Saturday, December 5, 2009

Truth is overrated

"Convictions are greater enemies of truth than lies" -Nietzsche

As the car talk guys say, do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

As an exponent of the new atheism, I was intrigued by a recent piece by the pro-religion reporter at NPR, Barbara Hagarty, describing a "schism" in the atheist community (nudge nudge, wink wink). Apparently atheists are divided on how strident to be- whether to tell believers in religion, psychic phenomena, and all spiritualisms conventional and unconventional that they are wrong, wrong, wrong, or perhaps rather to stay in the closet, or else to suggest ecumenically that everyone has some "truth" to contribute to the "conversation".

I tend to be on the strident side, concluding after long exposure to religious claims, dabbling in various traditions, and scientific training, that, well, however well-meaning, it is all a load of bunk. But whether to tell everyone this good news is a matter of temperament, of political expediency, and also of basic philosophy- how valuable is truth, anyhow? Aren't lies sometimes better?

As a scientific type, I value truth above all things, by temperament and training. Yet how reasonable is that? Truth serves many useful functions, helping us survive, helping us know ourselves, others, and the world. But truth changes over time, and every person has his or her own version of it, sometimes diametrically opposed to that of others. In religion, this problem is particularly acute, with evangelicals as sure of their truth as atheists are of theirs. If each of us value only truth, then all will immolate each other in proselytizing fervor, particularly if the true message happens to include a dollop of evangelism, whether by insistently spreading the "good news" or by the sword as in Islam.

Another value has to take precedence, and that value is love, or at least communal regard for our fellow humans, however deluded. Truth has its place, but surely, no atheist wants to follow the example of the church in burning heretics for their own good in the hereafter, or Muslims in their early practice of killing infidels for sport and plunder, otherwise known as jihad. Nor do contemporary religionists in our fair land, excepting perhaps the far-out Major Hassans and left-behinders.

That is the essence of our cosmopolitan civilization- that while philosophy (love of truth) is an abiding pursuit and jewel of cultivation, the most important object of cultivation is our regard and love for each other, without which quests for truth can't happen. Thus cosmopolitanism (citizenship in the cosmos) seems a worthy successor to a long line of ethical traditions: Tribalism, Eye-for-an-eye-ism, Christianity, humanism, eco-ism et al.


~~~~~ Bonus post! ~~~~~~


"Freedom and not servitude is the cure of anarchy; as religion, and not atheism, is the true remedy for superstition." - Edmund Burke

I was deeply intrigued by this quote, and thought it might make a brief blog topic. Burke seems to be appealing to the golden mean, where too much freedom is anarchy, too little is servitude. All of which was so starkly demonstrated to him in the dramatic course of the French Revolution. In similar manner, religion is a little superstition, while atheism is none. This connects with other quotes of his, that "Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.", and conversely, "Man is by his constitution a religious animal; atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts."

The context of the top quote, in a speech about those upstart colonies across the Atlantic, is all about governance, not religion. So the simile of religion was a throwaway comparison in this instance. Yet it is surely a very common sentiment across all cultures. Catholicism, Islam, and other organized religions serve to domesticate and civilize the basic human superstitious impulses which suspect hidden powers at work behind every manifestation. Likewise, much of the horror of colonialization across the Americas and elsewhere involved the destruction of indiginous spiritual traditions, some of which declined to such sad depths as ghost dancing or drowning in a sea of alcoholism.

From an atheist perspective, indeed from most perspectives, superstition is not a good thing, no matter whether in small or large amounts, so Burke's basic comparison is not quite right. The golden mean between anarchy and totalitarianism surely is institutionalized self-government as exampled by the English parliamentary institutions. Whether that can be called "freedom" is another matter, but it seems the best practical approximation, affording as much freedom as possible, in addition to the necessity of well-regulated government.

On the other hand, where is the golden mean between superstition and no superstition? If man is indeed a religious, superstitous animal, then some accomodation may have to be a made, much as we accommodate our many other frailties, without holding them up as ideals. Eating is necessary, but we don't make it a matter of philosophical hairsplitting or organized belief with truth claims about its wonderfulness, sanctity, and relations with a divine gourmand.

That, perhaps, is the crux of the response to atheism, that it turns a supercilious eye on one of our most personal, unrepentant, and inexcusable weaknesses, which makes those under its gaze decry atheists for meanness, inability to experience great things and deep emotions, and the like.

