God’s Blessings on February 16, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the seventeenth of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Last night I did a hangout with Max of the Escaping Atheism project on YouTube, if you’re interested you can watch it here:

We spoke about the style of talking with Atheists (primarily what I call kakangelical atheists—atheists who want to spread the bad news), and how there are different styles and a place for Escaping Atheism’s blunt, combative style.

To give a brief summary of why, especially on the internet there are a lot of kakangelical atheists whose approach is to be very confident and very aggressive to believers, asserting in very forceful tones that they’re delusional idiots for believing in a magic sky fairy with no evidence! Etc. And I think that there is value to some people equally forcefully responding, “no, you’re the delusional idiot for thinking God is like a magic sky fairy, for asserting that there is no evidence in plain contradiction of simple fact, and for not having bothered to learn anything before spouting off about it.”

It’s not that this will convince anyone that they’re wrong, but curiously it will sometimes convince people to go do some studying, not because they are inspired to better themselves, but because having done no studying they have no reply, and so may go do some studying just to procure some better rhetorical weapons. Along the way, they may end up learning something. That said, the real important part of this is that it neutralizes what amounts to bullying. Powerfully presented confidence is intimidating; to see it on both sides reduces its effect, giving space for reason to operate. This is especially important for the young; as I mentioned in the video that forceful approach shook me a lot when I was a teenager. Now that I’m getting close to forty I tend to just reply with equal confidence and move on, occasionally amused at the names I get called for doing what the other guy just did (that is, asserting that I was right and the other guy wrong). I don’t think I’ll ever understand thin-skinned people who lead with insults. Thick-skinned people who open with insults make sense to me, but how have the thin-skinned ones not learned to moderate their approach in pure self-defense?

Now, it might be brought up that one catches far more flies with a tablespoon of honey than with a gallon of vinegar. It’s a great saying, and in certain situations very true. I’m not sure of the literal fact behind the metaphor, though; I’ve seen a lot of dead flies in a bowl of apple cider vinegar which was accidentally left open. That being said, if you want to find people who responded with mild language in the face of blasphemy, I suggest you read something other than the bible. As the meme goes:

what-would-jesus-do-having-actually-read-the-bible

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 15, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the fifteenth day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

There are a lot of trials in being a parent, but I think that the hardest is sleep deprivation. At least for me, I find it very difficult to function when I’m underslept. There is an element, I think, in Christian psychology in the modern west where we expect that carrying our crosses will be glamorous. Well, not glamorous, exactly, but the sort of thing people would write stories about. We’re so soaked in fiction that we think about a great deal of life in terms of how it would be summarized in a story. And after all, Jesus carrying his cross was written about in a story. Surely, so our emotions sometimes go, our cross to carry will be similarly story-worthy.

But our crosses to bear are often things like, “sure, Child, I will walk you to the bathroom at 3am then tuck you back into bed; don’t worry, I’ll get back to sleep eventually” and dealing with the exhaustion and headaches the next day.

Some wag apparently said that there were enough putative fragments of the true cross of Christ to make a ship, whereas in reality there are something like four kilograms worth of fragments claimed to be from the true cross, but in any event one night of little rest is not like a splinter from one’s cross. For many of us, I think we carry our crosses one splinter at a time, and over the years they add up to a cross, so we don’t notice and it’s very easy to complain because we don’t think of them the right way.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 2, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the second day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I found an interesting referrer linking to my interview with the editor of Cirsova magazine. It’s a blog post by Rampant Coyote about how the covers on old pulps were often quite misleading. It’s an interesting post and I recommend reading the whole thing. I found this part especially interesting:

The covers … well… as much as I love them now, they aren’t great representations of the stories themselves. The Weird Tales cover here, for example… if you’ve actually read “Queen of the Black Coast,” the only thing about this image that resembles the story is the monster. Kind of, but it’s supposed to be more ape-like. The dude is not Conan, and the girl isn’t acting (or dressed like) like Bêlit. In the story… well, Conan pretty much meets his match in Bêlit. She is a bloodthirsty, avaricious, fearless pirate. She commands some men and slaughters others, and her name strikes fear in the heart of captain . As I recall, she’s the one who does the rescuing (if posthumously… it’s complicated. They borrowed that idea for the 1982 movie. Read the story, it’s awesome!)

This was in part an effect of the business model of the time, or more properly of the specialization involved in having a publishing house. The people who commissioned the art for the covers were people who had a keen sense of what sells books, which was their job, and not nearly so much of how to accurately represent a story in a picture, which was (in practice) no one’s job. This is one thing that always annoyed me as a reader and something I’ve fixed as a self-published author. Since I commission the cover art, I have the artist depict a scene from the book. Whether that negatively affects sales I don’t know, but I far prefer the honesty of it.

Anyway, I had gotten so used to the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” being used metaphorically, especially about judging a person’s moral character from his looks, that I had all but forgotten that it was also literal advice based on how much book covers might be outright lies.

There is another very interesting section later on in the post, about what the stories were actually like:

This is especially true in some recent efforts I’ve seen to deconstruct / subvert older stories… folks should know what they are trying to build on. If you are writing a “pulp-style” story and you think you are being bold and original because it’s about a female warrior / pirate who totally has to rescue a Conan-analog character… it’s been done. Magazine covers notwithstanding, Howard has already been there. Lots of the pulps have. They may not be what you think they are.

Which brings up an interesting fact about the pulps: there were a lot of them. Writers wrote many stories, and though there undoubtedly were formulaic stories (any industry which needs a lot of writing is going to publish a lot of bad writing, for the simple reason that bad writing is easier to come by than good writing) writers of successful stories needed to come up with new things so as not to become stale. People did not buy the pulps because the previous issue sufficed for the new one, and subverting expectations is a very old trick for surprising the reader and keeping  his interest. It’s done much better by people who want to do it in order to make their stories interesting than by people who want to overthrow morality so that they have license to be bad, since the former will only subvert things which do no harm when subverted while the latter will subvert things which do a lot of harm, but the general concept of subverting expectations is not new at all. In fact, God even used that trick when he took on flesh, being born a helpless baby in an insignificant part of an insignificant country, in a stable for animals. As Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, there is something very strange in picturing the hands that made the universe being too small to reach the enormous heads of the cattle.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 27, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the twenty seventh day of January, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I didn’t post a God’s Blessings post yesterday, but I did post an interview, so I’m going to call that a wash.

I recently came across a private discussion about the nature of forgiveness, and how my Christian friend was having to point out to a secular co-worker that forgiveness does not mean automatically pretending that nothing has happened, especially when there has been no repentance. Let’s call the people A and B, and stipulate that as co-workers B betrayed A’s trust and in fact stabbed him in the back on some occasion to A’s significant detriment. Let’s further stipulate that B does not admit to any wrongdoing, and has never apologized, repented of his wickedness, nor tried to make any sort of amends.

Now, I know what Christians mean when they say that they are not required to forgive in such a circumstance, but that’s technically incorrect. Christians are to forgive in all circumstances, because forgiveness just means that one does not cease loving a person. And as Bishop Barron puts it, love is to desire the good of the other as other. Which means that pouring out the infinite goodness of God which we ourselves are given, we give to others according to our ability to give and their ability to receive. That last part is key, and is the key to this whole problem.

Forgiveness means that we should not withhold any good from a man that we can give him, but it does not mean that we should give goods to a man who cannot receive them. In this case, a man who betrays trust is not trustworthy. Forgiving him means that if he needs help, one should help him. By all means A should (if practical) take a day off work to help B move his stuff from one apartment to another. If B is hungry, A should feed him. But there is absolutely nothing in the concept of forgiveness that means that A should trust B when there is no reason to believe that B is trustworthy and good reason to believe that B is not. Forgiveness means not holding grudges, it does not mean being unrealistic. Now, I should probably add that it is possible for people to reform, and for a man who was untrustworthy to become trustworthy. And forgiveness should be open to that possibility. But that does not in any sense mean that forgiveness should assume that such a thing has happened in default of evidence that it has, and still less in the face of evidence that it hasn’t.

And in fact, it is uncharitable to tempt a man who struggles with temptation. If B has a hard time keeping trust, it is uncharitable to place trust in him and thus expose him to the temptation to violate that trust. Telling secrets to a gossip is not only unwise, but it is unkind.

There are those who want to simply forget the past, of course, mostly because they had conflict and want it to magically disappear. That’s not forgiveness, that’s cowardice. Of course, cowardice will always try to disguise itself as something else; that’s part of the nature of cowardice. After all, you can’t expect cowardice to have the bravery to admit what it is.

In short, forgiveness means being willing to give what you can, even to a man who has hurt you. It does not mean being willing to give what you can’t.

Glory to God in the highest.

The Probability of Theology

This is the script to my video, The Probability of Theology:

As always, it was written (by me) for me to read aloud, but it should be pretty readable.

Today I’m going to be answering a question I got from the nephew of a friend of mine from the local Chesterton society. He’s a bright young man who was (I believe) raised without any religion, and has been introduced by his aunt to some real, adult, theology, and has the intellectual integrity to seriously consider it until he can see how it’s either true or definitely wrong. Here’s his question:

I am an atheist, mostly due to a few primary objections I have with religion in general, the most prominent of which is that since there are infinite possible theologies, all with the same likelihood of being true, the probability of one single man-made theology such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam being true is approximately zero. My aunt … is quite convinced that you can prove this idea false [and] we are both hoping that you could make a … video about this on your channel, if possible. We will be eagerly awaiting your response.

