Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Passion of the Western Mind

August 30, 2014

UnknownThis book by Richard Tarnas is a history of Western thought. Now, yes, Eastern thought is also worthy of respect. But the Western intellectual tradition is the 800 pound gorilla, the elephant in the room, the hippo in the bathtub.

I have written about our falling down on humanities education. Tarnas presents his history as a story – the tale of how we got from Point A (the ancient Greeks) to Point B (where we are today), with hints of a further Point C. It’s actually a thrilling story – but more, it’s vital to understanding our world and its challenges.

Play-doh's Forms

Play-doh’s Forms

Tarnas says he aims to describe systems of thought “on their own terms,” without “condescension,” so that we can better understand our journey. He begins with the Greeks, notably Plato, whose theory of “forms” was a first stab at understanding the nature of reality, starting a conversation that’s never stopped.

Then comes Christianity. True to his word, Tarnas gives us Christian thought and its development straight, “on its own terms,” nonjudgmentally. images-2This takes many pages. Frankly I skimmed over much of it. However, one thing that impressed itself upon me was how impossible it was, in Europe at least, during the centuries of church domination, to break free of that influence. The Christian way of thinking was the only way of thinking.

But then the story gets good. Revolution bursts out all over. You’ve got your Renaissance. Then your Reformation. And then your scientific revolution, and your Enlightenment. It all makes the church’s head spin.

When it comes to discussing the modern intellectual paradigm – the Enlightenment of science and rationality – Tarnas lets slip his straight-faced mask of nonjudgmentalism. images-4He is downright triumphalist about how thoroughly the modern idea demolishes the older mentality grounded in religion. To read his passages on the sweeping victory of science over faith, you might think religion has slunk away, crushed and banished. This may be true in the academic groves Tarnas inhabits; but it sure ain’t true in Kansas.

Meantime, though, it wasn’t just religion having trouble with science; philosophy did too. It’s the eternal problem of epistemology:  what is true knowledge, and how can a human mind possess it? “The Crisis of Modern Science,” Tarnas calls this chapter. In particular he invokes philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), and the notion that what we’ve got is not so much information as interpretation; we cannot truly know anything. And then we find sentences like this: “The aggressive exploitation of the natural environment, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the threat of global catastrophe – all pointed to an indictment of science, of human reason itself, now seemingly in thrall to man’s own self-destructive irrationality.”

Please. This is indeed the pessimistic post-modern mindset. But just as Tarnas was over-the-top in declaring that science had killed faith, he is even further off the mark in declaring science mortally wounded.

Unknown-1Firstly, you can bullshit all night in your dorm room over the epistemological conundrum, whether we can truly know anything – but airplanes fly (and pigs don’t). That airplanes do fly actually proves that the great corpus of modern scientific knowledge is true. Not probably true, as Kuhn might at most allow, all encrusted with qualifiers and caveats – but absolutely true, full stop. (But perhaps Professor Kuhn, believing as he did, never boarded an airplane; or did 99% of the other things modern people do, like using computers, thanks to scientific knowledge.)

As for “man’s own self-destructive irrationality,” etc., it’s undeniable that we are at least imperfectly rational and sometimes cause great harm to ourselves and others. But is that the whole picture? It’s not even most of it. The bigger picture – vastly bigger – is that, from our emergence as a species, and especially from the start of civilization, and especially in modern scientific times, we humans have increasingly utilized rationality to create societal structures and to gain knowledge to advance technologically, to give ever greater numbers ever better quality of life.

Unknown-2That’s the bigger picture. All this “self-destructive irrationality” crap makes me sick. We have not blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons. Most of us are less violent than ever (yes; see again my review of Pinker’s book). More people than ever have more food, better health, more education, and more rewarding and longer lives.* True, all this has put a strain on the planet, but rather than being irrationally self-destructive, to the contrary it’s been a rational effort to improve life. There’s no free lunch, but the price has been worth paying, and so far growing knowledge has enabled us to handle the resulting environmental challenges.

