April 6, 2008

Three Things That Define A Freethinker, According To Michael

One- Rejection of dogma
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night — are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless. - Preface to Les Misérables

Dogma is, to sum its intent and consequence equally, the end of thought. A truly insidious idea; that one source provides the answers to all questions, the justification for all action, and the motive for all desire. While not exclusively a religious element, it is embraced most forcefully and most consistently by the faithful. Once a person commits themself to dogma, their world-view becomes corrupted by the necessity of maintaining their belief. I do not mean to say we should avoid any commitment to an ideal; rather, it is important for a Freethinker to vet any and all ideas that come to them, so as to ascertain the truth, and to commit themselves to that which proves itself worthy of devotion. Love, peace, happiness, enterprise, personal achievement; friendship, family, sex, art, humor, skill, exercise; striving to have fun, striving to try new things, striving to experience new ideas and new ways of living, striving to better ourselves, our family, our friends, our community, our country, and our planet, and our earth, and our environment; striving to achieve the closest thing to utopia (while recognizing that a true utopia is unachievable); I challenge anyone to tell me how this ideal is unrealistic. And, I challenge anyone to tell me how wanting to experience the most out of life, as I believe any true Freethinker should, is dogma.

Two- Acknowledgement of Human Progress
There is the past and its continuing horrors: violence, war, prejudices against those who are different, outrageous monopolization of the good earth's wealth by a few, political power in the hands of liars and murderers, the building of prisons instead of schools, the poisoning of the press and the entire culture by money. It is easy to become discouraged observing this, especially since this is what the press and television insist that we look at, and nothing more.
But there is also the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience: the growing revulsion against endless wars, the insistence of women all over the world that they will no longer tolerate abuse and subordination... There is civil disobedience against the military machine, protest against police brutality directed especially at people of color. - Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

We hear constantly how violent and obscene our society is, how nobody looks out for one another and how good things used to be. I have heard many times from people much older than me about how communities used to look out for one another, and how they and the church helped to keep children under control and violence at a minimum. It's a nice thought. But it is a idea that has absolutely no basis on reality. I could explain why a person is likely to feel that things were better when they were young, but I'd rather offer a single historical perspective. I think it gets my point across well enough.

Violence has decreased dramatically in the last century. I was unaware of this until last summer. It was a revelation that helped make me aware of just how far we had come in the last few centuries. What I learned was that, if you were to tabulate the number of people killed by human hands in each century, starting with the earliest centuries we can accurately draw information from, all the way to the end of the twentieth century, you would notice two things. One, for the most part, there was a steady rate at which people slaughtered each other from year to year. The second thing, is that approximately 500 million people died in the twentieth century at the hands of another person; that number is half of what should have been expected, if you were to assume that the rate of killing from one century to another were remain consistent.

Think about it. In the century in which we saw a dramatic population rise, a drastic increase in our ability to sow destruction across the earth, via jets and missiles and nukes, with more people competing for the same amount of land and resources, we had less killing. I must also point out that the religiosity of the human race is arguably at its lowest, having declined over the same time period. Whatever explanation you may offer at the micro level, the macro truth is the one I am stating here: education, communication, and greater awareness of the plights of other people has improved the quality of life for everyone, and there is no reason to suspect that that trend will change.

Three- Quest For Wisdom & Knowledge
It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly. - Albert Einstein, "Autobiographical Notes"

The truth shall set you free; a mantra I both deplore and accept; far too many long-winded and empty sermons have preached the greatness of "truth". The corruption of an idea that should be impervious to misuse is by far the greatest offense the masses of small minds have forced upon us. Ask someone to tell you their name, their age, their gender, their hair color, their occupation, and you will get a response with little or no hesitation, without the need to think too carefully. Now ask them to make a true statement. I've tried it. Nearly everyone I posed this question to was confounded by the very concept. Why? Say something that is true: my name is Michael, I am a man, as I type this sentence, the sun is facing the opposite side of the earth. It shouldn't be difficult to ascertain truth in life. We are bombarded with things that are true every second we are awake, from birth until death. Yet, thanks to the actions of no one and nothing but our fellow Human beings, we have contrived to live in a world where anything, and everything, is subject to irrational and illogical interpretation. People define reality as it relates to their own existence; every action, every sense, every event, every intent, every single thing they become aware of is subject to interpretation as they see fit.

It is easy to ignore or diminish the difficulties in life; it is hard, and often dangerous to confront them; it is impossible to eradicate them. But, we all need to find a purpose in this life. It is the universal question everyone asks; why? Each one of us has a different answer. I do not feel as though I am being unfair when I say that not all answers are created equal. To declare that your purpose in life is to sow destruction and malice upon the earth is deplorable, just as it is to believe that your only reason for existing is to prepare yourself for the "next" stage; there are many ways to squander the only thing we know for certain we will ever have. It is my absolute conviction that our greatest challenge in life is our effort to find meaning in it. I believe that identifying what it is we want to achieve, be it something great or something benign, is the crucial first step in finding happiness from life.

