Tag Archives: God

Sucky Things You’d Rather Not Think About

Steve Martin with balloons on his head

Steve Martin used to say “I learned enough philosophy in college to mess me up for the rest of my life.”


There’s a bit of truth to that. Philosophy — the real stuff, not the stuff you learn mostly in college today — makes you deal with a lot of things you’d rather not.

Your death is imminent. No way around that. In the big scheme of things, you’re not even an ant. In fact, you exist for such a vanishingly-small amount of time and have such a tiny impact on anything that for all intents and purposes you don’t exist at all. The question shouldn’t be “How can I really know the rest of the universe exists?” The real question is more like “How does the universe really know I exist?”

Science is just a bunch of guesses. Yes, we’ve gotten really good at guessing, but for all we know we’re just getting better at describing the workings of the computer simulation we all live inside of. We can do amazing things by empirically observing things, noting patterns, creating possible rules, and testing those rules. Science rocks. But there’s always the chance we didn’t observe enough, that our model is lacking fidelity and we just don’t know. There were no black swans — until somebody saw a black swan. Newton’s laws worked awesomely well — until they stopped working. Induction, the idea that if we see something over and over again we can infer a general pattern, works until it does not work. The turkey thinks the farmer is a friend and always brings food — until the day he shows up with a hatchet. Mars had canals, hell they were empirically observed by multiple scientists, until we realized we were just looking at the backs of our own eyeballs.

Everything really cool is always going to be 20 years away — right up until the day you die. Twenty years is about the size of something that looks possible, yet has so many problems we’re not really sure how long it will take. So when people ask experts how long it’s going to be until some super-cool new thing comes out, the answer more than likely will be “20 years.” One day you’ll be dying of disease X and read that a cure for disease X is only 20 years off. That’s probably going to suck a lot.

Trans-humanism is going to take a lot longer than people think. On one hand, we’re already at the singularity: people are integrated with machines to a point right now where only twenty years ago it would have been a miracle. The folks from twenty years ago could not have predicted how all the technology is starting to interact with each other. On the other hand we can get carried away with this very easily. To take the idea of a singularity to it’s most extreme level, to say that some mystical far-out world will come into existence where literally everything will be possible? Not so much. Even if the technology races ahead, we are in for a long struggle as the human side of the changing world adapts. Don’t expect this to happen overnight. Odds are we end up with a machine in a few decades that has the horsepower of a human mind; and then we abuse it or fight over it for years afterwards. We have no history of welcoming new intelligent species with open arms. Don’t expect that to change.

Science will never be able to transfer your mind into a machine. Yes, maybe one day in the distant future some miracle will happen where all of your mind can be analyzed and copied, but that will only be a copy. The “real” you will die. There will just be a twin that’s born with everything about you. You won’t magically pop over from one head to the other. Yes, “you” might continue, but only in the sense that a new person begins that’s just like you — a super twin — while you die. Not a pleasant thing to look forward to. However the future works out, the wetware that exists inside your skull is subject to the limitations of being a biological device. Not going to change. Ever.

The religious people were right all along. Given all this uncertainty and almost pointless nature of existence, the only rational course of action is to creatively speculate on what values you want for your life and why. Then make decisions every day based on that creative speculation. Remember that the driver of all religions is each individual having to make value decisions based on incomplete information. This is a good thing and, in fact, the only thing you really have. Don’t confuse that with religion in the sense of an organized social structure. I’m not saying join a church, or start believing in a deity (although many religions have rather vague deities which sound a lot more like “the universe” or “nature” than anything else.) The existentialists argue that any formal, self-consistent religious structure is necessarily broken — God is dead — not that the essence of religion, finding meaning by artistically living an authentic life, doesn’t work. Living life is an art, based in your own creative speculative imaginings of what the universe expects of you. You can start with somebody else’s imagination of how it all fits together, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to take ownership of this — complete with all of the doubts that you might have made the wrong choice.

While these things are indeed sucky, they are also reality, which means we might as well get used to them. After all, there are some pretty good things too. You live at the pinnacle of modern thought. Billions of years of evolution has happened to put you exactly where you are today. Nobody else has lived in a time where lifespan is so extended, living is so easy, and people from all over the world are so connected. The poorest person in the United States has things that Louis XIV could have never imagined.

But you can’t experience the total awesomeness of life unless you own the bad parts too. It’s been my experience that you have to absorb these sucky things — take them in and let them wash over you — in order to truly move past them and enjoy life. Otherwise they always seem to be nagging at your heels. You can live in total denial of reality, or you can push through these sucky things to the other side. Being in the middle is unpleasant. Yeah, college can screw you up for the rest of your life. You can end up thinking nothing is true and everything is pointless. But that should only be a pit-stop on the way to the “dancing above the void” that marks a truly meaningful and enjoyed life.