This is an excellent example of how it’s possible to ask in a few words a question which takes many pages to answer. I will attempt to be brief, but there’s a lot to unpack here, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

The first thing I think we need to look at is the idea of a man-made theology. And in fact there are two very distinct ideas in this, which we need to address separately. First is the concept of knowledge, which as I’ve alluded to in previous videos was hacked into an almost unrecognizable form in the Enlightenment. Originally, knowledge meant the conformity of the mind to reality, and though in no small part mediated by the senses, none the less, knowledge was understood to be a relatively direct thing. In knowledge, the mind genuinely came in contact with the world. All this changed in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy. It would take too long to give a history of it so the short version is: blame Descartes and Kant. But the upshot is that the modern conception of knowledge is at best indirect and at worst nothing at all; knowledge—to the degree it’s even thought possible—is supposed to consist of creating mental models with one’s imagination and trying to find out whether they correlate with reality and if so, to what degree. Thus there is, in the modern concept of “knowledge”—the scare quotes are essential—a complete disconnect between the mind and the world. The mind is trapped inside of the skull and cannot get out; it can only look through some dirty windows and make guesses.

This approach of making guesses and attempting (where practical) to verify them has worked well in the physical sciences, though both the degree to which it has worked and the degree to which this is even how physical science is typically carried on, is somewhat exaggerated. But outside of the physical sciences it has largely proved a failure. One need only look at the “soft sciences” to see that this is often just story-telling that borrows authority by dressing up like physicists. It is an unmitigated disaster if it’s ever applied to ordinary life; to friends and family, to listening to music and telling jokes.

There have been a few theologies which have been man-made in this modern sense; that is, created out of someone’s imagination then compared against reality—the deism that conceives of God as winding a clock and letting it go comes to mind—but this is quite atypical, and really only exists as a degeneration of a previous theology. Most theologies describe reality in the older sense; descriptively, not creatively. It is true that many of them use stories which are not literally true in order to convey important but difficult truths narratively. This is because anyone who wants to be understood—by more than a few gifted philosophers—communicates important truths as narratives. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t matter at all whether George Washington admitted to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie; the story conveys the idea that telling the truth is a better thing than avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, and that lesson is very true. It may well be that there was never a boy who cried “wolf!” for fun until people didn’t believe him; it’s quite possible no one was ever eaten by a wolf because he had sounded too many false alarms to be believed when he sounded a real one. But none of that matters, because it is very true that it is a terrible idea to sound false alarms, and that sounding false alarms makes true alarms less likely to be believed. None of these are theories someone made up then tested; they are knowledge of real life which is communicated through stories which are made up for the sake of clarity. And so it is with the mythology of religions. Even where they are not literally true, they are describing something true which people have encountered. I am not, of course, saying that this is what all religion is, but all religions do have this as an element, because all religions attempt to make deep truths known to simple people. So when considering anything from any religion, the first and most important question to ask about it is: what do the adherents mean by it. This is where fundamentalists of all stripes—theistic and atheistic alike—go wrong. They only ever ask what they themselves mean by what the adherents of a religion say.

So this is the first thing we must get clear: theologies are not man-made in the sense of having been created out of a man’s imagination. They are not all equally correct, of course; some theologies have far more truth in them than others, but all have some truth, and the real question about any religion is: what are the truths that it is trying to describe? Christianity describes far more truth than buddhism does, but buddhism is popular precisely because it does describe some truths: the world is not simply what it appears at first glance; the more we try to live according the world the more entangled in it we get and the worse off we are; and by learning to be detached from the world we can improve our lot. It is not the case—as many buddhisms hold—that we must reject the world outright; we need a proper relationship to it, which Saint Francis captured in his Canticle of the Sun. The world is our sibling, neither our master nor our slave. And so it goes with all religions: they are all right about at least something, because the only reason any of them existed at all was because somebody discovered something profoundly true about the world. (Pastafarianism being the exception which proves the rule; the flying spaghetti monster is a joke precisely because it was simply made up and does not embody anything true about the world. Even the Invisible Pink Unicorn falls short of this; it embodies the truth that some people don’t understand what mysteries actually are.)

The second thing we must address in the man-made part of “man-made theologies” is that—at least according to them—not all theologies are made by man, even in the more ancient sense of originating in human knowledge. The theology of Christianity originated with God, not with man. Christian theology is primarily the self-revelation of God to man. And we have every reason to believe that God would be entirely correct about Himself.

Now of course I can hear a throng of atheists screaming as one, “but how do you know that’s true?!? You didn’t hear God say it, all you’ve heard is people repeating what they say God said.” Actually, these days, they’re more likely to say, “where’s your evidence”, or accuse me of committing logical fallacies that I can’t be committing, and that they can’t even correctly define, but for the sake of time let’s pretend that only top-tier atheists watch my videos.

Oh what a nice world that would be.

Anyway, this gets to a mistake I’ve seen a lot of atheists make: evaluating religious claims on the assumption that they’re false. There’s a related example which is a bit clearer, so I’m going to give that example, then come back and show how the same thing applies here. There are people who question the validity of scripture on the basis of copying errors. “In two thousand years the texts were copied and recopied so many times we have no way of knowing what the originals said,” sums it up enough for the moment. This objection assumes that the rate of copying errors in the gospels is the same as for all other ancient documents. Actually, it also exaggerates the rate of copying errors on ancient documents, but that’s beside the point. It is reasonable enough to assume that the rate of copying errors in Christian scriptures does not greatly differ from that of other documents, if Christianity is false. Well, actually, even that is iffy since a document people hold in special reverence may get special care even if that reverence is mistaken, but forget about that for now. If Christianity is true, the gospels are not an ordinary document. They are an important part of God’s plan of salvation for us, which he entrusted to a church he personally founded and has carefully looked over throughout time, guarding it from error. In that circumstance, it would be absurd to suppose that copying errors would distort the meaning of the text despite the power of God preventing that from happening. Thus it is clear that the rate of copying errors is not a question which is independent of the truth of Christianity, and therefore a presumed rate of copying errors cannot be used as an argument against the truth of Christianity precisely because whatever rate is presumed will contain in it an assumption of the truth or falsehood of Christianity. (I should point out that what we would expect—and what the Church claims—is that God would safeguard the meaningful truth of revelation, not the insignificant details. That is, we would expect that if Christianity was true God would keep significant errors from predominating, not that he would turn scribes into photocopying machines—within Christianity God places a great deal of emphasis on free will and human cooperation. And as it happens, we have some very old copies of the gospels and while there have been the occasional copying errors, none of them have amounted to a doctrinally significant difference. Make of that what you will.)

So bringing this example back to the original point, whether Christian theology is man-made is not a question which is independent of the question of whether Christianity is true. If Christianity is false, then its theology is man-made. But if Christianity is true, then its theology is not man-made, but revealed. And as I said, while men often make mistakes, we can trust God to accurately describe himself.

So, to recap: theology is descriptive, not constructive, and in historically-based religions like Christianity, theology is revealed, not man-made. So now we can move onto the question of probabilities.

First, there is the issue that probability says nothing about one-offs. I covered this in my video The Problem with Probability, so I won’t go into that here, but since I’ve heard the objection that I only discussed the frequentist interpretation of probability, I will mention that if you want to go with a bayesian interpretation of probability, all you’re saying by assigning a probability of zero to an event is that it’s not part of your model. Now in the question we’re addressing, it’s not a probability of zero that’s being assigned but rather “approximately zero”. But the thing about the Bayesian interpretation is that probability is at least as much a description of the statistician as it is of the real world. It is, essentially, a way to quantify how little you know. Now, sometimes you have to make decisions and take actions with whatever knowledge you have at the moment, but often the correct thing to do is: learn. There is no interpretation of statistics which turns ignorance into knowledge, or in bayesian terms, the way to get better priors is outside of the scope of bayesian statistics.

But more importantly, this atomization of theologies is very misleading. Among all of the possible theologies, many of them have a great deal in common. They do not have everything important in common, obviously. There are some very substantial differences between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and say, Theravada Buddhism. But for all their differences, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, and several others have quite a lot in common. They all worship the uncreated creator of all that is. That’s actually a pretty big thing, which is to say that it’s very important. An uncreated creator who transcends time and space has all sorts of implications on the coherency of contingent beings within time (such as ourselves), the existence of a transcendent meaning to life, and lots of other things. This is in contrast to things that don’t matter much, like whether there is an Angel who has a scroll with all of the names of the blessed written on it. Whether there is one or isn’t doesn’t really matter very much. Grouping those two distinctions together as if they were of equal importance is highly misleading. Now, granted, there are all too many people who take a tribalistic, all-or-nothing approach to religion where the key thing is to pick the right group to formally pledge allegiance to. But one of the things which follows from belief in an uncreated creator is that this primitive, tribalistic approach is a human invention which is not an accurate description of reality. An uncreated creator cannot need us nor benefit from us, so he must have created us for our own sake, and so our salvation must be primarily not about something superficial like a formal pledge of allegiance, but about truth and goodness. And by goodness I mean conformity of action to the fullness of truth. For more on this, I’ll link my video debunking Believe-or-Burn, but for the moment, suffice it to say that being fairly correct, theologically, must be of some greater-than-zero value under any coherent theology with an uncreated creator behind all that exists. The correct approach is not to give up if you can’t be be completely correct. It’s to try to be as correct as possible.

