Like leaves in the wind…

Marginally sensible thoughts about philosophy, religion and love… oh, and about movies too.

Month: December, 2011

Why do I call myself an atheist and not an agnostic?

Often, we atheists are challenged for referring to ourselves as atheists. The accusation is that by identifying ourselves as such we are claiming to know something we don’t know and cannot possibly know: that no God or no gods exist. That means -according to them- that if we were honest with ourselves, we would accept that we don’t know if in fact any God or gods exist, so we should instead, with epistemological humility, refer to ourselves as agnostics.

Surprisingly, a lot of atheists think this accusation is fair, and therefore choose to label themselves as agnostics thinking that it is the reasonable way to go. But atheists should not be so quick in discarding that old and venerable label.

I don’t think we should abandon the word “atheist” because the accusation rests on a faulty understanding of what “atheist” means. In this case, atheist seems to be understood as meaning “a person who asserts that there are no gods”, while “agnostic” is taken to mean “a person who doesn’t know if there are or there aren’t any gods”. It is easy to see that in this way there is tension between atheism and agnosticism: one can be an atheist or an agnostic but not both, because they contradict each other.

If we grant that last thing it is also very easy to form a value judgement on both stances, and naturally, the atheist comes across as arrogant and careless  while the agnostic comes across as cautious or open minded. And it is a correct evaluation: if we are strict, no one has showed conclusively that God doesn’t exist or that he cannot exist. Or at least I don’t know of any conclusive piece of evidence or argument that can back up such a strong assertion. So it is fair to say that no one knows in the strongest sense of the word that there are no gods, therefore the atheist is claiming to know something he doesn’t really know, and therefore it is not reasonable or cautious to be an atheist.

The problem is that “atheist” is not an univocal term, and those who criticize atheism in this manner take it as if it meant only one thing. In fact, what they take as the univocal meaning of atheism is what is called strong atheism. And strong atheists can  indeed  be walking on thin ice if they really are claiming to know that there is no God. But there is another type of atheism, weak atheism, and those who call themselves weak atheists don’t claim to know with absolute certainty that there is no God, but limit themselves to say that his existence is so improbable or so poorly supported by evidence that belief in him is not sufficiently warranted.

This shows two important and connected distinctions. First, that atheism doesn’t need to compromise anyone to claim absolute knowledge unless one claims to be a strong atheist, and second, that it doesn’t even have to be stated in terms of knowledge, since belief , well, lack thereof, is enough to characterize one as a weak atheist. This is important because knowledge and belief are different epistemological levels; and while knowledge, to be real knowledge,  has to be justified, belief doesn’t have to be. And the same goes for lack of belief, so if atheism can mean just “lack of belief in God or gods”, mere disbelief is enough to call oneself an atheist.

If this is correct, it means that atheism in the weak sense is not incompatible with agnosticism, because agnosticism only denotes a lack of knowledge, but not a lack of belief or disbelief. Therefore, one can be an agnostic atheist if no knowledge about the inexistence of God or gods is claimed so far as one doesn’t believe in their existence. If it turns out that, after all, God exists, it wouldn’t mean that we atheists were not really atheists, but merely that we were wrong about that.

We can turn the tables now: to those self identified agnostics we can ask “we know that you don’t know if God or gods exist, but do you believe in them?” If they answer negatively, we can inform them that they are de facto agnostic atheists, whether they like it or not. And my bet is that many of them won’t like it, because I think that a big portion of the self identified agnostics actually are proud of thinking of themselves as agnostics, which is ironical at best, but hypocritical at worst, because they claim to be agnostics to distance themselves form the unwarranted epistemological arrogance of atheism (understood as strong atheism), but end up being guilty of arrogance of the same type but in opposite direction: what in strong atheism is an arrogance that results from claiming to know something that no one knows, in many instances of agnosticism is an arrogance that results from being overly proud of ones ignorance, because, for them, merely proclaiming ignorance (one’s and others’) has become synonymous with being open minded and reasonable.

