A dialog - of sorts - with a religious believer


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 12 November 2012 Updated: whenever

This page represents a response to a blog post upon which I'm not able to comment, for technical reasons. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at earthlink.net - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @. However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

The content of the blog is in plain text.  My responses are in red text.

The Slavery of "Free Thought"–Part 1: What Thought?

Let’s examine the phenomenon commonly and often quite immodestly portrayed by some involved as free thought. Many even write it as one word, “freethought“, as if jamming the adjective and noun together somehow is distinctive, hip, or innovative. [Analog: "Hey, I drive a 'silvertruck', work asn a 'atmosphericscientist' and grow an 'organicvegetablegarden'; see how rad, groovy, alternative, and independent I am from the constraints and oppression of societal linguistic mores." Uh, no! I simply would sound like a self-important fool.]

Is this compound noun such a major issue that it's worth devoting most of an entire paragraph to it?  I can understand a pet peeve, of course, but this seems to be going out of the way to find fault with a concept – and its adherents.
"” (in reality, two words). From dictionary.com:

adjective, freˇer, freˇest, adverb, verb, freed, freeˇing.
1. enjoying personal rights or liberty, as a person who is not in slavery: a land of free people.
2. pertaining to or reserved for those who enjoy personal liberty: They were thankful to be living on free soil.
3. existing under, characterized by, or possessing civil and political liberties that are, as a rule, constitutionally guaranteed by representative government: the free nations of the world.
4. enjoying political autonomy, as a people or country not under foreign rule; independent.
5. exempt from external authority, interference, restriction, etc., as a person or one’s will, thought, choice, action, etc.; independent; unrestricted. 

1. the product of mental activity; that which one thinks: a body of thought.
2. a single act or product of thinking; idea or notion: to collect one’s thoughts.
3. the act or process of thinking; mental activity: Thought as well as action wearies us.
4. the capacity or faculty of thinking, reasoning, imagining, etc.: All her thought went into her work.
5. a consideration or reflection: Thought of death terrified her.

Dictionary.com doesn’t have a definition for the bogus combination freethought; but quite clearly, it would be a combination of free and thought. “Duh!”, you may say…but bear with me.

Was all the preceding really necessary?  Seems to me to be mostly a long-winded but pointless introduction that shows your inclination toward pedantry and little more.  That something this trivial should require this dictionary quotation seems like killing flies with a thermonuclear device.

Clearly, from number 5 under free, the most literal meaning of free thought is: thinking that is exempt from external authority, interference, restriction, etc., as a person or one’s will. In short, purely free will in thinking–the free thinker as a basal concept. So-called "freethinkers" act like they're elite, special, a clique or club of the intellectually elevated, who somehow have moved beyond the shackles of external imposition on their contemplations. In fact, almost all human beings are free thinkers to some extent; and most “freethinkers” indeed have bound themselves and are not so "free" after all. Let’s explore how.

Your sweeping generalization about how freethinkers regard themselves and others is simply a caricature that matches your own perspective rather well, unsurprisingly.  If you find some folks (who consider themselves freethinkers) condescending, perhaps you should examine your own comments in a similar light.

I don't see that you’ve "explored how" freethinkers are not so free in what follows.

Consider the realms of thought–outside extremes of insanity or mental handicap–as a series of nested archetypes, astronomical orbital systems or spheres. Consider Matryoshka dolls if you prefer a physical analog. Each one but the biggest is a subset of the next largest, and each one but the smallest includes (but covers more than) the next smallest.

What follows is at best a pseudo-analytical presentation.  Unlike the nested dolls, whose physical volume creates a logical and, in fact, necessary hierarchy, your various modes of thought can’t be so easily arranged.  You’re evidently making a value judgment about each type of thought, but for which no measure has been offered by which to order things.  The argument of a hierarchy of thought is flawed by having no foundational measure by which such a hierarchy can be established.  Does this “analysis” have any source other than your own fertile brain?  Is it recognized and used by cognitive psychologists, for example?  I think not.  If your nested-doll framework has no such accreditation, of course, this doesn't mean it's without any value or substance.  It's nothing more or less than a product of your own personal viewpoint, which is fine but not authoritative or substantiated in any way, so I have no compelling reason to accept it at face value. 

