Where is Happiness? And is too much bad for you?

“Too much is bad for you? Too much is bad for you? Of course too much is bad for you. That’s precisely what too much means. It is precisely that quantity deemed to be excessive.” With these sage words Stephen Fry once admonished his stooge Hugh Laurie in a sketch about the excesses of smoking.

Our society prostrates itself at the altar of excess. We bow before profligate spending, limitless drinking, shouting, unchecked distraction, consumption, eating and other forms of luxury. The age of bread and circuses has arrived, and far from wanting out we demand more. More satellite TV, more big bangs in big “smash” movie “hits”. We are advertised to on this basis: have a bigger memory, have a faster computer, a more powerful car, a more advanced electric razor. Have shinier hair, have bigger boobs, go to university more, earn more money… We also tune out more, get drunk more, get fat more, get admitted to hospital for preventable diseases more. Whether its good or bad, we don’t care. We want more. Does all this excess really push us towards happiness and fulfillment? Or will we have to come to the sad realisation in the end that the only two things that really satisfy us are opening a new CD from its plastic wrapper and watching other people fail?

I can’t really carry out an analysis about all this as wittily and poignantly as Armando Iannucci manages in his brilliant satirical series The Armando Iannucci Shows. So I’ll leave you to ponder the message for yourselves. The last thing you want is more explanation, I’m sure.

Some Stupid Arguments FOR God

I can’t believe just how often people come out with the dimmest arguments for God. Now, actually there are some good arguments for God, but they are not cheap remarks. I frequently debate matters of God with all sorts of people. The theists do occasionally make you think. But many theists seem to think that some of the following make good arguments. I shall dispose of each of them now.

1. 76% of people believe in God

I’ve frequently encountered this whilst corresponding with right-wing American nutters. It’s not an argument. It’s a statement of fact. If it even is a fact (the quoted figure is often different and not properly referenced). As though it needed saying: just because any particular number of people believe in something doesn’t make it true. People used to think that the earth was flat. They used to think in droves that miasma transmits plague. Many used to believe in slavery. Many believed Hitler… and so on…

2. Without God everything is permitted.

This is the argument from Dostoyevsky. Except it’s not an argument. It is an assertion. In fact, hardly more than a worry. And an unsubstantiated one. You see, it all depends on what you mean permitted. I am not “permitted” to go and kill anyone; the law of the country I live in prohibits it. But of course the theist means “permitted” in the sense that the universe contains no intrinsic moral code or justice whose source is above humanity. Well, firstly that’s true. There is no evidence for such a thing. It is obvious that many of the most grotesque evil-doers don’t get punished for their crimes (think Stalin for example). So the theist moves to metaphysics: people get punished for bad deeds in the afterlife. Except there’s no evidence for an afterlife, so you have to go on faith again. Which is what the original statement above is an expression of anyway. Not an argument.

3. The world’s worst killers on the planet, Stalin and Mao, were atheists.

True. But they didn’t murder for atheism. They murdered for power and for fanaticism. Denying the idea of God doesn’t lead to genocide. On the other hand, asserting that your moral code is the one God means for humanity to abide by is exclusivist and dangerous if it is imposed by force. For a discussion of why the “which is worse, atheism or theism” debate is a complete waste of time, read my entry here: Is Religion Evil? An Interminable Debate… But even if Stalin and Mao did murder for atheism’s sake (which they didn’t) that still does not imply God exists.

4. Atheism produces bad art/music/culture

I recently read this on an orthodox Christian blog. Of course what constitutes “bad” art is a matter of opinion, not of objective fact. I, or anyone else, is equally entitled to think religious art is bad (dreary mass music, dull figures in frescos). Of course I don’t think religious art is always bad. But it is a question of opinion. So it is not objectively true that atheism produces bad art/music and culture. Though even if it did, that would still not be a reason to believe in God.

Imagine applying that reasoning the other way: I don’ t like Bach’s Mass in B minor. Religious music is bad. Bach didn’t believe in unicorns. Therefore I will believe in unicorns.

On this logic, the addition of opinion and taste to metaphysical entities results in the justified belief in anything you like! God included.

In any case, many people who say that “atheism produces bad art/music/literature” actually mean that they think secularism or humanism do, not atheism. Atheism, as the etymology of the word indicates, is “without god(s)”. It is just the position that there is no sufficient reason to believe in God. It is not a movement or an ideology. Just a conclusion based on arguments offered by theism. It is a reaction to theism, not a rival for cultural space. Humanism and secularism are different to mere atheism.

5. Morality comes from God

Now, I’ve tackled this already, but I want to look at it from a different angle.

This argument is most often offered by fanatic Christians who assert the literal truth of the Old Testament (of all things!). Though I dare say most Jews and Muslims will also believe their moral code is divinely given. And that’s half the problem! For they can’t all be right. Not to mention the inherent danger in believing you can interpret the word of God as to how everyone should behave. That’s how you get such inhumane things as Sharia law in Saudi Arabia. Believing you are in possession of the holy moral code and have God’s backing is a dangerous thing.

In any case, consider this: How did people make it to the base of Mount Sinai for Moses to receive the ten commandments without everyone killing each other before hand? Did they get there and find out that murder, infidelity and theft were all bad of all a sudden? “What do you mean we can’t do that stuff anymore?” they exclaimed horrified when they saw the tablets.

