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The Alliance for Positive Thought Blog

Not Your Grandma's Transhumanism

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Ray Kurzweil & Co. have been getting a lot of attention from everyone from Sergey Brin & Larry Page to astronaut Dan Barry.  For those of you who haven’t heard, Kurzweil is a self-proclaimed techno-prophet who heralds the arrival of the singularity: the moment in time when technological progress gets so fast that machines overtake humans in the brains department.

I miss cupcakesOf course, artificial intelligence is a common sci-fi theme.  Kurzweil’s cadre takes it a step further, predicting that this intelligence explosion means immortality for us meat-bags.  By downloading our personalities into computers and/or building nanobots to repair our aging cells, we will reach a level of mastery of science that will enable us to extend our lives indefinitely.

But Kurzweil has no monopoly on the future.  Some versions of the singularity include unpredictability as a core feature.  Like a black hole’s event horizon, the singularity represents a point in history about which no information can be gathered.  It is a unique event that will shred our way of life in ways we cannot prognosticate.

Sci-fi authors frequently foretell a more dystopian version, like in Asimov’s I, Robot, or The Matrix, where the machines turn on us.  As Roger Scruton points out, by sponsoring technology we might be rooting against ourselves.

But predictions of technological calamity rest on even shakier ground than runaway progress.  iRobot (not I, Robot) is the status quo in the real world of technology.  Human beings seem to be more or less on course for continued progress, and immortality and extinction are opposite, extreme ends of the speculative spectrum.

The real problem with Singuphoria is that it is just another false promise, like religion.  We all want to believe we will live forever, and Ray’s got the immortal soul snake-oil of the information age.

Ray Kurzweil says in his health book Transcend:

"Death gives meaning to life” is an age-old adage, but in our view death does exactly the opposite.  It is a great robber of relationships, knowledg,e wisdom and skill, all the things that make life worth living.

But he’s wrong.  Death is what allows evolution to occur, and therefore what undergirds all progress.  Think about the idea of “technology natives” versus “technology immigrants.”  Kids who grew up with cellphones and computers are much more fluent in their use than those who had to learn after their brains got hard and brittle.  Every generation refreshes the world, to put a marketing slogan to better use.

 

Walking Meditation for Atheists

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Take a look at this walking meditation video:
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Walking meditation is a technique for creating a positive state of mind.  Despite its religious origin, executing the technique requires no belief in any kind of supernatural power or phenomena. 

What’s going on here is that the act of walking provides a focal point for thoughts.  If you just tell someone to focus on a thought, it’s very difficult.  That’s why meditation techniques often feature an activity such as walking or breathing that helps the practitioner filter out distractions.   Focusing on positive thoughts then enables us to make use of the biomechanical link between our brains and our bodies.  This is all very scientific, whether or not the Buddhists knew it when they developed these techniques.

Thich Nhat Hanh is probably not an Atheist. He asks how we will walk once we are in the Kingdom of God, and notes that if we take unhappy steps we will pollute that otherworldly realm.  Of course, you and I believe in no such thing.

 

Singer's Societal Suicide Suggestion

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Yesterday’s most-viewed New York Times article was by purported philosopher Peter Singer, who asks whether it might be ethical for us to all stop having children, and in effect commit societal suicide.  He wonders whether life contains too much suffering to make it worthwhile.  Ultimately, he concludes that life is actually worth it, but only because he is optimistic about humanity’s prospects for learning from our past mistakes.

But there is something deeply troubling about resting a valuation of life on how much pleasure it contains.  Studies show that no matter how healthy or prosperous, or unfortunate and impoverished, most humans return to a baseline level of satisfaction set by genetic factors or upbringing.  Chasing pleasure therefore is a fool's errand and certainly should not be the cornerstone of any ethical philosophy.

Moreover, the conflation of "pleasure" and "benefit" is a purely arbitrary decision on Singer’s part.  If the promotion of life itself is chosen as the route by which we can best understand "benefit," the "deep issues" raised by Singer melt away.  Using the promotion of life as our basic ethical measuring stick, we can derive the importance of quality of life and health, while at the same time shedding ourselves of the ludicrous suggestion that we have an ethical imperative to commit societal suicide.