From the inside out, the Matryoshka Thinking Nest behaves like this:

* The smallest within is purely computational "thought", the kind performed by computers and calculators, constrained inescapably by code based on purely arithmetic logic and nothing else. Call this "robotics", as it can be automated. For that reason, most people don’t consider this as "thought"; but since you and I and several mammalian and avian species can do at least rudimentary math, it is a form of thought. In fact, any organism with brain matter performs calculations, whether or not it consciously realizes this. Of course, we humans can do much more. [I don't mean advanced mathematical logic--numerical methods, trig, calculus, any math Archimedean and later, though even Archimedean concepts are easily automated today. I mean direct or applied arithmetic.]

A lot of this thinking truly is instinctive and unaware, given the millions of calculations our brain makes without conscious effort. Yet was [sic] perform rudimentary, conscious computations on a frequent basis: balancing the checkbook, deciding whether to play ball given a 20% vs. 70% chance of rain, slowing down by 10 mph so that speed trap ahead doesn’t nail us. We freely perform these thoughts, making them, quite literally, free thinking!

* Emotion is the most subjective, and next most instinctive, form of thought–one that can benefit us (love leading to compassionate behavior, risk-taking that reaps rewards, or fear of an approaching bear) or hurt us (sheer panic, sustained despair exacerbating clinical depression, or rage turned violent). It also is the least rational mode of thought, and often overwhelms all of the others to our detriment. Addictions, which are chemical, nonetheless thrive on emotions run far amok. Emotions can be instinctive (fear of that bear) or chosen and freely thought (procrastination and the motivation to overcome that).

* Outside those are analytic processing and "reasoned" logic, which can make use of the mathematical results in the inner shell of thought to shape conceptual models and draw conclusions, and which uses desire and curiosity (emotional thoughts) as motivators. Call this "science". Advanced math is the main way to describe, modulate and revise scientific concepts, and belongs here. While much of this can be automated, conceptualization and creativity (see below) still are the biggest forces of scientific advancement today. Artificial intelligence, I must acknowledge, seems to be a leaking of thought both ways through the outer shell of the smallest doll. However, “science, logic and reason” may be wielded by the self-professed "free thinker" as a panacea, the end-all or peak intellectual manifestation of the human experience, and as such, the very pinnacle of humanity. In reality, that’s a manifestly dogmatic, self-limiting, and truly enslaving approach, as I’ll cover in Part 2.

This, of course, is a grotesque misrepresentation of freethought, as I will explain in several places below.  I certainly can't speak for others, but my version of "freethought" is simply that I reject the illogical and unnecessary constraints religion puts on thought.  I don’t believe that "science, logic and reason" are the only acceptable ways of thinking, so I can’t understand why you would be justified in making such an assertion.  You must have me confused with Mr. Spock (another imaginary character) whose wholly "logical" facade is nothing more than a literal allegory - a counterpoint for other imaginary characters to refute!

* Imagination, a.k.a. creativity. Most children are masters of this. This is expressed in countless ways, to the benefit of the “left” brain (science and engineering) or the “right” (all manner of artistic endeavors). Endeavors such as architecture, military strategy, philosophy, and music theory represent exquisite yet highly disparate blends of both sides. Although most of us favor one or the other, many of the most renowned thinkers for either side historically are adept at both (e.g., Socrates, Archimedes, Sun Tzu, Ben Franklin, and any scientist or engineer with artistic talent). Innovation–including but not limited to the great technological inventions of any era–would be impossible without this chosen shell of thought being well-cultivated and encouraged.

* Spiritual. This is not necessarily the same as religious; though religion certainly is a major component of this for many people. Plenty of highly spiritualized thinking can be done either within or outside a specific doctrinal religion. Perhaps the most primitive form of spirituality, one common to the great majority of people, is known as our conscience or better judgment–a guiding rudder that often invoked involuntarily to stop ourselves from delving into danger. [Most of us who are religious consider this a gift from God, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Christian thought, and it is an intrinsically spiritual phenomenon.]
But spirituality obviously can be taken far beyond that, into all manner of extrapersonal, wondrously out-of-self thought, with seemingly countless nuances of discovery. In essence, this is the outermost doll because it is the most naturally unconstrained. Even the doctrinal religions, within their walls of what’s right and wrong, permit an avenue to the spiritually timeless, a.k.a. eternity. This shell is quite vast…its exploration clearly a matter of choice.

