Saturday, August 1, 2009

The soul of Francis Collins

Soon-to-be NIH director Francis Collins believes in souls and miracles

President Obama has nominated Francis Collins to be the next director of the NIH. Since the NIH is by far the largest funder of biomedical research in the US, (and the world), this will make Collins the leading voice and leading policymaker in this area of research and in medicine generally. Collins is an excellent researcher, and a top-notch administrator and politician. He will do well at the NIH, and 97.2% of his decisions will be good for the agency and the country.

However, there are a few looming problems. Collins holds the philosophical position (which I will refer to as compatibilism; also related to Stephen Gould's NOMA) that science and religion do not (or at least do not have to) conflict. He has been loudly vocal in his faith in Jesus, and in the compatibility of miracles, resurrections, and other articles of faith with the scientific corpus. A staunch defender of evolutionary theory, Collins sees no problem with the idea that human moral traits were specially implanted by god, rather than a product of the rough-and-tumble of .. well, evolution. Well versed in physics, he also believes that the total lack of contemporary miracles fails to impeach the fundamental violation of physical law that Biblical miracles represent. For, if one leads by faith, then all things are possible and god would, a priori, have no difficulty suspending physical law for the resurrection of his son or the multiplication of fishes and loaves.

The Stanford review put it this way, after a talk Collins gave on campus: "After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul. God used DNA as an information molecule; thus DNA is the language of God."

Collins is not alone in this position, of course. The National Academy of Science takes an official compatibilist position as well- that while evolution (among other theories) is absolutely, categorically, true, there are many scientists who find a way to have faith and think scientifically as well. Perhaps not at the same time, but definitely in the same brain. This is politically astute, even imperative, though it involves the Academy in adjudicating between more or less literal faiths, a position of some delicacy, not to say incoherence.

However incoherent, it would be harmless enough if it were not passed off as the promising reconciliation of faith and reason the West has been awaiting for a millenium. But so it is, and with the funding of one of leading religious philanthropies in the US- the Templeton foundation- Collins has founded a website and organization called Biologos to spread this gospel of compatibilism. As an effort against biblical literalism and fundamentalism, it is certainly positive. But quite a bit of Biblical literalism remains behind in a cherry-picked mix of the holy and the profane.

The Templeton foundation is based on a pile of money left by the mutual fund pioneer John Templeton, in order to strengthen religion in the US and worldwide. Their current motto is "Supporting science, investing in the big questions". How do they support science? They fund an annual prize given to the scientist they believe best supports religion (which they term "spiritual reality"), or to the most long-winded philosopher who works to denigrate science (e.g. Charles Taylor).

The foundation funds conferences devoted to bordeline science and religion ("Water of Life"- a two-day symposium to explore the gap between the investigation of fine-tuning in physics and cosmology with the investigation of fine-tuning in chemistry and biochemistry; "Spirit in the World"- The Dynamics of Pentecostal Growth and Experience; "Evolvability" The Evolution Of Evolution Conference , which dealt with limitations of evolutionary theory).

The foundation also grants money to people and organizations far and wide susceptible to compatibilist theology (Princeton Theological Seminary awarded "Science for Ministry" grant; Forgiveness Illuminated: Forgiveness, Resiliency and Survivorship Among Holocaust Survivors; "Science of Virtue" University of Chicago scholars will use two-fold definition of science to better understand human virtue; "Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health" Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.)

Templeton's project seems basically one of giving megaphones to the small slice of the scientific community that is willing to mix religion with science, and with their money subborn scientists, journalists, and scientific institutions to propagate a compatibilist theology that does not bear close examination on either theological or scientific grounds. Its work is far more subtle than that of the Discovery Institute, which explicitly declares science to be the enemy of religion, to be denegrated through a "wedge" strategy of politicization, sophistry, and culture war.

The Templeton fundation does good work in many fields. It even does some honest science funding, like of a study of intercessionary prayer that found (and published) zero effect from such prayer on the health of heart patients. It exhibits strong internal tensions between supporting what its staff knows to be theologically true, and supporting science that finds what is actually true. Their internal tension is reflected in their public face and effects, muddying the boundaries between rigorous intellect and faith. To me it seems somewhat dangerous for one of the nation's leading scientists to be in bed with such an organization, entangled both financially and philosophically with its questionable methods and aims.

Collins has promised to be "minimally involved" with Biologos- to step down from its board and not speak on its behalf when he is director of the NIH. But his wife is and will remain on the board. And Collins himself is clearly in the running for one of those rich Templeton prizes for the reconciliation of religion and science. His voice in science policy and ethics will be weakened by this association and by his conflicting attitudes in general, as onlookers suspect firstly that his thought process is not entirely sound, and secondly that ulterior motives may be at play in some kinds of decisions. In his book, Collins declared that the origin of his belief lay in a mystical experience of seeing three waterfalls in a frozen state. He puts it in an interview:

"I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it -- also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth -- that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief."

On the other hand, with most of the nation sharing his faith, he may have greater influence than otherwise on societal ethical and medical issues. The quality of his influence, however, depends on his positions being well thought-out and based on knowledge and reason, which is undermined by this underlying philosophy.

The science of the NIH is largely well-insulated from the whims of the director, except for some pet projects/initiatives (the NIH even hosts a congressionally-mandated institute of alternative and complementary medicine). Extensive layers of peer review will continue to direct money to the best research, judged on social and scientific merit. The current time is a golden age of biomedical research in many fields, including genetics, evolution, social science, and neuroscience.

One of the ironies of this appointment is that neuroscience is steadily chipping away at the idea that the mind is due to anything other than the brain- that supernatural entities such as "souls" are needed to explain the wonder of consciousness. Likewise, our moral senses are being ever more firmly situated in inborn traits and quantitative evolutionary origins that belie a special qualitative status for humans, let alone require the intervention of dieties for their implantation. Perhaps Collins will preside over a research enterprise that will do away for good with some of his most cherished, if wrong-headed, sentiments.

