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W is for “Worldly”

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I believe that the human domain is the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world.

I. The World

The term “worldly” has multiple meanings.  I am not worldly like a sophisticated, well-traveled jet-setter.  I am earthly, not looking for answers in the heavens.  Synonyms would include materialist or monist.  Worldly is also a nice stand-in word for “global.”  I consider the human domain to be the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world.

II. The Whole World

A. I Identify as Human

Social theories are self-fulfilling.  If I believe that I belong to Group A, and that Group B is our enemy, it’s amazing how accurate those predictions become.  Xenophobia makes some sense in a long-term evolutionary view.  Social processing is one of the most taxing demands on the human brain.  Sociologists say that a small community can hold itself together by sheer trust when everyone knows everyone’s relationships with everyone.  The upper limit to this group size is only about 150. 1 Any larger than that, and people start to feel that they are living with strangers. There’s a real argument, then, that it is unnatural for people to cohere in groups of 200 or more.

Social cohesion matters most when other groups are competing for limited resources like land, water, and food.  When two groups encounter each other, they have many options.  They can try destroying or dominating each other.  They can agree to a boundary.  They can cooperate and trade.  Sometimes they even merge. 

A merger of smaller groups into a larger one has many advantages.  We give these advantages fancy names like economy of scale, division of labor, standards, and synergy.  One large group can live more efficiently than two smaller groups.  The benefits are so great that people have been merging for 10,000 years, even though they surpassed the “natural” group size as soon as they started to do so.  Large groups found it so important to hold together that they invented new institutions for cohesion: organized religion, law, morality, and group identity. 

Cohesive groups grew to the size of chiefdoms, then civilizations and nations, now up to the gigaperson scale.  Some group identities are more informal and nebulous.  Religions, languages, cultures, and social networks all have their own group identities.  We have to train ourselves to identify with a large group beyond our immediate circle, but we have shown an essentially infinite capacity for doing so.

The final step is obvious, but it seems that, the closer we get to it, the more resistance it faces.  That step is global identity.  Is it possible to say, “I identify as human”?  I believe that we can and should.  The secret to world peace could be something as intangible as this attitude.  It is a relatively new concept, but it is happening incrementally.  As I write this in 2020 amidst the corona virus pandemic, at least I am heartened to see people of all nations feel each other’s pain.  Sometimes it takes a common enemy to bring us together.      

It takes some emotionally meaningful history to form a group identity.  The coronavirus pandemic is the most striking example I’ve seen of an adversity faced by a united world community.

B. World Government?

The pushback against globalism is especially fierce when it comes to government.  We accept government at every level, from the school board to the nation, but something about world governance sends many people into a wide-eyed panic.  Nationalists associate “global” with “foreign”, apparently forgetting that their nation, too, is part of the globe. 

“We must not become global!” posts the nationalist to a social network he shares with a billion people around the world.  Let’s face it, national isolation is impossible.  Culture and the economy are globalizing at break-neck speed.  Many people still deny this, and the institutions to manage this integration of 8 billion people lag far behind.  Without rules in place, you can be sure that the benefits will be reaped by a few and the burdens borne by many. 

Several geopolitical functions seem more naturally suited to one global government than 200 national ones.  To name more than a few: protecting the oceans and atmosphere, phasing out dictators, taxing corporations and billionaires with multi-national assets, settling refugees, preventing and responding to pandemics, mitigating global financial crises, policing the internet and international crimes, facilitating global freedom of movement, establishing global intellectual property rights, protecting international investments in poor regions, overseeing weapons of mass destruction, mediating border disputes, exploring outer space, managing the transition to post-fossil-fuel energy sources … .

Of course, the transition to globalism raises legitimate concerns.  Like any unification, it will involve compromises and transfer of wealth.  In the short-term, it is downright painful for many people.  The UN is the closest thing we have to a world government, but that’s not really what it was designed for, and it has serious flaws as a governing body.  It would be exciting to see the UN gradually reformed into a Global Federation of Republics (GFR).

