Atheism, Nepal, Nepali, Philosophy, Rationalism, Secular Humanism, Skepticism

Will I ever go back into the dark?

Today afternoon, a deep discussion took place between me and some of my buddies (who happen to be believers) on my atheism and the concept of god. They asked me arrays upon arrays of questions, all of which I was not able to answer in such a short span of time. But through this blog I’ll be trying to answer their questions. At the same time, as I also consider this a good opportunity to make people aware, I’ll also try to make an effort to break down the common misconceptions, misunderstandings, stigma and stereotype associated with and behind Atheism. So readers please be patient with my rather lengthy response….

My friends confidently assumed about me and other atheists like me that when we reach old age, we’d turn back to being theists or spiritualists. It’s not the first time anyone has said this to me; my own father has, repeatedly! However, instead of getting angry, I’d rather welcome this argument.

I call it the ‘Laxmi Prasad’ Fallacy. I named it after Laxmi Prasad Devkota, the celebrated Nepali novelist and poet, because he is probably the most famous example of an atheist reverting back into a theist in any Nepali society. It is a fallacy, i.e a logical error, to assume all atheists will eventually revert back to being theists or spiritualists just because some other atheists, like the celebrated poet, did. Notions such as this are never a valid reason for someone to assume that I’ll choose a similar direction later in my life as well.

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Laxmi Prasad Devkota
It is also very important to realize before arguing that the term ‘atheist’ (नास्तिक) simply denotes a person who ‘lacks belief’ in something. Atheism isn’t a structured or organized system or a cult, its just a mere stance on something. Not at all a belief!

This stance, however, is usually derived in two ways: either emotionally or rationally. The emotional atheists (those who’ve become atheists as a result of an emotional turmoil such as anger for example) are more likely to revert back to being believers, the rational ones (who became atheists after logically and empirically examining the concept of a creator or a higher power) are less likely. Emotion-atheists are likely to do so as their atheism bear little rational ground and is subject to change anytime they face another difficult emotional setback, similar to Laxmi Prasad Devkota, who faced poverty and bankruptcy towards his later years and lived a somewhat miserable life, unlike anyone expects of a legendary poet. I consider myself a rationalist and it was my adoption and practice of rationality that helped me to become an atheist.

Atheists as a whole mostly agree on the topic that god is highly unlikely to exist, otherwise Atheists are the most diverse group of people holding, even among the community, a variety of differing opinions and even adopting different approaches to life and often with different moral principles. An atheist can be both conservative or liberal. An atheist can be either a communist or a capitalist or a socialist. An atheist may not believe in god, but may be liable to believe in other unverified claims such as UFO sightings as well as profound conspiracy theories or any other pseudoscience such as Homeopathy or Reiki or even unscientific notions such as vaccinations causing autism.

For me to explain it from my perspective, take this as an example: a lot of devout Hindus, like my friends here, do not believe in Thor or Zeus or Jesus Christ, some non-endemic deities from dead as well as thriving cultures. So technically they are atheists too when it comes to believing in deities other than those belonging to their parent religion or culture. People such as I just go ’33 koti’ gods further when it comes to not believing.

Now I could face another argument from new-age spiritualists, saying that its just different ways people assign names to the same energy or being which people usually interpret as being god. But again they could be questioned as to what makes them so sure that a certain energy exists and that it is exactly what many people think they believe in? How can we be sure without evidence or any logical argument? Why could’t it instead be any other unfalsifiable claim in its place?

unicorn
Talking about the concept of a creator, there are different interpretations, but all of them agree about one thing: the creator is somehow magical, we cannot see it, or feel it unless we truly believe in it. Now isn’t that ‘wishful thinking’ backed by an improvable claim? Isn’t it thinking just for the sake of someone wanting something to be true when in reality it is very unlikely? I could go on to propose that human lives are eternally controlled by a golden flying horse ‘in mysterious ways’ and no one could prove nor disprove me as my claim is unfalsifiable and thus cannot be tested by science. If I am supported by a thousand more people over this very claim, then I may as well have founded a new religion.

