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 alway 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.

Ingersoll’s Why I Am An Agnostic

This 1896 writing of Why I Am An Agnostic from “The Great Agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll is one of my favorite historic passages about agnosticism. I’m glad to have found a narrated version of this with a slideshow on YouTube even though it’s incomplete and completely misses my favorite sections of VIII (8 for the roman numeral challenged) to the very end. Hopefully, the creator of this picks up the project again and finishes it.

Why I Am An Agnostic by Robert Green Ingersoll — Part 1 (YouTube)
In the first part of this book Robert Green Ingersoll discusses why people believe in Christianity, heaven and hell, the absurdity and depravity of God, church revivals during the Second Great Awakening, and the horrible lesson of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Why I Am An Agnostic by Robert Green Ingersoll — Part 2 (YouTube)
In the second part of this book Robert Green Ingersoll discusses the effects that the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment in hell has had on society, and why the New Testament is even more barbaric than the Old Testament. He also discusses his hopes for the future of a secular society, and how he came to be the enemy of Christianity.

Unfortunately #2 was the last of what was to be a 10 part series. Here is the full writing as a public domain audiobook. I recommend starting around the 1 hour mark of it for my favorite parts focusing on the agnostic conclusion unless you’re interested in his deconversion from the Christianity of his ancestors.

Here are just a few gems if you don’t have the patience to read or listen through the whole thing. Ingersoll’s view of the nature of a god:

This God must be, if he exists, a person — a conscious being. Who can imagine an infinite personality? This God must have force, and we cannot conceive of force apart from matter. This God must be material. He must have the means by which he changes force to what we call thought. When he thinks he uses force, force that must be replaced. Yet we are told that he is infinitely wise. If he is, he does not think. Thought is a ladder — a process by which we reach a conclusion. He who knows all conclusions cannot think. He cannot hope or fear. When knowledge is perfect there can be no passion, no emotion. If God is infinite he does not want. He has all. He who does not want does not act. The infinite must dwell in eternal calm.

It is as impossible to conceive of such a being as to imagine a square triangle, or to think of a circle without a diameter.

Yet we are told that it is our duty to love this God. Can we love the unknown, the inconceivable? Can it be our duty to love anybody? It is our duty to act justly, honestly, but it cannot be our duty to love. We cannot be under obligation to admire a painting — to be charmed with a poem — or thrilled with music. Admiration cannot be controlled. Taste and love are not the servants of the will. Love is, and must be free. It rises from the heart like perfume from a flower.

What Ingersoll believes about supernatural power and gods:

Then I asked myself the question: Is there a supernatural power — an arbitrary mind — an enthroned God — a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world — to which all causes bow?

I do not deny. I do not know — but I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme — that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken — that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer — no power that worship can persuade or change — no power that cares for man.

I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all — that there is no interference — no chance — that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.

Man must protect himself. He cannot depend upon the supernatural — upon an imaginary father in the skies. He must protect himself by finding the facts in Nature, by developing his brain, to the end that he may overcome the obstructions and take advantage of the forces of Nature.

Is there a God?

I do not know.

Is man immortal?

I do not know.

One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.

We wait and hope.

The final section is poetry to me:

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain — for the freedom of labor and thought — to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains — to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs — to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn — to those by fire consumed — to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.

Let us be true to ourselves — true to the facts we know, and let us, above all things, preserve the veracity of our souls.

If there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow-men. We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. We can tell the truth, and we can enjoy the blessed freedom that the brave have won. We can destroy the monsters of superstition, the hissing snakes of ignorance and fear. We can drive from our minds the frightful things that tear and wound with beak and fang. We can civilize our fellow-men. We can fill our lives with generous deeds, with loving words, with art and song, and all the ecstasies of love. We can flood our years with sunshine — with the divine climate of kindness, and we can drain to the last drop the golden cup of joy.

What Came Before The Big Bang?

