Suffering and the “Full Human Experience”

If life does not always tend toward the tragic (and I’m not convinced that it doesn’t), then it does tend toward the “son-of-a-bitch!” in a variety of ways. In this vein, Nietzsche recognized that the problem of suffering is not so much that we suffer, but that we crave an answer to why we suffer. And this in the sense of: to what end? What is the meaning of our suffering? —Not only do we experience suffering, but we suffer our suffering. Both levels of suffering call for a response. Nietzsche castigated and disparaged the religious, in particular, Christian, response to suffering. Buddhism, too, was problematic. Religions in general were seen as life-denying to Nietzsche. What is “life-denying” comes in various forms, but insofar as Christianity and Buddhism regard suffering as evil, regard its “why?” as due to “sin,” and see human existence as something to transcend, Nietzsche sees them both as dangerous. For life, or a life worthy of the name, according to Nietzsche, must embody a great will, one that takes on great responsibility, great suffering. Suffering is not an objection to existence.

We see these latter ideas most radically expressed in Nietzsche’s response to the suicidal nihilism he saw following of necessity from the death of God and all that underlies and spreads out from its epicenter. In the religious context, the “ascetic priest” uses the “ascetic ideal” to give suffering meaning. The ascetic ideal is a valorization of self-denial: “The three great slogans of the ascetic ideal are familiar: poverty, humility, chastity” (Genealogy of Morals, III 8). Here the “meaning” of suffering is: “You are to blame! You have not been properly humble, chaste, or impoverished!” By contrast, Nietzsche dares the “higher type” of human to say “Yes!” to all that was, is and will be, to embrace (the idea of) the eternal recurrence—the paradoxical idea that you, not simply another version or copy of you, will relieve your life again and again as the universe eternally cycles through the exact same loop of events:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. (Ecce Homo, “Why I am so Clever,” §10.)

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Is it true that nothing really matters because one day I or the universe will cease to be?

There are a number of things that might concern one about death and the meaning of one’s life. Two related concerns are that in a million years nothing we do now will matter and, assuming there is no soul-like immortality, because life on earth is finite, nothing has any meaning. Something like these two ideas seems to be running through the following quote from Hans Küng regarding Simone de Beauvoir:

Simone de Beauvoir, the companion of Jean Paul Sartre, growing old, finished the third volume of her memoirs, Force of Circumstance, with a review of the life she had so passionately affirmed:  “Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing…. If it had at least enriched the earth; if it had given birth to…what? A hill? A rocket? But no. Nothing will have taken place, I can still see the hedge of hazel trees flurried by the wind and the promises with which I fed my beating heart while I stood gazing at the gold-mine at my feet: a whole life to live.  The promises have all been kept.  And yet, turning an incredulous gaze towards that young and credulous girl, I realize with stupor how much I was gypped.”  (p693, From Hans Küng, Does God Exist?)

This is quite a depressing attitude. All those things and experiences will cease to mean anything once de Beauvoir ceases to exist. But why must their meaningfulness depend on her continued existence? Does it really? Let’s try to answer this latter question by looking at what might it mean to say that in a million years nothing we do now will matter? Here are some possibilities: Continue reading

Why are you a Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.)?

Much of what I have to say is critical, but I do not mean any disrespect to my family and friends, or any one else of a particular faith. The purpose of this short essay is to further my project of trying to understand religious belief and to cultivate a certain kind of humility that I find lacking in many religious people. The latter may seem condescending, though I certainly do not intend it to be.

When asking for the reasons why a person believes something, e.g., that gay marriage is a good/bad idea, there are two importantly different kinds of reasons that we might appeal to (there are more than just these two, but these are the most salient). One kind is called epistemic reasons. Epistemic reasons are relevant to the truth of that for which they are reasons. That is, their truth is supposed to guarantee or make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over an infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well.

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The Atheist’s Values and Motivations: Are the Ungodly Likely Immoral?

In a recent article, “Exceptionally Articulate: Obama’s eloquence fails to quiet charges that he does not believe in God or America,” a key issue is the relevance of Obama’s faith to his being worthy of being president. The consensus seems to be that most voters would not be happy if he were not a man of faith. I assume that this is because voters think they can judge a lot about a person from his or her beliefs about god. A person of faith would more likely than not, the thinking goes, be more ethical. For many that presumably means, for example, being pro-life (though for others it might mean being pro-choice). Nevertheless, if you are religious, then you have a set of moral standards that you feel obligated to adhere to. Whereas, if you are an ungodly atheist, you have no moral code to guide your actions. So the thinking goes.

