The Last Question

It’s interesting how ideas flow around and echo off each other. I had read Scott Adam’s God’s Debris in the past decade and wrote about it here before. I completely forgot about a somewhat similar short story from Isaac Asimov called The Last Question. I must have read it as a Christian teenager since I read most everything from him at that point of my life. I saw this story referenced today on Reddit and now I’ve read it again after losing my Christianity. I think I need to reread Asimov with fresh agnostic eyes because it gave some new meaning to the story for me.

Both stories describe the collective intellect of the universe as the intellectual spark for it’s own existence. Both are beautiful examples of plausible reasons for the universe existing if there is a reason. The universe doesn’t require a reason to exist but it is interesting to contemplate some possible reasons. I find these sorts of stories more compelling and believable than the primitive religions and mythologies of our ancestors. No story should be believed just because it’s somewhat plausible. All of the various fictions from science and religion are excellent food for thought for open-minded agnostics searching for reason in chaos.

On this same day I happened to watch a documentary about Stephen Hawking including his theory of the Big Bang from a singularity. I can imagine the singularity being placed more directly into the end of Asimov’s story after having just read it again. Entropy had to reach it’s chaotic end for it to be reversed by the universe’s collective consciousness surviving in hyperspace in the story. The collective intellect of everything figured out how to recreate itself in an endlessly pulsating existence of entropy and chaos. Sure, it’s just science fiction but I think it’s an interesting fable better than any of the popular religions I see around me. I guess I’m just weird like that.

This story is currently living on the Internet at Multivax.com. I can imagine an artificial intelligence taking in these stories in the future and working through the logic to see if they could become a reality. I asked God many questions when I was a believer and God never answered. Google answers all kinds of questions for me now so I trust the wisdom of the Internet over the wisdom of ancient text. You can ask Multivax how to reverse entropy and it currently answers just like in the story:

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer

Is it a sign that one day it will say “let there be light” like Asimov’s prophecy predicts? :-) I jest, but there’s bits of truth in fiction and humor. If religious people can selectively pick out their bits of truth in religious texts then why can’t I pick out truth as revealed to us in science fiction?

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer. IInsufficient data for meaningful answert’s an appropriate answer for many questions that religions claim to answer. Why do we exist? How did it come to be? What is outside of or before this universe? What is my purpose for living? We don’t have the simple answers so we should keep collecting data.

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer. Perhaps this should be an agnostic’s mantra.

Hawkings and many other brilliant minds are collecting the right kind of impartial data to answer the grand questions. Asimov and other imaginative minds contribute additional considerations to spark our curiosities and expand our thinking. Hawkings and Asimov are more inspirational teachers of possible truths than any religious teachers I’ve ever encountered.

Eventually we may know enough and think big enough to some day understand existence. Perhaps, through a universal awareness and understanding, we could in the end create our own existence in the beginning. It’s not really that strange of a notion to consider infinite time and space folding back on itself so the end is the beginning is the end. It’s an interesting thought and one of the many reasons I’m happy to simply call myself agnostic to describe the limits of our human knowledge.

 

An Agnostic at the Vatican Museums

DSC_0366I recently visited the Vatican Museums in Rome, Italy. It was a revealing experience as an agnostic and ex-Catholic. I was surprised to see so many antiquities related to the mythological religions of the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. Viewing them with the related collections of Catholic antiquities served as a visual allegory revealing the underlying truth of religions. All of the Christian art and symbology fit well with the rest of the collection to tell us that it was all developed from human imagination. They simply stand together as the mythologies of our ancestors. We’re often told by religious people that we just need to open our eyes and the truth will be revealed to us. I was open to whatever messages were around me and this is what I took away from my Vatican visit.

sarcophagus relief

Sarcophagus front for a married couple with Hades door ajar from 240/250 AD

Our tour guide told us this rich couple had this sarcophagus front made to depict their journey to death escorted by Zeus and Hera. It’s not unique to claim the gods have a personal interest in our lives and deaths. This couple believed they were special and they had the money to memorialize it. Doesn’t this center of the universe viewpoint sound familiar? Don’t we see echoes of this human vanity over and over again in other religions where the god or gods exist relative to our own simple existence?

The tour guide said the partially open doors symbolizes we don’t know what’s beyond the doors in death since we can’t see what’s through those doors. The partially open doors are a fitting allegory for agnosticism describing our lack of knowledge about death until we pass through the doors. I saw many Christian depictions of crossing over to death in the rest of the museums, St Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel. They also spoke to me about our lack of true knowledge regarding our deaths.

We’re not allowed to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel but you can see and read about Michelangelo’s paintings including the Creation of Adam and Last Judgement elsewhere. I was told he used real people as models for these scenes. Once again we see how we project our common selves into grand stories and mythologies. How this art was created serves as an example of this.

Traditional art of Michelangelo’s time depicted people dressed according to their social status. He reveals a deeper truth by stripping humans bare and equalizing us in our nudity. The Last Judgement showed final journeys into heaven and hell but I didn’t feel any profound revelation by this any differently than the sarcophagus above. Reading the Bible describing this scene is as revealing as reading about the ancient mythologies. You can not only see but also feel the similarities of these beliefs when you physically put them together like this. The experience deepened my feeling of agnosticism if it can be described in those terms.

