recent advancements in technology and science, pulled out a prototype for a holographic projection device that was able to create a three-dimensional, colored hologram of the objects it scanned.

To show off his amazing gadget, Kyle asked the class to join him on one side of the room while he set the device on the middle table to scan them. After activating the device, an almost perfect mirror image of the whole class could be seen standing on the opposite side of the room – all except for Justin who was very late to the…

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The Use and Abuse of Pascal’s Wager

Since writing my first article on Pascal’s Wager I haven’t come across any significant criticisms, but the fallacies abound. This isn’t as much a revision of my first article as much as it is a second editionexpanding and elaborating on some key points, proofreading, and sharing newer criticisms of the Wager.

It isn’t often that I hear an appeal to Pascal’s Wager explicitly but I still hear his famous idea echoed when people ask me in regards to belief, “What have you got to lose? Why not believe?” and “Don’t you see how beneficial belief in a God would be?” Pascal’s Wager, while a fine contribution to the archives of philosophical thought-experiments, is a poor reason for believing in a god, much less the Christian God.

In this article, I will explain some of the flaws in this wagerespecially those arguments that would propose that this wager is somehow evidence for God.

Introduction to Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager was first formulated in Blaise Pascal’s book, Pensées, primarily taken from part III, §233. Though he never explicitly formulates his wager in the way it is commonly described, here is what the text says, very much shortened, on the matter:

“God is, or He is not” but to which side shall we recline?…A Game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason…you can defend neither of the propositions…But you must wager. It’s not optional. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing…Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Pascal, not being a hypocrite, tells us at the end of this discourse which decision he has made, imploring us to do the same.

[K]now that it is made by a man who has knelt…in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.

Because the argument is commonly proposed by Christians, and Pascal himself was a Christian, the formulation of the wager tells us that if one is a Christian and correct, he has everything to gain. If one is a Christian and wrong, he loses nothing. Likewise, if one is an Atheist and correct, he gains nothing. If one is an Atheist and wrong, he suffers eternally.

So if we were to chart it out, it would look something like this:

Wager on God’s Existence (Theism) Don’t Wager on God’s Existence (Atheism)
God Exists Eternal Gain (Heaven)
Eternal Loss (Hell)
God Does Not Exist No Gain/No Loss No Gain/No Loss

Clearly, being an atheist or non-believer is a surefire way to lose this gamble for eternal loss and eternal gain.

Surely, one can’t win if he doesn’t play but it is important that we understand what game it is we are playing when we decide on our wager.

Problem I: The Problem of Other Religions

The first problem seems to arise when we assume that our only options are the Christian God or no god. Christian’s have their revelations and their holy books on which they base their faith — as do the adherents of other faiths. Muslims have the Qur’an and the majority of Jews entirely ignore the New Testament, which makes them advocates of claims incompatible with those of the Christians (the rejection of Jesus as the son of God being the biggest deal-breaker). Outside of the Abrahamic faiths we have myriad others which profess an entirely different god (sometimes even more than one) each with their own unique punishment for sinners.

So if we want to make a variation of Pascal’s Wager to factor in these other faiths, we realize that even without factoring in atheism as an option, the odds will be highly stacked against us. Imagining that one can only place his bet on the belief in one of these religions he runs the risk of suffering one of the other punishments.

Luckily, we can narrow down this list of possible rewards and punishments because not all religions require belief. For example, in some strains of Buddhism, one is judged on his merits rather than the beliefs he holds. This being the case, in my variation I have selected a few religions which, when ascribed to fundamentally, can conceivably promise reward or punishment based on belief (though works do play a part in many of them as well!).

Christianity is true Islam is true Judaism is true Sikhism is true Zoroastrianism is true
Wager on Christianity Eternal Gain
(Heaven)
Eternal Loss (Hell) No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Limited Loss (Naraka) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Islam Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Gain
(Heaven)
No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Limited Loss (Naraka) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Judaism Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Gain
(Heaven)
Limited Loss (Naraka) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Sikhism Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Loss (Hell) No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Eternal Gain (Unity with God) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Zoroastrianism Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Loss (Hell) No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Limited Loss (Naraka) Eternal Gain (Heaven)

If we are to take such a wager, it seems the most practical mode of thought would be to adhere to the faith with the worst punishment — thereby removing it as a possible repercussion for one’s belief. Therefore, we can rule out Sikhism and Zoroastrianism because their punishments are finite (however long — 8.4 million life cycles in Naraka in the case of Sikhism) and Judaism because there is no harsh punishment.

