11 November 2008

My Manifesto

This is a post that has been long overdue. It is long, bear with me.

For the past several months, I have been facing a dilemma. I suppose I have had this dilemma for a long time, for years, even, but it was not until recently that it bothered me enough to actually pay attention to it.

It has something to do with religion, whether I needed to believe in one or not.

For years, I have been raised in a religious family. I cannot remember a period in which attending religious services was not part of the picture. Religion was the core of everything in which everything else revolved around it. Whenever my family moved to another location around the globe, one of the foremost considerations was whether we can practice our religion safely and freely. When selecting a place to live, a consideration to make was where the nearest place of worship was. School was also another location in which religion was a factor: all the activities in which it was in clash with the religion I was brought up in was avoided at all costs, and as a child, I was trained to defend my beliefs.

However, as I was growing up, as I was learning to think on my own, I started to wonder whether those were really my beliefs, or whether those were just what my environment conditioned me to be.

There was a time in undergrad in which I questioned all the things I took for granted. I questioned things, from sexual orientation to my religious belief. And the thing that always bugged me had to do with the metaphysical realm. I suppose I was able to supress it until a few months before, when I found myself feeling that my head would explode if I do not release this thought in my head.

I suppose this all boils down to whether I believe in the existence of God or not. I was raised into believing that God indeed exists, but there are plenty of reasons why I would opt to reject that belief. I suppose this is the thought that I was wrestling with in my head, that there was a point back in August of this year, in which I found myself losing my appetite, and there were nights in which I cannot sleep, as I was tossing and turning in my bed, thinking back and forth, weighing the pros and cons of believing versus not believing. Sometimes I found myself in the dark night walking on campus, losing grip of where I was, only to realize later that I have been walking for more than an hour without direction. It was at this point that I decided to see a psychologist, since I know there was a problem and I wanted to fix it, but I didn’t know how.

I suppose at this time, it would be beneficial if people know how I think. According to the Myers-Briggs Personality Typology, I am an INTJ. I have taken that personality test many times in the past, and I have been consistent in getting that combination.

I am a pragmatist. I subject every idea to the ruthless test of whether it works or not. I would drop an idea if it does not seem to be practical. I highly value critical thinking, and I don’t think it is wrong to question authority or convention if it does not work. I am the type in which I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. If you ask me something and I do not know the answer, I won’t pretend that I do know the answer, but rather, I would point you to whoever I think would be better capable in answering you. There are some social conventions that I do not understand, simply because they do not seem to make sense. For further reading about my personality type, I would point you here.

Thus, slowly, but surely, religion was also subjected to this rigeur. If religion makes sense, then sure, I am willing to embrace it, but if not, I will lose it.

Many people asked me what triggered this dilemma, and I suppose upon introspection, I could trace it to the time in which I dissected a human brain in a class one day. This was back in August, early this semester.

What I saw fascinated me. The human brain is very intense, intricate, and complicated. Compared to other animals, the human brain is very uniquely designed. I have to say that the idea of a creator is very appealing in this regard. But I felt there was a contradiction here, of which I will explicate. Unlike other animals, the human brain has more cortex, and more areas that are not pre-assigned to do a certain task. Other animals perhaps may have an enlarged occipital lobe, because that is the area that processes their sense of vision. Other animals on the other hand have an enlarged area that deals with the sense of smell. Most of the animal brains have large areas that are designed to protect them. However, there are areas in the human brain that the animal brains do not have. And most of these have something to do with thinking and learning. In the human brain, there simply are plenty of areas that are not pre-assigned to do a certain task, because the human has the capacity to think and learn and therefore develop.

In short, the human brain was designed to be the core machinery for thought. Humans therefore have the capability to think critically and independent of external influences. If one entertains the idea of a creator, then this creator wants humans to use this brain critically. The design shows that humans were not created to be robotic and programmed into simply doing one set of tasks. From the brain dissection that I did a couple of months ago, I was impressed by two thoughts: that humans were made to be capable of critical thought, and humans are intellectually independent.

This runs counter to what the Bible says, that humans are incapable of ruling by themselves.

Yes, it is true that in the thousands of years in which humans have existed in this planet, there isn’t a time in which everyone was happy, and everyone was satisfied. Humans have tried every type of government, from communism to capitalism to fascism to any other –ism there is, but it still fails. Now is that proof that the Bible is correct, and therefore one should posit the existence of God? That due to Adam and Eve’s sin, God decided to do a social experiment, handing over to humans the reins of government, in order to prove humans wrong? Or is it simply the case that humans are inherently evil, therefore what may be the happiness of one is the grief of another? Which one is the better explanation? Everything else being equal, which one is the explanation that needs less assumptions?

The thing is, for many years, in different cultures, humans simply take God and religion to be the explanation for things otherwise cannot be explained by current human knowledge. Take the Black Death in Europe back in the 1300’s for example. At that time, people had no knowledge of bacteria and how it spread, so humans had theories that would be considered ludicrous by the current scientific thought. People thought that only God’s anger would be the cause of such immense destruction.

The same thing with death. People wanted to explain why a human grows old and die, and since they cannot come up with a rational explanation, they turn to the supernatural and say that God takes people away and therefore that is the reason why humans die.

