Big History: An Introduction

What is big history? This emergent and interdisciplinary field, enriched and pioneered by Dr. David Christian of Macquarie University, encourages a more holistic understanding of human events than does the traditional study of history. While historians are concerned with understanding the past in context, and considering cause and effect in human terms, big historians are concerned with understanding the past not only in its immediate human historical setting, but in the context of scientific and physical laws of nature as well. If history is written by the victor, then big history is written in the stars themselves.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 at 1.39.32 PMDr. Christian, bolstered by the support of philanthropist Bill Gates, first injected big history into the public sector with a 2011 TED Talk, providing an 18 minute overview of world history. In this sensational talk, which has garnered more than 5 million views since its publication, Dr. Christian identifies the basic principles of big history, including the concept of Goldilocks conditions and the various “thresholds” of complexity that we observe in the universe. At various moments in the cosmic past, Christian states, certain Goldilocks conditions have come about, in which “not too little, and not too much” of certain components — usually energy or mass — have allowed the universe to reach states of increasing complexity.

Starting at the Big Bang and the first moment of time itself, Christian traces the cause-and-effect of each moment and identifies these thresholds. He highlights the six universal thresholds of complexity as follows:

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Are All Norms Moral Norms?

For the next part of my blog series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I am going to discuss metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is pleasant to look at or beautiful. Normative statements investigate different properties pertaining to objects and behavior. Their underlying meaning is not merely descriptive, but also preferential. This distinction is often termed the “is-ought problem.”

One of the major objections made against metaphysical naturalism is that it is unable to account for the truth of normative claims. In particular, apologetic moral arguments often levy the charge that naturalism cannot account for the truth of moral values and imperatives, and that naturalist metaphysics thus entails moral anti-realism. Whether this assertion is defensible is a question that I will investigate later in this blog series. Before that, however, I want to make some key distinctions between “moral” normative statements and other types of normative claims. In particular, a response that I often get, from both theists and atheists alike when using words like “should” and “ought,” is that such words inherently possess moral judgements. I do not think that this interpretation is correct, and accordingly, I am going to lay out certain types of normative statements below that do not necessarily relate to moral judgements, despite their normative character.

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From Angry Atheist to Happy Humanist: How to Stop Hating on Religion and Start Celebrating Secularism

I deconverted from Protestant Christianity over 5 years ago, right after I began my freshman year in college. It was, I suppose, a fairly typical and drama-free deconversion: I progressed out of the fundamentalism of my childhood, becoming more and more concerned with the verity of my worldview all throughout high school, only to then be exposed to a diversity of new ideas and information in college. I participated in a fairly moderate, non-denominational Christian congregation for the beginning of my freshman year, until eventually coming to the conclusion at my dorm one night, under the stars, that I was, indeed, an atheist.

angry-atheistThe first 3 years of being “religion-free” went by for me with a certain level of ambivalence for all things spiritual. However, in more recent years, I have noticed a less tolerant trend in my attitudes and approach to religion. For a while, whenever I encountered religion or a religious person, I would become frustrated and discouraged, and my mood would be immediately dampened. “Religion in all its forms is backwards, outdated, and just plain wrong,” I would silently say to myself. “Why is it that a majority of people in my culture believe in an anthropomorphized, invisible deity in the sky, when there is so much real beauty, majesty, and wonder in the universe surrounding us?”

This article is not going to attempt to answer that question. Instead, it will focus not just on denouncing the religiosity around us, but on what we freethinking, godless, and sometimes angry atheists can do to better represent ourselves and our worldview, while being empathetic and diplomatic towards believers. I am confident, given global trends towards secularism, plus the truth value of atheism, plus time, that religion will continue to diminish as a cultural force, until it no longer holds the level of normative sway that it currently enjoys in most parts of the world. Below is a list of things to remember that might help atheists and secularists be less angry at religion until then, while also being able to communicate with those who are still very much invested in religious worldviews.

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Three Problems that the United States Must Address by the Mid-21st Century

One of the upshots of secular humanism is that it encourages us to look towards the future and the needs of our descendants when shaping our values, goals, and policies—instead of living selfishly and only in the demands of the present. As such, one of the major topics that secular humanists need to begin seriously discussing is how we are to take care of our homelands, both in a national sense and in a global sense, in the 21st century and beyond. As we move into a new era of progress and change, having abandoned so many decrepit past systems of practice and belief, we must continue to root out those systems still in place that are antiquated, no longer serving us most effectively or justly. Where these systems have decayed, we must replace them; where they have become destructive, we must reformat them entirely. It is only by this self-evaluative process that citizens of advancing nations—and especially of the United States—can truly hold themselves as good custodians of their country and protectors of their people.

The following list contains three of the most pressing issues from a secular humanist standpoint that currently weigh on the United States:

  1. Economic Inequality
  2. Domestic Issues of Social Justice
  3. Climate Change/Renewable Energy

This list is by no means extant, and in the course of its arguments will present some uncommon or uncomfortable evidences; however, the astute reader will notice the common themes of systemic injustice and political inefficacy that underlie each point. Ultimately, although solutions have been hinted at where possible, only through the increasing discussion, awareness, and action of (or on behalf of) those currently most affected by these budding challenges will the United States be duly prepared to set sail into the latter half of the century.

 1. Economic Inequality

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5 Reasons Secular Humanism Is Winning

Being nontheistic in a culture that is still predominantly religious can be, well, really, really hard. It seems that almost everyday I have some discouraging encounter with popular religiosity. Sometimes it comes from something as simple as reading a news article about a former presidential candidate predicting the “End Times” of “scripture” out of disagreement with some less-than-apocalyptic U.S. foreign policy decision. Other times it comes from meeting people whose understanding of American politics can basically be summarize by this (and who, more disturbingly, are probably registered voters). Or other times it comes from merely logging on Facebook and being bombarded by a slew of “inspirational” memes like this posted by conservative friends and family.

It can all be immensely frustrating and discouraging. As a secular humanist, I believe very deeply that, at this point in history, progress cannot truly be made nor human society be truly advanced until religion becomes an artifact of our past rather than something we practice in everyday life. Encounters like those cited above, however, demonstrate that a high degree of religious delusion still saturates our culture. I’m sure that I am not the only atheist who is depressed by these encounters.

But never fear, fellow humanists, for in this cultural tug-of-war, we are winning.

Below is a list of things I like to remind myself of whenever I am saddened or frustrated by the reality of a religious global and national majority. I hope you too will use it to remind yourself that, for every frustrating online exchange with an apologist, atheists and secular humanists are winning. For every report of dogma-bred terrorism in the Middle East, we are winning. For all the times you’ve held your tongue or turned away or gone to Christmas Mass with your family to be nice, we are winning. The road of change ahead is long and arduous, and there is still much work to be done, but I for one will hold my head high because no matter what, we are still winning. Here’s why.

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