  • Topical interview with Frank Schaeffer on truth vs comity (towards the end).
  • Wonderful article on the genetics, potentials, and risks of gifted children.
  • Hot show on KCRW
  • Nice meditation on being and seeking goodness. No need for theology at all, really, just an appreciation and cultivation of our better natures.
  • But we don't want our brains to fall out, do we, Mr. Huckabee?
  • Blog I am starting to follow.. on cranky, er, stimulating, contrarian, and liberal economics.

29 comments:

  1. I enjoyed both posts tremendously! The first is one of the best I have read - I have often thought that we must value compassion over anything - of course to say we value it over truth is sticky business - perhaps over fact is a better way to say it? (Big T) Truth vs. truth. Are you familiar with Alan Watts' lectures? Some great things to say in the spirit of what you are writing.

    One interpretation I could take (because I am not the devil, but definitely his advocate) is that your first post refutes your second. That a belief in compassion could possibly be called a form of superstition - just in that it is based on a type of prescriptive faith. That is not to say however, that there are no good reasons for believing in compassion, of course there are, so in that sense it's not superstitious. But the definite reasons are ones of results (we must help each other to survive) rather than a priori assertions (we really ARE all one!). ( I believe the latter, but wouldn't label it a definite reason, I suppose.)

    so in this vein, a more conservative religious person could make claims along the same line as in "I believe this because of the positive effects it has". Of course, few religious people would argue this way as it argues from the Spirit and real results of their faith rather than the details (names, places, times, dogma, etc.)

    But it's interesting to think of what makes good reasons, and where the buck ultimately stops as we seek backwards to the origins of our belief systems.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Of course, few religious people would argue this way as it argues from the Spirit and real results of their faith rather than the details (names, places, times, dogma, etc.)"

    My own comment probably refutes itself as "superstition" is something we believe for inadequate reasons. The originating Spirit of a system may have good reasons, while the details (dogma) do not. But what if a person thinks the Spirit is supported by the details? Rather than the other way?

    Perhaps superstition is valuing divine validation (power) over Goodness as validated by personal experience. I think many questions come down to goodness vs. power.

    Enough fuzzy thinking for now. thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi, Steven, and thanks!

    The reason I used "truth" over "fact" was that religious claims of truth are so common, typically without facts.

    I was aware of the tension between the first and second pieces. But I was not saying in the first that we should hide truth under a bushel, (or that we should conflate the values like compassion with truth), only that when a conflict arises between the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of comity and compassion, the second should win out. Does the mere expression of one's truth constitute an affront and offence? That certainly is possible, but I'd rather draw the line at something more serious like making war on unbelievers or establishing one's truth as a state religion, rather than being held hostage by the insult-ability/sensitivity of sectarians.


    "I think many questions come down to goodness vs. power."

    Yes indeed- "knowledge is power"- is a common slogan, as is that history is written by the victors, and that economic/social/religious ideologies serve those in power. So "truth" has intimate relations with power.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Nice meditation on being and seeking goodness. No need for theology at all, really, just an appreciation and cultivation of our better natures."

    I think you have misunderstood Eric's post. The entire post arises from a "theology." A way of viewing God and a way of thinking about our experience of that God. You may want to re-read it, especially since you display most of the logical positivist mistakes in your over-all approach (world-view), which he obviously disagrees with not only in this post but all his others as well. Indeed, what are you talking about?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for your comment. I'll agree that Eric is pursuing his own notions of theology. But note this quote:

    "But to say that God cannot be imagined is not to say that God cannot be thought or conceptualized in any way. It is, rather, to say that God cannot be univocally conceptualized through depiction. If God is conceptualized at all, it will be in terms of non-empirical concepts."

    This contradicts his discussion above of Hume and the bounded-ness of our imagination to empirical concepts. I mean- isn't imagination free enough? Do we have to free ourselves even from that rather unbounded realm to "trans-imagine" god? The result is nonsensical. Eric is trying to have his cake (concepts beyond comprehension) and eat it too (have a theology he can hang ethics on, hang god on, etc.).

    So my conclusion/comment was that if we were honest with ourselves, we would just recognize spiritual feelings as feelings, continue to search honestly for their origin with all the technical and other tools at our disposal, and not try to embroider them with either imaginative or trans-imaginative so-called "content".