The thing is, humans are rational beings. Humans are also curious. After all, they have a brain that was designed to think. Thus, if there is a phenomenon that happens around them, they would want to search for an explanation why that phenomenon happens. And if they cannot attribute it to a certain cause, then they invoke the supernatural. Every culture has it, no matter where in the world one goes, every culture has a supernatural belief system. Now does that become proof that the supernatural indeed exists? Or is it just the human intellectual explanatory wastebasket, a catch-all criterion for everything that is not yet explainable by human reasoning?

The thing that irks me most is the reasoning that God is infallible, and that humans are in no position to question God. Why? From a scientific point of view, this is an untestable hypothesis.

Regarding this, it is the common rhetoric that the Bible is indeed the word of God, due to the fact that humans have constantly revised their advice, but the Bible stays the same from old times, and yet is still effective. Some people take as proof the authenticity of the Bible the fact that the Bible has stayed effective in giving advice about child-rearing, while humans have constantly revised their self-help books on parenting. The Bible allegedly stays the same with regard to medical advice, while humans have shifted from blood-letting to blood transfusions. The Bible has been saying from old times that the world is not flat, while people only found that out when the crew of Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world. People cite this as proof that the Bible is indeed the word of God.

However, what is wrong with revising one’s hypotheses? Isn’t that a major tenet of the scientific method? One puts forward a thesis, and another tests it, and if it holds, then good, if it does not, then a new thesis is put forward. That is how humans increase their knowledge base.

Come to think of it, even religions revise. With regard to the religion that I grew up in, revisions also occurred, with books being published constantly, and previous publications being revised time and time again. Understandings of Biblical interpretations have changed as well.

Infallibility: this is the concept that I ultimately have problems with. The fact that people are told to believe in something, and they simply accept it, is a concept that I cannot accept. The concept of faith, in which one believes in something that has otherwise no empirical proof, is for me like a boat who simply lets go of its sails and lets the waves drift him here and there. Can’t the people see how organized religion has abused this concept? People are willing to die just in the name of faith! People pay money, people shut off their heads, people hook their bodies with bombs, all in the name of faith.

I find it unbelievable that people are willing to surrender the use of their brains, and rather follow blindly to anything in the name of faith and religion.

The concept of hope: It is true that people use the concept of the supernatural as a comfort strategy. People are afraid of dying, so what do they invent? The afterlife. It is true that religion can be a source of hope and comfort. People find comfort in the notion that someone keeps track of their good deeds, and that even if they are not fortunate in the present life, if they keep on doing good, they will be rewarded for their good deeds in the afterlife. But is this notion true, or is it just a coping mechanism?

Back in Manila, just by observing the religion in which I was a part of, most of its members were not so fortunate in society. There were members who were living next to the railways in pilfered land, there were members who were abandoned by their spouses and had emotional issues, there were members who simply did not have the ideal life. So isn’t religion the best solution? That by doing what God wants you to do, you will be rewarded with a better life later in the future? But is it really true what the religious teachings say about the afterlife? Or is it just a coping strategy to ease the pain of suffering?

In other words, would I be willing to fool myself into believing in the supernatural just to give myself hope? Or would I rather opt to accept that this life is all there is, and just suck it up and make the best out of it? Would I choose comfort and hope knowing that it is false, or would I choose reality?

I suppose by now my choice is clear.

Before, I made remarks to the effect that I wish my parents took me religion-shopping when I was growing up. In effect, I blamed them for immersing me in just one belief system, and not showing me the rest. I do not blame them now.

I believe that humans are born with a blank slate. A tabula rasa. And good parents give the children a set of beliefs to protect themselves. My parents did exactly that. They gave me what they thought is the best set of beliefs for me, and I do thank them for doing so. For a long while, it worked. However, there came a point in which I needed to evaluate whether I believed in those beliefs myself, or whether I only believe in those because I was told to do so.

This is my manifesto. This is my belief.

I believe that the human race has three core characteristics: 1) Humans are inherently selfish. 2) Humans are inherently evil. 3) Humans are inherently curious. Most social phenomena can be explained by invoking any of these three tenets.

Everything else being equal, the world is better explained by abstract rules. If the universe operates on abstract rules, you could learn them, and you could protect yourself. If a supreme being exists, he could squash you anytime he wants.

Life is a puzzle. In solving a puzzle, the simplest explanation is the best explanation. Positing the existence of the supernatural is not the simplest, nor is it the most rational explanation. In connection to this, the concept of falsifiability has a close connection with the strength of a theory. If a theory is testable, and it passes the test, then it is a strong theory. If a theory fails the test, then a counter theory can be posited. If a theory is untestable, unquestionable, or otherwise infallible, then the theory becomes dogma.

This life is all there is. Once I die, I am gone. I do not believe in the afterlife. I do not need to fool myself that something better awaits me after I die. I only have 70-80 years to live, of which I have lived 26 years of it already. Some people feel the need to posit the existence of the supernatural to explain the concept of life and death, but I would prefer to not embrace that belief, as the supernatural has been replaced as a plausible explanation for other phenomena, as seen in human history.

I value truth. I also value critical thought. I value scientific inquiry and empiricism. I value my mind. I am not a robot. I am not programmed to believe in a certain set of beliefs without questioning it. I have the capacity to think, and I will always exercise this right.

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