The Great Debate: Morality (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this 2-part discussion on morality, I examined the claim that God is necessary for objective morality to existFor all of the reasons that I discussed, I believe a god to be a poor explanation for the existence of objective moral values.  So what does this mean about objective morality?  Does it even exist?  Is morality nothing more than an illusion?  Is it simply the subjective opinions of a given culture, or society?  The answer is no.  In this, part 2 of my discussion on morality, I intend to establish that objective morality can be said to exist, without any appeal to a god or gods.  I certainly have no delusion of solving an age-old debate, in one paltry blog article, but I believe I can at least present a brief explanation of my position, and address a few common objections that I face.

Now, let me be clear, when I state that objective moral values exist, I am not talking about absolute morality.   I do not aim to make the case that there exist “transcendent” or “universal” moral truths, or that morality would exist independent of any sentient creatures to appreciate it.  Instead, when I speak of objective moral values, I am referring to values that are based on evidence, reason, observation, and logic.  This is the scientific deployment of the word objective, and says only that morality is a factual discussion, rather than a discussion of pure opinion.

So before I go any further, it seems important that I offer up a definition of “morality”.  After all, it is the entire focus of both this article, as well as the last.  There are many basic definitions out there, but the one I find to be most explicative, while still being concise, is the following:  “Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong)”  So when we speak about morality, we are talking about what is right, and what is wrong.  We are also speaking about behavior, decisions, and actions, implying, necessarily, that morality relates to the experience of conscious creatures.  After all, all evidence indicates that only conscious creatures are capable of making decisions, or having intentions.

Definitionally speaking, then, morality is a discipline where we determine what actions are “good” and which are “bad”, with respect to how they impact other conscious creatures.  The most common accusation against morality being “objective” is that we would have no way of stating what “good” is, or what “bad” would be.  Good for whom?  Bad for what?  These complaints aren’t nearly as compelling, or problematic, as their proponents seem to think.  After all, we are dealing with terms here that are well defined, and universally understood.  In the context of conscious experience, good is the term used to describe that which is favorable, enjoyable, pleasurable, or prosperous.  Meanwhile, bad is deployed to describe that which is undesirable, unpleasant, miserable, or detrimental.  So how does morality come into play?  How does understanding what good and bad mean, give us any insight as to which behaviors would fall into which category?

The answers to these questions, contrary to conventional thought, can be found in science.  After all, when we speak about the experience of conscious creatures, we are discussing a subject matter about which we have a great deal of knowledge.  We have information, and data, on what constitutes experience.  We are also able to reflect on our actions, and evaluate the consequences of our decisions.  In doing so, we are gathering data that is factual in nature.  We are uncovering patterns that are observable, testable, and verifiable.  From this, we can arrive at conclusions, regarding various behaviors, that are based on prior experience, observable evidence, and recognizable impact.  It is then possible to use reason, logic, and an evaluation of the evidence, to present solutions to moral dilemmas.  Solutions that will be evidentially based, and therefore OBJECTIVE.  In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris does a brilliant job of going into greater detail about how science can be used to determine human values.  Essentially, Dr. Harris argues that all experiences of conscious creatures will fall into either “peaks” or “valleys” on a “moral landscape”.  Peaks being the height of flourishing, and well-being, while valleys serve as less-optimal, and more miserable, areas of the landscape.  And since, he argues, there will be a great deal of factual information regarding where a given decision falls on this landscape, the subject of morality becomes one that is a fact-based realm of inquiry.

c/o whywereason.wordpress.com/tag/the-moral-landscape/

Once we are speaking about a realm of inquiry that is factual in nature, we are speaking about a discipline that will have objective “right” and “wrong” answers.  When the evidence is gathered, and reasoning is deployed, we can arrive at conclusions that are sound, and supported, rather than answers that are simply preferable, or baldly asserted.  This, of course, will not lead to universal answers to complicated ethical dilemmas.  What it does allow us to do, however, is evaluate our decisions regarding morality, from a factual standpoint.  In doing so, we are capable of promoting certain behaviors, or decisions, as objectively “correct”, and denouncing others as demonstrably “wrong”.  This has profound implications in the discussion on morality.  It means that we are not precluded from condemning morally depraved actions as simply being a “difference of opinion”.  Rather, we can deploy reason, argument, rationale, and evidence, in support of the conclusion that a given action is objectively wrong, regardless of opinion.

This is, in the interest of keeping this article of suitable blog-length, a very brief overview of how morality can be viewed as an objective approach to decision-making.  I will spend the remaining balance of this article addressing some of the more common objections I have encountered whenever I have defended this position.  After all, few people really fail to understand what is meant by morality, but rather disagree as to whether or not it is truly “objective”.

I Disagree!

Ok, so you lay out your case for a given action being wrong, you present evidence and reasoning, and I disagree with you.  After all, I have different priorities, and I simply do not recognize YOUR priorities as being correct.  How can you possibly say that morality is objective, if there is disagreement about what is or is not moral?

Disagreement is NOT a threat to the objective truth of a given claim.  After all, evolution is regarded as objectively true by modern biology.  This stands to be the case DESPITE the fact that a large faction of the world’s population disagrees with its teachings.  If a biologist were to present the evidence for common descent, and provide reasoning, and I were to still disagree, it would not make his claim any less objectively true.  It would, instead, render me objectively wrong on the matter.

The same can be said of moral disagreements.  In any situation where there are opposing views, the question becomes, what does the evidence say?  Who’s position is reasonably defensible, and more consistent with the facts?  In cases where there is an answer that is clearly in line with the evidence, those who disagree are factually incorrect.  In situations where there is no clear answer, the key will STILL be to make a decision that is as reasonable, and in line with the evidence, as possible.  Even in situations where the absolute best answer is unclear, there would still be a method by which to eliminate objectively BAD answers, and narrow the choices down.  And in such situations, further reasoning, and examination, could eventually provide better understandings, and more clear-cut correct answers.  This is how scientific discovery works.  Disagreement, ultimately, does nothing to threaten the objective truth of a claim, so long as the claim is adequately defended by evidence and reason.