One can attempt to subject their spiritual thinking to an external authority (usually God). Christians believe we freely choose whether to welcome all three Trinity persons (including the Holy Spirit) into our lives. Athiests deliberately reject it–sometimes with great conscious struggle or pull from the spiritual urges still suppressed within–while agnostics sidestep the matter as an unknown pending further evidence and/or spiritual influence.

Another sweeping, self-serving generalization – atheist opinions vary widely regarding the topic of spirituality, and other topics, as well.  To say atheists reject spirituality is simply not an accurate statement.

Free will inherently means that even believers in God sometimes think spiritually outside what God authorizes or approves. This is often referred to as “sin”, taking the specific form of idolatry, malicious behavior (e.g., murder, theft, lying, abuse) or following false gods (including self-worship).

I have no interest in debating the reality of free will, but do you have anyone in particular in mind regarding self-worship, here?

Even in religion, however, free will exists; otherwise we revert back inside the inner doll and become robotic slaves to the deity, something unknown to any modern mono- or poly-theistic faith. Religious dogma or ritual, when mindlessly followed without consideration for its purpose, is not spiritual in nature and doesn’t fit in this thought realm; for one has bound himself to a robotic list of rules more akin to something made of the binary digits that occupy the inner nest. How telling it is that Jesus himself cautioned against rigid adherence to lists of rules, and vitiated the Old Covenant laws.

One can find statements by jesus in the new testament that assert otherwise!

Historical figures who seemed to have attained high levels of the spiritual realm (along with more inner shells) include Isaac Newton–yes, he was a deeply spiritual theologian and scientist–as well as George MacDonald and ex-atheist C. S. Lewis. Monastic monks who live up to the ideal of their chosen path should have this one well-accomplished too. I believe Mother Teresa did; her motivations and seemingly disadvantageous selflessness in the Lord’s name indicate so to me. The Reverend (we must not forget that title!) Dr. Martin Luther King seemed intensely driven by Biblically rooted spiritual compulsion toward both racial justice and personal responsibility.

Nice list.  Do I need to provide a list of atheists who have made comparable contributions to society?  I don’t see that this establishes anything!  Many historically great thinkers were both spiritual and atheists.  For an extensive listing, see here, under the heading of "This Week In Freethought History".

In any event, spirituality even has an outer shell, because of the fact that human thought is limited. This is because we are not omnipotent. We are powerful, but not as much so as we often believe. Our “gut instinct” can be wrong, as can our conceptualizations and calculations. We err, we exude unearned hubris, we behave contrary to our better judgment, we can fail to solve problems despite the collective mathematical, analytic, logical, creative, spiritual thinking of millions. To see evidence of this,

To what, precisely, does "this" refer here?  That humans err?  Does anyone really need your "analysis" and "evidence" to be convinced that humans err or struggle to resolve problems?  No freethinker I know would assert such, so to whom are you addressing this?

witness the ongoing absence of Middle East peace, the internal discord amongst atheists,

I find this reference somewhat puzzling in regard to the still-ambiguous "this" because internal discord among atheists has been the industry standard for all time.  It isn't new, it's of no meaning in establishing that humans make mistakes or that humans can be challenged to find solutions to conflicts.  Rather, internal discord within atheism is a direct consequence of the freethinking character of atheism, unfettered by religious dogma.  Discord within atheism is normal, not a symptom of error or an innate inability to solve problems.

the sinfulness of the religious faithful, the existence of MRSA infections, or the absence of American self-sufficiency in energy, for example. We’re not that good and we’re not so smart as we think; in fact, it can be argued through tangible evidence and logic that we are a substantially self-destructive, corrupt and ultimately doomed species in our present state…just as the Bible tells us we are!