But rarely have I seen dispassionate opposition to globalism based on well-considered principles.  Just this week, I saw a tweet by Bill Gates offering his support for the World Health Organization. 1 I didn’t see one single supportive reply.  The commenters were rabid.  They hurled “Globalist!” at him like an invective.  They accused him of one conspiracy theory after another.  There is a truly deep-seated irrational fear in the hearts of anti-globalists.  What are they so afraid of?    

I believe that this fear derives from false historic parallels and even mythology.  Historically, large central governments have been empires formed by conquest under a king.  There is a widespread lingering assumption that global unification will have to come about the same way: one of the superpowers will destroy the others, erase all national boundaries, and crown a malevolent global dictator.  Some Christians even believe that the bible prophesies such an “antichrist” tyrant. 2 Globalism also gets conflated horribly with Marxism.  Marx and Engels did call for the “workers of the world” to unite, but this was because they recognized the capitalist upper class as already global.

I don’t know about you, but I am not comfortable basing 3rd-millennium geopolitical decisions on 1st-millennium prophecies.  Globalism does not have to culminate in an evil empire or a socialist revolution.  It’s something we are already forging ourselves as a grassroots effort.  Again, the viability of a system like a GFR depends on attitude and resolve.  Right now, there is so much emotional resistance to the idea of world government that it would not have the consent of the governed.  But I think it’s inevitably on the horizon.  If we don’t want world government planned out by a cabal of billionaires, maybe we should beat them to it and start discussing it among ourselves first.

III. Nothing But The World

A. Spirituality, Monism, and Dualism

People of earlier times matter-of-factly assumed a dualist universe, in which our natural world is controlled by a supernatural, celestial, spirit world.  The modern monist view finds that there is only one world: our self-contained material realm.

The primary difference between these worldviews is the nature of spirits.  Spirits can be embodied or disembodied.  I have addressed the issue of disembodied spirits, such as God, to some extent in my essay, “A is for Atheism / Agnosticism.”  This essay will emphasize the question of the embodied spirit, the mind / brain / body connection. 

B. The Material Brain vs. Embodied Spirits

More than likely, nobody will ever quite understand how the brain makes the mind.  However, monists and dualists must both state a case.  Do we have a general sense of what’s going on in there?  What’s our evidence?

The dualist position is inferred by drawing comparisons between a living person and different things: a living animal, a dead person, or an inanimate object.  The body and brain are made of matter.  Other material objects such as rocks are not conscious.  Therefore, the difference must be something immaterial.  Other animals display conscious behavior like we do, but they don’t talk or think logically.  Our spirit must be more divine than theirs.  A dead person has all the same flesh as a living person, but she has clearly lost something.  It must be an immaterial soul. 

The intuitive dualist view of human nature: a material / inanimate body coupled with an immaterial / animate spirit.  3

These are all very appealing hypotheses, but, until they are rigorously tested, they are only speculation.  Science demands more than the “Yeah, I could buy that” standard.

The problem the dualist faces is that he has no affirmative explanation for how spirits work.  How would an intangible spirit think?  How would it connect to a tangible body and brain?  We can’t even begin to speculate, because we can’t directly perceive anything about these spirits at all.      

By contrast, we can observe the body and brain, and we can draw direct contrasts to the other standards.  The real difference between life and non-life is that life can metabolize, borrowing energy from the environment to animate itself.  Life is complex, and consciousness is due to the brain’s complex organization.  We can identify the specific regions of the human brain that are responsible for language and higher social skills.  Those parts are undeveloped or lacking in other animals.  Finally, death results when cells degenerate and can no longer metabolize.    

Monism. The three functions of consciousness, essentially “SENSE, THINK, DO”, are all performed by one material body, with the brain as command center. Thought might be an internal loop, like the brain doing something to its own sensory mechanisms. 4.

Doctors and researchers have developed a consistent mapping of brain functions to mind functions.  Localized brain damage has a predictable effect on cognitive capabilities.  Waves of electrical brain activity are associated so strongly with mental states that people can now fly remote-controlled drones with sensitive “mind-reading” helmets. 5 There is no doubt that the material brain at least contributes to the mind, if not generating it entirely on its own.  It’s unclear where a spirit would fit into the picture anymore.  