  • An alternate view of the Templeton foundation's work, from the inside.
  • Outstanding set of podcasts on Beethoven's symphonies
  • Cash for clunkers- obviously, the government could have gained far more environmental benefit for its (our) money.
  • Health care status quo, anyone?

35 comments:

  1. I can understand your trepidation at someone with religious beliefs being in the charge of the NIH. It always made me a bit wary knowing that an evangelical Christian was the president.

    But if the scientific method is not in question, and peer-reviewed studies and all that are the order of business , then don't any differences just come down to values? And couldn't your values be different from anyone else's, be they religious or not? What will the NIH put its energies behind? Isn't that the question of concern?

    The NIH is concerned with the physical world at hand. If Collins' position is a "naturalism +" position, as I interpret Reitan's to be (for the most part), then the "+" should not come in to play. If we argue that the "+" could affect values, then we get in to interesting territory, as a naturalistic position is not necessarily prescriptive in that area. Is the concern more that holding the door open to "+" could affect judgement interpreting data? But if so, doesn't the compatabalist position respect interpreting "materialist" data in the context of the "material" world?

    Interesting stuff.

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  2. Hi, Steve-

    Yes, this post was a delicate affair. Many people (most) seem to do just fine believing in fairies and miracles at the same time that they deal with their real-world situations with due reason and attentiveness. I don't entirely know how they do it, but it happens. I am sure the same is true for Collins. My problem is firstly the poor example he sets for intellect in this area, and secondly exactly about the values you mention.

    If he has fallen on his knees and given his life for Christ, that is like someone being on the payroll of Halliburton and being appointed to a government job. It is a conflicting interest. I don't want to get into religious discrimination, so I certainly wouldn't want any law made about it, but as a matter of my personal view and logic, it seems to be a basic conflict of interest to have such a strong prejudicial commitment that theologically has ramifications on his value judgements and on his reasoning more broadly. Thus when he speaks on issues that will come out of the NIH on issues like abortion, use of human embryos for research, and social science research about many touchy subjects, he is going to be viewed as having an agenda that is formed by this background and not necessarily be taking a neutral stance.

    What is a neutral stance? Good question.. there is none, I suppose. But insofar as a modern analysis of morals rests on sensitivity to the human condition combined with reasoned projections about how to arrange our lives and social systems to make that condition as thoroughly happy and elevated as possible, (i.e. humanism), being beholden to theologies of two millennia ago can lead to very problematic results, however tortuous the reconciliation process with reality as we recognize it in the modern are has been. We see just such problems all over the middle east, with theologies that are, admittedly, quite a bit more primitive than that which Collins holds. And my quote of the month points to the same issue.

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  3. I love how you are worried about the prejudicial views of others, but I'm sure would have no problem if an atheist/philosophical naturalist would have been appointed to the same position; oh, but that’s right, they are neutral and only base their views on the “facts.” In light of our last several exchanges on my blog, this is hilarious. So you are able to make the same critique of Collins that I make of you...interesting. Everyone is prejudicial except you. Wow.

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  4. Hi, Darrell-

    Always happy to provide entertainment! I don't deny being prejudiced. All we can do is try to argue as rationally as we can, trying to get as close to truth as possible. I wouldn't want anyone heading the NIH who wears a big agenda on their sleave. One of our finest directors, Harold Varmus, didn't have these kinds of divided loyalties. I wouldn't want Sam Harris leading the NIH either, even less so than Collins.

    More deeply, I am trying to make the point that the best moral basis is the humanistic one. Yesterday I was listening to a podcast featuring a debate between a Calvinist and an Arminian about predestination, free will, grace, TULIP, and all the rest. What complete idiocy. To think that this kind of theology (or any kind) renders anyone more gifted in moral guidance is an insult. Morals follow from good will, and if religion can inspire people to exhibit good will, then that is great. But any kind of spiritual pursuit, broadly construed, including taking a hike or enjoying a concert, can do the same. You bring up important points with love and beauty. They are natural emotions that engender good will and good morals, and don't need alot of hellfire or complicated theology to do so.

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  5. Well, I don't know what Calvinism and Arminianism has to do with any of this but they are no more idiotic than scientism. Anyway, I love how you posit that morals follow from "good" will. What is good? For the materialist, there is no such thing, at bottom. Good could be “bad” and bad could be “good” according to your world-view. There are only choices on a level plane, none higher or lower than another. You have said yourself that such categories are simply "better illusions." The will-to-power is all one is left if he starts with your presuppositions. Back to the issue at hand, frankly you have come extremely close to denying being prejudicial. You have stated that your views are based upon a neutral objective view of the facts alone (like simply noting at what temperature water boils), while Christians and theists all allow their faith to color their (get in the way) view of the facts. You don't like it when this same charge is brought against you, but there it is. All this is a result of the modern/postmodern divide. At some point you should address it.

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  6. Hi, Darrell-

    Back to the issue at hand, frankly you have come extremely close to denying being prejudicial. You have stated that your views are based upon a neutral objective view of the facts alone (like simply noting at what temperature water boils), while Christians and theists all allow their faith to color their (get in the way) view of the facts.

    Yes- this is well-put. Any productive discussion depends on working to escape one's own preconceptions by 1. taking in and understanding the views of the other party, and 2. learning and using empirical evidence (facts), and 3. using reason in a dispassionate way to evaluate one's own views and of the other person. So my ideal is to escape prejudice, though it remains out of reach, generally.

    Escaping prejudice is difficult, and lies at the heart of robust methods of finding truth, like the scholastic disputation, the lawyerly adversarial method, and the scientific method. Criticism is central to the process. That is why we are both born critics!

    Anyhow, there are some methods that do succeed in escaping prejudice, and one is, in some instances, the scientific method. When it has achieved thoroughly criticized and explicit models of reality, (best rendered in mathematical form), then it can achieve quasi-objective status.