And in any event there is no default position. Atheism is as much a philosophical position as any theology is. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is a default position, which is that there is Nothing. But that’s clearly wrong, there is something, so the default position is out. And while in a dictionary sense atheism is nothing but the disbelief in God—or for the moment it doesn’t even matter if you’re too intellectually weak for that and want to define atheism as the mere lack of a belief in God—western atheists tend to believe in the existence of matter, at least, as well as immaterial things like forces and laws of nature. So each atheist has a belief system, even if some refuse to admit it. The only way to not have a belief system is to give yourself a lobotomy. But until you do, since you have a belief system, it is as capable of being wrong as any theology is. And does it seem plausible that, if Christianity is true, if the version of Christianity you’ve encountered is a little inaccurate, you’ll be better off as an atheist?

I think that nearly answers the question, but there is a final topic which I think may answer an implicit part of the question: while there are infinitely many theologies which are theoretically possible, in practice there haven’t actually been all that many. This is something I’m going to cover more in my upcoming video series which surveys the world’s religions, but while there certainly are more than just one religion in the world, there aren’t nearly as many as many modern western people seem to think that there are. Usually large numbers are arrived at by counting every pagan pantheon as being a different religion, but this is not in fact how the pagans themselves thought of things. I don’t have the time to go into it—I addressed this somewhat in my video on fundamentalists, and will address it more in the future—but actual pagans thought of themselves as sharing a religion; just having some different gods and some different names for the same gods, just like French and American zoos don’t have all the same animals, and don’t use the same names for the animals they do have in common. But they will certainly recognize the other as zoos. American zookeepers do not disbelieve in French “python réticulé”.

And so it goes with other differences; those who worship nature worship the same nature. All sun worshippers worship the same sun. Those who believe in an uncreated creator recognize that others who believe in an uncreated creator are talking about the same thing, and generally hold that he can be known to some degree through examination of his creation, so they will tend to understand others who believe in an uncreated creator as having stumbled into the same basic knowledge.

And this explains why minor religions tend to die out as small groups make contact with larger groups. Those religions which are more thoroughly developed—which present more truth in an intelligible way—will appeal to those who on their own only developed a very rudimentary recognition and expression of those truths. There has been conversion by the sword in history, though it is actually most associated with Islam and often exaggerated in other faiths, but it is not generally necessary. When people come into contact with a religion which has a fuller expression of truth than the one they grew up with, they usually want to convert, because people naturally want the truth, and are attracted to intelligible expressions of it. And the key point is that the expressions of truth in better developed religions are intelligible precisely because they are fuller expressions of truths already found in one’s native religion. And this is so because religions are founded for a reason. I know there’s a myth common that religion was invented as bad science, usually something to the effect that people invented gods of nature in order to make nature seem intelligible. The fact that this is exactly backwards from what personifying inanimate objects does should be a sufficient clue that this is not the origin of religion. Think about the objects in your own life that people personify: “the printer is touchy”, “the traffic light hates me”, “don’t let the plant hear that I said it’s doing well because it will die on me out of spite”. Mostly this is just giving voice to our bewilderment at how these things work, but if this affects how mysterious the things are in any way, it makes them more mysterious, not less. If you think the printer is picky about what it prints, you’ll wonder at great length what it is about your documents it disapproves of. If you think of it as a mere machine, you turn it off, take it apart, put it back together again, and turn it on. Or you call a repairman. But if you personify it, you’ll wrap your life up in the mystery of its preferences. And anyone with any great experience of human beings has seen this. Especially if you’ve ever been the repairman to whom the printer is just a machine.

It’s also, incidentally, why many atheists have developed a shadowy, mysterious thing called “religion” which desires to subjugate humanity.

People personify what they don’t understand to communicate that it is mysterious, not to make it less mysterious. And they do this because people—having free will—are inherently and irreducibly mysterious.

So if you look past the mere surface differences, you will find that religions have generally originated for very similar reasons. So much so that more than a few people who haven’t studied the world’s religions enough are tempted to claim that there is only one universal religion to all of mankind with all differences being mere surface appearance. That’s not true either, but that this mistake is possible at all, is significant. Religions are founded for a reason, and that’s why there aren’t infinitely many of them.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Atheism is Not a Religion

This is the script to my video, Atheism is Not a Religion. As always, it was written to be listened to when I read it aloud, but it should be pretty readable as text, too.

Today we’re going to look at a topic which a casual survey of atheist youtube channels and twitter feeds suggests is of importance to many atheists: that atheism is not a religion. Now, since the one thing you can’t convict internet atheists of is originality, I assume that this is because there are Christians who claim that atheism is a religion. Of course what they probably mean by this that atheism entails a set of metaphysical beliefs. And this is true enough, at least as a practical assumption if some atheists will scream at you until they’re blue in the face that it’s not what they believe in theory. But merely having metaphysical beliefs does not make something a religion; it makes it a philosophy or in more modern terms, a world-view. But a religion is far more than merely a world-view or a set of beliefs. As Saint James noted, the demons believe in God.

The first and most obvious thing which atheism lacks is: worship. Atheists do not worship anything. I know that Auguste Comte tried to remedy this with his calendar of secular holidays, but that went nowhere and has been mostly forgotten except perhaps in a joke G. K. Chesterton made about it. A few atheists have made a half-hearted go of trying to worship science. And if that had any lasting power, Sunday services might include playing a clip from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But the would-be science worshippers haven’t gotten that far, and it is highly doubtful they ever will.

Secular Humanism is sometimes brought up as something like a religious substitute, but so far it only appears to be a name, a logo, some manifestos no one cares about, and the belief that maybe it’s possible to have morality without religion. And humanity is not a workable object of worship anyway. First, because it’s too amorphous to worship—as Chesterton noted, a god composed of seven billion persons neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons is hard to believe in. The other reason is that worshipping humanity involves worshipping Hitler and Stalin and Mao and so forth.

Which brings us to Marxism, which is perhaps the closest thing to a secular religion so far devised. But while Marxism does focus the believer’s attention on a utopia which will someday arrive, and certainly gets people to be willing to shed an awful lot of innocent blood to make it happen sooner, I don’t think that this really constitutes worship. It’s a goal, and men will kill and die for goals, but they can’t really worship goals. Goals only really exist in the people who have them, and you can only worship what you believe actually exists.

It is sometimes argued that within a marxist utopia people worship the state, but while this is something put on propaganda posters, the people who lived in marxist nations don’t report anyone actually engaging in this sort of worship, at least not sincerely.

And I know that some people will say that atheists worship themselves—I suspect because almost all atheists define morality as nothing more than a personal preference—but, at least I’ve never seen that as anything more than a half-hearted attempt to answer the question of “what is the ground of morality”, rather than any sort of motivating belief. And in any event, it is inherently impossible to worship oneself. Worshipping something is recognizing something as above oneself, and it is not possible to place oneself above oneself. I think the physical metaphor suffices: if you are kneeling, you can’t look up and see your own feet. You might be able to see an image of yourself in a mirror, but that is not the same, and whatever fascination it might have is still not worship. So no, atheism does not worship anything.

The second reason why atheism is not a religion is that atheism gives you no one to pray to. Prayer is a very interesting phenomenon, and is much misunderstood by those who are not religious and, frankly, many who are, but it is, at its core, talking with someone who actually understands what is said. People do not ever truly understand each other because the mediation of words always strips some of the meaning away and the fact that every word means multiple things always introduces ambiguity. Like all good things in religion this reaches its crescendo in Christianity, but even in the public prayers said over pagan altars, there is the experience of real communication, in its etymological sense. Com—together unication—being one. It is in prayer—and only in prayer—that we are not alone. Atheists may decry this as talking with our imaginary friends if they like—and many of them certainly seem to like to—but in any event they are left where all men who are not praying are left: alone in the crowd of humanity, never really understood and so only ever loved very imperfectly at best. (I will note that this point will be lost on people who have never taken the trouble to find out what somebody else really means, and so assumes that everyone else means exactly the same things that he would mean by those words, and so assumes that all communication goes perfectly. You can usually identify such people by the way they think that everyone around them who doesn’t entirely agree with them is stupid. It’s the only conclusion left open to them.)

The third reason why atheism is not a religion is that it does not, in any way, serve the primary purpose of religion. The thing you find common to all religions—the thing at the center of all religions—is putting man into his proper relation with all that is; with the cosmos, in the Greek sense of the word. Anyone who looks at the world sees that there is a hierarchy of being; that plants are more than dust and beasts are more than plants and human beings are more than beasts. But if you spend any time with human beings—and I mean literally any time—you will immediately know that human beings are not the most that can be. All that we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch in this world forms an arrow which does not point at us but does run through us, pointing at something else. The primary purpose of a religion is to acknowledge that and to get it right. Of course various religions get it right to various degrees; those who understand that it points to an uncreated creator who loved the world in existence out of nothing get it far more right than those who merely believe in powerful intelligences which are beyond ours. Though if you look carefully, even those who apparently don’t, seem to often have their suspicions that here’s something important they don’t know about. But be that as it may, all religions know that there is something more than man, and give its adherents a way of putting themselves below what they are below; of standing in a right relation to that which is above them. In short, the primary purpose of all religion is humility.