Wishy-washy

Won’t this model of morality be situationally dependent?  How can it be objective, if this is the case?  Couldn’t you even potentially get multiple “right” answers to the same question?  This doesn’t seem very clear-cut.

In a word, yes.  While morality, and moral truths, can be said to be objective, they are not absolute.  Neither are we going to have one-size-fits-all blanket assertions.  This is a subject matter that is far too complex, and nuanced, for such simplistic thinking.  Does this threaten its objectivity, however? No.

Let’s look at an example of an “objective” truth, with which we are all likely familiar:  The freezing point of water.  Nothing subjective about this.  We don’t decide at what temperature water freezes based on opinion or conjecture, we arrive at the temperature based on objective evidence and observation.  So it won’t be situational dependent, right?  We can state that the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and 0 degrees Celsius.

Not so fast.  Are we dealing with fresh water, salt water, or pure water?  What is the barometric pressure, or altitude of the area?  What is the mass of the body of water in question?  Is the water stagnant, or in motion?  Answers to EACH of these questions will have an impact on the freezing point of water.  Is this temperature not “objectively” true?  Of course not.  We know at what temperature water freezes, and we can predict how this freezing point will be impacted by any of the above “situationally dependent” factors.  As is often the case with objective truths, in order to give an accurate answer, we need as much data as possible.  This does not make the arrived conclusion any less objective, so long as it remains based on evidence, and demonstrable facts.

And what of the problem of multiple answers to a given question?  This is hardly a problem at all.  Even in mathematics, a recognized objective realm, we can often have equations or problems that will have more than one solution.  This does not make any of the answers “subjective”, but rather means that there are numerous objectively correct answers to the problem.

Other times, however, we can define a “good” or “correct” answer, by what it is not.  That is to say, we can eliminate “wrong” or “incorrect” answers, even if there are numerous right answers, or the correct answer is unknown.  In his below linked speech, Sam Harris discusses the example of food.  He asks “what is food”, and points out that you can get a wide variety of answers, without collapsing the objective science of nutrition.  But I wish to examine a different version of Sam’s example, by asking a question that is almost completely subjective.  Even in these instances, where the “correct” answers will be highly subjective, we are still able to eliminate incorrect answers as “objectively” wrong.

If I were to ask you “what is the greatest imaginable food?”, we now have a question that calls for a relatively subjective answer.  You may decide to answer “ice cream”, because it is delicious, you may answer “broccoli”, because it is nutritious, or you may even decide to answer “steak”, because you have good taste!  Any of these answers could be viewed as acceptable answers to my question, and you could provide reasoning and argument to support your decision.  If, however, you answered “tire iron”, I would have to insist that you have misunderstood my question.  You answer is “objectively” incorrect.  There isn’t any evidence, or reasoning, to support that this is a valid response to my question, unless we begin changing the definitions of every word that was used in my inquiry.

The question of morality is much like this.  Our answers to many moral questions may be situationally dependent, and we may require as much specific knowledge of the situation as possible in order to give a truly accurate answer.  We may have moral dilemmas to which there are multiple “correct” answers.  We may even have situations in moral discussion where the correct answer isn’t clear, or is highly contested.  In such situations, however, we are not incapable of eliminating, or condemning, obviously wrong answers to the dilemma.  Answers that have no evidential support, and do not reasonably present a solution to the given problem.  None of this, at the end of the day, threatens the objectivity of morality.

David Hume I presume?

In his work, A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume raises the famous complaint that one can not derive an “ought” from an “is”.  His point here is that, essentially, science is capable of telling us what is, but incapable of telling what we should do.  After all, how DOES one get an “ought” from an “is”?

Now, there have been many responses to this question in the history of meta-ethics, but I will not bore you with every last one of them.  Instead, I find Sam Harris’ response to this non-problem to be rather succinct.  In responding to the complaint that we cannot get an “ought” from an “is”, he is quick to point out that we cannot ascertain any “is” without first having “oughts”!  Scientific understandings could not have happened if we did not first have certain values.  We ought to value evidence, we ought to seek an understanding of the world around us, we ought to embrace logic, and reason.  With these oughts in tow, many “is” truths emerge.

So clearly we can derive an “is” from an “ought”, but what about the reverse?  Does our knowledge about what “is” inform what “ought” to be?  Of COURSE it does.  Each of us does this everyday.

My shift at work IS from 9am to 5pm
My livelihood IS dependent on showing up for work
It IS 8:30 am
It IS a 20 minute drive to work
I OUGHT to get my ass out of bed

We make every decision on ought, based upon what is.  How could it possibly be any other way?  Even if you ask a theist why certain oughts ARE oughts, they will respond with reasoning like “there IS a god, there IS a commandment from the god to do the following”.  In order to make any decision on what “ought” to be, we must necessarily know what “is”.  One of the most common complaints, when a person is incapable of making a decision, is “I don’t have all of the facts” or “I need more information”.

The basic truth is, without a rational understanding of the world around us, matters of ought become entirely meaningless.  How would one know whether or not they “ought” to jump out of a window or not, without knowing about gravity?  How could one even begin to form a value system, without first understanding the nature of reality?  This suggestion doesn’t even make the least bit of sense.  If we dismiss the “is” as nothing more than an explanation of what exists, we ignore the undeniable fact that all of our decisions are based upon these truths.  Oughts inform what “is”, and what “is” informs our oughts.  Hume’s “dilemma” is nothing more than wordplay.  These two elements are intrinsically linked, and they always have been.

It’s just an opinion

Philosophically speaking, there is almost nothing that ISN’T an opinion.  This objection misses several crucial points, chief among them being that there is a very big difference between an opinion, and an informed opinion.  Facts are, in every sense, nothing more than opinions that are based on sound reasoning, evidence, and observation.

So when we speak about factual matters, we needn’t constantly qualify that “all facts are based on subjective observation and inquiry”.  We recognize, in intellectually honest circles, that facts are solid knowledge, based on evidence and data.  They are not, however, dogmatically asserted to be absolute truths.  When we say that it is a fact that we live on a planet that orbits the sun, we mean to say that ALL evidence we have available suggests this to be the case.  Could we be wrong?  Technically, but we can demonstrate that we are not, using evidence.  It is therefore a fact, and few people have a hard time understanding this.  If the same methodology can be applied to matters of morality, then we are dealing with a factual realm of inquiry.