    All this takes lots of work- I would never say that facts just drop into our laps. But one of the issues where quasi-objective status has been achieved is the laws of physics, which describe great regularities applying ever since the big bang. They prohibit perpetual motiona machines, spontaneous generation of matter and energy, and at the same time, supernatural impingements on this world that would take the same character of introduced information/energy/matter.

    Set against this set of "facts" are the contrary facts of theism- that we are spontaneously superstitious and believe from infancy in unseen agents affecting our lives. That similar thoughts were recorded in ancient times and even attributed directly to such beings (or to their prophets/messengers, who were ascribed varying levels of divinity). That each culture has its own versions of such superstitions perpetually used in political ways to tell members of the culture what to do, especially to buttress patriarchies of the most retrograde character.

    I would urge you to lay it all out like this, in explicit fashion, and weigh the logic and evidence involved. We clearly differ about which tradition we grant more weight, but there must be some glimmer of appreciation on your side of the rigor by which modern physics describes the properties of the existing universe, (encompassing its last 13 billion years), which tells us that all the counter-physical miracles of myth, lore, and embellished history are clearly impossible.

    Which is, of course, precisely why they were conjured in the first place- to excite wonder and awe. You can recognize their success and artistry without falling for them yourself.

    There.. none of this has much to do with the modern-postmodern divide. That is just a smoke screen. Sure- we have work to do to interpret the world in all its complexity. But we don't have to re-do that work perpetually from scratch, day after day, do we?

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  7. Oh, and the "Good could be “bad” and bad could be “good” according to your world-view." issue. I think I have been quite clear on this. I stake good on human feelings and reason- we decide what is good and bad, which accounts for how these change through time and how they are political issues always in contention.

    If a society puts one person in charge, (a king, say), then it puts itself at the mercy of that person's conception of what is good. In an unenlightened case, that might be rampant pillaging and hundreds of concubines (as so exalted in the old testament, in the reigns of the classic Jewish kings). Or with someone more enlightened, it might mean running a vibrant economy from which he can skim consisitently high taxes (profits).

    This obviously does not always serve what most people view as optimally good, and so if they (the mass of people) gather the power to overthrow such rule, they may institute a system that pays attention to what they view as good, such as majority views on most issues, combined with safeguards on minority rights with respect to issues susceptible to trampling by momentary mass hysteria (i.e. mob rule) or political corruption.

    The definition of good is what we feel is good. It is as simple as that. If most people are military romantics, then we would have wars with each other and feel well-served in lives well-lived. That was the condition of ancient Greece, from what I understand. If most people fall under the spell of messianic eschatology, waiting for a kingdom that never comes, then they may neglect the affairs of this world, retard economic, intellectual, and technical development, and call that a golden age of idealism and spirituality. I wouldn't call that good, but others do.

    Humanism just puts the criterion of good where it should be- on what most people want to have flourishing lives, however they themselves choose to conceive that. In this world. Obviously this is not the only criterion of good, but to me it seems to be the best and most rational.

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  8. Are your last two responses serious? Are you joking? I mean do you think all the Christians and theists involved in the sciences, over the centuries and presently, are unaware of physics or the scientific method? Given that the historical narrative reveals we don’t even get modern science without the Christian world-view, your response is baffling to say the least. And postmodernism is here to stay and the logical positivists, secular fundamentalists, and the worshipers of scientism have been defanged because of it. You need to get out more. Besides, from these responses, it is clear you do not have a grasp of the postmodern critique—you simply have a caricature—a straw-man to address. One of these days you should actually engage the critique in “explicit fashion” and not the straw-man.

    And I love this: “The definition of good is what we feel is good.” The Marquis de Sade couldn’t have said it better himself, or any despot, tyrant, or gangster of history. If one goes down to the roughest parts of San Francisco or Oakland, he will find the same definition. Putting aside the actual seriousness engendered when one thinks of what has happened historically when a people or nation has adopted such a view of the good (Some Nazi guards thought it “felt” good to gas Jews), on a more shallow level this is the definition a college frat house might come up with.

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  9. Darryl,

    I think that you may view good as "something beyond what feels good" because it feels good to you.

    The Buddhist view, which is essentially utilitarian, may be of interest to you. And they preach compassion like it's going out of style.

    I do find the post-modern ideas quite interesting, but I don't feel they are presented with any clarity in your comments.

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  10. Steven,
    I would disagree. My view of the "good" is based upon an objective person (Jesus Christ), his life, and all that springs from that life. I might "feel" like not loving my neighbor, but still know I "should" love my neighbor no matter how I might be "feeling" at the moment. No matter what you think about Jesus or Christianity, whether true or false, I do have something outside of myself (objective) to base my idea of the "good" upon. The Buddhist view that all is an illusion probably creates a problem for science to develop (from a materialist/atheist perspective anyway)and they do preach compassion but at the same time seem completely resigned to the suffering of others. I don't see much there as to how we discern the "good." As to postmodernism, it is very difficult in a comment box or even with one post to present with a lot of clarity something as deep and wide as postmodernity. I would suggest you check these links out to start:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/#2

    http://www.amazon.com/Whos-Afraid-Postmodernism-Foucault-Postmodern/dp/080102918X/ref=sr_1_2?
    ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249659638&sr=8-2

    http://www.phil.unt.edu/faculty/bios/Frodeman-GeoReasoning.pdf

    I would especially be interested in what you think about Frodeman's paper.

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  11. Burk,

    I've been enjoying debating with you at 52blogs so I thought I'd check out your blog. I'm looking forward to reading more and hopefully I'll have time to comment further in the future, if you don't mind.

    Darrell,

    You make an excellent point that without an objective source, there is no way to ground morality. You might enjoy the discussion at http://52blogstochrist.blogspot.com/. Feel free to join in!

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  12. Darrel,

    Thanks for the links. I would certainly like to check them out if time allows.

    I think that our use of “feel good” is meaning different things. There is immediate pleasure vs. pain for sure (not “feeling” like loving your neighbor in a certain moment). But in dealing with a system of morality we’re talking more about a sense of existential contentment, a satisfaction with our view of self. Every system of morality, despite its origin, involves sacrificing immediate pleasure for a better pay-off in the long term, especially in the forms mentioned above.

