If There Are Gods, They Are Evil

Here is a brief summary of a piece by B.C. Johnson, “Why Doesn’t God Intervene to Prevent Evil?” It offers a devastating critique of the possibility that there is an all powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god. 

Are there any good excuses for someone (or a god) not saving a baby from a burning house if they had the power to do so? It will not do to say the baby will go to heaven, since one suffers by burning to death. The key is the suffering.  If the suffering was not necessary, then it’s wrong to allow it; if the suffering is necessary, the baby’s going to heaven doesn’t explain why it’s necessary.

It doesn’t make sense to say that a baby’s painful death will be good in the long run, and that’s why the gods allow it. For that is to say that whatever happens in the long run is good; since if something happened it was allowed by the gods, and it must therefore be good in the long run. We could test this idea by burning down buildings to kill innocent people.  If we are successful, then we know that this was part of some god’s plan. But this is absurd.  Moreover, this doesn’t show why the gods allow babies to burn to death, it merely says there is some reason for this suffering, a belief we have since we assume the gods are good. But this argument is circular; it merely assumes what it is trying to prove. (That the gods are good.) “It is not unlike a lawyer defending his client by claiming that the client is innocent and therefore the evidence against him must be misleading—that proof vindicating the defendant will be found in the long run.”

In conclusion, we simply cannot excuse a bystander who could save the child but who doesn’t.

We might say that we ought “to face disasters without assistance,” so as not to become dependent upon help. But this suggests that the work of doctors and firefighters, for example, should be abolished. But if this kind of help is good, then good gods should help like this. But they do not. If this kind of help is bad, then we ought to abolish it.

Similarly, we could say that the gods would reduce the moral urgency to make the world better if they intervened in evil. But should we abolish modern medicine and firefighting since they help people, but thereby reduce our urgency to help people? Of course not.  Moreover, this argument suggests that the gods approve “of these disasters as a means to encourage the creation of moral urgency.” 85 And if there were not sufficient baby burnings, the gods would have to bring them about. But this too is absurd. We shouldn’t create moral urgency by burning babies.

Maybe suffering is necessary for virtues like compassion, mercy, sympathy, and courage to be exercised. But even if this is true, the non-believer is simply claiming that we could do without burning babies and still have plenty of suffering to elicit these virtues. Furthermore, we value efforts to improve the world, and we don’t consider the possible reduction in opportunities to practice virtue a good reason not to improve it. If we can’t use this as an excuse not to improve the world, then neither can the gods. Developing virtue “is no excuse for permitting disasters.” The argument that the gods allow suffering to humble us is open to the preceding objections.

One could claim that evil is a by-product of the laws of nature and the gods interference would alter the casual order to our detriment. But lives could be saved if serial killers had heart attacks before committing their crimes. Such occasional miracles wouldn’t necessitate changing the laws of nature.  How often should the gods do this? Johnson says often enough to prevent particularly horrible disasters like child torture.

As for the claim that the gods have a higher morality such that what seems bad to us (child torture) is really good, and what seems good to us (modern medicine) is really bad, it is hard to make any sense of this. You could say we just don’t understand the god’s ways like children don’t understand their parent’s ways, but as adults we might conclude that some of our parent’s actions were bad.

The main reason all these arguments fail is that they are abstract. None of them really explain why all good, all powerful beings watch helpless infants burn to death, since none of the excuses such being would offer seem convincing. One could claim that the gods just can’t prevent the evil, but it is strange to believe in gods less powerful than fire departments and medical researchers.

At this point one may retreat to faith, simply believing the gods are innocent, like you might believe in the innocence of your friends even if the evidence is against them. But Johnson argues that we don’t know the gods well enough to trust them like friends. In addition, we have good reason to believe the gods are not good, since in the past they have allowed so much evil.  You could still claim that you trust in the gods and nothing anyone can say will undermine your belief, “but this is just a description of how stubborn you are; it has no bearing whatsoever on the question of God’s goodness.”

