Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Problem of Independent Morality

*Note: I'm not very happy with the way this post turned out.  I reserve the right to make edits later, particularly if it comes out in the comments that I was unclear on something*

Many Christians (and indeed, I myself) are fond of pointing out that Atheists seem to lack any solid metaphysical grounding for the moral intuitions by which they live their lives.  Many Christians also take it as a given that Christianity solves this problem.  But I'm not so sure.

The typical Christian claim goes something like this: there is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-benevolent God.  This God is the arbiter of morality- he is both its source and it's ultimate judge. That which we call "good" could more accurately be termed "of the character of God", and that which we call "bad" is actually that which is "separate from God".

But it seems to be the case that morality in this framework is just as arbitrary as in the Atheist's.  It arises purely based on the character of God.  That is to say, if God's character had been different, morality itself would have been different.  But in reality, there seems to me a clear difference between what we call morally good and morally bad behaviors.  Morally good things are things that fundamentally benefit people- make them more comfortable, happier, more secure, more free.  Things that we call morally bad are things that fundamentally hurt people- cause them discomfort, pain, anguish, uncertainty, and fear.  Morality, in practice, is far from arbitrary.

Now the argument can certainly be made that morality is not arbitrary precisely because God's character is not arbitrary- we only consider morality "fixed" because God's character is fixed.  But I don't think this solves our problem, if only because we can conceive of a God with a different character than omni-benevolence (certainly the ancient Greeks did).  Just because a being is omnipotent, it does not follow that his moral character is omni-benevolent- even if we are somehow justified in making this claim on God's character, we're still constraining God's character to some external stanard of the moral law

Put it another way- "Omni-benevolent" is a descriptive word that we apply to God after his character is revealed.  If omnibenevolent simply meant "whatever God is", we wouldn't need to bother calling God omni-benevolent.  Even if we make the claim that omnibenevolence is "part of God's nature", that's no help here.  After all, cheerfulness is part of Steve's nature.  It may be the case that Steve is perpetually and unchangeably cheerful, but the definition of cheerful does not derive from Steve.  We don't look at Bill (also cheerful) and say "you're so Steve".  Steve and Bill both share the "Cheerful" trait, and are even defined in relation to that trait, but that trait does not derive its meaning from them.  "Cheerful" would still be a thing, even if they didn't happen to be cheerful.  Much the same, we may claim God is omni-benevolent, but that is a very different thing than saying omni-benevolence derives its meaning from the character of God.  If those two are the same, then talking about an evil (or even just imperfect) God wouldn't just be nonsensical, it would be syntactical jibberish.

Put it yet another way- we like to call God omnipotent.  But nobody makes the claim that the definition of power is "whatever it is that God has infinite amounts of".  Power is a thing, whether or not there is a God to have it.  We can say that God is by his very nature all powerful- and that may well be true- but it does not invalidate the concept of power in a framework that doesn't include God.

I think the Evil God problem illustrates that "God", while perhaps being necessarily "good" by virtue of his omniscient nature (as Leah contends in that link), is still a logically seperable concept from "good" (even if God is necessarily good in Leah's framework, then He is being constrained by good, not the other way around).  But I don't think we even need to appeal to that level of argument to get this point across to a Christian audience (since I suspect the evil God idea will strike many as fundamentally absurd).  Instead, let's look at the story of Abraham.  God directed Abraham to kill his only child in cold blood.  This is pretty clearly a morally evil action to take.  If you hear a news story about a women who kills her children because she thinks God told her too, you don't think "good for her, believing her faith so strongly", and you don't for a second question whether or not she was actually doing as she was told by God.

When I've disussed this question with Christians, I've never heard any of them say that killing Issaac wouldn't have been wrong because anything God says is by definition right.  Instead, they either point to the fact that God didn't actually make Abraham do it, or suggest the possibility of far-reaching consequences we're not capable of grasping (i.e. killing baby Hitler). In either case, we are saying that God simply would not order a senseless killing without some good reason.  This is not a claim that God is morality, but rather that God is always right about morality- and since God knows more than us, and because he has the character of omni-benevolence, we are required to trust him completely.  We are admitting here that the standard of morality is external to God- some things are right and some things are wrong, and God's character fits entirely into one of those categories.  And again, even if his character necessarily fits into one of them, that is God being constrained by morality, not the other way around.

