On our greater intelligence

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“If our greater intelligence is the hallmark of our species then we should use it, as all other beings use their distinctive advantages, to help ensure that our offspring prosper, and their heredity is passed on, and that the fabric of nature that sustains us is protected.

Human intelligence is imperfect, surely, and newly arisen. The ease with which it can be sweet-talked, overwhelmed, or subverted by other hard-wired tendencies, sometimes themselves disguised as the light of reason, is worrisome. But if our intelligence is the only edge, we must learn to use it better. To sharpen it. To understand its limitations and deficiencies. To use it as cats use stealth before pouncing. As walking sticks use camouflage. To make it the tool of our survival.

If we do this, we can solve almost any problem we are likely to confront in the next 100,000 years.” – Excerpt of ‘The Immortals’

Hekanibru

A little of Omar Khayyám’s wisdom

Omar Khayyám was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet, widely considered to be one of the most influential scientists of the middle ages.

I came across some of his verses in Hitchen’s Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. I’m not too keen on poetry in general, and I don’t agree with some of his views, but Khayyám’s sharp wit really caught my eye.

There’s great humbleness, pragmatism, and irreverence in his words. I would have absolutely loved to have had a drink (or three) with this brilliant man.

The bird of life is singing on the bough
His two eternal notes of “I and Thou”—
O! hearken well, for soon the song sings through,
And, would we hear it, we must hear it now.

The bird of life is singing in the sun,
Short is his song, nor only just begun,—
A call, a trill, a rapture, then—so soon!—
A silence, and the song is done—is done.

Yea! what is man that deems himself divine?
Man is a flagon, and his soul the wine;
Man is a reed, his soul the sound therein;
Man is a lantern, and his soul the shine.

Would you be happy! hearken, then, the way:
Heed not To-morrow, heed not Yesterday;
The magic words of life are Here and Now—
O fools, that after some to-morrow stray!

Were I a Sultan, say what greater bliss
Were mine to summon to my side than this,—
Dear gleaming face, far brighter than the moon!
O Love! and this immortalizing kiss.

To all of us the thought of heaven is dear—
Why not be sure of it and make it here?
No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,
But ‘tis so far away—and you are near.

Men talk of heaven,—there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,—there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,—
O love, there is no other life—but here.

Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane,
This playful wisdom growing out of pain;
How many midnights whitened into morn
Before the seeker knew he sought in vain.

You want to know the Secret—so did I,
Low in the dust I sought it, and on high
Sought it in awful flight from star to star,
The Sultan’s watchman of the starry sky.

Up, up, where Parwin’s hoofs stamp heaven’s floor,
My soul went knocking at each starry door,
Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair,
Clear-eyed I looked—and laughed—and climbed no more.

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:
No agony of any mortal brain
Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;
The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

Yet sometimes on a sudden all seems clear—
Hush! hush! my soul, the Secret draweth near;
Make silence ready for the speech divine—
If Heaven should speak, and there be none to hear!

Yea! sometimes on the instant all seems plain,
The simple sun could tell us, or the rain;
The world, caught dreaming with a look of heaven,
Seems on a sudden tip-toe to explain.

Like to a maid who exquisitely turns
A promising face to him who, waiting, burns
In hell to hear her answer—so the world
Tricks all, and hints what no man ever learns.

Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.

But here are wine and beautiful young girls,
Be wise and hide your Sorrows in their curls,
Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea,
You shall not bring us any better pearls.

Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;
What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?

So since with all my passion and my skill,
The world’s mysterious meaning mocks me still,
Shall I not piously believe that I
Am kept in darkness by the heavenly will?

The Koran! well, come put me to the test—
Lovely old book in hideous error drest—
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave the Secret, and denied it me?—
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that too.

Old Khayyám, say you, is a debauchee;
If only you were half so good as he!
He sins no sins but gentle drunkenness,
Great-hearted mirth, and kind adultery.

But yours the cold heart, and the murderous tongue,
The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,
The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye,
And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.

So I be written in the Book of Love,
I have no care about that book above;
Erase my name, or write it, as you please—
So I be written in the Book of Love.

What care I, love, for what the Sufis say?
The Sufis are but drunk another way;
So you be drunk, it matters not the means,
So you be drunk—and glorify your clay.

Drunken myself, and with a merry mind,
An old man passed me, all in vine-leaves twined;
I said, “Old man, hast thou forgotten God?”
“Go, drink yourself,” he said, “for God is kind.”

“Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus—
Surely He loves to hear the glasses clink!”

From God’s own hand this earthly vessel came,
He shaped it thus, be it for fame or shame;
If it be fair—to God be all the praise,
If it be foul—to God alone the blame.

To me there is much comfort in the thought
That all our agonies can alter nought,
Our lives are written to their latest word,
We but repeat a lesson He hath taught.

Our wildest wrong is part of His great Right,
Our weakness is the shadow of His might,
Our sins are His, forgiven long ago,
To make His mercy more exceeding bright.

When first the stars were made and planets seven,
Already was it told of me in Heaven
That God had chosen me to sing His Vine,
And in my dust had thrown the vinous leaven.

Excerpt of the Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám paraphrased from several literal translations by Richard Le Gallienne.

Hekanibru

10 Questions for Every Atheist

The website Today Christian published a list of 10 questions that “atheists cannot truly and honestly really answer”. Here are my answers :).

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1. How did you become an atheist?

Having been taught to think critically, I started noticing contradictions and fallacies during my Religion class when I was very young; however, it was not until I had finished university that I decided to seriously consider the claims for the existence of God.

After several years of careful and very challenging reflection (and countless hours of discussion with a dear friend of mine who was going through the same process), I concluded that it is more likely that there is no God.

2. What happens when we die?

We simply cease to exist. I do not deny that the idea of an afterlife is seductive, but we must be careful not to indulge in wishful thinking, especially with subjects as important as this one.

3. What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

If after I die, I find myself face to face with God, I would humbly accept that I was wrong and accept the consequences. However, I would not for a moment feel ashamed for having doubted Him; after all, it would be my God-given reason that led me to that position. I fully agree with Jefferson when he said:

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”

4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?

My reason. Given my experience and having read about happiness, I strongly believe that a good life leads to a happy life. I try to be a good person so as to increase my happiness and that of the people around me.

5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape while good deeds are unrewarded?

I have not once wanted to murder or rape anyone, regardless of whether I believed in God. These are two separate issues, in my opinion. More importantly, we should not need punishment to refrain from doing evil, and we should not refrain from doing good because of a lack of reward. Having ulterior motives for preferring good over evil is not moral at all.

6. If there is no God, how does your life have any meaning?

Meaning is something we can create regardless of whether God exists. My life and my actions matter to me and to the people around me, and therefore they are meaningful to me and to them. In spite of being overall, as Tim Minchin would put it, insignificant lumps of carbon, our ephemeral passing through this world can have a great impact on, and be deeply meaningful to, many people.

7. Where did the universe come from?

We do not know yet and yes, we may never know. While this humble answer may be unsatisfactory for many, I prefer it over saying that God created it for two main reasons: first, we cannot falsify that hypothesis; and, second, it does not really address the underlying issue as we do not know where God came from either (or even if He actually exists).

8. What about miracles? What about all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

Extraordinary events happen more frequently than we think; what some people might consider a miracle might be (and usually is) perfectly well explained without appealing to the supernatural. On the other hand, countless alleged miracles and all sorts of supernatural phenomena have been disproved as we advance our understanding.

As for people’s claims, people make mistakes or intentionally deceive all the time. We should not conclude that something exists (God, angels, fairies, the Loch Ness Monster) simply because someone claims to have seen it. Whereas some of these claims might be worth taking a closer look at, they should only serve as the beginning of a proper investigation, not as sufficient evidence for the corresponding conclusion.

9. What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris?

I find Dawkins too abrasive and arrogant; his position seems to be that one is either an atheist or an idiot, a position which I do not share at all. The worst possible way to effectively communicate an idea is to offend or underestimate those who disagree.

I really like the so-called Hitchslap; i.e., the articulate way in which Hitchens neatly and mercilessly destroys a flawed argument or fallacy. I would really love to have met him or at least have attended one of his lectures or debates in person.

As for Harris, even though I do not agree with all of his ideas, I like that he is willing to tackle difficult subjects, such as that of free will or morality. I also like the easy-to-follow language he uses in his books.

10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

There are several social and psychological reasons why we, as a species, seem to be predisposed to believe in God, none of which are related to whether God actually exists. On the other hand, we should realize that a belief is not necessarily true simply because it is commonly held (e.g., at some point, most people believed the Earth was flat).

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Have you considered these questions yourself? What would your answers be?

Hekanibru

Stephen Fry on God

“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right.

It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?

Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?

Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.

It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

Hekanibru