You’re free to draw whatever conclusions you prefer about the human race.  Not all of us subscribe to the notion that we're all forever stained by the deeds of a primeval couple seduced by a talking snake to eat an apple.  Not all of us believe we're presently doomed to self-destruction – in fact, many of us regard such thinking as potentially dangerous and bordering on a kind of madness.  This is precisely the sort of shackles that religious dogma imposes on human thinking.  As freethinkers, our freedom of thought is a consequence of having rejected such assumptions for the freedom to imagine, among other things, a better world; one unpoisoned by the madness associated with religious beliefs.  I'd like creeping theocracy to be stopped and the imposition of religion on all of us to cease, forever.

The Slavery of “Free Thought”–Part 2: It Isn’t.

In Part 1, I covered the levels of thinking as a nested analog to Matryoshka dolls, arguing that the freest thought is the most unlimited–in other words, that which doesn’t deny or abrogate the spiritual realm outside oneself. Thinking in a way that is not constrained by self-limitation, consideration not just of the artificial and natural but of the supernatural, truly is the height of open-mindedness. Refusing it, denying higher authority outside humanity, restricts thought merely to the tangible and visible, and as such, is a form of closed-mindedness.

Just what authority exists outside of humanity?  Your hypothetical deity for which no credible evidence has ever been offered?  Yes, my mind is closed to any such hypothesis for which there is only hearsay evidence!  I have no problem denying the existence of such an evidently imaginary "authority"!  You offer no substantive argument, but rather have assigned ultimate authority to a deity for which no empirical evidence can be offered.  Yes, my mind is quite closed to attempts to justify your beliefs on faith alone and I have no problem with that.  Imagine trying to publish a scientific paper that required accepting its validity on faith!!

Ultimately, those who bind themselves within any of the dolls’ shells are enslaved, not free. That applies to all of us! We all are enslaved to our human limits of thought. But the smaller the doll we choose to inhabit, the less free and the more restrained we become, the smaller the intellectual prison cell with which we have sentenced ourselves.

And we must accept your ordering of the shells?  You’ve not established any measureable basis for your ordering or for the legitimacy of the concept of the shells as a way to understand thought, so why should we accept it?  Of course human thought is inevitably finite and so is constrained by that.  So why limit it still further by imposing religious dogma?

Don’t get me wrong: I love logic and reason! “Science, logic and reason” (with a dollop of imagination selectively mined out of necessity) are the ideal modes of thought when applied as tools to solve scientific and logical problems! Yet only closed-minded fools, deniers utterly bereft of evidence for their null claims, attempt to apply natural standards to the supernatural, or illogically demand tangible evidence for that which transcends the tangible. How shallow, self-limiting, and truly, contrary to logic and reason!
Another important caveat: it also is possible for those in the outer realms to lose or ignore the inner ones, thereby becoming intellectually hollow. We see that capacity exercised commonly in those who are very spiritual but ignorant of math and science, or in the scientist or engineer with extremely underdeveloped social (emotional) skills.

Bereft of evidence?  Surely you cannot claim we are bereft of evidence for our absence of belief when you have no evidence on behalf of your claims for the existence of such a deity.  I'm not going to be offended by being called a "closed-minded fool" but it seems to me that it might well be you who is closed-minded (I decline to call you a fool, however).  You insist that we must accede to your unfounded assertion that your belief without evidence is in fact "evidence" that you're thinking on some sort of higher plane than we freethinkers? You're just projecting your failures onto the ideas of your opposition.

Nonetheless, logic and reason alone are nothing more than chains of bondage–dark dungeons, really–when considering matters outside that shell. Ignoring or denying the outer realms, we even may get comfortable, smugly self-delusional in the idea that we’ve gone as far as necessary, that this stop alone will suffice.

Logic and reason are bondage?  They demand evidence and rationality, yes.   Since you can provide no substantive evidence, you’re free to assert the existence of "outer realms" without the need to provide any evidence for them.  That's convenient for your viewpoint, of course.  But I can deny the very existence of these "outer realms" while you can offer nothing in support of them beyond belief without evidence – i.e., faith.  In other words, the postulated existence of these "outer realms" has no substantive basis.