    As far as an objective source of morality, let’s remember than any “objective” source outside ourselves has been judged and accepted by whom? By ourselves. Our own subjective point of view is what leads us to accept any objective standard, and we all have objective standards that we have accepted.

    So if this is the case, then how can we judge the “good”? By its utility. Surely a Christian believes that his/her way of life is the best kind to live. In the same way, an atheist, who has come to different conclusions about religion, will construct a system of morality based on its utility (putting aside all of our psychological issues which cause us to stumble from our paths on occasion).

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  13. I meant

    (putting aside for now THE VERY REALY phenomena of our psychological issues....)

    I meant putting it aside since it's not relevant to the current argument

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  14. Hi, Darrell-

    First the one site says:

    As Lyotard notes, “Lamenting the ‘loss of meaning’ in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative” (Lyotard 1984, 26).

    Then Frodeman says that geology is essentially a narrative mode of science, not to say hemeneutical in a recursive narrative. Which is it? Is geology not knowledge? I would submit that the stanford site above makes a valiant effort to describe a system that resolves ultimately into a pile of gibberish. I can't make sense of it. Note that Frodeman, for his part, makes no mention of Lyotard, or of postmodernism. Please help us out.

    Indeed, if you say.. "Oh, this is far too complex for me to explain in a blog comment", and point us to a site of such vacuity, I would suggest that you do not know what you are talking about. Clarity (and brevity) of expression is a sign of clarity of thought.

    Perhaps what you yearn for is a philosophically labeled set of sentiments that allow you freedom to believe otherwise incredible things without the need to apply reason or current standards of evidence- you know, post-enlightenment standards, the same ones that brought us higher criticism and deeper historical understanding. You might enjoy a book along that latter line by Borg and Crossan, The First Paul. It has a few words to say about substitutionary atonement, among other items.

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  15. Oh- my comments on the Stanford site apply only to the #2 section on Lyotard that you pointed to. How much sense the rest of the page makes I don't have time to deal with and don't know.

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  16. Steven,

    You assume a utilitarian view of morality, which is founded in some metaphysical view of the world and humanity. It still requires a sense of what the “good” is or to what end utility should reach. It is entirely utilitarian for a hungry man to overpower an old woman for her purse so he can buy some food. Once you begin to tell us why such a utilitarian action is “wrong” you will have stumbled into a view of the “good” that is no longer utilitarian.

    “As far as an objective source of morality, let’s remember than any “objective” source outside ourselves has been judged and accepted by whom? By ourselves. Our own subjective point of view is what leads us to accept any objective standard, and we all have objective standards that we have accepted.”

    I was addressing Burk’s comment that, “The definition of good is what we feel is good.” His meaning is that we create our own morality, whether individually or communally. My point was that without an objective standard outside ourselves, whether individually or communally, we might create anything—and why would it matter what we created? We might create the Nazis state and build ovens or we might not. At bottom, if these are only neutral choices, then why gloss any one choice with the word “morality’? You say we all have “objective” standards, but Burk is not saying we have “objective” standards. He is saying, since there are no objective standards in the realm of morality and ethics, we have to create them ourselves. Do you see that difference?

    Of course we subjectively have to evaluate objective standards; no one is saying otherwise. The Christian world-view is that I might subjectively hate the idea of loving my neighbor or my enemy, but I can also subjectively put aside my own “feelings” and adhere to an objective standard (Jesus; the Bible; the oral tradition) that impinges on my freedom and “feeling” to hate. I can be otherwise than what I “feel” at any given moment, even if following my “feeling” at that moment might have the most utility in fulfilling my desire to hate.

    “So if this is the case, then how can we judge the “good”? By its utility. Surely a Christian believes that his/her way of life is the best kind to live.”

    Jesus Christ was murdered because of his life and words. Is that the best kind of life? Utility presumes to know an end or telos, but its end is entirely selfish. What is the best utility? What end? What goal? If my own personal happiness is my only goal, then why live sacrificially? Why care about others? I really can’t think of a more selfish philosophy than utilitarianism. All one needs is to read the Sermon on the Mount to disabuse himself of the notion that Christians believe their way of live is the best to live because of its “utility.”

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  17. “It is entirely utilitarian for a hungry man to overpower an old woman for her purse so he can buy some food. Once you begin to tell us why such a utilitarian action is “wrong” you will have stumbled into a view of the “good” that is no longer utilitarian.”

    Darrell, thanks for the great discussion. I agree that we must all make “metaphysical” assumptions to create our morality. But a hungry man choosing not to overpower the old woman is also utilitarian. A Buddhist would say that the hungry man would derive greater positive feedback from acting compassionately towards the old woman, rather than from stealing from her.

    “its end is entirely selfish”
    According to your view of “selfish”, is the Christian way of life not “selfish” as well? Isn’t it about putting off an immediate pleasure now to attain greater happiness in heaven? Or if you interpret heaven more metaphorically, it’s about putting off immediate pleasure to create more overall mental happiness. This comes from practicing compassion, realizing many of the illusions of “separate self”, and fostering a mental self-identity that creates more contentment than being subservient to every passing impulse our human mind creates.

    Why would Jesus ask his followers to “turn the other cheek” if it was truly, permanently detrimental to them? He would be an abusive teacher.

    “I can be otherwise than what I “feel” at any given moment, even if following my “feeling” at that moment might have the most utility in fulfilling my desire to hate.”

    I agree with the first part of your statement. We are not our feelings. We experience our feelings. But as to the second part of your statement, surely you feel that following Christ offers you greater utility than hating your neighbor. If not, then why do you do it? Any answer you present to this question will demonstrate the greater utility that you seek.

    The Eastern view, and I believe ultimately the Christian view, is that we must do what creates the most happiness for ourselves. But the second and equal part of this is that we are all connected, and there ultimately is no separate self. If you are harmed, then I am harmed. This is a much more powerful morality than seeing others as truly separate people whom you must be subservient to, for little tangible benefit.