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Mastering God

This is a post about God. It is not about theology. It is not about religion. It is not about the idea of life after death, or how or why the universe came into existence.

It’s just about that word that we use, rhymes with “bod”, and have been using for many thousands of years. It’s a plea for sanity in the atheist-theist debates.

I took a short self-education excursion a few years ago on the existence of God. Not as a religious person — I’m agnostic — but as an tour of how great thinkers through the ages wrestled with tough problems. I love watching smart people argue.

Here’s what I found.

There are four sets of things in the world

Set Description
A Things that can be proven true or false. These are things that we can describe, manipulate, and experiment with. To be able to prove or disprove something, we use a system of inductive logic, experimentation, isomorphic systems, and deductive reasoning. Example: 2+2=6, or the valence band of copper.
B Things that might be able to be proven true or false, but just not right now. These are things that we can describe, manipulate, and experiment with, but all the pieces required are not immediately available. Given enough time and energy, we can make reasonable determinations. Example: A pink elephant is orbiting Jupiter, the Higgs Boson exists, I am emperor of China.
C Things which cannot be proven true or false. These are things that we can describe, but we cannot manipulate and experiment with them. Things that, due to their nature, we cannot and will not be able to make conclusive conclusions about. They are intermittent, non-reproducible, outside or our ability to observe, or subjective in nature. Until better instrumentation, metrics, concepts, or models are created, they will remain in a fuzzy place. Most of these items have “common wisdom” associated with them, or personal belief, but because they do not lend themselves to scientific reasoning, we cannot draw the same kinds of rigorous scientific conclusions about them as we could in the other two sets. Examples: UFOs, history, moral theory
D Things which reside outside our descriptive ability. These are things for which we do not have the language yet to describe, much less begin to come to any other kind of grips with. No examples can be given due to the nature of this set, but imagine talking casually to a cave man about quantum mechanics. Without a common set of metaphors and analogies to map from one world to another, some systems are inaccessible to us. It’s not that we have the language to describe things and are unable to come to conclusions about them (set C). It’s that they exist completely outside of our current descriptive system of nouns and verbs.

Note that there is a temporal nature to these sets. The things in set D two thousand years ago might be in set A today. Or not. Some folks will tell you that everything will eventually end up in Set A — or maybe in set A or B. This has yet to happen in three-thousand years of recorded history, so the burden of proof is on those who make this assertion.

What I found, looking at dozens of different religions and cultures, was that there were always things that were unknown. And people — of all belief systems — used a word which translates roughly as “God” to describe those things. Sometimes these things resided in Set A. Sometimes set B. And sometimes set C. But never — due to the definitions of the sets — set D. Whatever the subset of things that could be spoken about and reasoned over, there always existed those things outside of that group. There’s always stuff you don’t know.

This concept — the key generalization of the word across cultures and timelines — has an interesting side-effect: the belief in God is an admission, deep inside of us, that we do not know things. A deep sense of just how little mankind knows. We do not know things that we can partially observe. The Roman Legionnaire looking at the thunder storm and the astronomer looking at the night sky all feel this, a feeling of wonder, awe. An acknowledgement of the great unknown. This feeling, this, for lack of a better word, humility, is an acknowledgment of God. Somehow this acknowledgment of simple set theory produces a deep emotion in man. Interesting.

More to the point, there are many, many things that we don’t even know that we don’t know — things outside any of our experiences. Things in Set D. Stars didn’t stop having supernovaes four million years ago simply because there was nobody around to understand it. Quarks didn’t pop into existence sometime in the last hundred years or so, and you can be assured there are many more things happening and going on now that we also cannot describe (because we have no empirical data to begin both a nomenclature and a scientific exploration)

From this deep sense of wonder many people are left uncomfortable, so they create religions. Religions are a form of absolute system. That is, people who participate in them seek to use them to provide all the answers to any question they might have. This gives them comfort as it takes away any uncertainty about life they might have. Religions take the unknown, God, and provide a structure of known and rational (sometimes!) things around it.

I find that some people in absolute systems are insufferable. After all, the reason for joining such a system is your discomfort with not knowing things, so these folks are very self-assured that, while they might not personally know everything, the system in which they reside will provide them all the answers. They’re like the teenager who just beat his first video game; they are master of the universe.

People are certainly free to decide for themselves about whether or not to give any additional attributes to God. Most folks want certainty: they will provide lots of little details and associate themselves with others who feel the same way. They may not know why people suffer, but their religion either provides them with the answers or assures them that there will be answers. Other folks also want certainty, but this drive pushes them to eliminate the concept of God altogether, substituting a religion of science for a “normal” religion. This is like solving the problem by denying it even exists. To these folks, science either provides them with answers or assures them there will be answers. Welcome to the new boss, just like the old boss.