Unfortunately, a further problem arises still when we consider that there are different variations of each faith. Some Jews profess there is a hell while others hold to a more Buddhist-like notion of reincarnation. Some Christians believe that God won’t punish someone for their sins if they repent even after death while others believe that God has already elected those who will enter into heaven rendering one’s belief as arbitrary.

In Christianity alone it seems that the existence of all the different denominations (that make mutually exclusive claims as to what precedes salvation) would already illustrate the high improbability that one places his or her bet on the correct option. This is to say that if one adheres to the tenets prescribed as a Roman Catholic he may have very well lost favor in the sight of the Southern Baptist’s god or Lutheran’s god. If one is a Mormon he will have committed sin in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witness’s god by his heretical beliefs. If one is a non-denominationalist his beliefs may have damned him from the moment he started reading this article on his computer in the eyes of the Amish Mennonite’s god.

Problem II: The Nature of God

The second problem is much in line with the first in that we cannot know the nature of the god in our wager. Before contemplating how exactly we would worship this God (or Goddess; or God-like entity; or plurality of beings, etc.) through a life of religious fervor, we must be sure of what His (Her, Its, Their, etc.) nature is.

Blaise himself seems to have run into this wall as he scripted his famous wager.

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.

Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason?

Blaise’s admission of uncertainty is the core premise of his wager, but seems to be poorly represented. The reason we wager, in his view, is because we do not know the nature of God. But is a God who rewards the believer and punishes the wicked the only God we can conceive of? In my view, this conception is very unimaginative and below I will compile a new chart to list possible “natures” which a God could conceivably have. I’m sure others have compiled even more comprehensive lists, but I think mine illustrates the point.

Wager on God’s Existence Don’t Wager on God’s Existence
God exists and rewards believers of all faiths and punishes non-believers Eternal Gain Eternal Loss
God exists and rewards non-believers and punishes believers of all faiths Eternal Loss Eternal Gain
God is infinitely just and rewards people based on merit and not belief Possible Eternal Gain/Possible Eternal Loss Possible Eternal Gain/Possible Eternal Loss
God did not create an afterlife Finite Loss Finite Gain
God is infinitely merciful and understanding Eternal Gain Eternal Gain
God only punishes people who believe in false gods Possible Eternal Gain/Probable Eternal Loss Eternal Gain
God only rewards people who believe in the correct god Possible Eternal Gain/Probable Eternal Loss Eternal Loss
God does not exist Finite Loss Finite Gain

As mentioned in my introduction, being an atheist or non-believer is a surefire way to lose this gamble for eternal loss and eternal gain — but those who are on Blaise’s side of the wager do not factor in that if we believe in a God who doesn’t exist and fashion all aspects of our lives around fallacious tenets and make sacrifices accordingly, we will have wasted the only life we know we have for something only speculative.

It is for this reason of a definite life versus a possible afterlife that I am in disagreement with those who say that if God does not exist then our only option, whether believing or disbelieving, is No Gain/No Loss. We need not be a nihilist to be an atheist.

Problem III: Truth, Utility, and Futility

There appears to be another problem with Pascal’s Wager when it is used as a form of evidence in that it merely discusses the utility of a belief if that belief were to be true. This, however, does not lend any credence to the proposition that the belief is actually true.

Simply seeing something as a safer belief is not an argument for the truth of the belief, it merely shows how the belief is useful. I’m sure that there are many beliefs that would lead us to all to live happier lives, but the question boils down to a matter of values: do we value truth?

Are we philosophers or mere hedonists?

Problem IV: Choosing to Believe

There is a false premise at the core of this wager: we cannot choose what we believe. We are lead to believe by that which we understand to be the truth (i.e. what is evident).

I cannot choose to believe something because it is convenient or makes me happy. I may want to believe I am a millionaire, but without the millions of dollars that would constitute the evidence, I will not be able to convince myself. Of course, it could be the case that I have become delusional and believe I am a millionaire without evidence, but even so — I haven’t selected my delusion. Furthermore, if I knew it to be a delusion I would know it is false and would therefore be unable to believe it.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris addresses this idea directly and humorously:

Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. If you doubt this, imagine hearing the following account of a failed New Year’s resolution:

“This year, I vowed to be more rational, but by the end of January, I found that I had fallen back into my old ways, believing things for bad reasons. Currently, I believe that smoking is harmless, that my dead brother will return to life in the near future, and that I am destined to marry Angelina Jolie, just because these beliefs make me feel good and give my life meaning.”