Furthermore all the reasons offered as to why the world’s evil is consistent with good gods could be used to show why it’s consistent with evil gods. For example, we could say that an evil god gives us free will so we can do evil things. Or we could say that evil exists to make people cynical and bitter (instead of compassionate and courageous), or it exists so that we quite caring about others (instead of becoming morally urgent.)

In short there are 3 possibilities concerning the gods: 1) they are more likely to be all bad (a theist doesn’t want this to be true; 2) they are more likely to be all-good (but this can’t be true since any evidence for this thesis will also support #1); or 3) they are equally likely to be all-bad or all-good. But if 3 is true, then what excuses do the gods have for allowing evil? They have none. And the reason is because for any excuse for evil’s existence to be justified, it must be highly probable that the excuse is true. But note that option 3 rules this out, since according to 3 there is no more reason to think the excuse is valid than that it is not valid.

Why then don’t the gods intervene according to Johnson? Because they don’t exist.

Finally! From Descartes to Kant in Two Pages

In almost thirty years of college teaching, I wrote many things for my students, most of which are long since lost. I have been perusing the surviving material and have found some that might be of interest. Here is one such piece. (This particular file originally came with this disclaimer: “This overview was written hastily this morning without consulting the book. If any of it conflicts with the book’s explanation, favor that explanation.”) I still issue the disclaimer.

Descartes wants to know what’s true. He begins by doubting everything and argues that knowledge derives from the certainty of the existence of one’s own consciousness and the innate ideas it holds. Primary among these innate ideas are mathematical ideas and the idea of a God. Upon this foundation he claims all knowledge is built.

Locke argues that innate ideas are just another name for one’s pet ideas. Instead, he argues, knowledge is based on sense data. Locke realizes that we only know things as we experience them, we don’t know the essence of the substances that make up the world. Retreating from the skepticism this implies, he accepts the common sense view that our perceptions correspond to external substances in the world.

Berkeley realizes that we can have perceptions without there being an external world at all. He believes that things exist only to the extent they are perceived, and thus non-perceived things don’t exist. All reality may be in the mind! Recognizing the implications of this radical philosophy, Berkeley claims that his God is constantly perceiving the world and thus the world is real after all.

Hume follows this thinking to its logical conclusion. We have perceptions, but their source is unknown. That source could be a god or gods, other powerful beings, substances, the imagination, etc. He also applies this skepticism about the existence of the external world to science, morality and religion. Scientific knowledge is not absolute because there are problems with the idea of cause and effect as well as with inductive reasoning. Still, Hume believes that mathematics and the natural sciences are sources of knowledge.

Hume’s attack on religion is one of the most famous in the history of philosophy, and he ranks with Feuerbach, Marx, Neitzsche, and Russell as one of religion’ great critics. His article against the possibility of miracles is the most celebrated piece on that subject ever written. He argues that miracle stories are almost certainly myths.

For example, take the case of virgin births or resurrection from the dead. Such stories are found in many religions and throughout pagan mythology. But Hume asks whether it is more likely that such things actually happened, or that these are myths, stories, lies, deceptions, etc. Hume argues that its always more likely that reporters of miracles are deceiving you or were themselves deceived, than that the supposed miracle actually happened. Lying and being lied to are common, rising from the dead not so much.

Hume’s philosophy also set the stage for the coming of the man considered the greatest of modern philosophers, a man who said that Hume had “awakened him from his dogmatic slumber,” a man who wants to respond to Hume’s skepticism and show that mathematics, science, ethics, and the Christian religion are all true and compatible. His name was Kant.

Immanuel Kant was one of the first philosophers who was a professor. He was a pious Lutheran, and a solitary man who never married. He was the author of some of the most esoteric works in philosophy, and he devoted nearly every waking hour of his life to philosophy. Troubled by Hume’s skepticism, Kant looked again at both rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Kant believed that the problem with rationalism is that it ultimately established great systems of logical relationships ungrounded in observations. The problem with empiricism was that it lead to the conclusion that all certain knowledge is confined to the senses.