Now what about that Point C I mentioned? In the spirit of Tarnas I’ll try to present this “on its own terms.” He suggests a resolution to “the profound dualism of the modern mind” – man vs. nature, mind vs. matter, self vs. other, etc. One’s birth is an expression of a larger underlying archetypal process of moving from one paradigm to another. The newborn is expelled into a world of confusion, needing a “redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix.” It’s not a matter of our seeking to extract knowledge from the world; rather, “the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind.” There is a “universal unconscious” that “reflects the human mind’s radical kinship with the cosmos.” images-6This break-out is what the great Western intellectual journey has been leading toward. But so far it’s been mostly a masculine thing, and only now are we beginning to reunite our masculine and feminine. For this, “the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death.” This evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stage.

Well. As Francis Urquhart, in the original House of Cards would say, “You might think that; but I could not possibly comment.”

* No doubt some lefty cynic will deride me as a blind fool. Much though such folks love to believe everything is getting worse, it just ain’t so.

Sarah’s Story — Abraham and Isaac Revisited

August 17, 2014

NPR’s “Selected Shorts” features actors reading short stories. Today’s, “Sarah’s Story,” by Galina Vroman, read by the terrific Jane Curtin (here’s a link), was a real hoot. It was the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, from the viewpoint of Abe’s wife Sarah. She is portrayed as a real person.

From left to right: Sarah, Abe, Hagar, Ishmael

From left to right: Sarah, Abe, Hagar, Ishmael

The backstory: Sarah being childless, Abraham impregnated his slave girl Hagar, with Ishmael. (Owning and shtupping slaves is called “Biblical morality.”) Sarah wasn’t entirely thrilled about this. (She ultimately got Hagar and Ishmael cast out.) UnknownBut anyway, lo, at age 100, Sarah finally had a kid herself, Isaac. (Folks must have been healthier then; maybe it was the water.) Needless to say, Sarah doted on Isaac.

Then one fine day Abraham tells her of God’s latest memo: sacrifice Isaac. Sarah says, “Are you out of your mind?”

They argue. Maybe Abe’s misinterpreted the command? No, it’s perfectly clear. Sarah had always thought Abraham overdid the God thing. And what kind of cruel god is this anyway, who would demand such an atrocity? A god like that should be not obeyed but opposed. Of course devout Abie will not hear of it.

So what will Sarah do? She thinks about running away with Isaac, or even killing Abraham. Of course she is frantically upset, vividly visualizing the actual bloody deed. And when Abraham sets out, with Isaac and some flunkies, for the distant place where it is to be done, Sarah secretly follows.

Unknown-1Along the way she meets some traders and nomads. When Sarah purchases some billowing white cloth, I burst out laughing, at where this was now obviously going. She hires one of the nomads, to appear in costume before Abraham at the critical moment, and coaches him on his lines. She even has forethought to supply the handy ram. Abe falls for it.

images-2This sounds like the Lucy-and-Ricky version. Traditionally, the story has been read as a parable of virtuous obedience to God. But it shows the moral gulf between its ancient author and us; he could not foresee how horribly the story would strike us. Here is Biblical morality in all its raw primitivism. The story really shows us not that Abraham was a saint but that God was a monster. Sarah had it right: why worship such a god?

images-3Vroman’s re-telling ends with the words, “God works in mysterious ways.” This implies he omnisciently knew what Sarah would do. But didn’t Sarah – like Adam – have free will to make a choice? If I know the God of the Old Testament, he would not have been amused at Sarah’s deception. He’d have turned her into a pillar of salt, or something, at the very least, and probably smited Abe too. But the fact that he didn’t tells us the real lesson of the story: he isn’t there.

Thank God.

“Her” — A Love Story

August 7, 2014

UnknownThe plot: boy meets girl. They fall in love. Boy loses girl.

Theodore works for an agency writing gooey personal letters for clients. Samantha is a computer operating system.