But really, is it more likely for the ungodly to have no moral code, conscious or unconscious, than it is for the ostensibly religious? There are at least two important issues lurking here. The first concerns from whence a person’s moral compass originates. The second concerns whether it is possible to have or justify having a moral compass without their existing some sort of god in whom to ground values—the god who sets the northern pole.

Starting with the second issue, if you study even a bit of philosophy, you quickly see that philosophers have long made sense of value independently of God’s fiat. One place to look would be Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s recent book Morality without God? I have not read the book, but I have listened to a podcast interview with him on Philosophy Bites. From that interview, the book would seem to be a good bet for those wanting to know more. The main point is that we can make sense of value independently of god stipulating what is good, bad, right, wrong (And if arguments against the divine command theory are sound, then we should do so). For example, the most basic form of utilitarianism identifies the good with pleasure, the bad with pain or the absence of pleasure, and right action as that action which maximizes the good, i.e., pleasure, for the greatest number. Utilitarianism may not be the correct account of value and right action, but it at least gives an easy to understand example of how you can get ethics without god.

Going back to the first issue, where do we learn to be moral? Where does a person’s moral compass come from? I take it that there is a relatively straightforward answer to this question: your moral compass comes from your parents and teachers, those who explicitly said, “Don’t lie,” and “Don’t’ be unfair; share with your sister,” and those who set either good or bad examples by their behavior. It’s certainly true that if you had a religious upbringing, then you probably also were taught something about being moral in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. And your parents and teachers likely were inculcated with morality in similar ways. This is no surprise, since religions do often center around morality (Though here is an interesting article that emphasizes other important roles for religion).

Nevertheless, while religion often plays a role in learning about ethics, many of the contexts in which we learn to be more or less ethical creatures do not explicitly appeal to religion or god. We learn that lying, stealing, and murder are wrong often enough without someone saying, “Because god says so,” or “Because you’ll go to hell if you do.” The point I want to emphasize is that while religion happens to often play an explicit role, it just as often doesn’t. And if god is not necessary for explaining value and we can (and often do) learn to be moral without appeal to religion, then there is no reason to think that atheists are likely to be any less moral than those who believe in god and go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue.

One possible objection to my argument concerns our motivation for acting ethically. The person of faith fears hellfire and acts accordingly; the ungodly atheist may think the right thing to do is to maximize pleasure for the greatest number, but really when it suits him/her, why not just maximize one’s own pleasure—nothing will happen if one fails intentionally or not to do the right thing. Plato considers this issue in his Republic. It is argued by Glaucon that we only act ethically if we think others are looking, this is the ring of Gyges example. And thus, without the fear of some sort of punishment, there is no real reason to act morally.

That is an important objection, one that is too complicated to adequately address here and now. So I will end with a pointed question: when people who are religious, god fearing folk act ethically, are they really only acting ethically because they fear hellfire and eternal separation from god? Or do they act ethically, not lying, stealing, or murdering their friends or even strangers, simply because they believe those things to be wrong?

Possible Reasons for Endorsing Some Kind of Theism

What follows is that outline considering possible reasons for endorsing some kind of theism. Importantly, it is just an outline; so its details need to be filled in. Were that filling in to occur, I’m sure that certain points might get modified, added, or rejected. Further, a lot of it is based on things I have written about more extensively in my notebooks and as such a number of things will be presented that might not make sense or for which I will not offer arguments. I hope to elaborate on and present arguments for those claims later on.

In Experiments in Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:

Now, in real life reasonable people will not hold most of their beliefs with the level of conviction that we call certainty. Most of us, most of the time, will allow that most of what we believe about the world could turn out to be wrong. So our actual reasoning is not from certainties to certainties but from the probable to the probable. (pp.51-52)

I believe Appiah is right about the above; so, I am not looking for certainty here, but rather what is reasonable to believe. All of the reasons given below may not be strong individually, but perhaps they add up to a strong argument, particularly when taken in conjunction with the objections and replies.  For that to make sense, the arguments need to be interpreted as inductive; a large number of invalid deductive arguments won’t add up to a strong argument.

