Friday, December 26, 2008

The secular humanist principle

The secular humanist principles

(1) There is no God and no deity, there is only us, the material world, and the ecosystem surrounding us. There is no soul and super nature, everything, including ourselves, are made of materials.

(2) Things happen, not because of God’s wish and design, but because of the underline natural principles and the randomness embedded in those principles.

(3) There is an end to everything, from the Cosmo to our individual life. The values of things are not in their everlasting eternality. The values of things reside in their duration, in the process.

(4) Our value systems and appreciation of things should shift from the infinity and eternality, which do not exist, to the transient moments which happen all around us.

(5) There are three corner stones for our humanist principles: science, which tells us how things work; evolution, which tells us where we came from, and why we are the way we are; happiness principle, which tells us how should we conduct our life.

(6) The purpose of life is to pursue happiness during our life. A good life is a happy and exciting life. The ultimate measure of life’s success is the happiness in our life.

(7) Everyone should have the right and mean to be happy in his/her life, regardless of his/her social status. Feeling happy is the most basic and fundamental human right.

(8) The way to feel happy is to satisfy our needs and desires, to satisfy our human nature. To have things we want to do, and to do the things we want to do, that is how we should pursue our happiness.

(9) While we should have a plan for the future, but what more important is to grasp the present, and to live at the moment. We might not be able to grasp the future due to the randomness of things, but we can always grasp the present.

(10)Things do not have meanings, good or bad, we give them the meaning. If something makes us sad, and we cannot change the thing itself, we should change our own mind. We should follow the YUAN (the natural way of things) and accept our own fate (the random things happened to us). Changing our desire, taking one step back, things will not be as bad as we thought.

(11) Our societal value system, our ethical and moral standard should be built to serve human being, to enhance the human happiness. Our social institutions, and the way of life, including the marriage system, should be constructed to maximize our personal happiness.

(12)Human species is part of the earth ecosystem, it is our responsibility and also to our own benefit to maintain this ecosystem.

(13)Modern human civilization is built on social networking, organization, and labor specialization. This civilization is the basis of many of our happiness. To maintain this civilization and social order, it might be necessary to suppress some of our evolutionarily formed human nature, like violence, hatred, and jealous. This suppression is a sacrifice based on our value choice, it is not a suppression of absolute evil.

(14)There is no sin, no evil, and no absolute good or bad. The merit of one thing and its moral values should be measured by its service to human happiness, while maintaining the earth ecosystem and the necessary social order.

(15) The most valuable things for our human being are: truth, beauty and love. We should promote human love while suppress hatred and jealous. It is the love which brings us the most happiness.

(16) Everyone has the right to conduct his/her own way of life, as long as it does not constitute a direct physical harm to other people. We should accept and tolerant different way of life, view diversity as a merit of a society.

(17) We individuals are always a part of a larger existence. This larger existence, should it be family, community, nation, human species, earth ecosystem, or personal projects and societal endeavors, gives our life a more enduring meaning, and provides a continuity beyond our own existence.

(18) For us individual, there is nothing beyond our own death. We just do not exist there, our existences have a finite range in both space and time. It doesn’t make logic sense to talk about what happen to us after we die. It only makes sense to talk about what happen to us while we are still alive.

(19) The society and the larger existence for which we are part of, will still exist beyond our individual death. As we care about ourselves, we also care about this larger existence, because we are part of it, and it is part of us. Thus, we care about the time after our own death and this care provides a continuity of life.

(20) For us individual, our finite existence is a mixed bless. On the one hand, death makes us sad due to our unfinished endeavors, on the other hand, death is a relief. It is tranquilizing to think no matter how good or bad things are right now, there is always an end. It is also comforting to realize things, experiences and feelings will be continued by other individuals. We should celebrate death as we celebrate the completion of a project, the project of our life. A life is good as long as it is happy, regardless of its length.

(21) To do the best we can do, to accept the results as our fate, to enjoy the moment as we can grasp, and to face death with calm, that is how we should conduct our life as a secular humanist.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Present and future

One religion system corresponds to one value system. Very often, our value system is instilled to us at youth, when we absorb things without questioning. It can become part of our subconscious, our psyche. Later in life, when facing with related situation, we can react intuitively from our subconscious, make judgment of right or wrong. Such subconscious might accompany us for life, very difficult to be changed. That is our value system. Very often, it is the religion system determines the value system. But there is one value system which seems to control all the religions. That is our emphasis on future.

This emphasis on future is probably also rooted from our human nature, selected from the evolutionary process. Human is different from other animal by our ability to think. This leads to long term planning in our brain. There is probably not a second specie on the earth which can plan ahead for a long time in the future. Our ability of long time planning gives us a big advantage in our competition with other species. With this ability, a natural result is the emphasis on future, not present, while probably most other animals can only focus on present, the current moment.

But the emphasis on future creates a serious problem in our thinking. What about death? We will all die. Do we have future after the death? If death means the end of future, then there is no ultimate future for the near term future to anchor on, does the near term future (which means tomorrow, or next year) still make any sense? To solve this problem, different religions create different answers. Either it is the heaven, or the incarnation, in one word there is no death. Curiously, one Confusionism, which is almost an secular value system, which seems not to bother with this question, and its emphasis is also not in the future.

But science tells us there is really no future, and our death is the real end for our individual. For our Cosmo, there will be an end. The current understanding is that the universe will expand forever, actually its expansion is accelerating. After hundreds of billion years, everything will cool down, galaxies will collapse into big fire balls, and other fire balls will be outside the event horizon from us, which means we cannot even see them. Eventually, everything will be so cold that no meaningful information and manipulation of information will be possible. That means, theoretically, there could be no intelligence, earthly like or other kinds. In any case, the earth will long be destroyed (by the swelling of our sun) and the human being probably will only exist for several million years. All these mean there is no future, at least no future like what we planned or wished.