Now people may argue that they may choose to believe in their beliefs for comfort and not care about factual errors. But that is simply their choice. The act of choosing does not necessarily deem some claim as logically sound or make it likely to be true. I’m not saying that you are wrong when you choose to believe in something, because I cannot wrong any unfalsifiable claim, but I can soundly say that such beliefs turning out to be true is very very unlikely and evidence suggests so too, if somehow tested.

Another argument that I faced was that it is better to follow something that has been going on from ages ago by so many people, instead of dissenting to them and causing a disturbance. This kind of an argument is known as an appeal to the mass/tradition fallacy (argumentum ad populum). Because it is again inconsistent with logic to say that the majority or established traditions are always correct. They may be wrong, and they have been in many occasions, to name a few: on the issue of Slavery in the US and Sati-pratha in Nepal and India. We are always free to challenge popular claims with reason and skepticism.

I’d like to add that when people learn to think for themselves, staying within the bounds of reason and empiricism, they do not need to even believe in a higher power to be happy and morally sound as we very well know that happiness and morality do not necessarily stem only from religion. It is possible for humans to be decent even without needing a god or karma to fear.

Most of us rational atheists accept life the way it is and we realize that since we can never know whether afterlife is real or false, we have one known life to accomplish all that we want to and to live it to the fullest because you never know when life (your’s or your loved one’s) will end. This realization allows most us to be happy without the need for any imaginary comfort because we expect life to be uncertain and accept it. We believe that a lasting happiness in life comes only after accepting the harsh nature of life itself and to adapt our emotions around it. We accept reality.

Rationality isn’t bad, it’s indeed refreshing and liberating. We all use our rational minds while buying a used car, a mobile phone or while purchasing real estate. Rational atheists also apply the same thinking pattern while pondering about our existence and the concept of a higher power or a creator. We tend to regard something with doubt before believing in it. And just as one would never buy a used car of their liking just by believing everything that the car dealer says, without looking for evidence of damage or without logically mapping the dealer’s claims; we rationalists do not buy the concept of a creator or a higher power without objective proof of its existence or functioning. We also tend to apply the same thinking pattern on superstitions, dogma, magical claims and so on….

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The Flying Spaghetti and meatball monster. One parody unfalsifiable claim used satirically by many atheists in order to mock religious claims.

But the sad thing is, to become a rational person, one needs practice and this is the hard part. Unlike faith, which can arise innately even out of intuition or false perception, Rationality is a learned phenomenon which depends on logic and evidence. Rationality is counter-intuitive. To answer another question my friends asked me, as to why I’m not always able to convince people around me effectively; this is why. It is not always possible for me to ‘convert’ or convince others such as my sister or my parents, because rationality is hard to grasp instantly and not everyone is interested in taking part in discussions. Not everyone I talk to will start to read books on rationality and practice critical thinking straight away even if they like what I am talking about. But we never know the possibility, in the long run, of my constant advocacy for rationality and science being able to change some young minds successfully.

So the question remains. Will I ever go back into the dark? The answer is no. I think I’ll stay a rationalist (or in other words a secular humanist) for the rest of my life as one can only start to open their mind once.

Atheism, Philosophy, Science, Secular Humanism, Skepticism

Quest For Skepticism

“Ubi dubium ibi libertas: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.”

– Latin Proverb

From the moment that I decided that I would dedicate my life to scientific skepticism, critical and creative thinking; I have faced many incidents of dissent, profanity, threats, insensitive ad hominem, indecency, wrongful allegations, accusations of being condescending, trying to stir unrest, and many ruined relationships with people, young and old. People consider skeptics like me arrogant and proud, a know-all, a cynic. Their reason: we simply dare to disagree with established notions and claims.

Charvaka/Lokayata is the ancient school of Indian materialism. Charvaka holds
direct perceptionempiricism, and conditional inference as proper sources of
knowledge, embraces 
philosophical skepticism and rejects VedasVedic ritualism
and s
upernaturalism. So if anyone says that ‘science’ and ‘skepticism’ are  purely
‘western’ concepts, then 
they are mistaken. Many other independent skeptical and
empirical schools have been known to have risen across many different and
isolated human cultures at numerous instances in ancient history.