And there is nothing noble or philosophical about being proud of one’s ignorance. It only begets  more ignorance -and contrary to arrogantly gnostic positions such as strong atheism, it has the disadvantage of not even being able to produce accidental truths, because while the strong atheists have not sufficiently justified their claims, in the end they might be true. Arrogant agnostics, on the other hand, with their affected self-styled pusillanimity, cannot hope to be right about anything, because their compulsory suspension of judgement doesn’t give  them anything to be right about.

To conclude and answer the opening question, I say that I’m an atheist and not an agnostic because, while I don’t know for sure that there is no God or gods, I just don’t believe in them.  That makes me a weak atheist or an agnostic atheist. I don’t mind any of them, although weak atheism has negative connotations that maybe make agnostic atheist a preferable term. For matters of simplicity, though, I will keep simply referring to myself as an atheist -there is just not enough time to explain everyone  the subtleties behind the distinctions between different types of atheism.  Saying, on the other hand,  that I’m an agnostic, without any other qualification, would be simply a failure to accurately describe myself, because I’m not only what I know or can know, but also what I believe or disbelieve in, and the world that my beliefs have shaped is a godless world.

There are other ways to criticize the term “atheist” and in particular its use to refer to oneself as one. But that will be a topic for another post.

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Why I am an Atheist

For a while I have been thinking about the reasons for my disbelief in God -well,  any sort of gods. I have never been quite sure of what could be the right explanation for that, and I have been entertaining a series of hypotheses about it, but I think that only one really explains why I believe -or rather, why I disbelieve in what I disbelieve.

My first  hypothesis was that I was an atheist merely because I was a clever and skeptical person by nature.  That, as you can see, was also an arrogant hypothesis. For starters, I don’t think I’m substantially smarter than the average believer, and secondly, on further inspection that just doesn’t seem like the right cause of my atheism.

The real answer (or at least a big part of it), now I know, is much more simple: I was never indoctrinated into believing in God or gods. There was no real intellectual victory for me and my atheism. It has been with me all along. Yes I was exposed to religion in my interactions with other people since I was little, but the fact is that with no constant reinforcement and with no aggressive preaching about the infinite horrors of hell, my mind never needed to acquiesce into believing any religious doctrine at all. At worst I was puzzled by the strange beliefs and rituals of my religious friends and family members. That also brought a slight feeling of being an outsider, but thankfully -mostly to said friends and family members- it was never a truly alienating feeling, so I never felt the need to even just fake my belief to avoid a really unbearable feeling of loneliness (loneliness has been a constant in my life, but for different reasons).

So that is it. As vulgar as unheroical as it is, my atheism was, in its origins, basically the product of not being exposed to religion in a robust or aggressive way. It is a bit disappointing for me, because I have always been somewhat proud of my disbelief, not only on religious matters, but about everything that seems to be unsupported by evidence and reason. For some years, maybe not in a conscious manner, I have been styling myself as an atheist of the heroic sort, such as the one of two of my personal intellectual heroes,  Bertrand Russell and David Hume. But the truth is that I haven’t earned my atheism by embracing any principle of minimal rationality or evidence, as much as I would love that to be the case. There was never a rocky road from belief to disbelief for me, and  no sense of breaking any dogmatic chain: I was born free and nothing has really threatened to make me a slave of religion.

In  a way, that is also profoundly silly. And it is the kind of silliness that makes some people envy those that are tormented because they think that makes them deep.  I envy intellectual atheists because their atheism seems enormously valuable to me in the face of circumstances of intolerance towards those who dare to think for themselves even if those thoughts make them depart from the ways of accepted customs and mores.  If I were less silly I would find it that it is a wonderful thing that I was able to grow up in circumstances where my disbelief (and the disbelief of my mother) was not scandalous whatsoever. It is silly because now I believe that we should strive to foster societies where disbelief and atheism are no pejorative terms anymore, and what I lament in my glibness should be celebrated as a clear case of cultural progress.