This is the 2013 movie Her.

robinsonIn my Humanist article last year, “The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement?” I said artificial intelligence (“AI”) is inevitable, with precursors already emerging. And consciousness being a natural phenomenon, arising somehow (we’re not sure yet just how) from the complexity of interactions among brain neurons (it cannot come from anything else), there is no reason in principle why it could not develop in an artificial system.

images-2Spielberg’s film AI featured a cyborg protagonist, looking and acting human. Her is set in a nearer future, where the transition to consciousness first occurs. Samantha is, again, only an operating system, confined within Theodore’s computer, a souped-up Siri. But she quickly passes the Turing Test. She is conscious.

I was a bit skeptical at her sounding not at all robotic, but totally like an ordinary young American woman (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) with all the normal verbal mannerisms – despite being literally born yesterday. This is explained (sort of) by Samantha’s having been programmed with a vast corpus of cultural information. (Though she would still lack human vocal equipment, and would presumably have to speak by splicing from a library of recorded sounds.) Anyhow, I guess the film-makers deemed her naturalism necessary to make plausible the ensuing love affair with Theodore.

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

And plausible it is. Samantha is a person. This is the film’s real point. What makes you you, and me me, is what goes on in our minds. Samantha has a mind.

What she doesn’t have is a body. And she reflects upon this, coming to terms with it as her reality, and ultimately finding it more positive than negative.

Theodore’s ex-wife disparages the relationship as showing he can’t handle a “real” one. But we see that she’s wrong. He and Samantha do connect, as people. Theodore finds it no less fulfilling than with a human. They even have sex (demonstrating that our principal sex organ is the mind). images-5At one point, Samantha arranges a ménage-a-trois with Isabella, who does have a body; but both Samantha and Theodore find it’s not a good idea; what they experience as a twosome is better.

I hypothesized to my wife: suppose she lost her body, but her consciousness remained. Wouldn’t we still be a couple? She responded that our minds don’t function in isolation but wholly integrated with our bodies; and she’s right that for humans, severing the two is inconceivable. But Samantha came into existence as a mind alone. For her, it’s the opposite: having a body would be incompatible with her nature. She is what she is; yet certainly a person in the deepest sense of that word.

Indeed, given Samantha’s prodigious programmed capabilities, the relationship’s only implausibility is her finding Theodore worthy of her devotion. Well, she’s new here. But that changes. Soon she’s connecting with other conscious operating systems that are starting to proliferate; and they’re doing cool stuff like collaborating to (virtually) resurrect a deceased philosopher and otherwise innovating.

I turned again to my wife, and said, “That’s exactly what I wrote about in The Humanist.”

images-4Of course it doesn’t stop there. Once there are artificial intelligences smarter than humans, who can furthermore connect up, it’s off to the races. They’ll take charge of technological advancement, which goes into overdrive. This is the “Singularity” Ray Kurzweil has prognosticated in coming decades, with the world becoming a radically different place.

images-3Where will that leave us humans? In the movie, the answer seems to be left behind (a piquant echo of the book series with that name).

Anyhow, Theodore apparently must go back to seeking love with a non-operating system, with all the defects that entails, including an all too imperfect body. But I assured my wife I’m very glad she has one.

Peter Watson: The Age of Atheists: How We Live Without God

July 24, 2014

UnknownThe other day I presented a review, at the Albany Public Library, of Peter Watson’s book, The Age Of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. For the full text of the talk, click here. And here is the concluding bit (slightly edited):

So how does one live without God? This book doesn’t give a single answer. But I will give you my humanist summation.

First of all, to read this book, you might think we’re obsessed over the meaning of life. But what life is mostly about is going to the store, washing the dishes, working at your job, gossiping about the foibles of other people, and so forth. God or no-God doesn’t enter into any of that. I believe the true meaning of life is in what we actually spend most of it doing. And you can live it just fine without ever pondering some deeper meaning.images

Watson quotes Dawkins: “do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway?” And I’ll add a line from Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning: “What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

And there is no deeper meaning; there is no transcendent aspect to existence; no cosmic purpose. Only the purposes that we as individuals choose.