This causes us to take a second look at human nature.  Humans have always prided themselves on being spiritual.  Many cultures have looked down at the earthly and corporeal as the baser part of our nature, the “gross” or the “profane”.  It now appears that we are nothing more than our body and brain.  Moreover, the human mind and behavior evolved to serve the body: to feed, to mate, and to raise children.  Most of our emotions reflect the satisfaction or frustration of our biological needs.  Our earthly form is not lowly; it absolutely defines who we are.

C. Disembodied Spirits

The mind / brain connection also poses conundrums for disembodied spirit theory.  It appears that a brain is necessary for thought, so how would a spirit think without a brain?  Spiritualists might say that consciousness simply permeates the universe, that it is a fundamental force of nature without a cause.  But if that were so, then why would a spirit need a brain and a body at all?  I find no satisfying explanations for how spirits would live, think, or interact with our natural world.  Coupling this with the fact that we are predisposed to see purposeful spirits everywhere we look, I have to conclude that they are simply “all in our mind.”

IV. Conclusions

The human domain is the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world.  To a person living 100 years from now, these truths might be self-evident.  In this day and age, we are fighting two strongly opposing instincts. 

The first instinct is nationalism.  Most people identify as part of a nation, but they have a hard time identifying as part of the world.  Nations have much more history and emotional pull.  Although global culture is nascent, economics and politics are highly developed at the global level.  This will call for increasing demands on world-level government.  I urge people to overcome world-government paranoia so we can plan it wisely.            

The other opposing instinct is spiritualism.  Most people believe in a spirit world alongside our material world.  Brain-mind monism teaches us that bodies and minds are all part of the same unit.  We have now cast serious doubts on both embodied spirits (in this essay) and disembodied spirits (in the previous essay).  This has serious consequences.  If there is only one world, then we can no longer get by blaming our problems on evil spirits and petitioning the goods ones for help.  We must bear all the responsibility for ourselves and our own lonely blue ball in space.   

  1. https://twitter.com/BillGates/status/1250292126643941376
  2. Irvin Baxter, “The New World Order (NWO) World Government Forming Now!” End Time Ministries (2020), https://www.endtime.com/new-world-order/ (accessed, saved, and archived 4/20/20).  For what it’s worth, Baxter isn’t even quoting scripture correctly.  The figures in Revelation and Daniel are called “beasts” in English translations.  The term “antichrist” appears in 1st and 2nd John and is not a kingly figure but simply a heretic.
  3. Drawing by William Blake, “The Soul Hovering Over the Body, Reluctantly Parting With Life” (1813), public domain, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/383673
  4. Monism figure created and released into the public domain by Wikimedia Commons user “Was a Bee”, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Consciousness_phenomenal-functional_(en).png (accessed, saved, and archived 4/23/20), modified by Scot Fagerland (4/24/20)
  5. “Controlling a Flying Robot … With Your Mind”, Wall Street Journal (6/06/2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJqQuk99F2M
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“A” is for Agnostic / Atheist

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I am an atheist.  I am an agnostic.  I’m an agnostic atheist.  Most people understand these words poorly and like them even less.  I don’t proclaim my irreligious identity very often, but increasingly I feel that I should.  I know that there is nothing wrong with atheism, although public opinion is not on my side.  Perhaps it’s time to stand up and explain why I believe atheism is probably true, why agnosticism is certainly right-minded, and how these twin tenets can even be good for the world.

I. What Are Agnosticism And Atheism?
II. Why Agnosticism?
III. Why Atheism?
IV. But Isn’t It “Bad” To Be Atheist Or Agnostic?
V. Upshot

I. What Are Agnosticism And Atheism?

The words atheism and agnosticism both begin with a-, the Greek prefix meaning “without”.  Each word means “not religious” in its own sense.  When we say that someone is religious, we could be referring to what he believes (God, the supernatural, the afterlife, miracles, etc.) or how he holds that belief (a subjective sense of absolute certainty that is not objectively demonstrable to outsiders, based on faith, emotion, authority, personal conviction, etc.)