Given these facts, what should we do? Where is the hope? The only hope is that we change our expectation, we change our emphasis of future, instead we should emphasis the present, like most of the other animals, and be happy. Actually, from a bigger perspective, there is no prior reason why future is more important than present, and why we care about the future. The only reason is that, as a specie, we have been using this strategy to help us plan, which turns out to be more success in our competition with other animals, and perhaps with each other. But time has changed. Competition with other animal is no longer a concern. Even prosperity, defined as the increase of our population, is not a concern. In the contrary, we need to control our population. What is the concern is our happiness, is our well being, and is to straight out our thought. After considered all this, we should put present as the ultimate emphasis, as the ultimate focus of our value system.

Our existence is a process, a transient process. Present is one point on this process. Emphasizing present is emphasizing this process, and emphasizing our own existence. As we know, happiness is also a process. It is the measure of the well being of our existence. Thus, emphasizing present will be compatible with emphasizing happiness. This will be the central value of our religion. Knowing that things will end, we will not be so unsettled about death. Death only means we will not be in the time range beyond our death, much like we will not be in the place we haven’t visited. But that is okay, because our existence is finite.

As for our planning habit, we will still do, because that is part of our thinking. We still plan, since we know we can live for a finite stretch of time, and we also know after we die, the world still exist, and other people we care about will still exist. That will give us enough reason for planning ahead. But the planning is not for any ultimate future, it is just for the well being and the happiness of the finite future, of the process. At the end, what we emphasize is the process, is the present, is the happiness.

I am sure, if we start to teach our kids about the importance of present, and the finiteness of life, and any other existence, they will have a very different perspective towards life, and they will not be scared by death.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sharing our life experience

Today is Easter Sunday, the most important religious feast in Christendom. As a reflection, this can also be a good day to think about secular humanist principles. In the human history, another major secular system in human civilization is the Confucianism. Confucius answered the question of the purpose of life and the responsibility of life by placing each individual in a huge hieratical social network. Thus, the purpose and responsibility of life is to play your role, and play your role well for your position. As I said, the purpose of life in our secular humanist view is to pursue happiness, to live a happy life. This can be called the principle number one of secular humanism. Here, I propose the principle number two of the secular humanism, that is: “the responsibility of life is to experience your life fully and positively, and share your life experience with other fellow human being, and contribute your life experience to the human experience as a whole”. Now, let me explain why we need this principle number two.

If the principle number one is focused on our individual right, our own personal pursue of happiness, then principle number two is more concerned about our role in this society, thus our responsibility of life. In this sense, it resembles the principle of Confucianism. It puts us in the network of a society. Why we need to emphasize our social role? The final goal is to make our individual selves happy.

As we said before, one way to avoid the empty feeling toward death is to merge ourselves into the society, and to share our experience with others, and feel other people’s experience as part of our own, and to consider ourselves as part of the whole human being. The essence of our existence is our experience in this life. The sum and interaction of our individual experiences is the whole human experience. By considering our individual experience as part of the whole, we can anchor our small existence to a bigger one. As a result, we can sense a continuation of life. I know, after I die, the world will still exist, and the whole human experience, in which I am part of it, will still exist. This is much the same as I go to sleep, I know today’s me will disappear, but tomorrow’s me will be there. I thus go to bed with a comforting assurance. By the same token, if we really feel other people’s existence/experience is part of our own, then knowing other people will still be there after we die will make comfort to our heart. This is why we like to make a focus on our connection to the society at large, and to place ourselves in a bigger perspective.

Secondly, we use the word responsibility, instead of individual right (as in the principle number one). This responsibility is much like the responsibility of Confucianism, to play your role well. Why responsibility? This is to fit into our human psychic. Perhaps, as a result of our evolution, we like some kind of clear cut responsibility and task. In practice, that means, if I finished my task, then I am done, and I don’t need to worry about it any more. That gives us a sense of “ought”, and give us a guidance of what to do in life. It also provides a moral basis for what is right, what is wrong. Fulfilling our responsibility is thus “right”, which makes us feel good, certain, solid and sound. Responsibility is defined in relation with other people. It has a social meaning. The principle number one “to pursue happiness” is purely regarding to our private and individual behaviors, while the principle number two “to contribute to the human experience as a whole” deals with our relationship to the society. Again, this is much like Confucianism deals with our individual existence to the society’s existence. Deep in our heart, if we only deal with our own existence and happiness, and if we also know our individual existence is finite (and actually very short), we will have an unsettled feeling. To get rid of such unsettled feeling and to keep absolute individualism, Christian has invented the ever lasting life, and a direct relationship between me and the God. So, even there, I am not alone, there is also a God. Besides, I will exist forever. Thus, if we get rid of these facts (no God, no eternal life), what we should do to settle our uneasy feeling toward our death and finite existence? The answer is to anchor ourselves to the society. This is done in Confucianism. However, we also like to combine this relationship (and responsibility) with our pursue of happiness, thus this relationship becomes: contribute to our individual experience to the whole experience. In order to contribute it in a good way, we should first have a positive and happy experience of our own individual life.

One problem of Confucianism is the over emphasize of a fixed role, and at the end, it becomes a way to suppress individualism and our personal happiness. In many cases, it becomes a conflict (opposition) between our individual happiness and the interest of the whole society. To avoid that, here we emphasize that, the relationship between the individual and the society is a contribution of our individual to the society. The things we contribute is nothing else, but our own life experience. So, in order to have a good contribution, we first need to live a happy life, to satisfy our own individual needs and desires. The only additional task besides the principle number one, is to share our experience with our fellow human being (in that way, you have contributed to the society as a whole). There is no fixed role as in Confucianism. There are many ways to share and contribute. Publishing a book is sharing, talking to other people is sharing, having an intimate relationship with the person you love is also sharing. The only requirement is to open yourself up, to other people, to the society. Don’t be afraid of close relationship with others. This sharing and contribution can be done in an individually pleasant way. In a sense, this desire to share is probably also built in our human nature through evolution. As a society, we should encourage more flexible and intimate relationships, to facilitate this sharing.
Our responsibility is to live well and share that with other people. Living well is relative, based on our individual conditions. As long as we make the best of our situations, that should qualify as living well. Doesn’t matter how long we lived, and whether we are extraordinary during our life, as long as we have lived fully during our finite life, that should be enough. Thus, everyone, regardless of their conditions, can live well, can fulfill their life responsibility, and thus can die peacefully, and happily.

