Dec 07 2009

Wishful thinking

I’ve gotten a reasonably thoughtful and articulate response to my recent blog post about morality — and I’m not merely calling this response articulate as a prelude to ripping the piece to shreds, as we see so often in the blogosphere. Granted, I think the majority of the post is wrong, resting as it does on chapter-and-verse of an unverifiable collection of stories that were put together in 325CE, but that doesn’t mean it’s not internally consistent and well-spoken. Believe me, it’s a welcome change from our usual semi-literate evangelical blog-stalker.

As an attempt to be civil I will sheathe the sarcasm, per a request for civility and dialog from @roofwoofer, the author of this response, on his month-old blog Faith, Reason & Good Sense. Many of these arguments were floating about in the back of my mind while I wrote the original post, but it’s rather difficult to bullet-proof your work against every possible line of argumentation without writing a novel-length post as a result, so I opted to stay on topic as much as possible instead of going on the wild tangents that would have been necessary to insulate against these charges. This will be lengthy, though. Fair warning.

Roofwoofer evidently once held a similar position to myself with regard to the existence of religion and its role in human development. I’m not sure if this means that he’s an ex-atheist, though if he is, I certainly hope it’s not in the Kirk Cameron style — wherein Kirk was an atheist-by-default for lack of thought in the matter (except to proclaim his atheism in a manner befitting trend-atheists), until one day he had a religious epiphany and suddenly found Jesus. I would not speculate on this point, unless Roofwoofer decides to enlighten.

He goes on to insinuate that my post is “heavily punctuated with bias and inappropriate assumptions”, citing specifically:

“some [laws] were merely built to perpetuate the religious stranglehold on the populace“, “humans are naturally disinclined to such objectively bad activities through long millenia of evolution” (oh, really?), and “as scientific experimentation identified issues with the proposed epistemologies of the religions of the time, those parts of the religion were for the first time ever questioned by their adherents” (as if the people in Jesus’ day would have needed a scientist to realize that it was impossible for someone who had been dead for some days to come back to life).

To take them one at a time, I can give several good examples of laws being built to perpetuate religious control. Take, for instance, the first four of the Ten Commandments (in the Christian numbering — as the Catholic combines 1 and 2): no other gods before me, no false idols, no using my name in vain, and keep my worship-day holy. Take also, for instance, the revision commissioned by King James to codify the Divine Right of Kings. If these are insufficient, I’d encourage you folks reading along at home to chime in with some additional examples.

As for the disinclination of humans to perpetrate objectively bad activities, while there are exceptions to every rule, this is generally true. As every individual in a population is rather unpredictable, both mentally and emotionally, they could have any number of mutations that could serve to augment or amplify any traits they might otherwise have, e.g. Hitler’s belief that he was doing God’s bidding in “bettering” the human race by the antisocial and objectively evil acts of weeding out what races he deemed detrimental to humankind, including Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. These aberrations notwithstanding, human populations with antisocial tendencies will die out when faced with competition from populations that tend toward social behaviour. With the Bible being as steeped in tribalism as it is, these facts should be self-evident.

In fact, the Ten Commandments and pretty well all the “laws” in Leviticus were codified obsessive-compulsive behaviours very likely given to improve population survival rates — and if the tribes following those commandments survived while others died out, then they would be naturally selected for during that time. So, despite these laws being conjured mostly out of third-hand information (e.g. witnessing people dying from improperly preparing shellfish, so claiming that God has placed a prohibition on all shellfish as being abomination), they had some effects in dampening natural selection — though not through any divine inspiration, but rather through sheer blind chance, coupled with something like a prototype of science (basing your rule-making directly on observation).

As for the questioning of epistemologies, I referred specifically to several that were believed at the time, but I can give an examples of Biblically derived claims about the nature of the universe that were challenged by observations. Described in the Bible is the idea that the world is a disc, resting on four pillars, and that God was far above the disc and held aloft the “firmament” like a tent over the disc of the world. On this firmament lay all the stars, and between the firmament and the disc, the moon and the sun rose and set by God’s divine command daily. Should God forget, no daylight that day, I guess. It also prophesied an immense tree in the very centre of the disc-world, visible to all extremities of the world, which would be impossible on a spheroid planet; and there’s a scene where the devil climbs a very tall mountain and can survey every kingdom of the planet.

The fact that the Bible’s description of a flat disc is directly contravened by scientific evidence is proof that the divinely inspired word of God could very easily have been written by humans and not by a God with any level of omniscience. The fact that when scientific evidence arose for, say, the heliocentric model, God’s appointed dignitaries on Earth (infallible as they are) took it upon themselves to persecute the perpetrators of such pernicious heresies suggests to me a lack of divinity in the appointed dignitaries.

