The poverty, perversity, and pointlessness of purpose

Ok, one more post on purpose, and then I’ll be done (for a while at least). There’s all kinds of nice, alliterative lessons we can learn from looking at the Bad Catholic’s post regarding purpose. For example, after suggesting that we develop leukemia and then watch a family member die, in order to appreciate how hard it is to “be content without … answers, meaning, or purpose,” he then goes on to state this:

CLAIM 1: Suffering is the result of sin. … When we sin against others — when we steal from them, malign their names, or harm their bodies — we cause them suffering. When we sin against our nature — when we isolate ourselves, or demean our bodies — we cause our selves suffering. Suffering is the result of sin.

Behold the poverty of purpose. It’s fine to notice that yes, we can cause each other to suffer, but what about suffering that’s not caused by people? Blaming the victim is such a poor excuse, don’t you think? Why did you get leukemia? Because you deserved it, you sinner. Why did your three-year-old develop a brain tumor and waste away over the course of the next 18-months before finally dying? Because you (and/or your baby) deserved it, you sinners. And guess what? No matter what you do, Christianity is going to find something you do that it calls a sin. You can’t say, “I’ll just stop sinning, and then I won’t suffer any more.” Blaming the victim is intellectually impoverished: it neither knows nor cares what the actual, material causes of your suffering are, and it provides you with nothing you can use to reduce or avoid such suffering. All it gives you is an extra load of guilt on top of your suffering. Thanks a ton.

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The paradox of purpose

In my last post, I looked at the problem of purpose: when you say that suffering has a divine purpose, you create confusion as to whether or not it’s ok to oppose that suffering, since doing so risks opposing God. But there are other problems as well. Today I’d like to look at the paradox of purpose (hey this is starting to sound like a 3-point alliteration sermon!).

The thing about purpose is that it necessarily involves a person who (a) has a choice and (b) knows the consequences of that choice. If I accidentally fall off a very tall bridge, there’s no point in asking me what my purpose is in accelerating downwards at a rate of 32 ft/sec2. I have no purpose in doing so, because I have no choice. Likewise if I dial the wrong number and wake up a stranger in the middle of the night, it’s meaningless to ask me what my purpose was in waking them up. Yes, I did deliberately dial the number, not knowing it was wrong, but I did not realize that my actions would have that consequence. Waking the stranger was something I did not do on purpose.

That’s important, because it means that whenever do you have a legitimate purpose for something, it means you necessarily bear the moral responsibility for what happens. You had a choice, you knew the consequences, you knew the alternatives, and you deliberately made the choice that you knew would create the suffering. Otherwise, it’s not really purpose.

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The problem of purpose

I want to continue looking at the Bad Catholic’s post at Patheos because there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. Like this introduction:

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

If some natural, secular purpose could be granted to the man suffering, then his pain would cease to be suffering and begin to be useful pain.

He goes on to compare the young athlete’s muscular aches and pains, endured for the sake of fitness, with the inescapable aches and pains of old age, as an example of useful pain versus pointless suffering. In order to be suffering, he says, suffering “requires the lack of a natural, secular answer.” And by “answer” he means “a good reason”—some overriding benefit good enough to justify the means used to achieve it.

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Meanwhile, over at Patheos

I stopped by the Patheos web site to see how some of my former FtB co-bloggers were doing (they seem to be doing well, I’m pleased to say), and I spotted this post, under the heading, “Answer This, Atheists!” The blogger’s name is Marc, his blog is called “Bad Catholic” (great name), and the full title of his actual post is “An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out” (not so great name). He introduces his subject with the following preface.

Between being told that Christianity is a system of oppression, a complex way to justify burning with hatred over the existence of gay people, and a general failure of the human intellect, I begin to suspect that few people know why Christians exist at all. This is my attempt to explain why I am a Christian.

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

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How do we know?

Picking up where we left off yesterday, we’ve seen that Pastor Stephen Feinstein would be ill-advised to propose that there are any material preconditions for the universe, “reasonable standards,” and epistemology. That which exists in the same form at all points in time is necessarily uncaused and uncausable, since there’s no point in time where it was not already what it is now, and therefore no opportunity for it to be changed from “non-existent” to “existing.” The laws of physics, the laws of logic and reason, the fundamental material aspects of the space-time continuum, and so on, are all uncreatable and have no material preconditions.