    ReplyDelete
  6. "So my conclusion/comment was that if we were honest with ourselves, we would just recognize spiritual feelings as feelings, continue to search honestly for their origin with all the technical and other tools at our disposal"

    I totally agree. Except I hate the word "just".


    " and not try to embroider them with either imaginative or trans-imaginative so-called "content".

    The transition from pure experience to communicating about it will always involve embroidery. Language is embroidery. I understand where you are coming from though - it's the initial Spirit vs. the details.

    Some may argue that the embroidery of myth comes closer to the original Spirit than trying to "dry" it up as much as possible. I tend to agree with this. But of course, then it opens the door to worshiping the myth instead of what it points at.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Steven, well said. As the Vendantic Hindu texts remind us, when pointing at the night sky, we must be careful not to confuse our finger with the moon.
    Burk, nice post! I'm still mulling it over... hopefully I'll have time to get back to it later this week.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "This contradicts his discussion above of Hume and the bounded-ness of our imagination to empirical concepts."

    It contradicts nothing he wrote. His point was that Hume was wrong. I still think your decription of his post to be inaccurate at best.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Guilty as charged. In a few words, I was trying to communicate my own attitude towards his post, as well as give a link, and recommend it. I disavow any representation, implication, or intention to represent its contents fairly and comprehensively.

    But I should say that while he differs with Hume in some respects (the validity of trans-imaginational concepts), he draws on Hume for the basic premise that our imaginations are limited and might not be the best way to approach such an enormous concepts as deities, good and bad.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Just a final comment in passing-noting the quote at the beginning: "Convictions are greater enemies of truth than lies" -Nietzsche

    Since this statement itself is, clearly, a "conviction" it also becomes the greater enemy if we are to believe Nietzsche and thus it contradicts itself. Indeed, this might sum up the problem with the entire post in the sense that even the "conviction" that love should trump truth must still have some basis beyond an assertion from power. Otherwise, the opposite conclusion, if asserted by the more powerful, would become the "true" one whatever that word "true" might mean now. So, back to the assertion of the post: Is such a conviction "true"? If so, why? Especially, why is it "true" from a materialistic naturalist view? The post reveals the naturalistic dilemma: To believe there are things actually good, beautiful, and true (in other words, objectively, not just because the powerful say such things are so from a subjective personal opinion) one must believe in lies; or, he has to believe the majority of humans from recorded history up to the present have believed these lies and that somehow (Wow, aren't I special-which probably explains, by the way, the evangelistic spirit of the New Atheism) he has escaped this delusion. The other problem with the post is that it assumes the modern fact/value distinction, which frankly can no longer simply be assumed. Of course, one could go on and on...

    ReplyDelete
  11. Darrell,

    Every system of thought can be exposed as self-refuting. For instance your belief in objective "values" comes from your own subjective opinion. We all start from indefensible axioms and build upwards - but hopefully for good reasons

    So your post is fair enough, but I think we have to include all thinking in its criticism. We cannot step outside of reality to evaluate it - we are a part of it always. Or so it seems.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi, Darrell-

    Isn't Nietzsche delicious? I bet this is about keeping our limitations in view, and holding all "truths" as tentative, not fixed. It is perhaps like saying "All statements should be doubted". If one takes it literally as a logician, then it indeed self-refutes. But if one views our development and knowledge as a hermeneutic(!) circle of analysis and continual recursion through empirical, logical, and even narrative analyses, then a hierarchy of propositions starts to make sense, where some higher-level principles (derived from experience, psychology and self-knowledge, or from metaphysics if that works better for you) control one's approach to more usual propositions like the truth claims of science and religion.

    It is not just a naturalistic dilemma, but a universal one, whether one starts with a dogmatic theological principle at one's highest level or this more humble one. And such principles need justification- through experience, through logic, and everything else we can pour into the circular process. They can't be simple presuppositions supplied through authority or instinct. To simply "feel" that a proposition should be taken as foundational does work in some ways- for the simplest relativist ethics and for various spiritual positions. But without the other helpers of reason and experience in an ongoing process of double-checking/refinement, those won't suffice for serious engagement with ethics or other truth-claim issues.