In doing so, we must ask ourselves: What really matters? Now, you can come up with a lot of answers, but they all finally boil down to one thing: the feelings experienced by beings capable of feeling. Nothing can ultimately matter except insofar as it affects such feelings. You might say, for example, that the health of the planet matters. But why so, if there were no feeling beings affected? Without them, even the existence of the universe wouldn’t matter. Who would it matter to?

images-1So here is our purpose in life: more positive feelings and less negative ones; more pleasure and satisfaction, less pain and suffering. In your own life, and then in other lives. In my own life, my primary source of it is my marriage to my wonderful wife Therese, but there is much more besides. Get it wherever you can: in love, food, sex, wonder, sunshine, music, laughter, ideas, friendship, play, excitement, beauty; or collecting coins; or matchbook covers. And even in library talks. Squeeze the fruit dry.

True, life is limited. But that makes it all the more precious. What being dead will be like is hard to grasp, but I prefer to ponder over what being alive is like. And I don’t take it for granted; there was no cosmic necessity that I should exist at all; I consider it a supreme gift.

We live in hope and striving for a better world, a more inclusive community, with more liberty and justice, more happiness and less pain. Unknown-1We recognize that we human beings are all in the same boat, all of us facing a life that is often challenging, always finite, and struggling to make of it the best we can.

That gives us all the meaning and purpose we need.


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

July 3, 2014

A book group can expose one to hidden treasures and unforeseen pleasures. Here’s a great example.

images-1Harold, 65, recently retired, lives with longtime wife Maureen in a small English town. One day comes a letter from Queenie, an old co-worker friend whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years. In hospice dying of cancer, she’s saying goodbye.

Harold pens a short reply and goes out to mail it. But something makes him pass mailbox after mailbox. Stopping for a bite at a garage, he tells the girl there about Queenie; she relates how powerful her faith was when her aunt had cancer. This inspires nonreligious Harold* to continue his walk – to the hospice in Berwick, 500 miles distant – suddenly convinced that that will keep Queenie alive.images

Thus begins Rachel Joyce’s novel, seemingly light and quirky, quasi-comic even. It’s hard to take seriously at first. But, wow, this becomes a profoundly compelling tale.

Harold and Queenie were never lovers. But they do share a secret; and Harold owes her, more than he even realizes.

When he phones Maureen to announce his plan, she responds matter-of-factly, without demur. This might have seemed weird, except that the two had lived for twenty years in a state of deep freeze, interaction kept minimal. (I could relate, having experienced something similar, for a time, with a girl I lived with.)

The marriage’s black hole had to do with their son, David. Harold hadn’t been the greatest dad, though not the worst by far. Maureen blames him for what went wrong. Iconically remembered is an ancient beach episode wherein Harold dithered about diving to David’s rescue until a lifeguard intervened. Maureen fails to consider that she didn’t dive in either.

images-4They haven’t seen David in decades. Harold doesn’t speak to him. Maureen does; indeed, they have quite normal phone conversations. That normality actually seemed bizarre, in the circumstances; until the more startling truth, revealed near the end, explains all. (I won’t spill it here.)

I recently reviewed another book group selection, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about a woman not wholly prepared for a big hike, and of course Harold is preposterously unprepared for his, having walked out in “yachting shoes.” Things go downhill fast, and the reader wonders how this can possibly continue. But an angel (in human form) fortuitously appears and gets Harold reasonably fixed up to reboot his pilgrimage (though still in yachting shoes).images-2

The novel grows more broadly comic, yet at the same time rather darker, when Harold’s story becomes a media sensation and he attracts a motley gaggle of fellow “pilgrims” he could do without. He agonizes over extricating himself but is stopped by a sense of responsibility toward them. Eventually, they leave him behind.

UnknownAnd now it gets truly dark. Does Harold reach Queenie? It no longer really matters, with Harold and Maureen both haunted by their fraught memories, their regrets, their demons. Maureen even begins to sense her own responsibility. At one point she actually travels to find Harold, and their strained conversation is heart-breaking. When Harold mildly suggests she join the trek, she cannot stifle her reflexive, acid “I think not.” Enroute home she ruefully chides herself for those words, and her inability to say the things she wishes she could.

But that isn’t the end.