This is not how our minds work. To believe a proposition, we must also believe that we believe it because it is true.

Note that there are people who are faced with scientific evidence and maintain beliefs that oppose it. The evidence supplied by science does not sway them, but this is not because they are choosing not to change their mind, it is because they are not swayed — having a round planet is just hard to fathom and billions of years of variation in life is hard for many people to wrap their minds around. They have been previously convinced of something else due to indoctrination, misplaced trust, incompetence, or ignorance — none of which were their choice. Unless that something else is uprooted and then weighed honestly against the evidence their mind will not be changed.

Being slaves to the evidence is what it means to be reasonable. If we do not have good reasons for believing then we are unreasonable and the discussion cannot proceed. Understanding that a belief may be favorable or unfavorable will not sway a reasonable person into believing it — therefore, Pascal’s Wager — especially when pressed into the function of evidence — is a sham from the start.

Problem V: A God Worthy of Worship

Ultimately, this wager hinges on a deity who takes account of an incredibly arbitrary factor, belief, while ignoring something much more important, merit.

If it is truly by faith alone that we are to receive salvation and not by works, then faith is empty — the epitome of unreason. A god who would deem faith in himself necessary for the works of man to play any role in salvation or damnation is a prideful, arrogant, and jealous god — a god who never got beyond the egocentric phase of toddler-hood. Shame on those who expect us to be delighted at the prospect of singing “hosannas” to such a pitiful being for eternity.

If a deity were to hinge salvation on belief and didn’t provide evidence, then such a deity would be either sadistic or incompetent. Furthermore, if this deity were to care more about belief in himself instead of merit, he would be forgoing justice. The only rectification I can imagine of this extreme injustice would be through some form of mercy in which the deity would allow those who did not believe to withdraw their disbelief when faced with his reality — not doing this would further stack “unmerciful” onto this deity’s résumé.

Prideful, arrogant, jealous, sadistic, incompetent, unjust, and unmerciful; not a single one of these appears to be a trait that a good god would share, therefore the god of this wager is not a god worthy of worship.

Conclusion

Before Blaise formulated his famous wager, the problem of belief and its divine corollary was considered by many philosophers. The philosopher for who has influenced me the most on the matter is the ancient Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

Although a polytheist himself, in the second book of his Meditations, Marcus writes millennia earlier,

Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly…[I]f there are gods, [it] is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence?

We see then that whether or not a deity exists, one should live a virtuous life. If the deity is just, then it is not a thing to be afraid of. If it is unjust, one should not wish to worship it. If the deity doesn’t care or doesn’t exist, then what does it matter? One would have lived a worthwhile life — with the people who survive him able to benefit as a consequence of his living.

Let us revisit that question of belief: what have we got to lose in structuring our lives around an unsubstantiated belief? We have our only life, which consists of everything we know we havethis is what we are wagering; this is what we have to lose.

The only reasonable choice is to not take part in this silly wager on belief and to wager instead on virtue.

Old Writings on Existence

Parmenides
My first experience with philosophy was through my study of theology and apologeticsI had initially wished to become a powerful and learned Christian theologian when I first set out on my scholarly pursuits. 

The first experience I can recall of a secular approach to philosophy was through a work of Parmenides. I was reading the fragmentary poem On Nature and reflecting on its implications when I wrote (on September 1, 2009) what would be my first philosophical essaywhich I had shortly afterward separated into two parts.

The first part of my essay deals with the notion of that which is and that which is not. The second part was a further look into the fallibility of the senses at perceiving what is. The essays are both very amateur, but I am about to endeavor in the most advanced philosophy class I have ever taken and I felt it would be a good exercise to look back at what I used to think and what I think now to prepare myself for how I might change over the course of the next few months. I wasn’t familiar with any philosophical jargon and wouldn’t understand until years later that the first solely philosophical thought I would express would be on the topic of epistemology.

The following are my essays with the fragment of Parmenides’ poem that moved me to begin writing. After rereading it, I haven’t changed any of my phrasing, only a few typos (with spelling and punctuation) that I felt could not be overlooked. I also can’t help but notice that I never cited anything back when I was writing for myself and it’s possible that I plagiarized, or at least paraphrased, a quote that had greatly impacted me from The Matrix near the end of my second essay. 