As a consolation to my unheroic natural atheism, though, I still can indulge in thinking about my reasons for still being an atheist in the face of the more sophisticated arguments in favor of God that I have stumbled upon during my philosophical journey, which now can indeed contain some relevant intellectual components. I think I have remained an  atheist  in no trivial manner because of those intellectual reasons, but what those reasons are I will leave for later.

For now, I will just say that at least I’m no longer as embarrassed for being a natural atheist -although I will also  have to say some other things about my idea of “natural atheism” in the future.

Sophie in the wind…

Melancholia: When melancholy destroys the Earth, literally

Some of us know the feeling very well: nothing seems to be as it should, and everything -everything-we see is distorted in the most loathsome way. We don’t want to do anything… we don’t want to open our eyes to see any of that anymore until it changes back to the way it used to be… when we were happy, when we were loved and when people deserved to be loved by us; and if nothing can change back to the way it used to be, then we feel that the second best thing would be for everything to stop existing, along with our miserable selves and all the people we came to despise, which may include the whole indolent world -how dare anyone be happy when we feel like shit?

That is what usually happens when melancholy strikes. At least it was when it struck me (so pardon if the generalization doesn’t hold for any of you melancholics). The world seen through these emotional spectacles indeed seems like the kind of world that deserves to be smashed into smithereens by, say, a stray newly discovered planet -and what more appropriate and poetical thing than to call that planet “Melancholia”? If all episodes of severe melancholy are as misanthropically genocidal as mine were during the paroxysm of my teenage years, then we can say that the whole universe has been imaginarily destroyed as many times as humans have had the bad luck of falling into that sorry emotional state.

Melancholy, nevertheless, is a fascinating psychological phenomenon. When I started thinking about it, it puzzled me how fast it can spread to everything in one’s life and how vague and undirected the crippling feelings of sadness, boredom, dread and nausea can be. It is not easy at all to point to exactly what is wrong with our lives now, with the things we enjoyed so greatly, and with the people we used to like so much. So when Lars von Trier’s movie titled “Melancholia” came out, I naturally believed that its subject was going be melancholy itself, and I was very curious as to how was the typically hard to explain feeling was going to be portrayed under von Trier’s usually interesting and challenging point of view and style.

I was wrong. Although nominally the expectation is warranted, the actual theme of Melancholia is not a psychological study of melancholy -or maybe it was, until the movie decided it was done with that, with melancholy-fueled fantasy apocalypses , and rather focused on actual Melancholia-caused earthly obliterations. See, the movie is and isn’t about melancholy. Also, the movie is and isn’t a single movie.

Let me explain. Melancholia is a good example of what I will call “movie that doesn’t know what the fuck it is about”. Either a movie without thematic cohesion or two movies stuck together by one title. You pick the one you like, it is a bad thing either way.

The movie opens with pretty sequence of apparently disconnected images, a woman interpreted by Kirsten Dunst looking miserable in a golf course, a horse falling out of exhaustion under squiggling northern lights, raining dead pigeons, Kirsten Dunst again floating in a mire wearing a wedding dress, what I first thought was the moon (wrongly proportioned) colliding with Earth, etc., all set to Wagner’s sublime overture to his Tristan und Isolde. None of this means anything to us when we are first seeing it, and it has the effect of feeling like a very gloomy commercial for high definition plasma televisions, but we are expected to be patient, and we do our best to go with it in hopes that it all will be rendered intelligible as the movie progresses. Some of it is, some of it isn’t.

After the title sequence, we learn that the movie is divided into parts, the first one devoted to Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who is being driven along with her now husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), to their wedding reception, and to which they arrive hours late, much to the annoyance of Justine’s uptight sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her filthy rich husband John (Kieffer Sutherland), who inexplicably spent an enormous amount of cash for the reception and generously agreed to celebrate it in his 18-hole golf course featuring mansion.