I admit that it is hard to become a skeptic. Many people choose to live their lives not wanting to invite argument and trying to become as amiable and affable as they can be, saying arguments have ‘no point’. And I confess that I still have much to learn and maybe I’ve made mistakes in the process of all this, but if I stop with what I’m doing, it will prevent me from further improving my reasoning skills. If I become discouraged, I will loose confidence in all other aspects of my life. And out of everything else, sound reasoning skills and clarity of thought are of utmost importance not only in my daily life to obtain untampered, unbiased information; its important even in my career as a nascent practitioner of (scientific) medicine.

Aristotle, pioneer of the scientific method.

Argument is an important entity of human civilization. Both on philosophical and practical levels. I just do not agree with those people who back off, trying to avoid imminent outcries against dissent, by avoiding arguments. I believe that people who think arguments ‘have no point’ have failed to understand the very definition of the term itself. An argument happens when someone doubts someone else’s assertion, claim or idea. An argument, if logically sound and backed by observable and reproducible evidence, may help to denounce or disprove established notions for them to be replaced by new credible ones. But an argument just for the sake of quarrel, blinded by ignorance and belief-preservation, may be able to convince quite a many for a certain length of time, but in light of overwhelming evidence and reason, will eventually perish. It’s the latter type of argument that have ‘no point’, the former type are full of viable points. And that is what skeptics like me try to do. We argue, we doubt, we express opinions all trying to stay within the forever-expanding boundaries of reason and science.

Take this lesson from history as a case scenario. For centuries majority of humans and majority of cultures held the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, and all the heavenly objects including the sun and the other planets revolved around it. From a common sense perspective, it was valid. At every dawn the sun came up from the east and at every dusk, it set towards the west. And observers on the surface of the earth remained stationary. So it was obvious that the sun was moving wasn’t it? Common sense. That idea had remained unchallenged until the time of Copernicus, when he proposed a ‘heliocentric’ model for our ‘heavens’ which stated that it was the Earth (and other planets) which revolved around the sun, and not the other way round. He established the element of doubt, and started an argument. He backed his claims with evidence, observations and calculations based on changes of seasons and transitions between day and night and parallax. And about a century later, Galileo argued with the Roman catholic church backed by his observations trough the telescope and his calculations. Though Galileo was forced to recant his postulations by the Pope, the idea of Heliocentric model for the solar system flourished as other scientists and observers realized the ample evidence in favor of it. We can realize the importance of argument and skepticism to human beings from this historic example itself.

Heliocentric model of our solar system [Not to scale].

One of my favorite intellectual personalities, late astronomer Carl Sagan, explains about the nature of skepticism and relation of skeptics with the public, in his book The Demon Haunted world (Chapter 17 ‘Marriage of Skepticism and wonder’). 

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public 

concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore 
the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and 
pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the 
skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what 
our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant 
with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they 
need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with 
kindness. None of us comes fully equipped. 
 
“Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism. There is some 
cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, 
consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is 
high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not 
keep our misgivings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky. Imagine 
that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in 
the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and 
inferiorities of another ethnic group. Is your best course to keep 
quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent? Or is it your 
moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to 
leave the cab – because you know that every silent assent will 
encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause 
him next time to think twice? Likewise, if we offer too much silent 
assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to 
be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which 
skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous 
thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. 
Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.”

With relation to his idea, I do not expect to influence and make aware a whole lot of people at once. I tend to be realistic. But in my opinion, even if I can successfully influence at least two people in my entire lifetime, I become successful in showing them their hidden ability to think for themselves and to question everything, even established beliefs and scientific theories with reason and evidence at their disposal. I do not expect skeptics like me to change the world overnight, but I think that to change even two people’s way of thinking is a big achievement. The same two people could at least influence other people in their lifetime, and teach them how to think. And the idea of critical thinking could grow like a cell through mitosis. And of course it’s not just about spreading ideas, its about teaching the people the ‘art of being right’ by being able to think for themselves, to question everything and anything and to put up logical arguments. That is what critical thinking is about. To learn to remove our biases, to learn from our’s and others’ errors and to substantiate any claims with reason and evidence. Self-improvement of the mind.