The essence of our existence is our experience, and the experience occurs at this moment, at now. As long as we live well now, and share that with other people, then not only we are worthy of ourselves, we are also worthy of the whole society. We can die peacefully, because our experience has been shared by other people, and they are part of us, and we are part of them.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The components of love

This is a light topic. I often hear people (especially women) said: now I love that person, or I don’t love him any more. This sounds like to love, or not love is an on or off event, it is a clear cut emotional status. You either love her, or not love her. Our culture also imposes such proposition onto us. But to me, love or not love is a spectrum, with a wide emotional range. To analyze such spectrum will be an interesting endeavor, because it is such an important issue in our everyday life.

My approach is to break down the love into its components. Here, by love I mean the love between man and woman. Why break into components? Well, that is just the standard way of western civilization, analysis means breaking down into components, and study the dynamics of each components. It is much easier to study each individual component than to study the whole. Well, I have not objection to the holistic view of eastern culture. But as the Taosim said: “The Tao is the way, but it cannot be said”. If it really cannot be said, then it is definitely not my business to write about it.

After some careful inspection, it is not difficult to arrive at the following conclusion: the love between man and woman can be broken down into the following three components: (1) the emotional attachment; (2) the emotional affection; (3) sexual attraction. Now, let’s explain and discuss these three components separately.

Emotional attachment means emotionally you depend on someone. You feel safe and calm when you are close to her (or him, from now on, let’s just use her). On the other hand, you feel nervous and lost when she is not around. Basically, she is your care taker. When you are attached to someone, and when you are with this person, your brain releases some hormone to make you feel calm. We learn such emotional attachment when we were young. We were emotionally attached to our mother (or father, grand parents, who ever is your primary care taker). A child might play happily as long as he knows his mother is nearby. But as soon as he realized that her mother is no longer there, he will start to cry. During our evolutionary history, such emotional attachment makes a lot of sense. To survive the wild, you better be close to your mother. It is also what the most of the animal do. However, after we reach juvenile, there will be a painful period of rebellion. The purpose is to break away from your parents, so you can find new emotional attachment from your mate. It will be unlikely that if you still have strong emotional attachment to your parents, you can devote yourself full heartly to your lover. So, it is likely that you will need only one, or can only have one person to be emotionally attached to. If a child is attached to his mother, he is unlikely that he is also very attached to his father, or grand parents. Vise versa. Although the person you feel attached to can change with time, but usually within a given period, that person is fixed. Such feature of attachment will have some implication to the love relationship we discuss here. To be madly in love, you need this emotional attachment. This need for attachment is one of your basic emotional needs. A strong loving relationship should already satisfy this need. As a result, it is difficult to be simultaneously in love with more than one person, as you cannot be attached to more than one person.

As a spectrum, the opposite of emotional attachment is emotional estrange, distance and even hatred.

Affection is just the other side of the emotional attachment. If A is attached to B, then B has the emotional affection (fondness) to A. We feel this emotional affection towards children. We are their care taker, we defend them, do whatever we can for their well being. Children are cute for a reason. In evolution, they become cute just to win our affection, and to win our care. A forever ugly child is probably in big trouble. Affection is what we feel toward other people, is a reaching out action. We like her, want to hold her, and kiss her on the cheek. Unlike the emotional attachment, where only one care taker is enough, here we can be fond of many children, and many people. We are certainly able to like many people, and find them all very cute, and lovely. Since we usually have more than one child, this ability is essential. As a result, we can also “love” more than one person in this sense. Feel fond of each other is the essential first step towards a sexual love between a man and a woman. We feel fond of someone mostly because of physical appearance, or some innocent (“lovely”) behavior, much like a parent towards a child, which makes you feel you can help her, and she is worthy of your help. The affection is often related to cute, or beauty. The beauty is an indicator of a person’s health and intelligence. An average face (very important scoring point in a person’s attractiveness) indicates there is nothing wrong with her gene. A smooth skin indicates she doesn’t carry any disease and the related bacteria. Sharp and clear eyes indicate she is smart. All these beautiful features tell you that (through biological hard wire via evolution) she is worthy of your love. Your loving investment will not be wasted.

The opposite of affection and fondness is disgust. If you feel disgust towards one person, then forget about any loving relationship.

Now, sexual attraction is of course the central part of a man/woman love relationship. Evolutionally, sexual relationship is for the reproduction. We feel someone is sexually attractive, because all the “attractive” features indicate she is very productive. For a woman, the relative small waist, the large hip, and the round breasts, all show that she is biologically productive, a potentially good mate. In a sense, sexual attraction doesn’t even need to be beautiful. The smell of the body scent, the blink of a seductive eye, the moaning of sexual climax, the imaginary of sexual intimacy, all these have more to do with the sexual attraction than an innocent but a beautiful face. In some sense, just to the opposite of emotional attachment and affection, sometime sexual attraction even needs a little bit of strangeness in the feeling. For the male, a bit sense of conquest can be helpful. For the female, a sense of successful seduction can be a component. All these are because, in the ancient time, stealing other people’s mate (“extramarital” sexual relationship) is an important strategy for reproduction, and to be successful in evolutionary competition. Thus, strangeness is a plus, as long as she is productive (meaning attractive). Because of these reasons, a male can certainly have sexual relationship with multiple female, and can also have sex with an attractive stranger. A female can also have multiple sexual relationships. But certainly she is more choosy since she can only bear a child in one year, and it involve a lot of investment. Thus, instead of having many partners, she will be more interested in finding the best one. But overall, a sexual attraction and a sexual relationship doesn’t need to be one by one. This is especially true for man. Also, a component of freshness/strangeness might be necessary in order to have strong sexual attraction. That is why, many studies indicate that the strong sexual attraction wanes down after about one year between partners living together. Biologically that also makes sense. It doesn’t need that much hard work to produce one child, why bother. Besides, after one year, your job is probably done.

