Friday, February 10, 2012

To understand Nature's hid causes

Happy, who had the skill to understand
Nature's hid causes, and beneath his feet
All terrors cast, and death's relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.

I know that I am getting old by the fact that I listen to Radio National rather than JJJ. Apart from making me feel old I have to say the I do enjoy listening to RN. In contrast to television, radio seems to have more time thus allowing a broad wide ranging discussion of events and ideas. Unlike some sections of our society, I am also quite happy to listen to ideas that are different to my own regrettable and hackneyed notions. Indeed hearing the other voices often forces me to perform a revaluation of my thoughts, my values. Sometimes I feel I can quite happily ignore the other ideas, sometimes I am compelled to modify what I currently think, and on occasion I am forced to reconsider and to abruptly and firmly change course. Without doubt this is a good and mature position to take, and more importantly it shows that democracy, being synonymous with diversity, is something greater than the puerile shadowplay of media regurgitation, party politicking or mindless voting between Shem and Shaun.

So a few days ago I was listening to RN. Between cooking dinner, and responding to the endless chatter of three young children, I heard an interchange between an interviewer and his interviewee that gave me pause. As part of a broader conversation of some French intellectual (whose name to my sorrow, I did not catch, I plead in my defense that

I am getting old, and suffer in a minor but still inconvenient way from industrial deafness) calling for a 'temple' to be constructed by and for atheists. Whether this may or may not be a good idea, I am not in position to say. It did bring to mind images of the Culte de la Raison (Cult of Reason) during the French Revolution. What did get my attention was the general and rather casual agreement to the idea that Atheism is always a negation, is no more than negation. This is considered to be common sense, but is, in truth, a cliche, a triviality raised to heights of a profundity. This comment is what forced me to my keyboard.

At first glance it may seem that atheism is in fact a negation, and this my more pedantic readers will point out can be clearly shown by the use of the Greek prefix a-, which of course means no, or not, or even without. One does not have to dig too deep to grasp that this prefix connotes negation. And everyone agrees quite clearly that atheism means without God. It therefore then may seem obvious that Atheism is a negation. However to my mind Atheism is in reality not a negation, but rather an affirmation, and it is Theism that is the negation.

What does atheism affirm? In a word, humanity. All that is solid melts in the air and we are forced to confront the reality of the cold wind of outer space, and of our singposted world, and of uncaring nature. In such a universe we are alone, and naked and scared we must comprehend our smallness and our frailness in the face of almost infinite emptiness and disdain. To my thinking, and I this will not true for all atheists, it is this lack of an afterlife that has made me less, not more willing to support; for example, war, punishment, violence. Indeed atheism makes me cling more closely to my fellow, as Doctor Who would say, stupid apes. This lack of belief in an aftelife has made me less likely to join in the periodic frenzy of demagogic vengeance. I am not able to proudly wear the tee shirt with the lovely slogan 'Kill them all, let God sort 'em out.' While it is equally true that not all theists would endorse such a slogan, this is not the place to argue this point.

In a world where God does not intervene in history and human affairs we are left to our own devices. We are left to figure out for ourselves how the world works and what is the true history of the universe. In the days of the ancient Greek natural philosophers there were those who noted that Ethiopian gods had black skin and curly hair, and so asserted that if cows had a god it would look like a cow. Some of these thinkers were able to approximate the correct size of the Earth. Some of these thinkers could see that the fossilised shells found on the tops of mountains proved what we would later call evolution. How bold were these thinkers, who mocked the polytheism of their day, compared to some of our current fundamentalist thinkers who make a show of public piety, and who view fossils as tricks of God (or the Devil) to test our faith! What an absurd idea that God would plant false evedince in the ground as a joke, as a 'pop quiz', and how difficult to have a rational discussion with such thinkers.

To see professional athletes and entertainers publicly thanking God for their good fortune seems to me to show a remarkable lack of balance concerning the role of God. While millions of children die needlessly every year, it must be the height of arrogance to think that God, rather than saving these poor children, thought it best to make sure an over payed individual received even more accolades and success.