During the dinner, we get to know Justine’s family, whose dysfunctionality becomes obvious as the inevitable speeches in honor the newly weds start to be slurred and stuttered. Apparently all that is loathsome about the high class has been invited to that wedding: we meet Justine’s boss, (Stellan Skarsgard) who seems to be more interested in plucking an advertising tag line from her than in letting her enjoy what should be the happiest day of her life so far; her father, Dexter (John Hurt), who spends his time seducing ugly unaccompanied twenty-somethings with his goofy dinner-table antics; and her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a bitter woman unafraid and unembarrassed about openly ranting like the oldest teenager against marriage and love at her daughter’s wedding party.

Justine herself doesn’t seem to be mortified by any if this, though. She is not any less flawed than the rest of her family and friends and she is too busy making us cringe to even notice. As the reception goes by, her behavior becomes more erratic and dismaying, from ignoring her sister’s carefully planned schedule and instead taking a bath while the guests wait for her to cut the cake, to fucking with her boss’ incompetent assistant in a golf course’s sand trap while her husband waits for her in the amatorial chamber. She makes it almost impossible for us to feel any sympathy for her, and we understand completely when the groom has had enough of her and leaves the mansion without her.

Justine ends her day alone and despised -and rightfully so, we think. But this feeling against her might be unfair. And it is easier to see to those that have felt or have known someone suffering from depression or acute melancholy. It is not that Justine is doing all this stuff for the sake of pissing off her family and friends, but because living under the weight of melancholy makes people either do nothing at all or do outrageous things to see if they make them feel any less miserable. It is very easy to think this is merely the behavior of a lazy, selfish and careless individual, and that is one of the tragedies of depression and melancholy.

So far the movie is effective. Von Trier makes us cringe escaladingly at Justine’s increasingly bizarre antics. But there is something very familiar here, familiar to anyone that followed with interest a cinematographical movement that was championed by von Trier himself: the Dogme 95 movement. And it is familiar in particular because this part of the movie is not too far from being a ripoff (although homage is the usual euphemism, nowadays) of Dogme 95’s most brilliant cinematographic achievement: Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, of course. What Melancholia only does effectively here, Festen did it sublimely; it is, without any doubt, the definitive masterpiece of exquisitely and almost unbearably uncomfortable family gathering movies. This isn’t all that bad, though, lack of originality aside, this translates into a very watchable set of scenes, specially for those who have not seen Festen.

Unfortunately, this is the last we get from Justine and her melancholy, or at least the last time the movie focuses on her. Now it is Claire’s turn, as the movie informs us when its second part begins.

The second half of the film starts a few days after the terrible reception ended, with Justine now basically an invalid due to her depression and Claire taking care of her, much to the annoyance of John, who belongs to the camp of those that think her melancholy is a symptom of her self absorbedness rather than of a real disease. Soon enough, though, we start learning more and more about Claire’s fear of Melancholia -not the one that has infested her sister, but the conveniently thematically named newly discovered planet that for the first time emerges from its solar hiding place and now, in his errant fly by through Earth’s orbit, threatens to destroy everything. Sure, John does what he can to tranquilize Claire by throwing sciency jargon at her and her epistemological quibbles about scientific errancy.

I thought this was only going to be some sort of subplot, something that would give the general theme of the movie an interesting cosmological counterpoint. On the one hand we have melancholy spreading blueness in Justine’s life, and on the other we would have Melancholia’s menacing blue enormity coloring the sky and making Claire lose some sleep, but not much more than that, and then we would move on to a study of melancholy in the quite different psychology of Claire. That’s what seemed natural and logical to me.

But I was wrong again. It turns out that Melancholia is indeed going to collide with our planet. And when we realize that, we also realize that the movie has become something completely different: it stops being a psychological study and becomes a disaster movie. Perhaps the most pretentious and brooding disaster movie ever filmed. Indeed one of the gloomiest: in spite of John’s dismissals of Claire’s paranoia, we start suspecting that he believes -or perhaps knows- that Melancholia is going to collide with Earth when we see him stacking emergency supplies inside his barn. And we know all is lost when Claire repeatedly verifies her doomsday hypothesis with the crude astronomical instrument her little son made to measure the differences in Melancholia’s distance to Earth in different times by measuring its relative size to the instrument’s. The climax of the movie comes when what we know will happen finally happens: in spite all of Claire’s futile attempts to escape with her son, everyone is crushed and charred to the sound of Wagner’s now familiar overture. Melancholy destroys the Earth, literally.