Before getting to the reasons themselves, I want to distinguish between causes of belief, epistemic reasons for belief, and pragmatic reasons for belief. Roughly, the cause of belief is that which brings it about that a person holds the belief she holds. For example, Carol believes in God(s) because she was raised in a Hindu home. An epistemic reason for believing something is a reason that is supposed to make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over the infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics for treating his kind of infection. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well. A pragmatic reason for believing something is a reason based on a desired end and the idea that holding the belief in question will make more probable the achievement of that end. That is, for example, if a person has an epistemic reason to believe that if she believes she can make a particular jump across a chasm, then she will most likely be able to make the jump, then even if she doesn’t have an epistemic reason to believe she can make the jump, she may have a pragmatic reason. Almost all of the reasons considered below are epistemic reasons for and against affirmation of theism.

Reasons for believing in God:

1) The testimony of people, e.g., Gandhi, who are intelligent, sincere, and willing to explore and challenge religious dogma, and yet believe in God(s).

2) Cosmological reasons concerning an explanation of either the origin of the universe or a reason for its existing at all even if it has no origin per se.

3) Teleological reasons concerning the fine-tuned nature of the observable universe for the existence of life.

4) Connected to 3, the idea that the universe is morally valuable because of its fitness for life and that it actually contains conscious and self-conscious life; and that this indicates that if there is a God, that that God is in some way good. Further, we might think that a good universe is more likely the outcome of creation by a good God than by other means or reasons. So not only is a universe fit for life improbable given all the other possibilities, it is even more improbable that a good universe would arise “randomly.”

5) The wonder of nature, all life, and the fact that nature is not only conscious of itself (experiences itself, as animals do) but also conscious of itself as nature and conscious of itself as conscious of itself.

6) [This perhaps should be a part of objections and replies. It is not properly speaking a reason for belief in God] Regarding science and faith, Robert Pollack writes:

Science makes the following claim for itself, legitimately: most of what is knowable is unknown at this moment, and most of what is unknown will be knowable eventually through science. The faith of science makes a further claim: all that is unknown will be knowable through science. The distinction between the two turns on the question: Is there anything unknown now, whether or not it lies on the outer edge of what is knowable, that will never be understood, anything that is ultimately unknowable? No one denies that science will push the margin ever closer to full knowledge. The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith. [From Practicing Science, Living Faith, Eds. P. Clayton and J. Schaal. Page 229]

Importantly, he goes on to make clear that he does not think that all scientists make the claim that “all that is unknown will be knowable through science.” And that may simply be because there are questions that science cannot answer as a result of contingent human limitations (e.g., whether there are extraterrestrials). Thus he is not claiming that the practicing of science necessarily requires faith. Rather, his claim is that a certain way of viewing science and knowledge requires faith. The crucial move in Pollack’s argument is “The issue is whether some unknown will always remain. That question about science is by its very nature not answerable by science. Therefore to claim there is nothing unknowable is an act of faith, and to affirm this statement makes science into a faith.”

“Science,” of course, might “say” that its “faith” is justified by the progress that science has and continues to make. However, against this we might point out that since the questions “Is all knowledge scientific knowledge?” and “Is there anything that will remain unknowable to science?” cannot be answered by science, and since their answers seem to be that no, not all knowledge is scientific knowledge and thus yes there are things that are unknowable to science—the latter may include things unknowable to any human—such faith in science is not only misplaced but simply wrong. And if science’s purview is the physical world and it cannot know everything, then it follows that there may be some things about the physical world it cannot know, e.g., its origin or reason for being, or that there may be something beyond the physical world that it cannot know simply because it is transcends the physical world.
Therefore, despite science’s successes, it is neither the keeper of all knowledge, nor the judge of all that can be known. Thus there is room open for God and science.

7) In the way that William James seems to argue in “The Will to Believe,” we might risk belief in God because once we do open ourselves to such a belief, new, religious/spiritual kinds of experiences may be opened up. So this is not an epistemic reason to believe in God; rather it is a pragmatic reason that may lead to epistemic reasons.

Reasons Against Believing in God and Replies:

1) God seems conspicuously absent from the world.