And this, atheism most certainly does not have. It doesn’t matter whether you define atheism as a positive denial or a passive lack; either way atheism gives you absolutely no way to be in a right relationship to anything above you, because it doesn’t believe in anything above you. Even worse, atheism as a strong tendency, at least in the west, to collapse the hierarchy of being in the other direction, too. It is no accident that pets are acquiring human rights and there are some fringe groups trying to sue for the release of zoo animals under the theory of habeus corpus. Without someone who intended to make something out of the constituent particles which make us up, there is ultimately no reason why any particular configuration of quarks and electrons should mean anything more than any other one; human beings are simply the cleverest of the beasts that crawl the earth, and the beasts are simply the most active of the dust which is imprisoned on the earth.

We each have our preferences, of course, but anyone with any wide experience of human beings knows that we don’t all have the same preferences, and since the misanthropes are dangerous and have good reason to lie to us those who don’t look out for themselves quickly become the victims of those who do. Call it foreigners or racists or patriarchy or gynocentrism or rape culture or the disposable male or communism or capitalism or call it nature red in tooth and claw, if you want to be more poetic about it, but sooner or later you will find out that human beings, like the rest of the world, are dangerous.

Religious people know very well that other human beings are dangerous; there is no way in this world to get rid of temptation and sin. But religion gives the possibility of overcoming the collapsing in upon ourselves for which atheism gives no escape.

For some reason we always talk about pride puffing someone up, but this is almost the exact opposite of what it actually does. It’s an understandable mistake, but it is a mistake. Pride doesn’t puff the self up, it shrinks it down. It just shrinks the rest of the world down first.

In conclusion, I can see why my co-religionists would be tempted to say that atheism is a religion. There are atheist leaders who look for all the world like charismatic preachers and atheist organizations that serve no discernible secular purpose. Though not all atheists believe the same things, still, most believe such extremely similar things that they could identify on that basis. Individual atheists almost invariably hold unprovable dogmas with a blind certainty that makes the average Christian look like a skeptic. And so on; one could go on at length about how atheism looks like a religion. But all these are mere external trappings. Atheism is not a religion, which is a great pity because atheists would be far better off if it was.

Two Interesting Questions

On Twitter, @philomonty, who I believe is best described as an agnostic (he can’t tell whether nihilism or Catholicism is true), made two video requests. Here are the questions he gave me:

  1. If atheism is a cognitive defect, how may one relieve it?
  2. How can an atheist believe in Christ, when he does not know him? Not everyone has mystical experiences, so not everyone has a point of contact which establishes trust between persons, as seen in everyday life.

I suspect that I will tackle these in two separate videos, especially because the second is a question which applies to far more than just atheists. They’re also fairly big questions, so it will take me a while to work out how I want to answer them. 🙂

The first question is especially tricky because I believe there are several different kind of cognitive defects which can lead to atheism. Not everyone is a mystic, but if a person who isn’t demands mystical experience as the condition for belief, he will go very wrong. If a person who is a mystic has mystical experiences but denies them, he will go very wrong, but in a different way. There are also people who are far too trusting of the culture they’re in, thinking that fitting into it is the fullness of being human, so they will necessarily reject anything which makes it impossible or even just harder to fit in. These two will go very wrong, but in a different way from the previous ones.

To some degree this is a reference to my friend Eve Keneinan’s view that atheism is primarily caused by some sort of cognitive defect, such as an inability to sense the numinous (basically, lacking a sensus divinitatus). Since I’ve never experienced that myself, I’m certain it can’t be the entire story, though to the degree that it is part of the story it would come under the category of non-mystics who demand mystical experience. Or, possibly, mystics who have been damaged by something, though I am very dubious about that possibility. God curtails the amount of evil possible in the world to what allows for good, after all, so while that is not a conclusive argument, it does seem likely to me that God would not permit anything to make it impossible for a person to believe in him.

Anyway, these are just some initial thoughts on the topic which I’ll be mulling over as I consider how to answer. Interesting questions.

Debunking Believe-or-Burn

This is the script from my video debunking believe-or-burn. It  was written to be read aloud, but it should be pretty readable. Or you could just listen to it.

Today we’re going to be looking at how abysmally wrong the idea of “believe or burn”, which I prefer to render as, “say the magic words or burn,” is. And to be clear, I mean wrong, not that I don’t like it or this isn’t my opinion. I’m Catholic, not evangelical, so I’m talking about how it contradicts the consistent teaching of the church since its inception 2000 years ago (and hence is also the position of the Eastern Orthodox, the Kopts, etc), and moreover how one can rationally see why “say the magic words or burn” cannot be true.

I’m not going to spend time explaining why non-Christian religions don’t believe you have to say the magic words or burn because for most of them, it’s not even relevant. In Hinduism, heavens and hells are related to your karma, not to your beliefs, and they’re all temporary anyway—as the story goes, the ants have all been Indra at some point. In Buddhism you’re trapped in the cycle of reincarnation and the whole point is to escape. To the degree that there even is a concept of hell in Buddhism, you’re there now and maybe you can get out. Many forms of paganism don’t even believe in an afterlife, and where they do—and what you do in life affects what happens to you in the afterlife—what happens to you is largely based on how virtuously you lived in society, not on worshipping any particular gods. Animistic religions are either often similar to pagan religions or they hold that the dead stick around as spirits and watch over the living. For the monotheistic religions, few of them have a well-defined theology on this point. Their attitude tends to be, “here is the way to be good, it’s bad to be evil, and for everyone else, well, that’s not a practical question.” For most of the world’s religions, “say the magic words or burn,” isn’t even wrong. And Islam is something of an exception to this, but I’m not going to get into Islam because the Quran doesn’t unambiguously answer this question and after Al Ghazali’s triumph over the philosophers in the 11th century, there really isn’t such thing as Islamic theology in the same sense that you have Christian theology. Christianity holds human reason, being finite, to be unable to comprehend God, but to be able to reason correctly about God within its limits. Since Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, the trend in Islam has been to deny human reason can say anything about God, past what he said about himself in the Quran. As such, any question not directly and unambiguously answered in the Quran—which, recall, is poetry—is not really something you can reason about. So as a matter of practicality I think Islam should be grouped with the other monotheisms who hold the question of what happens to non-believers acting in good faith to be impractical. And in any event there are hadith and a passage in the Quran which do talk about some Jews and Christians entering paradise, so make of that what you will.

There isn’t an official name for the doctrine of “say the magic words or burn”, but I think it’s best known because of fundamentalists who say that anyone who doesn’t believe will burn in hell. I think that the usual form is saying that everyone who isn’t a Christian will burn in hell, for some definition of Christian that excludes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and anyone else who doesn’t think that the King James version of the bible was faxed down from heaven and is the sole authority in human affairs. You generally prove that you’re a Christian in this sense by saying, “Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior”, but there’s no requirement that you understand what any of that means, so it functions exactly like a magical incantation.

As I discussed in my video on fundamentalists, when they demand people speak the magic words, what they’re asking for is not in any sense a real religious formulation, but actually a loyalty pledge to the dominant local culture. (Which is fundamentalist—all tribes have a way of pledging loyalty.) But the concept of “say the magic words or burn,” has a broader background than fundamentalists, going all the way back to the earliest Protestant reformers and being, more or less, a direct consequence of how Martin Luther and John Calvin meant the doctrine of Sola Fide.

Before I get into the origin of “say the magic words or burn”, let me give an overly brief explanation of what salvation actually means, to make sure we’re on the same page. And to do that, I have to start with what sin is: sin means that we have made ourselves less than what we are. For example, we were given language so that we could communicate truth. When we lie, not only do we fail in living up to the good we can do, we also damage our ability to tell the truth in the future. Lying (and all vices) all too easily become habits. We have hurt others and damaged ourselves. Happiness consists of being fully ourselves, and so in order to be happy we must be fixed. This is, over-simplified, what it means to say that we need salvation. Christianity holds that Jesus has done the work of that salvation, which after death we will be united with, if we accept God’s offer, and so we will become fixed, and thus being perfect, will be capable of eternal happiness. That’s salvation. Some amount of belief is obviously necessary to this, because if you don’t believe the world is good, you will not seek to be yourself. This is why nihilists like pickup artists are so miserable. They are human but trying to live life like some sort of sex-machine. They do lots of things that do them no good, and leave off doing lots of things that would do them good. Action follows belief, and so belief helps to live life well. We all have at least some sense of what is true, though, or in more classical language the natural law is written on all men’s hearts. It is thus possible for a person to do his best to be good, under the limitations of what he knows to be good. God desires the good of all of his creatures, and while we may not be able to see how a person doing some good, and some evil things under the misapprehension that they are good, can be saved, we have faith in God that he can do what men can’t. Besides, it doesn’t seem likely that God would permit errors to occur if they couldn’t be overcome. While we don’t know who will be saved, it is permissible to hope that all will be saved. As it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

OK, so given that, where did the evil and insane idea of “say the magic words or burn” come from? Well, Sola Fide originated with Martin Luther, who as legend has it was scrupulous and couldn’t see how he could ever be good enough to enter heaven (I say, “as legend has it” because this may be an overly sympathetic telling). For some reason he couldn’t do his best and trust God for the rest, so he needed some alternative to make himself feel better. Unfortunately being Christian he was stuck with the word faith, which in the context of Christianity means trusting God. Martin Luther’s solution was to redefine the word faith to mean—well, he wasn’t exactly consistent, but at least much of the time he used it to mean something to the effect of “a pledge of allegiance”—basically, a promise of loyalty. The problem with that is that pledging your allegiance is just words. There’s even a parable Jesus told about this very thing: a man had two sons and told them go to work in his fields. The one son said no, but later thought better of it and went to work in the fields. The other said, “yes, sir” but didn’t go. Which did his father’s will? And please note, I’m not citing that to proof-text that Martin Luther was wrong. One bible passage with no context proves nothing. No, Martin Luther was obviously wrong. I’m just mentioning this parable because it’s an excellent illustration of the point about actions versus words. But as a side-note, it’s also an excellent illustration of why mainline protestants often have relatively little in common with Martin Luther and why it was left to the fundamentalists to really go whole-hog on Martin Luther’s theology: it was a direct contradiction of what Jesus himself taught.