Thus, in my opinion, love involves the above three components. Each component has a range. Mathematically, this means love can be described by a vector of length 3. So, it is difficult to say, when exactly you are in love, when you are not in love. It is a gradual process, and the reality can be more complicated than what a simple statement of love or not love can describe (which is a single binary!). For example, the attachment can have some exclusion principle (e.g., you only feel attached to one person), but for the affection and sexual attraction you can feel from multiple objects. Some time, you might loose the sexual attraction to some one (maybe too familiar, so lose the freshness/strangeness component), but you are still emotionally attached to her/him. Or, more strangely, you might not like that person any more, but you can still have occasional good sex. Your mind can turn on from one stage to another, depending on the action.

In the above discussion, I have mainly focused on the biological and evolutional parts. Our culture has certainly made the equation more complicated. For example, a woman might find herself attracted to (which means both attached and with affection to) a man because of his social status and achievement. With time and hard work on her mind, such feeling can even be channeled into sexual attraction. We also make conscious decision to love or not love someone due to social considerations. Such conscious decision can influence our feeling. But still, I believe our biological natures are the strongest factors and all the social factors work only through those biological factors. Our biology and human nature are the hard wires, they are the results of million year evolution, which cannot be changed easily, not even by our culture.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Thinking about death

Death is a forever puzzle and fascinating topic in philosophy, religion and spiritual discussions. It might not be an exaggeration to say that religion is created to answer the question of death. Then what is the question of death? Strictly speaking, it is not even a question, it is just an unsettled feeling. The traditional questions include: What happen after we die? Will the soul linger on after my body decayed? Without my watchful eyes and conscious, will the world still exist? Will everything become an infinite darkness? Where I will be without me? From a secular, natural, and materialistic view, all these questions are nonsense. Without me, there will be no “I”, and we should not even ask: “Where I will be, and What will happen”. Nothing will happen, the world will continue go around without me. I just no longer exist. Our existence is finite, and limited, not just in time, also in space. I didn’t exist before I was born, and I will not exist after I die. Similarly, at this moment, I only exist in the place I sit, in the place I stand, but not in the place at the other side of the planet, actually in 99.99999…% of the planet and the universe. If we don’t worry about my nonexistence in all the other aspects, why should I worry about the time span after I die? So, logically, there is nothing special for the time after I die. But unfortunately, a logical answer like this rarely satisfies the majority of the people. For most people, the question of death, and the fear of after-death is not a logical question, it is an emotional question, it is the fear, it is the sadness. If we want to provide an answer as powerful as the religions answer, then we have to satisfy the emotional needs, to fill the unsettled feeling when people think about death. Our answer, however should be a truthful one, not the traditional religions ones which are based on false hopes and lies.

We have an unsettled feeling about death, because we view this world mostly from our own eyes and perspective, thus, we don’t know how to think about the world without ourselves. In another word, we don’t know how to think about our own nonexistence. We have an unsettled feeling about death, because we longing for infinity, ever lasting, eternalness. . I bet none other animal worry about the death, although they do avoid dangerous death-leading behaviors, but they don’t worry about it for its long term perspective, and then turn to worship something “holy” just to mitigate this worry. Only specie like our human, who can think, does that. This is a by-product of our thinking ability. From the evolution point of view, we are the only specie who developed this capability to worry about our future. This worry, built on our ability to think, allows us for long term planning, which brings us a big edge in terms of survival in specie competition, and in the development of our civilization. But unfortunately, like most philosophical paradox, we extend concepts and vocabularies beyond their applicable ranges. Besides asking what I will do tomorrow, we start to ask what I will do after I die. This of course is wrong. We forget the fact that this long term planning for ourselves should stop at some point. However, even if we know this logically, emotionally we are so use to think about tomorrow, we cannot emotionally grasp the fact that there will be no tomorrow for ourselves, that thought drives us crazy.

Then, what is the answer? (1) Since this is a problem created by our capability to think, we should find an answer by our new thought; (2) Since this is an emotional question, we have to shift our value systems, our longing to adjust our emotional orientation; (3) Since this is a problem originated from only using our personal angle to view and feel this world, (thus we don’t know how to think about this world if we imagine that this personal angle and view disappear someday), we have to change the way to view and feel this world.

Regarding to new thought, and logic thinking, we already pointed out that there is nothing beyond our death. Logically, there is no point to talk about me after my death. That is the end of story. Our nonexistence at other place and other time only emphasizes the importance of our existence at the current place and current time. What we can do is to focus on our current existence, and to live the life to its fullest. As long as we do the things we want to do at this moment, and as long as such things do not inflame harm to other people or our limited future (before we die), then we should do it with our full zest. As long as we embark on such busy activities, and preoccupy ourselves to make ourselves happy, then the sad feeling about death will disappear. One thing worth to be noticed is that the whole point of our effort (or the effort of any religions teaching) is not really to make life good after our death (there is no life after death). Instead, it is just to make us feel good when we think about our death, and the time after our death. So, the whole point is to make us happy at this moment. The focus is now, not after our death. Since we are still alive now, then from the secular and naturalist view, there is hope to solve the death problem, i.e., solve it by finding a way of thinking to make us feel good while we are still alive.

Regarding to the emotional orientation and our value system, the first question we can ask is: why should we long for infinity, for eternal existence. Why that is better than our limited and transient existence? Why we like to be forever? Nothing is forever, nothing is static. Everything is changing, and our death is just part of that changing process, feel happy about it! From the big side, our Cosmo is not static. The whole universe is created from a big bang, and it is keep expanding. In some scenario (maybe not in our universe), the whole universe can go through an expansion and shrinking cycle, from big bang to big crunch. In the small side, we can never step in a same river twice, things change around us. Many insects live for only one day or so, and most bacteria live only for hours or even minutes. So, why resist the change, and why value the infinite? We should value change, we should value transient thing, and we should value present. Good should not be measured by quantity, instead should be measured by quality. As long as we live our life fully, happily, and enthusiastically for every hours, then we have a good life, regardless whether we lived for 20 years or 80 years, or forever.