    This resembles other processes like the evolution of life and the development of individuals- a process of unfolding and figuring out how to deal with reality, rather than starting from some known and authoritative presupposition and letting all our conceptions flow from that, however poorly they may work/work together.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Steve,

    Thank you for your points. However, last time I checked, I didn't write the Bible, dream up Jesus, or Israel and their history. Those things and what they reflect may all be wrong, but they are objective criteria outside my personal opinion. A person has to make an individual choice regarding those things, but that is different than just subjectively dreaming them up. There is a huge difference between our obvious subjective choosing and whether the choices are objective or created by us. I believe you miss the point. To your better point, you are indeed right that we do need to include all criticism in "its thinking" as you put it and that is exactly what Burk fails to do on a regular basis. I have pointed this out for years now and I have yet to see him recognize his failure to admit his world-view is a faith like any other. Burk doesn't seem to believe his system is self-refuting; he thinks he bases his worldview on the "facts" "science" and "reason" while the rest of us benighted souls believe in myths. I don’t think Burk believes we all start with “indefensible axioms” because that would be an admission that we all start with a faith belief in something even if that something is that there is no god.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Darrell,

    I am not quite certain of the point I am missing here. I guess I am still missing it then! I was referring to certain extremely foundational axioms about how we establish what is "objective' and stuff like that.

    I am comfortable with the idea that you did not write the Bible. ;)

    But as you said, the level of validity you give to it comes from you.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Steve,

    You wrote: “For instance your belief in objective "values" comes from your own subjective opinion.”

    We obviously have subjective opinions. But that does not create a belief in objective values. An objective value is something one could appeal to outside one’s own made up value. Someone could say I believe stealing is wrong based upon one of the Ten Commandments (or the Koran or a state law) and such would be objective criteria. If however one said he believed that stealing is okay on Mondays and told us such was based upon his own personal subjective opinion we would clearly understand the difference between subjective and objective. So I think my original point stands. The greater question is how the naturalist justifies his assertion that “love” should trump “truth” when his worldview completely undercuts any way to even know what “love” or “truth” might be since he reduces them to subjective assertions based upon a worldview that believes we simply project selfishly whatever it might be that helps us survive . Such is a worldview based upon power and nothing more. However, the naturalist cannot really live consistently with his own worldview. He must step out of it and say, “Maybe love is more important than my “truth” that god does not exist.” I completely agree. But I have a rational objective basis for believing such. The philosophical naturalist does not. Maybe the naturalist is okay with that. Such would actually be very reassuring and refreshing.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Darrell,

    There are some good points in your post, but it still seems that you are holding your beliefs to a different standard than other's.

    You believe the Bible is the source of morality. A naturalist certainly has objective standards as well. Ethical theories abound, and collective efforts do create an objective path over time. I would say values are grounded in our personal experience and studying the personal experiences of others. In this context, the Bible is quite valuable, but it is one source among many.

    My point has never been that there are no objective values, rather my point is that at the end of the day we are alone in making our decision about what is an objective value. And we do that by finding good reasons.

    I might ask you this: Let's say that the Bible is the word of God. Why do you choose to follow it?

    ReplyDelete
  17. "I might ask you this: Let's say that the Bible is the word of God. Why do you choose to follow it?"

    Doesn’t that question sort of answer itself? Are you kidding? If anyone believes that certain writings are inspired or find their origin in God, the creator of all things, then wouldn’t that person be inclined to follow them? In fact, wouldn’t we assume a person was somewhat challenged, both intellectually and morally, if he really believed a certain writing was TRUE, God breathed if you will, and then chose to disregard it? I think the answer is obvious. Clearly a person could choose to do whatever. People make interesting choices every day. Further, clearly if someone believes such about the Bible, the real belief is not that they are following a book but that they are following (or trying to follow) the source, the God, of those writings. Are you factoring that aspect into your question? If you are, then I'm not sure why such a question need be asked.

    But I have a question: What are the naturalist’s “objective” standards you speak of? How are love, morality, the good, the true, and the beautiful “objective” in a materialistic world-view? A philosophical naturalist will tell you that these are all subjective projections based in nothing more that neurons firing messages in our brains and that THE EXACT OPPOSITE of whatever we might think is love, moral, ethical, good, beautiful, and true would be exactly subjectively valid and just as “true” given a different evolution, environment, or cultural education. Thus, they are not objective at all and could never be given such a worldview.