And all of this is completely without touching upon the four conflicting stories of Jesus’ resurrection, whose chief evidence is that the tomb was empty when they returned to it (if the story happened at all, to begin with, an empty tomb could much more easily been a grave robber than a divine resurrection). There is no supporting evidence to suggest that this story happened, whatsoever, outside the Biblical account, and you can no more use the Bible to prove the Bible’s truth than you can use Origins of Species to prove evolution without also pointing to fossils, DNA, etc.

That I have to expend so many words defending a stream-of-consciousness that is called “bias” out of hand is a bit galling, but in fairness, if I had done so in the piece itself, it’d be ten times as long.

Moving on.

What is completely ignored in arguments like these is the fact that the sole function of scientific investigation is to determine how matter and energy generally behave.

No. Scientific investigation’s sole purpose is to filter truth from fallacy. It is the only method of objectively observing our universe — by devising experiments in such a way that others can repeat them and can examine the methodology in order to root out human bias that would inevitably creep into the process otherwise. That scientific investigation can divide how we wish the universe to be, from how it actually IS, makes it the single greatest achievement of mankind, from which all other achievements are borne thereafter. Any achievement made prior to it has all the trappings of accident in comparison.

It is tempting to extrapolate these patterns into unbreakable laws, but it is logically invalid to do so. “I have seen Mrs. Smith down the block every day for the last ten years. I have even peered into her living room windows. Every time I see her, she is fully clothed. Therefore, she is always fully clothed without exception.”

I am not sure that trying to develop theories that fit all available evidence (which is what you’re describing) is the same as writing laws. For instance, you’ve described our current theory of evolution quite well here. We have found thus far that all fossils, DNA phylogeny, geographical distribution, etc., all match up extraordinarily well in the light of the proposed theory of evolution. We’ve had to tweak Darwin’s version of the theory to eliminate Lamarckian inheritance, once we discovered DNA and the role genetics plays in inheritance, but other than the border details, the core of Darwin’s theory holds up to the evidence that has come after him quite well. Until we suddenly find Mrs. Smith takes off her clothes in broad daylight to reveal herself to be Mr. Jones (e.g., until we suddenly discover a human fossil in the pre-Cambrian layer of the fossil record), the theory that Mrs. Smith is generally clothed most of the time is sound. And if Mrs. Smith is one day discovered to remove her clothes, this is not such a huge blow to the theory of evolution, any more than us discovering a slightly different human ancestry than we’d anticipated (though people claim Ardipithecus is somehow a disproof of evolution for this exact reason — as though Mrs. Smith’s nudity suddenly disproves she is Mrs. Smith).

So how can it be intellectually honest to assume that every report of events outside of the observed pattern is false?

It is not. But the null hypothesis is that without evidence, all claims are unworthy of consideration, though the claim can cause one to perform experimentation to validate them in the absence of such evidence (e.g., in an effort to OBTAIN said evidence). If you make a claim, you, the claimant, must provide supporting evidence otherwise the claim can be equally dismissed without evidence.

By definition, a “miracle” would run counter to what is generally observed. Does this mean it cannot take place? Our understanding of the Laws of Gravity doesn’t make us any more certain than primitive peoples that a dropped object will go down and not up.

Not at all. Depending on your definition of miracle, they probably happen every day in some remote corner of our universe, as a matter of course — what you call a miracle could merely be some as-yet undiscovered law of nature. However, the claim that something that runs directly counter to nature has happened, without any evidence, can be dismissed. That a dropped object falls is not evidence of Intelligent Pushing, where God pushes things down to Earth all the time — it will happen because this universe works the way it does, whether we understand it or not. I would rather we increase our understanding of it than ascribe these phenomena to any deities.

The inhabitants of a small town where Jesus preached knew it was impossible for a man who had been a blind beggar his whole life couldn’t regain his sight by putting mud on them and then washing it off in a pool. (See Gospel of John, chapter 9) The reported stir created by such events betrays their remarkable nature. The skeptic will assume that the story could not be true and will proceed to insist on a “scientific” (i.e. non-remarkable) explanation for the story: it’s a fabrication, the man wasn’t really blind, he was hallucinating, etc. But the skeptic’s bias prevents him or her from truly objective questioning, such as “Is the possibility greater than zero that this is a true story? What evidence, for and against, can be observed? What would be the outcomes if it were true? Can I observe any of these outcomes?” And so on.