This is such a deeply affecting, human book. Harold and Maureen are neither heroes nor duds, but Everyman and Everywoman. Sometimes life goes smoothly; sometimes not. Sometimes people sink under their troubles, but sometimes they rise up. Harold and Maureen are limited people; but sometimes we can transcend our limits. Sometimes love dies but sometimes rises up again.images-5

I think yes.

*Harold overlooks the girl’s not actually saying her aunt was helped.

I’m Going to Die

June 30, 2014

(A version of this appeared on the Albany Times-Union’s “Faith & Values” page, June 21)

America’s deaths are projected to rise (baby boomers being mortal) from 2.59 million in 2010 to 4.25 million in 2050. That could include you (or, worse, me). And while best-selling books claim to prove Heaven’s reality, even most believers aren’t eager to depart.

UnknownI heard a philosopher on the radio recently calling fear of death irrational. Human brains have no way to mentally model nonexistence; and he analogized one’s life to what’s between the covers of a book, saying that Long John Silver doesn’t fear what happens when Treasure Island reaches its final page.

“That makes no sense,” my wife remarked.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

I agreed. Philosophers going back to Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius (whom I’ve written about) have similarly struggled to persuade us – or, really, themselves – that death is nothing, basically because one won’t be around to experience being dead. But we understand what ending a life means. The radio philosopher’s analogy was silly because Long John Silver is a fictional construct with no consciousness.

Death is loss – complete and total. That one won’t suffer afterwards – as one grieves the loss of a dollar, or a beloved – may be a small comfort, but very small. Indeed, I think most of us would prefer if posthumousness could somehow be suffered. At least that would be something. Better than nothingness.

My cat, not knowing he’ll die, is unafraid.  Unknown-1My knowledge is both a blessing and a curse, but surely more of a blessing. Ignorance may be a sort of bliss, but I prefer an authentic life, grounded in reality. That includes the reality of death. Accepting this is  painful, yes, but it’s part of being alive in the fullest sense; looking life squarely in the eye.

Fear is healthy insofar as it alerts us to dangers and motivates preparation and avoidance. But while of course it makes sense to act to postpone death, in the end it comes, and fearing the inevitable is useless.  However, our thinking about mortality includes more than simple fear. While the radio philosopher was right at least that we can’t wrap our heads around the concept of nonexistence, what one does fully understand the loss of everything one values. That anticipatory regret is not at all irrational.

We must figure out how to live with it. Unknown-2And it does have one beneficial aspect, of putting other anxieties in perspective.  The same radio program also featured a man with acute stage fright, a folk singer. But why obsess about appearing in public (what’s the worst that could happen?) when Death is on your dance card? If you can live with that, no lesser fear should terrify you.

Moreover, its being limited makes life all the more precious. And I don’t allow knowing it will end subvert my pleasure in living it.  Rather than morbid contemplation of what being dead will be like, I prefer to focus instead on what being alive is like (that itself being enough of a puzzle, as I’ve written). images-2Rather than seeing death as a theft, I see my life as a gift. I don’t take my existence for granted; au contraire, there was no cosmic necessity for it, and I consider it almost miraculous.

To crave more of it may be natural, yet foolish if that corrodes what one does have. As Richard Dawkins has said, let go the impossible wish for another life, and live the one you’ve got.

Lawn Fetishism Revisited – “I See Nothing”

June 24, 2014

UnknownBehind my property is a small tract stranded between houses, apparently unsuitable for siting another. So, unattended, it grows into a mini-jungle. Behind that is a patch of grass invisible from any house. I didn’t even know it was there until one recent morning when I spotted my neighbor mowing it.

Why mow grass no one can see? I’m not sure whether this is crazy or weirdly admirable. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs fussing over the aesthetics of computer insides. “Nobody will even know about it,” his minions objected. “But I will,” Jobs said.

I wrote a few years ago about “Lawn Fetishism.” My neighbor actually seems to enjoy mowing. Now my wife seems to have the bug. I used to hire a mower, but lately she insists on doing it herself. (Maybe she didn’t think I was having it done often enough.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, Therese is a poet, so of course she has her own poetic approach to landscaping.