John Calvin also had a hand in “say the magic words or burn”, though it was a bit different from the influence of Martin Luther. Though Luther and Calvin did agree on many points, they tended to agree for different reasons. While Martin Luther simply repudiated free will and the efficacy of reason—more or less believing that they never existed—John Calvin denied them because of the fall of man. According to Calvin man was free and and his reason worked before the first sin, but all that was destroyed with the first sin, resulting in the total depravity of man. Whereas Martin Luther thought that free will was nonsensical even as a concept, John Calvin understood what it meant but merely denied it. Ironically, John Calvin’s doctrines being a little more moderate than Martin Luther’s probably resulted in them having a much larger impact on the world; you had to be basically crazy to agree with Martin Luther, while you only needed to be deeply pessimistic to agree with John Calvin. Luther held that God was the author of evil, while Calvin at least said that all of the evil was a just punishment for how bad the first sin was. If outsiders can’t readily tell the difference between Calvin’s idea of God and the orthodox idea of the devil, insiders can’t even tell the difference between them in Martin Luther’s theology. Luther literally said that he had more faith than anyone else because he could believe that God is good despite choosing to damn so many and save so few. The rest of us, who don’t even try to believe blatant logical contradictions about God, just didn’t measure up. In the history of the world, Martin Luther is truly something special.

However, since both Luther and Calvin denied that there was such a thing as free will these days, Sola Fide necessarily took on a very strange meaning. Even a pledge of allegiance can’t do anything if you’re not the one who made it. So faith ends up becoming, especially for Calvin, just a sign that you will be saved. The thing is, while this is logically consistent—I mean, it may contradict common sense, but it doesn’t contradict itself—it isn’t psychologically stable. No one takes determinism seriously. The closest idea which is at least a little psychologically stable is that God is really just a god, if a really powerful god, so pledging allegiance is like becoming a citizen of a powerful, wealthy country. You’ll probably be safe and rich, but if you commit a crime you might spend some time in jail or even be deported. I realize that’s not the typical metaphor, but it’s fairly apt, and anyone born in the last several hundred years doesn’t have an intuitive understanding for what a feudal overlord is. This understanding of Sola Fide can’t be reconciled with Christianity, the whole point of which is to take seriously that God is the creator of the entire world and thus stands apart from it and loves it all. But this understanding of Sola Fide can plug into our instinct to be part of a tribe, which is why if you don’t think about it, it can be a stable belief.

So we come again to the loyalty pledge to the group—in a sense we have to because that is all a statement of belief without underlying intellectual belief ever can be—but with this crucial difference: whereas the fundamentalist generally is demanding loyalty to the immediate secular culture, the calvinist-inspired person can be pledging loyalty to something which transcends the immediate culture. I don’t want to oversell this because every culture—specific enough that a person can live in it—is always a subculture in a larger culture. But even so the calvinist-inspired magic-words-or-burn approach is not necessarily local. It is possible to be the only person who is on the team in an entire city, just like it’s possible to be the only Frenchman in Detroit. As such this form of magic-words-or-burn can have a strong appeal to anyone who feels themselves an outsider.
And the two forms of magic-words-or-burn are not very far apart and can easily become the other as circumstances dictate. And it should be borne in mind that one of those circumstances is raising children, because a problem which every parent has is teaching their children to be a part of their culture. In this fallen world, no culture is fully human, and equally problematic is that no human is fully human, so the result is that child and culture will always conflict. Beatings work somewhat, but getting buy-in from the child is much easier on the arms and vocal cords, and in the hands of less-than-perfect parents, anything which can be used to tame their children probably will be.

This would normally, I think, be a suitable conclusion to this video, but unfortunately it seems like salvation is a subject on which people are desperate to make some sort of error of exaggeration, so if we rule out the idea that beliefs are the only things that matter, many people will start running for the opposite side and try to jump off the cliff of beliefs not mattering at all. Or in other words, if salvation is possible to pagans, why should a Christian preach to them?

The short answer is that the truth is better for people than mistakes, even if mistakes aren’t deadly. This is because happiness consists in being maximally ourselves, and the only thing which allows us to do that is the truth. Silly examples are always clearer, so consider a man who thinks that he’s a tree and so stands outside with his bare feet in the dirt, arms outspread, motionless, trying to absorb water and nutrients through his toes and photosynthesize through his fingers. After a day or two, he will be very unhappy and a few days later he will die if he doesn’t repent of his mistake. Of course very few people make a mistake this stark—if nothing else anyone who does will die almost immediately, leaving only those who don’t make mistakes this extreme around. But the difference between this and thinking that life is about having sex with as many people as possible is a matter of degree, not of kind. You won’t die of thirst and starvation being a sex-maniac, and it will take you longer than a few days to become noticeably miserable, but it will happen with those who think they’re mindless sex machines as reliably as it will those who think they’re trees.

Pagans are in a similar situation to the pick-up-artists who think they’re mindless sex robots. Because paganism was a more widespread belief system that lasted much longer, it was more workable than pick-up-artistry, which is to say that it was nearer to the truth, but it was still wrong in ways that seriously affect human happiness. It varied with place and time, of course, but common mistakes were a focus on glory, the disposability of the individual, the inability of people to redeem themselves from errors, and so on. The same is true of other mistaken religions; they each have their mistakes, some more than others, and tend toward unhappiness to the degree that they’re wrong.

There is a second side to the importance of preaching Christianity to those who aren’t Christian, which is that life is real and salvation is about living life to the full, not skating by on the bare minimum. Far too many people think of this life as something unrelated to eternal life, as if once you make it to heaven you start over. What we are doing now is building creation up moment by moment. People who have been deceived will necessarily be getting things wrong and doing harm where they meant to help, and failing to help where they could have; it is not possible to be mistaken about reality and get everything right. That’s asking a person with vision problems to be an excellent marksman. A person who causes harm where they meant to help may not be morally culpable for the harm they do, but when all is made clear, they cannot be happy about the harm they did, while they will be able to be happy about the good they did. To give people the truth is to give them the opportunity to be happier. That is a duty precisely because we are supposed to love people and not merely tolerate them. Though I suppose I should also mention the balancing point that we’re supposed to give people the truth, not force it down their throats. Having given it to them, if they won’t take it, our job is done.

OK, I think I can conclude this video now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Satanic Banality

Here is the script of the most recent video I posted. Or if you’d prefer, you can go watch it on youtube.

Some time ago, I made a video talking about the strange symbolism in the music video of Ke$ha’s song, Die Young. Here are all of the symbols she used:
kesha_die_young_symbols
The curious thing about them all is that despite the fact that the video is supposed to have a satanic theme, the symbols Ke$ha used are all actually Christian symbols. Here’s what I concluded in that video:

Ultimately what I think I find so frustrating about this video is that it’s use of symbolism is, essentially, magical thinking. Symbols have power, because they communicate something. A symbol stands in for something greater than itself, which is why it has more power than random scribbles. Using symbols without reference to what they mean is trying to use get power without invoking their function – it’s trying to steal their power.

But on further consideration, I’ve realized that this is actually quite fitting. Yes, this was rather incompetent satanism, but that is really the most consistent satanism possible. Diligence is a virtue; if she put a lot of work into her satanism—if she really tried to do a good job—that would undermine the entire point. Skillful Satanism is actually something of a contradiction in terms.

And this is something C.S. Lewis complained about in literature. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, talking about artistic representations of the angelic and diabolic, he said: “The literary symbols are more dangerous because they are not so easily recognized as symbols. Those of Dante are the best. Before his angels we sink in awe. His devils, as Ruskin rightly remarked, in their rage, spite, and obscenity, are far more like what the reality must be than anything in Milton. Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much too Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell. The humorous, civilised, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.”

There’s nothing all that particular to Satanism in these complaints, though. It’s really the same as a mistake that we tend to make about all evil. I think that the origin of this mistake is, roughly, the intuition that if a person is trading their soul for something, there must be something quite valuable which tempted them to do it. Consider the scene in A Man For All Seasons where Richard Rich has just perjured himself to produce false evidence that will get Sir Thomas More executed for treason:

More: There is one question I would like to ask the witness. That’s a chain of office you’re wearing. May I see it? The red dragon. What’s this?

Cromwell: Sir Richard is appointed Attorney General for Wales.

More: For Wales? Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?

(If you haven’t seen A Man for All Seasons, please do. It is an excellent movie.)

