Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why I Believe in God


I don’t know that it is possible to adequately define religion or differentiate it from philosophy. Does religion require belief in God(s)? Must there be a received practice? Is it primarily a solitary pursuit or a communal pursuit? What are the requirements of religion with respect to moral teachings?

I am not going to attempt to resolve these questions but instead argue on behalf of what I feel is most important in religion and which leads me to belief in God.

The basis of religion, I would contend, is the experience of life’s meaning beyond each transient moment. We experience a fundamental importance in our being that we cannot justify only in ourselves. As Whitehead says, “Conscious, rational life refuses to conceive itself as a transient enjoyment, transiently useful.” I think this sense points to the existence of God and the inclusion of the divine nature in our common, everyday experience.

In all experience we seek enjoyment of value. Here, value can be found in any number of goods, including sensual pleasures like eating or more abstract pleasures like art appreciation. The fact that every experience involves a striving toward value realization is the basis of modern economics in its subjective theory of value. The economic insight is that the value of a resource is not to be found inherent in an object but rather in how actors strive to employ it to achieve satisfaction (or enjoyment).

Experience without striving toward value realization is inconceivable. It cannot be intelligibly denied without self-contradiction, as the very act of denying it would itself reveal a value sought after. But the importance of value realization goes even further than the economic insight that all action seeks it. Economics only describes actions in relation to how they are used to realize value, but it does not have anything further to say about the nature of value itself.

I am going to highlight a couple of features of value and argue that these features can only be fully justified by appealing to a divine nature.

An Argument from Importance

In every moment of experience, we entertain possibilities that we might strive to realize as value. An essential feeling in this process is that of importance. That is, we experience values as important to realize and furthermore that different values carry different degrees of importance. I believe this sense of importance is the basis of moral experience and thought. It is the sense that a value attained transcends one’s own enjoyment of it; that it is contributing to something greater than oneself. This sense, universal to all people, points to the divine participation in our own experience. We all experience and include God (however dimly), and it is this inclusion that justifies the moral sense of contributing to something greater than oneself.

The denial of importance leads to the moral relativist notion that no value is more worthwhile than any other value. The relativist doctrine would therefore deny the transcendence of any value’s attainment and with it God’s own participation in our experience. I would contend that much like the position of determinism, the relativist doctrine is one that can be argued for intellectually but not really believed. One can deny importance but cannot avoid its haunting influence on all choice. Does anyone really believe that the choice of whether or not to kill a man in order to take his watch belongs to the same category as what flavor ice cream to prefer?

On the other hand are those who deny moral relativism but claim no need for God as the basis of moral experience. But we might ask such a believer: if not God, what? I see two potential alternatives: moral experience derives from perception of body, or moral experience derives from perception of some objective realm of moral values. The first position though really reduces to moral relativism. If moral experience is really just “secretions from one’s glands”, then there really is no basis in contending one value to be more worthwhile than another. Again, I would suggest that any philosophy which we have no choice but to reject in practice must be inadequate.

The “objective realm of morals” idea holds some appeal, especially to thinkers who seek strict logical deductive certainty, but I think this idea is also inadequate. First, how can it do justice to the feeling of importance? How can the experience of fundamental rightness and wrongness possibly derive from a pure object, which by definition does not act or itself value anything? Secondly, the idea of an objective realm of pure ideals violates the ontological principle that all causes be found in actual entities. Certainly a concept of God requires us to stretch our common-sense sticks and stones notion of what an actual entity can be, but at least this gap is not unbridgeable in principle.

