Monday, March 17, 2014

I Get Mail: A Response to Mr. Israel Lattimore


A concerned Christian reader who goes by the name Israel Lattimore contacted me with some concerns. Here is the original letter in full:


Mr. Vick:

First of all I understand you, your arguments are not uncommon. Out of curiosity, is your work stimulated by the desire to know the truth, existentially speaking? It seems that to question the validity of the notion of "God's" existence inevitably prerequisites the collapse of any belief of truth at all. If one doesn't believe that true or false exists, then what is existence altogether? I would like for you to get to yourself, slow down and honestly ask yourself, Do I really believe that I am a worthless, bastardized being and that when my body dies I will simply cease to exist? (Pardon me if I have assumed the idea that you do not believe in any afterlife). I want to tell you my dear friend that you are not a worthless, bastardized being and that you have a Creator that loves you and cares enough for His creation as to not leave it wandering with no purpose or definition. Please don't take me wrong, I am not being sarcastic nor do I feel any condemnation for you. I am honestly grieved and saddened by this lie that I myself almost fell prey to believing at one point in life. I appreciate your quest for truth, I myself am alongside you in that desire except I have found it. Audacious statement some may say, but I know that I have a Father that loves me and cares deeply about the condition of His creation. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure which a man stumbles across in the dessert. Once he finds it, he buries it far underneath the earth, returns to his home and sells everything that he has in order to purchase the plot of land where the treasure was found. All of his neighbors and family think that he is crazy because he spends his entire life's earnings on what appears to be a dry wilderness. So it is for everyone that enters into the Kingdom of Heaven. I may never speak with you again or make any other comment on your page but I hope to see you there, you are not forsaken my friend. Excuse the imperfection of speech and semantics, I hope that my heart will communicate with yours.

I will do my best to respond to the above concerns below.

Mr. Lattimore asks:

Out of curiosity, is your work stimulated by the desire to know the truth, existentially speaking? It seems that to question the validity of the notion of "God's" existence inevitably prerequisites the collapse of any belief of truth at all. If one doesn't believe that true or false exists, then what is existence altogether?
My work is mainly the product of me pulling together different theories that I have learned over a wide field of study ranging from religious history to philosophy to science. I suppose if you want to view it as a pragmatic response to existential concerns, that is a fair way to phrase it.

But I do not think I am unique in wanting to find answers to the bigger questions we all have. Perhaps the biggest motivating factor is that philosophical questions, like the existence of God and why are we here, fascinate me on a deeper level, and I've given it a lot of thought, and as such it pains me to see religious people take for granted these questions and ideas because they have convinced themselves there is nothing more to think about.

As I explain in my book Ignosticism, the question of God's existence (of whether or not God actually exists) arises precisely due to the fact that there is no evidence for God's existence. If there was, it wouldn't make sense to ask the question in the first place.

We do not ask whether or not the sky is blue, because the sky being blue is a brute fact of nature. It's something we all can see, and we all have an abundance of evidence for, thus nobody goes around asking whether or not the sky is blue. What people do tend to do, as my four year old daughter recently reminded me, is ask "why is the sky blue?"

Subsequently, we turn to science to aid us in determining the truth of the matter. The sky is blue because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet receptors in our retinae.

Of course, that's the curt technical version. I simplified it for my daughter and explained to her that the light from the sun contains all the colors in the world, and that these colors bounce around the atmosphere and some bounce away and others get through, and the ones that get through are the blue ones, the ones our eyes can see, so the sky appears blue to us.

If God actually existed theology would become another branch of science, and it would go about seeking to explain why God is this property as measured or observed rather than another one. But this we do not find. Instead, after several millennium it appears theologians, and believers in general, are still stuck asking the same old question "Does God exist?"

My book is an attempt to try and explain why after two thousand years of so-called "evidence" for God that theologians and believers are no better off than when they started and are still stuck defending the position of whether or not God truly exists instead of moving on into the realm of science and actually describing God's properties as observed and measured thereby proceeding to make testable theories which may help to explain the nature of this deity. At least, this is where we should be at today if God truly existed as believers affirm.

So, the question is, why aren't we there yet? Well, my book Ignosticism looks at the idea of God from another angle which seeks to explain why the hiddeness of God persists and why theologians, after two thousand years, still haven't made any headway with regard to demonstrating their claims about the existence of God.

Mr. Lattimore continues on with another deeply felt concern, asking:

If one doesn't believe that true or false exists, then what is existence altogether? I would like for you to get to yourself, slow down and honestly ask yourself, Do I really believe that I am a worthless, bastardized being and that when my body dies I will simply cease to exist? (Pardon me if I have assumed the idea that you do not believe in any afterlife).


I do think relativism is true, and this of course confounds realists who hold that an objective truth stands independent of truth relative to the individual. But my experience with social constructivism leads me to think all truth is relative.

This however is a separate issue from finding meaning in my life, and I think you have mistakenly conflated the two notions of truth and meaning.

One's worth is determined by what values one holds, what values they deem important and what values they deem worth dismissing, and this deals strictly with one's own subjective preferences and is different than matters of truth.

After all, we could all be living a lie. We could be living inside a computer program invented by super highly intelligent aliens, but that doesn't mean that the world I know and am a part of is meaningless.

In my experience, we give meaning to the world by assigning importance to things we feel we couldn't do without, such as family, deep philosophical conversations with friends, sex, and anything else we might find that helps make our lives worth living.