 

Evidence that Religious People are Healthier and Happier

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Atheists are quick to attack the basis for the claim that, in general, religious people are happier and healthier than nonbelievers.  But that hypothesis supports the core of what the Alliance for Positive Thought advocates.  We believe that religion has concrete benefits, but also unacceptable failures. 

Myth and faith are unacceptable to skeptical, scientific minds.  But that doesn't require us to attack all benefits of religion.  APT seeks to replicate the health benefits of religion by analyzing and emulating its practices, while surgically removing anything resembling the supernatural.

Independent, scientific evidence supports the claim that religion has tangible benefits.  Rather than attempting to deny them, skeptics should wholeheartedly embrace the pursuit of alternative ways to arrive at these positive phenomena.

The following is a brief introduction to the vast body of scientific support for the following three claims:

  1. Religion promotes health and happiness.
  2. Such benefits are not unique to theistic practice.
  3. Exclusively theistic practices (that cannot be secularly replicated) DO NOT have these benefits.

Religion promotes health and happiness.

Religious People Are Generally Healthier

National Institute of Health (various studies support link between religion and health and happiness)

Churchgoers Live Longer

Religious People Live Longer than Nonbelievers

Is God an Anti-Depressant?  Studies Show That Religious People Are Happier

Church-going Kids Have Better GPAs

Transcendent Meditation Has Positive Effect on Blood Pressure

Religion Promotes Happiness

More Young People Who Think Spirituality is Important are Happy

More Frequent Daily Spiritual Experience Correlates With Less Psychopathology, More Close Friendships, and Better Self-rated Health

Benefits can be achieved without theism.

Study: Optimists Live Longer

When We Do Good, We Feel Good

Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy As Good As Meditation

Music is a Viable Treatment for Depression, Insomnia, and Alzheimer’s Disease

Thought Patterns Can Lead to Mood Improvement

Social Ties Lead to Longer Lives


Uniquely theistic practices are not beneficial.


Prayer Does Not Help Heart Bypass Patients

Religious Belief Does Not Correlate With Positive Mental Health Outcomes But Religious Practice Does

 

How can an American turn into a Muslim terrorist?

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Omar Hammami was born and raised in Alabama, dated a prom queen, played soccer, and looked like a normal American kid.  Yet now he is a key figure in a Jihadist unit that conducts murders and suicide bombings in the name of God.

Americans are fascinated by stories like this, because they undermine our ability to otherize.  Recognizing that it is possible for a fresh-faced, popular American boy to grow up to be a terrorist forces us to realize that these religious extremists are people just like us.  Radical Muslims are not animals or aliens, they are human beings who care deeply about the consequences of their actions.

This shouldn’t come to us as a shock.  Good people are capable of bad things.  Those of us who are familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment know that circumstances can lead to behaviors that might seem totally out of character, or even utterly evil.  Having total control over another person’s fate is one way that our situation in life can overwhelm our sense of decency.  Being subject to the perverse yet sometimes subtle manipulation of religious fervor can also influence us to behave in startlingly destructive ways.

Omar’s motivation is dedication to Allah, who he believes commands him to act violently.  He did not arrive at his current worldview casually.  His story was full of twists and turns: he underwent a great deal of soul-searching, and examined a number of philosophical positions before settling on Jihad as his purpose.

He debated religion with his peers, and he won.  No one was able to convince him that he was wrong, and how could they?  What could a Christian society tell him to dissuade him from his path?  Christians agree that service to God is the ultimate good.  Christians agree that nonbelievers will be violently punished, whether in this life or the next.  Christians agree that God’s commands are written in a book that cannot be questioned.

When you are part of a society that believes these things, there is nothing to stop a thoughtful individual from taking these principles to their logical conclusion, which is what Omar has done.  His only crime is a desire for consistency in his religious beliefs.  An honest Christian who believes that the Bible is the word of God, and who is not willing to compromise in his or her faith would also have to be an extremist.  The (Christian) Bible is full of exhortations and promises to kill nonbelievers and adulterers.

 
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