Existence I: Argument for Parmenides

For never shall this prevail, that things that are not, are.
Thinking and the thought that it is are the same; for you will not find thought apart from what is, in relation to which it is uttered.
For thought and being are the same.
It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not.

We cannot think of what is not, and thus cannot speak of it. Also, that which can be thought of, or spoken of, must exist.

The Chimera, the mythological offspring of Typhon and Echidna, having the body of a lioness, a goat’s head protruding from it’s spine, and a tail which terminates in a snake’s head — a creature, such as this cannot exist. It is impossible for the anatomy of a lioness, a goat, and a snake to be merged into one being in the likeness aforementioned and this impossibility can be further expanded on to say that a living creature of this sort could not be born of another beast.

It wouldn’t be foolish to say then, “I can think of it, speak of it, describe it in detail. I can even draw a picture of it. Does that mean it exists? Such a claim is ridiculous, and would surely disprove what you said! If it cannot exist, yet I can think of it: I can think of what is not.”

This argument is based on the assumption that existence is merely something that exists in a tangible state of being. If that is the case, then the only things that exist are what we can understand with our senses, but what of thought? What of imagination? Ideas exist in a state of intangibility and can even become tangible by sharing them through words. But still the idea itself exists only within a mind.

The Chimera exists, because the parts which make it up exist. A lioness exists, and therefore can be thought of and spoken of. The same is true for the snake and the goat. Because the parts exist, we are able to assemble it using our imaginations. This is because our thinking of things is object dependent.

Now take into consideration the entire spectrum of colors. Every color that you have seen and can recall are made of different combinations of other colors, with the primary colors being Red, Yellow and Blue. There is no color that can be created without using a combination of these primary colors and no colors combined outside of themselves can recreate them.

Imagine now, a forth primary color. A color composed of neither red, yellow, or blue, which when added to any of them would create entirely new colors. You cannot.

Existence II: Argument for Reality

All color is is a sensation on the eye as the result of the way an object reflects or emits light, with black being the absence of light and white being the entire spectrum of colors being merged into one.

Light, is merely electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths fall within the range to which the human retina responds. White light consists of an equal mixture of all visible wavelengths (colors) and can be separated to yield any color which we can perceive. This is not to say that other colors do not exist, but simply we can only see within a very limited range, between 390 angstroms and 740 angstroms. For a long time this spectrum was all that we knew of. It is still all we see, but with our ever-expanding knowledge of science and the development of spectroscopy, it is clearly not all that exists.

So is existence merely what we can perceive? Has what existed changed simply because we now understand it? Of course not.

Take into consideration a blind man. He is unable to see, he is completely sightless. His eyes do not recognize light and because of this, he does not see color. Try to explain to him the color of the sky or the difference between red and blue. He cannot fathom it because he cannot sense it. His perception of reality is entirely different than our own, but what exists has not changed.

What can be perceived has no bearing on what actually exists and to think that we can know all of what exists solely based on what we can perceive is foolish and vain. If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain and all of the same sensations can be recreated, demonstrated and simulated within a computer.

Reality is what exists. But who can know it?

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You 1

In Alpine regions, Santa Claus has more than happy little elves to assist him on the holidays, he is accompanied by a demonic and frightening figure. While good Saint Nicholas is rewarding the well-behaved children with gifts, Krampus is tormenting the misbehaved with a good caning.

It seems that in recent years a similar distortion of the holiday spirit (it’s about being good for goodness sake, right?) has taken hold of Christmas in the United Statesthough, it is a terror of a different nature: the Elf on the Shelf.

The Elf on the Shelf is a doll that is described to children as being an agent of Santa, reporting back to the jolly fat-man who’s been naughty or nice (presumably to decide whether you get an iPod, some coal, or a visit from Krampus if you’re an unlucky Austrian child). Notions of Big Brother immediately came to mindand the doll’s song doesn’t quite alleviate such thoughts.

The elf on the shelf is watching you —
what you say and what you do.
The elf on the shelf is watching you —
each and every Christmas!

It seems to me, first and foremost, that we are introducing a superstition to our children that we know isn’t truevaluing truth, I find it slightly offensive. But more worryingly, we’re teaching our children, under threat, to do the right thing.