Kant thought that if we accept the scientific worldview, then belief in free will, soul, God, and immortality were impossible. Thus Kant’s project was to reconcile rationalism and empiricism, while at the same time showing that God, free will, knowledge, and ethics are possible. (In some ways all of philosophy since Descartes has attempted to show how the scientific worldview can be reconciled with traditional notions of free will, meaning, God, and morality.)

Kant’s Epistemology – Kant argues that rationalism is partly correct—the mind starts with certain innate structures. These structures impose themselves on the perceptions that come to the mind. In other words, the mind structures impressions, and thus knowledge results from the interaction of mind and the external world. (Kant describes many of these mental structures, which he calls categories of the understanding and forms of sensibility. These forms and categories—like cause and effect, time, and space—shape what the senses receive, thus making some sense of perceptions.) Thus both the mind and sense data matter in establishing truth, as the success of the scientific method shows.

Kant’s Copernican revolution placed the mind, rather than the external world, at the center of knowledge. What we can know depends upon the validity of what’s known by the structures of the mind. But is metaphysical knowledge justified? Can we know about the ultimate nature of things, things beyond our experience? Can we know if God, the immortal soul or free will exists?

What he realizes is that all we can know are phenomena, that is experience or sense data mediated by the mind. Since all our minds are structured similarly, we all generally have the same basic sense experiences. But we cannot know “things-in-themselves,” that is, things as they actually are. Thus there is a gap between human reality—things as known to the mind—and pure reality—things as they really are. We can know things as they appear, but we can’t know things as they really are.

To bridge this gap Kant proposes regulative ideas—self, cosmos, and God—which serve to make sense of our experiences. We must presuppose a self that experiences, a cosmos to be experienced, and a cause of the cosmos which is God. Kant grants that we can’t know if any of these things exist, but he thinks it is a practical necessity to act as if they do. We cannot have experiences without there being a knower, a known, and God. Since we do have experiences, Kant concludes that these regulative ideas probably correspond to real existing things.

Summary – Descartes was responding to the faith of the Middle Ages. His skepticism led eventually to the full-blown skepticism of Hume. Kant tried to reconcile Cartesian rationalism and Humean empiricism. He tried to reconcile science with religion, reason with ethics, and more. Whether he was successful is another question.

(Tomorrow I will go into some detail about Kant’s ethical theory.)

Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life

[The following appeared in Scientia Salon on January 20, 2015.  I encourage any of my readers who are interested in high-quality public philosophy to visit that site.]

“Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life”

Are there trends in evolution — cosmic, biological, and cultural — that support the claim that life is meaningful, or is becoming meaningful, or is becoming increasingly meaningful? Perhaps there is a progressive direction to evolution, perhaps the meaningful eschatology of the universe will gradually unfold as we evolve, and perhaps we can articulate a cosmic vision to describe this unfolding — or perhaps not.

Has there been biological progress?

The debate between those who defend evolutionary progress and those who deny it has been ongoing throughout the history of biology. On the one hand more recent biological forms seem more advanced, on the other hand no one agrees on precisely what progress is. Darwin’s view of the matter is summarized nicely by Timothy Shanahan: “while he rejected any notion of evolutionary progress, as determined by a necessary law of progression, he nonetheless accepted evolutionary progress as a contingent consequence of natural selection operating within specified environments.” [1] This fits well with Darwin’s own words:

“There has been much discussion whether recent forms are more highly developed than ancient . . . But in one particular sense the more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms. I do not doubt that this process of improvement has affected in a marked and sensible manner the organization of the more recent and victorious forms of life, in comparison with the ancient and beaten forms; but I can see no way of testing this sort of progress.” [2]

The most vociferous critic of the idea of biological progress was Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould who thought progress was an annoying and non-testable idea that had to be replaced if we are to understand biological history. According to Gould, what we call evolutionary progress is really just a random moving away from something, not an orienting toward anything. Starting from simple beginnings, organisms become more complex but not necessarily better. In Gould’s image, if a drunk man staggers from a wall that forces him to move toward a gutter, he will end up in the gutter. Evolution acts like that wall pushing individuals toward behaviors that are mostly random but statistically predictable. Nothing about evolution implies progress.

