Re: The Unfathomable
Sat, 6 Nov 1999 12:22:16 EST

I know there's some (perhaps quite smart) sentiment to kill this thread but, since most of my non-professional writing time is concentrated on weekend mornings, I thought I'd toss in a parting note or two here . . .

In a message dated 99-11-02 13:02:09 EST, (M. E. Smith) wrote:

> Several Internet years ago, it only took being
> flamed a little bit for me to realize that the
> vocal and rabid atheists on this list would
> always dominate the list's atmosphere with
> regards to religious thought, and I accepted it
> as inevitable, even though I found their
> hostility strange, as if they personally had
> been stretched on the rack next to Galileo
> instead of growing up in societies where
> freethinkers have long been celebrated and in
> charge. (Anyone who does not admit this fact
> must be living in a cave without TV. The very
> existence and nature of the Internet is proof
> that the societies we live in are largely free.)

As with so many things, one's personal environment often dictates the "feeling" one has about such matters as religion and culture generally. Perhaps you live and work in a community where scientific humanism is the predominant cultural milieu. I do not. I am constantly surrounded by symbols of religion and see churches as one of the major architectural features of the urban landscape I inhabit.

Now, it's true I live in that strange borderland between the American South and West, where laissez faire and religion combine to make traditional christian symbology the predominant semiotic background and memetic mainstream. I also do not work in the scientific world or academia, but instead in the world of business and law, where overt expressions of fairly simplistic religious faith are commonplace, and where an open expression of atheism or even agnosticism marks one as a strange fellow, indeed. Freethinkers are definitely not "in charge" in the worlds of business and government (outside of Silicon Valley, perhaps). Frankly, I don't think this last proposition is even subject to much doubt, at least so far as the vast majority of the positions of the power strictures in American society are concerned.

Have I been personally stretched out on the rack with Galileo? No. But I've endured the necessity of keeping my opinions to myself. To express skepticism about basic religious concepts in the workplace I inhabit would be the absolute kiss of death to my career. This while religious people openly use that same workplace to spread their ideas. This same feeling was expressed by another poster here a week or so ago and I fully understand it: No emotionally healthy person likes to feel like a stranger in his own land; but that is the fate of the skeptic in our society.

Of course scientific humanism has had a great impact on society (as that poster whose name I can't recall pointed out), but it has largely been in the delivery of "goods" produced by the scientific method and in the frighteningly thin world of academic philosophy and the humanities.

Yes, the internet shows clearly that our society is "largely free", as you say. But the net allows us to be very selective about what sorts of cultural material we are exposed to. Instead of the net, spend some time surfing the television. I just had digital cable installed in my house (and cable modems not far behind - YEE HAAA!) I've got well over a hundred channels of programming and what I see is that there's a LOT of religion there; and very, very little scientific humanism.

> So I have remained on the sidelines watching
> yet another argument about religion wash
> over the list, until now.
> Obviously, I am not the only one who is
> frusted by those who seem to equate all
> religious thought with fundamental
> Christianity. Aarrgh! What century do
> you think this is?
> Look, you guys, I think it's safe to say we all
> know that evolutionary theory is correct, that
> our planet is millions of years old and was
> not created in seven days, and that
> Christianity was largely made up by a Roman
> government committee hundreds of years
> after the life of Jesus, if he ever really existed.
> We all know that there is no "God" in the
> sense of some huge all-powerful man with a
> beard who created us and gets upset when
> we have sex for any other reason than
> procreation. Among intelligent people, which
> probably includes anyone on this list, these
> arguments have been won a long time ago. As
> Nietzche said; that God is dead.

Again, I think you limit yourself to a tiny minority of humanity when you say that "we all" know these things. It is absolutely not true for the vast majority of humanity. I urge you to get a copy of the movie version of Sagan's "Contact" if you haven't seen it. The alienation felt by a scientific humanist is portrayed there quite well.

> The "God" that is harder to vanquish is the
> ineffable one that the mystics talk about, the
> one that is defined as undefinable. This "God"
> will never be disproven, for the same reason
> that a child can always say "Why?" to
> whatever explanation you give him. Like
> "infinity", this "God" is a symbol and a useful
> meme. To get upset when this symbol is used
> is like getting upset when someone says
> "infinity". If you're so lacking in a poetic sense
> that you cannot appreciate this "God", that's
> no reason to verbally abuse those that do.
> Would you insult Douglas Hofstadter when
> he uses the word "God" in this sense?
> I don't find it hard to imagine an advanced SI
> with a brain the size of a planet thinking,
> analyzing, constructing and testing mental
> models, expending the energies of whole stars,
> for countless terateraflops, trying to understand
> the universe, why it's here, and ultimately giving
> up, realizing it'll never know, and at that moment
> feeling a great awe.

I'm in fairly deep agreement with the sentiments you express in these last paragraphs. I think that increasing grasp of reality DOES engender a greater feeling of awe than spiritualistic fantasies ever could. I think there is a kind of mystery to existence that fuels an ultimate reverence for consciousness that underlies the best of which humanity has been and will be capable, no matter how augmented we or our descendants will become. However, I do believe we can do better than to call this mystery "god". To redefine that word as you and others suggest does violence to its real, historically-grounded and culturally valid meaning.

      Greg Burch     <>----<>
      Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                           Thomas Huxley