Monthly Archives: January 2015

Is Love Stronger Than Death?

For many people dying is like moving to a better neighborhood. This is not surprising, as belief in the afterlife is widespread. To sustain this belief, people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near death experiences, tales of reincarnation, stories of ancient miracles, supposed communication with the dead, pseudo-scientific studies, and the like. But none of this so-called evidence stands up to critical scrutiny. Many believe, not because there’s good evidence, but because they want to.

Yet such faith is hard to sustain. Every single moment we are alive confirms at least one truth—those who are dead are dead. We may hear the voices of the deceased in our heads, but we don’t take the departed out to lunch. We could live in a world with evidence for the afterlife—for example one where the dead regularly appeared and described post-mortem existence—but we don’t. Belief in the afterlife is probably just wishful thinking.

As for science, it generally ignores the so-called evidence of an afterlife for many reasons. First, the idea of an immortal soul plays no explanatory or predictive role in the modern scientific study of human beings. For instance, doctors no longer attribute mental illness to demonic possession of our souls—only Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the scientifically illiterate might do that.

Second, the overwhelming evidence suggests that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts or disembodied spirits exist, then we would have to abandon scientific ideas that we hold with great confidence—like the notion that brains generate consciousness. In fact, the idea of a soul is incompatible with everything we know about modern physics—best-selling books to contrary just prey on human credulity.

Professional philosophers also tend to be skeptical of the afterlife, as good arguments for it are virtually non-existent. Moreover, almost all philosophers today are physicalists  regarding the mind. This means that mind—or soul if it even exists—depends on the body. In other words, when the body dies our consciousness is extinguished; there is no ghost in the machine.

Of course this cursory treatment doesn’t establish the impossibility of an afterlife; after all, reality is mysterious. Still, given what we know about how our brains work, disembodied consciousness is unlikely. Clearly the scientific and philosophical winds blow against such ancient beliefs, and people increasingly reject belief in god, miracles, and the afterlife.

But if death is the end, how should we feel about it? We might be undisturbed by death, finding consolation in the words of the Greek philosopher Epicurus: “When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not.” Epicurus taught that fear of the gods and death is irrational. If we think about death, we will see that it’s not bad for us since we have no sensations after death. Yes, the process of dying can be bad, and our deaths may hurt others, but Epicurus argued that death can’t be bad for the deceased. For how can what we don’t know hurt us?

We could reject this argument, claiming that we can be harmed by something without being aware of it. For example, intelligent adults reduced to the state of infancy by a brain injury suffer a great misfortune, even if unaware of their injurious state. Perhaps the dead are similarly harmed. But we can still ask, how can the dead be harmed? Perhaps Epicurus is right after all, death shouldn’t trouble us.

Yet despite Epicurus’ argument, we may still find the idea of our death unsettling. For one day the sun will set for the very last time for us, and every thought and memory we have ever had will … vanish. When we are gone we will no longer read books, take trips, or hear familiar voices. We will never take another walk, catch another baseball, or play in the snow. We won’t know about new music, inventions, ideas or what will happen to our children or grandchildren. This is why we don’t want to die.

In response we could hope that science and technology save us, and there are plausible scientific scenarios whereby death might be overcome. Still, such technology probably won’t be developed in time to avoid our own deaths. We could also buy a cryonics policy, but there are no guarantees this would work, or that we would wake up in a reality that we would want to live in.

Moreover, even if we did extend our lives indefinitely, the universe itself is doomed. In that case, life seems pointless. For how can anything matter if all ends in nothingness?  The only way around this conclusion is if our descendents become gods and somehow escape the death of the cosmos. Unfortunately, such fantastic futures aren’t only unlikely, they also don’t comfort us when we look at our spouse or our children and realize that someday we’ll never see them again. Never. Death doesn’t care about our desires; our attitude toward death appears irrelevant; raging against death seems futile. As Philip Larkin wrote:

… Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

For now, with the reality of death looming, resignation and acceptance probably serve us best. Yet we can find some consolation—all is not lost. For if our interests are large enough, if we detach ourselves from the concerns of our little egos, if we identify with something large like the future of cosmic evolution, then there is a good chance that what we care about will continue. Maybe such thoughts can lessen the sting of death.

Most importantly, if we truly feel the reality of death, we might be kinder to each other. If the thought of our non-existence has any value, this may be it. For all the pain we cause each other is pointless against the backdrop of eternal nothingness. If we are all dying together, why not be nicer to each other, why not fill our little time with less pain? Maybe, if we could see ourselves from this cosmic point of view, we could even say with the poets, that what survives of us is love.

This may be too poetic, and it may not be all we want. But love is remarkable. It appears in a world of cruelty and savagery, in a species whose roots are “red in tooth and claw.” Love brings the peace of knowing that someone cares for us, waits for us, listens to us. In the unfathomable infinity of space and time, in the infinite cold and darkness which surrounds us, love relieves loneliness, love connects us, love sustains us. And perhaps the traces of our love do somehow reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us. Perhaps love doesn’t disappear into nothingness; perhaps love can be perfected; perhaps love is stronger than death.

American Gods and European Atheism

What follows are a few excerpts from a lectured entitled:  Attack of the Atheists” by Reverend James Kubal-Komoto, Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church, Des Moines, Washington, April 1, 2007. It provides some interesting information about religion. (I can’t find the original lecture on the internet, but I took these notes when the lecture first appeared.)

