Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Portable Atheist


Got my copy last week and just starting reading a few entries. This is a 480 page book full of excerpts from famous writing over the ages from people like Lucretius, Conrad, Orwell, Einstein, Russell, Spinoza, Mill, Darwin, Hume, Hobbes, Marx, as well as the modern "new atheism" writers. 47 people in total.

I have yet to understand why the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is included. He was a Persian poet from 1048-1123. There are widely varying translations of this into English in volving huge disputes, and people claim Kayyam was anything from a mystic to an atheist. I haven't read it, but my preconceived notion is that he was a mystic misinterpreted as a nihilist by people who didn't understand Sufism. Don't quote me. I have a feeleing however that including Kayyam in an atheist reader would be like including a Buddhist writing as a prop for atheism. I've long suspected that Hitchens deeply misconstrues the things that Harris harps on and this may be a case in point. But I'll look at it and get back.

There were three poems I read that seriously touched me. I have yet to develop into a steadfast poetry fan, but these really hit home and I can see why they were included. Two by Philip Larkin and one by Thomas Hardy.

Church Going- Philip Larkin
Aubade- Philip Larkin
God's Funeral- Thomas Harding

8 comments:

Aaron said...

So I went through the entry for Kayyam, and I maintain my initial hunch. It's fun poetry the way it's translated into rhyme (which must really distort it from the original). He mocks the Koran and Allah and religion. He says various things which would make it sound atheistic to untrained ears. But everything he is saying is identical to the Buddhist saying- "If you see the Buddha on the side of the road- kill him."

Looks like sheer non-dualist mystic poetry to me. I suppose it sort of fits into an atheist reader, but not the way Hitchens intends it to. It's like a big joke he is not privy to.

Yogananda wrote a translation of this work and tried to explain on each page the spiritual meaning of Kayyam's writings. He was miffed that the English translators had so grossly misundertood the drift of the writing. I think Yogananda has a good case for saying that. (if you ever look at his translation you will see a bunch of Indianized babble about chakras and things which ultimately is an even more gross mistranslation than the English translators.)

upinVermont said...

I'll definitely be getting this book. However, I don't think you give Hitchens enough credit, or he's the most naive man alive. Amazon lists some of the authors in the book and the majority of them (of those listed) were not confirmed atheists. Most of them were most probably Deists (as opposed to Theists).

I myself leaned toward Deism for a good while, but have since adopted a belief which allows for the possibility of something like the soul without the need for God. So, what does that make me? By any textbook standard, I'm an atheist; but I would be booted from the "positive atheist" club house by its more "fundamentalist" members.

Some branches of Buddhism, such as Theravada, are atheistic. Wikipedia offers up nontheism but points out that the word is not recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Every belief system has its fundamentalists and atheists are no different. After all, positive atheists are making assertions for which they have no evidence.) So, me and Kayyam probably have something in common. He could quite possibly be an atheist but also a mystic.

Hitchens book is better understood, possibly, as a book of quotes *for* atheists rather than a book of quotes *by* atheists.

So, anyway, what do we call an atheist, like me, who believes in "souls" or non-local consciousness?

How about this: Abtheism.

Aaron said...

I am a Sam Harris atheist. I have never seen him say something I don't agree with so far. I find it less likely than you do that there is a nonlocal consciousness, but I still maintain that there is something very special about consciousness and I feel that it evolved in parallel with biological complexity and not because of it as an emergent property. I feel it was possibly already present with the substrata of nature. But lower your glucose level enough and it will disappear proportionately, so I don't get too excited. For many other reasons, including esp experimentation, OBE'S and NDE's my hope for life after death has dwindled often close to non-existence. It certainly wouldn't be a "soul" that survived. Everything people call their "soul" was developed by natural selection, and the more I learn the more clear that becomes to me.

Next "what is enlightenment magazine" has an article about OBE's, suggesting that science is showing them to be "neurological" experiences. Can't wait to see what they have to say. Of course they'll spin it somehow and say "ya, but...."

I once loved that mag. Now, I flip through it and can find almost nothing that doesn't make me laugh. Especially the guy with the monthly article about using spiritual power to live forever off of "energy". Or the search for Babaji in the himalayas. I could never tell whether they were joking or serious. Now I realize they were serious. Does Wilber endorse this? I'm sure he finds no problem with it.

I understand how people can believe in non-local consciousness, but I can't understand how they can believe it with confidence. I think Wilber has selective blinders on to the evidence. His endorsement of Michael Murphy's "the future of the body" is one of the silliest things I've ever seen in my life. It boggles my mind how he can seriously believe that stuff.

upinVermont said...

Something I found interesting: When the Japanese report OBEs or NDEs especially, it seems that the majority report an experience of consciousness that is devoid of emotion or attachment (in any psychological sense). They report the feeling of complete detachment from their lives and selves.

This item was reported in the context of cultural differences in NDEs. What interests me though is how this dovetails with your own assertions. *If* there were such a thing as non-local consciousness or a soul, we wouldn't and shouldn't expect it to be anything like human consciousness. It wouldn't reflect anything that defines *us* as evolving, intelligent animals whose minds have been shaped by natural selection.

In the end, Mark Twain sums up my feelings on the matter -

"I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit."

Aaron said...

At the end of the day I suppose I am a pantheist. The universe is what exists, including all things we don't know of yet. Whether or not consciousness is independent of matter, it does not change our understanding of human nature and it does not change the fact that most NDErs have delusional world-views based on sheer nonsense. If we want to understand human nature and consciousness, it's best to look at genes, the brain, culture and meditation. It is *not* productive to look at chakras, energies, crystals etc...

I do know that if I find myself still alive after death, it will not occur to me in the slightest way to be afraid of some god somewhere.

upinVermont said...

//If we want to understand human nature and consciousness, it's best to look at genes, the brain, culture and meditation. It is *not* productive to look at chakras, energies, crystals etc..//

I agree. However, if we want to understand the universe that created human nature and human consciousness, we might not be able to avoid consciousness. At least, we may have to understand consciousness at a very different level. As it is, the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, still the dominant interpretation, posits that consciousness, or the act of observation, is what causes a Quantum Wave Collapse. In other words, the universe might not exist if it weren't being observed!

I kid you not. This is where QM stands at the moment, though those in the classical tradition are loath to admit or accept it. They haven't offered any other interpretations, except to say that what happens, happens...

Aaron said...

If that is the case, then it seems like there should be a way to devise an experiment where the act of observing alters an outcome.

upinVermont said...

//If that is the case, then it seems like there should be a way to devise an experiment where the act of observing alters an outcome.//

It begins with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Experiments in QM are rife with just these outcomes. Seriously. The Quantum realm is beyond bazaar. Experiments in non-locality, among others, have shown that observing the "spin" of one entangled particle will *instantly* "collapse" the potential spin of its partner, even if the other particle is on the other side of the universe. *Instantly*.

This so unnerved Einstein that he rejected QM as incomplete. And yet, there we have it. Experiments, thus far, have shown that Einstein was wrong.