Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Believers Say the Darndest Things 3: Self-Evident Stupidity

In the vast arsenal of underwhelming and idiotic arguments that believers have at their disposal, one that starkly stands out in terms of its foolishness is used more often than would be expected.

The argument goes like this: “it’s obvious that there is a god [or insert some other supernatural claim]. If you look around you [or inside of you, or whatever], you know that this is true because it’s self-evident. In fact, you already know deep down that it’s true, you just don’t want to admit it!”
As hard as it may be to believe, that’s really the nuts and bolts of this argument – though calling it an “argument” is clearly something of a stretch. It’s really more of a tactic, one script among many that believers fall back upon when they are attempting to argue in public – in situations where they must appeal to reason and evidence – and realize that they have no rational justification for what they believe.
Those who don’t regularly engage believers in arguments might think that no believer in his or her right mind would ever appeal to “it’s obvious!” as a serious argument, but such appeals come up with shocking frequency.
Read on for examples and analysis of this script at work.

Friday, June 17, 2011

You Will Respect My Author-it-tay!

There are a number of people who call themselves “Thelemites” who seem to have a love for the concept of what we might call “spiritual authority.” We can witness this affection for authority in the interminable arguments that constantly arise between members of different organizations over which group is “legitimate” or has a “link” back to some figure like Crowley.

This idea of authority, however, is completely and totally ass-backwards. It’s as if the worth of a group should be determined solely by the question of whether its leaders studied with people who studied with people who studied with Crowley. The idea underlying many of these love affairs with the concept of authority is a dumb supernatural one: the idea that there is some kind of magical “current” that is transferred from teacher to student, that there is an ooky-spooky force that Crowley transmitted to his students (along with anything else he may have transmitted to them….) and that aspiring students in the modern day can be, er, infected with that force…if they find the right teacher who has the correct “lineage.”
This idea is so utterly stupid and gives rise to such an enormous waste of time (trying to figure out who has the right “spiritual pedigree” and such) that it barely warrants a mention at all.
But this entire phenomenon of loving the concept of authority is directly related to the subject of this post: the authority to say what Thelema is.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday, 2011 (But really: Thoughts on Finnegans Wake)

Awake from dream, the truth is known: awake from waking, the Truth is – The Unkown.”
            --Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies

Today is Bloomsday, the day celebrated by literary enthusiasts around the world as the day on which James Joyce’s magnificent novel Ulysses takes place. All throughout Dublin on this day, each chapter of the novel is publicly read at its appropriate time and place, as Joyce assigned each chapter a location and time (except for the final chapter, which occurs after midnight and, metaphorically, outside of time altogether).
Much can be said about the brilliance of Ulysses, but my thoughts on this fine Bloomsday turn mainly to Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s final masterpiece. This novel – and “novel,” in its original sense of “new” is the right word here – is less a traditional novel with a plot than it is a huge, 628-page language experiment.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Skeptical of the True Will?

It seems odd that anyone would want to reduce Thelema – the philosophy that holds an individual’s nature, as opposed to arbitrary rules, should be the only guide of conduct – to a position of faith, thus making it indistinguishable from any ridiculous supernatural claim.
Yet this is precisely the position of many supernaturalist Thelemites, who cannot fathom that something like the existence of a true will might be demonstrated as true (which, of course, begs the question of why they would ever choose to adopt a position that they don’t think can be demonstrated to be true).
One poster at phrased the position like this:
I'm intrigued as to the correct skeptical approach as laid out [on Thelema and Skepticism] to the claim "I have a True Will". Many 'rationalists' (a majority?) would consider this to be just as suspect as "I just met a real demon" or "Reincarnation is real".
What this poster is saying is basically that he doesn’t think that the idea of the true will can stand up to skeptical scrutiny; thus there is no evidence to convince anyone that there is such a thing as a true will; thus there is no reason for anyone to believe that it exists; thus believing in the true will is purely a matter of faith – as much as any religious claim is –  and thus Thelema is utterly and completely indistinguishable from any run-of-the-mill wacko religious claim and no one has a legitimate reason to be a Thelemite, any more than they have a legitimate reason to be a Hare Krishna.
Obviously, the above position is totally incorrect, and it is the intention of this blog post to demonstrate how to apply skepticism to the claim “I have a True Will.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Believers Say the Darndest Things 2: “Hey, it works for me!”

