Sunday, February 16, 2014

Opposing Views on Human Nature

I continue to read this 800-page tome published in 1960 in the Soviet Union and translated into German by, as it says, a "translator collective."

I continue to be astonished by the contents of the book. Communists were (and are) incredibly optimistic about the communist future. They were so optimistic, in fact, that their vision seems to be a lot like a worldly attempt to take a supernatural heaven and make it real in the here and now.

So much of modern thinking goes back to the philosophy that was worked out by the Marxist-Leninists. I have learned a lot about much of modern thought by spending time with old books like this!

Here I translate a select passage about the future that they expected after they had destroyed capitalism:

"The State is no longer necessary. Even the necessity of laws and regulation falls away. For the culturally, ideologically, and morally upstanding humans that communism will produce, the observance of the rules of human social life becomes habit--second nature.

When every kind of coercion disappears from society, not only will the social conditions of the future society transform themselves, but Man himself will change and conduct himself in everything solely from his convictions and knowledge of his moral duty."

For the communists, human nature is incredibly flexible and can change radically given what they consider to be the right social environment. For them, it seems, we are actually perfectible. The opposing view holds that human nature is consistent and stable, that we are not perfectible, and that attempts to make humans change radically are inevitably disastrous. The older I have gotten, the more I have taken the latter view, and that view is the foundation of becoming conservative.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Obama and Same-Sex Marriage: A Problem for His Supporters

If you support Obama and same-sex marriage (hereafter SSM), then consider the following argument very carefully, since it has important consequences for your thinking.

Obama stated numerous times that he was opposed to SSM. Here is a valid argument of the form known as “constructive dilemma” (let “telling the truth” be understood to mean ‘telling the truth when he said that he opposed same-sex marriage’):

1. Either Obama was telling the truth, or he was not telling the truth.
2. If Obama was telling the truth, then he was a homophobic bigot.
3. If Obama was not telling the truth, then he was a liar.
4. Therefore, either Obama was a homophobic bigot or he was a liar.

Did you vote for a homophobic bigot or a liar? Perhaps you wish to avoid this conclusion. Since my argument is valid, you must deny one of the premises. The first one can’t be questioned, since it is merely an instance of the Law of the Excluded Middle. The third might be questioned by saying that telling a lie here and there doesn’t make one a liar, but I would submit that saying what you know to be a falsehood on a matter of great and significant import makes one an excellent candidate for being a liar.

The most vulnerable premise is the second one. Instead of 2, you could affirm:

2’. If Obama was telling the truth, then it is not necessarily the case that he was a homophobic bigot.

But then this would be true:

5. If 2’ is true, then it is not necessarily the case that opposing SSM makes one a homophobic bigot.

By a valid inference called “hypothetical syllogism,” it follows from 2’ and 5 that:

6. If Obama was telling the truth, then it is not necessarily the case that opposing SSM makes one a homophobic bigot.

Now I construct the initial argument with 6:

1. Either Obama was telling the truth, or he was not telling the truth.
6. If Obama was telling the truth, then it is not necessarily the case that opposing SSM makes one a homophobic bigot.
3. If Obama was not telling the truth, then he was a liar.
4. Therefore, either it is not necessarily the case that opposing SSM makes one a homophobic bigot, or Obama was a liar.

There is nothing in the argument that rules out the possibility that both disjuncts in the conclusion are true. That possibility is open. But the problem that you face is that you must accept at least one of the two. Here I have offered the four options that realistically offer themselves for your consideration:

Option One: “I will concede that Obama lied repeatedly when he said that he was against same-sex marriage.”


Option Two: “Opposing same-sex marriage does not necessarily make you a homophobic bigot.”

Or you could affirm both and say:

Option Three: “Opposing same-sex marriage does not necessarily make you a homophobic bigot, and Obama lied when he said that he was against it."

Option Four: Or you could go back to the original argument and say: “I will concede that Obama was a homophobic bigot.”

Whether you support SSM or oppose it is irrelevant. My motivations for writing this post are irrelevant. Which option do you take?

Here I restate the four options in the strict language of the arguments, in case you find it helpful. If not, disregard:

Option One: Opposing SSM does make one a homophobic bigot, and Obama was a liar.

Option Two: Opposing SSM does not make one a homophobic bigot, and Obama was not a liar.

Option Three: Opposing SSM does not make one a homophobic bigot, and Obama was a liar.