    Finally, of course we make decisions subjectively regarding objective criteria and that has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not there is objective criteria to make decisions about. Two different questions entirely. You are mixing apples and oranges. The question is this: What is the basis for the objective existence of those qualities we call love, morality, ethics, values, the true, the beautiful, and the good if the world is entirely material and there is no spirit, god, or any transcendent source to these qualities at all?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hey Darrell,

    I am assuming that your answer to the posed question is "self-interest." Albeit, very STRONG self- interest! ;)

    I think that is what all morality is based on. Of course there are different levels of self-interest we must weigh - for instance immediate gratification vs. the greater gratification of a more "overall" sense of well-being to our life. Your framework might be - God's punishment vs. God's reward. So I don't see much difference at the core of our views, though the language and details may be quite different. It is self-interest.

    It is difficult to argue about objective grounding, but that's what philosophers strive for. And you are quite right that pure naturalism is descriptive, not prescriptive. Though the description can be helpful in understanding our present tendencies.

    Furthermore, how can we know if things are subjective or objective in any ultimate sense? Some people take comfort in the idea that "Naziism is still wrong, even if they had won and brainwashed us all to think it is right." But by that argument, we can never know what is right. We might be brainwashed. And if we were brainwashed (I apologize for referencing Nazis but William Lane Craig does it on this point) , we'd be arguing for the objective truth of Naziism.

    So it seems that regardless of what we believe about objective and subjective values, we must employ the same means to establish those values.

    thanks,

    Steven

    ReplyDelete
  19. Steve,

    Interesting. So every move for you is based on selfish motives. True? No, my motives are not God's punishment over a free-pass so to speak. What if my motive was love? Do you feel such is impossible? So the idea that love might be a completely selfless giving away of something, whether of a life, gift, or whatever, with no thought of return is not something you can see then?

    Anyway, I do agree with you (unless I understand you incorrectly) that without a transcendent source, values cannot be objective and therefore power does indeed become the supreme arbiter of value, whether that supreme power be the Nazis or some other power. In such a world, nothing is really "right" or "wrong" it simply is. Is that the world you want? If it isn’t, on what basis do you criticize? Food for thought.

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Darrell,

    The reason we love is because it is in our self-interest. But what is love? It is looking at another person and seeing yourself. So love is "enlightened self-interest." Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I think he meant it. He did not say that it is more detrimental to give than to receive.

    I think your version of something that is "completely selfless" sounds wonderful and very satisfying to you. You do something because it pleases you to do what is right.

    I acknowledge that calling something "objective" can be difficult, but I think it is quite possible. We study our experiences and we study those of others. We evaluate consequences. We reason in community with others. In this context, values can arise that transcend any one person (even if we as individuals still have to buy into it! But any system requires this.)

    When you state "transcendent source" however, I assume you mean a specific version of God.

    Is anything God commands good? Then the statement "God is good" has no meaning except "God is God." There are no values to be had except what the deity commands, and these could be whimsical and arbitrary from our point of view.

    Does God command things because they are good? Then we have a standard of good that is independent of God.

    Thanks for the thoughts, man!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Steve,

    Thanks for the stimulating conversation. I disagree that “the reason we love is because it is in our self-interest.” Clearly it is not always in our self-interest—maybe that is why it is called “love” with all that the word means and not “selfishness.” In fact, love is often very much against our self-interest. Fathers and mothers often work two or three jobs and give up their dreams so their children can live better. Even so, many times their children end up in prison or are ungrateful. There have been several stories over the years regarding “Good Samaritans” who have stopped to help someone and were robbed or killed in return. There are myriad stories, fictional and otherwise, of people who loved selflessly and in no way did it seem to be in their self-interest, short-term or otherwise. Jesus said to love one’s enemies. It doesn’t take much to see that such a stance could often go against one’s self-interest. Doesn’t always looking for the selfish motive behind every move seem almost perverse? You are trying to apply a “calculated” logic to a motive that is mysterious and often makes no sense at all. One only need peruse the greatest works of fiction, stage, cinema, and songs to realize that often love has very little to do with calculated self-interest. Of course, maybe you think we are all prostitutes at heart. Maybe the logic of the prostitute is the supreme and only logic in the universe. Again, is that the world you want? Do you really believe such?