… there was a fascinating study released by Baylor University last fall titled American Piety in the 21st Century, and unlike most studies, which only ask very basic questions about people’s religious beliefs, this one went further in-depth.

One of its main findings is that while most Americans say they believe in God, Americans really believe in four very different kinds of Gods. Some Americans (31.4 percent) believe in an “Authoritarian God” who is very angry with the sins of the world and regularly supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of the world. You might think of this as Pat Robertson’s God. Another group (23 percent) believes in a “Benevolent God” who also regularly supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of the world, but is less wrathful and more of a positive influence. You might think of this as Oprah’s God. Another group (16 percent) believes in a “Critical God” who is not happy about the affairs of the world, but doesn’t intervene, preferring to mete out rewards and punishments in the next life. You might think about this as the “Wait until your father gets home!” God. Finally, another group (16 percent) believes in a “Distant God.” Individuals who believe in this sort of God tend to think of God as a cosmic intelligence which set the law of nature in motion at the beginning of time, but neither intervenes in the affairs of the world nor cares about them. You might think of this as Thomas Jefferson’s God.

And guess what? Which one of these Gods people believe in does have a lot to do with how they live their lives. It also has a lot to do with how people believe about all sorts of other things such as sexual morality, politics, the environment, the “war on terror,” discrimination of all sorts, whether God favors the U.S. in world affairs. And if you’re wondering, those who believe in an angry, intervening “Authoritarian God” tend to have the values most divergent from many of us in this community.

Other research studies show that people who believe in a personal God who loves them and also loves everybody else—a theology similar to many of the early Universalists—tend to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and more involved in social justice making than others, and these are qualities I greatly admire, and the world might be a better place if there were more people with this kind of belief in it.

… [ the reverend now turns to another issue.]

For example, why is it that some countries in this world tend to be very religious while in other countries traditional religiosity seems to be on the decline? Why is it that in many European countries, atheism is at an all-time high? What explains this variability better, evolutionary adaptation or social changes?

Well, in 2004, the United Nations commissioned a Human Development Report, which ranked 177 nations on a “Human Development Index” which measures societal health according to indicators such as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, per capita income, and educational attainment. According to this report, the five highest ranked countries – – Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands – – also are countries that have the lowest degree of traditional religiosity. All of the top 25 countries on the list have low degrees of traditional religiosity.

In fact two scholars – – Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart – – have found that high rates of individual and societal well-being are the leading factor in predicting a country’s degree of traditional religiosity.

In other words, when people have access to quality medical care, education, and jobs that pay enough money to live comfortably, they tend to be less traditionally religious.

What about the United States? Aren’t we one of the most religious countries in the world? Yes, we are. But the sad truth is that we also lag behind many other developed nations in terms of individual and societal well being. In many ways, the United States can be a scary, unpredictable place to live. Is it any wonder that lots of folks believe in an angry, punishing, authoritarian God?

Finally, if we’re truly concerned about some of religion’s negative effects in this world, let’s try to figure out to the best of our ability the root causes of these negative effects. It seems to be that the best evidence suggests they result from fear, from hopelessness, from despair, from need, and it doesn’t seem that simply labeling them as irrational or delusional is the best course of action. (In some ways, attacking people’s religions that we may find irrational is like attacking people for poor eating habits during a famine.) It seems the best thing we can do to moderate or mitigate the dangers and excesses of religion in this world is to work toward a world of love and justice.

In other words, we won’t make the world better by getting rid of bad religion, but we may get rid of bad religion by making the world better. From my perspective, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris confuse the symptoms with the disease, and bad religion is the symptom, not the disease …

No, religion is the human quest for connection and meaning, and this being on this quest is part of what it means to be human. But in a more loving and just world a lot of religion might look different than it does today, and that wouldn’t necessarily be bad thing.  So may it be. Amen.

This might be the best sermon I’ve ever read.

Some Interesting Biblical Prescriptions

While this pokes fun at Biblical literalists, and irrationality should be open to ridicule, I don’t post it to make fun of all religion. After all, there are good things in Biblical prescriptions too, like the command to love your neighbor. Still what follows should remind those who claim to have a monopoly on the truth that the truth isn’t found in your favorite book, subjective experience or preferred guru. Truth is something found at great cost. It is easy to claim to know the truth, it is much harder to search for it. That’s what I think is important, the search.

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

  1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
  2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
  3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
  4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
  5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
  6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
  7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle- room here?
  8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
  9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
  10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

If There Are Gods, They Are Evil

(this article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 28, 2015.)

[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, Nietzsche, and Russell as one of religion’ great critics. His argument that miracle stories are almost certainly untrue is the most celebrated piece on that subject ever written.

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

Kant was one of the first philosophers who was a professor. He was a pious Lutheran, a solitary man who never married, and the author of some of the most esoteric works in philosophy. Troubled by Hume’s skepticism, Kant looked at both rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume for answers. 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 led 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 was impossible. Still he wanted to reconcile rationalism and empiricism, while at the same time show that God, free will, knowledge, and ethics are possible. In fact much of western philosophy since Descartes has tried to reconcile the scientific worldview 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. 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.

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 are true, but he thinks it is a practical necessity to act as if they are. 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 provide a two page summary of Kant’s ethical theory. I have also written about it in detail here, here, and here.)