He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At Year's End: The Limits of Discipline

For the past several years, discipline has played an increasing role in my life, a role it had only played in my martial arts training and meditation previously.  It started when I became aware that I had a problem with my blood sugar.

I immediately began to discipline myself to eat a healthy and balanced diet; almost overnight I became skilled at keeping my blood sugar balanced appropriately.  I consistently denied myself sugary treats and carb-heavy starches and breads.  This high-nutrient diet gave me more energy, an energy which eventually propelled me to train for an hour each morning and an hour each evening, going far beyond the 30-45 minutes a day I was managing in my teens on a really terrible diet.  I became a new man (physically); my weight returned to what I weighed in high school and my physique looks in various respects as good or better than it did when I was in high school.

This physical discipline sharpened my mental faculties and made for clearer analysis, more coherent synthesis, and more precise evaluation.  My philosophical writing improved as a result, as did my political analysis.  My ability to work through philosophical problems in a methodically logical fashion reached a new height, and I continued to discipline myself to fight against my confirmation bias and work on developing mental habits which cut against various kinds of cognitive errors and fallacies.  I became a new man (mentally); in the past year I have begun writing a description of my unique political philosophy which transcends both anarchy and its hierarchical opponents.

This mental discipline helped to improve my emotional discipline by strengthening my ability to fight against the overwhelmingly negative event bias that has pulled me toward depression since my early teen years and culminated in a very unhealthy focus on my own death while getting my first degree in my early twenties.  I still hear the siren's call to wallow in misery, but the call is much softer each passing year and I can shut it out much more easily.  I am also much more able to discipline myself to act with loving kindness even when my emotions would incline me to do otherwise and strive to treat my family members more as they should be treated.

This emotional discipline has bolstered my spiritual discipline; my prayers are more fruitful and my will ever more inclined to virtue.  My desire to avoid vice has grown in proportion to my desire to acquire virtue.  The value of discipline has been immense, permeating all aspects of my life with many good fruits growing out of it.  To express its value more eloquently than I could in my own words, I will quote Matthew Kelly.

"Contrary to popular opinion, discipline doesn't stifle or restrict the human person.  Discipline isn't something invented by the Church to control or manipulate the masses, nor is it the tool that unjust tyrants and dictators use to make people do things they don't want to do.  All these are the lies of a culture completely absorbed in a philosophy of instant gratification.
"Discipline is the faithful friend who will introduce you to your true self.  Discipline is the worthy protector who will defend you from your lesser self.  And discipline is the extraordinary mentor who will challenge you to become the-best-version-of-yourself and all God created you to be.
"As loyal and as life-giving as discipline may be, its presence in our lives is dwindling.  Whether we are aware of it or not we are becoming spiritually ill without it... Without discipline, the soul dies.  Slowly, perhaps, but surely."

But discipline has its limits, and this year I ran up against them. Discipline cannot provide the passion for life and delight in its wonder which leads to the most fulfilling and fruitful sort of life this world could use a great deal more of.  That passion must come from a deep wellspring of love.  That's the task for the coming year, to stoke the fires of love and cultivate a passion for a life in the service of the good of others.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Ugly Truth: Killing Masculine Compassion

Today I stumbled upon a very interesting video regarding the ways in which the social construction of masculinity is harmful.  I began drafting this post quite a while ago, and I'm glad to encounter a video that effectively illustrates some of what I want to cover.

The sort of socialization experienced by boys as demonstrated in the video are couched in contemporary language, but this type of socialization for males is incredibly ancient, probably existing long before we could even be called hominids.The value in socializing men to have reduced empathetic behaviors to one another is that they will be better able to kill or injure other males without remorse or with minimal remorse, a useful capacity when under harsh survival pressure and in fierce competition with other species.  A male needs to be able to do horrible things to others in order to protect his mate and his children under those sorts of conditions.

As a disclaimer, this is not to be mistaken for maligning my fellow hominids of past ages; I'm well aware that without doing those terrible things needed to survive, I would not be able to sit here in my comfy folding chair in reasonably comfortable temperature conditions writing about this.  The suppression of masculine empathy made a great deal of sense in the past, though it was obviously not without cost.  Males with little to no empathy can turn on those they are supposed to protect, become abusive to their mates and children, and even kill themselves.  The examples of these problems in contemporary human societies are far too numerous and obvious to list.

To contribute to the betterment of our societies now that many of us no longer operate under quite the crushing survival pressure experienced by our ancestors and in far greater proximity to others, it would be wise to socialize males in a way which fosters empathy rather than discourages it.