None of us are purely free thinkers because of our human limitations–distraction, diversion, hubris, finite IQ, irrationality (a.k.a. emotion), and vulnerability to anti-intellectual influences. Still, we are freest in thought when we don’t enclose ourselves within any of the inner dolls–when we use our innate (or God-given, for some of us) free will to wander the fullest possible realms of learning and exploration. Learning doesn’t involve merely facts, concepts, logic and reason, but also, ideas past the here and now, beyond the tangible.

Sorry, but this is simply nonsense.  Your doll analogy is not reality – it’s only an analogy.  Free thought is constrained by reality and reality as we perceive it is based on empirical evidence.  We're allowed to imagine anything we wish – but we have to base our perception of reality on what we observe. 

Consider love. I've posed to rigid adherents of "science, logic and reason" the following simple challenge. Do you love someone? Who? [We'll assume the challenge is directed at a man married to "Annie", for the sake of argument.] Now…prove you love Annie!

Naturally, after considerable hemming, hawing, stammering, hand-waving, sidestepping, avoidance tactics, diversionary straw men, complaints about the validity of the challenge, and attempts to escape onto tangents such as biological benefits of love (which still don’t prove love), one thing becomes crystal-clear. He can’t meet this challenge. He loves Annie, but cannot prove it. He is trapped, ensnared in a "logic" cage of his own construction, imprisoned, enslaved.

Hogwash.  Proof of love is tangible and empirical.  Its validity is supported by actions that, taken over an extended time, make the evidence for love compelling.  Of course, there's no "proof" of love as there can be proof of a mathematical theorem.  Your denial of this evidence is simply your opinion, and nothing else.

This is because anything that comes up as "evidence' (physical or verbal affection, performing good deeds and favors, benevolence, sex, and giving of material objects, service or time) can have many causes and motivations–including platonic, selfish and/or unloving ones. None of them are unique to love, nor do they prove love.

According to your bizarre version of logic, perhaps.  Not by mine.  You’re working very hard to rationalize away the evidence that love is real and has a tangible basis.

With a big-enough combination of financial power and cold lack of scruples, a man could hire a live-in woman for some amount of time to perform for him every act of every sort that is associated with love–to service all carnal desires behind closed doors, and to put on for the world every outward appearance that she is madly head-over-polished-toenails in love with him. In fairness, a woman similarly could get a dude to service her in outwardly “loving” ways. Either still would be mere pretension–a well-acted and protracted escort/maid service of sorts–but certainly not love!

I simply can’t begin to fathom what sort of strange "logic" this hypothetical story represents.  You've created a strawman of no relevance to this discourse and, of course, refuted this strawman.  You seem to be the one doing the hemming and hawing and hand-waving – projecting your very own flaws onto others again.

Love isn’t subject to arbitrary logical "rules" regarding fallacies. It cannot be calculated with arithmetic, nor placed in a beaker and weighed, nor derived and solved as partial differential equations. Love sometimes is passed off as a chemical reaction in the brain. This is an article of faith (not science), for one cannot document on paper the specific organic-chemistry reaction uniquely yielding love. Show me the unique solution to the biochemical love equation? Don’t try; you cannot.

You seem to be under the false impression that "freethinkers" are incapable of embracing irrational ideas.  This is incorrect.  It's another strawman you can refute, but which is not even remotely pertinent to such a discourse.  "Freethought" doesn’t deny the existence or even the value of irrationality!

Love transcends the tangible, physical and mathematical, and defies evidence-based reasoning in unambiguously establishing its existence to the exclusion of other motivations for behavior. As such, love cannot be proved, and the challenge cannot be met! “Science, logic and reason” therefore fail, and fail with miserable and dismal wretchedness, at explaining tangibly the most advanced and wondrous aspect of the human experience.

See the previous comment.  Love may not be completely rational, but neither is it some sort of vague notion floating around, absolutely free of any logic or evidence.  Someone could undertake to spend years with a spouse, only pretending to love them (for whatever reason), but I believe their actions eventually would betray their insincerity.

