Monday, August 27, 2012

The Greatness of Agnosticism

            Being an agnostic is not easy. Religious people believe that you are so lost you can’t even declare yourself an atheist. Atheists believe that agnostics are people who have realized that God doesn't exist, but haven’t reached its logical conclusion. I have been both an atheist and a believer, but in this essay I will explain why I have changed my mind and demonstrate why agnosticism is not only a valid position, but a valuable one as well.

Labels carry too much preconceptions, so instead of letting others define my position, I will do it myself. My definition of an agnostic is the following: he who is inclined to disbelieve in deities or any other supernatural existence, but does not deny that their existence is a possibility.

The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer. 
An agnostic is open minded and a free thinker. An agnostic acts just like an independent voter considering who will receive his vote by weighing each candidate objectively, without any favoritism for a party and by recognizing that each side has its strengths and weaknesses. Whether in politics or in religion, independent thinking is very admirable.                               
Both atheists and theists agree that there are many, many things in the universe and even in our body that are still beyond our knowledge.  If you have never seen, heard or felt something and someone enquires to you about that something, the obvious position to take is to humbly accept one’s ignorance about the matter. Well then, shouldn’t an agnostic search for the answers? Yes, I have and I still am searching, but I believe that some things are beyond our understanding, at least for now.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
I am not a believer in God for the following reasons. I have no direct proof from my experience that can confirm the existence of a deity. And I don’t rely on indirect accounts for this matter because they do not seem reliable. Why believe in a Christian image of God and not a Hindu one? Why throw away the gods of Ancient Greece, the spirits of early tribes or the alien worshipping religions? I am convinced that they believe their accounts are true, but they can’t all be right. It seems more logical to consider that the variety of supernatural entities corresponds to how different cultures respond psychologically to phenomena they can’t explain.

What about inferring God’s existence?  It is typical of theists to ask non-believers who created the universe if not God. They argue that the universe had to come from somewhere, that it can’t exist out of nowhere. Well, the same argument applies to God. Where did he come from? It makes just as much sense to say that the universe, or the multiverse*, has always existed without any origin, as it does to say that God had no origin.

 So far both explanations seem to be equally possible, but as we will see, they really aren’t. First, Occam’s razor tells us that when two explanations equally explain something, we should choose the simplest. The simplest explanation is that the universe has always existed, because believing in a God requires believing that there is a metaphysical being that is beyond our senses which adds an unnecessary and extra level of complexity to the explanation of why the universe exists. Secondly, the existence of the traditional God, an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being, cannot be logically inferred. My argument was brilliantly summarized by Epicurus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
If God is omnipotent and perfect then he has no reason or need to create us. Even if he did create us, why did he make us imperfect? How can something imperfect come from something perfect? To those who say that we are imperfect, because God gave us freedom I ask the following: given that our freedom is limited, and we are not omnipotent, why would he give us the choice of doing evil  instead of leaving it beyond our possibilities, as he has done with so many other choices?  Some people say that God lets evil exist so that we can learn, so that we love him more, so that we can appreciate goodness or to let us earn a place in heaven.  An omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would be capable of making free humans, who learn, love him, who appreciate goodness and earn his rewards without the suffering and pain that exists in the world.        

Then my believing friends would answer that we can’t know God’s reasons for making the world the way it is. How is it that believers can give this unknown metaphysical being so many qualities and with so much certainty, but non-believers cannot point out that these qualities are contradictory? The following scenario would make more sense: imagine if a friend told you that “X” person is physically immortal no matter what. “X” dies the next day. Now your friend still try to defend the contradiction between his words and reality by saying that “we don’t really understand death”.

            Now here is why I am not an atheist either. Atheists have failed to give a good explanation of why life exists. How is it that from an inorganic universe, a group of molecules started reproducing and trying to survive? Even though atheist biologists will deny it, there is a zero probability that something inert became alive because it interacted with other inert forces and substances, no matter how much time and randomness you factor into the equation. It is silly to theorize that life just randomly appeared out of a bunch of molecules.

            Besides, atheists do not have a good explanation for consciousness and the mind either. They claim that our existence is confined to our body and our brain, but that doesn’t explain why we seem to exist beyond that. How is it that a bunch of neurons have gained awareness of themselves? How is it that a small part of the universe (the atoms that make up our bodies) has become conscious of its own existence?

       Finally, even if scientific and natural explanations are found to the previous questions, who are we to deny with certainty all supernatural entities because we haven’t experienced them? It is one thing to say that it is probable, even practical to believe that there are no supernatural beings or forces, but to say that it is certainly true is a mistake. It’s just as absurd as saying that there definitely weren’t, aren’t and never will be any aliens just because we have yet to prove their existence. Although it is reasonable for now to go through daily activities assuming that one won’t encounter an alien, that presumption can’t be generalized to billions of years and billions of galaxies. For all we know, we might be tiny cells that make up a huge alien. Again, the most probable explanation should be chosen, until there is reason to believe otherwise.

            Agnosticism is a stage in my development and that of humanity. Until we have more information and more answers, it is a stage in which I choose to believe what is most likely, which is the inexistence of deities, at least until given reason to believe otherwise. Perhaps the next stages will be reached in a few years or they might not even exist. If I stay at this stage for the rest of my life, I will remain curious about the universe but I see no reason to be upset or to believe that I am somehow stuck in my development. Agnosticism gives me the best of both worlds. It gives me the rationality, the practicality, the realism, the objectivity and the down-to-earth mentality of atheists as well as their usual drive to enjoy life to the most, in case there is nothing else after death. On the other hand, agnosticism also gives me the capacity to be spiritual without a religion, the opportunity to take risks with a leap of faith that something or someone out there might be guiding and helping me, the hope that there is a meaning to my existence, to humanity and to pain and pleasure, and the chance to entertain the possibility of an existence beyond the body and of life after death.
"Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant." -Jorge Luis Borges
            For all these reasons, agnosticism not only is a valid position, but I believe it is the one that provides the best answers, the right attitudes and the greatest emotional, intellectual and spiritual satisfaction. It puts together the best of each of the alternatives and throws out the worst. And that is why I am proud to be an Agnostic.

