Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reason to Live

I've come by the question from believers (and non-believers too, probably) who ask about the purpose of life from someone who doesn't believe in life after death. I think I've finally articulated something that expresses my response to that kind of question. This was written and developed as I thought of it one day, and while it isn't proper English it does, hopefully, convey the depth of thought I was getting at:

Secular Response To The Purpose of Life Question

Is not unlike a pillar holding up a frame, a pillar of influence that holds the framework of our race.

Through our entire life, we have a sense of doing something important; of being someone of note, to leave our legacy to those who will follow.

We begin with a foundation; the early years in our lives of which the stones of our Pillar of Influence are carved from the mass of potential from our race. We are each restricted and bound in many ways to the types and limitations of those specific stones that we claim as our own, or of which have been set for us. Each stone represents a part of who we are: our sense of humor, tolerance, our will... everything that is us, is shaped and molded and finally placed at the empty spot that is to become our life, our Pillar of Influence.

As we live, we grow and rise in our environment from our foundation to something more. Each moment adds more and more onto our pillar, each moment adding to the history of what we were, what we have done, who we have influenced, and why we have done; each moment helps to plan for where we are going and how our pillar is shaping up. We rely on our foundation for guidance, but we have the potential to exceed and redefine how we build our pillar.

Dramatic events in our lives may change, alter, crack or even completely reshape our pillar. Dramatic events in the lives of others will also influence our own pillars, but never in quite the same way. Some pillars will never be influenced by our own pillars, but will influence our own quite profoundly. We will always be influenced by other pillars, for that is the very nature of our existence: for we are not solitary things, but things that grow when there are multitudes of us. We always see those pillars around us that we choose to see, and some that we don't even know are there, even if we do not want to see them.

When we stop growing, we end the creation of our history by our own efforts, but it is the legacy of our influence that we hope continues on in our place. Even if we no longer grow and influence by doing actions or speaking words, our influence, however small, adds to the history and to that which defines our race: our legacy of individual influence continues to shape that which will be. We are not one. We are many, and our strengths and weaknesses are reflected between ourselves over and over again, unbound by generation or any physical limitation.

We stand as one. We stand as many. We stand as a thing held and supported by that which has come before us. We stand as the inspiration and influence for that which comes after us. By the influence of those before us, we shape the future in front of us. We are nothing more and nothing less than the individual Pillars of Influence which support what we call humanity.

And thus I present my answer to that question: The Pillars of Influence.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Understanding the Prefix

Language and Concept

Language is an interesting thing. While we use it as a tool to convey complex thoughts like how to build something or go somewhere, it seems like it fails at some level to really and fully express abstract thoughts. When we look at something, there are dozens or hundreds of little aspects about that thing which we can draw upon to identify it and its role. When that identification is complete we associate that object and particular attributes with a word or label for future reference. These labels serve us very well, almost all the time, especially when dealing with objects.

We seem to have a communication problem with the more abstract things in our lives. Ask someone to explain their concept of self or creativity, and you might be stuck for a while. And then there are the problems with expressing emotion; "Words just aren't enough", or "words cannot express...", and the like. Philosophers have been playing with this for a very long time I would think, and it almost seems like we are hindered by our own slow and clumsy tool which is the primary one we use, frustratingly enough, for getting those concepts from one person to another.

I also note the irony in trying to talk about the problems and limitations of using language to describe abstract thoughts ... by... using.... language to convey these abstract thoughts. Quite amusing.

Theism, Atheism, and Agnosticism

So how does that influence the topic of religion? Well, first off, the feeling theists try to hold up as validation for their continued belief: "feeling the Holy Spirit". How can anyone even try to express what that is when our language is clearly inadequate? Usually they don't, or will say you have to experience it yourself-and that holds true for anything, really: emotional states... like love, or depression or other extreme emotions. That tangent will have to wait. The problem with language and labels as it relates to religious topics can be addressed on a basic level.

The way we try to deal with the abstract concepts in language is to construct labels. When someone mentions that a particular person is very beautiful, we don't automatically start trying to gauge the person's aesthetic qualities to the standards of the commentator-we assess that beauty with our own concept of the label "beautiful". This seems to be one major problem with religious debates, at least on an "average Joe" level with the general public. Defining theism, atheism, agnosticism, and a few other key words (like theory vs scientific theory-another tangent for another time), creates an initial rift or gap between the different debating parties because everyone is using their own concept of the words. Bridging that gap will go a long ways in avoiding misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and probably saving a number of those parties from being frustrated with the other.