This blind beggar could indeed be cured by other means — perhaps there was some sort of curative in the mud. Perhaps the man WASN’T blind. Perhaps the man wasn’t CURED. Or, perhaps the whole event was fabricated from whole cloth — Jesus, the blind man, the inhabitants of the small town knowing of the event and being amazed, etc. The fact that there’s a non-zero possibility of the man being cured does not make the heresay any less heresay. There is a non-zero possibility that I am hung like a horse, or that I am one of a set of quintuplets, or the result of some sort of Eugenics experiment (e.g. Khan Noonian Singh), but you have only my word to go on. And if someone should find this blog post a thousand years from now, they might be inclined to believe so, just based on my word. That doesn’t make any of those three assertions true.

The assumption that we are capable of understanding everything in the universe is hard to support. In an illustration I think I first read in C.S. Lewis, my dog may think he understands what is really happening when he sees me reading my evening newspaper, but he doesn’t. The possibility that more may be going on is beyond his comprehension. Can we safely assume that no such possibility applies to us?

I’m an agnostic atheist. I believe this universe is comprehensible, given enough time and directed efforts, and I believe (like Sagan) that we are this universe’s way of knowing itself. There is nothing spiritual about that fact — we don’t know how many universes there are, or what rules they run on, or whether life is possible in all of them, but the anthropic principle says we wouldn’t be here to observe and worry about the universe if this universe were not capable of sustaining us, so who’s to say there’s anything special about us except that we live in a multiverse of very, VERY large numbers, so multiple such occurrences were bound to happen? And who’s to say that our understanding of reality is anything close to perfect, and that there is no possibility for as-yet-unexplained phenomena?

But it’s on the claimant to prove the claim. Saying that the door’s open to prove to me something is not the same as saying you have sufficient proof of such.

And finally, we wrap back around to morality…

This would be comforting to the materialist if true, as he describes the assumption of the existence of a higher power might have been to earlier generations. There’s unfortunately plenty of evidence to the contrary, witness the twisted use of good values (loyalty, desire for progress, self-sacrifice) to produce undescribable horrors in Nazi Germany.

I thank you for not dropping into the “it happened because of atheism” thing. Though I took a dig at Hitler’s Catholicism earlier, it was not to blame Catholicism for his evil. Hitler is a phenomenon unto himself — a twisted human being that was entrusted with too much power.

But I doubt that any of those “good values” were in play when Hitler decided certain elements of humanity were detrimental to humankind as a whole and needed to be purged. There’s a misplaced desire for progress, yes. But in the light of the objective good of the perpetuation of the species, harming genetic diversity the way he did is an objective evil.

He suggests that a nameless group undertake to hammer out norms of moral and just laws. I wish him luck. (The inability of most groups to come to consensus on issues of much less scope makes me pessimistic.) Forgive me if I specullate that those laws might end up looking a lot like the Ten Commandments when complete. And, in the current environment of “Don’t impose your morality on me!”, they might run into a lot of the same challenges.

I realize such a consensus would be difficult if not impossible. In fact, I’d say it’s probably wishful thinking on my part that in a world with such diverse moral systems as ours, that we could agree upon universals — for instance, I would suggest that intolerance based on religion, creed, nationality, sexuality, gender, age, or any other primary or secondary characteristic of any human being would be an outright evil, though many other moral systems explicitly code against some of these divisions. And I have no doubt that some of the commandments are good rules — e.g. don’t murder, don’t steal. But no secularly based laws would have 40% of them devoted to preventing idolatry, and in a resource-centric world one would almost certainly prohibit gluttony and theft. And my laws would probably codify willful ignorance as an outright sin.

Not that I’m accusing you of such, Roofwoofer. Far from it. But you may wish to read some of my older posts, if you’d like an overview of the arguments I’ve dealt with in the past, and what kind of person I am, both morally and intellectually. It would aid your lines of argumentation against my writings tremendously. Not to mention that you could probably catch me in some hypocrisies — we are all guilty of them.


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  1. 1

    Thank you for the excellent follow-up. I’d like to continue the discussion, since you’re dealing so intelligently and straightforwardly with the issues – very refreshing.

    You made a point in passing that I think is worth emphasizing – “. . . Hitler’s belief that he was doing God’s bidding . . .” Hitler may have been born into a Catholic family, but claiming noble principles, Christian or otherwise, is often used as an excuse for actions from completely different motivations. Not everyone who claims to be a “Christian” necessarily subscribes to genuine Christian beliefs, much less allows their actions to be influenced by them. I appreciate the fact that you leave opening for the distinction.

