Aggregating Skeptical Thought


I have just completed reading Nica Lalli’s book “Nothing” this weekend. The book is not very long and is a very easy read. The book is essentially a memoir that centers specifically around Nica Lalli’s experiences from early childhood to present with religion. I’m not a big fan of memoir-style writing in general but this was well done. Sometimes with a memoir you can get the feeling that the events being described are entirely one-sided in their descriptions and I got the same feeling from this book as well. I know it’s a memoir and of course it’s one-sided. How can you know what others are thinking during a particular event. Maybe that’s why I don’t like memoir-style writing it all seems too one-sided and subjective. I will however say that I believe that the author depicts others as she sees them and is quick to call attention to her complicitness in any bad feelings within her family, particularly her brother and sister-in-law.

This book is definitely not written in the same style of other recent atheist books of late. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett all take on a rather philosophical and rationalist approach whereas Nica Lalli’s book is written from her perspective with all of the emotions and insecurities.  It is a welcome break in the tone of those other works.

In fact, Nica Lalli is a recent guest blogger over at Skepchick and I hope she will continue to guest blog in the future. Anyway, her recent post had to do with a recent panel she was on with Victor Stenger (God the failed hypothesis) and Christopher Hitchens (god is not great) in which, while clearly not agreeing necessarily with his tactics, she and Hitchens had a similar and important message albeit delivered in very different ways.

I have to agree wholeheartedly with her. My wife never reads the Hitchens or Dawkins style books, full of logic and rationalism and polemics, and not to imply that Lalli’s book does employ logic or rationalism. Those other books are just not my wife’s style. They are often too confrontational and only serves to rile her up (and that’s not good for anyone;).  Anyway, she is reading Lalli’s book and rather enjoys it. We’ll have to wait until my wife gets to the part of the book where she gets to meet the sister-in-law. I think it is very important for everyone to understand that atheists are not all alike and that Nica Lalli is going to appeal to a different and potentially untapped set of people who are actively questioning their belief in god or those who simply want to hear another kind of voice.

I live in Indiana and grew up in an evangelical Christian home. Lalli’s sister-in-law is my aunt and my grandmother. She is the personification of two-thirds of my extended family, the other third aren’t just as fundamentalist. In fact, my sister is going to Southern California to study theology at a very small Bible college in order to become a missionary. Nica I can relate believe me. In fact I will trade you your in-laws for my family. I’m only kidding… sort of.

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Filed under: Religion, Reviews

7 Responses

  1. I’m struck by how much religious/philosopical discussion is centered on the question of God, with the answer to the “God question” determining whether or not there is non-material spirituality. I fell into the same trap for many years, I must confess, but a couple of years ago I realized that universal human experience in everyday life constantly confirms the existence of spirituality, without either affirming or denying the existence of God. In other words, one’s spiritual journey need not begin with theology, which seems to be a barrier for so many. This is only a personal insight, and I’m eager to explore it with anyone who’s interested.

  2. Skeptigator says:

    While the choice of word “spirituality” almost always invokes religious connotations I understand that that is almost certainly a function of our society. If by “spirituality” you mean a sense of wonder and awe at the universe then I have spirituality.

    I’m not sure what “non-material” things you are talking about. “Non-material” to me invokes “supernatural” or something that cannot be observed through some kind of verifiable and more important falsifiable scientific process.

    Perhaps we are talking about the same thing and it simply comes down to semantics.

  3. I am talking about spirituality that is non-material in the sense that it is not controlled by the laws of nature, and is therefore not verifiable by science. Nevertheless, I think it can be verified by universal human experience (unlike concepts such as God, for which the teestimony is all over the map). The short explanation is that if you believe in human free will, you believe that part of your reality is not dictated by the physical world. Free will is what empowers each person’s Human Spirit. That Human Spirit is obviously influenced by the physical world, and the Human Spirit triggers actions at affect the physical world. But, between input and output, there is a non-physical reality that enables choices that are not baked into the universe at the moment of the Big Bang, nor dictated by genetics, upbringing, or experience. No doubt, these can be strong influences, but free will means that we all have some true choices, including the choice of going against expectation. So this is a reality that is not proven by science, or some religious text, or some authority figure, but by each person’s daily experience of random and unexpected choices. Therefore, I think personal spirituality is verifiable. But, if you go beyond that to the idea of some kind of spiritual power outside of individuals, or spiritual power as the expression of God, then I think you clearly have entered the realm of unverifiable speculation. I’m not saying that that speculation is false; just that the idea of the Human Spirit is a verifiable starting point for further explorations.

  4. Skeptigator says:

    I guess the part I’m having problems with is the part about spirituality not being “controlled by the laws of nature, and is therefore not verifiable by science”

    If we are physical creatures living in a natural world should not be able to verify everything using the scientific method? If it is something that cannot be verified by nature then it would by definition be supernatural.

    As for a “non-physical reality”, this opens up a whole dilemma not unlike revealed religions. Who defines what the rules are of a non-physical reality? If its not verifiable by science then we must take someone’s word that a) whatever that reality is exists and b) whatever they say this reality (and it’s rules) is then that’s what it is.