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  18. Darrell,

    Sorry, I re-read your post and saw that I forgot to address the idea that we "create our own objective" views.

    I think that we do. Of course we draw on tendencies that are not within our power - biology, exposure to memes, facts, etc. but we make the decision - at least from our own point of view (Burk may disagree here)

    The key is that we are blessed and/or cursed to live in the world that our mind creates.

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  19. Burk,

    Lyotard is noting that inherent in the modern world-view, is the idea that knowledge is compartmentalized and reduced to isolated “facts” and bits of information, which is no longer subsumed under a larger narrative to give a holistic meaning to the whole. Frodeman is telling us to move beyond the reduction of geological knowledge to isolated “facts” supposedly viewed from a neutral objective place, and to begin viewing geology as a narrative (post-modern) mode of science. What is hard about that? By the way, in Frodeman’s paper his speaking of the “analytical” can be read as modern and his speaking of the “continental” can be read as postmodern.

    I’m sure the philosophers at Stanford University would love to hear that their site is vacuous, and this coming from someone who holds up the likes of Stephan Hoeller as a person we should take seriously. That is pretty rich.

    Your argument seems to be, “You know what’s wrong? Everything I don’t understand.” Burk, you’re a big boy; I’m not going to hold your hand and breast feed you this stuff. Do some work. Go to a library. Read a book. Take some classes. A conversation like this takes some background knowledge. Do you have some specific questions about postmodernism? I can try and answer them in a post on my own blog. In the mean time, here are some further resources (which I have read along with many others; so, in fact, I think I do know what I’m talking about to some extent):

    I would especially suggest reading the first two chapters of this book:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=gBTTKIqz5mEC&dq=what+is+postmodernism&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=mjukKivig6&sig=Asc_2wi6yaoiJPBaA0VnqtHYuZ8&hl=en&ei=td19SoX7A4uuswOrq6HuCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    http://www.amazon.com/Primer-Postmodernism-Stanley-J-Grenz/dp/0802808646/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1249761287&sr=8-3

    http://www.amazon.com/Postmodernism-101-Course-Curious-Christian/dp/158743153X/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&qid=1249761287&sr=8-12

    http://www.amazon.com/What-Would-Jesus-Deconstruct-Postmodernism/dp/0801031362/ref=sr_1_20?ie=UTF8&qid=1249761713&sr=8-20

    http://www.amazon.com/How-Postmodernism-Serves-Faith-Questioning/dp/0830827587/ref=sr_1_46?ie=UTF8&qid=1249761876&sr=8-46

    http://www.amazon.com/Derrida-Essays-University-Church-Politics/dp/0802864074/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1249761976&sr=8-1

    http://www.amazon.com/After-Modernity-Secularity-Globalization-Re-enchantment/dp/1602580685/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1249761976&sr=8-4

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  20. Steve- Thanks for your lucid comments on morality. I am pretty much in agreement.

    Darrell- Thanks for doing a bit more to explain the Lyotardian position. I think what Frodeman is saying is that geologists already do integrate facts into larger narratives. That is the whole point of making narratives. The quest is to continue deepening and grounding the narrative as more contact is made with the real world- in the various observations that geologists do, in constuctive interaction with the theories they bring to those observations. That is the hermeneutical circle, and I have no problem with his description of it.

    Thus Frodeman was not urging some new direction to geology, but viewing what is currently going on through the somewhat more complex lens of continental philosophy. Narrative is firmly there. So what Lyotard has to say about all this remains quite mysterious. Are you taking him to mean that without god, geology is lacking a holistic narrative? Or that geology, despite what it might want to say about it, is a fractured and un-holistic science? Or that sciences such as geology may be coherent on their own, but without something like god, the culture can not make use of them or make sense out of them? I remain perplexed.

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  21. Steve,

    First you write, “…we all have objective standards that we have accepted.” And then, in response to whether we have an objective standard to base our morality upon or whether we subjectively create our own morality, you write, “Sorry, I re-read your post and saw that I forgot to address the idea that we "create our own objective" views. I think that we do.”

    Then it is not being objective—and that is the whole point. You can’t tell a judge you didn’t obey the objective posted speed limit because you decided to create your “objective” speed limit that happened to be 25 miles-an-hour over the posted objective limit. The whole point of being objective is to base your actions upon something that could possibly be something you disagree with. The other idea associated with being objective is we expect judges to be objective and rule by the laws created for them; we certainly wouldn’t think they were objective if they said, “I’m going to put that all aside and rule this other way because I subjectively just don’t like that law.” Further, you did not create Buddha and I did not create Jesus Christ. They are objective standards. You are confusing apples and oranges. It is a contradiction of terms to write we “create our own objective standards.” I think you are saying we create our own morality, period. If so, then it is not objective—it is your own personal, private, subjective projection of what you feel is good.

    My question then is how do you criticize someone who does the exact same thing (creates their own morality), but comes to the opposite conclusion? Why are they wrong and you right? The Nazis and the Soviets were being very utilitarian: Why were they wrong? Let’s say they win. Let’s say you are alive at the time but have made it to safety on a deserted island. They do not know you are there, but you have a radio and know what’s going on and they basically take over the world. As you sit there, how are they wrong? They made some calculations. They thought their actions would be best for themselves and even the world. Tell us why they are wrong if they win.

    The only way you can legitimately criticize someone else is if you have an objective standard outside of both persons, and to do that you must have some bar, some standard, something you can appeal to, something you are basing your idea of the “good” upon. Otherwise, the two of you are simply asserting your own will-to-power. Secondly, without an objective standard, whoever wins that battle was just being a good utilitarian. Is that really the world you want? A utilitarian can never criticize the winner, even if the “winner” is the most evil person on the planet. If someone (or a group) sought the best for themselves, their own happiness over all others, and reached the goal they were after (no matter the goal!), then how do you criticize them?

