Saturday, April 2, 2011

What It Is To Be A Free Thinker?

What It Is To Be A Free Thinker

I routinely ponder many things in my life. One of the deeper queries into the nature of my own existence and philosophy has been my own struggle with being an atheist. Not that it's been a real struggle philisophically speaking however. Rather it's been a process where I continually define what the concept means to me.

Unlike many I had a rather unusual childhood. Though much of it was fraught with grief and disturbances, my influences growing up were to be blunt quite unique. My father was a mechanical engineer and automotive engineer and an avid naturalist. My mother was a professional dancer, dance instructor, a gifted artist and sculpter, and held multiple degrees. Both my parents were also amateur paleontologists, geologists, and lapidarists (people who cut and polish gemstones). Needless to say I was exposed to much in the way of science, material science, and philosophy growing up. More so than the average child I would wager.

I was a skeptic and free thinker at a very young age. It was probably around the age of 8 or 9 that I began to cognitively question the nature of the world in the larger sense of the word. This sort of questioning was encouraged in my family, and thankfully exists to this day. Though we're all over the map philosophically speaking me, my mother, my brother, and now our children frequently engage in extremely deep philosophical discussions and thought experiments to this day. Afterwards we all sit down and eat dinner together and love one another, even when we fundamentally disagree. It's a truly unique gift of this family that I cherish.

It is only in recent years that I've aligned myself with atheism however. And this revelation did not come just because of the inherent social stigma associated with the term. What's happened to solidify my focus? In general I'd say it has been the growing "religiosity" we've experienced both culturally and politically in the last couple of decades. Religiosity itself doesn't bother me that much. I have quite a number of friends who align themselves with religious beliefs and it's not interfered all that much in our friendships. But when such things move beyond individual beliefs and becomes codified in culture and law, it then becomes more than just a philosophical dilemma.

Still, at the end of the day, I really dislike the term atheist. Not because of the social context however. I tend to be somewhat of a purist when it comes to language, and atheist both as a term and as a philosophical driver truly says very little about what you do believe and stand for. In its purest definition it is merely a rejection of the supernatural. I note with irony how some atheists even fail at this, as they will reject jehovah, and go hunt for ghosts in their spare time. To be fair, I'm not saying that there are phenomena that have yet to be adequately explained, but my experiences with much in the way of the supernatural have shown me how people can easily fall into the traps laid by the lure of "the cool to contemplate".

To segue off topic for a second so I can explain why this is vital, one of my favorite examples of this phenomena was a Penn & Teller Bullshit experiment they conducted in Washington D.C. during a "green rally". They spent an afternoon circulating pamphlets and a petition about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide as a violent chemical reactant found in nearly all aspects of our existence. Telling nothing but the absolute truth about the material science behind dihydrogen monoxide they got hundreds of attendees to sign a petition to ban it's use. And it's a shame that so few remembered their high school chemistry enough to realize that dihydrogen monoxide was H2O. Plain old water. What this says clearly is that people often can convince themselves to believe in propositions entirely because of how it makes them feel. It's cool to think you're saving the world, and to think your a part of that, even when your just bullshitting yourself.

There's nothing wrong with aligning your moral and ethical sense behind your own feelings. But if you lose sight of your own moral and ethical sense, as well as your own skepticism and reason, all your left with is how you feel. And as Penn Jilette magnificently put it, if feeling good and wasting your time at the same time is ok, maybe you should just do heroin.

My sense of atheism is driven by my personal understanding of the above phenomena. At the end of the day all you're saying when you say "I'm an atheist" is "Ok, so I'm not buying into that whole big beardy man in the sky what?". Granted, there are some obvious and necessary things you must embrace to *be* an atheist. Skepticism, critical thinking, the need to question, etc... all of these things are pretty much a given. But the real journey philosophically is what you decide to focus on from that point. In that sense atheism is for me, merely the the turning point in ones desire to focus on a philosophy of discovery, as opposed to a philosophy of blind faith, ignorance, and dogma.

Atheism is what starts you on the journey towards being a free thinker. It's that journey that makes your free thinking matter, not your atheism.