You might ask, if we value our current life, our current moment of existence, and think and feel it is good, should we want more for the good thing. It is natural to ask for more for the good thing. So, it is natural for longing for more of our good life. Well, to rebut such argument, think about some bad thing in life. Although we strive for happiness in this life, but life is not always 100% happy. There are always sadness, tragedy, and sorrow. Without these negative sides in life, the positive side (the happiness) will not exist. Happiness exists as a measure to drive us to the positive side, to guide our behavior to survive in the life competition. Happiness and sadness, they are the two sides in their dialectical relationship. The religions promise of ever happy life in heaven after your death is an empty promise. There could not be only happiness, without the sadness to support it. If there is one thing which makes you happy, you do it, and do it every moment of your life, then it will quickly cease to be happy. In all the religions teaching, I haven’t seen anything they promised which will really make me happy forever. Honey and Milk? Too much of that might be bad for your health (well maybe after the death, we don’t care about health, then without our body to taste, why honey and milk is any good). 72 angels? That sounds nice. But only because I am lacking of such service in this earthly life. If I have such service in heaven every day, I am sure I will be tired of it very soon. Besides, without body, I cannot enjoy that much. So, thinking this way, life is not just for the good part, life is a struggle, life is a transient experience. Sure, you can be a never tiring fighter, want to fight through life, repeat the process again and again, but would it be nice to lay down, to end the process, and to let the other people, the young and energetic, to fight their own battle? Once a person told me: it is the most terrible and dreadful idea if life is really forever, never an end. As we grow older, less energetic, we really want to have an end.

Lastly, regarding the way to view this world, to experience our life, we can change our concept and practice, so we have a larger perspective, and can connect our experience to other people’s experience. Then, letting other people to fight their life battle, is as good as to let you to fight your life battle again. In a sense, their experience is also your experience. In our current culture, we put a lot of emphasize on individualism. The trouble is, we seem to only have individualism, nothing else. We view the world only from our own individual experience. As a result, if we imagine to lose ourselves (death), then we can no longer find another angle to view this world anymore. That contribute to a puzzle feeling when we think about the death, and a sense of complete lose (which cause sadness and fear). What we can do to avoid such feeling is to find another angle to view and experience this world, to use that as a back up to our own angle. So, in our imagination (thinking process), even if we remove our own angle (imagine we are dead), we can view this world from the other angle. To find this other angle, we need to connect our own feeling to the feeling of other people, to view ourselves as an integrated part of the life experience of the whole humanity (or community). As we have the ability to think and worry about the future (which cause our problem regarding to death), we also have the unique capability for sympathy. We can use this capability to experience other people’s feeling, and to eventually regard other people’s feeling as part of your own feeling, and to treat your own experience (and existence) as part of a larger experience (existence). If we can reach that emotional stage, then although our individual existence will disappear, but the larger existence of the human being (or just your friends) will be there for a much longer time. We will not worry that much about our own death, because we know from the bottom of our heart (emotionally), that the other feeling will continue to be there, and the world will continue to move around.
When we think about tomorrow, and knowing that tomorrow we will still be alive, all we have is a thought, is an assurance that tomorrow I will be there to live and to feel the world. For me, the “current me”, that is just an imagination in my mind (because tomorrow has not come yet). But that is enough to make me feel good and settled at this moment. As we discussed before, the feeling at this moment is what important. Now, if we think about death, the thought that there will be no more me in the future makes me feel not so good at this moment. Now, if we can think about our friend, the persons closest to us, they will still be there after we die, and they will continue to feel the world, and we also know their feeling (almost as much as we know our own), then what is the worry. To the current me, the “me” at this moment, whether tomorrow is me or them to exist doesn’t make that difference. Because they (tomorrow’s me, or your friends) both can only exist in the imagination of the current me, so as long as I can imagine other people’s feeling as well as I can imagine the feeling of tomorrow’s me, then there is no difference, because life’s continuation is guaranteed. So I should care other people as much as I care tomorrow’s me. Here, I am not advocate to abandon individualism and to embrace collectivism or communism. Individualism is still important, as it still fit most naturally to our human nature. However, besides individualism, we should share each other’s feeling, and share them in some deep and even intimate sense. Only that, we can feel that our existence is an integrate part of a larger existence. As a result, our death is not the end of the life experience of the whole. Other people’s life experience is as important, as lovely, as our own life experience. So, to care about other people, to share other people’s feeling, at the end is to the benefit of ourselves, to solve the problem of death, to make the current me happy. In that sense, we can live forever, because we can live through other people’s life. Notice that, other people, and tomorrow’s me, they are both secondary to the current me. They only exist in the mind of the current me. So, the current me is still primary. We first need to care about the current me. Then we can care about tomorrow’s me, then other people. So, this is still individualism, and we still care about ourselves first. We just added the other people’s feeling to the list for things to care and share. So, even if tomorrow’s me die, we still have other people as a continuation, as a back up. Sharing other people’s feeling also expand our life experience, thus there is also a direct benefit to the me at this moment.

To reach such emotional status of caring and sharing other people’s feeling, we need love. Love in its deep sense is care. We might need to live in a more intimate way with our friends, and not be afraid of sharing the intimate moments with our closest friends. This might require a change of our life style, of the way of life. In our current culture, most individual lives in an emotional island. In order for us to feel be the part of the whole, we need to be more intimately connected, to share our emotion. One natural way to share other people’s feeling and care for other is for our kids. The knowledge that our children will live on after we passed away can indeed calm us down. Another possible way to connect to other people’s feeling is to use our natural intimate tendency between man and woman to build such connection. But this might require some fundamental changes in our moral standard. This is interesting, from the topic of death, we have derived some required changes in our way of life.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rise above our human nature ?

In various occasions, I heard the self claimed moralists said: “We should rise above our human nature”. Whenever I hear that, my stomach cramps. I always like to protest. Of course, this statement assumes that our human nature (some time it is called animal nature) is fundamentally bad, and civilization means departure, as far away as possible, from our own human nature, into something higher, something divine. When people say things like that, I don’t know what they are thinking abou the human nature. Maybe they think about killing and manslaughter, maybe they think of Hitler’s death camp, or perhaps they are imaging some filthy sexual vice scenes, or some “sinful” behaviors like cheating and stealing. For them, human nature is a terrible thing. We have this original sin. If we allow it to roar, the earth will become a hell, civilization will collapse. Thus, for them, the number one task of civilization and the institution of morality is to fight the beast of human nature, contain it in the darkest corner in our soul. This sounds like a lofty goal. But to me, this is a wrong goal. A goal which is against our own interest.