There’s an interesting article about What Came Before The Big Bang? written by physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. I believe as an agnostic that we don’t have the final answer to this question. This article tackles the question of a first origin and if the concept of a first origin is valid. Science works to prove an answer and honestly weighs in as undecided where religion claims a supernatural answer. This is what Paul Davies opens with:

Can science explain how the universe began? Even suggestions to that effect have provoked an angry and passionate response from many quarters. Religious people tend to see the claim as a move to finally abolish God the Creator. Atheists are equally alarmed, because the notion of the universe coming into being from nothing looks suspiciously like the creation, ex nihilo, of Christianity.

Personally, it makes the most sense for me to believe that matter and energy is eternal. This possibility is touched on later but here’s Paul Davies’ explanation for why an eternal universe is problematic based on what we know of inside this universe.

The first point to address is why anyone believes the universe began at a finite moment in time. How do we know that it hasn’t simply been around for ever? Most cosmologists reject this alternative because of the severe problem of the second law of thermodynamics. Applied to the universe as a whole, this law states that the cosmos is on a one-way slide toward a state of maximum disorder, or entropy. Irreversible changes, such as the gradual consumption of fuel by the sun and stars, ensure that the universe must eventually “run down” and exhaust its supplies of useful energy. It follows that the universe cannot have been drawing on this finite stock of useful energy for all eternity.

It goes on to explain the Big Bang to reach this main point:

The key feature of the theory of relativity is that space and time are part of the physical universe, and not merely an unexplained background arena in which the universe happens. Hence the origin of the physical universe must involve the origin of space and time too…
Once this idea is accepted, it is immediately obvious that the question “What happened before the big bang?” is meaningless. There was no such epoch as “before the big bang,” because time began with the big bang. Unfortunately, the question is often answered with the bald statement “There was nothing before the big bang,” and this has caused yet more misunderstandings. Many people interpret “nothing” in this context to mean empty space, but as I have been at pains to point out, space simply did not exist prior to the big bang… …It is not merely physically, but also logically, non-existent. So too with the epoch before the big bang.

The article hits the real meat of the matter for the lack of a first cause with the big bang. It does make some sense but is ultimately dissatisfying compared to the mystery of existence and the ability for anything to exist at all coming from a nothing void.

In my experience, people get very upset when told this. They think they have been tricked, verbally or logically. They suspect that scientists can’t explain the ultimate origin of the universe and are resorting to obscure and dubious concepts like the origin of time merely to befuddle their detractors. The mindset behind such outraged objection is understandable: our brains are hardwired for us to think in terms of cause and effect. Because normal physical causation takes place within time, with effect following cause, there is a natural tendency to envisage a chain of causation stretching back in time, either without any beginning, or else terminating in a metaphysical First Cause, or Uncaused Cause, or Prime Mover. But cosmologists now invite us to contemplate the origin of the universe as having no prior cause in the normal sense, not because it has an abnormal or supernatural prior cause, but because there is simply no prior epoch in which a preceding causative agency — natural or supernatural — can operate.

Nevertheless, cosmologists have not explained the origin of the universe by the simple expedient of abolishing any preceding epoch. After all, why should time and space have suddenly “switched on”? One line of reasoning is that this spontaneous origination of time and space is a natural consequence of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that applies to atoms and subatomic particles, and it is characterized by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, according to which sudden and unpredictable fluctuations occur in all observable quantities. Quantum fluctuations are not caused by anything — they are genuinely spontaneous and intrinsic to nature at its deepest level…

…one may say quite generally that once space and time are made subject to quantum principles, the possibility immediately arises of space and time “switching on,” or popping into existence, without the need for prior causation, entirely in accordance with the laws of quantum physics.