Unfortunately, in some cases we are just finding new ways to suppress masculine empathy.  For example, the typical male expression of compassion is the protective instinct.  This has come to be viewed as a negative behavior by those unable to distinguish between protective behaviors rooted in natural empathy (or internalized altruism) and protective behavior rooted in unhealthy possessive attitudes.  By stigmatizing it regardless of the roots of the behavior, we are in effect providing a negative incentive for men to be compassionate even where it would be beneficial.

And because we frequently make no distinction between positive and negative motivations for protective behaviors when socializing males, it's extremely difficult for them to understand what behaviors are acceptable and why, making it likely that they will simply reject the stigma wholesale rather than arriving at a principled conclusion about what sorts of motivations are appropriate for their behaviors toward women and what sorts of motivations are inappropriate.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Making Peace: The "War" on Christmas

This morning, I stumbled upon an article by Chris Stedman (he happens to be an atheist) entitled Why atheists should quit the War on Christmas, an article which usefully points out that two groups (Fox News and American Atheists) are simply using the manufactured controversy to generate revenue.  There is no war being waged on Christmas, but there is a conflict between some atheists and some theists over public expressions of Christmas cheer, a conflict amplified and made even more juvenile by those in search of deriving funding from it.

I join Chris Stedman in his call to quit the billboards, the placards, the childish jabs, and all the rest of the insecurity-driven nonsense that's all too common in the public discourse over the a/theist debate.  I ask my fellow Christians to focus on spending our efforts this Christmas season on cultivating loving relationships, thereby doing the most profoundly productive thing we can do toward keeping Christ in Christmas.

Let's all quit the War on Christmas, because it's the only way any of us win.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fair Questions: Is Atheism Becoming a Religion?

When reading an article about atheist mega-churches, many religious folks might be inclined to say, "Aha, I knew atheism was a religion all along and now there's proof!"  Others who had previously rejected the idea that atheism is a religion might be inclined to give the notion a bit more consideration.  My analysis of the question remains the same, but we will get to that later.

To figure out whether atheism can properly be called a religion, we can simply answer the question, "Is theism a religion?"  This is a great way to analyze the question for those who are theists because it allows them to minimize any confirmation bias in the analysis.  And because theism and atheism operate on the same plane of belief and answer the same question, there are enough parallels to make them analogous for the purpose of answering this question.

To determine whether or not a belief is a religion, we need to understand what sorts of beliefs religions have.  Religions provide a narrative about the origin and/or nature of humanity.  Religions provide a set of values.  Religions provide a moral compass.  Religions provide a set of philosophical assumptions about what sorts of things are real.  Religions provide a narrative about the end of human life (individually or collectively) and typically speaks to what might come after that life.

Does theism provide those things?  Quite obviously not.  It provides one belief about what sorts of things are real, specifically that a deity exists and interacts with the world and those of us in it.  We would not call theism a religion because it doesn't even fulfill the most basic functions of a religion. Theism is not a religion, though we could rightly say that most theists have a religion. Similarly, atheism does not even fulfill one of the basic functions of a religion.  And just as in the case of theists, we can rightly say that many atheists have a religion, but not that atheism is a religion.

Let's further consider some examples of views which are atheistic.  Deists reject theism, and thus are atheists in the strict sense.  Some forms of animism exclude theism, and would thus be atheistic.  Setting aside the question of whether it is coherent in every case for an atheist to be a Buddhist, there are also atheistic practitioners of Buddhism.

Not addressing some obvious concerns about consistency, there are even atheists in the West who believe strongly in Christian ideals such a love and caring for the poor while rejecting many of the claims of traditional Christianity in favor of their contemporary philosophical assumptions.  Arguably, many of those folks have a religion whose core values are derived from Christianity and whose worldview is provided by scientific realism, their moral outlook being generated via a crude combination of their values and their political ideals such as egalitarianism and democracy.

To return to the original question, I don't think that we can claim correctly that atheism is becoming a religion, but we might be justified in claiming that atheists are increasingly engaging in explicitly religious behavior.  I suspect that we are currently witnessing the development of a new religion which takes scientific realism for its ontology/origins narrative/eschatological narrative and derives its moral values from the philosophy of Sam Harris or a similar secular philosopher.  I don't know what this developing religion will be called, but it will certainly be interesting to watch it grow.

By Bubba73 (Jud McCranie) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36506925

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Problem of Evil: An Analysis

The Problem of Evil is at the heart of the contemporary dispute between theists and atheists.  It is often expressed in rational terms, but in truth we all must wrestle with it on a profound emotional level as well.  Can we see God as a loving parent despite all the difficulties of life for us and for others, or do we see God as an abusive parent or at best deny the existence of God?

That said, let's deal with the rational formulation.  The typical formulation of the Problem of Evil explicitly assumes a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.  Let's get to the heart of the matter. Assuming that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god exists, why is evil for this god to not fix all of our problems and end all of our suffering for us?

This is the way contemporary thinkers view the Problem of Evil. The basic idea can be summed up in this way, "If God really loved me and wanted everything good for me, he wouldn't allow me to experience physical and emotional pain."

This is the heart of the matter because the Problem of Evil implicitly assumes a definition of evil wherein evil is either equivalent to suffering or equivalent to causing/allowing suffering.

Is Causing Suffering Evil?

As we've seen, the definition of evil this view assumes is that all suffering is evil. The view that all suffering is evil is a view I find to be completely understandable and yet quite incoherent outside of a thoroughly egotistical or narcissistic worldview.

We can make a distinction and claim that suffering by itself is not evil, that it is causing or allowing suffering which is evil.  But this changes nothing in the context of the Problem of Evil, of course.  For an omnipotent God, any suffering could be stopped.  And if God is omniscient, any suffering could be prevented entirely.  Thus in the context of the Problem of Evil, the claim that preventable suffering is evil ultimately reduces to all suffering being evil.  Even so, let's consider some examples of preventable suffering to see if the view makes sense.

I cause myself a certain degree of suffering when I work out, or when I remove a splinter from my hand, or when I do any number of things. Am I doing evil because I create suffering?  Most people would be hesitant to say that I have done evil in those cases, but would be more likely to agree that I have done evil in other cases of causing suffering, such as torture.  We could have a sensible account of evil based on some other distinction, but the notion that evil is the allowance of preventable suffering is pretty obviously incoherent with our moral intuitions.

Is Suffering Itself Evil?

To explain my view of suffering, I'll add that I see suffering itself as morally neutral in the same way that I see other physical or emotional processes within an individual's experience as morally neutral. Eating, sleeping, running, climbing, memory, adrenaline high, numbness, pain, sadness, elation, etc. These are not in my view examples of either good or evil, but rather mere processes which provide us with some information about our physical or emotional states.

And let's consider the absurd consequences of accepting the view that all suffering is evil. If all suffering is evil, I perform an evil act when I let myself go hungry so that I can learn to discipline myself to not eat my feelings. If all suffering is evil, I perform an evil act when I allow a student to experience frustration while trying to learn a skill so that they can learn to overcome their frustration in the future and empathize with other students who get frustrated. If all suffering is evil, I would be performing a profoundly evil act when I volunteer to take the place of a man (who has a very high pain tolerance) in the torture chamber because he has a wife and children to care for and I do not, particularly when I could make sure that his wife and children were cared for the rest of their lives and he was a poor father.

We could have a sensible account of evil based on some other distinction, but the notion that evil is equivalent to suffering is pretty obviously incoherent with our moral intuitions as well.

How Do We Investigate Evil? 

To investigate evil impartially, we need to stop assuming a definition of evil that's really self-serving.  Let's consider how we might go about investigating evil and what bearing the investigation would have on the Problem of Evil.

1. There are probably two ways in which we can attempt to discern what evil is: empirical methods (e.g. observing actions and their consequences) and rational methods (or some combination thereof).

2. Because we are assuming in the Problem of Evil that we have a god who is omniscient, we could fairly assume by extension that such a god has access to far more empirical data than we do and thus would be able to understand evil far better than we could.

3. Because we are assuming in the Problem of Evil that we have a god who is omnipotent, we could fairly assume by extension that such a god has far greater powers of reason than we do and thus would be able to understand evil far better than we could.

Obviously, the same conclusion would be reached if we combined empirical and rational methods (e.g. science).

What Can We Conclude?

In the end, if the assumptions of the Problem of Evil about god are correct and we acknowledge the extent of our own cognitive and perceptual limitations, we cannot fully know what evil is and it might make sense to remain agnostic on the matter if that were an option in practice for everyday life.

Unfortunately, that's not really a practical option, and so I see a couple of things we can do.

If we believe in some sort of revelation from this god about the nature of good and evil, it would make sense to defer to the god's judgement about what evil is.

If we don't believe in any sort of revelation from this god about morality, it would make sense to just make do (on an everyday practical level) with what we can figure out using our limited empirical and rational approaches while keeping in mind that we probably don't have it quite right.

The conclusions it's very difficult to draw from this set of assumptions are that this god doesn't exist and could not be omnibenevolent. The more natural conclusion would be that we are probably wrong about what constitutes good and evil to the extent that we differ from this omniscient and omnipotent god on the matter.

While on an emotional level, the Problem of Evil is often tough to wrestle with, on a rational level it has no solid basis and the conclusions which are commonly drawn from it are ad hoc rationalizations for an a priori rejection of the possibility of an omnibenevolent God.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Fair Questions: Catholic Teaching and Homosexuality

I was asked a question by a young college student who happens to be Catholic regarding the Church teaching on homosexuality and how it coheres with the rest of Church teaching.  His impression was that the teaching just caused a lot of needless disunity and suffering.

Obviously, the Catholic Church teaches a lot of things which are seen to cause disunity and suffering in the current age, and we would do well to include the whole of Catholic teaching on human sexuality in that category.  After all, what does the teaching on premarital sex or contraception do if not cause disunity and suffering?

Aside from questioning the assumption that beliefs are the source of disunity, which seems odd given that the Catholic Church sees belief as a major source of Church unity (and indeed defines being in communion with the Catholic Church), I thought it best to address the topic holistically, showing where the teaching on homosexuality coheres with Church teaching and why changing that teaching would in fact be deeply incoherent.

You may note that I have not mentioned the Theology of the Body because it is a relatively recent development.

There are three aspects of the Church with which its teaching on homosexual behavior coheres very well: asceticism, Natural Law, and Sacred Scripture. Taken by themselves and viewed within the confines of contemporary philosophical assumptions, they are not convincing. But for someone who accepts a lot of traditional philosophical assumptions and operates within a Catholic context, they will probably be more compelling as a set of coherent influences.


The first aspect I will address is asceticism, and as a disclaimer this is the one I find most compelling on a personal level because I'm an ascetic.

Asceticism has been a component of Christianity from the beginning. For example, John the Baptist very much lived the life of an ascetic. When Jesus sent the Apostles out to preach the Gospel, they were given the guidelines for a very simple and ascetic sort of life. This also coheres very well with existing ascetic traditions in Judaism existing contemporaneously with Jesus as well as older ascetic traditions within Judaism. For more information about asceticism in Christianity and other forms of asceticism, I've provided a link above.

Ascetics all over the world and throughout human history, religious and irreligious alike, have realized that to practice virtue consistently a high degree of control over the self is a prerequisite. And the way we gain the self-control necessary is to practice self-denial. We habituate our bodies to being in control of our will by this discipline of self-management, which includes practicing penances for our failures and denying our less than virtuous desires from being actualized.

To gain the most potent and important form of self-control, we must deny our most basic desires, which include our desires for food and for sexual gratification. The ascetic does not view food or sex as being intrinsically evil; they have legitimate purposes as sustenance or procreative activity. It is rather that our self-indulgence in those things is evil.

So how does this apply to the case of same-sex unions? Both persons of heterosexual and homosexual inclination are called to live chastely and to give up self-indulgence in favor of purposes which are unselfish and sacrificial. In consequence, this means that both are called to reject recreational sexual activity in favor of procreational sexual activity. Married couples in the Catholic Church are obliged to abstain from masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, and any other sexual activity which would be for purely self-indulgent purposes (1). The one type of sexual activity which is encouraged is the type that is open to procreation, and for biological reasons this is obviously not a type of sexual activity one can engage in with a member of the same sex.

While asceticism is certainly a strong influence on Catholic moral teaching, it is not the only influence. Some ascetic practices are a basic part of Catholic moral teaching and all Catholics are indeed obligated to them, though it's readily apparent in the industrialized Western world that a lot of Catholics don't follow those teachings very well. (When overindulgence is the baseline, it's hard to get people to realize what healthy living means.)

We see this required asceticism in the universal practice of fasting and the moral teaching on sexuality. Other moral teachings, such as the teachings regarding murder or theft, have to do with other moral imperatives and really are not influenced by asceticism.  But they are explained by...

Natural Law

Now let's attend to the topic of Natural Law and how it coheres with the aforementioned principles of asceticism and Catholic moral teaching. You'll notice that asceticism and Natural Law are essentially in agreement on the question of which moral acts are good though they come at the issue from different philosophical considerations.

As a disclaimer, I have some philosophical issues with Natural Law theory. But that does not keep me from recognizing that it is an elegant and powerful moral theory which is worth examining for its usefulness and uniqueness.

As you undoubtedly know, Natural Law theory concludes that homosexual intercourse is not in alignment with the proper end of a human being (2). But how does it get there?

For Aquinas, we would need to evaluate the moral quality of an act via its object, ends, and circumstances (SEP, CCC 1750-1754). As we can see, the Catechism essentially adopts the Natural Law perspective of Aquinas as a means of clarifying the Christian moral philosophy.

Conveniently, many of the common contemporary objections to Church teaching on homosexuality (within Christianity) tend to fall into the categories of objections based on object, ends, and circumstances.

The key question with regard to the object of homosexual acts is whether or not homosexual acts are a true good. The objection here is usually that there are good things about homosexual acts, and those good things would be the pleasure and the feelings of unity and/or love. Aquinas recognized that many human behaviors were apparent goods, that we apprehend things as good which are not fully in alignment with our proper end. This would be the case with many behaviors such as masturbation, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, recreational drug use, etc. To give an example of why the argument from apparent goods doesn't work in a Catholic context, let's consider the case of pre-marital sex. The same set of apparent goods present in the case of homosexual acts exist in the case of pre-marital sex as well. And pre-marital sex has an even greater advantage from a Natural Law standpoint: it is in alignment with our procreative purpose. It is nonetheless proscribed. If we accept the argument that the aforementioned apparent goods justify homosexual acts, then we justify pre-marital sex between committed heterosexual partners as well. Far from being coherent with Church teaching, this would be wildly incoherent with Church teaching.

The objection raised regarding the ends of homosexual acts is that the intentions of those seeking to engage in homosexual acts are often positive. And from a Natural Law perspective, this would go back to the issue of apparent goods. It's certainly fair to say that many people seeking to engage in homosexual acts are seeking an apparent good, which is an entirely understandable thing to do. Nonetheless, the argument from good intentions fails to be compelling for the obvious reason that even the most clearly morally depraved actions might be and sometimes are undertaken with the best of intentions. In Catholic moral philosophy, the end does not justify the means (CCC 1750 - 1754). Both end and means need to be in alignment with our telos.

The objection raised regarding circumstances is often that homosexual acts are morally acceptable under the circumstances of a committed relationship. Not only is this obviously incoherent with the general prohibition on pre-marital sex, but circumstances in Natural Law are not what determines whether an act is morally acceptable; circumstances merely alter the degree of culpability or responsibility of a moral agent for an act (CCC 1754).

There are more general objections to Natural Law, but my primary purpose was to show how well Natural Law coheres with Church teaching and how the common objections decidedly do not.


I'd like to begin the third topic with another disclaimer. I notice that most Christians who make an argument from Sacred Scripture regarding whether or not homosexual acts are prohibited engage in a heavy dose of confirmation bias. In the case of those who are arguing for prohibiting homosexual acts in a Christian context, they tend to overestimate the weight of the evidence. In the case of those who are arguing for treating homosexual acts as morally acceptable in a Christian context, they tend to underestimate the weight of the evidence.

Most arguments for prohibition begin with the Old Testament law against a man lying with a man as with a woman. Coming from most Christians of Gentile origin, this is an argument that's hard to give full and crushing weight. The previous covenant is not what binds the Christians of Gentile origin. That said, Christians are not in a position to dismiss the moral principles in the Torah without due consideration. We certainly give weight to the Ten Commandments and other moral obligations therein, evaluating them in light of Christian theology and traditional practice. And to the extent that Christian theology and traditional practice supports the proscriptions and prescriptions of the Old Testament, we typically hold them as binding.

Another commonly cited verse is in the epistles of the New Testament, specifically Romans. It's not a clear prohibition of homosexual acts, and we shouldn't read it that way. However, it is fairly clear when we look at the context that the author is listing those acts among lots of other sinful acts. At the very least, the author's basic assumption is that homosexual acts are sinful, and the author's intent is certainly relevant in the Catholic Church's approach to scripture.

None of this adds up to a crystal clear prohibition on homosexual acts, but it does lead us to not being able to take seriously the idea that homosexuality is acceptable in a Christian context (3), and it coheres very well with the aforementioned tradition of asceticism as well as Natural Law.


(1)  It does not follow that enjoyment should not be a factor in sex. From the perspective of an ascetic, there's nothing wrong with enjoying sex so long as the enjoyment of the act (for you or for your partner) is not the primary function of having sex. It could certainly be a latent function of sex.

That said, we can safely say that there's no particular need for it to be enjoyable every time. And many married couples can and will attest to the fact that it's not enjoyable every time. For example, a husband not infrequently comes home completely exhausted and just wants to eat and go to bed. But his wife wants to have another child, and his love for her allows him to set aside his own fatigue so that they can try to have another child. Would you say that he's violated any moral imperatives, or that he should not have sex with her until he's able to properly enjoy it?

(2) To respond to the objection that homosexuality is natural, let's talk about necessary and sufficient conditions for a moment. Natural Law proposes a procreative telos as a general norm. This has two effects, and the first is to rule out sexual acts which have no procreative potential as moral goods. The second effect is to establish a necessary condition for sexual acts to be morally acceptable, but it is not sufficient for it. If it were a sufficient condition, pre-marital sex would be justified in the eyes of Natural Law, and it is most decidedly not.

So is not pre-marital sex also very natural? Do we not see it commonly in other species? Mating for life is not common in other animals by a long shot.

Natural Law does not make the claim that natural = good, though a lot of folks make the mistake of interpreting it to mean that. It also rejects the claim that what is good for a human is what is good for other beings. Natural Law sees various beings as having a telos which is specific to that being, and in particular sees humans as having a very different telos because we are a different kind of animal. We might fairly say that we have different moral obligations because we have different faculties.

Not only would it not make any sense to make the argument that what is natural is morally acceptable in a Natural Law framework, but if we were to propose it as a standard, then every action becomes acceptable because all of our vices are natural. It would destroy any moral framework completely by collapsing the is-ought distinction.

(3) Perhaps I need to clarify different ways in which evidence can function with regard to a particular claim.

Evidence can be used to positively verify a claim, but this requires an extremely high degree of certainty. Evidence can also be used to falsify a claim, and this is a much easier burden to meet. To falsify a claim does not prove that the opposing claim is verified. For example, falsifying the claim that the Earth is flat does not verify the claim that the Earth is a perfect sphere.

In the case of Sacred Scripture, I don't think we have quite the weight of evidence required to verify the claim that "homosexual acts are clearly prohibited", but I do think that we have enough evidence to falsify the claim that "homosexual acts are acceptable" in a Christian context.

This rules out proclaiming homosexual acts as acceptable, but we have to appeal to the aspects of Christian tradition discussed previously to get to the point where we can state definitively that homosexual acts are prohibited in a Christian context.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Surveying the Moral Landscape

I've seen a fair number of talks and debates featuring Sam Harris. Out of the contemporary secularist popular philosophers, he is my favorite. Though Christopher Hitchens was fun as well and deserves a mention.

I generally agree with him that morality is not purely subjective, and I've actually used some of his arguments on that point before. I tend to think that even if you take a naturalistic and empirical approach, it is fairly clear that morality is not something that we just made up and that it is not purely dependent on our minds.

I also agree with him that science can help us answer moral questions so long as we have established a naturalistic definition of moral good beforehand. Of course, this simply means that the question remains, what is moral good? His answer has to do with the prevention of suffering because of the commonality of concern with human suffering on the part of other humans. I do not see suffering as a moral evil (probably a controversial position), and so I'm obviously not going to agree with his conception of morality or the implications of it.

I think that positioning the prevention of human suffering as the basis of morality because of its commonality is to collapse the is-ought distinction and that the result is a meta-moral or meta-ethical claim rather than a moral or ethical claim. In short, he isn't proposing an objective moral standard at all, but rather a description of how we often make moral decisions. He is suggesting that the IS is also the OUGHT, which is not so much a valid criticism of the is-ought (or fact-value) distinction as it is an a priori rejection of it. It is indeed begging the very question at issue in his argument, the question of whether or not values are reducible to facts.

Let's leave that aside for the moment and say for the sake of discussion that he's correct in his view that the objective basis for morality is the prevention of suffering and that science can help us answer the questions related to how we prevent suffering and foster "human flourishing".

If he is correct, then science not only has an epistemology, an ontology, a creation narrative, an eschatology, a clergy, and predictions; it now has a morality. This means that science is able to provide us with all the critical functions of a religion. For many secularists, this would be uncritically viewed as a great victory. After all, what could be better than to have something which could perform all the positive functions of religions without being a religion?

But let us consider for a moment why we would think of science as something other than a religion at this point. If a thing performs all the same basic functions as another thing, what is the difference between them?

Perhaps we could make the distinction by saying that science, while it has made a fair number of wrong predictions, has made more right predictions than traditional religions. Well, alright.  Even if we notice that a Linux server runs faster and has fewer problems than a Windows server, do we say that the Linux server is not a server at all?

Of course not. It is still a server because it performs the same basic functions.

Perhaps we could make the distinction by pointing out that science leads to working technologies far more often than traditional religions, that it provides a better basis for engineering. Do we say that the Arlington memorial bridge is not a memorial at all because it serves a practical purpose more effectively than most memorials?

Of course not. It is still a memorial because it has the function of a memorial.

In the end, if his view is correct, then science is a full-fledged religion, right down to having its views privileged in our educational system. And because at this point science is a religion, he is not really opposed to religion at all.

He's just opposed to religions other than his own and wants to privilege his religion above all others by persuading the uneducated masses to his view. Which means that he is a religious demagogue in his own right. I rather doubt that he would want to be a religious demagogue, and I think that the consequences of his view would be particularly abhorrent to his fellow secularists who have a rather dim view of religions.

He might be better off upholding the is-ought or fact-value distinction. As someone who really likes science and appreciates the immense value of it, I am incredibly disturbed by the idea that we should take the final step toward making it a religion, and I would suggest that we need to very carefully consider the consequences of doing so.

Surveying the Moral Landscape - Surveying the Moral Landscape Again

Note: The above is a picture I took while running alongside a river.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dissecting the Debate: Atheists and Theists

Some debates are so timeless, spanning as they do from ancient India and ancient Greece to the European Enlightenment and the modern internet debate forums, that it becomes difficult to avoid noticing patterns in the arguments.

I have noticed five distinct categories of arguments used by atheists and theists, some of them much better than others.  They range from truly awful to astoundingly mediocre to quite sensible.  I have organized them in tiers according to how useful or effective I think they are as a category.  My purpose here is not to evaluate individual arguments, but to elucidate the qualities of various types of arguments.

Tier 5 - Snark and Ad Hominems

This tier is the worst of the worst as far as the potency of the arguments is concerned, mostly because they aren't even arguments at all.  It is however the most entertaining and "feel good" part for those of us who like to openly indulge in a lot of bombastic confirmation bias.  At this level of argumentation, witticisms are bandied about, fun is poked at various parties, and insinuations about the intelligence of one's opponents are ubiquitous.

If you find yourself entertained by these sorts of exchanges, you needn't feel that there is anything wrong with that.  If you find yourself persuaded to one side or the other by them, then it's time for you to learn how to think critically.  If you feel the need to use this sort of "argument", my recommendation is to sprinkle them lightly into your discourse.  A little bit of it adds flavor, but much more and it ruins the dish.

Tier 4 - Obviously Fallacious Arguments

This tier is one of the most popular places for folks to park their intellectual abilities.  The arguments are easy to understand for those who make them and easy to refute for those who disagree with them.  Everybody gets to feel very competent and impressed with themselves at this level so long as they don't actually understand argumentation very well or just conveniently ignore it when it suits their purpose.

An example of this type of argument would be the extremely common case of question begging.  For theists, it might be the argument that we can conclude that God exists because the Bible says so.  What they leave out is that they believe that the Bible is authoritative because God inspired it.  Whoops!  For atheists, it might be the argument that science has never discovered evidence of God, which means that we can conclude that God doesn't exist.  What they leave out is that methodological naturalism and principle of parsimony make it impossible for science to ever conclude that God exists no matter what the evidence might be.  Whoops!  These arguments just flat-out assume what they're trying to prove, a time-honored custom in human cognition.

In both cases, these arguments are for people expressing their confirmation bias boldly without realizing it.  At least they're making an argument, but we should really encourage them to do better.

Tier 3 - Classical Logical Arguments

This tier is where a lot of folks who have a basic grasp of logical argumentation and fallacies tend to spend most of their time.  Premises and conclusions are set forth, syllogisms are employed, and terms may even be defined.  Definitions are disputed, reductios are performed, and the laws of classical logic invoked. This is what the folks at Tier 4 probably think they're doing, but haven't quite managed to accomplish.

Some examples of this type of argument are the Problem of Evil and the Cosmological Argument.  Correctly stated, these arguments are logical in form.  This does not mean that their conclusions can determine what exists or that these arguments are impregnable, and particularly when we critique an argument we have to be careful of making an argument from fallacy.

These arguments are actually arguments and they are logical, but they are not demonstrative of anything but the ability of the person formulating the argument to work within the structures of classical logic, structures which (as Krauss has pointed out) we cannot use to model our world and consequently predict what sort of things exist because quantum mechanics violates the fundamental axioms of classical logic.

If you're looking for an interesting intellectual exercise or an opportunity to practice critical thinking skills and maybe try out a new argument, then this a great place to be.  If you're looking to prove something and you take yourself really seriously, then I recommend going deeper into the rabbit hole and learning how little you know.