I would note here that while I claim that our fundamental notion and experience of importance must derive from the inclusion of God in our experience, I am not claiming that this inclusion is necessarily vivid or even commonly available consciously. The voice of conscience as you ponder whether to give a little money to the Salvation Army bell-ringer is not God whispering in your ear, and the feeling of guilt as you avoid eye contact and walk away is not God wagging a finger at you. Rather, it is your experience of God that makes it meaningful to even have a conscience or feelings of guilt. God justifies the meaning of these but does not necessarily justify any particular choice you make. *

* An analogy can be made to causality. We feel causes from the physical world beyond us enter into our being, and we provide physical explanations on the justification that causality is real. The haunting sense of causality is what makes a statement like “the rock hurt me as it struck my cheek” meaningful. However, we also recognize that an experience of the rock is much more complex than a direct, vivid inclusion of the rock in one’s conscious experience. The rock’s “essence” may actually play only a minor, non-conscious role in the actual experience caused by it.

An Argument from Novelty

I have argued so far that the experience of importance (i.e. moral experience) points to God’s participation in our own experience. It is this participation that justifies the sense of transcendence and meaning as we strive to realize value. I want to highlight another aspect of value that I believe can also only be fully justified by an appeal to divine experience. This aspect is that of the lure of novelty.

We seem to attach special significance in novelty; that is, in realizing new forms and new appreciations. We don’t buy just one album or read just one book or draw just one picture. And when we do aim to repeat an experience (like watching a certain movie every Christmas), the passage of time and our essence as finite beings ensures the refreshment of at least some novelty in each actual experience. Surely there is some degree of novelty that is necessary in any experience, since it is by definition a unique moment apart from all prior. However, what we must explain is the degree of excessive novelty we find and strive for. Why is there a significant history of art and fashion? Once one good is discovered, why ever seek anything else?

We can first answer by pointing to novelty as itself a good. This can serve as a first-order explanation for “transiently useful” phenomena like “big hair”, A-Team: The Movie, and Linkin Park. But then the value of novelty itself requires explanation. Why is intensity of enjoyment so often tied to novelty of experience? Why does novelty seem to be an end and not just a means?

I contend that the lure of novelty points to the transcendence of a value attained. First, as discussed above, the very experience of importance suggests divine participation in experience. But the importance we feel in novelty furthermore reveals a significant aspect of the divine. In particular, the desire to realize new value must mean that old value is not lost. The perfection of God is that all good remains forever alive and relevant. We experience this divine nature in our sense that a value attained is a value immortalized.

The moral problem of addiction might serve to clarify the importance of novelty. The moral problem of addiction is why we should consider it morally bad. If one is merely attempting to replay a pleasurable experience or re-instantiate a value, where is the harm?

One solution to the moral problem of addiction is to proclaim the experience itself as a moral bad (or at least, not good) whether it is performed multiple times or just once. I don’t think this position works though. First, it would seem that addiction can operate with any possible pleasure. For example, many people are addicted to food consumption, and yet we must all eat. Should we all then strive to eat plain, calculated meals that only provide the most efficient nourishment? I think most of us would rightfully reject that idea. We feel that there is real good in the pleasure of eating, and more generally, there can be real good in any sensual pleasure. Secondly, we tend to think of addiction in terms of base physical pleasures, but I think this would be an unfair limitation. Surely addiction can occur for “higher” values we experience as well, such as for the cliché workaholic.

So if it is possible that an experience or value be good, how can we explain addiction to that good as bad? How is it possible that there can be “too much of a good thing”? I think the answer is to point to the loss of importance in the good. This is the essence of addiction: the near-complete loss of importance in a value that one nonetheless seeks to re-instantiate. One feels only the transient enjoyment of the value but loses any feeling that there is something “greater” about the value. There is no sense of transcendence in the value attained; no sense that it makes a positive contribution to the universe beyond the moment. This sense is justified on the basis of God’s inclusion in our experience: a new value attained enhances God, the same value attained does not. Ever there is the importance felt in striving for new value that can be added to the total good of the universe.

The Absurdity of Existence without God

We all experience the need to realize new value in the world. We experience gradations of importance in different possible values, and we sense that striving for higher values can make a better contribution to the world. The ultimate absurdity for existence would be if there really is no justification for this moral experience. If it really is all “sound and fury, signifying nothing” then we would all be just as well to spend our days high on drugs as any other endeavor.