Those who espouse the supremacy of logic, yet profess any sort of love, face a dilemma they often criticize in the religious–coexistence of the rational and irrational in the same person. How can a religious scientist believe in and love and serve a God he can’t prove to you and me? Well, dear reader…the same way the atheist can be scientific and logical, yet still have love for anther human that he can’t prove to you and me. The difference, as I see it, is that the love for God is directed at the perfect and omniscient–the one ultimately and most truly deserving of worship (the highest form of love).

Is worship indeed the "highest form of love"?  Perhaps according to you, but I have no reason to accept that in the absence of any tangible measure.  As with your ordering of modes of thought, you have no means of establishing a hierarchy of love, short of your own opinion, which isn't particularly convincing.  You're free to "love" and worship some imaginary deity as you choose, but this doesn't even begin to establish the existence of that deity or its worthiness for worship!  An atheist seeks credible evidence for the existence of a hypothesized deity that you can't provide.  Why should a freethinker submit to a deity for which no credible evidence exists?  That isn't slavery at all - it's simply being sensible in rejecting religious doctrine that has no logical or empirical basis.  Your "proof" of the compartmentalization of love and logic in the same person is both flawed and is nowhere near so contradictory as it is, for instance, to demand evidence in one sphere of your life and simultaneously to accept dogma about something so important as religious spirituality (with all that entails) in the total absence any compelling evidence. 

After all of this, it is readily apparent that the most free thinker does not enslave himself within science, logic and reason, nor within emotion or imagination, nor within only spiritual space. Instead, the freest thinker delves into the abstract, the spiritual, the eternal, the mental processes that journey beyond tangible evidence, while not losing sight of any of the inner ones–engaging in a lifelong exploration of the entire intellectual spectrum.

All you've established is that your version of "free" thinking is bound to the acceptance of a deity for which no credible evidence exists.  If "free" thought is defined as the acceptance of ideas for which no evidence exists, then you've defined almost any sort of nonsense as "free" thought.  It seems your definition of freethought is to be willing to believe in nonsense.  Your straw man – that "freethinkers" are constrained by science, logic, and reason – is totally your misinterpretation of freethinking.  Freethinkers can embrace irrational ideas but recognize and acknowledge their irrationality.  If you believe in nonsense, of course, then you would naturally hold those who don't share your beliefs in contempt.

I don’t hate the spiritually handicapped. I feel pity and empathy instead; for I once was blissfully ignorant that way, jailed in the same state of self-inflicted spiritual infanthood and underdevelopment. Those who tried but gave up prematurely have experienced spiritual atrophy, with much the same net result. When spiritually handicapped, much like physical or mental handicaps, one is missing an essential capacity or capability. The good news is that, unlike a missing limb or a blind eye, we can grow or regrow the spirit, boost our spiritual IQ–but not without struggle, and only if we’re open-minded, free thinkers about it.

Am I supposed to be grateful for your pity?  You can believe that, if it makes you feel superior to me, but I don't accept your pity.  You can accept your illogical bullshit, if you choose.  You can even feel sorry for me because of my inability to accept your bullshit.  I have no need for your pity - keep it for your own!

This is because the truest level of free thought involves logical intellect, emotional intellect, and spiritual intellect, none to the exclusion of the others, each in its distinct place, but also, each to the others’ enrichment. This is the essence of the most vast thinkers, the truest manifestation of free thought!

You've created in your mind a completely imaginary version of freeththought and then attempted to discredit the straw man you created.  We freethinkers reject your constraints on our worldview – freethinkers can accept the reality that we humans may not be entirely rational, and we see that belief in a deity of your kind is irrational and, hence, not very credible.

What we call "freethought" is associated totally with freedom from the shackles of doctrines of any sort, especially religious doctrine.  No more, and no less.  You've failed utterly to show how this is "slavery".  You can believe whatever you wish, at least here in the USA, but you've not made a legitimate case for your conclusion that freethinking is slavery.  Instead, you've revealed how religion has limited you.  Being a mostly rational person, you're forced into the trap of trying to rationalize your irrational belief by the wholly negative tactic of discrediting the value of rationality.  I've discussed this at some length here.