Yes, there are aspects of human nature, like the stealing, cheating, killing and all the other violence, which are in conflict with modern civilization. But even these behaviors are evolved as our tactics to survive. Prehistorically, they are “lovely” tactics. Our modern civilization should not be defined as the opposite of human nature, instead it should be defined as a better way to serve our human nature, to serve our human nature as a whole, and to serve the most essential human natures. Our civilization is a massive social structure characterized by its high degree of labor specialization (with its benefits of high efficiency) and commercial trading on top of the specialization. This new social order (in contrast to the prehistoric small tribal life) has significantly increased our productivity and efficiency, thus can satisfy our essential human nature (human needs) much better than prehistoric life style. Unfortunately, this new social order requires us to collaborate in a massive scale with mutual trust and social order, instead of cheating and killing of each other. Thus, our “lovely” surviving tactics of killing, stealing, and cheating, which are the products of million year evolution, might no longer be appropriate. Our evolution process is too slow compared with the social and culture changes, and we have not yet completely evolved into model citizens. But I am sure, compared to our hunting ancestor ten thousand years ago, we are much more tame. We don’t want to kill someone on the street without good reasons. We still cheat and occasionally steal a bit, but what is the big harm? Sometime it might even serve some social needs. It has been said that you cannot survive a single day without lie. The big human tragedies, like the Hitler’s death camp is more a result of civilization went wrong, rather than a result of basic human nature. What important is that through out all these changes, our essential human natures have not changed. These essential human natures and needs include: food, sex and intellectual curiosity. These essential human natures are the basis of our human, they define us. Without them, we are nothing. Satisfying these human needs are the only way to serve our well being, to reach our happiness. The purpose of civilization is to better serve our human being, to satisfy our human needs, it is not the other way around. We should not restrict our human nature just to follow civilization, just to abide the rule. Rule is to the service of man, not the man to the service of rule. Man is human nature.

The statement: “to rise above human nature” implies that there is something else, some thing above our human nature. But there is none. Human nature is the only thing we have, it is the center, it is the basis to define good and bad, correct and wrong. Beyond human nature, there is no direction. How do you know what they said (above human nature) is really above, not below. What do they use as the measure? There is only one thing they can use, that is God, the imaginary God. Yes, if you believe in God, believe in super nature, then everything related to out human selves is filthy, vice and none worthy. Restricting ourselves is the best way to follow God. God is above, is the direction, and what the Bible said is the direction. But what a pitiful life to degrade ourselves to such a low position. What is the fun of living? Why should not we kill ourselves? The trouble in religion is that we cannot even kill (eliminate) ourselves, since our soul will survive! I haven’t seen any recipe to kill the soul yet. A person with such a view will have a very low self esteem, lower than the life of ant. It is a fundamentally miserable life, because they are told to do everything against their nature. They distaste themselves, and cannot even kill themselves. For them, rise above their human nature is their daily struggle, because they are still human, they are merged in human nature.

As we said, God is an illusion, is imaginary. This concept of God has served us before, but it is time to abandon it now. The Bible was written by people, not by God. If there is no God, no deity, no divine, then there is nothing else except human nature. Human nature is at the center, not the God. There is no rise above human nature, because there is not even above. Human nature is the goal, is the thing we need to follow, need to serve. We should do things for the human nature, not against human nature, and not restrict human nature. As the possible conflicts within the set of human natures under the modern setting of civilization (labor specialization and goods trading), like the violence, we have to sacrifice the small part in order to better serve the larger and more essential part. But it is a sacrifice. We have to do it, not we want to do it. But the overall goal is to better serve our human natural as a whole, especially the basic natures, like the food, sex and intelligence. The goal is to make us happy, not to make the God happy.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The phenomenon of religion

Although I promised that I will not spend too much time on arguing why religion is wrong and there is no God, nevertheless it will very be helpful to know why there are so many religions crossing different cultures. The intention of this writhing is to benefit the atheists, not to convince any religious people.

If we look at all the different societies and cultures, almost all the cultures have some kind of supernatural religious thoughts and religion practices. Thus, from an atheist point of view, the “supernatural religions” is a wide spread natural phenomenon. There must be a reason behind this phenomenon. Is that because there is a God like some of the religions claim? Not really, because different cultures believes in different things, and they cannot reconcile among themselves. Some societies believe in a single God, and most societies believe in multi deities, and other societies don’t believe in God, but just other worlds and incarnation life cycles. Obviously all these beliefs cannot be all correct, because they are against each other. It is also difficulty to think there is a unique deity behind all these different religions because they are so different. But there are some commonalities among all the different cultures and religions thoughts. The first is the belief that there is a other world besides the world we see, and hear and touch. In another world, besides the material world we observed from our sense, there is an independent world of soul. All the deities, God, and life spirit live in that world of soul, and soul can exist separately from our material body and material world. Since we never directly observed this world of soul, everything about it is derived and imagined. Very often, we project the character of this material world into that soul world. Thus, there are human like creatures in that world, like gods in Greek mythology, God in Jedo-Christian theology, the thousands of gods in Hinduism, and the heavenly emperor in Ancient Chinese culture. In Chinese culture, they heavenly world and our material world are even mixed together, wage war on each other. Thus, those deities love and hate, behave jealously and are often resentful. They are more like persons grow up in this earth, eating wheat and rice, rather than crystal ball or gaseous creatures. So, this is a second common feature of all the religions: all the deities resemble ourselves, rather than completely alien creature.

Before we explain where do the above two common features come from, let’s first make some comment about them, especially the second feature. Think about it, if there is a other world, purely spiritual world, like the gas drifting in the air (at least that is the picture we get from the modern movies!), then why the creatures living in that world will be like us, the earthly material creatures. They should be very different. Removed from the earthly worries, their mentalities should be very different from us. If things are like what the Jedo-Christian religion believed, that the God is all mighty, infinitely powerful, and infinitely perfect God, then why does he need to be angry so often. Is an always happy and loving God more perfect than an angry God? Angry is not a happy feeling, it hurts yourself. Why does the infinitely perfect God like to hurt himself so often? Logically, there are a lot of holes. A more logical explanation is that all these deities are created by man, they are the projected imagine of ourselves. Looks like our ancestors were not so creative (well, they haven’t watched the modern movies yet!). They have to borrow the characters from everyday life, and put that in their imaginary deities. Now, why bother to create a hidden soul world, if that is so illusive, and we don’t have any direct observation of it. There must be a strong need, and also a strong “evidence” for its existence, that prompted all the cultures derived in the same conclusion. Looks like it is an inevitable result of our human thought, at least in our early human history. Let’s explain why.