    When Jesus said it was more “blessed” he did not mean it in the sense of modern western notions of, if I give two dollars away, God will give me four back and “bless” me. He also wasn’t saying we would get a warm fuzzy feeling if we gave instead of taking. To believe one should give so as to receive something back is to completely misread what Jesus is getting at. I think you might be reading the words of Jesus with a rather wooden and tin ear, a modern literalistic ear.

    As to the objective nature of values, you are basically saying whatever the majority or consensus is as to values now becomes somehow “transcendent.” This could become the morality of the mob I suppose. Perhaps a riot of the majority over some tiny minority is rendered “moral” and “good” with such a view. Do you see the problem? In other words, if the consensus becomes that it is alright to kill Jews, in your scheme, it indeed becomes a “transcendent” value.” How do you criticize it from the margins of the minority? Further, when you say we can reason within community, learn from experience and so forth, that speaks to cultural values and matters such as driving on which side of the road. The truth historically is that the great traditions of morality and values in the critical areas of say murder, theft, and so on have been grounded in transcendent narratives. Once those areas are removed from those transcendent narratives, one really is only left with power as the ultimate grounding. That is what we are talking about. The old Soviet Union is a perfect example of what happens when a nation tries to ground their “ethics” in something other than a transcendent source.

    Finally, the old Divine Command Theory has been answered and addressed many time over at this point, at least from an orthodox Christian perspective. I don’t see any need to go into it here or how it is relevant since it holds no problem for the Christian view of God or morality.

    Anyway, always interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Hey Darrell, I'm going to number these so that we can hopefully keep our ideas straight! This is a fun exchange. I appreciate it.

    1. If you will explain to me what you think Jesus actually meant by "It is more blessed to give that to receive" then you will probably explain my view of things.

    I could go on arguing for enlightened self-interest, but I honestly think we feel the same thing, but express it in different ways. I agree with you that there are mysterious aspects of love - but I don't find it inspiring to assert that there are no good reasons to love, which is what you seem to be saying.

    I will say again that I distinguish between shallow self-interest (selfishness) and enlightened self-interest (compassion). Compassion is about expanding our circle of self. In the extremely humble and small, small ways that I have done this, I have found it to be the most freeing thing in the world. Compassion is in my interest. Love and compassion are good things. It doesn't mean good things are easy - sometimes there is a lot of bad (as in the difficult situations you mentioned), but the good outweighs the bad.

    2. I think your assessment of the grounding of my morality in "power" is actually what you argue for. You argue that God is powerful and that is why what He says is good. Isn't this correct? I am arguing a more gradual, democratic process. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Are the problems you suggest real? Definitely.

    And the reality is that those in the moral minority are always in a difficult position. Take vegetarians (I am not one currently). Many believe that killing animals for food is very wrong. Perhaps in 100 years most people will agree. It's difficult to know.


    3. "The truth historically is that the great traditions of morality and values in the critical areas of say murder, theft, and so on have been grounded in transcendent narratives."

    Is the Code of Hammurabi transcendent?

    I think your view may be backwards. Perhaps the written narratives you speak of achieved their authority because of their success, not their success because of their authority (at least in the long run). But even if this is not so (and it may not always be), what makes a narrative qualify as "transcendent"? Many were once thought of as such, but no longer are. Today billions of people disagree on which narratives are transcendent. So even if you argue that we cannot evaluate our own morals, we still must at least evaluate the "narratives" to determine which ones are transcendent.

    4. the Divine Command Theory still means that "God is good" is not a statement that means anything. The Modified Divine Command theory tells us that God's nature is good, so His will must command from it. But unless you can say how that idea could potentially be falsified, then "God is good" is still meaningless. And if you can tell me how it could be falsified, then you are using your own reasoning to evaluate God's goodness (which puts the Christian on the same level playing field as anyone else, despite claims of a transcendent source).

    I am not arguing that objective morality is easy to prove. I am arguing that the conservative religious person who thinks his values are grounded in something more transcendent is incorrect. We are on equal, and often difficult, footing.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Steve,

    “1. If you will explain to me what you think Jesus actually meant by "It is more blessed to give that to receive" then you will probably explain my view of things.”

    You are hoping I will point out some positive point or benefit. I think that misses the point entirely. In fact, that is the point. I don’t know how to explain it beyond that. The question is- are you willing to give something away even if it means nothing, zero, nada, even a warm fuzzy feeling, comes back to you?

