If God Had Not Designed the Brain

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In my discussions about God’s existence (or lack of it) with theists, one of the arguments I encounter is this: If God doesn’t exist, then how do I know if what I am thinking is correct or not? In other words, if God had not designed the brain to know what is true or not, then all that the brain has to go on is evolution. And since evolution is about survival, not necessarily about truth, then how do I know if this brain evolved to actually perceive truth? How can I claim to be seeking for the truth or to have found it, with such a faulty or unreliable instrument?

I admit not having a proper answer for this argument other than feeling there was something wrong somewhere. Today I read an article by Richard Carrier which addressed this question rather brilliantly.

Right from the start, he does not argue the premise that our brain is faulty and unreliable but he agrees with it 100%, saying “We know for a fact that our cognitive faculties are poor…they do not work very well. So badly designed are they, that it took us thousands of years to invent ‘workarounds’ for our failing faculties, technologies that ‘bypass’ their defects, and help us learn about reality contrary to our biologically evolved inability to do so. Language. Logic. Formal mathematics. Scientific method. Critical thinking skills. Even physical instruments, which correct for countless limits and defects in our sensory and cognitive abilities. These we all had to invent. None of them were communicated to us by God. We had to come up with them ourselves. And because a god didn’t help us find them, it took over a hundred thousand years to do it. That makes exactly zero sense on Keller’s thesis. But it is exactly what we should expect on mine: there is no God.” (Keller here refers to Timothy Keller, a theologian whom Carrier is refuting in his article).

He then refers to an article listing over 100 cognitive biases, or ways our brain deviates from logic and rational thinking. Reading through that list was an eye-opener for me as I saw myself falling into one or another cognitive bias.

So here the theist’s argument is easily turned against him, for if God had indeed designed the brain for truth, then he is a poor designer indeed. Yet some would still persist and say that, “Well, you’re still agreeing that there is a designer, whether poor or not.” To which I would reply, “If that is the case, why would a poor designer be worthy of praise and worship, much less obedience?”

If they say, “Well, it’s really man’s fault, because it was his sin that caused the defect.” So in other words, everything was perfect to begin with, and because of sin, it’s as if God randomly took out a microchip or two from our brains so that it was now faulty?

But consider this, if our brain was a product of slow evolutionary processes, then it would stand to reason that it had to have made many faulty assumptions and conclusions — and looking at history, we can confirm that indeed it has. Our ancestors saw lightning and believed it was a sentient deity. They thought that diseases were brought about by evil spirits, and they believed the same could be cured by magical rituals, exorcisms, prayer or applying sacred oils. They believed the earth was flat and that the sun ran across the sky.

That we were able to create tools that worked around these beliefs and showed them to be false, is a testament to man’s tenacity to discover the truth about reality, rather than to any claim to divine design. While it is true that our perceptions are not 100% accurate, they are not 100% inaccurate either, and the the simple truth is that they are more accurate now than they had ever been, and we know this not because we simply feel it, but because experiment has shown and proven it.

The scientific method, logic, probability, statistics, and so on are all tools that we rely on not because they have been handed to us as gospel-truth but because they have proven time and again to be more reliable indicators of reality, negating the many cognitive biases that have evolved with our brains. Thus, we can say that following these principles would lead us to a better understanding of truth and reality, rather than the simple belief that God made it so.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

How Do I Get To The Other Side?

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There is a story I encountered twice in the past few weeks. The first time was when I read it somewhere on the internet and the second time was when a friend used it in a speech dedicated to the birthday of another friend. Anyway, it’s a good story and worth pondering upon, so here goes:

A young monk was walking along a riverbank, trying to find a way to go across the river. The current was too strong to swim in and there were numerous rocks jutting out that would make that very dangerous. He walked for quite some time but did not see a bridge, nor even a raft or boat that he could use to paddle across.