The biologist Richard Dawkins is more sanguine regarding progress, arguing that if we define progress as adaptive fit between organism and environment then evolution is clearly progressive. To see this consider a predator and prey arms race, where positive feedback loops drive evolutionary progress. Dawkins believes in life’s ability to evolve further, in the “evolution of evolvability.” He believes in progressive evolution, in that sense.

“Darwin seemingly reconciled these two views … as the forms became complicated, they opened freshmeans of adding to their complexity … but yet there is no necessary tendency in the simple animals to become complicated although all perhaps will have done so from the new relations caused by the advancing complexity of others … if we begin with the simpler forms and suppose them to have changed, their very changes tend to give rise to others.” [3]

Simple forms become increasingly complex, thus stimulating the complexity of other forms. This did not happen by necessity and no law needs to drive the process. Nonetheless, competition between organisms will likely result in progressively complex forms.

There is probably no greater authority on the idea of evolutionary progress than Michael Ruse whose book,Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, is the most comprehensive work on the subject. Ruse observes that museums, charts, displays, and books all depict evolution as progressive, and he thinks that the concept of progress will continue to play a major role in evolutionary biology for the following reasons. First, as products of evolution, we are bound to measure it from our own perspective, thus naturally valuing the intelligence that asks philosophical questions. Second, whatever epistemological relativists think, nearly all practicing scientists believe their theories and models get closer to the truth as science proceeds. And scientists generally transfer that belief in scientific progress to a belief in organic progress. Finally, Ruse maintains that the scientists drawn to evolutionary biology are those particularly receptive to progressive ideas. Evolution and the idea of progress are intertwined and nearly inseparable.

Has there been cultural progress?

Cosmic evolution evokes the idea of evolutionary progress while progressivism imbues the work of most biologists, a trend Ruse thinks will continue. When we turn to culture, a compelling argument can be made for the reality of progressive evolution. The historian Will Durant argued for cultural progress, a conclusion he believed followed from considering certain elements of human history, while Jean Piaget made the case for cognitive progress, based on his studies of cognitive development in children and his analysis of the history of science. The science writer Robert Wright believes in a generally progressive evolution based on the structure of non-zero sum interactions, whereas Steven Pinker counters that complexity and cooperation are sub-goals of evolution, not its natural destiny. While the overall strength of the arguments for evolutionary progress is unclear, we cannot gainsay that such arguments have philosophical merit. Clearly there have been progressive trends in evolution, which suggests that life as a whole may become increasingly meaningful.

That is in line with a number of other thinkers who have argued for the relevance of evolution to meaning. Daniel Dennett extends the heuristic reach of evolution, showing how it acts as a universal solvent that eats through philosophical problems, while the skeptic Michael Shermer says that we create provisional meanings in our lives, even though our existence depends on a billion evolutionary happenstances. The scientist John Stewart-Williams argues that the universe does have purposes, since we have purposes and we are part of the universe, while the philosopher John Stewart claims that the universe will be increasingly meaningful if we direct the process. Still, other philosophers have argued that evolution is irrelevant to meaning; Wittgenstein notoriously maintained that “Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” [4] Yet this claim was made in a philosophical milieu where the scope of philosophical inquiry was narrow, whereas today the impact of scientific theories on philosophy is enormous. Today most thinkers would say that the emergence of conscious purposes and meanings in cosmic evolution is relevant to concerns about meaning.

