Monday, July 30, 2012

Falling Out of Love

Bear with me here kids, this post is going to get a little personal- but I promise it's going to resolve to an actual philosophical point at the end.

As readers may or may not know, I've been in love with a Christian girl for the last several years- since back before I left Christianity.  Recent events (last 6 months or so) have made it clear that I need to move on from that relationship.  I'm now trying my best to fall out of Love with her.

Now, I've got a couple of options here:

1) Forget her.  Facebook combined with my lack of self control makes this a difficult proposition, but not impossible.  I could certainly keep busy enough to at least minimize the amount of time I spend dwelling on that past relationship

2) Get angry at her.  There's plenty of things from our past that I could get angry about (some that I genuinely am angry about, no encouragement required).  Villifying another person is a pretty common mode of human interaction.  If you're liberal, then those conservatives are souless sycophants.  If you're conservative, those liberals are brainless ideologues.  Especially in the case of interpersonal relationships, when things go wrong, the safest thing to do is usually to blame the other person.  In my particular case, if I'm mad enough, that might assuage some of the pain associated with missing that relationship.

3) Wait.  This might or might not work, but either way it's not very helpful in my current position.  More to the point, this seems like either a glorified version of option 1, or worse, a claim that the emotional pain will eventually form the equivalent of emotional scar tissue.  That which used to hurt will no longer hurt because there are no more nerves left to hurt- not because I'm in any better of a position, and not because I've made any real moral or emotional progress.

Here's the thing: I'm really suspicious of any solution that involves either ignoring or fabricating facts about reality. 

I want to understand and act on reality in any given situation.  This desire is the basis for my rejection of Christianity, and it would be pretty hypocritical for me to not apply this to my personal life as well.  So to me, the problem with all the solutions I've suggested so far is that I actually love her. Forgetting that might be temporarily useful, but it has me dealing with a map that isn't a good representation of the territory of my life.  Ideologically, I'm flat out against self-deception, but even practically speaking, this seems like a really bad idea.  All it takes for any of these solutions to fall apart is for me to have a single real conversation with her.  In that conversation, I'm reminded of all the good things about her, all the reasons I fell in love, and I'm reminded that, while her actions may be objectionable, her motivations are not.  She legitimately cares about me, and doesn't want to hurt me.  And how angry can you really be with someone who's trying to do what's best for you inside the framework of what they think they're allowed to do?  She may be wrong (I think she is), but she's not malicious.  And it's hard for me to stay angry at someone who has my best intrest at heart.

Now we're finally getting to the point.  Two of them, actually.  First, this thing called love is... pure.  I can't think of any other word for it.  There's a lot in the Bible that I don't agree with, but "love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud"- that stuff is spot on.  I've talked before about how I find the existence and quality of love a pretty good argument against materialism, but the further I go in this process, the more convincing it gets.  I have absolutely no explanation for why I don't hate this girl.  It seems like I should.  The only reason I don't is that I have this weird connection to her called "love" that I'm literally unable to overcome (I've tried).  It's actually acting as a stronger motivator than my empirical experience of being continually hurt by that relationship- and that just gives me the epistemological willies. 

I'm not sure how to rectify this with atheism.  The argument can certainly be made from evolutionary psychology that my experience of love is an evolutionarily selective behavior- that people who experience this kind of love are more likely to have a family and hang around for the development of the children, and therefore their children are more likely to succeed.  But first, that seems pretty ad hoc to me- it's a decent after-the-fact explination, but not a great prediction.  And second, I as a self-aware moral agent value happiness a lot more than I value evolutionary fitness.  The experience of love- at least this part, the experience of leaving love behind- is pretty damaging to happiness, in both the short and the long term.  It would seem that my optimal happiness strategy (at this point) would be to find a way to circumvent the love mechanism in my head- find a way to be happy without it, and get rid of my need to find love in the first place.  If I can find happiness without love, that's a lot less risky of a way to go through life (using the simple heuristic that my own happiness is the ultimate goal of my existence).  Once again, here I am fighting against evolution.  And this is the core of my ongoing problem with atheistic morality- it always seems to end with me fighting against evolution.