To stand on our own feet and to see the world as it truly is, is the affirmation that atheism stands for. To assume that there are no interventions in the natural world and human history by God, has allowed us to move from the medieval slumber that was the Age of Faith, has allowed the phenomenal growth in wealth and longevity that we enjoy today. Knowing that it is penicillin, which was investigated and discovered and produced by real living humans, rather than prayer that will cure illness is the affirmation that atheism gives us. Knowing, in broad strokes, the way in which life in it's dazzaling complexity developed is the affirmation of atheism. Knowing that there is no God to stop the sun and make it dance in the sky, but rather that all stars are formed from the gravitational forces within interstellar clouds of dust and organic compounds is the affirmation of atheism.

It would be pointless of me to try to prove that all scientists are without religious faith. But it would be equally foolish to try to prove that even the most religious of all scientists does not 'suspend belief' while working in their laboratories. That is to say a scientist can not, after testing various compounds on the stereotyped guinea pig, affirm that it was prayer that cured the cancer.

And it would be foolish of me to say that all atheists are lovely people who would never harm a fly, or that they are able to free themselves from superstition and generalised human stupidity and greed. I can however happily say that when I see the world around me, when I look down the microscope, or I look upwards through the telescope, I see not God (nor Gods) but rather a rational unfolding of physical laws. An unfolding of not only rational laws, but also the creation of a vast co-operative conversation across national borders and across time, which I can comprehend, and be swept up in, and hopefully extend. When there is posited a god who intervenes at random moments in history with unexplainable miracles this rationality falls apart, and I no longer have the ability to grasp the world as it truly stands. This falling down of rational understanding and co-operative enquiry is the negation that theism gives us.

Aristotle once described the good life, the life of virtue as being friendship and the desire for knowing. This is the affirmation of atheism that I affix to my banner. All we have is each other, are hands and our brains. The search for love, and the questing after knowledge are the only worthwhile goals of life. I can love my family and my friends, I can love the other, I can seek to extend creativity and my understanding of the world without having recourse to any sort of God.

I want the grandness of my world, of my universe to be teeming over with life, change, and constant contradiction. This is the affirmation of atheism. I can not, even with the strong religious upbringing that my parents gave me, see theism as being anything but an attempt to stultify and proscribe, to say that this is how it is and how it must be for all time. This to me is negation of the wonderful, terrifying, surging struggle and contention that is our universe.

I am (hopefully) not so blinded by my atheism to not understand that many great scientists and artists have been deeply religious. I only have to look at the work Mendel did with his pea plants that helped us understand genetics. But I think that most people would agree that both the original Miletian revolution in science, as well as our more recent scientific industrial revolutions sprang from an impulse to try to understand the world as it is, with no dependency on divine intervention, to see and grasp the world as the endless unfolding of rational, understandable physical laws. In his recent book 'The Swerve' Professor Greenblatt argues that the Renaissance begins with the finding of one of the greatest works not only of materialism and atheism, De rerum natura or 'On the Nature of Things' by Lucretius, but also a great work of art, full of passion and compassion. In this work Lucretius argues the classical atomist view of Democritus, Epicurus and others that the world is made up of matter in motion.

And it is this desire to understand the world, this fount of human genius that has created this world we now live in, this world of computers, and medicine, and space travel and more. I despair that this world is overrun with shallow moneyed interests who seek to make only profit. But I also hope that one day we can understand that humanity is on the cusp of a brave new world, if we can survive the next phase of history. A world where energy is seemingly taken from the air, where things can be brought into being as if by magic. A co-operativly built world of superabundance were we can move beyond the sordid quest for cash and reputation. For my childrens sake I wish to move into this world where, as Aristotle might have said, we are free to investigate the only things that matter, friendship and the love of knowledge.

The motto comes from Virgil The Georgics Book II and can be found here

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