Turning to grand cosmic visions, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin articulated a universal vision of the evolutionary process, with the universe moving toward a fully meaningful end point. Jacques Monod questioned Teilhard’s optimism, noting that biology does not reveal that life is meaningful. Julian Huxley conveys a vision — similar to Teilhard’s but without the religious connotations — which encourages us to play the leading role in the cosmic drama by guiding evolution to realize its possibilities, thereby finding meaning for ourselves in the process. E.O. Wilson also believes that the evolutionary epic is mythic and sweeping and he exhorts us to create a better future. Thus many thinkers believe that evolution is both progressive and relevant to meaning. For Teilhard, Huxley, and Wilson, life is meaningful because it evolves, and we live meaningful lives precisely because we play a central role in this evolving meaning.

Evolution as metaphysics

So a study of cosmic evolution can support the claim that life has become increasingly meaningful, a claim buttressed primarily by the emergence of beings with conscious purposes and meanings. Where there once was no meaning or purpose — in a universe without mind — there is now both meanings and purposes. These meanings have their origin in the matter which coalesced into stars and planets, which in turn supported organisms that evolved bodies with brains and their attributes — behavior, consciousness, personal identity, freedom, value, and meaning. Meaning has emerged during the evolutionary process. It came into being when complexly organized brains, consisting of constitutive parts and the interactive relationships between those parts, intermingled with physical and then cultural environments. This relationship was reciprocal — brains affected biological and cognitive environments which in turn affected those brains. The result of this interaction between organisms and environments was a reality that became, among other things, infused with meaning.

But will meaning continue to emerge as evolution moves forward? Will progressive evolutionary trends persevere to complete or final meaning, or to approaching meaning as a limit? Will the momentum of cognitive development make such progress nearly inevitable? These are different questions — ones which we cannot answer confidently. We could construct an inductive argument, that the past will resemble the future in this regard, but such an argument is not convincing. For who knows what will happen in the future? The human species might bring about its own ruin tomorrow or go extinct due to some biological, geophysical, or astronomical phenomenon. We cannot bridge the gap between what has happened and what will happen. The future is unknown.

All this leads naturally to another question. Is the emergence of meaning a good thing? It is easy enough to say that conscious beings create meaning, but it is altogether different to say that this is a positive development. Before consciousness no one derived meaning from torturing others, but now they sometimes do. In this case a new kind of meaning emerged, but few think this is a plus. Although we can establish the emergence of meaning, we cannot establish that this is good.

Still, we fantasize that our scientific knowledge will improve both the quality and quantity of life. We will make ourselves immortal, build ourselves better brains, and transform our moral natures — making life better and more meaningful, perhaps fully meaningful. We will become pilots worthy of steering evolution to fantastic heights, toward creating a heaven on earth or in simulated realities of our design. If meaning and value continue to emerge we will find meaning by partaking in, and hastening along, that very process. As the result of past meanings and as the conduit for the emergence of future ones, we could be the protagonists of a great epic that ascends higher, as Huxley and Teilhard had hoped.

In our imagination we exist as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward greater levels of being, consciousness, joy, beauty, goodness, and meaning — perhaps even to their apex. As part of such a glorious process we find meaning instilled into our lives from previously created meaning, and we reciprocate by emanating meaning back into a universe with which we are ultimately one. Evolutionary thought, extended beyond its normal bounds, is an extraordinarily speculative, quasi-religious metaphysics in which a naturalistic heaven appears on the horizon.

Conclusion: sobriety and skepticism

Yet, as we ascend these mountains of thought, we are brought back to earth. When we look to the past we see that evolution has produced meaning, but it has also produced pain, fear, genocide, extinction, war, loneliness, anguish, envy, slavery, despair, futility, torture, guilt, depression, alienation, ignorance, torture, inequality, superstition, poverty, heartache, death, and meaninglessness. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering. Turning to the future, our optimism must be similarly restrained. Fantasies about where evolution is headed should be tempered, if for no other reason than that our increased powers can be used for evil as well as for our improvement. Our wishes may never be fulfilled.