That’s NOT “objective”

Speaking of “opinions”, this brings me to the next objection.  I have spoken to many people, some whom even agree with my model of morality, who object to the use of the term “objective”.  In doing so, many point to a philosophical definition of objective that emphasizes that, to be objective, a given thing must be entirely free of ANY bias, or opinion.  The complaint here is that, if anything is dependent on a mind to understand it, it must necessarily be subjective, and therefore not objective.

There are multiple problems with this objection.  For starters, and most importantly, the above definition is NOT the only, or even most commonly used, definition of objective.  This may be one deployment of the term, but it is not what is meant when the term is used scientifically.  The scientific definition for objective is “based on evidence, observation, and facts, not tainted by personal feelings or bias”.  In the very definition, observations and evidence, are offered as the basis for objectivity.

Science often speaks of “objective” evidence, or “objective” reality.  When doing so, they are not speaking of absolutes, independent of any possible interpretation.  Indeed science does not deal in any such dogma.  Instead, they are recognizing that, philosophically speaking, EVERY human understanding, statement, knowledge, truth, or fact, will be “subjective” in the absolute sense.  Just as every “fact”, as stated above, could technically be called an opinion.  Because of this, subjective is used to describe opinions or truths that are reliant upon personal opinion, or subject to extreme bias.  Meanwhile, objective facts or truths are those that are based on evidence, and are demonstrable to anyone who wishes to “see the work”.  The Theory of Gravity, Theory of Evolution, and Germ Theory, are all objective truths in the scientific community.  This is to say that they are explanations based on demonstrable facts, observable phenomena, and tangible evidence.

The second problem with this objection is that it can be leveled at literally ANYTHING we hold as true.  As mentioned, all of our knowledge is, on some philosophical level, subjective in this sense.  If it is a complaint that can be leveled at anything, it is hardly compelling when leveled at any one given thing.  It is a line of radical skepticism that leads us dangerously close to the next objection that I sometimes encounter.

Post Modernism

This is a method that questions whether we can ever really “know” anything.  Knowledge is essentially illusory.  From the wiki article on the subject, “postmodernist approaches are critical of the possibility of objective knowledge of the real world”, and “postulates that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and are therefore subject to change”.

The first question I have for someone, essentially claiming objective knowledge to be impossible, is “how do you KNOW that?”  This position, aside from being bizarre, is rather self-defeating.  You can use post modernistic approaches to attack the underpinnings of all of the world’s most basic knowledge if you like, but it does not leave you with anywhere to go epistemologically.  It is also possible to question the ideas of post modernism, WITH post modernism.  This method leaves one chasing their own tail in a hurry.

We needn’t have absolute certainty, for knowledge to be relevant.  As this post is going to be long enough without delving into evidentialism, or various other philosophical epistemologies, I will simply sum up my position with regards to post modernism.  Either we have REASONS for believing something to be true, or we do not.  Either we have evidence to support our understandings, or we do not.  Either we can investigate the world around us, in a logical, consistent, and rational manner, or we can not.  And if you state that we can not, would you not have to provide REASONING for your assertion?  Would you not need to deploy the very process you condemn, in order to establish your idea?  In total, I feel like post modernism is summed up best by Russell Glasser, a host of a cable access show in Austin, TX, called The Atheist Experience.  He hits the nail right on the head when he remarks “post modernists are annoying”.

In Summary

So is it really this simple?  Is science really all that is necessary to unlock moral truths?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, we can deploy an objective, and scientific approach to morality, that will help us to arrive at objective moral truths.  No, this will not be remotely simple.  As with anything worth knowing, it requires a great deal of thought, hard work, and desire, to get it right.  Morality is a question that has been with our species since the beginning of history, and it is one that will, in all likelihood, remain with us until the end of time.  I apologize to anyone who thought that they would read this and find the easy, ready-made answers to all of life’s difficult ethical dilemmas.  Unfortunately, no such things exist.  Any attempt at simplifying morality is in vain.  Every explain-all solution, such as the god hypothesis, comes up woefully short.  The basic fact remains that decisions on morality, ethics, and well-being, are often complex, nuanced, and impossible to reduce to a list of universal do’s and dont’s.

This is hardly cause to fret, however.  As is hopefully clear, we are not lost in a sea of moral relativism, or incapable of finding answers to moral questions, however complex they may be.  Morality is, at its core, an objective discipline.  Through science, reason, observation, and experience, we can work our way to moral understandings, and truths.  We may never have all of the answers.  There may always be more to be discovered.  We must always remain vigilant in challenging the truths to which we already hold.  In doing so, however, we can take comfort in the fact that we needn’t do so blindly, or in the context of a culturally relative attitude.   Instead, we can investigate, and reason towards, answers to moral dilemmas that are true, correct, and OBJECTIVE.

Morality, in the end, is far more than just an illusion.  Rather, it is the science of understanding, and improving, the experience of life.

SOURCES/ Related links

Sam Harris’ speech at TAG conference

Hume’s is/ought

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem

Scientific “objectivity”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivity_%28science%29

Definition of “objective”

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/objective

Post modernism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism

Evidentialism

Morality definition

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality

Recommended reading:
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

The Great Debate: Morality (Part 1)

It is a debate that has taken place throughout the ages.  It remains, still, one of the most common discussions in philosophical circles.  A person can rarely debate religion or theology without the subject quickly arising.

Morality.  Where does it come from?  Does it actually exist?  Is it objective, subjective, or relative?  Can we have morality without the existence of a god or gods?

This will be the focus of this article.  As this is a subject that could fill volumes upon volumes of books, I will be splitting my own thoughts on the matter into 2 parts.  In this, part 1 of the article, I will be examining whether or not a god is necessary for morality to exist.  It is my position (as you may be able to guess) that a god is not the answer, and I will be highlighting the problems with the arguments that claim otherwise.  In part 2, I will move into a discussion on the nature of secular morality, and my defense of “objective moral values”, independent of any appeal to the divine.

Good without God?

