Friday, May 2, 2008

Cui bono?

This is something I'm going to come back to, probably quite a few times, in the future but I'd just like to record a few thoughts I've had today and, hopefully, see what people think. The question I was thinking about was this:

Is there a positive direction to human progress?

Part of why I've been thinking about this comes down to my atheism. The religious will for the most part fall back on religion as justification for their behaviour. The fact that their scripture is so ludicrously dated and self-contradictory that it can justify pretty much anything is part of the reason atheists become atheists, but that's another story for another time. As such, one must ask: If atheists are not kept in line by threats of Hell and promises of Heaven, what is it that regulates an atheist's morality?

Looking around the forums, it's tempting to say "buggerall", but if we're a little more selective with our samples and weed out the angsty teenagers, Goths and plain old idiots, we find that atheists gravitate ever so slighty to a very loosely defined concept of The Greater Good. It is this Greater Good that is of interest to me.

I latch on to my own personal interpretation of Greater Good, contrary to my readings in Zen, because I believe there is a direction that Humanity can take that can be considered progress.

We began billions of years ago as pure energy. Then, our atoms were forged in the fires of dying stars. Then came the spark of life. A relatively short period of chemistry and natural selection later, along comes a clever monkey. A lot of scrapping later, here we are, in all our incredible diversity.

Now look at us, at the level of the individual. We're born and, if we're lucky, we go to school, get a job, find a partner, have kids, retire and expire. If we're not so lucky, we'll probably have to skip a few steps. Look back at this life, scrutinize it unflinchingly, and ask yourself: What was it about?

If you're religious, the answer's easy! Do "good", live "well" and get your raggedy ass into Heaven.

But when you're atheist, well, this is where that vigilance and discipline I spoke of earlier comes in. These are questions every atheist must ask and answer for himself:

- What is your life about?
- What is the Greater Good that you serve?
- What would you sacrifice for the Greater Good?

The concept of a Greater Good is a deep and powerful one. To formulate a Greater Good that can actually be agreed upon could well form a rallying point for atheists and theists alike. Of course, it's agreeing upon one that proves to be difficult...

There's something very odd about the fact that pretty much ALL the spiritual traditions on the planet have come up with the Golden Rule (a.k.a. the Ethic of Reciprocity), yet many manage to muster great hatred for anyone outside their particular denomination.

No shortage of intellectuals have put forward excellent ideas, not least the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I'm quite partial to Bertrand Russell's idea that there should only be one army on Earth which does not answer to any single government. But these are just the dreams of intellectuals. As things are now, too many people have a vested interest in keeping the bulk of the populace ignorant, shallow and most importantly obedient.

Be that as it may, I allow myself the belief that there is a Greater Good, that Humanity can conquer itself and become something greater, and that we each have a part to play in making that brighter future beyond our own lives happen. Otherwise, what's the point?


Juliette said...

Interesting blog.
But what actually caused the "spark of life"? That is where religion steps in and religious people believe that it is thanks to some higher being that life was made to be possible. If you mix up all the elements that constitutes a human being you do not get a living organism, even if you knew how to string up all the atoms and molecules correctly together.

And if you think about it, the questions you say an atheist must ask himself (ie what is your life about? etc), is exactly those that religion has tried to answer. However, I don't believe that religion is just some threat of going to hell if you're not "good", which I accept is what some people believe.

The biggest problem with religion is the intolerance to those with different beliefs. I for one believe that there is only one God but we just choose to call and worship him in a different way. It is ironical that some of the biggest wars have been fought in the name of religion when our religion preaches peace and love.

PS I think you'd be better off with an MRI or CT scan to try and identify a tumour in your head, be it turnip sized or not! :P

清, just 清 said...

In addressing your question on the spark of life, I must inform you of 2 things:

1) I was educated a physicist, and as such am not as well-versed in the field of abiogenesis (or radiology) as I'd like. Last time I looked, the June '07 issue of Scientific American had an excellent comparison on present theories of the spark of life by Robert Shapiro.

2) I assume we're happy with evolutionary processes getting from single-celled organisms up to present-day diversity. If not, I have to ask you to dig up some Dawkins or Gould, or else nothing more constructive can be said. If you haven't read Dawkins, please note that The God Delusion is a bit bitter. Selfish Gene is more the Dawkins scientists know and love.

To "mix up all the elements that constitute a human being" is a common mistake in understanding evolutionary biology. I'll probably write in greater detail on it later in the blog, but for now, please take my word for it that from single-celled organisms to National Geographic is really no great leap, especially not over the ~4 billion years that life had to do its thing.

The questions you ask will most certainly be addressed in subsequent posts, so do stay tuned!