But this is not all. It is not merely that we cannot know if our splendid speculations are true — which we cannot — it is that we have an overwhelmingly strong reason to reject our flights of fancy. And that is that humans are notorious pattern-seekers, story-tellers, and meaning-makers who invariably weave narratives around these patterns and stories to give meaning to their lives. It follows that the patterns of progress we glimpse likely exist only in our minds. There is no face of a man on Mars or of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches. If we find patterns of progress in evolution, we are probably victims of simple confirmation bias.

After all progress is hardly the whole story of evolution, as most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, as this immense universe (or multi-verse) is largely incomprehensible to us, with our three and a half pound brains, we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary-like religion for our frustrated metaphysical longings. We should be more reticent about advancing cosmic visions, and less credulous about believing in them. Our humility should temper our grandiose metaphysical speculations. In short, if reflection on a scientific theory supposedly reveals that our deepest wishes are true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. We need to be braver than that, for we want to know, not just to believe. In our job as serious seekers of the truth, the credulous need not apply.

In the end cosmic and biological evolution — and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology — leave us awestruck. The arrival of intelligence and the meaning it creates is important, as Paul Davies put it: “the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.” [5] Similar ideas reverberate in the work of Simon Conway Morris. He argues that if intelligence had not developed in humans, it would have done so in another species — in other words, the emergence of intelligence on our planet was inevitable [6].

I agree with both Davies and Morris that mind and its attendant phenomena are important, but it does not follow that we are meant to be here or that intelligence was inevitable. It is only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to such anthropocentrism. Homo sapiens might easily have never been, as countless events could have led to their downfall. This should give us pause when we imbue our existence with undue significance. We were not inevitable, we were not meant to be here — we are serendipitous. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results — ones that didn’t include us. As for the inevitability of intelligence, are we really to suppose that dinosaurs, had they not been felled by an asteroid, were on their way to human-like intelligence? Such a view strains credulity; dinosaurs had been around for many millions of years without developing greater intelligence. We want to believe evolution had us as its goal — but it did not — we were not meant to be. We should forgo our penchant for detecting patterns and accept our radical contingency. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid [7].

Thus we cannot confidently answer all of the questions we posed at the beginning of this essay in the affirmative. We can say that there has been some progress in evolution and that meaning has emerged in the process, but we cannot say these trends will continue or that they were good. And we certainly must guard against speculative metaphysical fantasies, inasmuch as there are good reasons to think we are not special. We do not know that a meaningful eschatology will gradually unfold as we evolve, much less that we could articulate a cosmic vision to describe it. We don’t even know if the reality of any grand cosmic vision ispossible. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. And none of those offer much comfort.

We long to dream but always our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannaish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence gives us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but not enough to satisfy our longings. For we want to believe that tomorrow will really be better than yesterday. We want to believe with Teilhard and Huxley that a glorious future awaits but, detached from our romanticism, we know that the Monod of the world may be right — there may be no salvation, there may be no comfort to be found for our harassed souls. Confronted with such meager prospects and the anguish that accompanies them, we are lost, and the most we can do, once again, is hope. That doesn’t give us what we want or need, but it does give us something we don’t have to be ashamed of. There is nothing irrational about the kind of hope that is elicited by, and best expressed from, an evolutionary perspective. Julian Huxley, scientist and poet, best conveyed these hopes [8]:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

_____

John G. Messerly was for many years a member of the faculty of both the Philosophy and Computer Science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of books on ethical theory, evolutionary philosophy, and the meaning of life, as well as dozens of articles on philosophical and transhumanist themes. He is also an Affiliate Member of the Evolution, Complexity, and Cognition Group at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussel, and an affiliate scholar of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies.

[1] Timothy Shanahan, “Evolutionary Progress from Darwin to Dawkins.”

[2] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2007), 211.

[3] Barrett, P., Gautrey, P., Herbert, S., Kohn, D., and Smith, S., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Paul Kegan, 1961), 25.