That leaves logical preconditions, i.e. the relationship between A and B that allows us to say B cannot be true if A is false, and thus if B is true then we know A must be true also. Given that there is no possibility that the universe, “reasonable standards” and epistemology could have supernatural causes, can we nevertheless reason our way from B (the universe, reasonable standards, and epistemology) back to some A that must also be true? Can we, in other words, find Pastor Stephen’s logical preconditions for the existence of the universe, reason, and epistemology?

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Causes, creations and preconditions

I’ve been following Russell Glasser’s online discussion with Pastor Stephen Feinstein, in which the latter claims that he can prove that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.” By mutual agreement, it’s a public discussion between just those two parties, but I can’t resist the temptation to supply a little offside commentary, because it looks like Pastor Stephen has made a misstep already, in only his second post.

It is not good enough for me to say, “Russell, I agree with you that this world is real, that we learn from the senses, that reasonable standards are necessary, and that bald assertion fails to prove anything.” By the way, I agree with you on all of these things, but with one revision. However, I want us to account for these things. What are the necessary preconditions of this universe, as we know it? Why are we able to rely on our senses? What are the necessary preconditions for our senses to be reliable? Why must there be reasonable standards? What are the necessary preconditions for any standards at all that avoids the hopelessness of relativity? Epistemology will help us construct workable lists of what things are necessary in order to make these assumptions of ours a reality. Furthermore, we cannot even take epistemology for granted, but must ask what are the necessary preconditions of it too? And at the end of the day, atheism cannot provide for these necessary preconditions.

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Gospel Disproof #51: No good arguments for God

I’m going to piggyback off an excellent post by The Uncredible Hallq on the topic of whether there are any good arguments for God. You often hear Christian apologists protest that, when you disprove Apologetic Argument X, you still have not disproved the existence of God, because you haven’t addressed Apologetic Argument Y (and when you address Y, then they’ll claim you need to address Z, etc. etc.). All the apologist has to do is keep drawing one more line in the sand, indefinitely, in order to claim that the skeptic has failed to cross the right one.

Despite this ingenious exercise in goalpost-moving, though, the nature of the arguments themselves is enough to establish the fact that there are no good (i.e. valid and reliable) arguments for the existence of a deity like the Christian God.

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The rich or the wise?

One thing I’ve noticed in connection with climate debates is that in any dispute between the rich and the intelligent, most people tend to side with the rich. And now that I think about it, that seems to be true in general. It doesn’t matter if you’re a greedy, dishonest bastard, or if you hurt people below you on your mad rush to the top. If you’re rich, people not only like you better, they’re also more likely to assume that what you say is true—even when you’re promoting an agenda that’s going to hurt a lot of the people who believe you.

Health care reform is another example. You can be smart, you can be well educated, you can sit down and actually read the text of the Affordable Care Act and see that nowhere does it make any provision for setting up a “death panel” to deny Grandma her badly-needed medical care. But if you’re rich, and conservative, that doesn’t matter. You can tell people they’re going to have death panels, and people will believe you even when they can read the law for themselves and see that you are lying. You’ve got a ton of money, so obviously you must know what you’re talking about.

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Primitive Creationism

One thing I think Ken Ham and Kent Hovind do rather well is to remind us how primitive young-earth creationism really is. They know, even without looking at any evidence, that the primitive God of Genesis 1 and 2 hasn’t got a chance of coming up with anything as advanced as our modern, scientific understanding of biology. Being a primitive invention Himself, He is limited to using only the techniques available to the imagination of unscientific and illiterate people.

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Bearding the lion

A long time ago, I heard a story about how young men in ancient times would prove their courage and manhood by sneaking up to the den of a lion, giving the lion’s beard a good sharp tug, and then running away without harming the lion. If I remember correctly, the bravest of the young men would do this without even bringing any weapons for self defense. The whole point of the exercise was to prove how bravely you could face a superior foe, and (ideally) to show that you were fast enough and agile enough to escape unscathed from such an encounter.

I can’t help but think that similar bravado lies behind creationists who try to take on people like Aron Ra, even though they’re going to get eaten alive, metaphorically speaking.