A·theism = “A” (Without) + “Theism” (Belief in God / gods).

An atheist does not believe in God or the other supernatural elements that religious people do.  The Evolution of Human Chapter 5 2 will discuss the neurological basis of our inborn belief in gods, spirits, and a supernatural world – probably a side effect of humans’ very strong theory of mind and the power of abstract thought.  Theism is a human instinct, so atheism has always been a minority point of view.  Nevertheless, some strands of atheism can be traced to the dawn of the philosophical age in the -1st millennium.  Modern atheism is an outgrowth of the 18th century European Enlightenment.  This history is traced in TEOH chapters 2 – 4.

A·gnosticism = “A” (Without) + “Gnosticism” (Mystical knowledge).

Thomas Henry Huxley in 1876, around the time he coined the word “agnostic”

Agnosticism refutes the religious way of holding beliefs, whatever those beliefs are.  An agnostic recognizes that belief goes beyond the bounds of knowledge: there are many things I can believe that I can’t really know or prove to others.  Unlike atheism, agnosticism is a relatively new term, a realization of the scientific age.  The word agnostic was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, a 19th century English scientist and philosopher.  2  He defined it in opposition to religious people who “were quite sure that they had attained a certain ‘gnosis’ – had … successfully solved the problem of existence; while I … had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. 1 In his essay Agnosticism, Huxley keenly advised, “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” 2

Agnosticism might sound obvious in the abstract.  I think we all understand the difference between “I believe it will rain tomorrow” and “I know it will rain tomorrow”.  Many times, our “knowledge” about the rain is proven incorrect and we are forced to recognize that we had a false belief.  But when that concept is applied toward religion, most people find it impossible to apply the same standard.  Religious people are absolutely convinced that their beliefs are true.  In fact, religious / supernatural beliefs are the classic example of unfalsifiable ideas.  Nobody can disprove them!  It’s like always believing that it will rain gold coins – not tomorrow, but “someday”.  Even if it hasn’t rained gold coins for the last 10,000 days, you can always hold on to the belief that it will eventually.  Soon you’ll probably feel emboldened to say you “know” it will rain gold coins someday, because in the end either you’ll be proven right or at least you won’t be proven wrong.

Religious thought predates the age of reason by hundreds of millennia.  It is instinctual, and as such it involves many logical fallacies:

• “If it could be true, then it must be true.” (Aristotle’s classic “confirming the consequent”)
• “If I believe it, then it must be true.” (Gnosticism)
• “If my family or community teaches it, then it must be true.” (Peer pressure)
• “If it is comforting or pleasant to believe, then it must be true.” (Denial)

The agnostic is the party pooper who finally says, “But you don’t really know, do you?”

II. Why Agnosticism?

Maybe there was once a time when a person could spend his entire life in a religious bubble, knowing only one creed for his entire life. That is certainly not possible anymore. I grew up as a Christian, but I was fully aware that my Christian community taught different scriptures from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, and numerous other religions. I had friends and neighbors from different faiths. I couldn’t help but ask, “Which of us is right?”

I ran a thought experiment. What if Earth were visited by an alien who had never seen or heard of any of the world religions? If each religion were to present the alien with its supporting evidence, which one would make him say, “Yes, you’re right – this one is the truth!”? Some of the natural / historic excerpts from scripture could be corroborated (for example, there really was a walled city of Jericho) but the supernatural stories could not. I think the alien would have to call it a stalemate. No religion is convincingly true to people who were not raised within its culture. 3 Religion is a belief, not a truth.

In devising the space alien, of course what I was doing was taking a neutral perspective to remove my biases from the decision-making process. If there is a true religion, it shouldn’t matter what I believe. That is the essence of agnosticism – evaluating evidence objectively at face value, divorced from your own preconceived notions. Changing your mind really doesn’t hurt – don’t be afraid of it!

III. Why Atheism?

“Okay,” a religious person might agree, “My religion is a belief that I can’t prove to you. But I still believe it. You can’t prove my beliefs false either.” In fact, for a few years as a teenager I was an agnostic Christian. Why would someone go further down the path toward atheism and give up on religious belief altogether?