    “But as to the second part of your statement, surely you feel that following Christ offers you greater utility than hating your neighbor. If not, then why do you do it? Any answer you present to this question will demonstrate the greater utility that you seek.”

    No, it doesn’t because you have not defined “utility.” Besides, Christ offers no utility or advantage. The love spoken of in the New Testament is the opposite of utility. I guess a love that seeks no advantage or utility is hard for some to understand and yet, there it is.

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  22. Burk,

    It is hard to see how one could so mis-read a paper. No one has said he was urging some “new” direction in geology. He was saying we need to adopt a new philosophical approach to geology, because the older model fails in important ways. He is contrasting two different philosophical models, one modern (analytical) and the other postmodern (continental). You, and Steve to some extent, hold to the analytical model. He is pointing out the problems with that view and why the continental is better. He is saying much the same thing I’ve been saying in the whole series of comments having to do with the modern/postmodern divide. He clearly is taking the postmodern side. What you and Steve need to justify is your continued use of an analytical approach when here with Frodeman and in many, many other places it has been subverted and shown to fail.

    Further, just to make another point about postmodernity: The whole point is that Christianity is a narrative but so also is the modern/enlightenment/secular model of viewing the world—they are both narratives. And what Frodeman is saying could be applied to biology and any other science. When Lyotard said postmodernism was “incredulity toward meta-narratives,” he was speaking of the modern/enlightenment/secular meta-narrative. He would also say the same about Christianity, but it was one of the first times (other Christian philosophers and theologians had already pointed this out) a secular philosopher noted the narrative nature of the modern. It is a story, a myth, told to make sense of the world. Its power is not in its discovery of some “fact” or piece of “evidence;” its power is in its articulation or explication of new knowledge where we are told a story that goes something like this: “Once upon a time, people, being primitive and ignorant, didn’t know that lightening was a purely physical phenomenon and thought it was judgments being thrown by god, but now we know…” and other such myths.

    Steve, I would still like to hear your thoughts about Frodeman’s paper.

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  23. “Is that really the world you want?”

    Darrell, you hit the nail on the head here. We all create the world we “want”, even if that world requires quite a bit of difficulty to achieve. We all have standards, that we subjectively decide on, that use to decide our views.

    You are correct that I was not clear in how I defined “objective”. We all subjectively decide what is right, through our personal experience and a study of other people’s personal experience. When I said, “we all have objective standards”, I meant that we all have standards, arrived at subjectively, that we will try to hold others to. How do we justify this? By utility. It is the only reason.

    I think most Christians would object to the idea that love, as exhibited by Christ, has no utility. I think the implication of this claim is that Christianity is a religion created to perpetuate unhappiness and misery, forever and ever. Is this really your opinion of Christianity?

    Perhaps my definition of “utility” is not very good. I am not a trained philosopher. Perhaps we should replace it with “happiness.”

    I think I understand where you are coming from. Often times the “greater good” does not offer instant satisfaction (your apparent definition of “utility”) - of course this depends on one’s perspective.

    “Tell us why they (Nazis) are wrong if they win.”

    Good point. Once again it comes down to the arguments above. Your argument seems to be an appeal to supernatural authority and power - which supersedes our personal views. But what if the commands of God appear evil to us? What if God commanded us to kill our children? ( like he commanded Abraham to do, like he killed almost all of humanity’s children with the flood). Do we just go along, even though it may violate our personal sense of goodness, as derived from our study and personal experience?

    So your argument is one from “will to power” as well - except that it is from your interpretation of God. Isn’t this correct?

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  24. Hi, Darrell-

    I agree with much of what you say. Yet it is not clear how sweeping an issue this is with respect to our discussion. Frodeman offers a model of geological narrative that is more sophisticated than the naive analytical perspective. That does not destabilize geology, but clarifies a bit how it is anchored in an ongoing process of model building, or narrative making, depending on what terms one wants to use. I do not think that Frodeman makes the claim that the key points of the Continental program are any more true than those of the Analytical program. Each are false in some respects.

    The 200 year history of Continental Philosophy can be seen as a series of attempts to invent or define other ways of knowing (e.g., dialectics, phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism).

    Have all these approaches been correct? No, far from. Do some of them have something to contribute to a narrative of how geology proceeds? Yes, as do Analytical approaches as well. Frodeman is taking a synthetic approach.

    Geology only partially lives up to the classic model of scientific reasoning. But rather than viewing geology as somehow a lesser or derivative science, I have argued that geological reasoning provides an outstanding model of an- other type of scientific reasoning based in the techniques of hermeneutics and those of the historical sciences. Geology is a preeminent example of a synthetic science, combining a variety of logical techniques in the solution of its problems.

    In the end, logical techniques (in all their diversity) remain at the center of this process and of reasoned discussion in general, and that is just what I am deploying, instead of avoiding.

    As for Lyotard, pointing out that modernity and the enlightenment are narratives does not make them wrong. If the most hard of hard sciences are narratives as well, (as I would freely stipulate, saying that mathematics is a particularly rigorous form of narrative), then being a narrative does not by itself say anything about its truth value, usefulness, etc.- about its content. We are incapable of harboring conceptions without narrative, right or wrong.

    I would like to see you contest the idea that we are less ignorant now than we were in the past.

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  25. Burk,

    If you agree the analytical model is naive, why are you still using it? How can you not read Frodeman's description of that model, without recognizing your own commitment to that model? Further, it still sounds as if you do not understand what it means for the modern view to admit that world-view is a function of narrative. The modern understanding of itself is that its own view is NOT a narrative, a story, but is simply the accumulation of facts through science, reason, and logic, from a neutral objective place (outside narrative). The power of postmodernism is its revealing (unveiling) that the modern is a meta-narrative like any other. As more is unpacked, more and more philosophers are noting that the secular is a faith (evolution is its creation myth), like any other religion. As to the ignorant part, given the 20th Century, I would say we have more knowledge, but we are less wise. My point about the mythic part is the so-called "progress" that is part of the modern myth. Beyond that, I still don't think you quite get the postmodern critique, but you are getting closer simply by recognizing the narrative nature (meta-narrative) of world-views, including your own. What you probably don’t understand though, is that to admit as much is to say your view is a faith. Welcome to postmodernity.