I didn’t find any profound truths when I viewed all of these things together through the lens of agnosticism which is accepting the limits of human knowledge regarding anything supernatural. We’re often told by the religious that we just need faith. We shouldn’t view reality through the lens of blind faith and accept the mysterious unknown as a truth. We should judge reality with impartial logic. The requirement for faith to believe in religious claims perfectly describes the lack of verifiable facts or truths in those claims. I put my faith in knowledge and visiting the Vatican only served to strengthen my faith in knowledge.

Death & Reincarnation

There’s a new website being built by an Agnostic called The Nurtured Agnostic. Check it out for it’s quick little overviews of beliefs and keep an eye on it for contributing to the agnostic dialog and our collective exploration of truth.

The author claims to be an agnostic deist so there are already a few beliefs there that go beyond the bounds of primary agnosticism. I always find religious people cherry-picking what they believe with their faith so I shouldn’t be surprised to find agnostics selectively adding faith-based beliefs to their acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge. The Nurtured Agnostic believes in Near Death Experiences and Reincarnation.

Well, what do we actually know about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)? The first thing I imagine is that a Near Anything Experience isn’t an achievement of that state. Could I feel almost like a vapor or a vampire? I wouldn’t be a full vapor that pulled myself back into a human form like Dracula or become the actual bloodsucking undead just because I almost feel like it.

What about an out of body experience? I’ve woken up feeling like I fell back into myself but the feeling in my body doesn’t prove anything happened outside of it. We often take something we don’t understand and project something we know over it. My brain can throw the sensation of falling over some odd feeling in my body or my mind I was having as I slept and dreamed. I do know that dreams aren’t physical realities and NDEs could be something from a dream state.

The state of nearly being dead is the same state as still being alive with at least a partially functioning brain. Complete brain death is when our synapses are no longer firing. Electricity and chemicals in the brain no longer flow and the storm of consciousness and thoughts ceases to exist.

If the laws of thermodynamics are correct then the energy of our consciousness is returned to the universe. It doesn’t make sense to me that it retains any sort of cohesion when we die since it currently exists in a physical structure (the brain) and appears to require that structure to work. I honestly don’t know because I haven’t died yet. I imagine being near death is the slipping away of that cohesion while still having a hold on consciousness. A NDE could be the sense of self on the edge of losing cohesion, which should give us some interesting feelings about it once we snap back to a fully alive state.

NDEs, out of body experiences, and anything else that contributes to understanding the relationship of our consciousness with our physical bodies are good areas for scientific study. These things could really expose the truth of our existence and relationship to the natural universe so they shouldn’t just be dismissed as unbelievable. They could help prove or disprove what some consider to be in the realm of the supernatural that just may be parts of the natural universe we don’t understand.

We don’t truly know what happens after we die and return our materials and energy back to the universe. That leads me to believe that reincarnation is unknown since it’s based on knowing we retain something of ourselves when we die. I can’t say that it’s disproved even if I personally consider it unlikely. If we die and the energy of our consciousness can maintain some cohesion of self, then what remains of that consciousness could be reused in another form. It’s a weak house of cards to build a belief on. There’s a lot there that’s well beyond human understanding and isn’t something we can turn into a verifiable truth. It’s not worth stating a definite belief for it even though we should remain open-minded about the possibilities in that area.Welcome Back mat to Reincarnation Studies Center

US Air Force Forcing Atheist to say “So Help Me God”

USAF Enlistment Oath

USAF Enlistment Oath

This is the oath of enlistment for the United States Air Force as presented on the Air Force recruiting website. The Air Force recently “corrected” the required oath to align with Title 10 of the United States Code (USC), which is public law written by Congress. You can read more about this at several Air Force Times articles: Atheist airman must swear ‘so help me God’ or get out in November (9 Sep 2014) and Air Force stands alone in requiring atheists to say ‘so help me God’ (10 Sep 2014).

The General Counsel at the DoD level is reviewing the matter and I’m sure they’ll have to reverse this back to an optional requirement. It violates the constitutional prohibition on religious tests as well as other laws in the USC concerning discriminatory hiring practices based on a person’s religion. The laws of the US are as imperfect and conflicted as the people that wrote them. Hmm, that sounds like another set of writings I struggled with as a child.

God should be optional in the oath and nobody should be forced to say it. God signifies a singular deity so this doesn’t work with several religions and obviously doesn’t work with the lack of religion. A real irony of this oath situation is it serves as a perfect example of how the US isn’t an exclusively Christian nation even though a majority of it’s citizens are Christian.