Of course this is rubbish. A society to exist must have rules by which it is structured. And that must have happened before the ten commandments were handed invented. Morality is not God-given. It is human in origins. In fact, some animals have it too. Bonobos and Chimps are easily observed to have moral codes.

6. “Intelligent Design”

Or as I like to write it, “Intelligent” Design; both parts of the phrase are wrong (the world is not designed, and much less by anything intelligent).

Creationism is the primitive’s answer to where the world came from. The “Intelligent” Design movement revamped the arguments, drawing for inspiration from William Paley’s Natural Theology. The idea is that such things as humans, the diversity of species, complex organs and so on are too complex and serve their purpose so well that they couldn’t have happened by chance.

To assert such nonsense you have to deny Evolution or Darwinism. And that means having to be quite ignorant of scientific evidence. Some “Intelligent” Designers claim that Evolution is not even a scientific theory since it can’t predict what future species will evolve (and is therefore untestable). That takes quite some ignorance of what a scientific theory is. People who are inclined to think this way should see my entry here: What To Show Someone Who Believes In “Intelligent” Design

There are even those who would say that the Earth is created some 6,000-10,000 years ago. They are completely wrong. These people have to work very hard to keep at bay reality and scientific evidence, including geology, paleontology, carbon dating, and so on. The way they get the age of the earth to be so small is they add up all the ages of all the people in the Bible, starting at the end. They work backwards to Genesis and thus figure out when the world must have been created by God. You can demonstrate that the world is older than this merely by adding up the rings in tree trunks (an extra ring is added every year to a tree).

If you need further convincing, read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_earth_creationism#Origins

Did a loving God “intelligently” create the appendix? People’s backs aren’t well enough adjusted for walking upright (which is why many people suffer from back pain in their life) – is this God’s “intelligent” dealings? If men are intelligently designed, why do they get prostate trouble in their later years? Why do so many people choke each year, when you could easily have eating and breathing orifices separate (even in mammals; whales have this)?

There’s neither a creator, nor is he intelligent, nor are the people who believe the opposite. Or at the very least they’re ignorant.

7. The Ontological and Cosmological Arguments

The ontological argument is laughable. See here: The Ontological Argument

The Cosmological argument needs an infinite regress of causes, which in turn also demands an explanation. The debate is rather circular. An interesting debate between Betrand Russell and Father Copplestone in Why I Am Not A Christian discusses this. There is a plethora of publications on this topic. But the argument has hardly convinced philosophy to adopt theism as a result.

Final remark:

Even if any of the arguments above did show that God must exist, which God would it be? The Christian God? Allah? Jahweh? Zeus? Take “Intelligent” Design: God created the eye. Ok. Let’s say that’s true. How does that get to become “Jesus died for my sins”?

It doesn’t.

Why We Are Not Happy

Armando Iannucci presents an analysis of the reasons for why modern humans are unable to find fulfilment in their lives. Compulsive viewing.

Responsibility In a Nuclear Age

J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist best known for his role as the director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer lamented the weapon’s killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Famously, after the war he recounted his impressions of the bomb’s invention by quoting the Bhagavad Gita whilst trying to hold back tears on television.

In his book Heresies, John Gray reminds us that science is not the answer to mankind’s existential woes or spiritual shortcomings, nor an advance in its will to do good either; it merely amplifies our capacity to express these. Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at age 62 in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1967. The video above should remind us of the responsibility mankind has in handling the fruits of scientific enterprise. The 42nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coming up in August.



The picture above is a photograph taken of the first nuclear bomb test at The Manhattan Project. It was named Trinity by Oppenheimer.

In a 6-part series called Pandora’s Box, film-maker Adam Curtis has explored the continuing desire of mankind to fall for the illusion that scientific progress equates to progress for mankind on other levels. The theme of this unwarranted belief in science is explored in the last episode of the series, “A is for Atom”, in which Curtis examines mankind’s custody of nuclear capacity and the hope its discovery brought.


“Belief” In Evolution

Apart from the political implications of “Intelligent” Design, and the movement’s obviously subversive intentions for school science curricula, consider what is wrong with the following video:

The fallacy is that evolution is a belief. It is not a belief. Belief is what you do when you are seeking to align your views with the most compelling explanation for a set of facts. Now, scientifically, evolution is a theory that seeks to do this, but at the same time, it is an observation, not an inference to an explanation. The inference happens later during the formulation of testable hypotheses on the back of the observation that evolution happens. Evolution is a fact. Not divinely revealed but observed by mankind. In The Devil’s Chaplain Richard Dawkins has written about his very clearly.

Even if they are nominally hypotheses on probation, these statements are true in exactly the same sense as the ordinary truths of everyday life; true in the same sense as it is true that you have a head, and that my desk is wooden. If scientific truth is open to philosophic doubt, it is no more so than common sense truth. Let’s at least be even-handed in our philosophical heckling.

On another level, evolution (and in the video the questioner implies biological evolution) is a process. For example, John McCain’s bald patch has evolved. The English language has evolved. It is a descriptor term for a series of events leading up the present state of affairs. In the scientific context specifically this can be traced back for living organisms and their speciation using a range of techniques from carbon dating, paleontology and genetics. That’s just observation. Trumping that with the dim declaration (one with no explanatory power whatsoever, incidentally) that “God” made things a particular way is a belief. And it’s one that demands a lot of work to maintain against the tide of evidence pointing to the better conclusion.