Option Four: Opposing SSM does make one a homophobic bigot, Obama was not a liar, so Obama was a homophobic bigot.

So, at least one of the following MUST be true:

A. Obama was a liar.
B. Obama was a homophobic bigot.
C. Opposing same-sex marriage does not necessarily make you a homophobic bigot.

Which will you choose?  I choose Option Three and thereby affirm A and C. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Deistic Evolution

I have an enthusiastic book recommendation for any deist.  Although written by an atheist, I believe it has the best solution for those of us who assert both that God exists and that evolution is a fact, which describes every deist that I know.

Materialist Naturalism (MN) has become the default position in the sciences.  According to MN, there is nothing supernatural in the world (MN is therefore necessarily atheistic), and everything is fundamentally matter or a function of matter.  For MN, evolution by natural selection is the explanation for all that we see in the biological realm including life itself, consciousness, and the ability to reason.

Thomas Nagel is one of the most famous and important living American philosophers.  Surprisingly, as an atheist, Nagel argues in this book that MN faces insurmountable difficulties so severe that it simply cannot be a plausible candidate as an intellectually sufficient worldview.  For him, no materialist philosophy has ever succeeded in explaining the reliability of our rational faculties without engaging in circular reasoning, our subjective experience of consciousness, or the objective nature of morality.

In addition to the physical and chemical laws that MN recognizes, Nagel suggests that there is another kind of law operative in the universe—a “teleological” law.  In a nod to the ancient metaphysics of Aristotle, Nagel offers an atheistic, naturalistic worldview that incorporates a teleological law that “guides” or “inclines” things to move in the direction of life, consciousness, reasoning, and value. 

However, by affirming a “teleological” approach and rejecting MN’s “efficient causal” approach, Nagel also rejects theism’s “intentional” approach, as well.  In doing so, he retains the naturalism of MN and rejects the materialism.  Perhaps his view could be called “Neutral Monistic Naturalism,” in which something underlying both matter and mind guides them (in a non-intentional way) to develop together in biological evolution.

As a deist, I affirm the existence of God just as much as a theist does.  I am not convinced that Nagel’s atheistic teleology makes any sense, because there is no explanation in his system of why the universe inclines in one way rather than another.  This, to my mind, forces Nagel to rely on precisely the “brute facts” that he is trying to avoid in the MN worldview.  Affirming the existence of a Supreme Being, with whatever its philosophical problems are, strikes me as the best way to avoid these dreaded "brute facts."

In the context of this debate, both deists and theists are considered to be in the “theistic” camp inasmuch as both affirm that God is behind the process.  However, the theist, unlike the deist, has the option of arguing that God has intervened miraculously at certain critical points (life, consciousness, reason).  The deist, denying intervention, cannot take this option.

But Nagel’s teleological approach is, I think, the best inspiration for a deistic evolution that I have found, once it is combined with God’s intentions.  For the deist, the ultimate explanation is certainly “intentional,” insofar as it is God’s will that it occur; however, the deist can argue that God infused the creation with “teleology”—a distinct tendency to move in a certain direction.  With Nagel’s teleological approach, the deist now has a way of conceptualizing how evolution by natural selection can tend toward the goal of producing self-reflective, rational beings without any special intervention.  God "baked it in the cake," as it were.

Nagel writes:  “My preference for an immanent, natural explanation is congruent with my atheism.  But even a theist who believes God is ultimately responsible for the appearance of conscious life could maintain that this happens as part of a natural order that is created by God, but that it does not require further divine intervention.  A theist not committed to dualism in the philosophy of mind could suppose that the natural possibility of mind resides already in the character of the elements out of which those organisms are composed, perhaps supplemented by laws of psychophysical emergence.  To make the possibility of conscious life a consequence of the natural order created by God while ascribing its actuality to subsequent divine intervention would then seem an arbitrary complication.  Some form of teleological naturalism should for these reasons seem no less credible than an interventionist explanation, even to those who believe that God is ultimately responsible for everything” (103).

Something to think about!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Heart of Reality

I would like to articulate an experience I had that was so powerful that it has had more influence on my worldview than all the books I’ve ever read.  Perhaps it was the closest I will ever get to a genuine religious experience.  First the context, and then the experience.