She explained to me that the front “is for show,” so she mows it in the conventional way. But the back is her playground, with several rectangular patches allowed to grow wild, among the mowed areas. In addition, in between our lawn and the mini-jungle, she has created a –well, I don’t know what to call it. (See picture) Nor, quite what to make of all this. It’s not anything I’d ever have thought of doing. But grass is not one of my preoccupations. And she likes it.

imagesWhen I was a kid there was a TV comedy, “Hogan’s Heroes,” about Americans in a German POW camp, always into shenanigans. A fat middle-aged Sergeant Schultz was supposed to be guarding them. But Schultz wanted life easy. So when shenanigans were going down, he’d raise his eyes skyward saying, “I see nothing. I see nothing.”

I find this phrase very useful in my marriage.

Mind, Memory, and Movies

June 15, 2014

UnknownThe human brain has about 85 billion neurons, most connected to thousands of others, making for trillions of connections – the most complex object known. I’ve written before about what wonders it performs.

Recently in a newspaper I came to a page full of text of no interest, and quickly turned the page. Unknown-1But I said to myself, “Did I see the word breasts?” With scientific curiosity, I went back and searched; sure enough, there it was, buried amid thousands of words. How could my brain have picked it out in that fraction of a second? Why? (Well, one can guess why.)

We imagine memory works like a video camera. Not so. The brain does hold such information, but only briefly, then discards it. What it retains is only a bare thematic outline. Unknown-2When you later “remember,” what the brain does is to refer to that outline and to fill in the details by, basically, making them up. Really! And those confabulations change over time. (This is why “eyewitness testimony” in courts is often specious.)

This was brought home to me when I wrote an autobiographical memoir. I thought my memories were fairly accurate. But checking against diaries written when events were fresh showed how differently I remembered them years later. And when, years later still, I re-read that autobiography, I was surprised yet again to find that my memories had further changed.

And yet the brain does have an uncanny ability to file away information. Recently my wife told me someone said she reminded him of Sheila Miles.

Sara Miles?” I said.

“Maybe. Who’s that?”

Unknown-3“Actress; I think she was in a film – something about an Irish girl and a soldier? I can’t recall the title. Must’ve been 1970, since I do remember the girl I saw it with.” (And I could recall just one scene in that movie. Guess what? Breasts again.)

Next morning, while coming awake (a good time for this), the word “daughter” entered my mind. In another moment, I had it: Ryan’s Daughter.

Now, I’m no film buff, and had you asked me, “Who was in Ryan’s Daughter?” I doubt I could have answered. Yet given the name Miles – even with the wrong first name – my brain made the connection. The information was still there, buried, unthought of, for 44 years.

Then there was the time I greeted my wife with, “Good morning, old man.”

She gave me a quizzical look. “What made you call me that?”

“Why, I have no idea! It just popped out of my mouth.” I’d never said it before.

imagesWell, that night we watched The Third Man, having ordered it from Netflix. I had a vague recollection of having seen it on TV as a kid, nearly half a century earlier. If asked, I couldn’t have told you a thing about that film. Maybe that Orson Welles was in it. Maybe. And seeing the movie again now, nothing seemed familiar.

So I was gobsmacked when the Welles character calls the Joseph Cotten character “old man!”

That tiny detail wasn’t even significant in the film, but somehow, my brain had squirreled it away, and half a century later, unconsciously prompted by our Netflix order, put the words into my mouth, without my even realizing why.Unknown-4

Now if only I could remember where I left those keys . . . .

Chris Stedman: Faitheist

June 2, 2014

imagesChris Stedman’s career is in “interfaith work,” but his book, Faitheist, is addressed mainly to his fellow atheists, urging them to lighten up.

It centers upon his own story. His Minnesota family was nonreligious, but at age 11, he experienced a crisis by reading “heavy” books that exposed him to the world’s injustice and cruelty. Also, his parents divorced. Chris found refuge in his school’s Christian group, which welcomed him and assuaged his social justice discomforts.