Why would somebody do something evil if it doesn’t benefit them? The answer to this question is straightforward, but we need a few concepts in order to be able to give the simple explanation. The first is the the Greek concept of hamartia. It comes from the verb hamartenein, which was, for example, what an archer did when he didn’t hit his target. It means, roughly, to miss. Hamartia thus means an error, or a mistake, or by the time you get to the early Christian church, sin. The key insight is that evil is not something positive, but something negative.

I think that people go wrong here by not taking nihilism seriously enough. We think of a world working in perfect harmony and unity as the default, and of evil as a deviation from that. But in fact the default is nothing. There need not be anything at all. No matter, no energy, no space or time or physics. Just pure nothing, is the default. And yet, there is something. I don’t even care at the moment whether you attribute that creation to God or to a “quantum fluctuation”—well, I care a little bit because the latter is still assuming that some sort of contingent laws of physics exist, but whatever. The point is that anything whatever that exists—in our contingent world—is more than had to exist. Whether you think of it as a gift or as something that fell off of some cosmic truck that was driving by, from our perspective it is all a positive addition to the nothingness which is logically prior to it.

When you look at it this way, you can see that good is not a maintenance of the status quo, but an addition to it. But of course good is not merely anything at all existing. This is why a table is better than a pile of splinters, and why in the ordinary course of events using an axe to turn a table into a pile of splinters is wrong. It is bringing the world closer to the default of nothing. Good is not just any existence, but existence ordered according to a rational relationship. By a rational ordering, small things can become something more than themselves. Put together in the right shape, splinters can be beautiful and hold things up off the ground. That is, they can be a table.

Incidentally, this is why hyper-reductionists have such an easy time seeing through everything. Because every good thing is a rational relationship of lesser things, it is always possible to deny that the relationship is real. You can look at a table and see no more than a pile of splinters. Why a reductionist is proud of seeing less than everyone else is a subject for another day, but if you look at anything you know to be good, you will see this. It is itself made up of a rational relationship of parts that form more than they would in some other relationship. Further, all good things themselves fit in a rational relationship with other good things. Anywhere you look, whether chickens or statues or vaccines or video games; all good things have this property. And all evil—murder, arson, terrorism, or just lying—all have the property that they destroy rational relationships between things. They destroy the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is also the case that there is no other possibility for what constitutes good and evil. I don’t have time to go into details, but if you examine any attempt to define good and evil which is not convertible into this definition, it invariably consists of taking one sort of rational relationship and calling that the only good. Good is doing your duty, or good is the family, or good is the state or good is pleasure. Every such thing, if you really spend some time looking into it and seeing what its proponents actually mean by their words and actions—they are all taking some rational relationships and elevating them above all other rational relationships. They are taking a part and treating it as the whole.

And this is why sin is analogous to an archer missing what he was shooting at. We all aim for doing the good, but it’s very rare that we actually hit our target. Sometimes our aim is off because we twitch—that is, we can’t hold steady—but very often it’s because we mistake what we’re looking at. We think it’s closer or further, or that we’re looking at one part when we’re looking at another. We go wrong not because we think, “oh man would it be great to shoot this deer in the log under it!” but because we thought we were looking at its chest. We weren’t, as proved by where our arrow struck. Or we can go wrong by being mistaken about where we’re aiming, thinking that because we’re looking at something, that’s where we are pointing our arrow. Know thyself is often quoted by unpractical people, but it’s actually intensely practical advice.

The drug addled, sex-crazed rock star doesn’t think she’s using Christian imagery when she’s trying to be Satanic. She has not traded looking like a buffoon for some amazing benefit we can’t see. In her mind, she doesn’t look like a buffoon. She thinks she looks awesome; that anyone sensible would cower in awe of her satanic majesty. She has missed her target, and hasn’t yet gone to see where her arrow has actually struck. There’s a reason why pop musicians rarely last a decade; once they realize what they’re doing, they stop doing it; once they stop believing in it, they can’t sell the illusion anymore. And then their popularity fades, because it was not them, but the illusion they were selling, which was so popular.

Satanic Majesty is always an illusion, which is why you can only ever encounter it in art. Art contrives to convey experience; to show you what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes. But Satanic Majesty always looks banal from the outside; it’s only from the inside that it looks spectacular. This is part of why pride is the deadliest of the sins: if you wrap yourself up inside yourself, you can fool yourself forever without anything to check your downward, inward progress. And this is why music videos feature so many reaction shots. It’s also why movies and TV and virtually everything fictive, features so many reaction shots. The thing itself rarely looks very impressive, but people’s reactions are limited only by their imagination and acting skills. It’s why in Power Rangers series, after they lower the camera to the monster’s feet, the next shot is always the power rangers looking up. Our age has been called the age of many things, but it is the age of nothing so much as it is the age of the reaction shot. TV news shows the reactions of people on the street, but it never shows you the considered opinions of people on something that happened ten years ago. Collectively, we don’t like reality; you can tell a tree by its fruit, which is why we prefer to look at seedlings.

It’s everywhere in entertainment—in which category news most certainly belongs— but it can be found throughout life, too. We endlessly discuss people’s reactions, but we rarely discuss things and ideas. And if we look at ourselves, when we are tempted, we can see the same thing. We do not consider our temptations in themselves, but only how they will make us feel. I mean when we’re experiencing them, not when we’re regretting having given into them afterwards. In the actual moment of giving in, our attention is never on the reality of what we’re about to do; we’re concentrating on how happy it will make us. That’s why one of the techniques for avoiding temptation is to face up to what we’re actually doing. Of course sometimes we can’t avoid facing up to what we’re actually doing; in addiction it’s called hitting rock bottom. But when one is young and healthy, it’s very rare that reality makes us face up to what we’re doing. On TV they always pick pretty people who smile for the camera, and it’s so hard to believe that anything can be wrong when pretty people are happy. On Facebook people post pictures of when things are going well, and the very fact that it’s rude to tell people about how bad your day was means that we don’t often face up to the reality of what is going on in life. A person has to be very unhappy indeed before they won’t smile for the camera.

Which is a pity, because so many people use reactions to tell whether the thing being reacted to is good or bad. Since people will put their best foot forward, this doesn’t work; to know right from wrong we must investigate the things themselves. And in fact in our world whether an action is defended on its own or by the reactions to it is actually a good heuristic for figuring out whether it is moral or immoral—if you can say something good about the action itself, it is probably moral. If it is only defended by people’s reactions to it, it is probably immoral. That’s only a heuristic, of course; people dance because it’s fun, and dancing is legitimate. But dancing is also beautiful, at least when it’s done well. There’s very little you can say about heroin except that it’s fun.

That’s all for now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Prayer to an Unchanging God

If you aren’t familiar with the properties of God, perhaps the strangest, to us, is that God is unchanging. It follows necessarily from the fact that God is simple, that is, he is not composed of separable parts that are capable of existing independently. That follows from the fact that God is necessary, unlike us, who are contingent. Since God is necessary, he cannot be composed of things which are not necessarily together. And since God is necessary, he cannot change, because change means some part coming into being or ceasing to be. Since God is necessary (and has no contingent parts), there is no part of him which is capable of not existing. So far, OK, but how, then, does prayer work if God doesn’t change. What does prayer do?

It’s easy enough if you only consider our side of prayer, that is, how prayer changes us. But that’s not all prayer does. Prayer can change the world. We can pray for good things to happen, and God can answer our prayers with good things, if often (having to take everyone’s good into account) in ways so complex we don’t understand them until much later if at all. Or we can get immediate answers to our prayers, as in the case of miracles. How can that possibly work if God is unchangeable?

I think that it will be easier to give the answer if we first look at the fact that we creatures are able to interact with each other. C.S. Lewis mentioned, addressing the question, “since God knows what’s best, how can it make sense to ask him for anything?” He pointed out that the same problem applies to umbrellas. Surely God knows whether we should be wet, so why give him our opinion on the subject by opening our umbrella?

The answer to that question is that God has given it to us to take part in designing creation. This is part of a general plan of delegation which God seems to have. For a great many things, instead of doing things directly God gives it to us to do his work for him. He could feed the hungry man himself, but he gives it to us to be his feeding of the hungry man by us giving the hungry man food. You can see this in the analogy of the parent who gives his child a present to give to someone else; the parent could have given the present directly but the parent is incorporating the child into the parent’s act of generosity. Unsurprisingly, God does a far more complete job of it than human parents do. This is part of why people can ignore God; they see only the action of the people incorporated into God’s generosity and ignore the rest.

When God gives us these things by way of delegation, what happens is that we end up acting sort of like a lens to the sunlight. From our perspective, we don’t change the sun, but we do change how the sunlight affects earthly objects. By holding our hands up we make a shadow, but holding up a lens we concentrate the light on a place, with a prism we break the light into distinct pieces and make a rainbow. Real life is vastly more complex than just lensing the sun, but it works as a metaphor to show us how you can change the effect of the sun without changing the sun itself.

Prayer is the same basic thing, except we can’t directly observe it. By prayer we interact with God such that we change not God, but how his unchanging love for creation is expressed in creation itself. Prayer is like holding up a magnifying glass in front of the sun, shaping where the light goes without doing anything to the sun.

Atheist Fundamentalists

Over on my youtube channel, I posted a video called Atheist Fundamentalists. Here is the script I wrote for it. It was meant to be read aloud (I wrote it for how I speak), but if you bear that in mind I believe it’s quite readable. The video has some illustrative graphics, but they’re not critical. Or you can just go to my youtube channel and watch the video. 🙂

Today we’re going to talk about Fundamentalist Atheists. At the end of my video about the rhetoric of defining atheism as a lack of belief in God, I said that many lack-of-belief atheists seem just like fundamentalists. I got a request for clarification on that point, which I’m going to do a whole video about because it’s an interesting—and fairly large—subject.