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  26. Hi, Darrell-

    You may be interested in this quote from Frodeman:

    Narrative is often dismissed as a vague and literary form of knowledge lacking in the logical rigor and evidential support appropriate to the ‘‘hard’’ sciences. But this begs the question of whether narrative has a logic or rigor of its own and whether scientific explanation itself is dependent on narrative logic. Continental philosophers have argued that these two types of knowing are integrally related to and complement one another. In Time and Narrative, Paul Ricoeur (1985; see also Ricoeur, 1987) claims that narrative is our most basic way of making sense of experience.

    I think you may be making the very same error as those he refers to here. You seem to think that narrative form means problematic content. That is not true at all. Could you explain how you, Lyotard, or others further destabilize the scientific corpus as to somehow render it meaningless, or a "faith"? I'll grant that it is certainly not Empyrean pure truth, being a human product, etc, etc. But the basic point is that narratives can be of widely varying content and truth-value.

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  27. Steve, you write:

    “Darrell, you hit the nail on the head here. We all create the world we “want”, even if that world requires quite a bit of difficulty to achieve. We all have standards, that we subjectively decide on, that use to decide our views.”

    You are begging the question. Whether we create the world we want is what you have to demonstrate rather than simply assert. Again, I did not create Jesus Christ and you did not create Buddha. We do have standards, but how do we justify them beyond saying “because this is what I like.” Some people like to torture other people, so whose standards do we go with? If the torturers of the world win (or if the Utilitarians of the world are the only ones left standing), how do you criticize them?

    “You are correct that I was not clear in how I defined “objective”. We all subjectively decide what is right, through our personal experience and a study of other people’s personal experience. When I said, “we all have objective standards”, I meant that we all have standards, arrived at subjectively, that we will try to hold others to. How do we justify this? By utility. It is the only reason.”

    Again, you are begging the question. You have to tell us why “utility” is the only reason. And if you do have standards outside yourself to appeal to, then that becomes an objective souce. You are confusing the issue to then say we “subjectively” decide to agree with the objective standard. That has nothing to do with the issue of those who believe we subjectively create our own morality and those who believe we agree or disagree with an objective source (God, Spirit, transcendence, ancestors) of morality. Please don’t confuse these two completely different issues. Of course we have to “subjectively” agree, although the better word would be “personally” agree, but that changes nothing regarding the very opposite matters of whether we are creating our own morality or agreeing with an objective outside (outside my will and mind) source for morality.

    “I think most Christians would object to the idea that love, as exhibited by Christ, has no utility. I think the implication of this claim is that Christianity is a religion created to perpetuate unhappiness and misery, forever and ever. Is this really your opinion of Christianity?”

    I don’t understand this answer. How does noting that a love that is beyond simply being “useful” for us, in other words something appropriated selfishly, means somehow Christianity is about unhappiness and misery? That doesn’t even follow by any logic I can think of. The first definition of “utility” in most dictionaries is usefulness. If you do mean happiness, then perhaps our happiness is best served by not being selfish, which seems to be the way you are using the word “utility” as something that has to benefit us in some way. What if love involves a mystery that escapes your calculation of utility, which by the way is an entirely modern way (Utilitarianism) of viewing ethics and morality. Again, this falls under the modern/postmodern divide. Have you checked into the problems many philosophers have brought against the view? http://books.google.com/books?id=QNkf593-8KUC&pg=PA104&lpg=PA104&dq=criticism+against+utilitarianism&source=bl&ots=ys9nco0p8x&sig=PCCo-Z8nHUUPUxI6MiD_bJYm1zM&hl=en&ei=YJN_SpCmD5SksgPHxqzvCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8#v=onepage&q=criticism%20against%20utilitarianism&f=false
    (Continued)

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  28. “Tell us why they (Nazis) are wrong if they win.” (Darrell)

    “Good point. Once again it comes down to the arguments above. Your argument seems to be an appeal to supernatural authority and power - which supersedes our personal views. But what if the commands of God appear evil to us? What if God commanded us to kill our children? ( like he commanded Abraham to do, like he killed almost all of humanity’s children with the flood). Do we just go along, even though it may violate our personal sense of goodness, as derived from our study and personal experience?”

    Wait, forgive me, but I don’t see from the arguments above how you have explained how the Nazis are wrong if they win. Further, you have said yourself we make up our morals, so what appears “evil” to you (killing children) perhaps (based upon your own reasoning) is not evil to others. Remember, you have said these are just subjective choices we make up ourselves. Who are you to call someone else’s actions “evil”? In fact, since there is no objective bar or standard outside ourselves to appeal to, how do you even know what “evil” is? Do you see the problem you create? Or perhaps above you did admit to an objective standard—I frankly can’t tell because you keep confusing the subjective choosing with the source of the morality.

    “So your argument is one from “will to power” as well - except that it is from your interpretation of God. Isn’t this correct?”

    No, exactly wrong. Will-to-power is about two subjective persons making up their own morality and imposing it upon the other through power, because “God is dead” and there is no objective source of morality (Nietzsche). The Christian is not appealing to his own will. I did not create Jesus Christ. I did not write the Bible. I did not create the Jewish people or their history. If I say we ought to love our enemies because Christ so commanded, I am not appealing to my own feelings about the matter. Also, the very ethos of the Christian life is the opposite of Will-to-Power. Again, check out the Sermon on the Mount. What you have to address is that your view demands that the Will-to-Power be the fundamental grounding of ethics and morality—or more accurately an anti-ethics and anti-morality, because it destroys the very nature and purpose of those terms.

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  29. Burk,

    Wow. You really don't understand what is going on here. I completely agree with Frodeman's quote. Almost everything you write is in disagreement with that quote. I am all for narrative. That is the postmodern understanding. A narrative understanding should be read as a postmodern understanding. It is the analytical school that doesn't believe in narrative. What are you talking about? Froedman is criticizing the analytical model...that is your model. Tell us why you still use it.