While the position of morality depending on god has been around for thousands of years, the most prominent contemporary proponent of this argument is likely the christian apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig.  In his article on the subject, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality, Dr. Craig lays out his case.  He argues that “if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding”.

Dr. Craig essentially offers a version of divine command theory.  In his model, God is the ultimate source of moral values, and his commandments serve as instructions for moral behavior.  As Craig puts it, “God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured…God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations.”

At first glance, this appears to be a sound case.  This reasoning seems rather intuitive, especially to anyone who already accepts the existence of a God.  One of the most common defenses of religious belief, perhaps for this reason, remains the idea that these beliefs provide the world with morality.  So what’s the problem with this?  Why the age-old debate?  Haven’t we solved the great mystery?

Not So Fast

The above reasoning, however intuitive it may feel, is horrendously problematic.  It contains crucial assumptions that are unfounded, premises that are unsupported, and reasoning that is outright fallacious.  Objections have been raised, throughout the centuries, that remain unanswered.  Overall, the problems and inconsistencies render the very argument, itself, to be invalid.  Let’s examine a few key problems, beginning with an objection that was raised over 2000 years ago by Plato.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

In Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, Socrates poses a question that sets up a dilemma for god-based morality.  To paraphrase, he essentially asks “Is what God commands good because it is commanded by God, or does God command what he does because it is good?”  Which is the case?  Does anything God commands become good, simply because God commanded it?  Or does God only command that which is good, because he is God?  The implications of accepting either proposition are problematic to god-based morality.

Accepting the first scenario, that “good” means “anything commanded by God”, leads to strict divine command.  By this philosophy, ANYTHING commanded by God would become moral.  It is an authoritarian viewpoint, that reduces morality to mere obedience.  If God commands theft, murder, or rape, then these actions become morally good, because they have been commanded by God.  While this takes all of the complicated decision making out of the picture, it clearly reduces morality to being a meaningless word.  Under this framework, there would be no “right” and no “wrong”.  Instead, there would simply be “obedient” and “disobedient”.  Most people, theists and atheists alike, reject such a simplistic view of morality, and for good reason.  In this scenario, objective morality does not actually exist.  We are simply serfs, living under the reign of a cosmic overlord, and expected to carry out the master’s bidding.

This leaves option 2, that God commands what he does BECAUSE it is good.  In this scenario, both good and evil exist, and God is able to convey to us which actions are which, presumably because of his ability to recognize and appreciate good.  Problem here is, God is now no longer the grounding for good OR evil.  Instead, he is an interpreter, a middleman, and entirely superfluous to the core of the matter.  If God is merely evaluating actions, and deciding to command those that are good, then it follows that morality is a reasoning process.  God is simply doing the work for us, but in theory, we could apply the very same method to reach conclusions on moral actions.  In this scenario, God is not the basis for morality, but rather an instructor who is attempting to steer us towards independently existent moral truths.  This scenario necessarily comes with the confession that morality is independent of God.  If God did not exist, these moral truths would still be out there to be discovered.

It is also a peculiar viewpoint when combined with the idea of a perfect, and an omnipotent God.  In the above option, God is not only separate from moral truths, but actually bound by them.  God would not be free to act in any manner that was contrary to moral truth, as such actions would render him immoral.  This calls into question either his omnipotence, or his perfection.

False Dilemma

In fairness, many theistic philosophers, including Augustine, Aquinas, and the afore mentioned Dr. Craig, have responded to Euthyphro by calling it a false dilemma.  Specifically, Dr. Craig argues that “God’s moral nature is what Plato called the “Good.” He is the locus and source of moral value. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth”.  In essence, Craig asserts that neither of the above options are accurate, as God’s very nature is what “good” is.  Basically, what God commands is good, and he will only command good things because that is the way he is.  God is “the greatest imaginable being, and any being that doesn’t meet this description is not God”.

This response, too, is very problematic.  For starters, it is essentially a complete dodge of the dilemma.  More importantly, however, it commits the logical fallacies of “begging the question” and “special pleading”.  God is asserted to be loving, faithful, kind, generous, etc, as well as the “greatest imaginable being”.  This raises many concerns.

1.  Loving, faithful, kind, and generous are all value judgements.  What sense does it make to state that god is these things, if we are unable to make these judgements without the existence of god?  This argument begs the question.  It asserts that the above listed words have value and meaning because they are consistent with god’s nature.  This requires god to exist, AND be all of these things, for it to be true.  How would we evaluate the claim that god is moral, if the word moral is rooted in god?  The conclusion that values are rooted in god’s moral nature presupposes a moral nature inate in god.  And again, as pointed out by scenario 1 of the Euthyphro dilemma, to state that god’s nature = morality, is to render morality meaningless.  Clearly, in order to even make a judgement as to God’s nature, we need a value system that is independent of God himself.

2.  The ontological argument that “god is the greatest imaginable being” is a gross example of special pleading.  Only a being that meets Dr. Craig’s criteria for “greatest imaginable” is a being that can be called God.  The problem is, not every imagination is the same.  Indeed, there are NUMEROUS different god concepts on offer, all across the world.  Many contain different properties, values, and priorities.  MOST are considered the “greatest imaginable being”.  I am quite certain that Dr. Craig does not consider Allah to be the greatest imaginable being, despite the fact that muslims are certain that he is.  To call your OWN concept of God the “greatest”, and dismiss all others as “less great”, is either an example of special pleading, or it is a claim that is made based on evidence and argument.  If it is the former, it is fallacious.  If it is the latter, than we must have criteria for evaluating the “greatness” of an idea.  When the idea is, itself, a god concept, the criteria cannot be rooted in the nature of a god, and we are once again left in a position where we need a value system that is independent of a god.

3.  Where is the evidence?  Anytime a claim is made, it is important to support the claim with evidence, reason, and justification.  Dr. Craig appears to be baldly asserting God’s nature to be good.  How does he know this?  What support can he offer?  Craig’s philosophical support is, at best, unsatisfactory.  His statements require support that does not collapse under critical scrutiny and, thus far, I don’t see it.

Say what now?

