On the pursuit of happiness

On this day before independence day, I am posting again a reflection from two years ago on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the insertion of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who created that document.

But the problem has always been with how happiness is attained. And in one serious respect, the suggestion that we should actively seek happiness, while laudable, may also be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don’t realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me, I just got here.”

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity — the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end.”

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, “You’re a man now.” So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Good advice.

POST SCRIPT: Mark Sanford: The Movie

Here’s the trailer.

Why people believe in god-3: What do religious people actually believe?

Apologists for ‘moderate’ religion always start by saying that they accept science, and begin with arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as virgin births or that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the same emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any religious fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. Religious scientists like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, John Lennox, and John Polkinghorne all start out arguing on a high intellectual plane, but they end up making almost the very same assertions of belief of the average churchgoer in the pew on any given Sunday.

So what do religious people actually believe? There are no simple answers. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12), Victor J. Stenger tries to pin down the philosophical foundations of people’s belief in god. But I am interested in more practical questions.

The vague “Do you believe in god” type questions that are usually asked of believers are useless because it is not clear what people believe even if they say yes. Is it the deist god Deigod or Gosh or the full-blooded, omnipotent, omniscient, miracle working Supergod or (as is most likely) some personally concocted hybrid?

So here are some questions that would help make the discussions more fruitful. I wish that the polling agencies would ask questions like these as this gives a much better picture of what people actually believe.

  1. Is god a (a) material or (b) non-material entity? (i.e., is god made up of the same kind of stuff like protons, electrons, etc. with properties like mass, charge, spin, etc. that every other thing in the universe is made up of, or is he made of something that is non-material?)
  2. Does god exist everywhere in space?
  3. Is god a sentient being like us, with thoughts and feelings?
  4. Can god change the past?
  5. Does god know the future?
  6. Does god know absolutely everything that happens every moment, including every thought of every being?
  7. Can god intervene in events whenever and wherever, to violate natural laws and change their course (i.e. perform miracles)?
  8. Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that will continue to exist in some form (perhaps reincarnated) even after you are dead?

My experience suggests that most religious people would answer the above questions as follows: 1: (b), 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: no, 5: yes, 6: yes, 7: yes, 8: yes

I also have bonus questions for those who call themselves Christians:

  1. Do you believe Jesus was totally human when he lived on the Earth, with a fully human body, with no powers or abilities not possessed by any other human?
  2. Do you believe that Jesus really died on the cross, with his body experiencing the same changes after death that any human body does?
  3. Do you believe that the same physical body then came back to life?
  4. If the answer to question #3 is ‘yes’, where is that physical body now?

I suspect that most Christians will answer: 1: yes, 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: heaven.

Of course, all these answers lead to all manner of severe contradictions, either because they are internally inconsistent or they violate basic scientific principles. For example, the idea that god took a fully human form in the shape of Jesus is central to Christian dogma. Otherwise what was the point of the whole exercise? But if Jesus is totally human, how could he perform his miracles? It is to evade this type of contradiction that religious language and concepts like ‘kenosis’ or the doctrine that Jesus is fully god and fully human are introduced, which make no consistent logical sense but can be interpreted in any way that the situation requires.

As for the second question, we know that our bodies undergo irreversible decay rapidly after death, which is why organ removal for donations must be done immediately. So if Jesus was totally human and his body decayed for three days, how did he recover the use of his organs when his body was resurrected?

There really is no way to escape these contradictions without resorting to saying that Jesus is at least on occasion Supergod.

More sophisticated religious believers know this is a problem and will try to avoid answering the questions I posed, likely retreating to an extreme form of religion-speak suggesting that we do not, and perhaps cannot, know the answers to such questions because god is so deeply mysterious that any attempt to understand his nature in any concrete way is doomed to failure. This non-answer enables them to avoid having to publicly acknowledge any contradictions while privately assigning any properties they want to god that gives them emotional satisfaction. Or they will give the answers I provided and wave away any contradictions by invoking the ‘mysterious ways clause’ that allows god to circumvent any contradictions in ways that we cannot know.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will take a stab at answering those questions so that we can get a grip on what exactly we are talking about.

POST SCRIPT: Hey, I never promised you a rose garden

God makes Jesus an offer that he thinks of refusing.

Why people believe in god-2: When good physicists get theology

All believers in an even minimally activist god face the challenge of explaining why there seems to be no evidence for his actions, and why the world seems to be understandable and explicable without postulating his existence. They cannot face up to the fact that the logical conclusion is that there is no god, and this is where the vague and cloudy language of theology comes in, trying to mask this fundamental problem.