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  30. "Will-to-power is about two subjective persons making up their own morality and imposing it upon the other through power,"

    I think we misunderstand each other here. I suggested that God's own authority is based on will-to-power. According to your view, as I see it, the human view of good should be based on God, because he is powerful, not because we find him, naturally, to be good. If God commanded Joshua to commit infanticide, then that was good. If I think my inner moral compass (derived from biology and chosen metaphysical perspectives based on their ultimate utility) tell me that it's wrong - then I cannot trust this. Joshua would have been wrong to not slash up children with his sword, since God told him to do it. Anything God does is good, even if it looks evil (but didn't Paul tell us to test the spirits?)

    I find it impossible to argue a through ethics through naturalism, but it is a great contributing factor, since it helps us see some of our tendencies (preservation of life and community, for instance) which have evolved in us over years and years.

    I could say to a Nazi "you are wrong, as dictated by God in the Bible," but if he did not believe the Bible, this would simply not be true for him. I can appeal to his morality based on utility. " you are wrong, since your way of life will ultimately lead to more personal suffering for yourself." It may or may not work. We will have to hope that the Allies are always slightly stronger than the Nazis! Besides, if they hadn't been, perhaps we'd all be anti-semites today - a scary thought, but possible.

    Also, if a person is skeptical of divine authority revealed in Scripture, then they would see believers subjecting themselves to the human authors' "will-to-power" through the written persuasion presented by those authors. Even if you are a believer, imagine a person who simply does not find the evidence for Scriptural authority to be impressive enough. Now how will that person construct a morality?

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  31. Hi, Darrell-

    I believe you are making some logical and factual errors:

    1. Continental and analytical philosophy are not oppsites where one has to be wrong if the other is right. Both have a variety of approaches, many of which are not very good. To use tools from one does not mean to nullify the other.

    2. If one strand of Continental philosophy happens to be useful in describing geology, that does not mean that Continental philosophy as a whole is "correct". Frodeman certainly did not drag in Lyotard, Derrida, not to mention the marxists, French feminists, etc. or do anything to validate them.

    3. I certainly have not aligned myself with any one school. You have noted my affinities to logical positivism and analytical traditions, but for myself, I am only interested in what works and makes sense. I even am willing to change my mind if needed. Frodeman's treatment makes a good deal of sense.

    4. Frodeman comes not to bury geology, but to praise it. If he shared your agenda of claiming that geology was just another "faith", ungrounded and with "evidence" no better than scripture, he would have taken quite a different approach. As it is, he takes a couple of tools from the Continental toolchest, adding them to the analytical approaches to come up with a more nuanced view of knowledge generation.

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  32. Steve,

    Thank you for your comments.

    "According to your view, as I see it, the human view of good should be based on God, because he is powerful, not because we find him, naturally, to be good."

    No, that is not my view; I do not hold to the Divine-Command Theory. First though, you presume to know what "good" is, but from what? I would like to know from what place or location philosophically you are able to judge God. Wouldn't you have to be a god, to judge God? You become the judge and God becomes the person standing before your bench in the court room. But this is impossible (from a Christian world-view). You indeed have the free-will (something that doesn't exist by-the-way from a philosophical-naturalist perspective) to deny, agree, or disagree with God (the Bible, the Church, Christians) but I can't see how you are able to discern the "good" from within alone. You are unable to tell us why something is "good" beyond your own subjective feelings about it, which means it could be someone else's "bad." To be honest, you should really just say we make choices, fundamentally neither "good" nor "bad" just different. However, when you do that, you cannot criticize anyone at a fundamental level, including the Nazis or North Koreans. They were just different. Basically the criticism boils down to they like white wine, I like red. With your view, one could never be a Martin Luther King calling people to adhere to a fundamental level of justice. Do you realize one could probably make a pretty strong case for slavery from a utilitarian view-point?

    The Christian belief is that the “good” and love are not actions/projections/decisions of God located in the will or power, but that God is good and God is love; God is the very essence of those qualities and they are inseparable in any sense from who God is. Of course, one would have has to go back to the arguments given during the Middle Ages by Ockham and Duns Scotus to unravel much of this, which I don’t have the time here to do, but the Eastern Orthodox have a much better grasp of this than Protestants.

    Anyway, I think I will have to leave it here for now. I would like to hear from you regarding Frodeman's paper and your own investigation of postmodernism.

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  33. Burk,

    I am holding out for number 3, (although "what works and makes sense" sums up the analytical tradition!--they thought anyway) As to the rest, keep working. Number 4 shows you still don't quite get it, but again, number 3 gives us all hope.

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  34. HI Darrell

    A couple of questions (assuming a traditional, Western view of God):

    Let’s assume there is a God. Why listen to what He says?

    Now let’s assume there is no God. But we’re still here. How then do we define right and wrong for ourselves?


    Ultimately you are right with the idea that the universe dictates no inherent sense of right and wrong. In the Nazi case, I can try to convince a Nazi that greater happiness lies in compassion, rather than in persecuting a minority. If I cannot convince him of this, then I would just do what I could to stop his actions which disagree with my morality. This is not very different than, say, if you could not convince the Nazi of your religious views.

    How do we decide on morality? Through our personal experience and through studying the personal experiences of others. If someone disagrees, then there is no benefit in labeling it evil. For instance, Buddhists tend to label hate as “unhelpful”. I find that this is the only way to strongly disagree with someone, yet not to be overly judgmental. Without throwing “evil” around, we question people’s judgement instead of their motivations, and I believe this puts us closer to Christ’s words about loving our enemies.

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  35. Hi, Im from Australia.

    Please check out this radical critique of what is usually called religion in 2009--and always was.

    http://www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/truth-religion.aspx

    Plus a reference on "creation" stories.

    http://www.dabase.org/creamyth.htm

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