Then he saw an older monk on the other side, hobbling along the riverbank. The young monk waved to the older one and shouted, “Father, how do I get to the other side?”

The old monk looked at him for a moment, then shouted back, “My son, you are already on the other side.”

I guess it is the human condition to not be satisfied about one’s current state. The poor dream of being rich, thinking how happy they would be with oodles of money. But there are also the rich who envy the poor for their simplicity and ability to laugh and enjoy life despite their circumstances. There are common folk like us who dream of being famous while there are celebrities who try hard to anonymous when they are off the camera. There are those deprived of good health who fight tooth and nail just to see one more sunrise while there are those in the prime of their lives who willingly throw themselves off the roof or put a bullet through their heads to hasten their journey to the ultimate other side.

There is another story of a poor fisherman who was sitting on the docks with his friends. They were talking and laughing while holding on to their fishing poles waiting for the fish to bite. A businessman came along and saw them, and said to the fisherman, “You know, if you went on your boat to the deeper part of the sea, and used a net, you could catch more fish.”

“Why would I want to do that?” asked the fisherman. “I catch just enough for me to eat for today. What will I do with all that fish?”

“Well, you could sell it at the market and make some money,” replied the businessman.

“And why would I want to do that?” said the fisherman.

“Well, with more money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch more fish,” said the businessman.

“And why would I want to do that?” said the fisherman.

“Well, eventually, you could buy more boats and hire others to fish for you and you can have tons of money so that you won’t ever worry again on how or where to get your next meal. Then you can sit back with your friends and go fishing all day.”

“But isn’t that what I’m already doing now?” said the fisherman.

The secret to happiness is contentment — the realization that where you are now is already the other side. As the zen master said to the student who was getting frustrated because he worked so hard at enlightenment, “Stop struggling and you will arrive.”


Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Death Rites

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A friend of mine told me an interesting anecdote the other day. An aunt had recently passed away. At the wake, there was a funeral service held by the funeral home itself. The representative, according to my friend, was “extreme born again” and as she delivered a fiery sermon, one of the cousins, who belonged to another sect, got up and went outside. As he did so, another cousin whispered, “Oh look, he left because his Jesus and her Jesus don’t get along very well.”

After that came a mass composed of old people wearing yellow, and my friend wondered if his aunt would get confused as to which heaven she was supposed to enter.

I replied that some Filipino-Chinese customs were more bizarre as there would be a mix of Christian and Buddhist or Taoist beliefs — as well as perhaps some folk beliefs. Imagine a priest or pastor delivering a sermon while at his back is an altar with incense and a food offering for the deceased. A really elaborate funeral affair would have a paper-mache house, cars and other property that would later be burned so that the deceased would have these in the afterlife. There is also the constant burning of paper symbolizing money, for the deceased to spend in heaven.

Strict adherents of feng shui would check your birth dates at the door. If your Chinese zodiac sign conflicts with the deceased, you won’t be allowed to enter and view the corpse, even if you are a relative. I learned about this a few years back when I had a student whose brother had passed away and she wasn’t allowed to go to the wake.

Some still adhere to the practice of hiring mourners to wail loudly at the burial procession, to show the deceased how sorrowful everyone is at their passing. And then there is the ritual of wearing only white clothes for certain period of time (a year, if I’m not mistaken) after the funeral.

The interesting thing is that when I talk to some friends who follow these beliefs, I learned that most of them do so not because they really believe in the practices, but because that is what is expected of them by the community. In other words, they don’t want to be seen as ignorant or rebellious of the social customs around them.

This got me to thinking what it would be like on my own funeral. I’ll probably break so many customs and traditions. For one, I will forbid any religious services whatsoever. Eulogies and poetry-reading are acceptable. Anyone can come wearing whatever they like, even the color red. There will be jazz music playing all day long.

My own idea of a death ritual is it should be a celebration of a life well-lived, the perfect dessert to a satisfying meal. I see no purpose in burdening others to follow elaborate rituals or threatening them with eternal hellfire.

