Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Giving Thanks where Thanks are Due

Giving Thanks

There are some who seem to think that there is something incoherent in an atheist giving thanks. Yet, as an atheist, I know that it is very important to give thanks to those who deserve it, those for whom one is grateful.

It's the same principle as that which is involved in thanking a "god" that does not exist. Why thank God? It is because one is grateful for something that one (wrongly, in this case) believes that somebody else (God) has provided. There is no "somebody else." There are only the “somebodies” that one shares this life with in the real world. So, those are the "somebodies" to be thanked.

Thanking the Wrong Person

Have you ever done something for somebody, only to have them thank somebody else who had nothing at all to do with the benefit that you provided? Imagine coming across a car wreck, where you risk the possibility of injury or death while you pull the occupant out of a burning car with a leaking gas tank. After reviving the victim, she turns to a stranger who had done nothing but stand there the whole time and say, "Thank you. I am so grateful!"

Imagine giving a medal to a soldier who sat in his foxhole and did nothing, instead of to the soldier who ran up to the enemy bunker and tossed the grenades inside.

Imagine the boss giving a raise to the employee in the next cubical for a project that you worked on without any help from him. Even if, instead of a raise, your co-worker receives an honorable mention at the corporate meeting and a plaque for good service, there is still something wrong with the company giving him these awards and not recognizing your contribution.

These actions are not only foolish on the part of the military or the employer or the person who has just been rescued; they are unjust.

In the area of punishment, we recognize that only the guilty are to be punished or even condemned – that condemnation does not belong to the innocent. In the area of reward, even if that reward only takes the form of praise, the same principle applies. The reward goes to those who are responsible for the praiseworthy action and not to those who stood by and did nothing.

These are fundamental principles of justice.

The way that some the followers of some religions pursue the task of assigning blame and praise violates this fundamental principle. The people who obtain the benefit rush off to thank the wrong person -- the person who had nothing to do with their rescue or benefit (because that person does not exist). They do not recognize the full measure of the gratitude that they owe to the real flesh-and-blood person who provided them with that benefit.

In the US there have been no known infectious or "wild" cases of polio since 1979.” Humans are the ones who invented the vaccine against polio. In 1952, 58,000 people caught polio. One-third of these people became paralyzed. 3,000 people died. 1979 was the last time anybody caught infections polio in the United States.

Humans did this.

If we are to believe the stories that many religions tell us, God created polio. (Of course, I do not think it was God, but the blind forces of nature which have no conscience or concern about who lives and dies.)

It makes no sense – it shows no sense of justice – to be thanking God. This makes as little sense as thinking the terrorist who plants a biological weapon in the middle of a big city. The injustice is compounded when, after a bomb disposal agent disarms the weapon, and he gets limited praise. Some even condemn this agent because he has obviously interfered with the terrorist’s carefully set plans.

These are the elements of theistic thinking as it is practiced in some circles.

Briefly Visiting the Problem of Evil

This also brings to the surface another problem. The instant that humans acquired the ability to eliminate polio, we sought to use that power to eliminate polio.

If we believe the stories, God had this power all along and refused to use it.

What would we think of the moral character of a human who, after finding a vaccine and treating himself so that he did not need to worry about the disease, he simply refused to share it with others? We clearly would not put him on a pedestal and claim that he is the model of morality and virtue. We would not build shrines to him and worship him. We would hold him in moral contempt, because moral contempt is what such a person deserves.

As an atheist, I insist on applying the moral principle of giving credit where credit is due – of holding entities (whether divine or mortal) responsible for their own behavior, and not praising the guilty while punishing the heroic.

On this day, I give thanks to those who have actually made my life better than it would have otherwise been.

My List of Thanks

Quite obviously, at the top of the list, I would have to put my parents, who gave me the gift of this life and who watched over me until I was able to watch over myself. Where would I be now if not for them?

I must thank my wife, with whom I have now shared over 20 years of my life. She is still here. She still puts up with me. She is somebody to laugh and cry with, to help me share the pains and sorrows of life, as well as the joys.

I am grateful for the Philosophy department of the University of Maryland -- College Park, in 1987, for accepting me into their PhD program, and giving me an opportunity to study the subject that has been so important to me. There is no way that I can understate the value of the education that I received while I was there.

I thank my readers for thinking that something that I have done is worth their time. If there were nobody reading this stuff, I would be lost.

Of those readers, I particularly thank those who are kind enough to offer me advice and suggestions, and to point out when I am wrong. My goal in writing this blog is to try to provide people with something that they can thank me for. This is my gift. I hope it has value. However, it can have value only if the things that I write are correct. I defeat my own purpose if I spread falsehood and error. So, I am particularly grateful to those who seek to warn me when I am in danger of spreading falsehood and error.

Over at the Internet Infidels, I want to thank the many people who have taken the time to point out when they thought I was in error. In a recent long-term discussion on “The Ontology of [Desire Utilitarianism].” If anybody wants to see what happens when truly intelligent and thoughtful people discuss an issue – rather than the flame wars that mark most discussions – this is an example of debate at its finest. I appreciate the participation of Hiro5ant, PoodleLovinPessimist, bd_from_kg, Bomb#20, Jinksy, among others, who have participated in this discussion.

They fear, perhaps, that I have ignored their warnings that I am in error. I pay attention, and I worry about such things, because my own life would have little value if I spent it conducting a train of thought down a very wrong track.

I would like to thank every scientist in a research laboratory, or in a classroom teaching the next generation of scientists, for the benefits they have brought. From the medicines that keep me and those I care about alive, to the weather predictions that allow me to plan my week, to the telephone and computer that allow me to effortlessly communicate with people around the world, to the botanists who help to make sure that I have enough food, to the chemists who figure out how to keep the air and the water clean and which chemicals we should avoid, to the astronomers who are just starting to reveal what is available to us "out there".