    “I could go on arguing for enlightened self-interest, but I honestly think we feel the same thing, but express it in different ways. I agree with you that there are mysterious aspects of love - but I don't find it inspiring to assert that there are no good reasons to love, which is what you seem to be saying.”

    I’m saying that one can never start with any “good reasons” to love. To love is to love without reserve, without any reasons for return or benefit. It is to throw caution and “reason” to the wind. It is to give one’s self away even to one’s enemies. You seem to be saying that we only love for what it can do for us personally and such is our only motive. In my mind, that seems somewhat dark and shallow—but that’s just me.

    “I will say again that I distinguish between shallow self-interest (selfishness) and enlightened self-interest (compassion). Compassion is about expanding our circle of self. In the extremely humble and small, small ways that I have done this, I have found it to be the most freeing thing in the world. Compassion is in my interest. Love and compassion are good things. It doesn't mean good things are easy - sometimes there is a lot of bad (as in the difficult situations you mentioned), but the good outweighs the bad.”

    I don’t think compassion is about “enlighten self-interest.” I don’t think it is about expanding our circle of “self.” I think it is the very opposite. I think it is about expanding the circle of the “other” regardless of self or how it might impact our own interest. I’m curious- are you a follower of Ayn Rand? (part two to follow)

    ReplyDelete
  24. Steve,

    “2. I think your assessment of the grounding of my morality in "power" is actually what you argue for. You argue that God is powerful and that is why what He says is good. Isn't this correct? I am arguing a more gradual, democratic process. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Are the problems you suggest real? Definitely.”

    I have not argued that at all. The God that was revealed in Jesus Christ was executed by the state for saying what he thought was good and true and he did not resist or force his ideas upon anyone. How was that linking power to what is good? In the cross we see the very end of power justifying the good. You have no equivalent narrative, only one of a majority which can only be about power over the minority. Further, I’m saying something even more radical and deep—I’m saying you have no objective or rational basis to even argue what is “good” or “bad.” There can be no hierarchy of values if the world is only a horizontal gathering of matter in motion thrown into existence by chance and time. That a democratic process could lead to either legalizing or outlawing slavery is only one issue. The other and deeper issue is your assumption that there is something, some action, some thought, some sensibility, some frame of mind or reference that is “good” as opposed to “bad.” In a purely materialistic world these words mean everything and nothing at the same time because your majority might agree that murder is “good” and compassion for the weak is “evil.” These categories called “good” and “evil” can’t exist in such a world and are simply arbitrary terms used by the powerful to name whatever they want. This is the deeper issue you are missing.

    “Is the Code of Hammurabi transcendent?”

    Have you read the code? According to the prologue Hammurabi tells how the gods and lords of heaven and earth have established Babylon and his rule (thus his law), so yes, it is based in something transcendent (even if as a Christian I would say it was a false or deceptive transcendence). The point remains that there are no major traditions or points of origins for the great systems of morality that have come about in a way you suggest. You are simply projecting modern western liberal notions of political processes onto the way you think people develop their view of values. Historically and worldwide, this is simply not so. Why is that?

    What makes a morality, ethics, transcendent is their foundation and origin in some god, spirit, or otherness, something other than our own subjective assertions or wills. In other words, something wholly other than our wills or our minds (which is to simply to state an existence in God). This is what I’m talking about—not the validity of any given transcendence—simply the difference between such an origin and the mind or will of men. Basically I am simply saying what Dostoevsky noted from a Christian perspective: Without God, everything is permissible.

    Finally, I do not understand why you are using the Divine Command Theory in this discussion? I certainly do not ascribe to it and do not argue from it. I am at a loss as to where you are going with it or how it helps you.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Hi, Guys-

    Sorry to butt in- I am enjoying your discussion very much, and one point interested me particularly. Darrell says:

    "According to the prologue Hammurabi tells how the gods and lords of heaven and earth have established Babylon and his rule (thus his law), so yes, it is based in something transcendent (even if as a Christian I would say it was a false or deceptive transcendence). The point remains that there are no major traditions or points of origins for the great systems of morality that have come about in a way you suggest."

    So something can be transcendent if someone says so, and he happens to be king and says his rules are transcendent? That's a pretty low bar. And then you come in to say that it is a "false transcendence". Do you feel yourself getting tied up in knots at this point? How can something be transcendent, yet by your lights be false? Isn't the whole point of transcendence being beyond our perception, or importantly, our judgement?