But there's another reason I'm not comfortable with this intentional abdication of the experience of love.  I think I'm more convinced of love being a moral imperitive than I am of just about anything else.  Call it irrational if you wish (I do), but my empirical, emotional, and consequential experiences all tell me that love is the most important thing in this life.  It seems likely, at this point, that my life would be better going forward if I found a workaround for love- but even if that's true, it still strikes me as the wrong thing to do.

The second point of this post is more of a question: how do you kill something that is good?  It seems like a lot of people at one point in life end up in a position where they're actively trying to fall out of love.  It's sort of nonsensical to try in the first place.  The very act of being in love should entail trying to preserve that love- and it's this cognitive dissonance that's rendering my attempts at "moving on" through conventional means pretty ineffective.  I can't "move on" because the desire to move on is incompatible with the experience of love.  If I were capable of moving on, I would no longer be in love, and would have nothing to move on from.

But supposing we get to the point of wanting (or needing) to kill something that's good, how do you go about it without damaging your moral compass?  I'm straying into virtue ethics here, but how do we destroy something valuable without simultaneously devaluing it?  Is it even possible to force yourself out of love while also realizing what love actually is?  This seems a lot like the argument that God is constrained to good because he alone understands the full consequences of good and bad.  It seems like, the more clear understanding you have of what it means to love, the harder it's going to be for you to choose to stop loving.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Dangers of Being Happy

*Note: I use the word "happy" here pretty loosely.  I don't want to get bogged down in a discussion of happiness vs. joy vs. contentment, when I really mean all of them at once, so feel free to substitute your favorite word for "happy" throughout the post*

I'm pretty sure I could be happy as an atheist.

I know this because I've been happy as an atheist in the past.  Sure, it would require some cognitive dissonance on my part- I would have to reject the nihilism that seems to me incumbent on the atheistic worldview- but I certainly wouldn't be the first to do so.  More to the point, it's starting to look like any cogent world view is going to require some cognitive dissonance on my part.

It often crosses my mind, as I'm driving to work, or sitting at home browsing reddit, that if I let myself, I could be happy right now.  I could pretty easily choose to focus on the present moment and the things I'm pretty sure have meaning, even if I don't have a metaphysical basis for why I think they have meaning.  I could still value love, empathy, conciousness, and the human experience, completely devoid of a moral framework to back it all up.  Believe me; I've done it before.

But I'm really, really nervous about choosing to be happy, for two reasons.  First, it seems like once you allow yourself to be happy, you've eliminated the motivation to keep looking.  Unless you're really, really sure that your philosophical system is the right one- or that it doesn't matter one way or another- then being content with your philosophy is the most dangerous thing you can do. 

Second, I'm pretty sure I'd rather be right than happy.  This is not an ideological stance, but rather a practical one.  It seems really likely that the consequences of being wrong are a lot worse than the consequences of being unhappy.  This is definitely true if any religion is correct, but even if atheism is true- to bend our moral intuitions to some external authority of religion is a really bad idea if we pick the wrong religion.  People have written entire books based on the strife that religion has caused- and continues to cause- in human society.  If there is no God, then the best thing we as a species can do it get over it and make the best of reality.

My belief system at the moment is extremely uncomfortable.  But if being uncomfortable is the natural outcome of my belief system, it seems better that I remain uncomfortable rather than paper over any holes in my metaphysics like a college senior moving out of a dorm.  This leads to the question I really don't want to ask- is it ever ok to be happy?  It seems like the answer here has to be "no", unless I'm really sure I've found the truth.

To be fair, it's not like there's no middle ground between being happy and thinking for yourself.  But I've seen in myself that the main motivation for me to care- the reason why I spend so much time and energy on metaphysics, philosophy and religion- is my philosophical discomfort.  If being happy entails ignoring that discomfort, then I'm going to go do more worthwhile things (read: play more video games).  I'm just not that interested in philosophy. I only care about it because I think it matters.  And once (if) I no longer have any need for it, I expect I will jettison that part of my life in favor of whatever else catches my fancy.

