Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Personal History part 1: Who I am now

See the entire "personal history" series of posts:
  • Part 1 - Who I am now. why I'm an atheist, a skeptic, and a progressive liberal, and why I think that's a good thing.
  • Part 2 - I grew up in a Mormon family and community, but my parents always encouraged critical thinking.
  • Part 3 - As I became a teenager, I began having doubts about religion and the supernatural and began to reconcile that with a scientific viewpoint that increasingly edged out religion.
  • Part 4 - "Agnostic, leaning toward atheism"

So, to placate the hordes of devoted fans clamoring to know all there is to know about me (that means you!), I wanted to take some time to relate some of the stories in my life that have helped shape who I am today, as well as define just who that is. This will be the first in a series of blog posts about my views about science, love, personal fulfillment and other weighty topics, as well as a personal history of how I came to be the person I am.

So, just who am I?
Where does one even start on such a question. I could begin how most people do: by describing my occupation. I really enjoy my job and I think I'm good at it, but I don't really think its helpful in conveying who I am as an individual. I'm 5'10" with red hair, zero children and a dog. I live in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I'm an atheist
. I am an atheist in the sense that I do not believe that supernatural explanations are necessary to explain my existence or the workings of the universe. Is it possible that there is some sort of higher being out in the ether responsible for the creation of the universe? Sure, but whatever that being is is beyond our grasp or understanding to the point of irrelevancy. Natural (i.e., scientific) explanations have proven to be far better explanations for natural phenomena than supernatural ones. There is no reason for me to operate under the assumption that there is some greater supernatural power out there.

I do not believe in a new agey "god is everything" sort of god, as there is no explanatory power in doing so. It might make us feel good to think that we are cosmically linked to the water that flows through our rivers and through our veins, that we share a piece of soul with the hummingbird outside our window. But most assertions like this are untestable or irrelevant. Those that are testable have failed to demonstrate what they claim. The new age "god" (lowercase) is of the same ephemera of Intelligent Design: it may make people feel good and validates their opinions, but doesn't add an explanatory power to the human book of knowledge, and indeed can lead people to reject those theories that are borne out by the facts.

Furthermore, I definitely do not believe in the Judeo-Christian God, Brahma, Yaldabaoth, the Spectre or any other more conventional god: a superpowered individual. Any testable claims made by scriptures claiming to establish the existence of these superpowered individuals or other testable claims fail to hold up to scientific scrutiny.

I live in the United States of America, so the superpowered individuals I am most familiar with are the Christian trinity (Yahweh, Jesus, the "Holy Spirit"), Satan, angels and demons, but the same logic holds for any faith.

Aside: This is quite an extensive pantheon for a supposedly "monotheistic" religion.

The supposedly-inerrant Bible makes numerous testable claims about how the universe functions. Many of these claims are demonstrably untrue (grasshoppers have four legs, hares chew cud, humans were sculpted out of dirt and or ribs, two specimens of every single earth-bound animal species can fit in a single ship about 1/3 the length of a modern aircraft carrier) .

Furthermore I live in Utah and grew up at least nominally as a Latter-Day Saint, so that adds a whole new layer of testable assertions that are demonstrably untrue (this piece of papyrus was written by the Abraham in an ultra-condensed script relaying his entire life story in great detail). More on how the LDS faith fits into my personal history in a later post.

I find religious moderates to be FAR more congenial to hang around with than fundamentalists, but I also find religious moderates difficult to understand. The Bible, according to itself, is the inerrant word of God and must be taken literally and its rules followed strictly. To me, saying "Well, I believe in Jesus and the Bible, but that part about how you should forcibly shave women's heads if they dare to have their hair exposed in church is, you know optional," should cause ridiculous amounts of cognitive dissonance. It seems to be that if one accepts the fallibility of the Bible, what is the point of claiming to still believe in it? Where does one draw the line on what parts of the bible to accept and what parts to reject? [See my post "For the Bible Tells me So" for more thoughts on this.]

But enough on that for now.

I'm also a skeptic. Just as with religious claims, I believe that all claims should be subject to testing by the scientific method. If a claim is untestable, then it really isn't of much use and is by definition not science. If a claim is testable, then it is open to rigorous and ongoing scientific testing. If the claim fails to hold up to the testing, then it should be rejected.

This goes for mundane claims ("rebooting your computer will solve this problem") to claims that may shake the foundations of our understanding ("humans evolved from earlier primates through the process of natural selection"). The bigger the claim, the more evidence is required to cause me to accept the claim. As Carl Sagan put it, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

This perspective allows me to look critically at paranormal or pseudoscientific topics such as psychics, UFOs, homeopathy, ghosts, and Intelligent Design. I personally do not do much to verify the power of, for instance, a dowser. But it's not my job to that. The dowser must demonstrate that their claim holds up to controlled testing. It is true that I rely on experts to do much of this testing for me, as I am not an active scientist. but I don't rely on the work of any single scientist. The important component is the general consensus of those that perform science.

I'm a progressive liberal. More on this later...

I'll delve into some of my other beliefs, my past, and what events have have led me to where I am in future posts... But this post is getting kind of out of hand, so I'm going to give everyone a break and stop for now.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

This is truly an enjoyable read. I'm very much looking forward to more!