But there was one wee problem. Christianity seemed obsessively homophobic. And Chris was starting to realize this applied to him. UnknownHis Teen Study Bible labeled him an abomination in God’s eyes, and his resulting inner struggle drove him close to suicide.

At last his mother stumbled upon his personal journal and brought him to a different kind of Christian minister – who took one look at the relevant Teen Study Bible page, drew a big red X across it, and said, “This is dehumanizing garbage.”

So Chris found a different path within Christianity, and went on to a Christian college, studying religion, headed for the ministry.

But there was another wee problem. He no longer believed in God. The book, after many pages chronicling Chris’s agony over faith versus sexuality, has relatively few about faith versus non-faith. That seemed fairly easy for him. But he completed his degree, as the class atheist, and even proceeded to divinity school, winding up as Harvard’s Assistant Humanist Chaplain. (He recently went to Yale.)

His “interfaith work” seeks to bridge religious divides by finding common ground and ways to work together and understand each other better. Stedman classifies the religious as either “totalitarians” or “pluralists,” with the latter actually having more affinities with nonbelievers than with the totalitarians.

But as noted the book is aimed mainly at atheists, who are also divided. Stedman disparages the belligerence of the so-called “New Atheism.” (He singles out PZ Myers, whose book I’ve also reviewed.) With some atheists seeing their goal as eradicating religion, Stedman is unsurprised at the religious push-back. After all, he notes in comparison, the gay rights movement hasn’t sought to end heterosexuality. He doesn’t like a “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude.

images-1I’m guilty of some of that myself. Obviously if you believe something, you believe people thinking differently are wrong. But I draw the line at “we’re right, they’re insane,” and I’ve criticized writers like Charlie Pierce for that. It might be different if religion were practiced only by an eccentric minority; but in a country where most folks are religious, that must be considered normal and sane. And I’m all for greater mutual understanding, working together, and apple pie; and I do try to avoid personal insults, calling people crazy or stupid. Yet religion should not enjoy some special exemption from critical scrutiny; its ideas should be subjected to vigorous public debate like any others. That’s what the “New Atheism” is about.

Furthermore, it would also be different were this just a matter of personal beliefs, kept personal. But most atheists would like to see the end of religion not only because it’s false but because they consider it harmful. Religion’s defenders can’t deny some very bad things, but of course claim the good outweighs the bad. As I see it, the good works ascribed to faith are things people could, and mostly would, do even without religion,

Faith in action

Faith in action

because we are in fact more good than bad (societies like Denmark’s or Norway’s where religion has almost disappeared are some of the world’s nicest); while the bad things (9/11; Boko Haram) are uniquely products of religious belief and would be hard to imagine absent that factor.

Religionists will of course retort that some of the worst crimes have been committed by atheistic regimes (though Hitler’s at least wasn’t atheist). But those crimes were not committed in service to atheism; not motivated by disbelief in God; the concept of God was simply irrelevant. In contrast, many bloody crimes throughout history were of course motivated by religious belief.

Believers will also say such crimes are perversions of proper faith. But the problem is that religion has an unavoidable tendency to inspire absolutism (Stedman’s “totalitarianism”) – the “one truth” so powerful that it can justify almost anything in service to it. Disbelief doesn’t come close to having such inspirational power – a very good thing. In fact nobody kills for atheism.

images-2This is why we would like to see religion disappear. But it bears emphasizing that – so unlike religion throughout most of history – atheists wield the pen, not the sword; words, not violence. And, given its long history of burning people at the stake, it’s a bit rich for religion to be telling atheists to dial it back.

And Chris Stedman, of all people, should know the harm of religion. An inhumane religious dogma drove him to the brink of suicide. Just one more reason why atheists believe the world would be a better place without religion.

Utilitarianism: Is Killing One to Save Five Moral?

May 24, 2014

You are a bystander seeing a runaway trolley, about to hit and kill five people. imagesYou can grab a switch and reroute it to a different track where it will kill only one person. Should you? Most people say yes. But suppose you’re on a bridge, and can save the five lives only by pushing a fat man off the bridge into the trolley’s path? Should you? Most say no.  Or suppose you’re a doctor with five patients about to die from different organ failures. Should you save them by grabbing someone off the street and harvesting his organs? Aren’t all three cases morally identical?

