Wednesday, October 13, 2004

a devil's chaplain

I ordered a book called "The Devil's Chaplain" by Richard Dawkins from Amazon.com about a week ago, and it arrived today. And I've noticed to my delight that the chapters are broken up into small chunks that only take about 10-15 minutes to read--perfect for just a bit of inspiration and quiet reflection. True, I've been inspired by most of what I've read by Dawkins: "River out of Eden," "The Blind Watchmaker," and "Unweaving the Rainbow" but the chapters in those are a bit long to read in single sittings.

I've just finished the first section, titled, like the book, "A Devil's Chaplain." I have to say it was a bit hard for me to read--it causes me to think about things that I'd really rather forget. First of all, he points out how the phrase "devil's chaplain" was coined by Darwin in response to all the cruelty and waste that he found in nature, things that made it impossible for him to believe in an intelligent and benevolent creator God. Things such as the Ichneumonidea larvae which feed inside the living bodies of catapillars--keeping the poor creature alive simply as a source of fresh as a source of fresh live meat. Natural selection in itself is neither kind nor cruel--but it is incredibly indifferent. Especially this is hard for me as a Pantheist, with my tendency to want to idealize nature.

This realization has caused many to reject evolutionary theory out-of-hand, as if reality would conform itself to our preferences. If you don't like reality, should you just stick your fingers in your ears and say "Na, na, na, I can't hear you!!" At the other extreme, some have said that if this is the way nature operates, then it is how human society should operate. This is the infamous theory of social Darwinism, which commits in this case what is known as the naturalist fallacy: that natural=good. But there is still hope.

To quote Dawkins,

There is no inconsistency in favoring Darwinism as an academic scientist while opposing it as a human being; any more than there is an inconsistancy in explaining cancer as an academic doctor while fighting it as a practicing one. For good Darwinian reasons, evolution gave us a brain whose size increased to the point where it became capable of understanding its own provenance, of deploring the moral implications and of fighting against them.


Just because a wasteful and indifferent process lead to our existence doesn't mean we should be wasteful and indifferent. Ironically it was this same process that lead to our ability to speak, and to make art, and to make sense of the world around us. It even lead to our ability to empathise with the plights of others, the ability which is so lacking in natural selection. Science is really strange sometimes.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

How I know I'm a Pantheist

  1. I take both pride and humility knowing that I'm made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe.
  2. And that this stuff was make in the stars. As Carl Sagan would say, we are starstuff contemplating starstuff.
  3. Attempts to anthropomorphize the universe, or suggest an anthropomorphic source behind it all, are incredibly irritating to me.
  4. The suggestion that events like eclipses happen for our benefit alone also irritate me. They happened long before we were here and will continue even if someday there are not humans to see them. Though I am very pleased and honored to have seen a few for myself.
  5. I have two favorite places on the UofL campus: in the administrative building next to the Foucault Pendulum, and the Planetarium. These feel more sacred to me than any church building.
  6. I can't help thinking of stargazing as a form of worship.
  7. The universe is sacred to me. And humanity is no less sacred. We are all, after all, part of the universe. (I'm also a humanist, this is part of the reason why.)
  8. I feel humbled and awed when I look at the Andromeda Galaxy and think about how the light we see from its far edge is older than humanity.
  9. I do not see human Evolution as degrading to humanity, as so many people I know see it. I think that if you say it is insulting to humanity to say we are animals, and that we are made of matter, then you have seriously underestimated the wonder in both animals and matter. The human evolutionary tree is only further acknowlegement that we are a natural part of the universe.

If anyone thinks that I must be an atheist and I'm just hiding behind pantheism, you are wrong. At least you are wrong if you think I'm hiding. As far as all the religions that believe in a literal supernatural god that has human qualities (mind, love, anger, self-awareness, etc), I am most definitely an atheist. I believe in no god higher than the natural world. Pantheism to me is the simple acknowledgment of positive attitudes about the natural world that compliment my atheistic viewpoint. I think this is what it means to be a Scientific/Naturalistic Pantheist.




Title change

I've decided to shorten my title to "bits of starstuff." Not to worry though, I'm still a pantheist and a freethinker. ;) I just like this better as a title.