Few people can accept that existence is really absurd. But to save existence from absurdity, we feel that the good we attain must not be lost. Whitehead: “The ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil. It lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a ‘perpetual perishing’.” To defeat this evil, many seek the propagation of value in human institutions. They seek (often frantically) to make their “ultimate” contribution to the universe through a human legacy: a name on a plaque, a footnote in a textbook, producing “good” children, or (most dangerously) serving the most illusorily powerful institution, the state.

But human institutions cannot fully satisfy the need to save value, for these will all eventually end. If the earth were hit by a comet and all life here destroyed, would what we do now have made any meaningful contribution to the universe?

God saves the world from absurdity by saving the meaning and relevance of all good that is realized. In so doing, God fulfills the deepest craving we all feel: that life be meaningful and never in vain.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Progress as Essential to Religion

This popular quote from Stephen F. Roberts in support of atheism delights me:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

I smile at how so much arrogance, condescension, and pseudo-intellect can be managed into such a short remark. If there really is more than self-aggrandizement at work here and an actual argument present, it would seem to go something like this: you would judge the vast majority of historical conceptions of God as untrue, so you might as well dismiss the possibility of any true conception of God. I’ve also seen the argument presented in list form: one column for the list of “gods” the atheist rejects, and one column for the list of gods the theist rejects. They are, of course, long lists with but one difference at the end, as if the atheist is pointing out, “Look, we’ve all moved on past the days of believing in Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the clouds. There’s really no essential difference between your idea of God and all these others, so why not reject this very last one as well?”

Now, we could just as well direct this line of argument toward science to dismiss the possibility of any true theory by listing failed or supplanted theories like Newton’s Law of Gravitation (not to mention that whole phrenology business). But of course in science we do not take this view; we don’t discard Newton’s Law as false and worthless but instead seek to understand its proper scope and interpretation in light of more recent progress. The correct target of Roberts’ type of argument shouldn’t be the possibility of God but rather the idea that we can arrive upon a final, perfect concept for anything of importance. I’d suggest we always meet claims to having the final theory or word with a raised eyebrow and should expect that in any human endeavor we allow for the possibility of genuine progress, improvement, and refinement. Why should concepts of God, or general religious ideas, be any different?

It’s not helping matters either that many vocal theists buy into just the sort of “one true religion” nonsense that atheists can use to discredit the entire field. If you believe in the literal truth and faithful recording of a book where God acts and speaks, then it can admittedly be a bit troublesome to allow for the possibility of an improved conception of God. The result is that between the demands of the atheists to produce a precise account of God subject to falsifiability, and the counter-claims of theists to infallibility, we get a fairly fruitless dialogue.

So to begin with, let’s allow for the possibility of progress in religion, as we do in science, and at the same time discard the notion that any particular concept of God is the final, perfect concept. Now an atheist might charge that if there really is no God, then there is no basis for religion to begin with, and as a result we should meet the request for permitting refinement and progress as we would for astrology or alchemy: better to do away with the enterprise altogether! I will next argue on behalf of a basis for religious belief and in fact belief in God, and furthermore I hope to ground these in common, everyday experience.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ancient Cults and The Secret

In ancient cults, gods were primarily conceived as impersonal forces that are unconcerned with people at a personal level but would condescend to bestow material abundance upon those who perform the correct ritual acts (and surely bestow ills upon those who do not). Judaism introduced the idea that there is just one God (or at least only one really powerful god), but more importantly, that God actually cared about humans. Still, though, there was the idea that the human covenant with God was an exchange of loyalty and service for material abundance. One of the core themes of Christianity that I identify with is the denial of this sort of relationship. We do not serve God so that we can get money and riches but because we voluntarily believe it is the best and right way to realize value.*  God calls us to enter into His being, and we can choose to do so or not to do so.