When I was a kid, I would watch The Simpsons every single day without fail (this was, obviously, before The Simpsons turned into complete and utter crap, sometime in the vicinity of seasons 9-12). At that point, I had seen all of the episodes several times, and I would religiously – pardon the phrase – watch the repeats in syndication.

I can distinctly remember quite a few times when I would think of a particular episode all day long and then tune into to the episode aired that night and be shocked to see that it was the exact episode I was thinking of all day. This happened many times, with such frequency that I began to wonder if I was in the possession of psychic powers.
And it happened with other television programs in syndication as well. I would be watching a repeat of some show and realize, suddenly, “Hey, this is the exact conversation between these characters that I was thinking of today.”
Now, I never actually did believe that I had psychic powers, but let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I really was convinced that I had some minor psychic ability.
So here’s a question for you skeptics out there: did I have sufficient evidence to claim that I had demonstrated – “to me,” not necessarily to anyone else – the existence of psychic powers?
If you answered “yes” to the above question, then you need to read the rest of this blog entry to learn exactly what kind of drooling idiocy a “yes” answer is the product of. If you answered “no,” then you should read on anyway, just to learn why you are correct and possibly to be entertained.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Believers Say the Darndest Things: “We know so little!”

One of the things I’m interested in exploring on this blog is the variety of “scripts” that religious believers employ when conversing with atheists and skeptics.

One believer script relies on an estimation of the amount of knowledge that humans have of the universe. It goes something like this (note: although I have created the exact wording of the passage below myself, it is a close paraphrase of several real arguments I have encountered over the years):
If you consider how much knowledge that humans could potentially have of the universe, the amount of knowledge that humans actually do have of the universe is almost infinitesimal. If we were to assign percentages to it, we could say that humans probably know less than one percent of all of the possible knowledge that there could ever be of the universe.
How arrogant of atheists to presume, on the basis of that less than one-percent knowledge, that there are no gods. Isn’t it very possible that indeed there may be gods lurking in the 99+% of the knowledge we haven’t acquired yet?”
Setting aside for a moment the fact that atheism is not a position of certainty nor a positive claim that there are no gods, the above argument confuses the theoretical possibility of the existence of gods (or demons or occult powers or whatever the supernatural claim is under discussion) with the currently available evidence for the existence of gods.
As we will see, just as believers routinely confuse the impossibility of having absolute knowledge with the process of evaluating claims on the basis of currently available evidence, believers also confuse the impossibility of “complete” knowledge with the same process.

Friday, June 3, 2011

What's the Default Position, Anyway?

Over on the discussion thread about this blog, one responder noted that

I think that agnosticism flows more naturally from skepticism than atheism, as the agnostic says, "I can't be certain" whereas the atheist says "certainly not," to say certainly not to something you have no means to be certain of is a failure to apply skepticism in all areas, such as your own certainty.