[5] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 232.

[6] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[7] Had the course of the asteroid 2005 YU55 that passed the earth on November 8, 2011 been slightly altered, millions might have died and this essay not written.

[8] Julian Huxley, ‘Evolution: At the Mind’s Cinema’ (1922), in The Captive Shrew and Other Poems of a Biologist (London: Basil Blackwell, 1932), 55.

Mencken’s Creed

H l mencken.jpg

 H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was an American journalist,essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American life and culture, and scholar of American English.[1] Known as the “Sage of Baltimore“, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century.

Mencken is eminently quotable and you will find a number of his quotes on this blog. I like everything about his creed except his naive libertarianism regarding government. He seems unaware that the social contract demands the sacrifice of some liberty for the social order. Unfortunately, like so many young intellectuals, he was a secret anarchist who thought the laws of civil society applied only to others. But again, I strongly concur with the rest of his creed below.

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind—that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…

I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…

I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

I believe in the reality of progress.

I – But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

The End of Religion: Technology and the Future

History is littered with dead gods. The Greek and Roman gods, and thousands of others have perished. Yet Allah, Yahweh, Krishna and a few more survive. But will belief in the gods endure? It will not. Our descendents will be too advanced to share such primitive beliefs.

If we survive and science progresses, we will manipulate the genome, rearrange the atom, and augment the mind. And if science defeats suffering and death, religion as we know it will die. Without suffering and death, religion will have lost its raison d’être. For who will pray for heavenly cures, when the cures already exist on earth? Who will die hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers immortality? With the defeat of death, science and technology will have finally triumphed over superstition. Our descendents will know, once and for all, that they are stronger than imaginary gods.

As they continue to evolve our post-human progeny will become increasingly godlike. They will overcome human physical and psychological limitations, and achieve superintellgence, either by modifying their brains or interfacing with computers. While we can’t know this for sure, what we do know is that the future will not be like the past. From our perspective, if science and technology continue to progress, our offspring will come to resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang.

As our descendents distance themselves from their past, they will lose interest in the gods. Such primitive ideas may even be unthinkable for them. Today the gods are impotent, tomorrow they’ll be irrelevant. You may doubt this. But do you really think that in a thousand or a million years your descendents, travelling through an infinite cosmos with augmented minds, will find their answers in ancient scriptures? Do you really think that powerful superintelligence will cling to the primitive mythologies that once satisfied ape-like brains? Only the credulous can believe such things. In the future gods will exist … only if we become them.

Still the future is unknown. Asteroids, nuclear war, environmental degradation, climate change or deadly viruses and bacteria may destroy us. Perhaps the machine intelligences we create will replace us. Or we might survive but create a dystopia. None of these prospects is inviting, but they all entail the end of religion.

Alternatively, in order to maintain the status quo, some combination of neo-Luddites, political conservatives or religious fanatics could destroy past knowledge, persecute the scientists, censor novel ideas, and usher in a new Dark Ages of minimal technology, political repression and antiquated religion. But even if they were successful, this would not save them or their archaic ideas. For killer asteroids, antibiotic-resistant bacteria or some other threat will inevitably emerge. And when it does only science and technology will save us—prayer or ideology will not help. Either we evolve or we will die.

But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science defeats death, before we become godlike? We may eventually outgrow religious beliefs, but why not allow their comforts to those who still need them? If parents lose a child or children lose a parent, what’s wrong with telling them they’ll be reunited in heaven? I am sympathetic with noble lies, sometimes they are justified. If a belief helps you and doesn’t hurt others, it is hard to gainsay.

Still religious consolation has a price. Religion, and conservative philosophies in general, typically opposes intellectual, technological and moral progress. Religion has fought against free speech, democracy, the eradication of slavery, sex education, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, women’s and civil rights, and the advancement of science. It has been aligned with inquisitions, war, human sacrifice, torture, despotism, child abuse, intolerance, fascism, and genocide. It displays a fondness for the supernatural, authoritarian, misogynistic, hierarchical, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-progressive. Religion has caused an untold amount of misery.