    A side note — Christian belief is the stream of theism I know best, but it’s not the only kind of deism. I often see atheists defending their positions with arguments against straw men such as “a personal God who has given instructions about conduct and relationships and has to be understood the way fundamentalist readers of the Bible understand him”. There are other deistic constructs, too, but I’m more interested in having an interesting discussion than trying to keep one another off balance by continually shifting the playing field. It’s always seemed to me that agnosticism is a more defensible position than atheism, because proving a negative requires such twisting and turning. I’m sure I’ll learn about both as I continue to read and discuss.

    So I’ll give your post some thought, between bouts of real life, and then write some more. Cheers.

  2. 2
    Jason Thibeault

    I should leave well enough alone until you have time to reply, but I can’t. There’s enough meat on your comment to provide me something to chew.

    Having been raised Catholic, I know the panoply of Christian beliefs better than I do, say, Islam or Judaism, and I know the three Abrahamic religions better than I do Hinduism or Buddhism. Coupled with the fact that most of the people that approach me for theological discussion are also Christian, my discussions are by necessity heavily steeped in Christian-specific iconography or beliefs. The big problem is, Christianity counts among its numbers over 33,000 splinter sects of varying sizes and belief structures, and the vast majority of them are incompatible with one another. So when one writes against the “beliefs of Christianity”, there is invariably some person out there who does not share the specific beliefs railed against. This is not the result of atheists building a strawman — this is the result of Christianity being an over-broad umbrella used so its adherents can boast of 2.3 billion followers when, really, its house is extremely divided against itself. So, I guess you’ll have to specifically define your beliefs, support them with your foundational texts, then allow me to attack your ACTUAL beliefs rather than fighting “the last war” against previous zealots’ arguments.

    I have little problem with deists, people that believe the universe is God and worship the universe as such; and I have little problem with Buddhists, people who believe it’s possible to achieve enlightenment in this universe without any need for gods of any sort (as Buddhism is an atheistic religion). I do have a problem with people making unsupported claims about their specific deity when there’s precious little proof of such.

    The whole Hitler argument is a nonsequiteur. One has to take him at his word that he believed in God and thought he was doing God’s bidding. That he committed atrocities does not reflect on other people that believe in God, any more than reflecting poorly on other people named Adolf, or other people with stupid mustaches. Likewise, that Stalin or Pol Pot were atheist does not reflect on the atrocities they committed in setting up secular monotheisms with themselves as deity. So, I do have to take issue with the “not a true Scotsman” argument that Hitler could profess to believe in the Catholic God but somehow not be a good Christian, and yet Stalin somehow reflects poorly on atheism. If you can say Hitler wasn’t a true Scotsman, I can say, neither was Stalin. So, since you say that I do not assign blame for Hitler to religion (and I don’t), we can safely drop that line of argumentation without further ado.

    Also, I have to take issue with your use of “agnosticism” as some middle-of-the-road, milquetoast, “third way”. There is not a single axis on which atheism and theism lies at either point, and agnosticism in the middle. There are two axes, as I described in an earlier post. Agnosticism is the belief that it is not possible to know of a deity’s existence with any degree of certainty. Gnosticism is the belief that it IS possible to know 100% for sure whether a specific deity exists or not. Atheism is a lack of belief in any specific deity or deities. Theism is a belief in a specific deity or deities. If you are certain Yahweh exists, then you are a gnostic theist. If you are pretty sure some god exists, but maybe aren’t sure WHICH, or how to PROVE such, then you are an agnostic theist. If you believe no gods exist and are certain of it, you are a gnostic atheist.

    If you leave the door open that crack that something beyond this universe could exist, and is responsible for its existence, and could be classified as a deity, but you don’t believe such a creature exists because no credible direct evidence for it has ever been presented, then you are an agnostic atheist. This is the most morally and intellectually defensible position, it is the closest to the scientific null hypothesis, and it is the one I hold. Simply saying “I dunno whether I believe or not” is not a defensible position of agnosticism, and “true agnosticism” is nothing more than being noncommittal on the topic. It is not defensible to simply take no position, to halfheartedly pray “just in case” but doubt anyone’s listening.

    Either you believe there is “something more than this universe”, or you do not. Gnosticism exists as a separate and unique axis of belief to theism, and serves only to modify your position on the theist/atheist axis.