But, really, this generic concept of God is a no-brainer. Yes, maybe the way God is being described to you by the scientist or the Mormon down the street is offensive to you. Welcome to the club. At some point, though, you must grow up and abandon this need for certainty and stop quibbling over the details. I personally believe that this emotional experience of humility and awe that everybody in the world experiences is a natural and vital part of a healthy existence. You must come to a deep personal understanding with the unknown and your relationship to it. If “God” isn’t a good enough word for that, I don’t know what is. There isn’t a better word that I’ve found.

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The Existential Jesus

book cover for Existential Jesus

What was the first-written book of the New Testament?

If you answered “Matthew”, you might want to read up a bit on what scholars currently know about the bible.

Most scholars believe First Thessalonians was the first book in the New Testament written. What about the Gospels? Is Matthew the first Gospel written? Wrong again. The first gospel written is widely believed to be Mark. Mark — without the extra verses tacked on at the end — is considered one of the best sources we have of what early Christians had for a bible.

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DGE Review 4: Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart D. Ehrman

(This is the fourth in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

What would the Bible, the Christian’s holy book, look like if it were dissected by critical historians? That’s the question Bart Ehrman asks in his book “Jesus Interrupted”

It’s not a flattering sight.

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DGE Review 3: Atheist Delusions, by David Bentley Hart

(This is the third in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

“The problem with those Christians,” my friend told me one night, “is that they want to run all of our lives. I’m gay, and they even want to tell me I can’t get married!”

I’ve had this discussion, or ones like it, many times before. There’s usually some initial charge that involves current politics, like opposition to gay marriage, or abortion. Then “the list” comes out. We all know “the list” by now: the crusades, burning of the Pagan temples, the Thirty Year’s War, trials for witchcraft and sorcery, and my favorite, The Inquisition (which Mel Brooks made into a wonderful musical, by the way)


This video is much too silly for this article,
but the song is stuck in my head. Now it can be stuck in yours!

The conclusion is then “Christianity brings out the worst in people” or better yet “religion is a meme”. It seems very fashionable among modern authors to go down the list, often at great length, in order to draw the conclusion that all religion is a sort of evolutionary hangover that mankind suffers from. Once we completely free ourselves from such superstitious silliness, only then will we able to move forward together.

David Bentley Hart is having none of it.

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DGE Review 2: “God’s Problem,” by Bart D. Ehrman

(This is the second in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

If God exists, then why do people suffer like they do?

It’s a reasonable question, first put forward in writing by the Greek philosopher Epircurus before much of the Christian or Jewish Bible was written.

Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent.

Is God able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil?

For anybody who has had a deeply-held religion, the problem of why evil and suffering exists can be a deal-breaker. For Ehrman it was.

When you’re a hammer, the world is your nail, and when you’re a professor of religious studies and the bible everything must go back there. So, like lemmings to the cliff, the second book in our series also discusses the question of God’s existence and suffering through the lens of Christianity and Judaism. But there is a big difference: these questions regarding suffering and evil are common across all religions, everywhere, so we have a broader mandate and there are many answers to choose from.

Bart takes us on a tour of the Bible, however, and finds that there are many answers to the question of why evil exists. Not all of them make much sense and they are not consistent with each other. In some cases original authors made one point and other authors came back later and revised it to make another.

So what are the biblical reasons for evil and suffering?

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DGE Review 1: “Why I Became an Atheist”, by John W. Loftus

(This is the first in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

John Loftus is a passionate guy. You have to be a passionate guy to spend so much of your time preaching and arguing about God. As a former minister, Loftus spent a lot of time being a Christian Apologist. (An apologist is not somebody who apologizes, although the root words are the same. An apologist is somebody who defends something)

John just knew that God existed, and he was willing to tell and argue with anybody that he was right. He went through all of the classic pro-God and anti-God argument points.

Then John lost his faith. Don’t ask me why, that’s a question for him, but best as I can gather, people in the church let him down (severely!) and he had a big problem with why God would allow evil and suffering in the world. So he decided to become an atheist. And, as a result, decided to write this book.

Which is where we begin.

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Summer Smackdown: Battle For God Intensifies

Wanted some kind of fun project this summer while I am finishing up this big contract, and I thought it would be cool to do a “Battle for God” series of reading.

The rules are simple: Select 7 or 8 books. Some books will support belief in the existence of God. Some will not. Each author gets between 8 and 12 hours of my time to make their case. At the end, I’ll recap my conclusions for the entire series.

In a way this is kind of a rigged game for me, since I’m of the belief that God as the Great Unknowable is real. Now God as some specific version of some dogma is another thing entirely. But I’ll try to keep an open mind about the entire thing. If nothing else it will be an interesting insight into how people think about infinity.

What are the books, you ask?

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