Friday, October 08, 2004

I'm an Aunt :)

My sister just had a baby! Mom called me a few minutes ago to tell me that Alexa had been born, about 8 pounds too! Unfortunately they live in Oregon and I can't be there, but I'll be expecting pictures soon.
BTW, my sis is a freethinking Buddhist/Pagan so I expect Alexa will have a good upbringing ;)

Here are the stats:
ALEXA ROSE
19 INCHES LONG
8 LBS 2 OZ
HOME BIRTH

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Life after death?

Where do people get the idea that life is meaningless if there is no afterlife? We don’t exist before we are born, then we are born and live out our lives, and then we die and go back to nonexistence. Life has a beginning and life has an end. Just like everything else.

Ok, I’m still mulling over what I heard someone say at SMART last Sunday. I don’t remember the exact quote but the idea was like this: “If we just die and go to nothing, why would people bother risking their lives for other people? In the end it wouldn’t matter, would it?”

I think it was intended as a rhetorical question, but I couldn’t resist replying. I said that people are willing to risk their lives for people and things because they matter to them now, not because they are permanent.

I think of it this way: If you plant a tree, people may sit in its shade 500 years from now. Or fifty years from now it might be cut down so a shopping center could be built where it stood. So, if the future generation prefers shopping over sitting in the shade, was it a total waste of your time and effort to plant the tree in the first place? I’d say not!
But even if the tree lasts a thousand years, someday it will die, and so will all the people who sat in its shade, and soon no one will remember that it was ever there.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t plant the tree, just because you know that it won’t last forever? I don’t think so. Who cares if your contribution will matter in 500 or a thousand years? It matters in the here and now!

More thought about life and death come from one of my favorite freethinkers, Carl Sagan.

Ann Druyann, the wife of Carl Sagan:
"Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever." (Barker 1998)

This is directly in line with what Carl Sagan said himself in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
"If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy." (Sagan 1996)

Amen.


Barker, Dan. "Life After Death." Freethought Today April 1998 <http://ffrf.org/fttoday/1998/april98/barker.html> Accessed Oct 6, 2004

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Books, 1996

Monday, October 04, 2004

Rough days, and how to deal with them

This had been a rough day.

To start out, this morning I was putting in my contact lenses as I usually do. The right one went in fine, but when I put in the left contact my eye burned like there was onion juice in it. I splashed water in it and the burning went away, but I never found the contact lens. I was concerned that it might have got stuck under my eyelid, but I decided it wasn’t bothering me enough to skip classes to go to the eye doctor. So I just wore my glasses.

My first two classes, Management and Database, went fine as usual. Though I used the Management class to study for a test I had later in the day.

I had signed up for an informational meeting with UPS to find out details about CIS co-op positions that they want to fill in the spring. That whole meeting went alright, though I may not be eligible if my brother works for UPS (I think he does but I’m not sure.) The person who led the meeting said I wouldn’t be eligible if a close family member worked for UPS anywhere in the world. So that meeting might have been a waste of my time. Oh well.

The roughest part of the day was the test. Though I’ve been doing pretty well on my tests this semester, on this one I know I did terrible. There was a whole chapter I’d forgotten was on the test. On a long computational part that made up 25% of the grade, I kept messing up and having to do parts over. I didn’t get finished in time, and I’ll feel lucky if I got a C. I could have cried. At least I talked to a few of my classmates afterward about it, and at least I have the consolation that I wasn’t the only one in the class who had trouble with this test.

After I got home, I went to the eye doctor. Turns out that I’d irritated my eye, but there was no contact lens stuck under my eyelid. So he just wrote me a prescription for some eye drops to take care of the irritation and make sure there is no infection. So that was good for my piece of mind, at least.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t write this blog just to gripe. I also want to write about how I’ve learned to deal with days like this. First, a little perspective:

A irritating as certain events have been to me today, there was nothing earth-shattering. The episode with the contact lens just cost me an irritated eye, a trip to the eye doctor, and some money for the exam and a prescription.

And even if I totally flunked the test, it’s not the end of the world—not even of my CIS major. It only means I need to work harder to prepare for the next test, and it may mean that that highest grade I can hope for in the class is a B. Big deal.

If I don’t get a co-op at UPS, there are other job opportunities I can shoot for.