Ok, for argument’s sake, suppose we put aside all of the above problems.  Suppose that we granted that morality must be tied to following God’s commandments.  What now?  Should we sit back and wait for God to speak up and command us?  Where are these commandments found?  How do we learn what is commanded of us?  Generally speaking, when a person claims to hear the voice of God in their head, they are immediately advised to seek psychological help.  Clearly, we now are in a position of needing a source for God’s commands, otherwise acting on them will be rather impossible.  Once again, a couple of serious problems arise.

1.  For starters, which source?  It may come as a shock to some, but there is more than ONE book that is claimed to be the “word of god”.  Ask a Muslim where to find God’s instructions, and you may be directed to the Qu’ran.  Ask a Jew, and you will likely be directed to the Torah.  Ask a Christian, and you will likely be handed a Bible (though which version will depend on the denomination of christianity).  And these are just the three books of the most prominent monotheistic traditions.  What about the book of Mormon?  What about the many texts of lesser-known religions?  What of the religious doctrines of the many religions, throughout history, that have now gone either endangered, or extinct?  You need not read very far into each of the above listed texts before realizing that they are not the same book.  Many make mutually exclusive claims.  If objective moral values are grounded in God, and if behaving morally is dependent on following this God’s commands, then clearly we better pick the RIGHT source.  Otherwise, we will be acting immorally, and never know it!  So why is this a problem?

The largest religion in the world, at present, is Christianity.  Putting aside the various differences in the denominations, and counting all of them as one group, christians account for ~2 billion people.  Pretty impressive right?  Unless, of course, you consider that this makes over 5 billion people NOT christians.  If, for example, the Bible was the source of God’s commands, then less than 29% of the world has access to the proper code of morality.  This renders over 70% of the world as vulnerable to immorality and depravity of all kinds.  If objective moral values depend on God, and moral behavior depends on listening to God, then MOST of the planet is going to be objectively immoral.  The figures are even worse for every other religion on offer, as they represent even smaller portions of the world’s population.  This paints a picture where moral truths are accessible to only a minority of the world’s people, while the majority are doomed to walk in darkness.  Sure, they may stumble upon the moral truths contained in the correct source, but any occasion where they do so will be accidental and unfounded, as only the word of the correct God can properly ground moral decisions.  This, I hope is clear, is simply not the reality of morality in the world.

2.  Interpretation becomes a major issue.  Let’s say that, despite the odds, we manage to hitch our wagons to the correct source of God’s commands.  For argument’s sake, let’s select the source to which Dr. Craig subscribes:  The Bible.  We are in great luck now!  The Bible, as the word of God, will be a very clear instruction manual on moral behavior.  It will present a clear, unified, and consistent message.  It will be profoundly insightful, and it’s teachings will be undeniable by anyone with a sense for morality.  So reading through the Bible, this is what we find…right?  Unfortunately, no.  This is hardly what we find.  Instead, we have a book that is wrought with inconsistency, direct contradictions, and commandments that are either entirely irrelevant in today’s society, or commands that appear overtly immoral in civilized circles.  Sure, there is undoubtedly some very good advice inside, and to deny this would be silly.  But, as the source of objective morality, shouldn’t there ONLY be very good advice inside?

Now, a discussion on the teachings of the Bible is a topic that, itself, could fill many blog articles.  It is a discussion that could quickly derail the original topic of this post.  For this reason, I will, against my normal nature, avoid getting deep into specifics.  The details of this debate are for another day, and I will certainly be addressing the subject more thoroughly in future posts.  For the purposes of this discussion, however, consider the following questions.  Is it considered immoral to work on the sabbath?  Is it considered moral to stone unruly children to death?  Is it immoral to not honor your mother or father, if they are abusive or dysfunctional parents?  Is the institution of slavery moral?  Do you view homosexuality as immoral?  Is it immoral for a woman to have equal status in a relationship?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, by what criteria did you do so?  You can find passages in the Bible that appear to explicitly endorse, if not outright command, many actions that are dismissed as immoral today.  This is a very real problem.  If God’s commands are expressions of a perfectly moral code, then under what reasoning are they not ALL followed to the letter?  Could it be that the commands of the Bible are being filtered through a separate screen?  A screen of moral sensibility that exists independent of what is written down in the text?

Now, it is argued that, for every seemingly evil teaching found in the Bible, a passage can be found that contradicts, or overturns it.  I fail to see how this helps the Bible’s case.  Arguing that your book is not actually immoral, but instead merely inconsistent, hardly speaks volumes of it’s ability to serve as the source of objective moral values.  Being wrong, and being contradictory, are BOTH problematic.  Again, in the face of an inconsistent message, we now must decide which passages to emphasize.  This decision process will be independent of biblical instruction, calling into serious question the idea that the Bible is, itself, the source of values, much less objective morality.

To claim that morality stems from a person’s ability to follow God’s objectively moral commands is, it should seem, a claim that is problematic on many levels.  But all of the above complaints, all of the above problems with the reasoning of Dr. Craig and company, all of the issues with grounding objective morality in God, all of them pale in comparision to the very basic problem with god-based morality.  The problem that is so obvious, it almost needn’t be stated.

Stating the Obvious Anyway

The main problem with basing morality on God?  It presumes that God exists in the first place.  This entire discussion is almost irrelevant if the basic existence of God cannot be demonstrated.  In fairness, there aren’t many theists that don’t willingly acknowledge this very point.  But the problem remains nonetheless.  If morality becomes “grounded” when we simply base it on a perfectly moral God, we must establish that such a God exists FIRST.  Without step 1, you might as well ground objective morality on ANY imaginary concept.

Now, while nearly every theist accepts and acknowledges this obvious fact, I raise the point to illustrate a key problem in Dr. Craig’s position.  Dr. Craig uses the existence of “objective moral values” as evidence of the existence of God.  The issue here is that this clashes violently with his argument that “objective moral values” exist.  Dr. Craig argues that moral values are objective, because they are grounded in God’s perfectly moral nature.  He then argues that objective moral values serve as evidence for the existence of God?  How can this be?  This reasoning is entirely circular!  In essence, it is the position that morality exists because god exists, and god exists because morality exists.  Objective moral values cannot be offered as evidence for the existence of God in any system where God, himself, is being proposed as the source of, and explanation for, objective moral values.  Demonstrating the existence of God, then, would have to be done without appealing to moral values, as long as God is proposed to be the ontology of moral values in the first place.