*Multiverse: is the hypothetical set of multiple possible universes (including the historical universe we consistently experience) that together comprise everything that exists and can exist

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Yes, Your Dream Does Mean Something (A Beginner's Guide to Dreaming) Part 1

Hundreds of years ago, dreams were considered a channel to the divine. Gods, spirits and the universe revealed things to us when we were asleep. The Egyptians, biblical characters, the Aztecs, all of these gave special significance to dreams and interpreted them to see the future or gain valuable information. Unfortunately, today dreams have been reduced to random electrical activity in the brain. However, we will see that dreams are much more than that.

While it is true that dreams have their origin in electrical activity, it would be silly to dismiss them, just as it would be silly to dismiss everything you think and feel just because it happens due to neurotransmitters racing from neuron to neuron. Even if the electrical activity is random, the way the brain chooses to interpret it is clearly relevant.
Yeah right! That dream you had about your ideal partner was just random brain activity...

 Hundreds of writers, historians, psychologists, philosophers, kings and even common people like you and mean have pondered about the meaning of dreams. Is it a message from the gods? A vision of the future or of your past life? Your imagination and creativity set free for a while? Your true fears and desires being revealed? A metaphor or a symbol?  An internal compass guiding you? Maybe its all of that and more.

To avoid creating an argument about the existence or non-existences of gods and of the possibility of seeing the future/past, those two possibilities will not be further explored here but will be left up to you to decide whether they could be true or not. (At the end of the article there will be links if you are interested in any of those topics).

Dream as Creativity, Imagination and Problem Solving

The interesting thing about the unconscious is that it keeps working for you, putting bits and pieces of information together and analyzing things while you rest. Even if you don't  remember your dreams, the labor of your unconscious isn't lost. There are two ways dreams can help us in this area. Have you ever had a problem where you couldn't make up your mind, go to bed and when you open your eyes you know the answer? 
Lets use an example: I had met two girls and felt attracted to both of them and couldn't decide which one to ask out. One of them had stunning good looks but I got along better with the other one. I spent the whole day thinking about which one I should choose (for those of you one step ahead, I couldn't choose both because they were friends). So I went to bed and entered the world of the unconscious, hoping to gain some insight from it. Anyways, I had dream in which I went a got a really cute puppy for a pet, everybody was so excited about it, but it bit me and ended up causing an allergic reaction.
If I hadn't been so driven to get help from a dream I probably would've ignored and forgotten the dream. But that wouldn't have mattered because as soon as I opened my eyes I already knew who I wanted to ask out: the "nice" girl over the "hot" girl. My interpretation of the dream only confirmed it. Here's how it went: everybody had seen me flirting around at a party with both of the girls and all the guys told me to ask the hot girl out (that's the PG-13 version of what they said anyways). In my dream those were the people who were all excited about the cute puppy (emphasis con cute). However, one of my more mature friends advised me to "choose the girl you had more fun with, because when you think with your libido instead of your head, you end up getting hurt". So, getting bit by the hot girl (a.k.a the metaphorical puppy in the dream) seemed like something worth going after, but getting hurt in the end (yes, you guessed it, the metaphorical allergic reaction) was a deal-breaker.

So in the end I chose the "nice" girl (who was good-looking as well by the way) and 3 and a half years later, here we are married, with 2 beautiful kids.
Just kidding; she had a boyfriend.

As anticlimatic as that was, it was not my unconscious' fault for choosing her, because the dream never told me to go for the nice girl. Even if it did, it still was been my conscious's  responsibility to have found out that she had boyfriend (the unconscious had no way of knowing). However, there is also a positive note to the finale, because later on I found out some information about the hot girl and her ways that make me grateful that I didn't ask her out.

Now when it comes to creativity, the unconscious can also be of assistance. Dreams often deal with issues that are important to us, and since the unconscious has access to millions of videos, pictures, sounds, memories and thoughts that we can't access as easily, dreams can often express important feelings, desires, and ideas in original and unconventional ways. Below, a short list of some great people inspired by dreams:

  • Paul McCartney: woke up humming the melody to what would become the song "Yesterday" by the Beatles.

  • Authors: Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) were all inspired by their dreams
  •   Jack Nicklaus: the greatest professional golfer of all times changed his swing after realizing in a dream that there was a better way to do it
                                                                    Jack Nicklaus
  • Carl Jung: came up with his model of the unconscious from a dream (in an attempt to improve Freud's oversimplified model in which everything came down to sex and aggression).
  • Albert Einstein: got clues from a dream that allowed him to discover the Theory of Relativity (yes, the one with the E=MC2 equation).

  • Salvador Dali: the most famous surrealist artist was constantly searching for new ways to explore the unconscious to get more creative material from it
                                              Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion, c.1954 Art Print

Ok, I think you get the point. Maybe you're thinking of a new idea for a business or perhaps you're unsure about whether you should move to another city. Try putting this wise Latin-American saying into practice: "Why don't you consult your pillow?"

Ready for more? Part 2 will include "Metaphors and Symbols: the Secret Language of the Unconscious" "Dreams as Your Inner Wisdom" and "True Desires and Fears". Check it our here.

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