* With the denial that God acts by bestowing riches or punishments in the material world, some Christians took to the idea that the rewards and punishments must come in the next world: Heaven and Hell. These are even more egregious theological mistakes, but I do not take them to be core notions in Christianity but rather a corruption.

Rhonda Byrne sets religious thinking back three thousand years with The Secret. The universe is here conceived as an energetic force that physically manifests whatever you think about. This is the law of attraction: think good thoughts, and you will attract good things. Think bad thoughts, and you will attract bad things.
There are probably hundreds of self-help books that emphasize positive thinking, and I believe that there is more power to intention and mind than is usually given heed. The big problem with The Secret is that it goes far beyond the typical bromides of positive thinking and presents thought creation as the fundamental metaphysical law of the universe. Apparently we can do away with all other physical, biological, and economic categories of explanation because we now have the law of attraction! Why do rich people have lots of money? Because they think thoughts of wealth, of course. Why are fat people fat? Because they think fat thoughts, of course. Why were six million Jews murdered in Nazi Germany? Well, uh, because their thoughts were on the wrong frequency.

I am not making this up:

Often [people] recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event. By the law of attraction, they had to be on the same frequency as the event. It doesn’t necessarily mean they thought of that exact event, but the frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event. If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they have no control over outside circumstances, those thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the ancient cults, the fundamental attribution error occurred by explaining circumstances away by how pleased the gods were with someone. Why did the Smiths get a good harvest? Why, they must have pleased the gods well, unlike those Joneses down the street living in squalor. They must be the type of people that don’t please the gods well.

The Secret encourages you to perform the same type of error by explaining away all circumstances by attributing them to the thoughts of people. The universe manifests all that you think so that you can have all you want, and whatever happens in your life is brought about by your own thoughts. Byrne encourages you to use the law of attraction to get rich (there is a huge emphasis in the book on manifesting lots of money) and maintain your body exactly as you want it (apparently we only “age” because we think it has to happen). If good things happen to you; congratulations, you are using The Secret well! If bad things happen to you; well, you’ve got to try a little harder to avoid negative thoughts and just have positive thoughts.

Occasionally, I found a few sentences in The Secret that if lifted out and taken out of context might be agreeable. However, I found the total context of The Secret to be deeply offensive on philosophical, religious, scientific, moral, and common-sense grounds.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Is Christianity Worth Saving?

I suspect that if we had the opportunity to view the real life and teachings of Jesus, we'd all be pretty disappointed.

The Gospels that record his life and teachings were written a few generations after his death, likely based largely on oral tradition.  The Gospel of Mark was written first, and it appears likely that at least Matthew and Luke were written after Mark and used it as a source.  Each Gospel presents a different theme and understanding of the significance of Jesus.  These themes can perhaps even be contradictory, for example concerning whether Jesus claimed divinity, and what exactly he taught about the Kingdom of God.  Other Gospels of Jesus exist but are not included in the canon, which was debated and chosen by early Christians centuries after Jesus died.

My conclusion in all of this is that the teachings we have "from" Jesus tell us more about the religious views of the people propagating those teachings than about what Jesus actually taught.  The story is of a man who teaches about the nature of God and how we may enter into His Kingdom and who is put to death after a mockery of a trial.  Such a story leaves itself open to insert our religious understanding to make sense of it.  Perhaps it even demands it.

The Tolstoy interpretation of the Jesus incident is that the Kingdom of God can be entered into each present moment by doing good for others.  The good done for others can only be based on love and cannot include the use of force. 

I like the Tolstoy interpretation.  Tolstoy had no use for any claims of miracles, special divinity, after-life, or a "coming" Kingdom of God.  He had use only for what he took were fairly literal moral and spiritual teachings that can help guide how man is to live life now. 