One could even argue that religious beliefs are the most damaging beliefs possible. Consider that Christianity rose in power as the Roman Empire declined, resulting in the marginalization of the Greek science that the Romans had inherited. If the scientific achievements of the Greeks had been built upon throughout the Middle Ages, if science had continued to advance for those thousand years, we might live in an unimaginably better world today. Who knows how many diseases would be cured by now? Who knows how advanced our intellectual and moral natures might be? Maybe we would have already overcome death. Maybe we still die today because of religion.

The cultural domination by Christianity during the Middle Ages resulted in some of the worst conditions known in human history. Much the same could be said of religious hegemony in other times and places. And if religion causes less harm in some places today than it once did, that’s because it has less power than it used to. Were that power regained, the result would surely be disastrous, as anyone who studies history or lives in a theocracy will confirm. Put simply, religion is an enemy of the future. If we are to survive and progress, ideas compatible with brains forged in the Pleistocene must yield. We shouldn’t direct our gaze to the heavens but to the earth, where the real work of making a better world takes place.

Of course religion is not the only anti-progressive force in the world—there are other enemies of the future. Some oppose progressive ideas even if they are advanced by the religious. Consider how political conservatives, virtually all of whom profess to be Christians, denounce Pope Francis’ role in re-establishing Cuban-American relations, his criticism of unfettered capitalism and vast income inequality, and his warnings about the dangers of climate change. The plutocrats and despots hate change, especially if it affects their wallets. The beneficiaries of the status quo don’t want a better world—they like the one they have.

How then do we make a better world? What will guide us in this quest? For there to be a worthwhile future we need at least three things: 1) knowledge of ourselves and the world; 2) ethical values that promote the flourishing of conscious beings; and 3) a narrative to give life meaning. But where do we find them?

Knowledge comes from science, which is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science explains forces that were once dark and mysterious. It reveals the vast immensity, history and future of the cosmos. It explains our biological origins and the legacy that evolutionary history leaves upon our thoughts and behaviors. It tells us how the world works independent of ideology or prejudice. And applied science is technology, which gives us the power to overcome limitations and make a better future. If you want to see miracles, don’t go to Lourdes, look inside your cell phone.

Ethical values do not depend on religion. The idea that people can’t be moral without religion is false, no matter how many think otherwise. The claim that morality is grounded in religion is also false, as can easily be demonstrated. Ethical values and behaviors arose in our evolutionary history, where they may also find their justification. Yes, the moral-like behaviors sometimes favored by evolution have also been prescribed by religion— cooperation and altruism come to mind—but the justification of these values is biological and social, not supernatural. We are moral because, for the most part, it’s in our self-interest. We all do better, if we all cooperate. Everyone can endorse values that aid our survival and flourishing—even our godlike descendents.

Finally we need a new narrative to replace outdated religious ones—a narrative to give our lives meaning and purpose. We need a story that appeals to the educated, not superstition and mythology. With the death of religion imminent, we need to look elsewhere for meaning and purpose.

Fortunately such a narrative already exists. It is the story of cosmic evolution, the story of the cosmos becoming self-conscious. Nature gave birth to consciousness, and consciousness comes to know nature. Through this interaction of the universe and the minds that emerge from it, reality comes to know itself. Surely this story is profound enough to satisfy our metaphysical longings. And it has an added benefit over mythological accounts—it’s based on science.

What is our role in this story? We are the protagonists of the evolutionary epic; determining its course is our destiny. We should willingly embrace our role as agents of evolutionary change, helping evolution to realize new possibilities. We are not an end, but a beginning. We are as links in a chain leading upward to higher forms of being and consciousness. This is our hope, this gives our lives meaning.

I don’t know if we can make a better future, but I know that no help will come from the gods. Turning our backs on them is a first step on our journey.