A dilemma I’ve found myself pondering lately is: If the consequences are the same, is it better that a child does the right thing because they wanted to do the right thing (Goodness for Goodness sake) or is it somehow cheapened if someone does the right thing through coercion (coal, a beating, a bad report to Santa, etc.)?

In other words: Does character matter?

If it does, then what are we doing by introducing a new “Christmas tradition” that celebrates this sort of morality-at-gunpoint?

Adrian Hawkes, of Phoenix Academy is not alone in saying:

If there is no God, there is no Lawgiver, why does it matter what I do? Why is rape wrong? Why is pedophilia wrong? Why are any of these things wrong?…I think that all people, if they think they can get away with something and, it is, there is no consequenceswe actually tend to do that. I think that is the reality…

Many sophisticated and unsophisticated theologians seem to agree with this principal on this principleRavi Zacharias and Ray Comfort come to mind.

But, really? Without the threat of hellfire or bribery of eternal bliss would we really become immoral rapists and pedophiles? Without the Elf on the Shelf do children become immoral troublemakers?

I sometimes worry what a child will do when they find out Santa doesn’t exist primarily due to the feeling of betrayal that comes from being lied to, not because they’ll become evil, little heathensbut what happens if men like these, who base their morality on a threat or commandment, find out God doesn’t exist?

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You 2

Merry Christmasor else!

Thoughts on Justice, Causality, and Free-Will

Justice, Causality, Free-Will

A man is enrolled in a college course. In this college course it is required that he write his own work and respond to the work of his peers. On at least two occasions, this man has been exposed for plagiarism.

Under normal circumstances, it only takes one strike to failbut the professor gracefully gave the student a second chance… a chance that the student did not take seriously because soon afterwards the man was exposed, yet again, for plagiarismspelling an end to his enrollment in his course and spelling the beginning of another dismal episode in his academic career.

Probably due to my current Behavior Analysis frame of mind, I’d say that this is a perfect demonstration of the principles of Reinforcement and Punishment. The man got away with plagiarizing the first time around, increasing the likelihood that it would occur again.

Justice, Causality, Free-Will 2

In order for behavior to be modified, the desired behavior must be reinforced and the undesired behavior must be punished. In this instance, the man’s behavior was reinforced. The first time around, he received a reinforcing grade for his undesired behavior which was more reinforcing than the aversive talking to that most people would agree should have dissuaded him.

In order for punishment to be effective it must be: 1. Immediate 2. Consistent 3. Aversive.

For a punishment to be truly aversive, I wouldn’t say that punishment needs to “fit the crime”it just needs to be aversive enough to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In this scenario, we could imagine a punishment that might have been aversive and appropriate given the situation:

Justice, Causality, Free-Will 3

Unfortunately for the cheater, we might say his idiocy prevented him from grasping a warning as an aversive enough condition.

But is idiocy really at the core? Perhaps a warning simply wasn’t aversive enoughto the point of maybe being almost reinforcing.

I wonder if this is the result of his behavior being shaped by prior experiencesperhaps getting warnings for his errors without a real response-contingent punishment from parents, professors, and policemen. In behavior analysis it is understood that behavior occurs because it has been reinforced. If this is the case, can we really blame him? He’s just the product of conditioning. So am I and so are you.

All of our wants and desires, values and ideals, attitudes and personalities are the consequences of prior experiencesprior reinforcers and punishments acting on a completely uncontrollable machine composed of neurons. All of our behaviors (intrinsic and extrinsic) boil down to the turning of cosmic wheels. No matter how complex this equation, there is no room for free-will to creep in. As an aside, some pseudo-scientific understanding of quantum indeterminacy might appear to add an element of randomness to the cosmic machine, but it would be comparable to throwing in a dice-roll to the mixwe remain reorganized cogs in an apparently mercurial machine. This appearance of unpredictability, however, is faulty. Whether stemming from obscurity, complexity, a false premise, or simple ignorance, to admit of free-will is to deny the obvious rule of cause-and-effect.

Sam Harris illustrates in his book, Free Will, a short-hand description of what precedes our imagined notion of “free-will”:

Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?

This cocktail of factors that determine our every thought really can account for all of our wants, desires, wills, decisions, etc.however obscure or impossible that idea might seem.

The student failed because he cheated. He cheated because the behavior had been reinforced. Everything he will ever do is a response to previous consequences of previous actions stemming from the very first stimulus that provoked him to his first behaviorwe can almost call it a primum movens.