    The whole topic and history makes a great deal more sense if what is transcendent here are our inborn impulses and desires. Our spiritual and other "moving" feelings certainly seem transcendent, coming from outside consciousness, and are the typical conduit of god-communion. They set up our societal textures, when filtered through the work of leaders and artists, focusing our institutions on our long-term best interests and needs.

    They also provide the "objective-ness" of so-called objective morals, since they are pretty much the same in everyone, and if not, that person is determined to be "other" and barred from contributing to the moral commons, whether the deviance was homosexuality (some time ago), or psychopathy, for which people are currently exiled/institutionalized.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hello Burk,

    Thank you for your comments. As I wrote,

    "What makes a morality, ethics, transcendent is their foundation and origin in some god, spirit, or otherness, something other than our own subjective assertions or wills. In other words, something wholly other than our wills or our minds (which is to simply to state an existence in God). This is what I’m talking about—not the validity of any given transcendence—simply the difference between such an origin and the mind or will of men. Basically I am simply saying what Dostoevsky noted from a Christian perspective: Without God, everything is permissible."

    How we evaluate anyone's assertion of some transcendence is an entirely different question and not related to the current discussion. It is relevant as to how it is we justify our assertions of morality and ethics however. And, by the way, what I meant to write above was- "to simply state we believe God exists." It is really as simple as that. Morality and ethics are only objective if God exists. If God does not exist, then I see no way forward as far as grounding a ethics or morality in anything other than pure power/violence.

    ReplyDelete
  27. “I don’t think compassion is about “enlighten self-interest.” I don’t think it is about expanding our circle of “self.” I think it is the very opposite. I think it is about expanding the circle of the “other” regardless of self or how it might impact our own interest. I’m curious- are you a follower of Ayn Rand? (part two to follow) “

    “no self” and “all is self” are the exact same thing expressed differently. They both seek to get rid of separation.

    I’m not super familiar with Ayn Rand, but I would be surprised from her reputation if I would be a big fan. It's possible though.

    “The question is- are you willing to give something away even if it means nothing, zero, nada, even a warm fuzzy feeling, comes back to you?”

    Of course it depends - but in some instances yes. It depends on how we define “warm, fuzzy feeling” of course. I doubt I would give something away if it provided zero positive feedback. For instance, giving my car to someone who already has 5 cars or to someone who iss going to use it to murder someone - something like that.
    But I don’t identify a deep sense of well-being, with a “warm fuzzy feeling”. If I had to die in order for someone else to survive, I might do it, but what I would be saying is “ I would rather live these last remaining moments with this world-view and sense of self, than I would 40 more years without it (or having betrayed it).”

    I think there is a misunderstanding about my use of the idea of “power” earlier. I did not mean that God would appear powerful, but rather that He is the ultimate authority on what is good.

    And if this is true, then anything God says would be good. Whether it’s commanding acts of genocide, torture or lovingkindness - it is good. God could also tell us one thing one moment and the exact opposite the next - he could change what is good on the spot. This is a “ground” of a sort I suppose. But would you actually do it if God commanded you to commit an atrocity? And once again, the word “good” has little meaning here, as it can change at any time on God’s whim.


    “These categories called “good” and “evil” can’t exist in such a world and are simply arbitrary terms used by the powerful to name whatever they want”

    This is a very good description of what I am talking about. Simply replace “powerful” in your statement with “God”. Therefore the theist has no advantage in the debate. Your view of God matches perfectly with the view of the “majority” that you are arguing against.

    (I do think your view of the "majority" is a straw man of the actual position Burk and I are attempting to describe, that’s beside the point for now - I just want to show that the traditional theist has zero advantage over alternate world-views when it comes to morality)

    thanks for a very good discussion,

    Steven

    ReplyDelete
  28. Steven,

    I think I will need to post a response on my own blog Byzantine Dream http://byzantinedream.blogspot.com/to your last regarding "divine command theory" as we are taking up quite a bit of space here it seems...I do this even if just to formulate my own thoughts...clearly no need to respond if this has grown tiresome...but look for my response there if interested...

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Hey Darrell,

    I have enjoyed our conversation very much. Merry Christmas!

    ReplyDelete