So let's examine the words and some of the common arguments I've seen used with them:

Theism - belief in the existence of a god. This is a positive statement-a label that affirms acceptance or agreement with what the label is assigned to: belief in god(s).

Atheism - disbelief in god(s). This is a negative statement against the primary label of "theism" because of the prefix "a". This means that the word is a label founded on the first word to which the prefix applies.

What is a prefix? A prefix is an affix which is placed before the stem or base of a word, which then modifies that word and creates a new meaning that is derived from that first word. The prefix does not make a completely different word that has no relation to the first word because that simply isn't how our language works. Some examples: the "un-" in unkind or "pre" in prefix. In those examples, the "un" means not, and expresses the opposite of "kind" which could also be replaced with other words and labels that are associated with being unkind, like "mean". With the word "prefix", the "pre" means before the affix, which will then modify the affix.

What is the problem?

Many theists claim that those who don't believe/accept their position of belief in a god, and who then call themselves atheists, are making a claim that the theist's god doesn't exist. Why are they taking this position? Primarily, I believe this is an intellectually dishonest tactic to try and force the non-believers into the position of having to validate "their claim", or shifting the Burden of Proof, so the theist doesn't have to validate anything themselves. This is called a Strawman logical fallacy. The theist is misrepresenting (intentionally or otherwise) the position of the other person and then attacking that misrepresentation to make a distraction from the point(s).

The reason this is a misrepresentation is because of what the prefix does to the word. The prefix "a" modifies the word to make a new meaning, but it doesn't have anything to do with making a claim against the base/stem word. Here are some examples:

Symmetrical vs Asymmetrical
The prefix "a" does not imply the non-existence of symmetry, it describes the opposite, or state of being "not", of the affix: symmetrical.

Moral vs Amoral
When someone is described as amoral they are "without" morals, and not claiming that morals somehow don't exist.

There are many other examples to demonstrate this relationship, but that should do. Validation comes from the origins of the word itself; the Greek prefix "a" means "without". With regards to the base/stem word "theism", the prefix "a" modifies that word to mean "without god" or "not believing".

The word "theist" breaks down to "theo" (meaning "god") and "ist" (suffix that means "one who practices").

The word "atheist" breaks down to "a" (meaning "without") and "theist" (one who practices/follows a belief in a god or gods).

Theism/Atheism vs Gnostic/Agnostic

Another misconception about these labels is a basic understanding of what they actually represent in a position. Theism and atheism are statements of belief, not affirming knowledge of one thing or another. gnostic and agnostic are statements regarding knowledge. Most people will recognize that their religious or non-religious position is a combination of both of these statements: a gnostic theist affirms that they believe in their god because they know it is real, while an agnostic theist would say they believe the proposition of a god is true but do not claim they know it for sure. The agnostic atheist does not believe in gods, but allows for the possibility of such entities, while the gnostic atheist doesn't believe in such things and further affirms that they do not exist.

Richard Dawkins expanded this concept a little more in his book The God Delusion by making a numerical scale of seven. The first being a "Strong Theist " who knows gods exist, fourth being a "pure Agnostic", and seven being "Strong Atheist" that affirms with 100% certainty that gods do not exist.

Regardless of which position is taken, there must be a statement of opinion/affiliation, and to what degree to form a foundation for any debate or argument. For that, we have two labels for each aspect (belief and knowledge) that defines the person's identity.


Every time someone says atheists must validate their position, or asks how atheism can be true/proven, they are either mistaken or deliberately trying to use fallacious logic to deflect/distract the argument.

One great example is a notorious YouTube user by the name of "ShockOfGod". He has a question he always asks: "What is your proof that Atheism is accurate and correct?". This is the kind of thing that promotes intellectual dishonesty and it spreads like cancer among a people who are used to not questioning or validating anything. Belief or non-belief in something is a statement of opinion, not a statement of knowledge-which means proving an opinion is a meaningless and impossible proposition. That question needs to be addressed to the individuals who claim gods do not exist because they are actually making a positive claim that requires validation.

As with any other hot topic of "our day", which ever generation/culture/location that may be, understanding one's position is a combination of belief and knowledge statements. Once there is an understanding by all parties, the discussion can be all the more productive.