It seems to me that the Christian is on no more solid footing here than the Atheist. Both are appealing to moral standards that have roughly the same metaphysical grounding. But here's the thing- I don't ultimately see this as a problem.  It seems pretty straightforward to me, once you've arrived at a position of valuing human life and the human experience, to arrive at a morality that says "people matter, and what's good for people is morally good and what's bad for people is morally bad". The question that Christianity tries to answer (and where Atheism fails for me) is why we should care about morality in the first place? Coming up with morality is pretty easy, except in the most extreme of edge cases; convincing me why I should care about some arbitrary electrical signals passing through a semi-randomly arranged mass of protons and electrons is a much tougher deal.

All the arguments I've read for secular morality (including the one I'm in the middle of from Why I Believed) point to rational self-interest as our reason for being moral.  This is where they all lose me.  Certainly rational self-interest is a tremendous motivator (the only thing I learned from my college economics class was the following dictum: "Incentives work"), but that's not why I want to be good (or rather, not why I want to want to be good).  I want to be good because it's the right thing to do- not because of potential divine judgement, and not because it will benefit me in the end.  Certainly my desire- and a reasonable basis for morality- are explicable in the secular vision.  They're just totally, completely unsatisfying to me.  It seems to be the case that once I recognize that morality is just a hard-wiring of my brain to prefer things beneficial to the group, my optimal strategy is to actively override my moral intuitions.  I should be good when it suits me, in case others are watching, but in the case where I'm sure nobody will notice, there's absolutely no motivation for not doing what benefits me the most.  I would certainly never donate anonymously, sacrifice myself for another, or anything else that my corrupted-hardware-brain might try to convince me to do out of some misplaced burden of evolutionary psychology.  Wanting it to not be true is not an indication of it actually not being true- but man is that a depressing reality

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Back from my "Vacation"

Well, I survived my trip to nowhere, only a few cuts and bruises the worse for it.  I'm sure I learned something important out in the woods, I'm just not sure what yet.  In the meantime, here some the things I did learn from this trip:

-When the ranger says "Oh, nobody's been up that way yet this year", turn around and go home.  Just leave.
-Look at a topographical map before you plan your route, not after.  And 3,000 vertical feet is a lot more than you think it is.
-Bringing only powerbars, trail mix, and craisins for food might sound like a good idea, but those are appetizing for exactly one meal in a row.
-If you get to the top of a snow-covered cliff, and your map directs you to go over it, don't.  In a fight between your map and your common sense, always side with your common sense (there's some analogy to morality here, I'm sure of it...)
-If you lose both your water bottles (one in a river, another in a swamp), an empty ziploc craisin container makes an excellent makeshift canteen.  Also, free cranberry flavored water.

I have quite a few entertaining stories, but none that I feel particularly compelled to log to the indelible annals of the internet.  Most of them involve me being stupid and/or doing dangerous things.

I'll be back to posting on a few of the metaphysical ideas I was ruminating on in the next couple of days.  But in the meantime, the Ideological Turing Contest is in full swing over at unequally yoked- feel free to head over there and check out the entries so far.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ideological Turing Test

A few months ago (back when I started this blog), I talked with my brother about God.  He suggested that it might be worth my while to go "looking for God" by finding somewhere quiet and spending some time listening (my brother's a nature guy).

Anyway, long story short, I planned a trip to Yosemite which has (surprise!) come due.  I'll be gone all next week, so I won't be posting or replying to any comments.

It's an interesting question as to whether or not this a good idea at all- particularly in light of this post over at unequally yolked.  Look hard enough, and you're likely to find something (I ordered the book she was reviewing, and will definitely read it... someday)

That being said, I don't think the answer is to stay at home and think your way to God (if he exists).  So, better to do something than nothing, I guess.

In the meantime, I submitted an entry to Unequally Yoked's Ideological Turing Test.  I'm both excited and nervous about this, since I seem to have the unfair advantage of having believed both sides- so it will be pretty embarrassing if/when I get caught not being able to articulate one of the two sides (though admittedly, quite a few of the readers over there have experience on both side of the fence).  Leah should be posting the entries on wednesday or thursday of next week, and I encourage people to head over and check it out- bonus points for anyone who can spot mine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

After Skepticism

*NOTE: I'm treating whether or not the reader has reached the same conclusion as me, that "all metaphysical systems seem deeply flawed", as secondary to the content of this post. Regardless of whether of not you agree, "what do we do in this case?" is still an interesting question*

So what do you do if every major metaphysical system you've looked at has insurmountable problems? Atheism can't explain where the universe came from (or why we should care).  Christianity can't give us a real reason to believe (other than no reason at all) and has a deeply flawed Holy Book.  Buddhism tells us passion is what's holding us back and utter detachment is the proper state of mind.  Islam leads to societies of oppression and violence.  Hinduism gave us the caste system.  So what now?  What happens after you apply a skeptical heuristic to the truth claims made by all the major metaphysical systems, and find them ALL wanting?