Reply: Well it depends on what one means by “absent.” There is no booming voice from the sky; there is no “person” making an appearance and saying, “Hey I’m God. Nice to meet you.” However, we might say first that God’s nature is so other that it does not make sense to think of God as being present or absent in the way that a person is present or absent in one’s life. Second, we might think that God is indeed present through God’s very creation—but this presence through nature is not necessarily one that can be seen unless the idea of God is given a chance. We, of course, have to be careful about the problem of seeing what we want to see (For example, when a spouse wants to believe that the marriage is working and so “doesn’t see” the evidence of infidelity). That is, seeing God’s presence may require an openness to God, but we have to be vigilant about not simply thinking we see God’s presence because we believe in God. How to distinguish the two in actual circumstances is surely difficult.

2) Sense cannot be made of God’s characteristics or attributes. What could it mean to say that God is conscious and outside of time? Doesn’t consciousness as we know it require successive conscious states of awareness? What could it mean to say that God acts, when God transcends space-time?

Reply: These are indeed troubling conceptual problems; ones that are difficult to sort out. Further, it is difficult to know whether they indicate the nonexistence of God or the limitations of our reason. We might notice that there are a number of conceptual problems in physics, particularly, quantum mechanics, ones that seem contradictory to reason, and yet they are not taken as evidence of the failure of quantum mechanics. One might reply to that by saying that quantum mechanics can be used to make true predictions, which give it credence; but the same cannot be said of God. That is indeed true, however, it might miss the point that in and of themselves, conceptual problems do not necessarily give us reason to reject a view. Further, one might say that the other reasons for believing in God are analogous to the true predictions made by quantum mechanics. That is, just as there are those predictions that keep us from rejecting quantum mechanics even though it seems to involve conceptual impossibilities, we might say that even though the idea of a transcendent God involves conceptual “impossibilities,” the other reasons given above mitigate the conceptual problems so that they do not give us reason to reject God solely on their basis.

Further, we might, and perhaps reasonably should, acknowledge that the human mind is capable of only so much, and is formed and limited in its thinking by the nature of the physical world. So we might not be too surprised if there is something incomprehensible about the idea of a God who transcends the physical world.

3) The world contains a great deal of evil, pain, and suffering; why would a good God allow such things? A good God wouldn’t; therefore, there is not a good God.

Reply: We might argue that while the world (the universe) contains much suffering, it is on the whole a good world in that it allows for conscious and self-conscious life, which are intrinsically valuable, and whose existence allows for still further goods.

Secondly, we needn’t conceive of God as omnibenevolent. God could be good in virtue of having created the universe and fine-tuned it for the evolution of life without being all-good such that we should expect there to be no suffering. Further, the existence of suffering might in some cases be seen as a good (Nietzsche), and secondly, in some cases it is the result of human free will (itself a good).

4) Belief in God is leftover from prescientific times. It was the result of earlier people’s attempts to explain the universe, its origin and workings.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy (which in this case means claiming that the origins of belief in God count against the truth of God’s existence–in a sense the genetic fallacy takes the causes of a belief to count as epistemic reasons for denying the belief; and that doesn’t necessarily always follow), this objection assumes that the only role of God in prescientific times was as an explanation of the physical world. That seems to be simply false. God has and does play a number of different roles in people’s lives.

5) Belief in God is the result of not being able to accept that the world is meaningless without God.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy, it is not at all clear that without God the world is meaningless. Even if there is not a God, conscious and self-conscious life is intrinsically valuable. I take this to mean that the universe itself is valuable and as such can “contain” a great deal of meaning.

6) Belief in God is the result of not being able to accept our or our loved ones’ deaths.

Reply: Aside from committing the genetic fallacy, belief in God does not necessarily involve a belief in an afterlife.

7) Science can or will be able to satisfactorily explain the origin of the universe.

Reply: That is questionable given the limitations of our instruments to probe the depths of what we take to be the origin of the universe, i.e., the big bang. So it may not be possible to do more than offer speculative theories that defy confirmation or disconfirmation. Further, it is doubtful that science can offer a reason for why there is something rather than nothing, since that does not seem to be a scientific question; and it is not clear that science can explain the fine-tuned nature of the universe (multiverse theories are rather controversial, and there is always the rejoinder that a multiverse needs to be fine-tuned itself in some way).