Relatively speaking, my first seven weeks in the Mayo Clinic in early 2012 for leukemia were not overly unpleasant.  I nearly always had my mother or my wife there, friends visited, and importantly for this story, nurses visited frequently in my room to say hi and to chat.  At that time, I was able to leave my door open, thus giving me a psychological connection to a world outside of my room.  The open door also facilitated casual conversation with nurses and staff as they passed by.  Outside of immediate family and friends, the staff at the hospital eventually became an essential part of my social life, as they do for most long-term residents.

Then I finally got a notorious bacterial infection known as “Clostridium difficile,” which occurs commonly in hospitals.  Immediately, the nurses closed my door and kept it closed.  They could not enter the room without donning a yellow coverall with blue gloves.  I called it the “Big Bird” outfit.  The closed door was traumatic for me, and the Big Bird routine ended the casual conversations.  Then I had a horrifying question, so I asked the doctors.  They confirmed my fears—protocol demanded that the closed door and Big Bird outfits be a permanent feature of my stay from this point on, no matter what happens.

With this essential piece of my social life suddenly stolen from me, I entered a depression.  Shortly thereafter I had the room all to myself over a Saturday and Sunday.  The doctors didn’t visit over weekends, and the nurses were no longer visiting like they once did.  I was so overwhelmed by loneliness and thoughts about my potential death that I spent the whole weekend sobbing.

On Sunday afternoon, a nurse came into my room with Big Bird on, and we chatted for about ten minutes.  It was a great relief.  I said, “Oh, I’m talking your ear off.  You have work to do!  So, what will it be?  Are we doing a blood draw or something?”

And then she said two sentences that have changed my life.

She said, “I don’t have anything to do.  I just came in here to see you.”

I immediately collapsed into a full-body sob as I surrendered to what had just happened.  She started to cry and hugged me and just let me go and go.

When I reflect on that experience, here is how I can try to express it.  No other language can capture the power of it than to say that, in hearing her words, I had seen the face of God.  All of the suffering, pain, misery, and horrors of life shattered in this brilliance that had been unleashed upon me.  It is as if she had uncovered the divine spark within her that, like the singularity that preceded the Big Bang, expanded to create universes.

The experience abides.  Every time that I replay it in my mind, I have to control my emotions.  I saw the beating heart of reality in the kind words of a nurse, and reality is absolutely beautiful.

So now I know—I matter.  You matter.  This life has a significance so awesome that even a sideways glance at its radiance would make anyone blind.

And this is why nothing about my condition really bothers me much anymore.  Every one of us has the potential to give a gift like this to somebody.  And it can be as easy as “I just came in here to see you.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Atheist's Vision

I never had Ayer’s experience while fighting leukemia, although I wish I had.  The description of his experience moves me deeply because I am quite convinced that it corresponds to what I think is true:  First, there is a Supreme Intelligence (God) at the core of existence itself; and second, (I suspect that) there are other exalted intelligences, which I would call Gods and Goddesses (yeah, I know I’m in trouble here with some, but oh, well).

The second proposition strikes me as a hypothesis that would help to explain the multiplicity of religions as well as the diversity of religious experiences in the world, although I wish not to slide into the intellectual incoherence of claiming that “all religions are saying the same thing.”  That claim cannot be true, because different religions affirm mutually contradictory things, and contradictions cannot be true.

The first proposition explains the unity of it all—the consistency of the laws of nature, the universally binding moral absolutes that obligate us to behave in certain ways and not in others, the need for an ultimate explanation instead of a group of them without any unifying principle.

I have adopted the belief in the Divine for a wide variety of reasons, one of which is that I have come to the conclusion that metaphysical views that attempt to explain the mind solely in terms of unconscious matter are just not believable.  I am convinced that there are other existing things that are not at all physical, including numbers, propositions, laws (physical, logical, and moral), and minds.  I think that there is something fundamental and irreducible about consciousness itself, and that if anything would serve as a metaphysical ultimate, a supreme consciousness is a very good candidate, and is a better one than matter.

Because there are many (perhaps infinite) things that are not material in nature, we cannot say that because only matter exists, God cannot.

If we wish to dismiss the Supreme-Being hypothesis, it would have to be for other reasons.  Perhaps we could say that God does not exist because science cannot prove it.  But science cannot prove a lot of things that are nevertheless true; for example, it can never prove that it is always wrong to murder children solely for one’s own personal enjoyment.