Let’s start from a sociology postulation. Let’s call it postulation 1 (rule number 1): a stable and mature society needs to provide an explanation to things happen around them, and believe their explanation (or their overall approach of explanation) can cover everything.

Rule number 1 exists because otherwise this society will be unsettled, and it will not feel mature, and it will not be stable. Without such an official explanation, there will be no authority, hence no stability and society. The official explanation should be selfconsistent, no internal conflict, no loopholes, which means (at least in principle) is should be able to explain everything we know. Achieving such an explanation is always a mile stone in human civilization. It gives us confidence, and the confidence boosts our civilization, and stabilizes our society.

Now, think about 4 to 10 thousand years ago, when the ideas of the soul world were developed. At that time, the knowledge base of our human being is probably equivalent of a modern 8 year old kid. Yes, possibly our brain at that time was already similar than the brain we have now. So, they could be as smart as we are now. But the knowledge base is very limited. There were no accumulation of knowledge, no scientific approach to accelerate our understanding of this world. Given that limited knowledge, if we are forced to give an explanation of the world, what kind of explanation can we come up? Soul, god, demon, deities, these are the best explanation, and pretty good explanation. Why there is a big thunder? Because god is angry. Why I am lucky in hunting? Because god is happy today. Under this theory (or the general approach), everything can be explained by god, or the other world. The theory is powerful because no one can disprove it (the other world is hidden, so you cannot see it). Although it doesn’t have much predictive power, but it has the power of calming down our anxiety, the anxiety of unknown. It makes us feel like we know everything. It boosts our self confidence. In those early days, our rational thoughts and arguments followed a different kind of paradigm compared to today. Today, in order to establish a theory, or an explanation of something, we are asked to compare with experimental observations, and check the predicted sceneries of the theory. In those early days, the requirement was much more relaxed. No prediction was required (who can predict what the god will do next anyway), and all you need to provide is a good story, being self-consistent, and perhaps plausible. The story of soul and gods satisfies these requirements beautifully. Thus, they became the authentic theory of the day. Until the classical Greek time (2500 years ago), Greek people still believed everything has a soul. So a heavy stone falls faster than a light feather because the stone’s heart yearning the ground more than the feather’s heart. What a good explanation, what else explanation do you need? We can see it is easy to provide this kind of explanation to almost everything happen on the earth. That is the power of this theory. There was no natural (without soul of the stone) explanation for the world. People probably never thought about seeking for natural explanations. That was simply impossible in their mind, so why bother. Only the development of science thousand years later (after Renaossance) had boosted our confidence once again. This time, we found that (to our surprise), we can indeed find some natural explanations to many things (from the movement of the planet, to the fall of stone). Now, with the further development of science, the “some natural explanation to many things” have been bloomed into “all natural explanations to everything”, including ourselves, our own brain and our own thought. Such natural explanations are at least possible in principle (which is a view held by the majority of scientists). This is another paradigm of thought, which call for another authentic theory, and another regime in human history. This time the God and soul are no longer needed, they must go.

Well, the world of soul (and consequently the gods) were introduced to explain things thousands of years ago, and that is the best explanation they can provide given their limited knowledge base. But such a big claim must have some other basis, perhaps in some general agreement with their everyday life experience. What kind of experiences make they think the existence of the soul world is plausible? Here, I provide two points: one is the dream, another is our pattern recognition capability. These two things will be enough to make them (even me, if my knowledge base is as limited as they were) believe the soul world exists. Yes, very likely, there could be other “evidences” for them too.

First the dream. Dream is a remarkable phenomenon. Modern medical science has told us a lot about dream. It is a reflex activity in our brain where part of our brain circuitry has been shut down. Apparently, part of our brain still work very hard during our sleep, to repair the damage of our neural cell during the day, and to transfer short time memory into long time memory. The partial stimulation of our memory during our sleep has a dramatic effect, especially if we are waked up during our fast-eye-movement period. Our short time memory still registers those stimulations, thus we remember our dream. 10 thousand years ago, our ancestors didn’t know all these modern medical theory. For most of them, they don’t even know where do they think (is it in the brain or in the heart), or perhaps many people doesn’t even believe themselves “think”. What is “think”? They were not thinking, they just observe, observe the outside world. Things are just revealed to them. So, given such knowledge base and understanding, dream must be a dramatic thing. For them, it is natural to believe what they see during the day is the material world revealed to them, while what they see during the sleep (in the dream) is the soul world revealed to them. Sure, someone else can tell him he was definitely sleeping, but he definitely saw something in his dream, what they saw must be the other world, the world of soul! That is why in many tribes, in their spiritual ceremonies, they use drugs (e.g., mushrooms) to induce illusions, because they believe such dream like illusion is the tunnel to the other world. That is the evidence. Indeed, very solid evidence and hard evidence. Such evidence can certainly seed the idea of soul and the hidden other world.