Some people come at atheism from moral or emotional grounds. My path was dispassionate and scientific. I was interested in the epistemology – “How do we know?” No, I can not prove that God doesn’t exist. I just find that (1) the natural world seems to be self-contained and (2) “belief in God” is due more to “belief” than to “God”.

A. The Natural and the Supernatural
B. The Psychology of Religion

III.A. The Natural and the Supernatural

People see themselves reflected in the world around them. When modern humans had the wherewithal to ask where they had come from, the first model they had was themselves. Humans can direct their willpower into making things – tools, clothing, meals, even children. By that reasoning, they probably concluded that we must be here because someone directed his willpower into making us too. When the world works in mysterious ways, we personify it as magic willpower. For most people in most times and places, that “explanation” seemed perfectly adequate.

It’s an incredibly strong instinct, because only in the last few centuries have some people realized that this explanation doesn’t clarify anything at all. A religious person once tried to convince me that we and our world couldn’t have come from a big bang, because “0 + 0 ≠ 1.” “You can’t get something out of nothing,” he said. His conclusion was that we must have been designed by God. He seemed unaware of the paradox that he was trying to resolve one hard question with an even harder one: where did God come from? If it is hard to explain mortals and the material world, it would be even harder to explain super beings in an invisible realm who can make mortals by magic willpower. It’s like saying that 0 + 0 = ∞. So why does God satisfy people as a convincing explanation?

Pre-scientific people only understood a few principles of nature. Beyond that, speculation was useless. Invoking gods was a way of punting the explanation: “We don’t understand how the world works, but there’s someone who does.” People envisioned a dualistic universe: There was the “natural” world that presented itself to our senses, but behind it all were the unknowable spirits of the “supernatural” realm. Renaissance philosophers like Descartes were interested in delineating the boundary between these realms. The popular “Flammarion engraving”, whatever its original intent may have been, is a nice visual metaphor of this perspective.

The essence of the scientific revolution was to show that some “inexplicable” phenomena had natural explanations.  The moon goes around the world because it is falling like a cannonball – it just happens to be too far away to strike Earth.  Fire burns because chemical reactions release heat and light.  Animals reproduce with DNA molecules, which obey chemical laws like other forms of matter.  Every small discovery expanded the natural world just a little more, at the expense of the supernatural.  After centuries of this, there wasn’t much left for the supernatural world to “explain” anymore, and those explanations were feeling like increasingly far-fetched punts.  It started to seem more likely that the entire idea of a “supernatural” realm was a figment of the human imagination.

III.B. The Psychology of Religion

A big part of atheism, then, is the psychology of belief.  We can’t discuss religion without addressing the natural human bias to be religious.  Without intense educational training, people acquire beliefs by becoming emotionally attached to them.  We usually hold a belief either because we want it to be true or because we socially identify ourselves with followers of a particular creed.  Almost without exception, people die with the religion that they were born into.

When pressed for evidence, religious believers justify their faith with three recurring themes:  scripture or tradition (discussed above), emotional conviction, and the perceived witnessing of miracles or answered prayers.  I have asked a few religious people how they “know” that there is a God.  None of them claimed to have seen or heard God, but they commonly described a special experience where, “I got a warm feeling inside.”  Unfortunately, such a subjective feeling inside one person cannot convince another.  We atheists believe that it is strictly in the mind.

Religious persons often speak of prayers that came true or a loved one who survived against the odds.  This is a classic example of filtering evidence.  Many good things happen without prayer, and many horrible things happen despite it.  If we are going to decide if prayer works or miracles are real, we can’t just pick and choose our favorite experiences.  One thing that is easy to test scientifically is the power of prayer, and the collective evidence for it is essentially zero. 3

IV. But Isn’t it “Bad” to be Atheist or Agnostic?

Surveys show that religious people distrust atheists, 4 do not feel “warmly” toward them, 5 and do not vote them into office. 6 Why such virulent anti-atheism?!