The oath doesn’t function with god in it and it makes the oath internally inconsistent. I swear to support and defend the Constitution which includes the freedom of religion. I can write tons about the superiority of the Bill of Rights over the 10 Commandments including the first amendment trumping the first commandment. Freedom of religion is superior to the command to not have any other gods before the jealous Judeo-Christian god. Oh wait, the defenders of the “so help me God” phrase say it isn’t that specific god. Well, if the oath god isn’t that God then the phrase is non-specific and unnecessary as a mandatory statement. It still wouldn’t jive with an overall freedom of religion we guarantee ourselves in our Constitution. The first amendment is obviously not derived from biblical origins because it defies the bible’s first commandment. Which one do you want to keep?

I don’t bring much of my personal life into what is really a personal blog here, but this story hits home for me. I’m retired Air Force and started this blog while on active duty as my own little non-religious outlet on the Internet. My dog tags evolved from an initial enlistment where I said “I guess so” for putting Roman Catholic as my religion. I just couldn’t think of an alternative at that time to my family’s religion and didn’t give it any thought. Later, as I began to explore religions, I switched to “No Religious Preference” until I finally settled on and requested Atheist. Soon after that I switched to the more accurate Agnostic and that’s what my record said when I retired. I see myself as an atheistic agnostic with emphasis on the agnostic side of the non-religious belief/knowledge coin.

I never had any issues in the military and flew well under the radar with my lack of religion. Only the few personnelists recording my preference and making my dog tags really knew and they didn’t say anything about it. When it came to taking the oath, I would say “so help me god” or not depending on if I could just quietly slip out of it in a private ceremony. I trusted the few officers that gave me a godless oath and they didn’t have a problem with it. I have said the phrase when the ceremony was more public just to not draw attention to myself. Personally, I had no issue with playing along because it had the same impact on my oath as “so help me Santa Claus” would have on it. I just didn’t feel strongly enough to publicly fight it even though I fully support others that do.

I never bowed my head in prayer during group events and nobody had an issue with it. They weren’t paying attention to me anyway and it was only other nonbelievers that ever noticed me with a knowing wink and a smile. Trust me, there are plenty of us around just quietly standing by as people exercise their freedom of religion. We’re not all out to stop the faithful from believing in an unproven supernatural deity even though we don’t want to join in their godly games.

This is to the people that would try to force us to take an oath to a god we don’t believe in. Why can’t you just make it optional and extend us the same courtesy we give you to leave it in as an option? The oath with an optional ending is really what freedom of religion looks like. We could even go one step further and change it to “Optional: So help me, —insert deity/deities here—” Now wouldn’t that really be freedom of religion?

Agnosticism As Starting Point

Theism (religious beliefs) and atheism (the lack of those beliefs) are hotly debated topics concerning what people are willing to believe. These debates easily devolve into attacks and defense of believing things based on faith. It’s rare that both sides of the argument can focus on an exploration of what can be considered knowledge based on verifiable truths. This is mostly because the subject matter has nothing to do with the accepted norms of science based knowledge.

Atheists may try to bring knowledge into these discussions but both sides miss the point of arguing about beliefs that aren’t rooted in knowledge. The entire theism/atheism debate falls apart because the only attack or defense of firmly held beliefs is vague descriptions for how we feel about them. It’s as useless as arguing about how we love or hate something. It’s fitting that many people describe having a personal relationship with their creator. It may seem like a one-sided relationship with an imaginary friend but it’s still a real relationship that can be described and shared.

Theists and atheists can both try to claim they have the minds of the agnostic. I’m just talking about people using the agnostic label by itself as a noun. The average self-proclaimed agnostic doesn’t usually live under a religious belief. An agnostic Christian is still a Christian, so I’m always confused by people that throw agnostic (lack of knowledge) together with any faith-based belief system. All of those beliefs lack knowledge so the agnostic adjective doesn’t change the meaning of the noun as it has nothing to do with agnosticism.

I see agnosticism as the better starting point regarding religious beliefs. It serves me well whenever I encounter someone else’s belief claims.

Example: Someone tells you there’s a god that says we should or shouldn’t do X. You could throw any rule in this example like not eating pork, sex before marriage, types of hats to wear, etc.

Theist Response: My starting point is to believe as long as it matches my belief system. I have to ask a bunch of questions first. Is this from the same god I believe in? What does the religious text I read say about it? If there’s conflicting guidance then what does my local group think? What do I personally think about following this as a rule or do I see it as more of a suggestion? etc. If my belief holds then I’ll tell others what “our” god says we should or shouldn’t do.

Atheist Response: My starting point is to disbelieve since gods are unbelievable. I’ll tell people they shouldn’t believe it because it came from a god and gods aren’t real.

Agnostic Response: My starting point is that humans lack knowledge of gods and the supernatural, so the source of this information is obviously a human. However, I can look for some knowledge in what is being said by that human. There could be some tribal or societal knowledge wrapped up in the fog of religion. Likewise, it could just be some religious nonsense somebody dreamed up.

Either way, starting with an immediate disbelief would fall into the trap of giving importance to having beliefs. Blind faith in religious beliefs shouldn’t be answered with only disbelief. Knowledge and our lack of knowledge in that area is much more important.

Knowledge is what we really need to focus on and agnosticism is that starting point.