Physicist John Polkinghorne in his book Faith, Science, and Understanding (2000) pulls the same trick as chemist Francis Collins, biologist Kenneth Miller, and mathematician John Lennox, arguing first for the possibility of a deist god (whom I have called Deigod), and then asserting without argument that this makes it rational to believe in Supergod. But Polkinghorne has a weapon that the other two don’t have. He has studied theology formally and so can dress up the same weak arguments in obscurantist language.

Polkinghorne is a highly able and respected particle physicist. He was a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society who, at the age of around fifty, gave up physics and became an ordained priest in the British Anglican Church. So he has studied both physics and theology in considerable depth. In his book he invokes the usual staple of the anthropic principle as an argument for god, which essentially suggests that the universe seems to be exquisitely fine tuned in order to allow for human life to emerge and that this suggests that it must have been designed. It is a popular argument amongst religious scientists. As Polkinghorne puts it:

The wonderful order of the world is perceived…as being a reflection of the Mind of the Creator, and the universe’s finely tuned aptness to the evolution of life is perceived as an expression of the Creator’s fruitful intent. (p. 22)

Another physicist Victor Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis has effectively demolished that anthropic argument. But that has not stopped it from being regularly advanced because it has proved very lucrative, especially recently for physicists, with the annual Templeton prize essentially rewarding those who concoct new ways to try and make science and religion compatible, and being repeatedly given to physicists who invoke variations of the anthropic principle.

Some new atheists argue that the Templeton Foundation exists essentially for this sole purpose, to use its wealth to co-opt scientists and journalists to keep on forever discussing the issue of how to find ways of reconciling science with god, thus perpetuating the idea that such a reconciliation is even conceivable. They suggest that we should fight back against the pernicious influence of the Templeton organization by not going along with this strategy and by boycotting these ‘dialogues’.

Polkinghorne also goes in to some depth about how the uncertainty principle and chaos and complexity theory, all of which introduce elements of unpredictability into the world, and thus can be postulated as the vehicles of god’s action that escape detection. He also invokes consciousness as a deep mystery that is inexplicable without reference to god. All this is to establish the possibility of existence of Gosh (the God Of the Scientific Holes).

But then he too makes the great unexplained leap to assert the existence of Supergod, and says that he actually believes that Jesus rose from the dead and performed the miracles claimed in the Bible, without making any attempt at all to explain what, if anything, the uncertainty principle or chaos or complexity theory has to do with such miraculous, macro-level science-defying events. All of these people think that allowing for the logical possibility of any god at all allows for the existence the particular god they want to believe in.

While I have criticized the books by religious scientists like chemist Francis Collins book and biologist Kenneth Miller for the faults in their reasoning, at least they both write clearly about their religious beliefs, without using the usual impenetrable theological jargon. Physicist John Polkinghorne, on the other hand, while he writes well when explaining physics, because he is also a theologian has the unfortunate ability to revert to the usual theological linguistic obscurity when discussing how god works. Here is a passage from his book:

God’s act of creation would not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, resulting from allowing a creaturely other truly to be itself, but also a divine kenosis of omniscience, arising from allowing the future to be truly open. (p. 150)

The meaning of the above passage was initially incomprehensible to me but I thought that it may be due to the fact that I was unfamiliar with the work ‘kenosis’, which is the kind of neologism that sprouts all over the place in theology. So I looked up the word in the dictionary and it means “the relinquishment of divine attributes by Jesus Christ in becoming human.” So I think that what he is saying is that when God chose to appear in the human form of Jesus, he gave up the powers of omnipotence and omniscience. But why not simply say so? What is the need for things like the “creaturely other truly to be itself”?

If he did speak more straightforwardly and people understood what he was saying, then some obvious questions would arise in their minds. People might ask how Jesus, if he was not omnipotent, could bring Lazarus back from the dead or walk on water or transform water into wine, and all the other tricks claimed for him. Or how, if he was not omniscient, he could know in advance that Peter would deny knowing him. Polkinghorne cannot help speaking obliquely because, to paraphrase taking a cue from George Orwell, religious speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible, designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Reading this kind of passage in Polkinghorne’s book brought back memories from the time when I used to indulge in this kind of metaphysical talk as part of my religious training. It is possible to convince oneself that this kind of thing makes sense, as long as one keeps it on a high abstract plane and do not demand concrete examples of what is being said. And of course, one has to want to believe that there is some sense to believing in god.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the Supergod

Maybe Jesus didn’t fully invoke the ‘divine kenosis of omnipotence’ and become a ‘creaturely other truly being itself’.