So what now?

It is, for all of the reasons above, simply inadequate to claim God as the source of objective moral values.  So where does this leave us?  Is Dr. Craig correct that morality is now a human convention?  Is the entire realm of morality illusory?  Are we reduced to living in a world of moral relativism?  Do the words “right’ and “wrong” now become effectively meaningless?

In short, the answer to EACH of the above questions is NO.  In part 2 of this article, I will be arguing that objective moral values do in fact exist, independent of any appeals to the divine.  It is a position that is actually rather controversial amongst non-believers, so I wanted to dedicate at least an entire post to properly explaining my stance.

God is not the answer, but the answers ARE out there.   Stay tuned……

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It’s JUST a Theory…

As I am not a scientist by any means, I will generally leave the specifics of scientific discussion to people who are far more qualified.  I must, however, briefly address an idea I encounter often.  How many people reading this have ever been in a discussion about evolution, or the big bang, and heard a person dismissively say “it’s just a theory”.  This is often said with a certain level of smugness, as if theories aren’t to be taken seriously.  How many people reading this have actually, themselves, said something to this effect?  Since this comes up so often in debates with people who are skeptical of science, I figured I would address this point.  It is, after all, a misunderstanding of science that is so basic, even a layman can see the problem.

I Guess it’s a Theory…

The confusion, I suspect, arises from the colloquial use of the term theory.  When a person claims to have a “theory” about something, it is often actually a guess.  It is conjecture, and it could be wildly incorrect.  A random individual, offering up their “theory” about a given thing, is under no obligation to have thought about their idea for more than a single moment.  This, it seems to me, is why the word theory is not taken seriously by some.

So how, if at all, is it different when science uses the word theory?  Simply put, the meaning of the term theory is VERY different from that used above, when it is used in the context of scientific explanations.  The use of the term theory, that is described in the above paragraph, is far more like the word “hypothesis”.  When a scientist gathers enough observations, and sets out to explain a particular phenomena, they begin by forming a hypothesis that they believe explains what is being observed.  This hypothesis is a guess, even if it is often an educated guess.

And so it Begins

With a hypothesis in mind, the process is now only just beginning.  What follows is a very rigorous series of tests and experiments, designed to examine the hypothesis for accuracy.  These tests are designed to verify the hypothesis, and ensure that it accounts for all available data.  If, at any time, the results of an experiment call the hypothesis into question, the hypothesis is either tweaked, or outright discarded.  However, if the hypothesis appears to be confirmed by every test, the results will be forwarded to the next step in the process – peer review.

We have now made observations, formed a hypothesis, and tested this idea over and over again to great success.  One would think we have a pretty solid explanation for the original phenomena, but the real fun is only about to begin.  We must now subject our hypothesis, and our experimental results, to the process of peer review.  This basically means that well-trained experts, in our given field of study, are going to take our idea and do everything in their power to dismantle it.  The hypothesis will be screened with a fine tooth comb, and our experiments will be placed under a microscope.  Every known method of “falsifying” our hypothesis will be attempted.  If, at any time during this process, our hypothesis is exposed to be in error, it is dismissed and we go back to scratch.  If however, the idea survives the firing squad, the hypothesis will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Does Your Theory Pass the Test?

Why is all of this important?  What does this have to do with the word theory?  A scientific Theory has passed every ONE of the above measures, and more.  It has been examined, scrutinized, and taken to task, only to emerge even more confirmed each time.  The title “theory” is EARNED in science.  It is the HIGHEST title that a scientific explanation can achieve.  A scientific theory is based on evidence, and observation.  It’s explanations reliably account for all the information we have, its predictions are confirmed each time they are put to the test.

It is often thought that a scientific explanation is only called a theory when it isn’t “proven”.  Again, this is simply false.  As stated, once an explanation earns the title theory, that’s it.  There is no higher title for it to achieve, and it will never become anything else.  Some seem to operate under the misconception that a theory is a less proven idea, and a scientific law is a fact.  Once more evidence is gathered, a theory will become a law.  This is also not the case.  Scientific laws are simply different from theories altogether.  A theory will always be a theory, and a law will always be a law.  They are not different levels of certainty.  BOTH are considered to be theoretical and BOTH are considered to be “facts”.

It may come as a surprise to some that many ideas, commonly accepted as facts, are ACTUALLY scientific theories.  Gravity, motion, the behavior of atoms, the earth rotating on an axis, the planets orbiting the sun, etc.  All of these “facts” are, in actuality, theories.  Does this make THEM any less true?  No.  It seems to only become an issue when evolution, a theory that is equally supported (if not more so) by evidence, is discussed.

The Million Dollar Question

The only question remaining is that, if theories are established facts, then why do we call them theories?  Why not call them facts?  The answer to this goes to the very core of the scientific process.  Science almost never deals in absolutes.  Any explanation we have can only POSSIBLY be the best explanation available, given what we know.  Science is a discipline of skepticism and intellectual honesty.  It recognizes that our knowledge and understandings can and WILL always improve.  It recognizes that we can only hope to offer explanations that account for all CURRENT data and information.  New data could always be discovered that will force us to revisit our explanations and either refine them, or even discard them.  This is not a failing of science, but rather it’s GREATEST strength.  The discipline of science is ever mindful of our own limitations, and endlessly seeking the next great discovery.

Which of Your Theories Could Use Refinement?

When the topic is evolution, or even the big bang, it is so often said these are just “theories”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, they are theories, but there is nothing “just” about them.  They stand as the best explanations we have, or COULD have, given the evidence available to us.  Their predictions have been observed, their teachings have been confirmed, their evidence has been examined.  Every attempt at falsification has proven to be in vain.  We know these things to be true with the same degree of certainty that we can know any scientific understanding to be true.  That is to say, it is definitely the case, provided new evidence does not come along to completely refine our understandings.

To make a long story short, it isn’t JUST a theory……

 

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Common Misconceptions

A chart showing the relationship between weak/...