I wonder how other people deal with this problem.  It seems like most of the people roaming the philosophy blogosphere are genuinely interested in philosophy, so it's not such a problem for them.  But there's plenty of people- most people- who go about their everyday lives without so much as a thought towards metaphysics.  I'm suspicious of the heuristic they're using to reach the conclusion that they've done enough metaphysical legwork to find the local maximum of philisophical utility; how did they decide when they were done thinking about their ethics?  We all act on our ethics, but which ethical standards we use is highly dependant on which metaphysical system we adopt.  If Christianity is wrong, then Christians are doing life wrong.  If Atheism is wrong, then Atheists are doing life wrong.  And I'm not at all sure how to bootstrap myself out of a sort of inherent uncertainty about my metaphysical system with the level of confidence I would need to declare myself unequivocally right about things.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stargate Epistemology

I love Stargate SG-1.  It's probably my second favorite TV show of all time (behind the incredibly under-appreciated comedy series Better Off Ted).  I like it so much, in fact, that I'm watching the whole series (all 10 seasons!) on netflix right now. Sometimes I feel guilty about watching netflix instead of reading, but then I remember that the only way my apartment ever gets cleaned is when I have the tv on in the background, and I don't feel so bad.

One of the best things about Stargate is that it delves into some really complex topics, from ethics to epistemology to the very definition of a God (including several incarnations of how to deal with the Sati problem) in enough detail that it actually makes you think about the right thing for the characters to do.  The show also deals with pretty much every major sci-fi trope, including time travel, advanced alien races, faster than light travel, artificial life forms, and parallel universes.  Not to say that the show isn't sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it is without a doubt expansive.

As I'm watching through the whole series, I find it to be a good analogy to my experience of reading through the Old Testament in big chunks.  Before doing so, I had only digested the Old Testament in little pieces, and the whole thing read quite differently.  Likewise, watching whole seasons of Stargate over a few days is quite different than watching them one episode at a time.  The big thing I'm noticing is that there are certain themes that are popping up relentlessly, in almost every single episode.  There's two specific themes I want to mention here.

First, the epistemology of the main characters.  It seems like every other episode, someone is getting their memory erased.  Off the top of my head, I can think of three instances where characters got taken over by aliens, two where a character was taken over by a machine, four where characters had their memory wiped or replaced, two where all the other characters had been replaced with aliens, one where the main characters were themselves machines (but didn't realize it), and two where a character was brainwashed.  They deal with the topic of epistemology a lot.

What I've noticed is that their answer is always the same- and it's the answer the viewer intuitively agrees with (or at least, the answer I intuitively agree with).  The "right" action for the characters to take- the action the viewer, who is generally omniscient after the first 15 minutes or so, is rooting for the character to take- is to be suspicious.  In the Stargate world, someone is always trying to trick the good guys, but they never actually know someone is trying to trick them.  Now, it's pretty clear that the only way to get by in that kind of world is to be suspicious of pretty much everything.  But I'm going to argue that that's the only way to get by in any world where there's even the possibility that someone is trying to trick you.

All these different episodes give us some concrete (if farfetched) examples of how and why it's important to be skeptical.  They attempt to demonstrate that bad beliefs have bad consequences.  If we take that as a given (and I think most people would), then we're left with the question of how often we're proffered a set of bad beliefs.  The answer in our modern society, no matter what you believe, seems to be all the time.  Since so many of us hold mutually exclusive beliefs, we ought to be really suspicious of all of them- including our own.  I've gone on the record about skepticism in the past, but I left out the fact that (almost) everyone is a skeptic- of other people's beliefs.  You have to be, or you just end up at some useless pluralist belief.  The better question is how we treat our own beliefs.  I seem to agree with the writers of Stargate- the only reasonable way to treat our own beliefs is with a hefty dose of skepticism.

The second really interesting topic is the question of what it even means to be a God.  There are several alien races running around the Stargate universe, but there's three main ones that impersonate gods at various points: the evil Goa'uld, the benevolent Asgard, and the frighteningly god-like Ori.

