Monthly Archives: July 2012

More Inspirational Choral Music: Candles in the Sky

You don’t have to go to a place that supports supernatural nonsense (e.g. church) to enjoy magnificent choral music. Kenley Kristofferson has brought the magic of this musical genre to nonreligious people around the world. I previously covered his three-movement Carl-Sagan-inspired choral suite called Cosmos, which is now available to download in mp3 format.

And of course, you don’t want to miss this:


We are known among the stars by our poems…

This video just about captures those moments when you reflect on how magnificent it is that intelligent creatures evolved from stardust…

The Right to Criticize Religion Is Not Free: Speak Out Now

The right to speak our minds, the right to criticize religion candidly and openly, does not come without pain, or without struggle. If we don’t speak out, if we don’t stand strong and steady, we will lose this right to theological oppression.

If you care about making the world a more tolerant place, if want to know about an interfaith (aka transfaith) issue that really matters, then watch this video (the really inspirational part starts at 1:35).

Alexander Aan is still in jail, for the crime of talking about atheism on Facebook. Many others are also. Countless others live a lie, or keep their beliefs secret.

We humanists believe that no person deserves punishment for speaking his/her mind. No person should live in fear for their lives and freedom because of their beliefs.

Sign the petitions. Share on Facebook. Talk about it with your friends. Make this a topic of national conversation.

Reductionism: Still Awesome, Still Misunderstood

I realized that there’s a thing called “missing the point” about “missing the point”. After all, I kind of knew that my defense about the pure awesomeness of reductionism would be misconstrued  into something much much worse. (But who knew it would be my friend Andrew Tripp, of the Depaul Alliance for Free Thought?)

Such is the reality of internet discussion. So let’s clear up some of the charges.

For instance, Mr. Mei seems to hold the belief that at some point that I said reductionism, namely the understanding that everyone and everything is made up of atoms, is a horrible evil viewpoint that causes children to have nightmares. Or something.

Actually, not quite. As even the original author of my chosen definition of reductionism has said, such use of diction (i.e., “evil evil belief”) are for comic effect (to satirize a culture that seems to consistently misunderstand the concept). Also, I have to point out that that only a passing reference was made to Andrew’s post, and that the post itself was not an ad hominem, or even a specific reply, to what Andrew wrote. (If anything, I was more interested in the replies of a bunch of philosophically-minded Christian Facebook friends). But let’s move on.

I would love, LOVE for him or anyone else to show me where I said that.

By posing this question, it seems that Andrew doesn’t seem to understand what I thought the most distasteful part of his original post was, or what I’m criticizing and not criticizing. And the pride by which he innocently quotes Dan Fincke again in his reply (which is what I was objecting to) seems to confirm my point. Here’s the bulk of the relevant quotation, with my added bolding for emphasis:

There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on which true things can be said. Those atoms combine in remarkably complex patterns that give rise to the objects of study in chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Those emergent patterns are real. It’s not like in biology we say, “There’s no such thing as evolution because this organism and its descendants are really still just patterns of atoms”. The differences in the patterns of atoms that make up one organism and its offspring are significant. They are worth saying there is something new evolved in nature when an organism is distinct enough in the patterns of its properties from its ancestors. These are real subjects of study. Real differentiations in nature.It would be stupidity to judge those patterns as somehow artificial simply because there is a way to conceptualize the organisms in purely atomic terms that pay no attention to the features that are interesting on the biological level.

The biggest point here is that both philospher (Dan) and social activist (Andrew), by writing this piece or quoting it as if it were accurate, seem to really miss the point about the mere reality of reductionism. For one, they seem to think that reductionism means “judging patterns as somehow artificial”, and that somehow thinking about things atomically destroys features that are interesting on higher levels. However, that doesn’t seem to be what reductionism actually is, which is incidentally covered on my Number Three point about how “maps are really important”. I don’t just think this is just bad philosophy; it’s also quite misleading to a general audience.

But I think Andrew’s beef with the overall secular community is the following:

How does this work with reductionism, then? Well, take that viewpoint and mix it with the sorts of upper-crust white academics who sit at the top of the atheist movement…

…Thus, we have the movement’s near-total lack of engagement with issues of race, gender, and institutional violence.

This is what I refer to when I criticize over-the-top reductionism. Not reductionism itself, but the ability of it to intersect with old notions of color-blindness to allow otherwise rational atheists to ignore issues affecting marginalized communities.

Now this is just confusing. After proudly quoting an entire Dan Fincke paragraph about the mistaken idea that “reductionism” is about ignoring the importance of human-level maps, and after writing an entire post using the word “reductionism” straight-up, only by the end of Andrew’s reply do we get somewhat of a conditional statement: so we’re not talking about true reductionism but (fake?) over-the-top reductionism.

And hence my point on Number Two, lampooning how people think atheism causes mass murderers, or how Darwinism leads to racism. Somehow Andrew also missed the point here: the thing is, if people want to offer a critique of the misuse of a particular concept, they have to be careful.

Just as eugenicists don’t deserve to be described as “Darwinists” (and in my humble opinion “social Darwinist” is really really pushing it), people who think reductionism implies race-blindness (or any other normative position, implicit or explicit) don’t deserve to be described as “reductionists”. At the very least, we should use language that makes this distinction clear, not wobble around with confused definitions and popular misconceptions. After all, we don’t say of 1940’s America that too many (white) scientists “have an annoying tendency to be Darwinists“.