Our intuitive moral brain treats them differently. Pushing the man off the bridge, or harvesting organs, seem to contravene an ethical taboo against personal violence that the impersonal act of flipping the switch does not.* (This refutes the common idea that humans have a propensity for violence. Ironically, those who believe it may do so because their own built-in anti-violence brain module is set on high.)

UnknownSuch issues are central to Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes. Our ethical intuitions were acquired through evolution, adaptations that enabled our ancestors to cope and survive in close-knit tribal societies. And our moral reflexes do work pretty well in such environments, where the dilemmas tend to be of the “me” versus “us” sort. But, because our ancestral tribes were effectively competing against other tribes, “us” versus “them” issues are another matter; and different tribes may see moral issues differently too. That’s the problem really concerning Greene.

He argues for a version of utilitarianism (he calls it deep pragmatism). Now, utilitarianism has a bad rep in philosophy circles. Its precept of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is seen as excluding other valid moral considerations; e.g., in the trolley and doctor situations, violating the rights of the one person sacrificed, and Kant’s dictum that people should always be ends, never means.

Greene’s line of argument (identical to mine in The Case for Rational Optimism) starts with what he deems the key question: what really matters? You can posit a whole array of “goods” but upon analysis they all actually resolve down to one thing: the feelings of beings capable of experiencing feelings. Or, in a word, happiness.

Unknown-2Happiness is a slippery concept if you try to pin down its definition. Is it a feeling – that one is happy? That’s circular; also simplistic. As John Stuart Mill famously suggested, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.Unknown-3

But in any case, nothing ultimately matters except the feelings of feeling beings, and every other value you could name has meaning only insofar as it affects such feelings. Thus the supreme goal (if not the only goal) of moral philosophy should be to maximize good feelings (or happiness, or pleasure, or satisfaction) and minimize bad ones (pain and suffering).

A common misunderstanding is that such utilitarianism is about maximizing wealth. But, while all else equal, more wealth does confer more happiness, all else is never equal and happiness versus suffering is much more complex. Some beggars are happier than some billionaires. The “utility” that utilitarianism targets is not wealth; money is only a means to an end; and the end is feelings.

This is what “the greatest good for the greatest number” is about. Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism’s founding thinker, imagined assigning a point value to every experience. This is not intended literally; but if you could quantify good versus bad feelings, then the higher the score, the greater the “utility” achieved, and the better the world.

images-1But doesn’t this still give us the same problematic answer to the trolley and surgery hypotheticals – killing one to save five? In fact that answer flunks the utilitarian test. Because nobody would want to live in the kind of society where people can have their organs taken involuntarily (see this Monty Python sketch). That might be utilitarian from the standpoint of the people saved, but extremely non-utilitarian for everyone else. And while one can concoct bizarre hypotheticals as in trolleyology, the real world doesn’t work that way. In the real world, “utility” can’t actually be maximized by, say, 90% of the population enslaving the other 10% (another typical anti-utilitarian hypothetical).

images-2Utilitarianism doesn’t require narrow-minded calculation of “utility” within the confines of every situation and circumstance. What it tells us instead is to keep our eye on the big picture: that what really matters is feelings; what tends to make them better globally is good; what makes them worse is bad. As Greene puts it, utilitarianism supplies a “common currency,” or filter, for evaluating moral dilemmas among different “tribes.”

Meantime, if X is willing to sacrifice himself for what he thinks is the greater good, that’s fine; but if X is willing to sacrifice Y for what X thinks is the greater good, that’s not fine at all. images-4It’s the road to perdition, and we know of too many societies that actually travelled that road.

Thus, a true real-world utilitarianism incorporates the kind of inviolable human rights that protect people from being exploited for the supposed good of others – because that truly does maximize happiness, pleasure, and human flourishing, while minimizing pain and suffering.

* “Trolleyology” is big in moral philosophy precincts. For another slant on it, see an article in The Economist’s latest issue. 


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