I do not know what lies beyond death, or even if there is life after death. What matters is that I have fully lived and loved in this one.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Cryptocurrency 101 (Part 5)

Photo by JD Hancock

Part 1     Part 2     Part 3    Part 4

Having written about the basics of cryptocurrency and blockchain computing the past 4 weeks, I now want to conclude this series by addressing certain common objections that people inevitably make every so often. Since most people are familiar with bitcoin, I will use bitcoin as a general term. So when I mention “bitcoin” it not only refers to bitcoin per se but to other types of cryptocurrency as well, unless explicitly stated.

  • Bitcoin is not backed by anything.

People who make this objection usually say that our money is backed up by our government’s gold reserves or something like that, but that is actually an argument from ignorance. As early as 1931, Britain abandoned the gold standard of money and it was quickly followed by the US in 1933. Today, no government in the world uses the gold standard.

Instead we are now using fiat money — which is essentially money that the government mandates to be accepted as a means of payment. In other words, our money today is not backed by anything except the government’s say-so that it is valuable. Even then, even our government does not control the value of our currency but is instead dependent on the world market for our currency — like any other currency in existence — cryptocurrency included.

The underlying implication of this objection is that bitcoin has no value in itself. It’s all just electronic signals in a computer. But this overlooks the fact that the same can be said for fiat money. It has no value for itself — it’s just pieces of paper and bits of metal. If the government collapses, the currency becomes worthless.

Even gold and silver have no intrinsic value other than being rare and shiny perhaps. Now, I would even argue that the intrinsic value of bitcoin lies in the security of its network as well as its portability. No other currency can match bitcoin’s portability. I can go to any country that has internet and send the to anyone or receive them from anyone in the world. Even if entire countries like the US or China gets blocked off from the internet, bitcoin will still be running and I will still have access to my coins because they can’t be blocked or frozen by any government.

  • Bitcoin has no central authority.

Again, this comes from a mindset that a country’s currency is backed (or controlled) by its government. Someone told me, “If the Philippine peso fails, then I know who to run to or to blame.”

My response is, if the government fails, well yes, you can blame the government but there is now no government to run to. And so what if you can blame the government? That will not bring back the value of your money.

In fact, the one using this objection misses the point entirely that the power of bitcoin resides in its being decentralized — that it is quite difficult for any one entity to control and manipulate the currency because of the way the blockchain works. That it has no central authority is actually an advantage rather than a disadvantage. As I mentioned in #1, no one and I mean no one can freeze my bitcoins. As long as I have my private keys, I will always be able to access my bitcoins and no government or any other entity can stop that.

  • The bitcoin market is too volatile and risky.

This is true. When I started on this series, the price of bitcoin was at an all-time high of around $2900. Since then, it has dropped briefly to around $2,200 and is now hovering at around $2,600. Those are some pretty wild swings in a four-week span.

However, I approach risk not in terms of avoiding it but in how to manage it. As a businessman, I understand that there is risk in everything that I do. There is risk even in crossing the street or driving my car to work. One cannot avoid risk. One can only manage it.

The way I manage risk when investing in bitcoin is to use only extra money — money that I can afford to lose or to keep dormant for a few months or even a few years. That way, if the price of bitcoin drops suddenly, I won’t panic and begin to sell it off because I need the cash. I can just sit tight and wait for it to go up again.

And I’m confident that bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) will still go up in value. We have only begun to scratch the surface of this new type of currency. I believe there is so much more in store and so many other uses for it that will be developed in the future — maybe not necessarily with bitcoin itself but with other cryptocurrencies offering more advanced features like smart contracts and so on.

It used to be that only a small group of geeks understood bitcoin, and that circle eventually grew wider and wider, and it grows wider still up to today when even non-geeks are now interested in investing. Simple economics dictate that when the demand goes high for a commodity of limited supply, it’s price can only go up.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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