We don't need an external source of meaning to assign meaning to these highly personalized things. This is evident by the fact that what I may find meaningful you might not. But if meaning was absolute and independent from my subjective preference, then we'd all find the same things meaningful. Every single one of us. And this simply isn't the case.

So it seems that the idea of absolute meaning existing independently of our human experience is simply false. Meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Although you're right in one regard, I do believe I will simply cease to exist after I die. After my brain functions cease, I will cease to be. But even so, I do not believe I am worthless. That thought has never even crossed my mind.

Why should I feel worthless simply because I am insignificant compared to the vastness and grandeur of the entire universe? What I do feel is humbled. I feel extremely lucky that I get to take part in this existence, that I get to enjoy this life here and now knowing that it is likely the only life I am ever going to have--it makes everything that much more precious in my eyes.

The Japanese love cherry-blossoms (called sakura) and every year come spring the entire nation of Japan is covered with millions upon millions of cherry-blossoms. They only last about a week or two, and then the pink petals fall away, and for the Japanese this reflects the beauty of our brief, fleeting existence. It is something to be celebrated, even if in the grande scheme of things we are rather insignificant. However, as I said, I find this humbling, not nihilistic as you seem to imply.

Being small and insignificant is merely what we are when compared to the scale of the universe, but I see no reason why realizing how small I am and how little impact my life will have on that overall scale somehow means that I ought to feel worthless as a consequence. That simply doesn't follow, logically speaking.

Let's scale it down to my life compared to the lives of others. On this scale, all I need ask myself is did I live a good life? Did I help others? Did I provide for my family and my loved ones? Did I contribute in some small way to make the world a better place for the next generation? If so, then I feel contended knowing that I played some small role in it all.

As for being a bastardized being, such a notion is absurd. I knew who my biological father was, and he knew who his father was, and so on and so forth. We are the sons and daughters of our parents, and I don't think it needs to be any more complicated than that.

If you mean to suggest we take it back to the origin of life itself, then in that sense the universe is our father and mother. As the late great Carl Sagan so often reminded us, we are all made of star stuff.

Knowing this I can honestly say that being a part of the universe makes me feel less of a bastardized being and more of a being who has come into the awareness that I, along with all other living things, share great everlasting relationship with nature, for we are the sons and daughters of mother nature and father time.

Realizing this has helped me to shed ancient stories about the death of resurrecting demi-gods, not because they ring false with me, but because the truth is more glorious still.

A star died that I may live! But not just one star, a million, maybe even a billion stars died, and the importance of their existence is not lost on me. So when I look up at the night sky, I do not thank an imaginary God for my existence, I thank the sparkling stars.

At this point Mr. Lattimore stops expressing any further concerns and goes into a bit of prosylatizing.

I want to tell you my dear friend that you are not a worthless, bastardized being and that you have a Creator that loves you and cares enough for His creation as to not leave it wandering with no purpose or definition. Please don't take me wrong, I am not being sarcastic nor do I feel any condemnation for you. I am honestly grieved and saddened by this lie that I myself almost fell prey to believing at one point in life. I appreciate your quest for truth, I myself am alongside you in that desire except I have found it. Audacious statement some may say, but I know that I have a Father that loves me and cares deeply about the condition of His creation. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure which a man stumbles across in the dessert. Once he finds it, he buries it far underneath the earth, returns to his home and sells everything that he has in order to purchase the plot of land where the treasure was found. All of his neighbors and family think that he is crazy because he spends his entire life's earnings on what appears to be a dry wilderness. So it is for everyone that enters into the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Well, I have said it many times, professions of faith and proclamations of certitude mean very little to me when I want to talk about what things are defeasible and indefeasible, true or false.

In fact, I am much more concerned with systems that demonstrate their claims. If every believer I ever met who espoused what you do could simply and clearly demonstrate their claims, then they wouldn't be baseless and irrelevant, as they seemingly are to me. And being a person of reason, I know I would take more time to consider them than I do.

As it is, however, these are not claims any rational person can entertain. I am glad you feel that you have found the truth of what you have been looking for, but that truth simply isn't good enough for me because it relies too much on faith and too little on knowing.

I like to understand my truths inside and out, and if I can't, then I remain patient for the time when I can. It seems to me nearly all truth is provisional. Are there some brute facts out there of things that just are true? Well, I'd say yes. And these brute facts can be demonstrated as being true or false, and it is in this achieved understanding we can gain any degree of certainty.

But your claims cannot be demonstrated. As such all certainty is only a pretense to gain a certain amount of confidence to better fend off the nagging doubts that come with not knowing. Which is why I will forever remain skeptical, until that time when you can do more than simply lay claim to unheard of truths, but actually demonstrate these truths in a way which adds to the bulwark of all understanding.

Bringing his sermon to a close, Mr. Lattimore says:

I may never speak with you again or make any other comment on your page but I hope to see you there, you are not forsaken my friend. Excuse the imperfection of speech and semantics, I hope that my heart will communicate with yours.

Although I appreciate your thoughtful concerns, I must honestly say that I think that they are merely the byproduct of religious insecurities that an uncertain faith such as your so often brings. I have long since put such uncertainties behind me because I have gotten comfortable with the idea of not knowing everything. Why fret over what we do not or even cannot possibly know?  It's true, I cannot prove to you there is no God or there is no place like Heaven, as these things are impossible to disprove. But they are also impossible to prove, and that is why I feel that claims which can be demonstrated are far more valuable than claims which can merely be asserted.

Sincerely,

The Advocatus Atheist


Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist