Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Ramble on The Origin of Life and Human Dignity

One of the premises of contemporary evolutionary theory views life as a self-replicating molecular and biological pattern. Another equally essential premise is that unimaginably long periods of time, as in billions of years, are necessary for evolution to "work." For a really, really nice overview see: Primordial Soup Experiment.

Given these two premises, it is inevitable that life would arise. First, consider that the spectra of various organic compounds of varying complexity have been observed near other stars. Second, consider that organic compounds have been found in meteorites and in comets. Further, consider the "Primordial Soup Experiment" by Stanley Miller.

My essential point is that once an immense amount of time is factored into the Miller experiment or into an experiment with similar starting conditions, it would only take once for the set of self-replicating molecules to arise and begin to replicate. Further once the relative size and energies available [solar, volcanic, ultraviolet, impactors, etc] are factored in, it does seem unlikely that life in some form would not arise, and not in just one isolated incident.

Given that survival in the most general sense in evolutionary biology is replication, it just doesn't strike me as all that problematic that life would eventually arise and no doubt has arisen many times throughout the history of the universe in ways that we are unlikely to ever imagine.

Essential to evolution, however, is immense stretches of time. It is for this reason that fundamentalists, Christian or otherwise, insist that creation of human beings and of life, generally, took place at what ought to be a historically verifiable moment.

Running all through the theory of evolution like a red thread is this necessity for unimaginably vast periods of time.In addition to the temporal and spatial vastness in modern science, evolution adds another element to the diminution of humanity: there is no guarantee of the immortality of humanity. Not only will everyone die, but at some point in the future, all human beings will have died. Either replaced by another species or extinct because of a failure to adapt to hostile changes in the earth's environment. The mortality of homo sapiens as a species is a major theme in science fiction. The most famous example is probably Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (the book is much clearer on this than the movie).

I can understand the creationists in this regard, they are saying with Immanuel Kant what he said of the Copernicus's heliocentric theory, "It diminishes my sense of importance." How much of human psychology is hard-wired to assume without question, not personal immortality, but immortality of the species? It is not just that everyone will die, but that everything that would persist past my death will eventually perish, as well. One day it will be as if humanity had never existed. Whether that day is only a couple of millennia in the future, or won't be until our sun becomes a bloated red giant and destroying the earth. Or, at some other time in the future, when the universe has become unrecognizable. Again, this is the major theme of 2001 and Clarke treats the problem more thoroughly and in much more detail than I do here., even if I think his "solution" makes 6-day creationism seem quite reasonable in comparison.

This ramble suggests a defense of Christianity, albeit an ironic one: human beings can't handle the truth. It is the rationale of Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor from The Grand Inquisitor for crucifying Jesus once again. It is also the pessimistic conclusion that human beings do not want the truth, don't care for it, and most definitely don't like it. But any denial of truth, requires that critical inquiry at best be curtailed and at worst be punished on pain of eternal damnation.

And as for the celebrated criticism of evolution that it is an affront to human dignity, I can't but think that it really means that human beings can't afford to take the risks entailed by searching for and possibly finding the truth of their origins. In other words, human beings are weak, cowardly, and little better than children who need protection from the challenges of life and of being responsible for their actions. Again shades of The Grand Inquisitor.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Critical Inquiry, Autonomy, and Religion's Bad Psychology

The stories and claims which religion puts forth justify and require certain types of behavior. The typical rationalist approach finds fault with religion because of religion's irrationality and reliance on gullibility. Listening to religious people, one would think that they would generally prefer not to be close-minded, intolerant, etc., but for the revealed "truths" of beliefs. Religion and the thicket of beliefs and stories justify a way of life. The question is most definitely not "Are a religion's belief's True?" but "What are the ethics and the way of life that these beliefs and stories glorify?"

A person chooses their beliefs and superstitions not because of an arduous (or even not so arduous) search for truth, but because those beliefs and truths justify, explain, buttress, extend, and often articulate preexisting beliefs and attitudes. A person does not become a Christian because of a belief in the truth of doctrine, one becomes a Christian because of a propensity to blindness, irrational belief, and gullibility. Or less controversially phrased: one believes, because one needs to believe.

The stories, myths, and doctrines of Christianity in this view can be taken as a kind of sign language and expression of the believer's drives, passions, and fears.

This also means that reason and rationality are not tools to get at truth. The "product" of critical inquiry is not truth or anything so final. The propensity of the religious towards blind obedience. as well as to reject of rationality as means to truth, make clear that the justification, and purpose, as it were, of reason, rationality, and critical inquiry is not truth and a more accurate understanding of the world around us. Reason, rationality, and critical inquiry find their justification and raison d'etre in the enhancement and furthering of individual autonomy.

By way of clarification: my three-year old has in the last couple of days been seeing monsters in her bedroom when it's time for her to go to sleep. She is anxious about going to sleep (most likely a variation of separation anxiety). Her line of thought goes because she is afraid, there is something to be afraid of. First the feeling, then the invention of the cause of the feeling.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Afterthoughts about yesterday's post

A casual reader might infer from yesterday's post that I'm a close-minded atheist fundamentalist (or is that fundamentalist atheist?), because of the great difficulty that I have in imagining a set of circumstances that would lead me to change my mind about belief in God.

Christianity offends my sense of modesty. Christianity presumes that my moods and my feelings have a grave metaphysical significance. It really ought to strike each of us as mildly perplexing that anyone could think that the feelings associated with stealing a cookie could provide the clues and hints to unravel the riddle of existence. I mean guilt of course, but not in that we should not feel guilty because guilt is bad. But rather that my feelings themselves hang heavy with world-historical fruit.

In order to grasp the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, I only need to turn inwards and cogitate on the comings and goings of my moods and feelings. Anyone who knows me will attest that I set a great store by my intellectual abilities, but even I am not so egotistical as to believe that my emotional make-up is a road map to figuring out the so-called meaning of life.

I suffer from guilt just as much as the next (ex-)Christian, but mercifully I lack that neurotic compulsion to make myself believe that my feelings of guilt are the only possible prism through which to view humanity, history, psychology, biology, and life in all of its myriad manifestations.

Am I an atheist fundamentalist or a fundamentalist atheist? Historically, the Christian fundamentalist movement began with a call to return to the fundamentals, and to the bare minimum of what was necessary for salvation and the truth of the gospel. There was also the intent to return to as an unemcumbered interpretation of Scripture as possible. In this narrow sense of the word, there are no atheist fundamentalists because atheists eschew the use of texts in which to ground and justify they (dis-)belief.

On the other hand, it is somewhat gratifying to see "fundamentalist" used in colloquial speech as a synonym for dogmatic and close-minded. It is even more gratifying to see "fundamentalist" used as an insult, meaning that a charge of of "fundamentalism" is almost a refutation in itself. This means that dogmatic and close-minded attitudes are something to be ashamed of.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What would it take for me to stop being an atheist?

That's a common question many proselytizing Evangelicals pose to atheists. If their mark answers that nothing would persuade them to believe in God, then the mark is accused of being close-minded, fanatical, and so on. If the mark gives answers that if he were to be persuaded that X, Y, & Z were shown to be true, then he would believe in God. Then the mark is asked, how can he be so sure that X, Y, & Z are not true? Further, in posing the question to the mark, the mark, even if only for a brief moment, imagines himself as someone who believes in God.

An essay on Ebon Musings with the title The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists:
What would convince an atheist that a religion is true?
reminded me of that stratagem.

I haven't finished working my way through the essay, but my initial reaction was something along the lines of "what would it take to show me that pigs can fly without using cannons?"

After I thought about the question for a while, I realized that my lack of belief in God stems not from believing certain things, but from aesthetics. My disbelief is not tied to the truth or falsity of specific beliefs and propositions.

An example of one of my aesthetic reasons. I like irony. The intrinsic ambiguity of human interactions intrigues me. We say or do something, and then later do something else that changes what the first "something" meant or represented. Jesus may have infinite compassion, but he has no sense of humor.

There's a German word of which I am most fond: "vieldeutig." Literally translated: "having many meanings." The English "ambiguity" while signifying "having multiple meanings"
also implies that this multiplicity of meaning stems from a lack of clarity and is a defect. "Vieldeutig" does not imply a similar lack of clarity.

Further, I don't know if laughter without ambiguity or "Vieldeutigkeit" [the noun form of the adjective] is even possible. If laughter at something is forbidden, rational inquiry "uninformed" by revelation is also forbidden. That leads to my issue of values.

I like thinking and looking at things from a variety of angles. It's fun. It's not only thinking that is at stake, but an appreciation of the nuances of (un)certainty goes along with a fondness for Vieldeutigkeit. I don't find belief to be a binary opposition: belief or disbelief. Nor do I think that my subjective feelings of certainty necessarily correlate with the truth of an idea or of a proposition. Belief and certainty are a continuum. The certainty that Christians typically crave strikes me as too akin to an addiction for my taste. This craving is simply too compulsive, neurotic and predictable for my taste.

Appeals to the comforts afforded by faith and to the necessity of a congenial weltanschauung carry no weight with me. It's the timidity and the wuss-factor that turn me against religion. What about courage? What about a modicum of manliness in going out into the world? A good number of arguments "for" Christianity amount to little more than appeals to conformity and laziness.

If Christian apologists are to be taken at face value, they teach that the hardest and most difficult task imaginable is thinking for oneself. In fact, Christians teach by doctrine and example by that thinking for oneself is so incredibly difficult that it is impossible, but if possible, then it is of such little worth as to be safely forgotten, and if not forgotten then deserving of a dreadful and eternal punishment. But--if thinking for oneself is not as impossible or dangerous as they teach?

Christians present the quest for truth as something best finished ASAP. Once the quest is accomplished, one returns home with no further need of arduous labors and difficult journeys. But what if questing itself is found to be an enjoyable and even pleasurable activity? A famous passage from Lessing captures this ethos perfectly:

If God held all truth in his right hand, and in his left the persistent striving for the truth, and while warning me against eternal error, should say:
Choose! I should humbly bow before his left hand, and say, "Father, give thy gift; the pure truth is for thee alone."
[Lessing, Werke, Vol. 2, p. 53.]

What would it take for me to believe in God? I would have to be somebody else. Perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder: I suppose I could in principle be tortured & broken in spirit into being a Christian, but I don't think that is what most Evangelicals mean when they ask what it would take.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Last Moment of Innocence

The Last Moment of Innocence refers to the moment just before one discovers that a cherished belief is not true.

Until the moment of discovery (or of disillusionment), it is still possible to belief in good faith that one's cherished belief continues to possess validity. I alluded to this in the last paragraph of "Idols -- Conclusion" posted on January 19.

What comes after the Last Moment of Innocence when the truth, or rather the falsity of a cherished belief remains unacknowledged. I don't think it requires much imagination to see that this denial is prima facie neurotic, borrowing Freud's pity definition of neurosis: the denial of a piece of reality.

The fundamental rationale for holding on to the false belief is simply that one wishes it were true. The sleight of hand in moving from wishing one's cherished belief were true to one's cherished belief actually being true is covered over with shows of logic, appeals to authority, threats of all the horrible things that will happen, if the cherished belief were acknowledged to be false.

Again I don't think much imagination is required to see that the unwillingness to let go of the Last Moment of Innocence is the well-spring of religiously sanctioned violence. Any attempt at enlightenment is a threat: the carefully hidden piece of reality might be uncovered with horrifically unknown consequences. "Religiously sanctioned" can mean approved & sanctioned by religious authorities and institutions, or approved & sanctioned by an individual's own understanding of religious duty & obligation.

The Last Moment of Innocence is another way of saying that faith is neurosis: one claims to see what one wants to see, not what one does in fact see.

This also means that by and large religion is a means of avoiding and shutting out reality, i.e., unpleasant truths. It is intrinsic to religion, especially Christianity, that anything proven empirically carries little or no weight. Consider the oxymoron of Christian Sex Education. Abstinence? Condoms preventing AIDS? Evolution? Christians have bigger fish to fry than minor virtues of honesty, integrity, and truthfulness.

As I said before, honest Christians are in principle possible, but are notoriously short-lived creatures.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Faith Makes Blessed

When I read "At the mind's limits: Contemplations by a survivor on Auschwitz and its realities" by Jean Amery in college, I was particularly struck by his recognition that a "strong faith" whether held by Marxists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, etc, conferred survival advantages. Faith provided a shelter against the ravages of Auschwitz as much as working in a covered environment as a machinist or as a physician provided protection against the elements. Faith brought biological benefits, increasing one’s chances of avoiding death, and surviving a little longer.

Faith may make stupid, but it is not without its advantages. Believing that survival is possible in the face of overwhelming adversity makes giving up all the less likely and makes persistence for just a little while longer all the more necessary.

For all the advantages that a passionately held faith may confer, sincerity of that faith shows nothing of the truth or falsity of the object of that faith. I don't deny that there are positive advantages to a fervently held belief when in adverse circumstances. But is it really necessary to insist on that one's faith is true?

Sometimes the radical comfort that a faith held with terrifying firmness affords is necessary for one's physical and psychic survival. This is no argument for the truth of that faith. Morphine is sometimes necessary as well. But that is no argument for compulsory addiction.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Anti-Apologetics, or What Kind of Atheist Am I? (Pt. II)

Apologetics is the branch of Christian theology that consists of the defense of Christianity. That is to say, apologists strive to present Christianity in the most favorable light possible. For this reason, apologetics consists of the rhetorical moves and clever phrasings that obscure and misdirect the hapless nonbeliever's attention away from difficulties, contradictions, and unpleasantries in Christianity. Apologetics, more so than the remainder of Christian Theology, is best characterized as sleight of hand.

Anti-apologetics seeks to make public, as it were, the tricks in the magic tricks. What is the misdirection of which Christian apologists are most fond and find most essential? Typically, and most commonly, Christian apologists avoid discussing faith per se and choose, instead, to focus their energies on their putative object of faith: God, Jesus, the literal truth of Scripture, etc.

Why is this misdirection important? The misdirection obscures consideration of the psychology of faith. What are the motivations to believe? What are the different ways that people believe? Is Christian faith different from believing mundane facts?

This places a dilemma before the Christian. Either he admits that there are worldly motivations for his faith. Examples of "worldly motivations" include a cowardly fear of uncertainty, need for a father-figure, wishful-thinking, escape from painful surroundings, etc. Of course, none of these motivations are necessarily applicable in any given case. Or, the Christian proudly states that his faith is a free gift from God, and as such is without motivation. In the latter case, the question to pose: which is more likely someone who refuses to reflect on his reasons for belief or a miracle?

This strategy should be particularly threatening to Christians whose advocacy of their faith rests on appeals to the comforts of their faith.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why isn't my blog more evil???

This site is certified 27% EVIL by the Gematriculator

This site is certified 73% GOOD by the Gematriculator

I'm not optimistic that my wife & friends will let me live this one down.

The good/evil analysis is courtesy of The Gematriculator from The Sect of Homokaasu.

I think I may include some rankings of select Christian sites in the near future.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Guilt of Creation

Religious types use their myth of God's creation as a rationalization for their misogynist, homophobic, and generally hate-inspired demands for what other people ought to be doing. They -- the religious types -- not only know better, they know what's best for the rest of us.

I find the smugness in their identification with God particularly loathsome. They have great difficulty in distinguishing what they demand from what God demands. This inability to distinguish their wishful thinking from God's Plan and God's Love for humanity appears to be de rigeur for Evangelicals. The more annoying consequence of this narcissistic propensity trots out God as the raison d'etre of the believer's desires and morality. "Morality," by the way, is a euphemism for unexamined compulsive and neurotic behaviors, behavioral tics, as it were.

This systemically and willfully obliterates humanity's point of view on God and His works because such a view of humanity looking back at God is presumed a priori to be fatally flawed because of sin. God looks at us and we look back at Him, regardless of whether He or believers like it.

Looking back at God from within one's humanity it is inevitable that human existence is intrinsically flawed and guilt-ridden. Existence is a gift. But as creation is also an act of divine will, it also means one's creation also creates obligations. One's continued existence is a continued manifestation of that original assertion of divine will. Following the logic of the doctrine of creation, this means that existence entails a moral obligation to be the fullest & purest manifestation of divine possible.

Pursuing this line of thought further, human beings were given Free-Will, but if we do not act in accordance with Divine Will, we incur guilt, we become flawed creatures. Ergo if we act in accordance with how we were created, that is to use the free-will that God gave us, which God Himself pronounced "Good," we become guilt-ridden, flawed sinners.

What is the big point here: guilt & Original Sin are intrinsic to the Christian doctrine of Divine Creation. Further, it should come as no great shock that the grand justification for opposition to Evolution and Darwinism, namely that Divine Creation of Humanity is a guarantee of Human Dignity, is a lie, a sham, and a sophistry.

That human beings were not divinely created scandalizes Evangelicals. It scandalizes because although they think of themselves as the bearers of Good News -- that is what Evangel means in the original Greek -- they only bring tidings of darkness, ignorance, and fear. If there is a "true" Evangelion, it is that Christianity was all a bad dream: there is no guilt and no need for redemption. It is tempting to speak of life as a gift, but that would require a giver.

Human beings are free. Running away from this freedom from morality and guilt is certainly one way of making use of this freedom, but then again, Evangelicals and religious-types have never been particularly sensitive to irony.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Invisible Pink Unicorn, The Flying Spaghetti Monster & Co.

The Invisible Pink Unicorn, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Russell's Teapot, and similar objections offered by the rational-minded to the existence of God fail to persuade believers? Rationally and reasonably considered on their merits, the arguments for the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be as persuasive as any arguments for the existence of the Christian God. Why aren't believers persuaded?

Appeals to blindness, irrationality, or stupidity explain nothing. Having had a weakness for theistic arguments inculcated at an early age, a big part why believers do not find arguments for the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti monster is that Christianity is an ancient religion.

If so many people have for so long believed that there is truth to Christianity, so this line of thought goes, wouldn't there have to be something to this religion after all? Consequently, this would mean that the truth and meaning of human existence has been known for a very long time. This would also mean that anyone desirous of meaning and significance to their life should make little or no effort to strike out on their own. In a rather self-serving way, Christianity also teaches that the price of error is incalculable: eternal torment for failing to heed the promptings of one's parents, teachers, friends, and colleagues, in short almost everyone.

Christianity should not be prettified. It's teachings should be presented for what they are: advocacy of cowardice, conformity, and surrender to fear. The rejection of rationality means adherence to the most ancient teachings of humankind: stick with what you know, mistakes will always be fatal. This is the basis of traditional societies: do not experiment because the safest and most certain knowledge is that knowledge that is already known, lived, tested, and codified into what everybody else already knows.

Following this line of thought, arguments and appeals of Christians to faith and revelation should be rephrased as advocacy of cowardice, conformity, and blind obeisance to what everybody else is doing.

The objection that Christians will offer is that they do not feel themselves to be advocating cowardice or conformity. They haven't formulated the specific intention of advocating cowardice or conformity: they mean well.

In "meaning well," they preach love but consign to eternal torment anyone not of their clan/church. They consider themselves virtuous in demanding sacrifices (abortion, Terri Schiavo, euthenasia, etc.) from others at no cost to themselves. Some people need an eternity to compensate for the paltriness of their lives in this world: these people are Christians.

My take on the paranormal

The following is a letter sent to the author of an article that appeared in The Register with the title If whales can communicate by telepathy, why can't humans?.

Dear Dr. Juan,

Your discussion of human telepathy fails to take into account the quantum mechanical aspects of ESP. The following addresses this shortcoming.

If a researcher looks for telepathy or clairvoyance, he won't find any evidence supporting a hypothesis of paranormal abilities in human beings. Why is this? We've all had experiences that are best described as psychic: guessing the next playing card, knowing what someone is going to say next, and so on.

The problem is that these moments of paranormal activity are all unexpected and unplanned. It is not a "power" so much as a twitch or an involuntary reflex. What does this show?

Like Schrodinger's Cat, observation resolves the question of psychic phenomena. Observation per se, or rather the attempt to observe, destroys the unexpectedness & unintentionality of psychic phenomena.

The best way, therefore, to ensure the most advanced development possible to human psychic powers is to stop looking for them and to stop thinking about them. Further, it might even be necessary to hold would-be psychics up to extreme ridicule and public humiliation.

The ridicule would only be for the purpose of creating the most favorable environment possible for the development of human psychic potential. Should the ridicule and public humiliation of would-be psychics turn out to be fun and a source of great merriment, wouldn't this prove, or at least suggest, that the eradication of psychic researchers and would-be psychics would contribute greatly to the cause of human progress?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What is wrong with Intelligent Design?

In American today, it is impossible to be an atheist and not have some opinion, well-founded or otherwise, on Intelligent Design. Of course, it's a given that an infidel atheist would be deeply suspicious, if not outright hostile to the hypothesis that there is a guiding hand at work in descent with modification -- that's how Darwin referred to "evolution."

At the bottom of this suspicion is an intuition that something just isn't right with Intelligent Design. But until I read "What is wrong with Intelligent Design?" by Elliott Sober, appearing in the March 2007 issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, I couldn't quite put my finger on the problem.

A synopsis of the article can be found here.

The real meat of the article is an elegant and surprisingly simple explanation of why Intelligent Design isn't science. The choice between competing theories is made by examining the predictions that follow from the possible theories. These predictions are verified by independent evidence. A theory of eclipses that uses gravity and a knowledge of the moon's orbit about the earth and the earth's orbit about the sun will allow for predictions that can be independently verified using optics.

However, when an Intelligent Designer is used to explain the complexity of the eye, there are no predictions that can be made that follow from postulating the existence of an Intelligent Designer. Consequently, whatever the issues surround the existence of an Intelligent Designer might be, they are not within the purview of science.

Although Sober doesn't point this out, the hypothesis of an Intelligent Designer is superfluous. Positing an Intelligent Designer to explain biological phenomena is analogous to prefixing "I posit that" to every statement of fact that a person might make. "I posit that the sky is blue." "I posit that ..."

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

I'm not that kind of atheist (Pt. IV and conclusion)

When I look at this fear of self-contradiction, or more accurately finding oneself in conflict, I see also that a superstitious faith in the soul lives on: that a person is first and foremost a unity lives on. It is one of the metaphysical habits of humankind to believe that something must be either one thing or the other when presented with two seemingly mutually exclusive alternatives. In the case of the soul, or as I would prefer being a person: either being a person means being a unity, or it means being a multitude. This sense of personhood as a multitude is captured in the colloquial expression: "part of me would like to do this, but another part..."

This conundrum can also be put in the form of a question: is the unity of personhood more fundamental and essential than the moments of multiplicity and plurality?

Leaving humanity's metaphysical prejudices aside, it is without question that sometimes we experience our personality as plurality, and sometimes as a unity. An empirically-minded project presents itself: when do "I" appear as a unity, and when do "I" appear to be a multitude?

It is worth noting that Christianity throughout most of its history presented personality as a plurality. There was the soul, conscience, and our animal nature. Of course, Christianity also taught that an individual's soul -- which is commonly identified with an individual's consciousness -- is the most essential and real part of a person. The soul is the part that can be redeemed by being washed in the Blood in the Lamb.

I mentioned an empirically-minded project. I hazard a guess that the personality makes the strongest impression of unity when in a social situation: observing and being observed by other people. The personality appears most convincingly as a plurality when in solitude, when the individual is thinking, contemplating, and debating with itself. In the presence and in conversation with other people, a personality presents itself as a unity: any reports of thinking are presented as authored by the speaker.

My suspicion is that many evolutionary psychologists have an inadequate conception of the variety and contradictions of our mental lives. There is too much of a propensity to assume an illusory unity to a persons interests in positing a single self-interest. Or to realize that humans are often intelligent enough that we can often pursue multiple and even contradictory goals.

So what kind of atheist am I? One who has seen to the bottom of Christianity and who believes that humans possess a seemingly unlimited capacity for self-deception and wishful thinking coupled with the incapacity to leave well enough alone. The latter quality is also known as curiosity.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Guilt as failed omnipotence

Guilt as failed omnipotence. Feelings of guilt are a psychological conundrum. Why would anyone want to make themselves feel bad? Why would anyone punish themselves? On its face, such behavior hardly seems rational. Further there are persons who are filled with guilt for events and actions of which they were clearly not the cause. By way of example, many of Woody Allen's movies provide examples of this. In addition, we all know persons addicted to guilt.: they want to feel guilty, even seem to need to feel guilt. Why is this?

What is the fantasy? Whether the guilty person really bears responsibility for his bad act, is a distant secondary consideration. The guilty person believes that he is responsible for some untoward act. He believes that he has done something and that this something is bad. Guilt seduces the unwary by persuading the guilty that the bad act was well within the guilty person's power. The guilty person is powerful regardless of appearances. First observation: guilt is a fantasy about power.

Although in the fantasy the guilty person has power, the exercise of power inevitably goes awry. This is because of a fault in the guilty person. There is something wrong with him. However, ugly and deformed his soul may be, he remains powerful. The guilty person has power but is incompetent: his incompetence ("sinfulness" in Christian parlance) prevents him from exercising power without unhappy consequences.

What is the temptation of this power fantasy? What is the alternative? Rampant, unchecked feelings of impotence and powerlessness. However, painful and unhealthy guilt might be, the alternative to guilt is even worse. To speak Freudian: guilt is an expression of castration anxiety. Because it is a denial of a piece of reality, namely of one's own feelings of impotence and powerlessness, guilt is a neurosis.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

addendum to "I'm not the kind of atheist (Pt. III)"

In wandering off on my tangent about Christian morality, I could have framed my objections much more simply.

Why be moral? Why should anyone perform moral acts? If there is an answer to this question then morality is an end to that means. If there is a promise of a reward in Heaven, then morality is a means to that reward. If the justification for morality is possession of a good conscience, or pleasurable feelings, or some other pleasurable experience, then again morality is a means to that end. And if morality is the avoidance of some threatened unhappiness, then has as its originating impulse fear.

Why is this important? This means that the end to which moral actions are to be performed is more important than the moral actions themselves. Further, there are situations, however improbable, in which the end to which moral actions are performed will be in contradiction to morality.

The perversity of morality, especially Christian morality, is that it can only be justified by appeals to immorality.

Alternatively, if one should be moral for the sake of being moral, with no promises of a reward, as well as no threats of punishment, either in this world or in the one to come, then why be moral? An answer cannot be given. Morality cannot be justified, nor defended, nor even praised for any reason that would in itself be consistent with morality. Consequently, the question why be moral? not only goes unanswered it, the question is unanswerable.

The Evangelicals avoid all of those conundrums simply by appealing to divine fiat: follow God's Will or go to Hell. However comforting Evangelicals may find their surrender to God, their justification of their surrender is the same as that of any other coward's acquiescence to an inescapable bully: might makes right. By appealing to God's power over His mercy, rationality, or other qualities, they create a whole host of other problems. Some of these I've touched upon in other posts. Some I hope to treat more explicitly.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

I'm not that kind of atheist (Pt. III)

Agreement with Christianity is almost proof of error and of probable self-deception. "Almost" only because as the saying goes, "even a broken clock is right twice a day." Agreement and even consistency with Christianity are certainly grounds for mistrust and skepticism.

Dawkins is right that the politeness shown towards religion per se perpetrates the prejudice that there is something special about religion. If all the world defers to religion, the thinking goes, then is this not proof that there must be something to religion besides superstition, fear, and soul-numbing conformity? This politeness rests on conformity: one "respects" religion because everyone else "respects" religion. Dawkins reminds his readers that the emperor has no clothes.

Every religion, Western or otherwise, has as core precepts absurd and irrational beliefs about human nature, existence, history, and the physical world. More importantly, as Dawkins points out: more fundamental than religions' absurd teachings is what these absurdies presuppose: unquestioning obedience and unswerving devotion are most highly valued in all religions.

Dawkins is also right to point out that this emphasis on obedience and and soul-numbing conformity however prettily disguised with pomp, incense, and elaborate ritual, is an offense against the virtues we as Westerners also claim to hold dear: autonomy, independence, self-reliance, individual rights and freedoms, intelligence, and compassion.

Dawkins does not make the following argument against tolerating religion, but he would certainly agree with it: there is an implied fear of fanaticism in the special treatment given religion. One makes nice towards religion lest the religious-minded among us will become fierce warriors of God. Impugning the sanctity of religion would presumably inspire no small portion of the populace to do unpredictable & violent things in the name of the God of Love and Peace.