It seems like we a few options hre:
1. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely, believe the parts that you agree with, and reject the parts you don't
2. Believe the parts that you agree with of every metaphysical system you come across
3. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely to be true, and believe all of it's claims, even the ones that you can't justify belief in
4. Reject every metaphysical system since they all seem to have insurmountable problems
5. Keep looking.

I'm going to deal with these one at a time.

1. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely, believe the parts that you agree with, and reject the parts you don't

This is the approach taken by Weak Form Christianity (though WFC doesn't so much reject them as it does ignore them).  When I was a Christian, I had a fair amount of disrespect for this position.  It does seem like a bit of a cop out- can we really trust only part of a religion?  Either the religion is true or it's not- and it makes sense that someone starting a new religion would have enough insight into human behavior to get at least parts of it right.  At the very least, it seems like your religion is now a reflection of what you know to be true, and not in itself a truth-telling thing.  If we're going to accept that which we already agree with and reject that which we already disagree with, then why bother with a metaphysical system at all?  The metaphysical system isn't informing our beliefs anymore, so it seems almost superfluous at this point.

This admittedly seems like a bit of an oversimplification.  Weak Form Christianity, for example, isn't so much a rejection of general Christian teachings, but rather an admittance of ignorance as to the specifics.  You can still believe the core of a religion wholeheartedly.  But it does seem that if you reject specifics, you're rejecting the divine inspiration of that religion/denomination, and you're losing a fair bit of your basis for believing it to begin with.

2. Believe the parts that you agree with of every metaphysical system you come across

At this point, aren't you really just making up your own religion?  At the very least, this method of belief definitely can't teach you new truth.  It suffers from all of the shortcomings of the first approach, but has the additional advantage of exposing you to a broader base of truth (or at least gives you more perspectives to weigh), but  has the disadvantage of losing any claim that it is or was ever divinely inspired.  At least if you believe in Weak Form something, you can say that the underlying religion is God-inspired, if not accurate to the letter.

3. Pick the metaphysical system that seems most likely to be true, and believe all of it's claims, even the ones that you can't justify belief in

...or rather, act as if this system is true, since I'm not convinced you can rationally choose to believe something.  This, I think, is the option most people pick, though I'm not sure how many would admit to it.  The problem is, this is only a good idea if what you're choosing to "believe" in happens to be right- and if you disagree with the specifics, it seems like we really can't be very confident in this fact.

But the real problem here is that you've given up any ability to think critically about your religion.  Your saying that your religion is no longer beholden to your reason or experience- or at least, only parts of it are.  Again, it makes sense that every metaphysical system has kernels of truth in it.  Just because you find this particular metaphysical system to have more truth than the rest of them, that's not necessarily compelling- one of them has to more true than the rest, by pure virtue of the fact that they're different.

This seems awfully close to blind faith.

4. Reject every metaphysical system since they all seem to have insurmountable problems

In practice, these seems to me to look a lot like Nihilistic Atheism (Obviously you can't really "reject everything" while you're still alive, because you still have to make decisions about what to do and why to do it). The best argument I can give against this option is that nobody in their right mind wants to live their life this way.  That doesn't make it untrue, of course, but if it is true, then I start to question if we should even care- why not live in delusion if the truth is as horrible as Nihilism?

5. Keep looking

This is an interesting one for me.  I "kept looking" for God for about 2 years before leaving Christianity.  I was asked repeatedly why I was "giving up".  My answer was to ask another question- How long should I look for something I'm not finding before I stop looking?  You can't say "forever", because if it's not actually there, you'll end up wasting your life being obsessed over a question that has no answer.  But you also can't give up too soon, because it's not clear that if something were true, it would be obviously apparent.  What's the right amount of time to look before giving up and just doing and believing whatever makes you happy?  Six months?  A year?  A decade?  The biggest problem is that there are essentially an infinite number of religions to choose from, and you could literally go your whole life without giving them all a fair try (heck, there's almost an infinite number of denominations just within Christianity).