This objection was addressed in the introductory post of this blog.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I've finally been struck by the motivation to register this blog name and write an introductory post.
As of this moment, I do not yet have a master plan for this space, other than as a place in which to post thoughts on atheism, skepticism, and Thelema. It is likely that my other interests -- including art, poetry, pop culture, and mockery of religion – will eventually figure into the posts I make here down the line.
I'm going to begin by giving a short rundown on skepticism and how atheism, naturalism, and moral nihilism are necessarily derived from a proper application of it. This post will conclude by examining the usefulness of these ideas to a proper practice of Thelema.
Skepticism is a mode of thought in which one does not accept propositions until they have been demonstrated, through evidence, to be likely true. A skeptic is one who seeks to apply skepticism consistently to all of the claims he encounters.
This outlook arises from a desire to believe [note: I use “believe” to mean “accepting a proposition”] as many true claims as possible and as few false claims as possible. If I simply wanted to believe as many true claims as possible, I would believe every claim; however, I would, in the process, be accepting a vast number of contradictory, conflicting, and untrue claims. If I simply wanted to believe as few false claims as possible, I would reject every claim; however, this would lead to a number of practical problems.
The best approach, then, is to attempt to believe as many true claims and as few false claims as possible, which yields a mental map of the universe that is as close to accurate as we can possibly get, based on the evidence currently available to us. We revise our acceptance of claims as new evidence becomes available.
Now obviously, in daily life, one does not have the luxury to subject all claims to rigorous investigation. As a result, most people develop a heuristic that they use to analyze claims on the fly. For example, if a friend tells me that he just bought a new car, I would probably accept his claim without badgering him for exhaustive evidence -- this is because the nature of the claim is very commonplace and ordinary, my friend has demonstrated himself to be trustworthy in reporting ordinary events, etc. While it might be possible that my friend is lying or mistaken, I'm willing to grant such an ordinary claim for the purposes of having a conversation about it. And even if he is lying or mistaken, the issue is hardly one of great importance.
However, if my friend were to tell me that he just bought a flying car that enables him to travel through time, I would certainly not accept this claim without a great deal of corroborating evidence. The reason for this is quite simply that such a claim is extraordinary, outside of the experience of all people, undemonstrated in any way, currently impossible under knowledge as it currently stands, etc., etc.
Atheism follows naturally from skepticism, and it is the lack of belief in all gods, "gods" being defined as supernatural (and typically non-corporeal) beings with extraordinary powers. Note that atheism is not necessarily the active belief that "there are no gods" -- it is, in its broadest sense, the position that none of the claims for the existence of god-beings have met their burden of proof sufficient for the atheist to accept them.
In addition to the fact that there is no evidence for such beings, there is a great deal of evidence against the existence of such beings. A universe in which superbeings intervene in the affairs of humans is a measurably different universe than one in which such superbeings do not, and there are absolutely no indications that any such superbeings affect the material world in any way.
There is a famous saying: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," and this phrase is often trotted out to suggest that gods may exist. However, absence of evidence is most definitely evidence of absence in situations where we would expect to see evidence.
For example, if I claimed that I owned a dog that I keep in my house, but you, on visiting my house frequently, not only never observed a dog but in fact observed that my house was devoid of any of the items necessary for owning a dog (no dog food, dog dishes, dog door, collars, leashes, toys, nothing), it would start looking suspiciously as if I had no dog. If you went through my house with a heat sensor and combed every square inch and found no sign of any canine life anywhere in the house, you could be practically certain that I don’t actually have a dog (at least, not in the house itself).
In a similar way, the universe in which we live demonstrates absolutely no sign of any supernatural being that intervenes or manifests in any kind of detectable way whatsoever, and as such, we are justified in saying that there is a great deal of evidence against the claims that gods exist. While it’s true that we can’t comb every square inch of the entire universe and make absolute conclusions about whether or not gods exist – any more than we can comb every square inch of the entire universe and make absolute conclusions about whether or not leprechauns exist – we can conclude that, in terms of practical knowledge, we can say that gods don’t exist in the same way that we can say that leprechauns don’t exist.
“Absolute” conclusions are absolutely worthless and we can discard them in favor of the best conclusions currently suggested by the evidence.
Related to atheism is naturalism, the philosophical position that the natural world is the only world that is demonstrable and thus the only one we are justified in accepting. This position, like atheism, follows naturally (no pun intended) from skepticism, as no supernatural claim -- for example, claims about the existence of ESP, ghosts, demons, "magic," divination, psychic powers, etc. -- has ever demonstrated itself to be even remotely likely to be true. Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence against such beliefs, in exactly the same way that there is a great deal of evidence against the belief in gods.
Practitioners of the "occult" sometimes claim that they too are naturalists because they believe that their alleged superpowers are "part of nature." Yet regardless of the labels they want to use to make themselves feel better about believing patent nonsense that appears to be entirely imaginary, the fact is that they believe patent nonsense that appears to be entirely imaginary. I will continue to refer to such claims -- including ESP, ghosts, demons, "magic," divination, psychic powers, etc. -- as "supernatural," to designate things that are "outside of nature." And since none of those things I listed above actually exist, they are indeed "outside of nature.”