    I’m about as comfortable with this idea as I am with the god of Abraham who would arbitrarily ask for me to sacrifice my son or the Heaven’s Gate folks who were convinced that aliens were coming, not because of verifiable evidence but because their leader said so.

    As for free will, I’m on the fence here. There are some compelling reasons to believe that free will as you and I define it probably doesn’t exist. But I haven’t done enough research to fully understand the philosophy behind this and so take an agnostic approach to free will.

  5. You are a great skeptic! I mean that sincerely — that you think and ask pertinent, probing questions.

    I’ve hesitated to agree with your word “supernatural” because, for many, it carries superstitious, magical connotations that I certaily don’t endorse. But I do ask you to consider the possibility that there is part of reality that exists in harmony wth, but apart from, the physical world. To put it another way, unlike the common conception of “supernatural,” free will does not override or contradict the laws of nature, but influences physical actions through the gateway of individual human choice. But I don’t attempt to validate this claim by quoting some leader or holy book. My appeal is to your own personal experience — an experience shared by most if not all humans. I think that the evidence you seek can be found in your experience of free will. Of course, humans are capable of fooling themselves about many things, leading to the fallacy that something must be true because I want or need it to be true. When examined closely, many religious beliefs fall under that heading, a point about which I’m sure we agree. But none of those types of religious beliefs is universally experienced or believed. Free will, on the other hand, is a widely accepted truth.

    Can you really be agnostic about free will? I’m not talking about its rules or mechanics, but about its reality in everyday experience. If you don’t believe in free will, why struggle with your decisions or your morality? If all decisions are outside your control, why bother pretending to decide? You have no responsibility — whatever happens will happen regardless. But if you take decision-making seriously, aren’t you assuming that free will exists and some choices are truly yours?


  6. Skeptigator says:

    I agree that “supernatural” has a magical/superstitious connotation but I will use the term “non-material” or “non-physical reality” if you like.

    When you ask me to “consider the possibility that there is part of reality that exists in harmony wth, but apart from, the physical world” I can only respond that I have. I have been a Christian and they believe that nature is a creation of God (who exists outside of, but still can interact with, our natural universe) and that we are natural and created creatures. There is no collision between faith in the Bible and the natural world assuming you rely solely on faith and give up your reason.

    My biggest problem perhaps is that spirituality should rely on some kind of universal human experience. I guess that idea needs pinned down a little better. What is universal human experience? How is that defined and on what criteria? If 82.5% of all humanity believes something is that universal enough? Do we need complete unanimity before something can be defined as universal? If there’s a threshold (82.5%) or complete unanimity then how do you go about getting that information? I don’t think trying to get 6 billions people’s opinions/views is a very easy task.

    As for free will, I live my life as if free will exists. I have however read although I have not explored in depth this line of thinking that the choices we make every day (for example me responding to your comments) are not a function of some kind of free will that resides in our consciousness as a separate governing entity (think soul).

    The choices that we make are simply a function of our consciousness as it has been shaped over time. For example, we are born with a “nature” this is the unique combination of our genetics that determine our innate personalities if you will. Our nature is then further shaped by the environment (nurture) within which we were raised as children and ultimately live in today. The combination of our nature and the nurture we have received programs our brains (and our consciousness) in such a way that if we had some method for analyzing these two factors it would be a forgone conclusion that of couse I would have chosen to respond to your comments. I didn’t necessarily choose this action as a matter of free will in the sense that I could have overridden the combination of my personality and the environment that your comments were posted in. I was more or less “predetermined” to respond. Not predetermined by God.

    But as I’ve said this is how I understand the idea of non-existence of free will. I don’t entirely agree because I haven’t explored this as far as I would like. Plus my gut feeling is that the science of consciousness is at such an infantile stage that I don’t think it can quite be trusted to make any kind of definitive statements on this.

    I wish I could think of where I read about consciousness and free will. I may have heard it discussed on Point Of Inquiry’s podcast ( and I want to say that it was with Susan Blackmore but don’t quote me on that. If I come across something I will post those resources as a separate comment.

  7. Rodge Adams says:

    I don’t want to push this beyond the realm of discussion into the territory of argument. But perhaps we’re nearing that point, so let me mention just a couple of thoughts.

    I agree that our decisions are influenced by a number of factors, but I sometimes go against my inclinations, and I make many decisions that seem so trivial and random that it doesn’t seem reasonable to think they are in any sense predetermined. I agree we’re in the infancy of understanding human self-awareness, but I think these evidences of contrary decisions and random decisions make free will at least a plausible option, so that, in your words, most people live “as if free will exists.” To those who have regjected religion and spirituality, I would say, “If you live as if free will exists, you are also living as if your personal spirituality exists.”

    Also, may I push you a bit more on the question of personal responsibility. Do you think personal responsibility is possible without free will? (Not to put too fine a point on it, but I mean “responsibility” as a moral judgment, different from “accountability” as a legal or social judgment. Even if we don’t have free will, society can impose accountability penalties and rewards as external motivations. But how can I hold myself morally responsible if I had no choice in my actions?)

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