Second, the pattern recognition. The first intellectual tool the evolution provided to us is not rational logic derivations and thought, instead it is our capability of pattern recognition. This pattern recognition is a result of massively parallel process of our brain cells, it is also the basis of our intuition. As a more ancient intelligence, it not only exists in our human, but probably also exist in most brains of the animals. Actually that is probably why the animals also need a brain, not to be used to solve a math problem, or to have a rational argument with each other, but to be used for pattern recognitions for their survival. Pattern recognition helps them to recognize something, and to remember that thing. Next time, if similar things happen, he will be stimulated, and proper action will be taken. Pattern recognition search for patterns in an otherwise complicated and almost random data set. This is critical to our survival while living in a complicated world (nature is both dangerous and chaotic). It is particularly useful for us to avoid danger. But such over active function sometime can misfire, causing false alarm. Usually that is not a big deal. You run away from a shadow which might look like a predator (like we often do when we were kids), no big harm. That is better than missing the sight of a tiger. Our over active pattern recognition misfire can also be demonstrated by reading of the cloud, into all different animals. However, such misfired pattern recognition can re-enforce some of our misconceptions once they are conceived. Basically, in a complicated environment, supporting evidence is easy to find with a biased mind. Our pattern recognition capability provides us with that biased mind driven by our eagerness to find the evidence. For example, the work of deity is often described by some amazing coincidence, they can even be called miracle, deem to be unlikely by natural explanation. However, most of such coincidence is just coincidence, not really so unusual. For example, if you just thought about a friend, then the phone ringed, and your friend has called you. You might think there must be some supernatural connection here between you and your friend, some kind of telepathy mind reading. Such thinking certainly will boost your believe in the mysterious other world (the soul world). But actually, this is just the work of your pattern recognition capability, which makes you remember such seemly rare event. But thousands of thought passing your brain each day (ever thought probably pass it less than one second). For most of them, nothing happen (e.g., for your day dreaming or yearning of someone, most of time, the person never call you). But your pattern recognition capability let you to forget about those thoughts quickly (without a trace), but remember only the things that happen (unusually). By capture the unusual things, the brain can search out some pattern and order in the otherwise disordered world. They, these events are indeed unusual, rare events. But based on the massive base events (e.g., the thoughts passing through your brain), they bound to happen. Statistically, there is nothing magic about it. But most people take that as small miracle, and hence develop a tendency to believe in miracle and supernatural things, thus a tendency to believe in soul and the other world (all these believes are mutually connected, and support each other). Superstitions (believing in magic instead of natural logic) are often built on the daily results of such false pattern recognitions. For a superstitious person, magic is fill his life, the existence of magic (and hence mysterious soul and other world) is self-evidence, because he experience it almost everyday. But in reality, what he experienced is the false alarm of our pattern recognition capability.

In summary, religion is developed as a way to explain things surrounding us. It is a very good explanation in the rational paradigm of the ancient time. The belief of the hidden soul world is also “supported” by the dream (and other ways of illusions) and the false alarms of our pattern recognition capability (which makes us tend to believe in magic). As a result of all these, religion became an almost universal phenomenon in all the cultures. But time has changed, our knowledge base has increased dramatically. Nowadays, the scientific natural explanation to things happen surrounding us is the norm, not the explanation based on soul and deity. Our rational paradigm has also changed. We are no longer satisfied by fairy tale stories, instead we demand evidence and prediction power for each theory. This calls for a corresponding change in our spiritual world. A change to replace religion with a new value/moral system, a system based on natural explanation, based on the value system of ourselves, that is the secular humanism value system.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The purpose of this blog

This blog is a result of the 2008 new year resolution. I decided to write one article every Sunday when religious people go to church. I will just write whatever goes through my mind within this one hour time. As an atheist, I think we need some spiritual life ourselves. Spiritual life doesn’t mean believing in any supernatural things, other worldly soul and God. Instead, it just means some thoughts about the big questions in life: e.g., the purpose of life, the goal, and meaning of life, our value system, the moral and ethic standard, and how to face death, how to regard fate, etc. Overall, it is exactly to answer the question of “what should we do in this life?”

As a scientist, rational and scientific argument is my approach. It is often said that science can only answer how do things work, the “how” question, but cannot answer what should we do in this life? The question of “should” is traditionally answered by religions. But if we do not believe in God, it doesn’t mean we cannot answer the “should” question. As I will argue in the future, the “should” question is often related to the “How” question. Thus, our life, our emotion, our life goal can all be analyzed by scientific means. All we need is a starting point, the basis for the “should” question (mathematically the task function). Then, everything else will follow as an optimization problem which can be studied by scientific approach, by the “how”.

Then, what is the “task function” of our life? The answer will inevitably be a choice. There is no absolute “must”, rather it is a choice based on our free will, and our human nature. Even though there is no “must”, but if we answer it based on our human nature, there can be a very natural answer, an answer 99% of the population will agree. As a result, functionally this answer can serve almost like a “must”. In another word, it can have the authority and “divine” power like the religions ones derived from God. To arrive at this secular/natural answer (task function), let’s first ask: For whose interest are we seeking the answer for? Obviously, we are seeking the answer for ourselves, for our own interest. Then, naturally the answer should be based on our own interest. So, the first answer is: the purpose of life is to satisfy our own interest. This is also supported by the fact (which we can prove) only we (the natural world, including animals) exist in this planet and world. There is no God, no soul, and no other world. Thus, our purpose is not to support and satisfy the need of other super species, like the God. In another word, the goal is based on ourselves, not any thing else, not God, not other world creature.

Then, what is our interest? Almost by definition, our interest is our well being, and our well being is to maximally satisfy our needs, our human nature. Thus, the central doctrine is: the goal of our life is to maximally satisfy our human nature. This is the doctrine of secular humanism. We need to build our “should” question based on this central doctrine. In a sense, that is what I want to do in this Blog. To build the “should” based on this central doctrine under rational scientific approach.

Currently, there is a lively debate between religionist and the atheist. To me, it is obvious that the religions belief is out of date. There is abundant of evidences (or at least hints) to show that the supernatural religions belief is wrong, does not correspond to reality. The relative flourishing of religion in countries like U.S. is really amazing. People go a long way to defend their beliefs, often twist their arguments to a ridiculous degree which they will never do in their daily lives. For a religious person, there is a strong emotional attachment between him and his belief, much like a person in love. This emotional attachment blinds his ration. Why there is such an attachment? One reason is that there is a deep need in human psyche for a meaning of life, and to receive spiritual support. Religion gives them that support. Unfortunately, the current atheist movement spends most time to prove why religions belief is wrong, God doesn’t exist, but doesn’t provide an spiritual system to replace the old religions system, to satisfy this fundamental need of people. This by itself is against the central doctrine of humanism. Here, I will spend most of my time trying to establish this new spiritual system based on humanist principle.