Carl Sagan

Skepticism is not a belief. Its an efficient and fool-proof method to acquire sound knowledge with the use of critical as well as creative thinking. Critical aspect to acquire unbiased information and Creative aspect to be able to apply that knowledge and to be able to think out of the box. And everyone needs this skill. From simple home-makers to make a decision on efficiently finishing household chores, to scientists while doing their research; when buying a pen worth the cost and comfort of your fingers, to buying a satisfying used vehicle for the right price, all for good reasons. It teaches us to question everything, from politics to religion. Skepticism and science are vital tools for any democracy and democracy always thrives on freedom of speech which in turn is essential for critical thinking and science. There’s a triangular relationship between Science, Critical thinking and Democracy. One of them could not exist properly on its own without the other two. Science needs absolute honesty and transparency for it to function properly, and that can only be achieved with freedom and clarity of thought. And freedom needs logical evidence-based arguments and rational decisions to protect itself, and that can be effectively achieved with the help of science and rational thinking.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the key architect of free-speech and modern democracy.

Let me quote a relevant notion put forward by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and engineer of the constitution of the United States of America, in his Notes on Virginia: 

 

“In every government of earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved…… “

He intends to tell us that people’s minds must be ‘improved’ for the proper functioning and preservation of any free and just democratic society. As Thomas Jefferson was a well-known rationalist, a free lance scientist of his time and an advocate of free speech, we can be almost certain that the ‘improvement of minds’ he talks about, is actually a reference to our critical thinking capabilities. And why not? If there is anything that can guarantee the improvement of human cognition, this is it. So let us all keep asking questions, try to find out the answers on our own and think rationally as well as creatively. Maybe one day human civilization will be equivalent to the Vulcan civilization portrayed in Star Trek? We never know….

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” 

– Leo Tolstoy

ONLINE COURSES ON CRITICAL & CREATIVE THINKING

I’m leaving with several links to free online courses on critical and creative thinking. If any of you are reading this blog, please do consider taking any one of these courses. If online courses are not for you, then do read these two books any time in your life (‘You are not so smart’ and ‘You are now less dumb’ by David McRaney). Trust me, critical thinking is eye-opening and life-changing. I suggest all of you to give it a shot. It’s not rocket science! (However rocket science requires it dearly!). 


1) Critical Thinking Web, Hong Kong University (My personal best!) 


2) Foundation for Critical Thinking (criticalthinking.org)


3) Oxford’s free course, Critical reasoning for beginners

4) ‘Future Learn’ Free online course on Logical and Critical thinking – From university of Aukland

 

Atheism, Philosophy, Science, Secular Humanism

Life and Probability

Life and Probability

All of us who are alive, and who get the opportunity to die, are lucky (i.e, we are the successful outcomes or events of the odds or probabilities of nature.)

Just consider the massive number of events that took place for it to be possible for us to even exist. This life, that we take for granted, is the result of countless permutations and combinations of infinite variety of genes, their assortment, and all the favorable events that took place for their assortment to become possible in the first place.

We are lucky because we get to die, as we have had the opportunity to live. Think about all the uncountable number of failed events or outcomes that never got a chance to flourish as lifeforms: unfertilized eggs, non-penetrating sperms, aborted embryos and the like. Considering these failed events, we are fortunate that every random reaction worked perfectly well and made it possible for us to be born, to be conscious, to be able to live and to exist.

 So just be more curious, don’t take your life, or anything in this world for granted. It is your right to be awed by the things that surround you! Seek for the truth in nature and not in mere scriptures and hollow preachings. Look at life optimistically, try to make a positive impact on society, leave a non-harming and an inspiring legacy behind you. After all, the whole point of science or of spirituality is in seeking for the ‘truth’. And the ‘truth’ or reality is that one day all of us have to let our brains rest forever, withdraw from all the pleasures and gifts provided to us by our consciousness, and accept death, whether we like it or not!