The problem is that Tolstoy's interpretation is an extreme minority one.  The best we can say for it is that it is vaguely echoed in the pacifist-minded Mennonite churches with their literal interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount.  If you were to list widely accepted core beliefs of Christians, you'd probably list items that Tolstoy thought were either non-essential or contradictory to the message of Jesus.  Yet Tolstoy thought of himself as a Christian, perhaps even a "true" Christian versus the majority of hypocritical false Christians.

I have two questions then as I consider whether I should enter a church:

1. Is the Tolstoy interpretation compatible with Christianity?  That is, can a personal of peculiar religious beliefs that do not include belief in the divinity of Jesus, or of Heaven or Hell, or in pretty much any of the Old Testament, rightly call himself a Christian?

2. If the life of Jesus is so unknown and we are basically filling in the blanks with our own widely varying religious beliefs, why even bother with Jesus?  Why not have religious discussion in terms that do not rely upon trying to claim the "true" meaning of Jesus? 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ordinances and Ordnungs

The theory of government is that individuals surrender some of their natural rights in order to establish a social order for their mutual welfare and protection of liberty. The purpose of local government is to transmute the will of a community of people, through the political process, into an enforceable legal system for the community. This set of rules I will call the Ordinance.

Amish communities do not form legal systems as we know them with courts, lawyers, and police, but nevertheless they do create their own sets of enforceable rules, which in a given community is called the Ordnung. The Ordnung is similar to the Ordinance in that they are both justified as the community’s rules for membership. They share the purpose of upholding community and public order.

The Ordinance and the Ordnung cover some similar ground. Both impose property and land use restrictions on individuals. The Ordnung tends to impose more restrictions and commonly prohibits members from using grid electricity or owning certain devices like computers or telephones. Some allow ownership of computers and telephones but place restrictions on where they may be located or how they may be used. The Ordinance tends to be more permissive regarding how property is to be used but may still commonly restrict what sort of buildings an individual may create or whether signs are allowed on property, and if so, what size. An important difference with respect to land use restrictions is that the Ordnung applies uniformly for all members, but the Ordinance applies different rules depending on the category a property lot is grouped in and usually provides an application process whereby one may ask permission from the local enforcers to violate an Ordinance provision.

Other areas of particular importance in an Ordnung are regulations of an individual’s personal appearance and interpersonal relationships. For example, the Ordnung includes rules that cover clothing and hair styles as well as prohibit divorce or marriage to an unbaptized individual. Amish are also not allowed to pursue jobs as law enforcers, judges, or politicians. The Ordinance usually has little to enforce in such matters, though land use restrictions commonly prohibit the type of employment that may be pursued on a piece of property.

The Ordnung may impose rules more deeply in the private affairs of an individual, but this results from the spirit from which it originates. Whereas the purpose of the Ordinance is solely for public order, the Ordnung is also designed to guide followers in their Christian life and in particular protect individuals from pride.

Perhaps the most important differences between the Ordnung and the Ordinance is in their scope of application and enforcement. The Ordinance is imposed upon a particular geographic location, and individuals within that area are not provided a choice as to whether they wish to adopt the Ordinance. If one desires a different Ordinance or none at all, then an individual may either attempt to influence others politically to alter that area’s Ordinance, or move to another geographic location that employs a different (though likely similar) Ordinance.  A few mostly uninhabited areas may not impose an Ordinance.

An Ordnung is constrained by geographical concerns but is not applied to everyone within a given area. The Ordnung is not enforced on non-Amish, though it may restrict how church members may interact with the non-Amish. Amish neighbors may belong to difference churches with different Ordnungs. If one desires a different Ordnung or none at all, then an individual may apply social pressure to alter the church’s Ordnung, or join a different church that employs a different (though likely similar) Ordnung, or disassociate from any church.

Non-conformers of both the Ordnung and the Ordinance may face severe consequences. With the Ordnung, a wayward member will have an escalation of social pressure applied as non-cooperation continues. The ultimate consequence of persistent non-cooperation is that church members end all interaction with the individual. However, even in the case of being shunned, an individual may re-enter the community given proper repentance.