To explain what an atheist fundamentalist is, we must first ask the question, what is a Christian Fundamentalist? In theory they are people who stick to the “fundamentals” of Christianity, but to other Christians, and especially to Christians with a valid apostolic succession (mostly the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox), they don’t seem to know much about Christianity and are obsessed with things that aren’t at all fundamental.

They are probably best known for their supposedly literal interpretation of the bible and their young-earth creationism, but I think that these are red herrings. Epiphenomena, more properly. The bible is not in fact an idol that they worship, or more properly it literally is an idol which they worship exactly in the way that ancient pagans used to worship their idols. There has arisen a very strange idea that the primary relationship of ancient peoples to their gods was roughly the same as that of a bad scientist to his pet theory. That’s quite wrong. In fact it is doubtful whether explaining the actions of the physical world had anything at all to do with how ancient people related to their gods. The Romans are a particularly good example of this, because they had such a large number of gods. They had gods of everything. They had gods of doorways and of beds, of hearths and of wine. No one needed an explanation of these natural phenomena because they weren’t natural phenomena. There was a good chance that the Romans knew, personally, who built the particular ones they used. They did not have a god of wine because they didn’t know where wine came from.

The primary relationship which pagans had with their gods was one of control. The gods offered a way to control the natural world. You made sacrifices so things would turn out the way you wanted. The pagan gods needed these sacrifices, or at least they really wanted them, and so human beings had a bargaining chip with nature. But even more than this, since the gods were capricious and often didn’t do what you asked, it offered a way to organize society, and this part actually worked. Everyone took part in the public ceremonies, and the games, and the plays. By being dedicated to something more than the people, the people could work together and become great. The Romans did not worship the emperor as a god because they thought the emperor explained the rain or the wind or the rocks. They worshipped him because every Roman citizen worshipping the emperor made them one people.

And if you look at Christian fundamentalists, you’ll see something very similar. They insist that the bible is the literal word of God, but they don’t seem to mean by that, that it’s true. They don’t even seem to read very much of it. Something that happened to me a few years ago is aboth an amusing story and illustrates the point quite well. A fundamentalist I ran into was explaining his theory that the second creation story in the book of genesis is really just the first story told backwards—he didn’t explain in what sense this is a literal interpretation—and when he was done, instead of addressing this weird idea, I pointed out that if you’re going to take everything in the bible literally, then you have to conclude that God repented. His response was, “where does it say that?”

For those of you who’ve never read the book of Genesis, it says that in chapter seven. It’s right before the flood, before God called Noah, it says that God repented of having made man, for man’s works were evil from morning till night.

And it’s trivially easy to come up with other examples that fundamentalists don’t take literally. When Jesus said, of the eucharist, “this is my body,” of course for some reason the literal meaning of those words aren’t the literal meaning of those words. When Jesus said that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, you will have no life in you, that’s purely symbolic… in some sort of literal sense. Examples abound; former fundamentalists are very fond of citing Leviticus, I believe.

And at this point a question which comes up, fairly frequently, from Atheists, I’ve found, is, “how do you know which parts not to take literally?” I even had one fellow ask for a list of non-literal passages, and he never really understood when I tried to explain that no such list exists because only a fundamentalist could ever think it useful. I tried to explain that orthodox Christians read the bible to learn, so whether a given book or passage is to be taken literally is something that would come up in commentary on that passage. A list of non-literal passages would be about as useful as a list of special effects in movies which defy physics. What would you do with that list? Go watch only those scenes? Would you keep this list handy when watching a movie to check every time you see a special effect?

Anyway, the answer to the question of how do we know what to not interpret literally is, first and foremost, the living interpretive tradition of how we are supposed to interpret the scriptures. This predates the apostles, of course. The Jews had a living interpretive tradition of what we now call the old testament, which was taken up by the Apostles since they were all Jews. But for simplicity’s sake I’m going to stick with just the new testament. In the four gospels, we see clear accounts that Jesus selected a group of men who he asked to follow him, which they did. Literally. They left their trades and ordinary lives and spent pretty much the next three years going with Jesus everywhere he went. He talked with them, all the time, and taught them things which he didn’t teach more generally. If you think of the apostles as being in an apprenticeship program, you won’t go too far off. And these apostles went on to become the first bishops, after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. And all bishops since have been successors to one of the apostles. They are men who were trained, formed, and selected by their predecessors to carry on the living tradition of the apostles. And this was how the church was organized: around the apostles, and later around their successors. Because these are the people who studied, in depth, what the faith means. The ending to the gospel of John summarizes it very succinctly: “There were many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not be able to hold all the books which would have to be written.”

It is also the case that we have no record of Jesus having ever written anything down. That’s not quite true, as there is one story which mentions he was writing in the sand when people spoke to him, but there’s no mention of what he was writing.  Jesus didn’t write the bible, he founded the Church. The Church wrote the bible. And it also passed on how to understand it.

And if you don’t understand why it is that Jesus would train the apostles rather than write the gospels, ask anyone who has studied martial arts how effective it would be to learn martial arts from a manual, with no teacher. There’s a reason why basic training in the military is not a study-at-home course.

Now, all of this is rejected by fundamentalists, who literally pretend that you can learn everything you need to know about how to live well by reading the bible on your own with no context, or training. With nobody around who has any idea of how any of this is supposed to work in practice. Or what the people who wrote it, actually meant by the words they wrote down. In a letter to some monks who were arguing about free will versus grace, Saint Augustine, who was a bishop, mentioned a useful interpretive strategy: if your interpretation contradicts most of the bible or makes it really, really stupid, this is a bad interpretation. The particular case he was talking about was the denial of free will: because denying free will means that every time God said anything to man, this was pointless and stupid. Since God is not an idiot who engages in completely futile actions, determinism is, therefore, bad theology. But if you actually talk to fundamentalists, you’ll find they violate this common sense principle all the time. They will take a passage, or a verse, or a quarter of a verse, and will with rocklike certainty conclude they know exactly what it means and that this meaning does not need to be reconciled with any other verses, not even with the rest of the sentence from which they drew it.

This is not the action of somebody who believes that the bible contains truth. And this is just one example, if you spend any time with fundamentalists you will rapidly conclude they don’t want people to think that the bible is true. At least, not in the literal sense of those words. What they want is for everyone to worship the bible. It is true that part of that worship is to say that the bible is literally true, but like with sacrifices to the emperor, the point is for everyone to do it, not to believe it.

Having finally said what a Christian fundamentalist is, we can now look at what an atheist fundamentalist is. They are people who do the exact same thing, but with a different idol. The idol is often science, but it can also be political theories like Objectivism, Marxism, Feminism, Environmentalism, and so on. Of course there isn’t just one science book, or one objectivist book, or one marxist book, etc, so they can’t worship just one book. On the other hand, the bible is properly a small library of books, so in that sense Christian fundamentalists don’t worship just one book either.

And just as Christian fundamentalists don’t seem all that interested in what Christianity actually is, atheist fundamentalists are often shockingly ignorant of real science. And I don’t just mean science’s sins, like the flaws in the peer review system, the problem with publish-or-perish, the infrequency of trying to reproduce results, and so on. Nor do I mean science’s self imposed limitation to what is measurable and quantifiable. No, I mean that they’re often quite ignorant of science’s virtues, like interesting experimental results or what scientific theories actually are. It’s quite perplexing until you realize that they’re not interested in science as something true, but in science as an idol that everyone can worship to unify society. And you can see the same elsewhere, with environmentalists who know nothing about the environment but recycle religiously, or marxists who know next to nothing about actual marxism but always vote for democrats and have a Che Guevara poster on their wall.

And it is not uncommon for an atheist fundamentalist to have a few favorite scientific “facts” which mirror the favorite bible verses of the Christian fundamentalist. “Atoms are made of mostly empty space”, though that’s actually an outdated model of the atom. “Nothing happens in Quantum Mechanics until an observer looks at it”, but observer doesn’t actually mean a person in quantum mechanics. Evolution means that animals get smarter and faster and stronger over time—survival of the fittest—though the theory of evolution actually refers only to the change in allele frequency in a population over time, and as in blind cave fish, might mean animals get weaker or smaller or dumber if the environment favors that.

And perhaps the most notable characteristic of fundamentalists, whether christian or atheist, is their fierce tribalism. Being primarily concerned with group unity, they (rightly) view outsiders as a threat to the group. This leads them to be insular, but it  also leads them to be hostile to outsiders. Christian fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is damned and will burn in hell; atheist fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is irrational and should be locked up in lunatic asylums. Richard Dawkins has said that teaching one’s children religion should be considered child abuse.

It is not really surprising that those who value people over truth should not have much truth, but they very often have little in the way of people, either. Fundamentalists are notorious for driving people away. Truth is a jealous God; if you love truth more than people you may well end up with both, but if you love people more than truth, you will usually end up with neither.

 

A Defense of Celebrating Christmas Early

(Originally published in Gilbert Magazine)

Most mistakes made by the human race are an attempt to fix some other mistake. Celebrating Christmas during Advent (and ordinary time, and one increasingly fears, Easter) is undoubtedly a mistake, but like most mistakes, to fix it we must find out what it is balancing. And when we ask ourselves what is being balanced, I think we will discover that on the other side of the scales from so great a holiday are several sins.