8) Look at all of the atrocities done in the name of God. How could God permit such evil in his/her name?

Reply: Again, God need not be all-good to be good. Secondly, what humans do is what humans do. Presumably we act from free will; and our actions often stem from our nature, which is not through and through good—but that does not mean that we are fallen or full of sin. Religion does not equal God; evils done in the name of religion do not give us reason to think that God doesn’t exist—it gives us reason to think that people are often misguided, wrong, and at times evil.

9) You appeal to God as an explanation of the universe’s existence and for its fine-tuned nature; but how can you explain God’s existence?

Reply: This is a difficult question. I’m not entirely satisfied with the idea that God is some sort of necessarily existent being such that God could not have not existed. So, to this objection I don’t have a very good reply. I can only say that it makes more sense to me (even if I cannot explain exactly why) to say that God is in need of no explanation (God just is) in a way that it doesn’t make sense to me to say that the universe is in need of no explanation (it just is). That may well be the biggest lacuna in all of the above.

I am by no means convinced by the above lines of argument for theism, though all of the above does get me closer to believing in God. However, even if the above were convincing, we ought to be left wondering what kind of God we have been given reason to believe in. I don’t think it is the God of any of the major world religions. But that, as with so much else, will have to wait for another time.

The Dangers of Religious Extremism

In my last blog post, I indicated that I believed that the religious extremes that dominate public discussion of religion are dangerous. Here I will briefly give reasons for thinking that is true. To begin, I consider atheism and agnosticism to both be religious perspectives simply because they concern religion or religious issues. So one can be an atheist and still be a religious extremist. In my last post I wrote:

“On the one hand, there are those who openly, inwardly, or both, mock or simply dismiss the very ideas of God, religion, and man’s need and yearning for the two. What I call the radical atheists, e.g., Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are typified but such dismissiveness,  though it is not just the radical atheists who mock and deride God and religion. On the other hand, there are those devotees of religion who are overly and non-critically zealous and accepting of religious dogma, while at the same time seemingly ignorant of the inherent fallibility of all humans.”

I take it that both poles, both sides, are dangerous for the same kinds of reasons. Nothing I say here is meant to apply without exception, but here they are:

1) Both sides are closed to the possibility that the other might have something important to contribute to the discussion of what it is to live well (which,  I believe, requires contemplation of, and engagement with, God and/or spiritual issues). That is, the mocking atheist identifies the religious life with the extreme forms of religion, e.g., versions of Christianity and Islam, that one finds in the news and thereby dismisses the possibility that there are more sophisticated forms of not only Christianity, Islam, and other religions, but also non-denominational theisms. The religious fundamentalist, on the other hand, is often unwilling and unable to consider the possibility that some of the tenants and dogma of his/her religion may be flawed such that they should be reexamined, possibly altered or discarded.

2) The above is due, in part, to a failure of those involved to fully acknowledge and embrace their own fallibility as humans. Each side is convinced that they have accurately apprehended the true nature of the other side and the Truth in general about religion. And each side reinforces the other: the vitriolic and, at times, unreasonable proclamations from each side cause the other to hunker down more deeply into dogma and closed-mindedness.

3) The first two points are further problematic because they remove the possibility of affirming a reflectively religious life that minimizes dogma as far as possible. I take such a life to involve an appreciation of the value of a religious/spiritual life, while acknowledging all of the difficulties of comprehending what such a life should be, and whether there even is a God or what the role of God is in a religious/spiritual life.

The mocking atheist denies the value of a religious or spiritual life, whether of the reflective kind that I am advocating or the unreflective, dogmatic kind I have mentioned. The dogmatic believer denies that the dogma that rules his/her life may be flawed and refuses to take seriously the possibility that God does not exist or does not exist in the way he/she imagines. And again, I take it that many on both sides are operating with overly simplistic ideas about God and religion.

Thus, the two religious extremes I have canvassed are dangerous because they lesson the likelihood of finding the truth, and they foster an environment hostile to the kind of reflective theology that I see as being vital to living a fully good life.  Note that a “reflective theology” need not come with a god, but requires simply an openness to, and appreciation for, the possibility and value of a spiritual/religious life in a reflectively sophisticated form.