Non-conformers of the Ordinance may face social pressure to end non-permitted behavior, but this is not the primary means of enforcement. Rather, economic punishment is employed, usually in the form of a monetary sum demanded for each day the wayward member continues non-permitted behavior. If non-cooperation with the Ordinance is continued, the member may have property seized or be sent to prison.

The Ordnung is adopted in a religious spirit that an individual may lead a better life in community with others and follows rules to uphold that community, but that those rules should only ever apply in the spirit of love and never be applied by force.

The Ordinance is also adopted in a religious spirit that an individual may lead a better life in community with others and follow rules to uphold the community, but that those rules are to be applied in the spirit of authoritative law, where the measure of force to be applied is determined by a political process.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Letter to a Town Lawyer

The little town we moved to has a local newspaper, and recently two letters appears that complained of the town government's enforcement of land use laws against them.  One townsperson wrote a letter in support of the government against these individuals.  I posted the following in response:

Hi Charles,

I disagree with your premise: “That is, whether or not one agrees with the law one is bound by it, no matter who they are or think they are.”

I think we can all think of laws, current or past, that so conflict with our moral sense that we would support those who break them; even in some cases consider them heroes!

I believe one is bound not by the laws of the government but by one’s conscience and the moral law written in one’s heart. Of course there is great personal risk in not following the government’s laws, and as a result we often subject ourselves to it for practical reasons.

Yes, perhaps these statements are a bit grandiose when we are considering the petty zoning ordinances of a small town. I suspect the motivation for the letters had more to do with the manner in which the ordinances were enforced.

I agree that one person’s actions have effects on neighbors, and in community we should seek to resolve disputes caused by those actions. But I stand by my words from an earlier comment: it is in community that we resolve differences through communication and compassion, not through police and lawyers.

The zoning laws are not the will of the people. They are the will of some of the people, who have selected particular means to enforce them that I object to.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Voting

I was once an enthusiastic voter.  I thought that I ought to use any tool I could to help promote liberty and that even given the worst view of government as a gang of thieves and warmongers, voting could be seen as a form of defense.  And even if my vote was insignificant, I saw my ballot as a signal to others of support for liberty.

But after a couple of elections, I did not feel so good about casting a ballot (especially after seeing some of the shenanigans of the Libertarian Party in using direct-marketing techniques to "sell" liberty).  In addition, I saw voting as lending moral support to the system.  If I truly believed government to be evil and wanted to withdraw my consent, wouldn't I be a hypocrite to cast a ballot?  In fact, voting might be seen as a way of trying to use force on others.

I don't really see either of these positions as strictly correct now.  I think the importance of voting (or not voting) has been exaggerated by most who debate the question (ironic that I am now spending such a long post on it).  A trouble with voting is that it does not lend itself well to analogy or abstraction.  "Voting is defense" claims a libertarian; "No, voting is aggression" responds an anarchist.  Who is right? 

The analogy I like best for voting is that of a suggestion box for slaves (hat tip to Free Talk Live).  In this view, a vote for someone like Ron Paul is like stuffing "please stop beating us" in the box.  A vote for most politicians is like stuffing "please beat Jim less and Bob a little more".

I won't fault anyone for hoping a vote will reduce government evil.  Who knows, maybe if enough people suggest it, the slave-masters will stop beating us so much.

I also won't fault anyone for seeing the suggestion box as below the dignity of a free man and refuse to participate in it.  Maybe just asserting our freedom will be the best long-term remedy for reducing the slave-masters.

I tend toward non-voting.  I’ve felt it to be a bit demeaning, and I’d rather not get caught up in rooting for politicians.  Still, I leave myself open to voting if inspired by a particular campaign that I think is of some value in supporting.

I am not inspired often.