Religion has served some extremely important social functions in the last 10,000 years.  It has bound communities, provided the unimpeachable source for kings’ authority, and deterred immoral behavior by fear of punishment.  Organized religion and public morality are easily conflated, having emerged together when people started to live in large settlements.  To confuse matters further, Christianity and Islam became aggressively anti-heretical in the Middle Ages.  The idea persists that “turning away from God” is a terrible offense.

Religious people may distrust atheists because they believe that we are morally unrestrained. 7 If there is no God to punish us, then what’s to stop us from lying, cheating, and stealing, right?  That is a ridiculous stereotype.  Atheists are still subject to state law, and we are all judged by the same reputation networks, which are a whole new force to be reckoned with in the internet age.  More importantly, though, atheists understand that you shouldn’t have to rely on the fires of Hell to justify good behavior.  Morality has its own inherent value.  It came from people’s desire to live together in peace, and it should always be at the core of our legal systems.  You and I both believe in Good.  Maybe we just spell it with a different number of o’s.

Today’s world is pluralistic.  Followers of different religions cannot use doctrine to persuade one another of righteous behavior.  We have to rely on our common humanity to be humane.  This is increasingly urgent, because today’s “cultural divides” are largely religious divides.  Division is the very antithesis of religion’s original function.

Religious and irreligious people alike will be sharing the world for a long time.  It is important for us to understand and respect each other and not try to force each other out.  However, in closing, I am going to make a brutally honest plea to today’s and tomorrow’s youth.

V. Upshot

Yes, religion played an indispensable role in history – but that era has passed.  God was a crucial metaphor, a cosmic parent to fledgling civilizations.  Now it is our turn to grow up and leave home to strike out on our own.  Today’s human activity affects billions of people on a global scale.  When we make public policy decisions about economics, war, education, and health, we can no longer afford to leave things “in the hands of God” or to base our actions on ancient mythology and prophecies.  If we are going to be stewards of the Earth, then we should do so based on an understanding of how the world really works.

So … how will your descendants remember the third millennium?  Will we waste our time fighting about what happens in the next world, or will we unite with the common purpose of making this world the best it can be?

Scot Fagerland
2017 – ‘18

 

  1. Thomas Henry Huxley, “Agnosticism”, Collected Essays, Vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition (1889), p. 238.  Public domain; available free online e.g. at https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn.html
  2. T.H. Huxley, “Agnosticism”, ibid p. 246.
  3. “Studies of intercessory prayer”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studies_on_intercessory_prayer (accessed 5/30/2018).
  4. W.M Gervais et al, “Do you believe in atheists?  Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice”, J Pers Soc Psychol 2011 Dec; 101(6):1189-206.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22059841 (accessed 5/05/2018).
  5. Michael Lipka, “U.S. evangelical Christians are chilly toward atheists – and the feeling is mutual”, Pew Research Center (7/16/14), www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/16/u-s-evangelical-christians-are-chilly-toward-atheists-and-the-feeling-is-mutual/ (accessed and saved 5/05/2018).
  6. USA Today / Gallup poll, February 9 – 11, 2007.  http://news.gallup.com/poll/26611/some-americans-reluctant-vote-mormon-72yearold-presidential-candidates.aspx (accessed and saved 5/05/2018).
  7. This was the central conclusion of the Gervais study.
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Historic Place Names Quiz

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The world as Europeans knew it in 1670

When I was growing up, it was not too hard to find books lying around full of stories predating the world wars.  I read plenty of Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, and 19th century ghost stories.  It intrigued me when they related to places so exotic that I couldn’t even find them on a map.  Now that I’m researching the empires of the last few millennia, I am coming across these names again.  It’s a challenge to connect old place names to new ones, to understand exactly where they were.  It’s even more interesting to know when and why they changed.  See how you do on this quiz.

Bohemia

Byzantium / Constantinople

Dalmatia

The Forbidden City

Leningrad

New Amsterdam

The Ottoman Empire

Persia

Prussia

Sheba

Siam

Tenochtitlan

Atlantis

 

Click here for answers

 

 

 

 

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