The question of free-will, however, is not the question that bothers me. The question that bothers me is: Can he be blamed? In understanding the law of cause and effect, perhaps “blame” is an out-dated concept. We don’t blame the bullet for the destruction it causes, nor the gun for projecting it, we tend to blame the person pulling the trigger. But if people are composed of the same matter that composes everything else — all of their being is subject to the same laws of nature, the same law of cause and effectcan they really be blamed?

Within the context of justice and creating a just society, we certainly need to hold individuals accountable for their actions and act accordingly; but perhaps there is another way of thinking about the problem of responsibility and blame that would make this whole concept make more sense that we (or at least I) have not yet considered.

Perhaps my initial anger at the cheater is an outdated response when considering the much more complex reality of the situation. Perhaps all retaliatory impulses are outdated as well as the laws and punishments that reflect them.

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest

Everyday, everyone is faced with decisions that must be made in the light of their personal ethical obligations. Sometimes these choices are complex with many pros and cons to take into consideration and at other-times they are undemanding enough to consider even momentarily. These situations may involve our perceived duties as friends or parents. They may be as controversial as whether or not to have an abortion or whether we should cheat on an exam or spouse. As I begin to write this, I cannot give a generalized maxim that can be implemented when faced with these dilemmas (however challenging or un-challenging they may be). I have not written any brilliant aphorisms that answer these situations. What I will do is try to consider and point out something that, quite lamentably, remains unconsidered in people’s day-to-day lives. The problem I wish do deal with is the importance of being earnest and, more specifically, the importance of sharing earnest positivity.

Generally, when caught in the heat of the moment, we are quick to say something we will undoubtedly regret later – “I wish we had never met,” “I hate you,” or “I can’t believe you’re MY child.” Too often, the damage we have dealt with these thoughtless, reckless words are not easily remedied. A lifetime of friendship or partnership can be brought to a quick collapse with a declarative statement spoken without any forethought — however true for the moment that statement might be. A cautionary gem found in the Epistle of James advises us to be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. Perhaps this is the maxim we could live by, by which many of the problems brought about by a loose tongue and quick temper would be solved. Unfortunately, these are difficult instructions to abide by. When negativity in the form of anger runs rampant onto the scene we are often dragged along on the calamitous ride.

Seemingly slaves to our feelings, it appears that it is much easier to be obedient to the devil on our shoulder than the angel on our other. What a better world it would be if our nice and constructive thoughts were the first to reach our tongue rather than the malicious and destructive ones. There is a certain importance in being earnest positively, one with clear consequential outcomes. If this is so, why is it the case that we give voice to negativity more often than positivity? Why is it that the majority of us are ready to criticize mistakes than praise accomplishments — however minor?

Imagine what relationships could have been salvaged if before that tipping point of frustration there had already been a strong foundation of open and earnest compassion, understanding, or kindness. It seems clear that we should never assume that someone knows we care, we should tell them. We should never assume that someone knows we love them, we should tell them. One maxim I have picked up on making assumptions is that when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.

According to some professors I have spoken to as well as some online websites, there seems to be an understanding that performing 5 acts of appreciation and acknowledgment to every 1 negative interaction can fix a relationship or keep it healthy. You’d think that people who are in love with each other would find such advice superfluously and unnecessarily spoken — “Of course we should focus our energies to engaging in more positive over negative interactions,” they might say. Why, then, is it so hard? We want to be happy and we want the people we love to be happy — so why does creating unhappiness come easier?

Another thought to consider, according to suicide.org, in the United States in 2001 “Suicide [was] the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 year olds.” I wonder how many of these suicides, committed at the start of these people’s lives, could have been prevented if some of the kinder words we keep to ourselves had not gone unexpressed? How many lives could have been spared if we had not assumed that they knew we cared already? How much potential was lost as a result of our unspoken positivity or our outspoken negativity?

I have been told, “If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything” — but this seems to be only one side of the coin (and the other side of the coin remains without a popular and quotable maxim). Regardless, the aforementioned aphorism is one I disagree with. Above being nice, it is important to be truthful. For statements of fact, opinion, or belief to hold any weight they must be true and spoken in absolute earnest. Perhaps what you have to say is not very nice, but it could be a vital truth — and it is better to be rude than to be dishonest. Even in less dire situations, such as someone asking their partner, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” it is important that the partner responds earnestly and honestly — if not, then any further compliments may end up being disregarded as mere flattery. It is honesty in difficult scenarios that makes all other words meaningful.

