Atheist activism has a bad name. Why? I believe there are two reasons - religious privilege, and well, what can only be described as atheist privilege. Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first -…
As I now actually have serious nationwide campaigning responsibilities, I’ve decided to move off Tumblr to a “proper” blog on wordpress. I thought I’d begin with a statement of intent, to explain why atheist (shorthand for atheist, humanist and secular) activism is necessary in the UK, and why it is different from so-called “internet atheism,” I haven’t had time to sort my theme and widgets out yet so the blog looks pretty shabby, but I think this longish essay is a reasonable defence of my new role, although its certainly coloured by own political views.
When the geneticist J.S.B. Haldane challenged himself to explain what life is, his initial response was despair:
“I am not going to answer this question. In fact, I doubt if it will ever be possible to give a full answer, because we know what it feels like to be alive, just as we know what redness, or pain, or effort are. So we cannot describe them in terms of anything else.”
Haldane reasoned that it was impossible to fully define life scientifically because humanity has an intuitive knowledge of what things to call living – we can only mimic and give some validity to what we already know to be true. But does Haldane not gift our intuition far too much explanatory power?
Before we discuss what life is, we must examine the origin and veracity of this apparently ironclad intuition. Our intuition, I will argue, is the root of two misleading ideas about life: Vitalism and Essentialism. I want to see whether they can be replaced by a gene-centred view of life – life as the expression of information encoded in the genome. Then I move on to Erwin Schrödinger’s idea that life is special because it appears to defy the universe’s descent into disorder. I will attempt to bring the two ideas together by equating orderliness with information. Finally, I discuss James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, which posits a living earth, explaining it in terms of Richard Dawkins’ Extended Phenotype. I end, however, with some cautionary words demonstrating why defining life is one of science and philosophy’s most difficult tasks.
raptorific asked: It's interesting that you mentioned creation vs. evolution, (although, point of order, that quote is from the Declaration of Independence), because Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, meaning he believes the universe was created, but continued from that point without intervention from the creating being. I like the idea of "created" because it works as saying that what's important is equal OPPORTUNITY rather than literal equality, meaning everyone should start life with the same doors open to them.
Well, most theories of justice (John Rawls and friends) imagine that this whole idea of equality of opportunity is indeed something created by humanity. We confer equality of opportunity on each other, so that kind of equality is only real because we believe it so. Its like the role of President of the US, there’s no real thing called a President, but by virtue of a general perception (whether you voted for him or not) Obama accrues this identity president. So the idea of giving each other equality of opportunity stems from a social aggreement among people to treat other people as objects in of themselves, with freedoms rights etc. Thats the basis of social contract theory.
Thus this kind of equality is independent of wherever humanity came from. It stems from the rules governing the interactions between people all over the world.
However, I have to admit, I have little time for this kind of theorizing. Social contract theory imagines this tacit aggreement to treat others equally somehow spontaneously arising from ingroup interaction back in the prehistoric. John Rawls actually uses the metaphor of a bunch of cavemen sitting down together by the fire and hammering out this contract to treat others equally.
However, I ask the question where does this willingness to treat others equally come from? The social contract isn’t so much a social aggreement, but a set of behaviours that were selected for within evolutionary time. I believe that there is an genetic predisposition within humanity to treat other people we perceive as humans as objects in of themselves - that is, the Golden Rule was selected for by natural selection. I’ve blogged about this before, in far more eloquent fashion and with supporting experimental evidence, so I’ll refer anyone interested to this essay:
My only gripe with what I wrote there is that after reading Terrence Deacon’s work on language coevolution, I would tend to see moral codes as undergoing a kind of memetic evolution to best fit in with human nature. That is, the behavioural codes that are best adapted to being expressed within the context of natural human behaviour are more likely to survive than those that aren’t so (e.g. the attempt to create new family relations rules in the kibbutz). I think, then, you can rescue social contract theory and say that there is a human predisposition to treat people we perceive as being human as objects of moral concern, and that moral codes that encourage such behaviour (i.e. golden rule within the group of people we consider human) such as Christianity, Islam, Humanism are more likely to survive in what I guess I must call the meme pool.
And after that longwinded rant, I must say I agree with you. We should strive to allow all people to start life with the same doors open to them - especially in education. But that doesn’t imply we ought to force them to walk through those doors!
P.S. I know Jefferson was a Deist. I think that kind of Deism is rather dodgy position though. Its the whole idea of a clockwork universe, whereby everything that happens is predermined in the systems (ie. Universe’s) initial conditions. And that therefore, if we knew the initial conditions, holding the laws of physics are constant, then we can know the future. This is one of those bland statements testosorone fuelled physicists (e.g. Brian Cox) like to make when they wanna sound profound. Yeah, if we knew every detail of how the quarks etc interacted we could know how to predict a heart attack, but we’ll never know because that kind of computing power is physically unattainable. (more points of interaction than there are atoms in universe). So instead of spouting truisms, these physicists should be helping develop imaging technology so squishy biologists can study the heart, or they should be put their differential equations to good use in statistical analyses of heart attack incidence.