The difficulty with making a clean break with religion is that it has seeped into our bones. Religion, or the specific example of Christianity if preferred, consists of more than regular church attendance and lip-service to a collection of doctrines that few understand. In the Christian traditions, this includes more than belief in the Nicene Creed and membership in one of the major denominations. There are attitudes towards morality, as well as beliefs in the soul and personal immortality, among many others, to be re-considered, re-thought, and if necessary rejected.

Most troubling is the widespread belief that one can give up belief in God and the world to come, and change little if anything in beliefs concerning morality and human nature. Because religion, and Christianity in particular discourages critical refection, morality still means for most people, nominally ex-Christian, or not, Christian morality. Do animals have rights? Do unborn children have rights? Should social policies that would help the poor be part of my agenda? While none of these issues are necessarily "Christian," they all too often inspire an overweening sense of the rightness of one's own cause.

Dawkins goes very far in attacking religion and emphasizing the ethical and moral absurdities that it perpetrates. However, it is as if in giving up the Christian religion, Dawkins needs to show that he adheres nonetheless to a recognizably Christian morality and recognizes the specialness of Christian values even if he no longer believes in the world-view that under girds Christian values and morality.

Dawkins is British. One of the many curious differences between American society and British society is that American society is tormented by groups obsessing over the possibility that unborn children have rights of some kind, while British society is tormented by groups obsessing over the possibility that animals have rights of some kind. The common ground between the two obsessions is the fear of injury to members of a group that are unable to pursue its own rights. There seems to be fear, even guilt over the thought of the possibility of doing harm to the weak and the powerless. A left-over attachment from Christianity remains that one must do good and do this good for the sake of another. The good that one would do for "least of these" is the highest and greatest good.

I mistrust arguments for the welfare and ethical treatment of animals. Not because I believe that one should be cruel, or that animals are for the sole use of human beings, or some other nonsense. My mistrust is not about the animals or fetuses or the putative recipients of moral acts, but the motivations and psychology of moral human beings.

I distrust the propensity of morality to associate feelings pleasurable feelings with the actions morality inspires. There is a conflict of interest in the feelings of pleasure that come with doing a good deed: does one do the good because it is good, or does one do good because it feels good? What is missing in justifications of moral and ethical activities is a sense of caution towards one's own motives: the possibility of a very immoral use of another for the sake of a happy conscience.

In a nutshell: if a moral action gives pleasure it is suspect. This pleasure can be a feeling of certainty, the feeling of significance that comes from "making a difference" or the discovery that one can "make a difference" in the net amount of suffering in the world.

There's a neo-Kantian argument that Dawkins picked up from Singer, I believe. Essentially, certain acts are rational because not to do them would entail self-contradiction. I do not doubt that it can be proven that certain acts entail self-contradiction. My quibble is not with the arguments but I find myself left with the question: the desire for self-consistency, or if preferred lack of self-contradiction, would appear to be not so much desire for consistent rationality as fear of self-contradiction. How am I to know that I had perpetrated a self-contradiction on myself? Easy: I would feel bad. Or as I understand this argument: feelings of guilt are assumed to be so horrendous as to constitute a reason unto themselves to justify moral and ethical actions or at least to require the avoidance of immoral and unethical acts.

What lurks at the bottom of the logical and quasi-metaphysical arguments for rationality and avoiding self-consistency is the Christian belief that feelings of guilt have a reality and significance that transcends the mundane. It is still the Christian egotism that the comings and goings of moods with their ups and downs have a metaphysical significance. That the feelings of dread and uncertainty that a child has for stealing a cookie provide vital and essential clues as to the meaning and sense of human history and what it is to be human.

I doubt that I can convey how bizarre and how scandalous (to use the Apostle Paul's words) the superstitious belief that somehow feelings of guilt are bound up to the essence of existence is. That feelings of guilt offer vital clues to the riddle of existence. Having lost faith in this naive superstition, I find myself perplexed that anyone could be so egotistical, so self-centered, so neurotic as to believe bad moods must command the attention of gods, angels, and even require a gruesome mechanics of redemption.

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