Finally, the last item that we can derive from skepticism is moral nihilism, the position that no action is inherently moral or immoral and that moral claims do not convey any real objective truth about the universe. Under moral nihilism, a statement such as “You should not steal” or “You should not engage in sexual intercourse unless you are married” are equally empty statements that express nothing more than the values of the person making the statement.
This position is the result of applying skepticism to moral claims and determining that there is no evidence that suggests that there is an ultimate binding imperative for any individual to act in any particular way. There may, of course, be pragmatic reasons to avoid certain behaviors – such as, for example, the desire to avoid expected repercussions, such as punishment – but no ultimate imperative against any action appears to exist.
Once an individual accepts that this is the case, there is only one basis left on which to decide action: that person’s inclinations in conjunction with the realities of the environment. This is, in fact, the exact premise behind Thelema, a philosophy of individual conduct created by twentieth-century poet and mystic Aleister Crowley. Thelema (Greek for "will" or "willpower") holds that the only proper guide of individual conduct is the individual's nature – as opposed to arbitrary rules of behavior imposed on the individual from without.
Such arbitrary rules of behavior obviously include morality derived from religion (all “thou shalts”). However, these arbitrary rules also include all forms of morality, including secular morality, and even “personal morality” generated by the mind of the individual.
According to Thelema, it is possible for an individual’s nature to be frustrated by the individual’s false ideas about the self and about the universe. For example, a person who is naturally inclined to be a homosexual will create a great deal of internal conflict if he accepts the belief, imposed on him by society or religion or even by his own thoughts, that it is “bad” to be a homosexual. Such a person might deny his own nature, constructing instead a self-image in which he is a “macho” tough-guy. Alternatively, this person might admit to himself that he is a homosexual but feel too guilty to act on his actual inclinations. Or alternatively, this person might indeed act on his inclinations but feel extremely guilty and suffer as a result. All of these negative outcomes result from the individual’s acceptance of the idea that a particular act is “bad.”
According to Thelema, “good” and “bad” are equally illusory creations of the mind and have no objective meaning outside of the mind of the person using the terms. If the individual rids himself of the idea that homosexuality is either “good” or “bad,” he is free to pursue his natural inclinations without guilt.
To give another example, an individual may have gotten it into his head that “It is wrong to be mean to other people.” As a result, if this individual encounters a situation in which he actually desires to be mean to someone else, an internal conflict will be created. The solution, according to Thelema, is to rid the mind of its tendency to think that any particular action is “good” or “bad” in and of itself and respond to the situation according to one’s nature.
It might very well be, of course, that the individual actually does want to be nice to the other person in order to obtain that person’s favor or to accomplish some goal. In that case, if the individual acted nicely, it would not the mental construct “It is wrong to be mean to other people” that is motivating the behavior: it would be the person’s actual desires and appraisal of reality that are motivating the action.
Of course, it might also be that the person actually wants to be mean to the other person and does not care at all about obtaining some kind of favor or accomplishing some goal by acting pleasant toward the other person. In this case, Thelema holds that the proper course of action for the individual is to be mean, and to hell with what that person thinks and to hell with the idea that it’s “bad” to do so.
As the above examples demonstrate, it is quite possible – and almost inevitable – for an individual to thwart his own nature and create internal conflict. In Thelema, the individual’s nature is called the “will,” and it is often qualified as “True Will” to distinguish it from the various ideas  that the person has – ideas that are usually dead wrong – about who he is, what it is he should do, and what it is that he wants to do.
The task of the Thelemite (one who subscribes to Thelema) is to discover the will, to “pierce the veils” of the false ideas that he has created of himself and his environment over the years and to perceive clearly his actual nature and what it is that he actually wishes to do.
As should be obvious, a Thelemite is aided greatly by having a clear understanding, not only of himself but of the environment in which he finds himself. To this end, skepticism and critical thinking are among the best tools that a Thelemite has at his disposal. If one is to discover and carry out the will, one is far more likely to be successful by attempting to achieve the aim of skepticism and to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.
This is not to say that discovering the will is a “rational” process – it is not. One’s will is not rational, and it cannot be discovered by thinking about it. The will must be perceived, but this perception must be aided by a proper understanding of the universe, an understanding informed by skepticism. There will hopefully be more to come on this topic as this blog evolves.
Unfortunately, there are a number of people who have sought to turn Thelema into a supernaturalist religion or a set of supernaturalist practices, believing in all manner of ridiculous and false claims, from the belief that the “true will” is some kind of supernatural force to the belief that the individual reincarnates and carries out a true will across multiple lifetimes to the belief that the true will can be revealed by entering into imaginary conversations with make-believe creatures, including angels, demons, and aliens.
It is the contention of this blog that Thelema is best aided by a skeptical approach, one that includes the positions that are the inevitable result of properly applied skepticism: atheism, naturalism, and moral nihilism. As this blog develops, it is my hope that many, if not most, of the posts will explore various facets of these topics, their relationship to Thelema, and ways that rational, intelligent people of the 21st century can benefit from Thelema without subjecting themselves to a cavalcade of false and delusory beliefs.