Monday, February 18, 2013

An Interview with Paul Sunstone

The following is an interview with Paul of Sunstone's Cafe.

What motivated you to start your blog? What motivates you today to continue?

My therapist started me blogging.  He felt it was such a good idea that he nagged me for six months.  I finally gave in rather than listen to yet another speech about the value of stimulating the side of my brain that blogging allegedly stimulates.  Nowadays, I keep at it because I've come to believe my therapist's theory that it does stimulate a part of our brains that can use some stimulation.  I've also come to enjoy the blogging community.  There are a lot of blogs out there and some are pretty damn good reads.

My current blog, by the way, is actually my third blog.  I began with Cafe Philos, which is now defunct but still gets between 200 and 400 views a day from the search engines.  I made about 5000 posts to Cafe Philos over several years.  My second blog I held only briefl --a few months. And now my third I plan to keep as long as I can think of things to write about.

You cover a range of studies on your blog. Out of philosophy, psychology and science; which do you think is the most valuable in evaluating reality and one's own perception of it? Why?

I'm pretty much convinced science is currently the most reliable means we have of establishing reliable facts and theories.  I wouldn't want to guess whether it actually "evaluates reality".  That would get me into metaphysical speculations about what is or isn't reality, and I try to avoid metaphysical speculations unless ponticating upon them is absolutely necessary to getting some chick in bed with me.  Seriously, I do try to avoid metaphysics, which is why I'm a methodological naturalist, rather than an ontological naturalist.

Why is science so reliable?  I think it's the scientific method.  The method all but guarantees that, over time, scientists will winnow out less than reliable facts.  For instance, experimental results are often enough double checked, either directly or indirectly, by other teams of scientists.  Thus no single scientist or scientific team is entirely relied on to establish a fact -- especially an important fact. That helps weed out biased results.

Philosophy basically involves pushing reason to its limits.  Therefore, it is not necessarily grounded in empiricalism.  That is, it's all about using rigorous logic to see how far you can take reasoning.  But, if you think about it, that doesn't mean you ever need check your reasoning against empirical evidence.  Science is a more reliable guide to empirical fact because it checks its reasoning against empirical evidence.        

What would you recommend to a believer who is starting to question their faith to ease them further down the road to atheism or critical thinking?

I'm the last person you want to ask that question of.  I grew up agnostic -- my mother thought religion was too important for children to make decisions about so she forbade us to arrive at any conclusions about it until we were adults.  It was as much a rule in our hosehold as was curfew or "do your homework".  So, having grown up agnostic, I never encountered a book that was decisive in turning me into a non-theist.  Hence, I don't have much of a feel for what would help someone ease on down the road to critical thinking.  My best guess would be start off by reading in any science that catches your fancy.  Learn how that science is done.  From there -- and only after you have a good grounding in at least one science -- maybe proceed to some philosophical critiques of religion.

Who is your favorite atheist public figure?

I love Sam Harris.  Even more than I love Richard Dawkins.  I disagree with about one half of all Sam says, but I firmly believe he is an original thinker.  Two hundred years from now, it seems unlikely to me that Christopher Hitchens will be remembered for his contributions to literature.  Daniel Dennett might -- might -- be recalled for some of his contributions to philosophy.  And Dawkins might be recalled for some of his contributions to biology.  But I believe Harris has the best chance to still be a famous figure two hundred years from now. Among other things, Harris has proposed the notion that morals can be grounded in science.  Whether he's right or wrong about that, he's made such a strong case for it that it is likely to be discussed for decades -- or even centuries.

To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?

I figure Jesus was once just as real as Elvis was once real.  If you gathered up all the stories about Elvis, you would find some of them more or less factual, and some of them urban legends.  For instance, there are now legends or myths about Elvis being spotted after his death, or about people praying to Elvis and hence being cured of some disease.  Just as urban legends have sprung up around Elvis, I suspect urban legends sprang up around Jesus.  Why him?  Basically, who knows why there are so many urban legends about one guy but not about another.  Elvis has far more urban legends about him than does the dead drummer for Led Zepplin.  Why is that?  Who knows.

