08 April 2010

Taking It All In: The Evolution of an Atheist

I've been participating in a lot of discussions lately and it frequently occurs to me how difficult it is to impart my understanding of the world to people who read neither my blog nor my source material. How am I supposed to convince someone that there is no intrinsic purpose in life without first having them read mountains of literature? How can I get someone to see the world through my eyes? These realizations are years, even lifetimes, in the making, but that won't stop me from trying to be an agent in someone's enlightenment. If there is a discussion, there is a way. All I have to do is package my ideas into a simple, concise delivery. Like the shrinking of the microprocessor, that too may be a process that takes time, but here I am, starting it off.

With every year, every book, every epiphany, my understanding of the world grows more solid and confident. Some would call it a fool's wager to register an official philosophy, especially based on ideas I come across so early in life, but I'm pretty sure I'm not a fool. If I'm honest, there are things I know and things I don't know. For instance, I have no idea what my political personality is. If I were to go spouting off my opinions on liberalism like it was the solution for all mankind, I would feel like a lunatic on the inside. There is no end-all be-all philosophy when it comes to politics. Existence, however, is quite easy to know. Now, if you were to raise your voice and proclaim that far greater minds than mine have have been puzzled by a question I can supposedly answer so easily, I would say, "Exactly." Existence isn't for great minds to ponder, but they made a game of it anyways.

Epiphany: We can't all be right.

My first profound realization of the world came in my mid-teens when I was thinking about religion. I reasoned that if all religions claimed to be the one true religion, then either only one was right and the rest were wrong, or they all were wrong. Giving credence, for a moment, to the idea that only one was right, I pondered about which one that was. No option made more sense than the next. It was then clear to me that no religion, past or present, could rightfully claim to be the one true one.

Epiphany: Even the infallible is fallible.

After high school, I took a class on the history of Judaism at a local community college. This course followed a time line from the faith's roots to today, highlighting the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, along with the offending doctrines. Counting every time either the Catholic church or the Jewish faith was revised and updated to fit the trends of modern times, I was left astounded at the notion that anyone could view any of either faith's teachings to be wise. Surely, if all that was needed was a popular revolt or a political allowance, the church would bend. The interpretation would be reinterpreted. The followers would continue to follow. Looking at religion from this perspective really helped me see it as not a personal thing, but a tool used by those in power to control a population.

I want to pause here and say that my epiphanies are the result of my personal observations, not some mathematical calculation based on cold logic. You may not see things the same way I do. You may not be paying attention to the same details I am. You may have a different explanation to digest the information with. A different person walking in my shoes may very well have turned into ... a different person. I'm not trying to convince you, just help you see how much has gone into the mentality that I now have. And obviously, I am leaving out a LOT of details.

Epiphany: Everyone's mileage will vary.

Throughout my late teens and early twenties, I had always been searching for "the formula;" some universal way to solve all of the problems of society, to teach people, to phrase a subject, to create an understanding. I put this idea into play when I created my discussion forum on the internet. For years, I participated in debates and discussions, honing what I greatly wished to be the one true way to communicate. If the internet is good at doing one thing, though, it is crushing your idealistic dreams. My experience taught me that everyone is extremely, irreconcilably different, taking nearly every variable of their life into account when they listen and when they speak. There was no way to normalize this. This was a slow and gradual realization for me, one which others acquired without even needing to think much about it, but it was important that I learned it that way. Throughout my "trials," I paid attention to people and I really got to be quite sympathetic.

Epiphany: We're not as evolved as we think.

I've always been preoccupied with psychology, which was why I was thrilled to discover the research of Dan Ariely a year ago. Ariely studies the irrational behaviors of people and his book, Predictably Irrational, compiles many clunky ways in which our brains tend to work. A few of his experiments reveal some frankly feral heuristics that remain in the brain from our evolutionary ancestors. In particular, the study of sexual boundaries before and during arousal caused my eyes to widen and my jaw to drop. While I would not expect any other person to extrapolate as much from reading this book, which was found in the business management section of the book store, I came away from it with a sense of inelegance. I began to realize that we're not so far removed from our cousins in the animal kingdom. Further, if one were to reject that we even evolved from animals and instead were fashioned in a god's image, I wondered how they would possibly explain away our mental faults.

Epiphany: Our existence is both improbable and inevitable.

I am still grateful to my friend, Arion, who gave me the book The Black Swan for my birthday last year. This book has changed my perspective of the world completely. One of the book's greatest lessons is putting the past into context. When we learn history in school or from a book, we are given a narrative of all the events that have been deemed important enough and witnessed enough to be worthy of a lesson. Everything is shaped to convey a time line or a moral. That isn't history, though. What we are missing is everything that didn't matter... because it actually does matter. For example, when we look into the history of the earth, we are only seeing what we have evidence for. But what of everything that came and went without leaving a scrap of evidence for us to discover? Did it not exist? Did it not have an impact on the things we DO have evidence for? We never take into account all the details we don't see, only the ones that we do. In this way, it is possible to see how our interpretations of the world can fail to attain their true cosmic meaning.

We can look at the world in one of two ways: We can see our existence as the improbable result of an infinite number of explosions, reactions, mutations and matings, or we can look at the sheer number of atoms, stars and planets in the universe (now 9 times larger than previously thought, by the way), multiply it by the billions of years since the big bang, and realize that, given as many chances, our existence is pretty much inevitable. There is no reason to think we're special. It is only our perspective, as a lone intelligent species in a vast uncaring universe, that we are lead to think that we are in the favor of a creator. A large part of my philosophy comes from reassigning my perspective to a very detached point of view.

Epiphany: The chaos theory explains more than you think.

You don't even have to have a question in mind, but the chaos theory will answer it anyways. The Black Swan briefly mentions the chaos theory, so I took it upon myself to do some research. It was about this time that I found a BBC special on YouTube called "The Secret Life of Chaos" (it has since been taken down) that explained it quite plainly. From there, and with a bit more research, I began to understand details about life that I had balked at trying to explain before. For example, if atoms react in predictable fashions, how can life emerge from non-life? This is a question many people pose, but they frequently fill in the blank with "god" because they aren't aware of other explanations. But the explanations are right in front of us. From the random patterns of stripes on a zebra, to the imperfect formations of clouds in the sky, we have a better, more rational way to explain the uniqueness and unpredictability of everything in our world.

Epiphany: Reality is not as subjective as you think.

As I read The Greatest Show On Earth, every little piece of evidence for evolution represented more than just a point on the scoreboard for Darwinists. Each point showed that there is a reality out there that nobody can avoid. No amount of believing will deny it. No amount of lunacy will alter it. There is reality and then there is your willingness to accept it. Knowing this is of great comfort, because the flip-side is a life filled with futile attempts to reconcile a fantasy with a cold, unfeeling universe. When you accept reality for what it is, you know what you're working with and you know how to really get what you want. It is empowering and freeing.

Epiphany: Nihilism.

This one is quite logical. If there is no creator, there is no motivation behind our existence. There is no reason for anything to exist beyond the cosmetic justifications we give. We are simply the byproduct of the chemical reactions of the universe. Knowing this, let's enjoy it while it lasts. For best results: make sure others enjoy it, too.