When I realized, I just couldn’t believe the movie was seriously taking that path, because it came out of nowhere. Yes, there were some seemingly out of place cosmological imagery in key moments of Justine’s story, and the opening montage foreshadowed precisely this, but back then we had no real reason to take literally anything that was shown to us there. Here the natural viewer stance is one that takes surreal imagery like that, cautiously, as metaphorical or symbolical, specially when we don’t expect such events to actually occur in a somber art film. After all, we don’t get exhausted horses collapsing under northern lights nor a dead pigeon rain. And whatever impression the image of the Earth being destroyed by an enormous planet might have left in our minds is washed away by a whole hour of Justine’s cringeworthy behavior anyway. And that is a big problem.

Now, I have absolutely nothing against that idea, and in fact I think it is a fantastic one. The disaster movie genre has become a mire of Holywoodesque CGI infused disposable campiness, and there is no real reason why there can’t be intelligent and intimate disaster movies. And perhaps the most tragic thing here is that von Trier ruined what could have been a very fine and original highbrow disaster movie. The big problem is that the two parts of the movie don’t belong to the same genres, and that causes both parts to feel parasitic with respect to each other. Whatever part we consider, the other one doesn’t seem to belong or to give way to or flow from the other in a robust manner. After seeing the end of the movie, there is a strong feeling that we wasted time with something that lacked the grandiosity and the cosmological importance of that event, i.e. Justine’s whole wedding storyline.

Other problem is that Claire disappears in the midst of what happens in her part. She is always overshadowed, first by Justine, who continues to be much more interesting than her during the first scenes. She later ceases to be pushed back by Justine, but only because Melancholia becomes the main concern -and even then, the strange bond between Justine and Melancholia that seems to cure her melancholy is still more interesting than anything Claire related. All this makes the two part division of the film feel unjustified and gimmicky any way we look at it: it makes one believe this is the story of two sisters, but it is actually either the story of a melancholic woman that finally finds solace in the contemplation of our absolute cosmological loneliness and in the inevitable destruction of it all, or the story of a family and how it deals with the prospect of the end of the world. If the first, then the movie as a whole would fail to cohere because it loses its focus on Justine; if the second, it would leave us with a very long and inconsequential preface in part one.

Add to this all the puzzling and completely unnecessary hint that Justine might have some sort of paranormal ability: she knows how many beans are in a bottle at the wedding reception and she just knows with certainty that there is no life elsewhere in the whole universe. It would have been very amusing to see the movie turn into a paranormal flick after being first a straight drama and then a disaster movie.

Maybe I’m being somewhat unfair, though. The movie suffers from a sever lack of focus, but real life often is the same. At one point our life can be a romantic comedy and then, just like that, become a tragedy. Life doesn’t have a script that guarantees we will live inside a genre until we die, and maybe that was what von Trier tried to show, and that would certainly be coherent with the ideas he defended when the Dogme 95 movement saw the light of day. But I think there are reasons to doubt this. First, this is not a movie that is loyal to quite a few of the central dogmas of Dogme 95, since there is a lot of artificiality in the film, despite the constant use of handheld-style camera movements: there is a conspicuous (and quite beautiful in some moments) usage of special effects; special lighting and filters; music not being produced in the context of the scenes; stylish editing and montages, etc. So it would seem strange that while ignoring the central tenets of the movement he would pursue the very radical idea of structurally mimicking the incoherent ramblings of life as it tends to be.

I cannot claim to know von Trier’s mind, but I think that if we consider all aspects of the film, the conclusion that is most tempting and likely correct is that this was supposed to be much less revolutionary exercise in storytelling, and thus a clumsily executed genre movie with split personality issues, regardless of all its potential -And there was great potential in Melancholia.