I'd be fascinated to hear what other people think is the right thing to do here.  I honestly have no idea.  I've thought each of them was the correct path at one point or another.  At this point, I'm still in the "Keep Looking" stage, since there are a few mainstream religions I haven't given a legitimate chance to yet.  But I'm not too far from having looked into and rejected all the major ones ("rejected" is perhaps too strong of a word.  Mostly I'm just "still unconvinced"- doesn't mean I can't or won't be convinced later).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Applied Skepticism

Skeptics get a bad rap.

We need to differentiate between a Skeptic worldview (where we flat out reject everything) and a Skeptic epistemology, where we demand verification of any and all truth claims (both religious and otherwise).  Skeptic epistemology is a moral imperative (religions- particularly Christianity- agree with me here.  In general, they contain lots of warnings about false prophets and changes to scripture). I want to talk about what I see as the proper application of skepticism in our search for truth.

The first thing we have to realize (or rather admit) is that our perception of reality is untrustworthy.  There are too many studies on human psychology that show us doing horribly irrational things for us to entertain the notion that what we think we know always matches with reality.  Moreover, there are too many painfully real present-day examples of people doing absurd things in the name of their religion.  So when is it appropriate to trust our senses, feelings, and beliefs, and when is it not?

There are a few instances that jump to mind here.  If your belief in something is based on feelings, emotions, Faith, Divine Impartation of knowledge, an Infallible Leader, or any other objectively unverifiable basis, you have a problem: it's a virtual certainty that someone, somewhere (probably a great many someones) believe in a diametrically opposed truth based on the same evidence.  The Christian claims divinely imparted belief?  So does the Muslim.  The Buddhist claims inner peace and joy as evidence of his religion?  So does the Christian.  Your specific belief may be unique, but the basis of your belief is not.  So on what strength are you to say that your belief is well founded, but everyone else's is purely psychological?  It seems like you're forced to pick one of two options- either everyone else is lying, or humans are capable of being utterly convinced of a truth (on the same basis that you are utterly convinced), and still be wrong.

If a claim demands action but makes no prediction, you ought to be extremely suspicious.  Such claims have historically been used as methods of control, but more to the point, you don't actually have any reason to believe them.  Once they start making proscriptive claims about what you ought to do, they are now literally asking you to bet something on their truth.  It's one thing to accept a claim as plausible (and "believe" it, in the weak Bayesian sense) on the strength of authority- you believe a friend who tells you your favorite sports team won.  But once you have to take action on this belief (or abstain from action), your standard for belief (your critical Bayesian level, if you will) must increase in proportion to the level of action required. If a physicist tells me certain kinds of radiation are not harmful, I believe him.  If he asks me to carry some of the glowing material, the standard of evidence I require increases a great deal.

The key thing i'm arguing for here is that we have to recognize the fundamental possibility that our truth-telling mechanisms are wrong.  I say "fundamental" here in the sense that this possibility is always present, no matter what level of enlightenment, relationship with God, understanding of the universe, or epistemological epiphany we reach. Not only is it always possible that we're wrong, it's actually statistically likely that we're wrong.  A claim of anything else is either a claim that you believe your truth more strongly than any other religion believes in its truth, or that you have a better truth-telling mechanism than they do (a claim that suffers greatly when your belief depends on Faith, emotion, etc).  Science, it should be noted, claims the latter- that it has a better truth-telling mechanism (it's a pretty convincing claim).

The point here is that, as the relative extremity of the action required increases, so too should your requirement of evidence.  And in fact, there are some things that might be true, but you should be so suspicious of them, that in practice you never actually believe them.  If a religious claim ultimately requires you to commit what you know to be a moral evil, you are obligated to reject the religious claim- even if it's true!  Because our truth-telling mechanisms are untrustworthy, it's much, much more likely that you're wrong about what God is telling you than it is that God is actually telling you to slaughter all those innocent people.

So what's the takeaway here?  First, most people aren't skeptical enough.  Second, Faith is not valid evidence.  Third, whatever belief system you end up with, it must be beholden to your moral principles, not the other way around.  It is wrong- both ethically and epistemologically- to subjugate your conviction of right and wrong to any authority other than your own.  You are responsible for your actions.  Should such a day come, you will stand before God on judgement day.  And I can think of no other response that a benevolent God could  have to someone who knowingly did wrong in his name than "How dare you?"