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It seems as though I cannot go more than a week without encountering the same misconceptions about what Atheism is, and what it is not.  At times, the confusion is intentional.  That is to say that the position of atheism is deliberately strawmanned into a stance that is easier to defeat in debate.  Such an obviously dishonest tactic is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, so this is not the confusion that I wish to address.  Rather, there still exists a genuine misunderstanding out there, even amongst many “non believers” as to what the label atheism really means.  A few of the more common misconceptions I encounter:

1.  Atheism is the positive belief that NO god or gods exist.  An atheist is certain that no such things exist.

This is not what atheism necessarily means.  What is described above is “strong atheism”, or even “gnostic atheism”.  While there are people who would fit under this label, it is NOT true of the majority of people who identify as atheists.  Theism is the positive belief in the existence of a god or gods.  A-theism is to simply lack this belief.  One COULD lack belief because they assert certainty in the inexistence of gods, or they could simply lack belief as a result of being unconvinced of theistic claims.  If you lack positive believe in a god or gods, you are an atheist.

2.  Agnosticism

This is quickly becoming one of my least favorite words.  I cannot even count the amount of times I have encountered someone who will, while rather proud of themselves, declare “Atheism and Theism are both blind faiths, I am agnostic because there is no way to be sure”.  This is one of the MOST commonly misunderstood areas of religious debate.

The suggestion that being agnostic is somehow some “middle ground” between theism and atheism is, on every level, FALSE.  If we trace the meaning of these words from their roots, we can see a very obvious flaw in this line of thinking.  Gnosticism deals with KNOWLEDGE.  An agnostic holds the position that absolute knowledge is not known, or cannot be known, about a given proposition.  It says NOTHING about whether or not the proposition is believed.  Theism and atheism are stances on belief, while agnosticism is an entirely separate category, compatible with either theism OR atheism.  For example:

Gnostic Theist:      “I believe there is a god, and I KNOW it to be true beyond ALL doubt”
Agnostic Theist:    “I don’t know for SURE if god exists, but I certainly BELIEVE he does”
Agnostic Atheist:  “I don’t know if any god or gods exist, but I see no good reason to believe”
Gnostic Atheist:    “No such things as gods exist, I am certain of this”

A question that may come to mind here is “why disbelieve if you admit you do not know?”  If we cannot know for sure one way or another, isn’t the only honest thing to say “I don’t know”?  Well, yes and no.  Anytime a question is asked, and the answer is unknown, “I don’t know” is a fine answer.  However, this does NOT apply when positive claims are made, and expected to be believed or considered.  Whenever a claim is made, especially a claim that is of some significant consequence, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant to back up their assertion.  When responding to claims, skepticism is important.  We do not need to have knowledge one way or another to be skeptical of any claim, until it can be properly supported by evidence or reason.  A perfect example of this is the judicial system here in America.

A court case begins, and a defendant is brought up on charges of murder.  You are sitting in the jury.  The claim being put to you is that “defendant A is guilty of the crime murder”.  At the onset, you have no evidence either way, and you can’t possibly be anything but agnostic regarding the claim.  Are you then sitting on the fence?  If asked to vote immediately, should you respond “I don’t know”?  Of course not.  The burden of proof has not been met to establish this defendant’s guilt.  Until such a time when this burden IS met, “not guilty” is the only responsible vote a person could offer.  This does not mean that your mind is closed to hearing the evidence, or that you are not willing to change your mind should the evidence prove persuasive, it simply means that the DEFAULT position with regard to this claim is disbelief.

Now the trial has unfolded, witnesses have been called, exhibits have been shown, and closing arguments have been made.  You, and your fellow jurors are called into quarters to cast your votes.  The sentiment in the group is not unanimous, and there are people voting different ways.  3 people vote “guilty”, and 9 people vote “not guilty”.  With regard to the claim “defendant A is guilty of murder”, we basically now have 3 “theists” and 9 “atheists”.  The 3 people voting guilty are CERTAIN.  They are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and could not be more confident in their decision.  3 others are CERTAIN of the defendant’s innocence, and are firm that it simply isn’t possible that the defendant committed this crime.

The above example certainly includes 3 gnostic “theists”, and 3 gnostic “atheists”, but what about the other 6 people?  They aren’t convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, either way.  Are they then ONLY agnostic?  NO!  While they may not be sure one way or another, they are unconvinced that the burden of proof was met for them to believe the claim.  Yes, they are agnostic, but they are also Atheists with respect to the claim before them.

This same principle applies to religious claims.  The burden of proof lies with the person making the claim.  While responding, you may not know if their concept of god exists or not, but you do not HAVE to know for certain to reject belief in their claim.  Again, when a claim proposed, the default position is disbelief.  An open mind will allow a person to entertain the claim, and enable the person to evaluate any supporting evidence.  But belief is something that should be EARNED.  Only when a claim is sufficiently supported by evidence, reason, or sound argument, is belief justified.  This includes claims where absolute knowledge is unavailable.  Simply stopping at “I don’t know” is a complete non-answer when it comes to what a person does or does not believe.  So the next time you are in a religious discussion, and you encounter someone who says “I’m agnostic,” the question should then become….an agnostic WHAT?

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Belief for the Sake of Belief?

English: Sam Harris

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I was in a debate recently, and was responding to an argument I come across quite often.  It took place on a public debate page, and began with a post to this affect:

I saw a post on here saying being religious is to be ignorant. Being religious isn’t being ignorant. Its a choice people make. To believe in what they want even if others do not agree with it. If something is fantasy, and want to devote their life to it, let them. For, to that person, it is truth for them.

Now this certainly isn’t a particularly original defense of religious belief.  Noted author, Sam Harris, has addressed these very arguments on many occasions.  Still, it is a plea that is so ill-conceived that I could not resist delivering a response.  This was my rebuttal to two of the points made in the above passage.

1.  “Being religious isn’t being ignorant. Its a choice people make.”

How a person acts upon their religious beliefs could possibly be viewed as a choice, but their BELIEFS are not. We cannot simply “choose” what we believe. True belief is the product of being persuaded or convinced of a proposition. If I do not believe that Elvis is still alive, I could CHOOSE to pretend as though I do, but I could not actually believe it inside without being convinced of the claim by evidence or argument.

