Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Empiricism is the ism for me

I've been fooling around on Amazon.com's customer forums. There are a number of ones in the Religion forum about atheism, and I've been trying to persuade self-styled atheists to give up the word and call themselves empiricists instead, because it lets you  avoid saying you work on a set of a priori assumptions, just like religious people do. 

Here's what I said:

I have no beliefs whatsoever, and I make no assumptions either.

That's my starting point--I call it "empty hands."

I find my "self" feeling like it's right behind my eyes--like the bridge of a ship, I suppose.

I find that I have what feel like perceptions.

They save me from pain and help me find pleasure.

That is, I see what looks like a solid vertical surface in front of me. If I try to treat it as if it doesn't exist and just walk forward, I bang into it and hurt myself. If I treat it as if it does exist, I don't hurt myself.

From there I construct everything else, out to learning that the universe--perhaps only this universe--is 13.7B years old.

At no time do I deny that I may be some metabeing's dream, due to pop out of existence abruptly when it/she/he/whatever wakes up. At no time do I deny that I might be the only conscious entity in the universe, dreaming my life. Or any of dozens of other science fiction/fantasy scenarios.

Because it doesn't make any difference to my behavior. If I act as if I and all around me exist in the more or less conventional understanding of same, per what the physicists and biologists etc. tell us, that comports most closely with me finding pleasure and avoiding pain--including purposely enduring pain for longer-term pleasure goals (I'm a long-distance bicyclist).

Likewise I find that if I behave morally, pretty much, I experience more pleasure and less pain, even though that's not always true in the moment. But as a four-dimensional being (plus, perhaps, a bunch of extra sub-Planck scale dimensions), I don't exist only "in the moment." My memories and validated anticipations accompany me through each moment.

I still have empty hands as far as assumptions go. My understandings are 100% provisional. But I'm smart enough to have an extremely refined set of pleasure-seeking/pain avoiding algorithms worked up, such that I can say that "there is no supernatural agency" after long and thorough reflection on the matter. I'm not 100% certain of that--only 99.9999% certain.

But that level of certainty, even if not ultimate, is enough to make calling myself an agnostic hypocritical--parsing words like a defense attorney, not as a scientifically-trained person. I deny no possibility of the nature of existence, or of what or who might lurk behind the Great Oz's curtain. But all probabilities are not equal. That's why I never buy lottery tickets, but I did buy a home. And with every passing day, scientific advances shrink the probability of anything not having a naturalistic explanation dwindles even further.

I could elaborate on this path from "empty hands" and assuming nada to being a knowledgeable adult at great length. But I hope this will suffice.

As for whether the human race will emerge from its long dream of gods and heavens...I honestly don't know. I am certain that progress is not certain--that what people understood in Athens in 600BC was way ahead of what people thought they knew in Gaul in 900AD--and that American Christianity, the active, churchgoing religion of half the country, has become pregressively more fundamentalist, even as the other half of the country has become more secular (including the many people who profess to some kind of religion but aren't active churchgoers).

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