I think the only atheistic argument that retains weight is the classic argument that a perfect being would not permit the suffering that we see in this life.  I wrote my dissertation (“Divine Abandonment and the Evidential Argument from Evil,” 2004) on this topic and have come to this conclusion:  If there really is a Supreme Being, it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that He would have reasons beyond our limited understanding for permitting the kinds of things that we see.  However, I don’t think that this response ends all rational concern here, and I do believe that the argument from evil does give us evidence that there is no Supreme Being.  I believe, however, that this evidence is not conclusive and is outweighed by other considerations.  I think that the evil in the world ought to keep a person from being smug about God’s existence, but I don’t think that he is intellectually required to abandon the belief.

And there is also my personal experience.  It is a story that has been told a million times with insignificant variations.  I have had a profound alteration in my perception of my life and my actions.  Everything feels so much more significant.  Everything is infused with a meaning that I deeply feel transcends the world.  The attitudes of the adolescent can no longer suffice and must be abandoned.  Wisdom must be accepted from any source, and foolishness rejected.

I have experienced a liberation so profound that, even though my lifespan has been significantly shortened, I would never trade the liberation for the extra years.  The liberation is the knowledge that the needs of my soul can never be satisfied by my possessions, my successes, or even my body itself.  Freedom from dependence on this ephemeral world, and the re-orientation toward the mysteries of the other, is a source of true bliss.

But I never became a fundamentalist or anything like that.  This is either/or thinking, to my mind.  The idea is that you must disbelieve everything or believe everything.  Well, I believe a lot of stuff, and I don’t believe a lot of stuff, and that’s how it is.

So I say that you do not and never will have absolute proof that you are just an accident and that life has no meaning.  This does not prove that the opposite is the case (that would be the Argument from Ignorance fallacy), but it calls to mind an important question:  Why live your life as if it has no meaning when you are not intellectually obligated to do so?  I refuse to live this way. 

Thank you, Death, because I have found you an intimidating, yet loving, teacher.

So let the wonder of Ayer’s experience feed your soul!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Nazis vs. Communists

I have been studying a lot of Soviet ideology stuff lately, and so I bought a book about Bolshevism by a German named Heinrich Härtle.  It is a reprint from the University of California Libraries, and I bought it because it was one of the few German-language books I could find on the subject.  Having no idea of the contents, I took a small risk on a very inexpensive book.

Well, after reading a fair amount of the book, I started getting a strange vibe about it.  After what seemed to be a competent explanation of certain Bolshevik and Marxist beliefs followed by fairly decent criticisms, he would go on to say things like, “This is typical of Jewish intellectuals.”  It seemed as if the author was a bit obsessed with race.  I looked at the publication date—1944.  No way!  This book was written by a straight-up Nazi during WWII!

I did some research on the author and it turns out that he was one of the most important intellectual Nazi ideologues.  He was member #60,398 of the Nazi Party.   In 1928 he joined the Sturmabteilung (Brownshirts), and in 1942 he became a Sturmbannführer in the SA (equivalent to a Major).  He played an important role in linking Nietzsche ideologically to National Socialism.

It is fascinating to witness this ideological war between the Nazis and the Communists.  Both had one thing in common:  They both saw people first and foremost as members of groups rather than as individuals.  For the Communists, it was all about in which of the warring classes one found oneself.  For the Nazis, it was all about one’s racial identity.

Härtle berates the Marxists for thinking that class identity can produce a true culture.  Only racial identity can produce a true culture.

A couple of choice quotations that I have selected:

This one I think has a ring of truth to it:  “Since ‘Bolschevism’ doesn’t always sound sufficiently scientific, they increasingly adopted the very learned-appearing name of ‘Dialectical Materialism.’  In the USSR, this name is supposed to play the role that the scholastic philosophy—Thomism—plays in the theology of the churches.  Dialectical Materialism became the theology of Marxism, the ruling fundamental concept of research as well as teaching, of the university as well as the academy, of the institutes and the libraries.”

But then things get serious:  “Marx displays the following entirely typical Jewish traits:  First, the instinct toward economic activity; second, a parasitic-plagiaristic foundation; and third, the destructive and annihilating effect on non-Jewish people.”

Further:  “Only the racial investigation solves the final riddles of this unholy development [Marxism].  […]  Jewish is the parasitic exploitation of the intellectual achievement of others, and Jewish is the intellectual misrepresentation of original discoveries.”

“When we briefly confront, in the following, the main thesis of his [Marx’s] theory, it is not in order to refute Marx ‘scientifically,’ which presupposes to take him scientifically seriously, but rather to characterize him as a Jewish intellect.”

And it goes on.  National Socialism vs. Communism!