My instinct and my belief in agnosticism tells me that humans are most likely wrong when they develop a final answer regarding the true nature and origin of existence. I just don’t believe we’re advanced enough to truly understand such things and relate to whatever ultimate truth may exist. Here’s where the article hits on a possibility that resonates with me:

If a big bang is permitted by the laws of physics to happen once, such an event should be able to happen more than once. In recent years a growing posse of cosmologists has proposed models of the universe involving many big bangs, perhaps even an infinite number of them. In the model known as eternal inflation there is no ultimate origin of the entire system, although individual “pocket universes” within the total assemblage still have a distinct origin. The region we have been calling “the universe” is viewed as but one “bubble” of space within an infinite system of bubbles…

Life itself could rise out of an infinite system of bubbles as it fights against the tide of entropy. I believe we exist as a happy accident despite the universe. Everything about our hostile and fragile environment screams to me a truth that we are an accident in the infinite explosions of pocket universes. Paul Davies doesn’t dwell on this and goes on to discuss a singular big bang and the various problems surrounding it including the origin for the laws of physics.

In my view it is the job of physics to explain the world based on lawlike principles. Scientists adopt differing attitudes to the metaphysical problem of how to explain the principles themselves. Some simply shrug and say we must just accept the laws as a brute fact. Others suggest that the laws must be what they are from logical necessity. Yet others propose that there exist many worlds, each with differing laws, and that only a small subset of these universes possess the rather special laws needed if life and reflective beings like ourselves are to emerge. Some skeptics rubbish the entire discussion by claiming that the laws of physics have no real existence anyway — they are merely human inventions designed to help us make sense of the physical world. It is hard to see how the origin of the universe could ever be explained with a view like this.

In my experience, almost all physicists who work on fundamental problems accept that the laws of physics have some kind of independent reality. With that view, it is possible to argue that the laws of physics are logically prior to the universe they describe. That is, the laws of physics stand at the base of a rational explanatory chain, in the same way that the axioms of Euclid stand at the base of the logical scheme we call geometry. Of course, one cannot prove that the laws of physics have to be the starting point of an explanatory scheme, but any attempt to explain the world rationally has to have some starting point, and for most scientists the laws of physics seem a very satisfactory one. In the same way, one need not accept Euclid’s axioms as the starting point of geometry; a set of theorems like Pythagoras’s would do equally well. But the purpose of science (and mathematics) is to explain the world in as simple and economic a fashion as possible, and Euclid’s axioms and the laws of physics are attempts to do just that…

…Although as a consequence of Kurt Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem of logic, one cannot prove a given set of laws, or mathematical axioms, to be the most compact set possible, one can investigate mathematically whether other logically self-consistent sets of laws exist. One can also determine whether there is anything unusual or special about the set that characterizes the observed universe as opposed to other possible universes. Perhaps the observed laws are in some sense an optimal set, producing maximal richness and diversity of physical forms. It may even be that the existence of life or mind relates in some way to this specialness. These are open questions, but I believe they form a more fruitful meeting ground for science and theology than dwelling on the discredited notion of what happened before the big bang.

The article doesn’t end with any answers other than to say we shouldn’t dwell on what happened before the big bang. Religions say this is the only question that matters and they have the answer. Atheists say religious answers are rubbish. As an agnostic, I agree religious answers aren’t the answer and scientifically speaking the jury’s still out.

Given the choice between an uncaused eternal creator and an uncaused eternal existence for matter and energy, I definitely choose the later. A singular big bang that brought forth matter, energy, time, and space with laws to govern them out of nothing makes no sense to me. Claiming an eternal uncaused being or any other uncaused event caused the big bang doesn’t solve anything. An infinite system of bubbles popping out pocket universes explains how we could rise out of infinity without a specific intelligent cause.

I would suggest we keep looking as long as religions and science both say “poof, we exist” is the cause of it all. I do have this feeling there is more to it… more out there to understand… but I’m fairly certain Christian/Muslim/Hindu/etc. gods didn’t do it. They still make much less sense than the big bang if existence did spring from nothing. All I really know is that we don’t know.