And to reiterate my points so that everything is really really clear.

1) Human-level maps are really really important. It means that our mental conceptions matter. It means that we have to work towards social justice. It means that race, gender, sexual orientation, political institutions, and the issues and correlations that tie everything together really matter.

2) You have to be careful about what you say is “real”. Especially when you’re talking about reductionism, saying that the patterns of “biology” are real and that you can’t describe it on a lower-level is really bad philosophy. Also don’t fall for the Mind Projection Fallacy, and wear lots of sunscreen.

3) Reductionism is still awesome, beautiful, and unbelievably cool. I think I covered this in my original post.

4) All we need is love. I dunno. I just felt like writing that.

Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? An Inspirational Letter To The Religious

The Most Inspirational Image from SSA Con: Water

At the 2012 Secular Student Alliance Conference this past weekend, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism told us that we don’t win every battle. Not every church and state issue goes our way. Not every debate or argument ends in someone changing his or her mind. And superstition, irrationality, bigotry, and religious dogma often run over our lives. For some of us, there are moments in time when it seems like every street corner is filled with nothing but church steeples and people praying.

But the secular movement is not magic. We can’t transfigure things instantly. Things will be broken for a long time, and we have to understand that.

The secular movement is like water. It may feel soft and gentle when you look at it under a microscope, but it’s water, and it can form a raging river.

And that raging river, if you let it run, can do this:

This why you should be inspired.

Every progressive movement–including the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the gay rights movement–pushed back against mountains and mountains of established, entrenched dogma (and most often religious dogma).

But guess what? The activists in those movements won, or are currently winning.

And the secular movement is going to win too.

We’re not just going to change minds. We’re going to change society.

We’re going to win full legislative equality. We’re going to win a popular majority. We’re going to make society more liberal and tolerant. We’re going to establish social justice. We’re going to make this century the century of science and rationality. We’re going to make atheism and humanism normal and accepted.

As Dave Silverman says, the only thing stopping us now is apathy.

Reductionism isn’t scary or oppressive. It’s beautiful.

My friend Chana has given the best definition of reductionism I’ve seen:

Reductionism <ri-duhk-shuh-niz-uhm>, n. The evil evil belief that people are made of cells. And cells are made of atoms. And atoms are made of quarks and leptons. And everything is quantum configurations in something or other.

For many, the “evil evil” part throws them off, way off. To them, it’s not just scary (like death). It seems morally repugnant. After all, do we start treating each other like we’re just globs of goo? Is there not something “real” in the make-up of a human being, something that goes beyond just an assortment of cells? Does it lead to erasure and marginalization of peoples, or the continuation of male, white hierarchies?

Are you telling me that everything I see above, its beauty and truth and essence included, is all reducible to smaller things?

Well here are a few points to clear up our Hollywood, pop culture idea of this scary, scary idea. So here we go:

1) Reductionism is true.

If anything, you should accept reductionism because it’s overwhelmingly likely to be true. The alternative would mean that there’s something in us or about us that isn’t material or physical, which is magic. And if it’s magic, it isn’t an explanation. And you shouldn’t believe it.

2) Reductionism isn’t a normative claim.

Being a reductionist doesn’t mean you should or shouldn’t be a liberal or a conservative. It doesn’t say if religion is good or bad (although it suggests that most religions are untrue). It doesn’t say anything about how you should or shouldn’t treat other people. So claims about reductionism leading to social ills are in the same approximate category as claims about atheism leading to the Holocaust or claims about Darwinism leading to eugenics.

3) The dichotomy between Map and Territory does not mean that maps aren’t important.

Reductionism doesn’t say that our moral and ethical systems are worthless. It doesn’t say that biology is useless because it’s ultimately physics (even though biology IS physics). In fact, we must acknowledge that our human-level maps are incredibly important. And no, it isn’t just science that’s important. Philosophy, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, history. Juggling, piano-playing, fire-breathing, skydiving. All of it. Important, and invaluable to us all.

4) Reductionism is beautiful, in every way.

Think about it. You’re made of atoms. And the atoms (or other smaller things) make up entirely what you are.

And the entire immensity of the Universe, its happenings and events, which go on on an unimaginably massive scale are also made up of smaller things, on a scale unimaginably small. The atoms that make up who you are in every way–mentally, physically, consciously, biologically, psychologically–all of it comes from the explosions of unbelievably large stars millions of miles in diameter, explosions that were made up of unbelievably small and subtle quantum events on scales far smaller than less than one millionth of a centimeter.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this view of the world is amazing. It means that there’s no magic, no fuzziness, no blurriness or supernatural nonsense in our model of reality. It means that the “magic” that we feel in our experience is great, because we are able to understand it on a more general (but less information rich) level. It means that somehow we’ve evolved a remarkable and intricate consciousness that can abstract from complex information, that can reason and discover, and that can develop amazing ethical systems to make the world a better place. Reductionism gives us a beautiful perspective to understand reality.

As Carl Sagan said, “the beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”

The beauty of a living thing…