I highly doubt Jesus performed any miracles.  I think all of his miracles very well fit the pattern for urban legends.  Of course, at this piont in time, it's pretty much speculation what really happened back then.  But we do know for a fact that some people get miracles ascribed to them after their death.  I suggest that is fundamentally what happened to Jesus.

As for Jesus being god, I would be more inclined to believe the laws of gravity are suspended every year at the Colorado State Fair in order to allow pigs to fly, than that Jesus was god.

Do you see yourself as part of a wider atheist/skeptic or political movement?

To the extent that I see myself involved in a wider movement, I account myself no more than a very minor part of that movement.  No one is going to mention me in a book about the new atheistism, for instance.  I haven't made any original contributions to that cause.  If there's anything that I am an original thinker in, then it's on the subject of mysticism.  I've spent 35 or so years studying mysticism a little bit like a scholar would study politics.  I'm not a participant in it, but I've been highly interested in it over a long period of time.  And I've had one or two thoughts about it that are most likely original.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?

I suppose the ability of religion to unite people into a community is its most beneficial aspect -- at least for the majority of people.   But that gets screwed with again and again.  Instead of saying, "We're all brothers and sisters on this planet", and then leaving it at that, religion defeats itself over and over again by going on to say, "We're all brothers and sisters, except those who are not of our faith."  Now, granted, some religions do not pull that us versus them crap. Zen Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, and so forth do not.  But some of the largest religions, Islam and Christianity, do pull that crap on people.  And Judaism, although not a large religion, does too.

So today I see a pressing need for a common belief in our brotherhood and sisterhood.  A world wide awareness that we're all in this together.  If only because you cannot blow up your half of the planet without poisoning my half.  But the two major faiths are still picking sides, as are some of the lesser faiths, and the faiths that have the most appropriate message of brotherhood and sisterhood in this day and age are not the fastest growing.  We need to work to change that.  If we're going to have religions, then they need to be beneficial to humanity and not just to one group of humans or another group of humans.

21 comments:

  1. Great interview! And I would also like to plug Paul's blog. It is great. I really enjoy his take on a variety of subjects.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, RB! I very much appreciate the shout out.

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  2. Thanks for interviewing me, Grundy! And thank you for such interesting questions!

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    1. By the way, Grundy, this is off topic, but I get a laugh every time I read "The Prime Rib Mover" on your profile.

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    2. It used to say "Evolution's Gift to Women" but someone thought that was sexist or something...

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    3. what about "Evolution's gift to women...or men if they are REALLY convincing"

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    4. That gave me a good laugh, too, Hausdoff. Thanks!

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  3. I love the parallel between Jesus and Elvis, I never really thought about the fact that Elvis has so many sightings after his death and how that is like Jesus. Hilarious.

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    1. I've accepted Elvis' (burning) love into my heart(break hotel.) He showed me morality when he spoke the words "Don't Be Cruel."

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    2. Thanks, Hausdorff! Have you ever read the book, Urban Legends? If not, I think you would be fascinated at both the extent and the manner in which people create myths. The book convinced me that myth-making is anything but rare, and that even the wildest and most improbable myths will gain an audience of hopeful believers.

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    3. sounds interesting, although I tried search amazon for "urban legends" and got 1411 hits. Who wrote the one you are talking about?

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    4. Jan Harold Brunvand was the scholar who wrote The Vanishing Hitchhiker in 1981. That was a great book, but he's written others, too.

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  4. Love Paul's blog (especially Nude Blogging Mondays). Glad he keeps some of us Christians around just to keep things interesting...

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    1. Thanks, Garnet! I wouldn't trade you as a reader for anything. For one thing, you're wittier than Richard Dawkins, and I consider him something of a wit.

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  5. Great interview! Nice to read Paul's take on religion, Jesus, and flying pigs. :)

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Bruce. I was wondering if my joke about pigs would fly. :D

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    2. [Insert dated swine flu joke here]

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  6. Congrats to Paul on the interview!

    I've always enjoyed reading his blog.

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