I thank every engineer and others who has turned this knowledge into things that we can actually use, and who actually produce the medicine, weather reports, telephones, computers, food, and information that enriches all of our lives.

I thank every soldier who has fought and is fighting to keep me, my friends, and my family free. I thank every firefighter and police officer who works to keep us safe.

To all of you, I would like to say, "Thank you, and I hope for you a happy holiday season."


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Dee Jay

On your first issue, let me answer like this:

If it were raining, I would draw the conclusion that it was cloudy. This does not imply that if it is not raining, then I would draw the conclusion that it is not cloudly.

Since polio (and other horrible things) exist, I draw the conclusion that there is no perfectly benevolent all-powerful God. This does not imply that the absence of polio would support the conclusion that there is a God.

The existence of a God, like the existence of clear skies, would require additional evidence. But, when it is raining, I do not need to look for evidence that the sky is perfectly clear. The existence of polio says that I do not need to look for evidence of an all-powerful, perfectly benevolent God.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

As for the question, "if we are products of these blind forces of nature, then why ought we have any concern about who lives or dies."

You are write, I have written a lot about this, because it is a central question in ethics. It would be difficult for me to provide an answer within the confines of a reasonable comment box.

A short answer is:

I do not need to believe in God to be concerned about what should happen to me if my house should catch fire, and to take steps to reduce the risk of fire.

Similarly, I do not need to believe in God to know the dangers of living in a society of vicious and selfish people, and to take pains to ensure that the society I do live in is one of freedom, justice, and mutual concern for the welfare of each individual.

Which is why I write this blog -- to help create a society I live in is one where people recognize the value of freedom, justice, and mutual concern, and what these things entail.

Additional reading can be found at blog entries:

Ethics Without God I

Ethics Without God II

Desire Utilitarianism

And, if you want to tackle the really long version:

Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist’s Quest for Moral Truth

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Dee Jay

One more follow-up, which may help you understand my position.

As an atheist, I recognize that the only help that I am going to get is going to come from my neighbor, not by God.

If I am going to fly in an airplane, I need the mechanics to care that the plane is in good shape to fly, a pilot that is responsible and sober and who has sufficient training and presence of mind to handle a catastrophe.

If there is an earthquake or a hurricane, God is not going to rescue me. I must either move out of harms way or make sure that my countrymen are both competent and willing to come and get me.

Just as I depend on them, they depend on me.

We need each other. Each other is all we have. People who do not recognize the value of this mutual support network are a threat to us all.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

dee jay:

"Alonzo" is fine.

(1) Christianity does not "rule out" support for each other. However, it does misdirect some of that support. If you take a airplane flight and arrive safely at your destination, this is entirely due to the efforts of ground and cockpit crews. They deserve all of the credit.

(2) I would be worried about anybody who agrees with everything I write. I have said at every opportunity, "I guarantee that my writings contain at least one mistake. I am, after all, human. I do not know where that mistake is. Maybe you will find it."

(3a) Morality is not directly about likes or dislikes. (That is to say, "I want you to do x; therefore, you have an obligation to do X" is a view that I argue strongly against.)

(3b) Morality is not strictly about what we ought or ought not to do, because we lack the capacity to do anything that violates the laws of nature.

(3c) Morality is about what we ought or ought not to like. Because if I like living in a place where me and my neighbors are safe (i.e., our houses will not burn down, and nobody will harm our children), then what I will do is act so as to make this a safe neighborhood.

(4) You do not seem to be able to provide any answer to the man who says, "To hell with your religion. I have my own that I'll live by."

(5) You cannot "reason" a person into following any moral system. Morality is about likes and dislikes, and likes and dislikes are not subject to reason. Morality is about using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good desires (those that help others) and inhibit bad desires (those that harm others). The natural desire for help and to avoid harm provides the motivation for promoting helpful desires and inhibiting harmful desires. The role of reason is to tell us which are which.

(6) The statements that I suspect that you are reading as "I don't want to" or "I don't like that" are being misread. You do not provide any examples, so I cannot say. Yet, a fundamentally moral statement does not take the form "I like that" but "It is reasonable and wise for us to promote an overall desire for that." In some cases, I take it as intuitively obvious that I am talking about a good desire in this sense, or inhibiting what is in fact a bad desire in this sense.

(7) I do not need to believe in God to want to hurt children. But the children have a reason to be opposed. As do those who love the children, and those who love those who love the children. Morality is not about what I like and do not like. It is about what all of us should like or do not like. If nobody liked to harm children, everybody would be happy. So, morality says, "Use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment as your tools to make it the case that as few people as possible want to harm children."

There is no way that everybody can be happy if even one person wants to harm children. The only way that everybody can be happy is if nobody wants to harm children. So, morality says to aim for a state where nobody wants to harm children.

(8) An argument about what it would take for me to believe in God would be a huge digression. I also do not see it as an important question. We can still discuss morality as "What God would have wanted us to do if He did exist," and simply not worry about whether He exists or not.

There are obviously states of affairs that make it possible for me to believe in certain things -- even things I cannot see. I believe in (the existence of) atoms, quarks, the big bang, evolution, black holes, positrons, dinosaurs, and moral truth, even though I cannot directly see any of these things. I do not believe in unicorns, the easter bunny, santa clause, astral projection, extrasensory perception, bigfoot, faith healing, angels, demons, or any of the 10,000 different gods that different people are telling me must exist. The statement that there is no state that could cause me to believe in the existence of something contradicts the fact that there are a huge number of things that I believe in the existence of. How did that happen?