The irritating things that happened today will not haunt me or anyone else for the rest of my life. I still have my health and my sight, and there will be other tests, other job opportunities. I can be thankful for my boyfriend, for the stars, and for the fact that I have the chance to try and reach my potential. Life goes on.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

First Unitarian Church

I just got back from church. This is the second Sunday I’ve gone to First Unitarian Church in Louisville, and so far I absolutely love it. This is the first church where I’ve been able to honestly express my beliefs in religious matters and not worry about fitting into some kind of creed or dogma. Not that everyone agrees with what I have to say.

This morning in SMART (Sunday Morning Adult Round Table, the adult “Sunday School”) we were discussing the issue of what Unitarian Universalists believe about life after death. There were a variety of views, though quite a lot of them expressed a belief of some kind of reincarnation. There was a lady who had had a “near death experience” when she was 12 (she is over 70 now). Her husband is a skeptic however. About NDE’s and telepathy and all that, he says “It’s all bunk!” There were also a handful of scientifically minded people, like myself.

Most everyone in the room wrote down their thought on life after death and read them to the group. As I was the first one to express a naturalistic view, it was a bit of an intimidating experience, but I welcomed it. Here is what I wrote:

“I do not believe that an individual’s personality exists any longer after they die. I have a naturalistic point-of-view that is very skeptical of any claims about the supernatural. About the claims of clairvoyance and telepathy and such, I have yet to hear of one that could stand up under the skeptic’s test. I would be happy to change my position if new good evidence could be found.

“Since I don’t believe that out personalities exist after we die, it means that our moments of life are limited [in number] and extremely precious. They must not be wasted.”

It was an interesting experience for me to discuss such a religious and emotionally-charged issue in such a diverse group. It really made me think about what it is that I really believe, though it did not cause me to change my mind. What was really great was how everyone was supportive and respectful, even about the disagreements. We are all just trying to find our way, and that is understood.

I don’t know what I’m going to do yet when my parents come back from their trip—whether I will continue going to the UU church or if I will go back to theirs. Actually, I really think I would prefer staying with the UU’s, but I will have to decide how to break the news to Mom.

The Goddess of Love and The Little King

Venus and Regulus (Latin for "little king") made a lovely couple this morning. I saw them shortly after I woke at 7am, when the sky is already starting to glow with sunrise. I'd forgotten that I gotten and e-mail alert saying that Venus and Regulus would be together in the morning sky, and at first I thought I was seeing a reflection in the glass. Then I took a look outside and still saw that Venus had a companion. No other stars were visible in the area.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Explanation of my Title

i might as well explain the meaning of my title.

starstuff: we are all starstuff. We are actually made of elements that were forged inside the cores of ancient stars, and expelled into the universe in great novas and supernovas. Cool, no? I have a great deal of interest in astronomy, and many a clear dark night you will see me outside. Sometime with my telescope--a Meade ATX-90--and sometimes with only my reclining lawnchair. I love the stars, and I've always loved being out at night.

pantheism: more of the above. I've gone though a few religious phases in my life. Christianity--of the evangelical, semi-fundamentalist type), the religion in which I was raised. Then questions and agnosticism, atheism, and most recently I've been exploring pantheism. Naturalistic pantheism, that is. It's not like I've converted away from atheism, just that I've come to realize that my beliefs about nature--especially the night sky--make pantheism very compelling to me. The Universe is Divine.

freethought: As my mother put it, "no bondage to thought." (Although she does not quite understand what freethought means, I think.) A freethinker is a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, not religious (or other) dogma. In fact, freethinkers are suspicious of the idea that faith should even be considered a way to knowledge. By faith I mean unquestioning belief in the absence of, or in spite of, proof. When I say "faith" I don't mean "hope," or "trust," or anything like that that I've heard Christians call faith. None of this nonsense about faith being equated with a belief in a chair--that it will hold you up when you sit in it. Like what I was taught in Sunday School.

Anyway, if you want to know more about me, I also have a website at http://www.louisville.edu/~michil02/. Of course, I will have to find some other place to keep my website after I graduate . . . but I'll deal with that later.

A new thing . . .

This is my first attempt at writting a web blog.
Why am I doing this? Sometimes I get these thoughts floating around in my head--most recently thoughts about pantheism, the coming presidential election, my boyfriend, the war in Iraq--all kinds of things that I get the urge to write and talk about. I think that a blog will help me to express and refine my thoughts. Even if my thought draw criticism, that will only help me to hone and refine my views.
So here is my first attemp at a blog. I hope you like it.