Even storybook villains come to the conclusion that, “Only enemies speak the truth; friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of duty.” — but perhaps we can change that.

It is in this mode of thought that it seems important to be earnest not just in uncomfortable and unpleasant conversations but also when we can encourage and inspire. If I could propose a new maxim, I would recommend people to: be earnest and honest in all dealings, good and bad — and to be unreserved with the good. Words unabiding by this maxim seem to be empty flatteries and wasted breath.

The Mother of all BRCAs

The Mother of all BRCAs
(Photo by Yan Boechat)

Richard Dawkins ends his written critique of faith-based religion, “The God Delusion,” by creating a metaphor between our slim spectrum of sight and the understanding of our size and significance in the universe to the thin slit in a large black burka — the rest of the fabric representing the vast data we cannot see or fathom.

According to Dawkins, the progenitors of science, such as Charles Darwin with his theory of evolution, “seized the window of the burka and wrenched it open, letting in a flood of understanding…” Dawkins explains that we have evolved in Middle World with a Middle World understanding, not too big or too small, slow or fast, by the necessary means of natural selection. The burka is a double entendre, showing both our natural limitations and the ones we force upon ourselves (by means such as religion), like an actual burka.

In closing this chapter, appropriately titled The Mother of all Burkas he states, “We are liberated by calculation and reason to visit regions of possibility that had once seemed out of bounds or inhabited by dragons.”

Optimistically he concludes,

Could we, by training and practice, emancipate ourselves from Middle World, tear off our black burka, and achieve some sort of intuitive — as well as just mathematical — understanding of the very small, the very large, and the very fast? I genuinely don’t know the answer, but I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.

This is a vision I also find attractive. Unhindered by superstition and unsubstantiated beliefs, the collective understanding of humanity can advance in all scientific, philosophical, and even spiritual fields. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles on the road to knowledge and more still for the greater well-being of people.

This article is not about religion, faith, or indoctrination. This is an exposition into a case of human vice.

Our tale begins in 1980 when a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court was made in the case of Diamond v Chakrabarty. Up until this point, it was understood that living things are not patentable subject matter. This was until Dr. Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a genetic engineer, developed a bacteria that had the ability to break down crude oil and requested a patent for the bacterium. Initially, he was turned down. But after a series of appeals from both sides of the case, it was officially settled in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed the prior understanding ruling that a “live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under § 101. Respondent’s micro-organism constitutes a ‘manufacture’ or ‘composition of matter’ within that statute” — leading to an eruption of biotechnology institutions and corporations patenting various cloned, isolated, artificial, and identified genes. Utah-based Myriad Genetics, Inc. was one of these biotechnological institutions that grew into one of the titans of gene discovery and diagnostics as a result of this ruling.

Bioethicist, Dr. Bryn Williams-Jones observes in his article History of a Gene Patent: Tracing the Development and Application of Commercial BRCA Testing, that

The Myriad case is a harbinger of an increasing number of instances where gene patents provide companies with monopolies on the development, marketing, and provision of genetic tests and therapeutics…this case has become a focal point…for debates about the social and ethical implications of DNA patenting and the commercialization of genetic tests.

BRCA1 (breast cancer 1, early onset) is a human tumor suppressor gene, which produces a protein. This protein is found in the cells of breast and other tissue, where it helps repair damaged DNA and destroy the cell when DNA can’t be repaired. If the BRCA1 gene is damaged, the damaged DNA can let the cell duplicate without control, and turn into a cancer.
Myriad Genetics held the patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes meaning that they have the right to prevent anyone from studying, testing or even looking at a gene. They can open up testing for free or charge outrageous sums of money for such testing ($3000, perhaps).

A friend of mine is afflicted with a mutation of a similar type. If this gene was patented and those suffering it’s mutation were extorted in the way those with the mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 are, it’s possible that I might have already had to attend my friend’s funeral. As we can see, when science becomes a business it loses the value of a human endeavor and becomes a means to control and extort.

The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out a further problem at the core of the patents when they petitioned the Supreme Court for writ of certiorari claiming,

The patenting of isolated DNA violates long-established Supreme Court precedent that prohibits the patenting of laws of nature, natural phenomena, products of nature, and abstract ideas… Patents on isolated DNA, whether small segments or whole genes, also violate the First Amendment because they block scientific inquiry into the patented DNA.