I'm always a little disappointed by the writer's treatment of the Goa'uld.  The Goa'uld are a race of parasitic snake-like creatures that crawl into people's heads and take over.  They imbue their hosts with great strength, intelligence, and healing powers, and they have the proverbial sufficiently advanced technology that appears like magic.  They go around enslaving human worlds, pretending to be gods from ancient earth cultures (Ra, Apophis, Anubis, Nerti, etc).  Problem is, they make really unconvincing gods.  They war amongst themselves.  They have children which eventually usurp them.  They are considered immortal, but they seem to kill each other fairly frequently.  It all sounds a great deal like the gods of ancient Egypt (not surprising, since that's what most of it is based off of).  It seems to betray my modern western monotheistic bias that I find such depictions of gods unconvincing.  So far as I've been taught, people in the ancient world actually believed these things.  The fact that I can so easily dismiss them- not just as true, but even as reasonable plot devices in a story- makes me question whether the idea of any God at all does not sound plausible to me simply because of the culture I was raised in.  I wonder if I had been raised in a purely secular culture if I would view the Christian monotheistic God- who sent his Son in human form to be sacrificed at the hands of humans in a small corner of the desert a few thousand years before society had advanced to the point of being able to accurately verify and record such events- with the same level of smug indifference as I currently view the false gods of the Goa'uld.  I roll my eyes at the gullibility of the humans taken in by the Goa'uld, but humans really and truly did believe such things at one point- no doubt with simillar resolve as religious people today believe.

The Asgard present another interesting case study.  They are a benevolent race that protects human societies from the Goa'uld, but they still pose as gods.  They consider these societies to not yet be "ready" (read: advanced enough) to abandon their religions.  Frankly, it's a pretty condescending view of religion (it seems pretty clear the Stargate writers are atheists), but it shows the viewer something of an unattended side effect.  There are a few episodes where SG-1 tries to convince some native peoples to take some drastic action to save themselves instead of trusting in the power of Thor (the Asgard take on the form of old Norse gods), and it's shocking how very little difference there is between an Asgard world and a Goa'uld world.  In almost all cases, the people are sort of blindly flailing at some idea of God, rather than interacting with the gods as they are.  Typically, the people have no direct interaction with the diety of choice, but they construct whole theologies and moral systems around them.  It's really interesting to see the parallels between blindly following a "good" false god and blindly following a "bad" false god.  At least in the Stargate universe, it matters less than you'd think.

It's the last race that I find the most interesting.  The Ori are a group of "Ascended" beings from another galaxy that ultimately seek dominion over our own galaxy.  They have a sort of treaty with the "Ancients", the group of Ascended beings that live in our galaxy, but that doesn't stop them from sending what amount to missionaries- albeit extremely powerful and aggressive missionaries- into our galaxy.  These Ori are really close to our definition of gods- they have powers well beyond our comprehension, and well beyond our ability to interfere with.  Really, there are only two things that disqualify them being gods- first, they're not good guys.  They have most of the powers of gods, but they use that power for inherently selfish purposes (they draw power from worshipers, so they go about "converting" every civilization they find).  We have this idea that any formulation of God is necessarily benevolent, but I'm not so sure I buy that notion- and Stargate makes an attempt to call us out on our seemingly artificial limitation on the character of a god or god-like being. 

The second thing disqualifying the Ori from godhood is that we know they're not gods.  We know that they are ultimately just beings like us who ascended to a higher plain of existence.  This begs the question, what exactly do we mean by God in the first place, if not a being that exists on a higher plain of existence than us?  If it's not intuitively clear to me that we can assume the character of any God would be benevolent, it's even less clear that what it even means when we say "God".  If what we mean is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, then we have a good definition, but at the expense of leaving any room for our own lack of understanding.  I guess what I'm saying is that it's not intuitively clear to me that we can define God in the first place, much less why such a being would necessarily be the only possible kind of super-powerful-godlike-being.  The only way I can imagine arriving at a particular conception of God would be if God revealed himself to be a particular way and of a particular character (as many religions claim he has).  But even if we take this route, we've negated the effectiveness of a great deal of apologetics arguments.  The nature and character of God does not seem to me to be evident from the world we live in, so the only possible convincing evidence for God would be direct revelation- a claim that unfortunately many different religions make.

But my favorite part of Stargate is watching as two characters- Teal'c and Bra'tac- try to convince their fellow Jaffa that the gods they serve are false.  It's not at all close to a one-to-one mapping onto the way Christians and Atheists interact, but it's usually an epistemologically interesting discussion.  Plus, it usually ends with Teal'c and Bra'tac beating the pants off some bad guys.