Tier 2 - Epistemology & Ethics of Belief

This tier is where folks start exploring the limits of what we can know and the propriety of our belief formation process.  Here we can take positions on how we ought to decide what to believe, wonder whether or not we should believe what we cannot know in a rational sense, and decide whether or not we can know that God exists or that God does not exist.

The debate at this level does not hinge so much on argument as on intuitions and sensibilities.  At this tier, the players explore the axioms rather than the arguments, the claims necessary for making the argument, and the values which shape our worldviews.  There are a number of common questions we seek to address at this level.  What constitutes a good reason for believing a claim?  Do we need to know the claim in the sense of meeting the requirements of the Tripartite definition of knowledge to be justified in believing it?  Do we know things empirically, rationally, both, or neither?

Here is where you will notice claims like the following.  "It is wrong to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."  Or perhaps, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  These are platitudes rather than arguments, but they are not without weight.  You'll find a lot of agnostics hanging around this place, stuck in endless questioning and understandable uncertainty.  Some of them are unwilling to take a stand on the theism question and others are willing to jump into the fray on one side or another.

Most people never venture beyond this tier, and even fewer do so comfortably.  The benefit of this tier is that, assuming you understand what happens here, it helps you to understand how limited our intellects are and mitigates our natural hubris.  If not, then you'll just be a slightly more educated person who still doesn't understand their cognitive limitations, which is probably a lot of the folks who visit here.

Tier 1 - Problem of the Criterion

This tier is a very sparsely populated one, and folks tend to pass through more than anything else.  This is where we have to formulate a standard of evidence which can allow us to adjudicate claims about theism without appealing to standards which assume our conclusions and which we can apply usefully to our beliefs.  Neither theists or atheists manage to do this very often.  Even the most intelligent among both groups tend to find it very difficult to apply genuinely neutral principles.

The question we seek to answer here might be posed this way... "What impartial principle can help us decide the matter?"  The reality is that most of us don't use impartial principles to form our beliefs because that's not how our minds naturally work, which makes this a tough question to answer in practice.

If you're willing to get to the rock bottom of your worldview and spend some quality time within your own mind cleaning house and cogitating robustly, then this is the place for you.  If not, then just enjoy your confirmation bias and whatever intellectual pretensions you have managed to collect.  If nothing else, you can do the popular thing and feel intellectually superior to everyone else without good cause.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Incipiens Fabula

Endings are ever new beginnings, and challenges are ever new opportunities.  To begin the new story, I will quote something I wrote several years ago while I was nearing the end of one chapter of my life.

Some people spend much of their lives at wit's end, saturated in confusion and fear about the next moment they encounter while moving through the temporal plane.  To live at wit's end is to exist in a state of uncertainty and apprehension.  In a way, to live at wisdom's end is merely the perfection of this state.

When a person lives at wisdom's end, they exist in the same uncertainty that others do.  But their response to it is quite different.  Instead of fear and confusion, there is peace and curiosity.  A serenity is maintained during the process of seeking truth, an immensely valuable process that is never finished.  When one lives at wisdom's end, there is understanding about why we live and acceptance of the reality that one will never have all the answers.  A person who sits at wisdom's end is situated on the blurry spectrum containing reason and love, vulnerable and yet secure, open-minded but not easily swayed.

When you have met yourself without preconception, lived out love for all, and learned to perceive without defining, you have arrived at wisdom's end, and finally found the beginning.

The value of these thoughts was significant, and I appreciate them still today, although admittedly I am a bit older and perhaps wiser than I was at the time.  I would express those thoughts with a bit more nuance and less simplicity were I to attempt a revision, but the past need not be revised and I am content to let my statements stand as a marker on my journey through life showing where I once was and hopefully pointing to the person I wish to become.

When I was a teenager, I made the decision to become a member of the Catholic Church and I prayed very intently for the gift of wisdom during my Confirmation.  It was what I wanted most in life, and like most young people I did not have an inkling of the weighty price that would need to be paid to acquire what I most desired.

As I recall my youth from my current place at the end of it, I remember that when I was in my late teens and early twenties I truly thought that I had found wisdom in its fullness.  I was quite wrong, of course.  I know now that as deep as my wisdom may be relative to the baseline, what wisdom I possess is but a drop compared to the ocean which I do not possess.

Wisdom comes about from suffering, particularly when we learn from it.  Wisdom comes about from joy, particularly when we are grateful for it.  Wisdom comes about from life, particularly when we live it fully.

You may or may not find wisdom here.  I just hope you find it somewhere.