The human endeavor of science is impeded and the lives of many people are hindered, even being cut short, as a result of patents such as these.

As reported by CBS News on March 26, 2012

The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a lower court ruling allowing human genes to be patented, a topic of enormous interest to cancer researchers, patients and drug makers.

The court overturned patents belonging to Myriad Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City on two genes linked to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

This came as a result of a court opinion that was reached, as reported on Patently-O, only days before in the case of Mayo v Prometheus in which the Supreme Court held that “the personalized medicine dosing process invented by Prometheus is not eligible for patent protection because the process is effectively an unpatentable law of nature. This decision reverses the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s holding that the claims were patentable because they included substantial physical limitations.”

I am very happy to see that we’re taking a step back to reexamine an unjust ruling. Patenting genes, or any other product of nature, hinders scientific progress and lives. Money should not hold significant weight against the lives of human beings. Science is a human endeavor and it is more than a mere body of collected facts to be exploited for personal gain; it is a humble means to great ends. When used correctly it is a bright flame which can be used to beat back the enveloping darkness of ignorance and delusion — improving lives and livelihood. When treated by the unjust, science can be used as tool of the avaricious.

By virtue of being human, we have limitations, a burka through which we have only a thin window into the knowledge of truth and yet there are those among us who would close the window further — letting light peak in only when it would give them the advantage.

He Knows if You’ve Been Bad or Good


(Photo by Stephanie Katz)

You had better watch out, you had better not cry and you had better not pout and in this article I’ll tell you why: If you don’t do good, and are therefore wicked, you’re going to be punished for all of eternity in a lake of fire!

But you’re in luck.

If you remain righteous and accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior you will be gifted with eternal life! (Matthew 25:46, John 3:36) Err.. wait, are we talking about Jesus or Santa? Well.. whatever.  Eternal life and presents are better than eternal hellfire and coal, right? That’s some pretty enticing incentive to be a good person, right? Well… that does make you a good person.. right? Not exactly, but that is what too many Christians believe makes you a good person, or at least a good Christian.. which is the same thing to many of them. Many Christians believe that without God, you simply cannot be good. For example, the Christian Apologist William Lane Craig argues that if there is no God then we have no foundation for objective morality. In this article, I will hopefully demonstrate the opposite, that even with God we have no foundation for objective morality because God is irrelevant and can even push us to be the opposite end of the moral continuum.

So, let us talk about something that is actually moral (or good): generosity. Generosity is the habit of giving freely without expecting anything in return. Perhaps the argument could be posed that a Christian who actually follows the teachings of Jesus will feel more of an obligation to be generous than someone who has a worldview that does not glorify generosity and charity. The problem is this: If a generous act is going to be rewarded, and the person acting it out knew it, was it truly generous? How can a truly altruistic act really be met out if a selfish goal is met in the process? How can someone completely remove his or herself from thinking of the rewards and gains he or she is promised while attempting to give freely? I would simply posit that one cannot. If one cannot, he or she also cannot be truly generous.

If a dude does a generous act because he believes he will be rewarded if he does, punished if he doesn’t, or needed to be commanded to do so by some higher authority, the virtue of the person is nonexistent. So a question we are left with is: Can a Christian actually be generous? Virtuous? Good?

What is left then? How can we be generous? For one thing, seemingly being generous is not the same as being generous. If someone does something “generous” for the sake of being recognized as a generous person then he isn’t really being generous at all.

Even if the action is generous, his mindset is actually self-serving which is antonymous.

That being said, I’d posit that only people with an atheistic mindset can truly be generous in contrast to the believers of most theistic religions, because they can actually do something generous without the thought of an omniscient and omnipotent being watching and judging their action. If a Christian was generous without any consideration of God’s grace or wrath, then he or she would have done so in a purely atheistic (or unrelated to God) mindset. This is to say that even if a Christian person who does something that is generous, he didn’t do it because of his Christian-ness. If he took his Christian beliefs into account when doing the generous act, then it seems impossible that he himself is actually generous by the very definition of the wordgiving freely without expecting anything in return.

It does not matter if it’s the promise of eternal hellfire (or eternal reward) by God, the dread of coal (or hope for presents) in your stocking left by Santa, or the fear of looking bad (or good) by other people; if you do a good action for any reason other than the good itself, you are simply not being good.

So, you had better be good for goodness sake!

Merry Christmas!