  3. 3

    I am totally stuck trying to finish a paper (the last big deal of the semester!!!), so I really don’t have time right now for a very reasonable response. When I can actually get to it, it will probably actually work out as the final post in that trio I started early this semester. I will try to before then, but it may be a week from Friday before I get to it.

    I realize such a consensus would be difficult if not impossible. In fact, I’d say it’s probably wishful thinking on my part that in a world with such diverse moral systems as ours, that we could agree upon universals — for instance, I would suggest that intolerance based on religion, creed, nationality, sexuality, gender, age, or any other primary or secondary characteristic of any human being would be an outright evil, though many other moral systems explicitly code against some of these divisions. And I have no doubt that some of the commandments are good rules — e.g. don’t murder, don’t steal. But no secularly based laws would have 40% of them devoted to preventing idolatry, and in a resource-centric world one would almost certainly prohibit gluttony and theft. And my laws would probably codify willful ignorance as an outright sin.

    The problem that this raises and the problem I have with all of these notions of developing axiomatic moral laws, is that they reduce the effectiveness of moral framing. There is, as many people have pointed out, a study going on to discover the evolutionary foundations of morality. I think it is important to point out that a lot of the people involved in this do not believe that this is going to lead to moral axioms. And it is no less a reasonable study, if all that is discovered is the reasons moral framing was selected for.

    The problem with axiomatic models for morality, is that they fail to effectively govern the actions of the individual. Religion based universal frames are dependent on the faith of the individual and their acceptance of their faith. A secular based universal moral frame is unlikely to be any more effective, possibly less, given their is no external enforcement (existent or not, gods are a legitimate external enforcement mechanism). But when people start out being raised within an ethical framework and add to that their life experience, they will naturally develop a moral frame that will make a very effective governor for their behavior.

    I have no issues whatever, with the notion of developing some sort of “humanist code of reasonable conduct,” or somesuch. Hell, I would be down for developing several. But when it comes down to governing an individual’s behavior, where external enforcement mechanisms simply do not apply, a personal moral frame is going to be most effective.

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    Dude, I realize you’re busy, and I appreciate you spending time to poke holes in my writing, but I do kind of feel bad if I’m a distraction from your school work. Nice thing is, part of my motivation for the original “morality” post was your essay on Kant.

    You’re right that secular “humanist codes of reasonable conduct” offer no stick to match the carrot of good behaviour… so my wishful thinking is probably doubly so. For us to agree on anything as far as a code of conduct, would be wonderful, but ultimately useless if it’s not agreed-upon and adhered-to. Sooo… where do we go from here? CAN we go anywhere from here, or is it a pipe dream?

  5. 5

    I am finally free – more or less. I have finals still, but they will be easy. So I am back – I am working on another post at the moment, one about ridiculous fucking tropes we cram down kids throats, because they were crammed down ours. Then I need to hit on drugs and children a little more, before I get back to morality.

    I think it is important to recognize that while there is no carrot, that doesn’t make it useless.

    For the most part, the work is done. The biggies are ones that many of us agree on already. The minutiae are going to be things that some people will differ on – there will be picking and choosing (for example, I believe that sexual repression is immoral). Multiple lists are useful, because they give people ideas – a lot like religions do now. These sorts of conduct discussions are far more useful than religious dogma, for the simple reason that they are not dogma.

    The thing is, we do not develop our moral frames in a vacuum. We need input and having frames that can describe things that other people believe can be exceedingly useful in the development of one’s personal moral frame. How much fucking greater than the examples of teh past – theistic, dogmatic and rigid frames – would it be to have frameworks that gave you a side by side comparison of contradictory values?

    Seriously – I know that sounds strange, but why should someone be told just my position on sexuality? Why not see the moral and ethical views of a dozen people? Why not see arguments supporting those views and make choices based on a reasoned decision making process? We have had millenia of dogmatic fucking bullshit. What the fuck is the point of not accepting theism, if all we’re going to do is replace it with more fucking dogma?

    Look at it this way. There are few enough people who wouldn’t accept a baseline of very basic social contract – just what we must mostly agree on, to functionally have a society. That is plenty enough to work with and plenty enough to mostly have in common. From there it is easy enough to talk about what our personal values are and why they are. Not to convert others to our personal views, not to argue why others are wrong – only to support our own views. And only on things that we personally believe are really important to us – central to our core values and things that are simply important to us. If we don’t have a strong view on something, why clutter up the works with something that we can’t really pour ourselves into justifying?

    I think a lot of people really want to complicate things way too fucking much. People who are hell bent on developing systems of dogma can go fuck themselves. I have absolutely no desire to be religious again, even if the religion is secular in nature.

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