2.  “If something is fantasy, and they want to devote their life to it, let them.   For to that person it is truth for them.”

The taboo around challenging religious beliefs is something that, itself, needs to be challenged. Sam Harris quite rightly addresses this in many of his books. Name one OTHER discipline, subject, or realm where this sort of behavior or attitude is acceptable. If someone wishes to be a holocaust denier, should we simply respect that belief? If someone decides the moon is made out of cheese, are they applauded for their faith? If someone decides that water is not made of hydrogen and oxygen, but instead is made from mind-controlling chemicals, is their viewpoint given ANY credence?

The answer is, of course, no. Sure, a person has a legal RIGHT to believe these ridiculous things, but they are not free from consequence if they express them publicly. Any claim, opinion, or viewpoint is challenged, questioned, and evaluated against the evidence, rather than being automatically respected. Only informed opinions garner respect, only educated guesses warrant consideration, and only evidentially supported claims are given any merit.

English: Sam Harris speaking in 2010

Suddenly, the moment someone mentions god, all of the above rules go flying out the window? If someone holds a trivial belief, that is obviously ridiculous, it is challenged. But if someone adopts an equally unsupported idea regarding matters of grave importance, suddenly questioning their idea is taboo? This is nonsense. Religions shape the way people live their lives. They often impact the way societies function. Education, science, morality, and social acceptance are constantly impacted and influenced by these beliefs.

They are demonstrably more impacting than almost any other position. This is all the MORE reason to hold them to the very same standard to which we evaluate every other claim or concept. If you have a claim, support it with evidence, or prepare to have it disregarded. If you make an assertion, provide reasoning, or it will be dismissed. This goes ESPECIALLY for claims and beliefs that aim to impact the way people live their lives. Religion is certainly no exception.  There is no particular reason to have belief, simply for the sake of having belief.

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A Tribute to a Great Mind

Christopher Hitchens

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As most people are already aware, the world lost an amazing individual this past week.  Christopher Hitchens, journalist, editor, and outspoken atheist, has died at age 62.  Over the course of the last week, I have been delighted to see a flooding of tributes and memorials dedicated to the life that this man led.  This post is my own way of paying homage to a man who was a great inspiration to me.

I am late to the party here, and am unlikely to have anything terribly original to say, but I would be remiss if I did not express my own thanks and appreciation for the impact that Christopher Hitchens had on the world.

He spent his life challenging ignorance, credulity, obedience, and conformity.  He encouraged free thought, and human solidarity.  He was certainly not without controversy, but his arguments, combined with the skill with which he was able to deliver them, were instrumental in inspiring me to join the anti-theism cause.  Christopher Hitchens’ death leaves a void that will not be easily filled.  He will be missed, but not forgotten.

For everything you accomplished, and for the lessons you leave behind…. Thank you

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In the Beginning…

As this is my first post on this page, and indeed my first attempt at a blog of any kind, I feel I should start by introducing myself.  This post will serve as a brief overview of who I am, what I am about, and what my intentions are with this page.

About Me

My name is Justin, I am 28 years old, and as I have stated, I am new to the blogging world.  I identify as being various things, but for the purposes of this page, 3 of my positions will be most relevant.

1.  Politically speaking, I am a liberal.  I do not blindly accept any position that comes from the political left, nor do I agree with every position that liberals take.  Overall, however, I tend to be far closer to the liberal side of debate on many important social and economic issues.

2.  I am an atheist.  Shouldn’t be a complete shock here, as the label appears in the title of this page, but it is an accurate label nonetheless.  This means that I do not have any belief in the existence of a god or gods.  Depending on how “god” is defined, my response to it’s existence can vary.  I could be agnostic to it’s existence, or gnostic, for example.  My reasoning will also vary completely as the god concept I am addressing changes.  Overall, however, I use the label “atheist” because I have yet to encounter a definition of god, or a concept of the supernatural, that I find to be convincing.  Thus, I lack belief, and the label “atheist” fits.

3.  Perhaps the position I hold, that generates the most controversy, is the position of being an anti-theist.  This, of course, does not mean that I hate all theists.  Indeed, there are many people in my life, for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, who are very religious people.  This also does not mean that I believe that every problem or evil that exists in the world is somehow the fault of religion.  Rather, I am an anti-theist because I truly believe that the net impact of religion, on the world as a whole, is a negative one.  The good that is often credited to religion, in my view, could exist entirely independent of these institutions.  While much of the harm that religion causes would not survive without devout followers.  I am convinced that mankind will be far better served to cast aside the traditions, superstitions, and dogmas of the world’s religions.  Of all of my stances, this is the one that inspires the most resistance, and it is quite possibly the position I will spend much of my time discussing.

This Page

As for this page, it is my intention to use this blog as an outlet for many of my thoughts on the above listed positions.  By that I mean that I plan to discuss current events, politics, religion, ethics, morality, philosophy, and many other subjects, from a secular standpoint.  I hope to elaborate on my above listed positions, and challenge many commonly held ideas and beliefs.

I reserve the right to occasionally stray from the stated objective of the page, if a particular story or event is extremely interesting, yet not quite in the scope of what I normally address.  Overall, however, I intend to keep most of my content relevant to the title of the page, and my above listed stances.

Freedom From Religion FoundationThis is going to be a venue of expression, rather than confrontation.  My experience discussing these issues has been mainly in debate format, up to this point, and I still enjoy participating regularly in discussions of that nature.  I am still currently an administrator of a public Facebook debate page, and I encourage anyone reading this to swing by the page and challenge me, or any of the fellow members, on a variety of topics.  On this page, however, I will be more focused on generating content.  This may change in the future, depending on how this project “evolves”, but at the onset I would prefer to direct any debate to the proper forum.  The debate page where I am an admin is http://www.facebook.com/atheistsVSreligion

Anyway, that’s a little bit about me, this page, and what my intentions are going forward.  Hopefully, there will be some who find these subjects as interesting as I do, and will enjoy reading as much as I enjoy writing.

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