So what do truth and purpose have in common? The absence of one corrupts the other. Ignorance, perpetuated falsehoods, and out right lies have affected Humanity's existence greatly, and not for the better. We are still emerging from an intellectual coma that non-reason and dogma had put us in. There is still much that needs to be done in terms of progress; whether it be our system of education or health, our government, our infrastructure, our social and economic and foreign relations, our culture, our technological advancement, our ecological impact; these things are still in their infancy in terms of what we can achieve, but already we have done much to set our species off course. We must assert control, both within our own minds and as a collective society, if we wish to thrive. We cannot let the trials and travails of past generations hold us back. We must learn to utilize the lessons of the past to guide us. We must not let fables and ignorance dictate where science and reason have already spoken. We must accept that in life, there are some lines that should, and must be drawn. In short, I believe we should all commit ourselves to discovering what really is "true", and through that, what is right.



Cloudberry said...

Very interesting. Although I've been searching for meaning and purpose in my life, I'm not so sure that it's necessary. At least, it seems as though some people don't struggle quite so much and are happier for it. Sometimes I wish I could be the same.

Josh said...
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Josh said...


That was very well written. I agree that it is easy to get caught in the ebb and flow of the now, and miss the progress we are making as a species. I'm always optimistic about our future for that reason. Human society has it's high points and low points, but to quote the Beatles, "It's getting better all the time." It's hard to have patience in the larger scope of things, because we know we will most likely not be around to see the better times. That's the human condition and the human struggle. I think that makes many people bitter. Me? I'm just happy to have anything at all.

Now the fun part. I don't buy into truth. I have an interesting way of viewing the world, which I'd love discuss some other time, but basically I think that humans create unreal ideals as a reference point to give meaning to things in life. Truth is an example. I don't think truth is a real concept, but using the concept of truth, we can say that something is more true or less true. To you, your name is Michael, but if I met you once, and thought your name was Fred, then to me, you will always be Fred. It's this problem of subjectivity that clouds any real truth. Instead what we see as true is really just an amalgamation of different perspectives. It's the age old joke:

"I'm glad your name is Michael."
"Because that's what everyone calls you"

Does that mean we should just give up the search for truth? In a sense maybe, that doesn't mean there are not other things to search for and other problems to solve. I think it's important for people to understand that if they think they've found the ultimate answer, they're probably wrong. And if you spend a lifetime looking for the ultimate answer and don't find it, your life is not a waste, you just need to think about all you've accomplished along the way.

Michael said...


I do feel as though we are compelled by our own biological instincts to pursue something along the lines of purpose. We are driven by the instinct to procreate, and to survive, and through our progeny to pass along our bloodline. For our conscious minds to adapt this drive into the concept of purpose seems logical to me.

I also agree that the struggle for meaning is burdensome, but I do not mean to imply that the purpose I propose is something great or noble; I respect a person who's will is to live what we would call the "normal" life, experiencing all of it's stages and enjoying the comfort of predictability and expectation. There is nothing wrong with aspiring only to enjoy life without feeling the need to achieve greatness or success. I think that part of what ails our society is this expectation that we place upon ourselves to achieve some high measure of success; we value perfection and supremacy over reliability and efficiency.

I feel that we should identify some ideal, some concept for which we can strive to bring about.

Michael said...


I agree with your skepticism over the concept of truth. I do feel that when the subject of truth is raised, it is used as a red herring fallacy, and proves to be effective at stifling a debate. I still respect the concept of the idea of truth, however. I also feel that we are in agreement that the value of life is subjective, not contrived.

What I wanted to convey with my essay was that devaluing the concept of truth by subjecting information received to interpretation, rather than interpreting from what information you are given, results in a skewed and unreliable world-view. We should not abandon the search for truth, but we need to be clear when we do assert a position; I am writing another post on this subject, but I will raise the issue of the existence of god. If we allow everyone to interpret the concept of god as they see fit, all discussion with them will be futile, because there will be no consistency. I feel that we must clearly define where we are coming from, and by that I include concepts such as truth, if we wish to make our views known and accessible.


MarkT said...

"We must not let fables and ignorance dictate where science and reason have already spoken."

That's a very memorable quote, Michael... it says volumes. Good one!

Brock said...

"Dogma is, to sum its intent and consequence equally, the end of thought. A truly insidious idea; that one source provides the answers to all questions, the justification for all action, and the motive for all desire."

"...we have contrived to live in a world where anything, and everything, is subject to irrational and illogical interpretation. People define reality as it relates to their own existence; every action, every sense, every event, every intent, every single thing they become aware of is subject to interpretation as they see fit."

Wow. Beautiful words, Michael.

I'm with Josh a bit on the philosophy of "truth". If an underlying objective reality is really what makes up nature, our mental images and linguistic references to it are indeed still incredibly crude, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. If it's and illusion or mirage of some type, and subjective experience does affect the nature and the universe, then... we have a lot of work ahead of us ;)

I haven't found a compelling reason yet to abandon the former, though.