The first and most obvious reason for celebrating Christmas early is simply the extensive preparations which the secular celebration of Christmas has come to demand. That this preparation is a miserable experience scarcely needs defending. Indeed, when some months ago one of my atheist friends was complaining about all of the bother associated with Christmas, I suggested that the secular holiday should be moved to Black Friday, with the minor modification that people should buy presents for themselves instead of each other. If nothing else, under this scheme people would not have to worry that their gifts will be unappreciated. It is a sufficient sign of the times that he thought this transformation unachievable, but said nothing about it being inadvisable.

Whatever might reduce this stress, the stress still exists, and preparation would not, in itself, require the early celebration of Christmas. Women spend nine months preparing a child for birth, and do not ordinarily comfort themselves during that work by throwing the child birthday or graduation parties. When the connection between the difficulty of a job and the results of a job are well understood, it can be endured without aid. Where that connection is not apparent, unpleasant labor can still be undertaken as a penitential exercise. In the case of Christmas, however, modern culture has made it so unpleasant that nine people out of ten can’t conceive of their sins being that bad. Lacking any concept of vicarious atonement, the solution, to keep a weary race pulling its plow, is to borrow the enjoyment of the holiday to get people through its preparation.

The second reason to celebrate Christmas early is our culture’s slavehood to the calendar. Once December 26th hits, some are simply tired of Christmas celebrations, but for many it’s a yet lower idea: that one must always be up to date. It is acceptable to the chronological snobbery, by which people have flattered themselves for the last century and a half, to be in advance of the calendar but never to be behind it, for the devil will take the hindmost. Christmas is too great to confine its celebration to a mere twenty four hours, and the chronological snob can extend the celebration in only one direction which will keep him up to date.

The third reason is more subtle than the first two, but I think it is the most significant. Christmas, though it be no more than secular christmas, vigorously opposes the general nihilism of our time. Even watered down, Christmas still has flavor. Saint Nicholas, even when he is merely Santa Claus, still stands against Arianism. In the same manner that Arianism attempted to divorce the Son from the Father, modern culture tries to divorce happiness from goodness. This is not possible, and even bad christmas songs remind us it isn’t possible. The most theologically suspect lyrics about Santa Claus spying on people, with unspecified and probably magical technology, connects good behavior with happiness. It is true that it often connects it in a mercenary way, but it nevertheless connects it in an unbreakable way. It is also true that the proponents of unconditional affirmation — an absurd attempt to ape the generous love of God — will complain that this is an awful message. And yet not a single one of them has made a Christmas movie in which a bully gets a present from Santa Claus as the bully finishes beating up a smaller child for his lunch money.

It is a theological point, but it is the incarnation which makes this connection unbreakable. Arianism, which was a milder form of Gnosticism, held that spirit could not marry matter, or in more Thomistic terms, that the unconditional could not truly know the conditional. It is a recurring suspicion of the human race that the infinite can have no regard for the finite, and against all this, the incarnation proves that omnipotence loves weakness. But God’s love is a generous love. It turns weakness into strength. And that is why happiness cannot be separated from goodness: they have the same source. Gnosticism claimed that you could have happiness apart from goodness because the material world and the spiritual world had different fathers. Arianism had God adopt the material world; the incarnation proved its true parentage. It was, after a fashion, the first paternity test. The modern world denies this paternity, since it denies God, but every winter Santa Clause declares that the goodness of children, no matter how unenlightened or materialistic, is loveable.

These three reasons, between them, compel our culture to celebrate Christmas early. Until we explain to people why they prepare, that the calendar is a good servant but a poor master, and that God loves them and not merely the idea of them, we shall have Christmas during Advent. We can take comfort that at least it’s not Advent during Christmas.

Happy Father’s Day

I submitted this to my parish’s bulletin as a potential father’s day message:

In one of the many instances of audacity which marks Christianity out as a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, we call the unimaginable uncreated creator of all that is, our Father. Let us celebrate, then, all those men who have entered into the recklessly humble Christian spirit of emptying themselves to become the image of God’s fatherliness. Happy Father’s Day!

Since this blog is a more general venue than a parish bulletin, let me add that I mean this for all fathers, including those who don’t know this was what they did. 🙂

Control is the Worst But Most Certain Proof

The things we know, we know according to different levels of certainty. To illustrate the spectrum with its extremes: everyone knows with complete certainty that they themselves exist, and they know with virtually no certainty at all the things half-remembered that they heard from a known liar who thinks he heard it from his cousin one time. Most things, obviously, are somewhere in between those extremes. And in all but the most certain cases, is only indirect, which requires us to trust the use of our own reason to know the truth from the evidence.

Consider the case of a woman who asks the question, “does my boyfriend really love me?” It is not possible to measure love, and it is always possible to respond to a direct question with a lie. Perhaps he doesn’t love her but is even more afraid of being alone while he waits for someone better to come along. Even worse for her certainty in his love, he could be mistaken. Perhaps he loves an ideal of her which he will someday discover is not the real her?

Worse, doubt can lead to imagining all of the possible ways he could not love her but still do the things he did which seemed like love. Considering one’s imagination can be confused with looking at the world, which will further fuel her doubts. If she gives into this, turning her attention away from the evidence of his love towards the counter-evidence of her doubts and suspicious imaginings, she could work herself into a state where all of the true things in real life which should make her convinced of her boyfriend’s love leave her empty and uncertain. What can she do?

This is where many people go wrong, because they know that control is powerful proof. If you can make something do what you want, it is very convincing evidence that you really know the thing. (This is why repeatable experiments are so critical to the scientific method.) If she can make him do things he would do only if he loved her, then this should finally assuage her doubt. But there is a problem: whatever she asks he might have wanted to do  anyway. This adds the temptation for the demands to become unreasonable or even anti-reasonable. The more self-destructive and unreasonable the demands, the more clearly the only reason he is complying is because he loves her so much.

Of course, this is bound for disappointment. In practice we can never fully control another person, and if she keeps this up for very long the boyfriend will almost certainly stop loving the woman. People dislike being manipulated and distrusted. And even if he doesn’t leave her, she’ll then know she’s with a man so desperate he’ll put up with being treated terribly. This makes his love worth very little since it’s really an indication of how desperate he is, not how lovable she is. In fact, there is literally no way that this attempt to prove his love through control will end well. Alas, to paraphrase Jane Austen, insecure people are not always wise.

A very similar problem can be seen among a certain sort of atheist. When they reject the evidence given (here’s a summary of what’s often offered)  and are asked what sort of evidence they would accept, it’s rarely specific. It varies all over the place, but tends to have in common that it is something simply counterfactual to the world as we find it. But unlike when a Christian might say that the evidence he would accept that God does not exist is that nothing at all existed, this counterfactual isn’t related to the nature of God in a direct way at all. Creation not being created is evidence against the creator in a direct and sensible way. There being more of something or less of something is not directly related to the creator being our creator; it’s just something picked at random. And a moment’s thought shows that it is the counterfactual nature of the evidence that is important and not its being related to the creator. That is, this lack of relationship to what the evidence is supposed to prove is no accident. If the message “I exist. –God” burned forever in the sky in five hundred foot tall letters, atheists would just say that it was an unexplained natural phenomena which influenced primitive people to come up with the myth of God to explain it. Also that it influenced our language so that these letters were meaningful to us. And some day we’d definitely have a natural explanation for it.

What people want is not just any sort of evidence, but specifically the evidence of control. It is not really different from people in Jesus’ time who wanted a sign, which is to say, a miracle done on command. They did not then and do not now want to have to discover what the world is. They want to know it by having it conform to their desires.

But the psychology of this is interesting, because I don’t think that it’s selfishness. More specifically, I mean that it isn’t pride. It isn’t the desire to be God, to be the lord of all. Rather, control is powerful evidence because it seems to make the thing controlled an extension of the self, which as Descartes noted is certain even if we doubt everything else. It is not, at its core, a desire to dominate. It’s a fear of trusting. It is the insecurity of a timid creature which will not venture out of the burrow of certainty to see what actually exists in the larger world where it is possible to doubt.

Believing our Imagination

After I posted about whether we can choose to to believe something, my friend Eve Keneinan pointed out to me that I had left out the subject of imagination. In particular, that it is not merely a question of whether we close our eyes or look at reality, we can also choose to look at our imagination and mistake that for looking at reality. The phenomenon of falling in love with a theory is a subset of this practice.

Imagination is a very interesting subject and one remarked on probably less than it should be. Even the simple question of what is imagination is not asked very much. In broad terms, imagination appears to be the ability of the mind to take on the form of something with which it is not in contact. (This is in reference to the Aristotelian idea that knowledge consists of the mind taking on the form of the thing known; where form refers, very roughly, not to the physical shape of a thing but essentially to what makes it what it is.) The mind can take on the form of something not real, such as when one writes fiction, or it can take on the form of something real but simply not present, such as when one calls to mind the face of a friend.

There is a problem with the latter type of imagination, when it is derived from reality, because we are fallen creatures: we can call things to mind imperfectly. This immediately introduces problems, though it can largely (though rarely perfectly) be corrected by consulting other aspects of our memory to make sure that our reconstruction of our memory is in fact correct. Our imagination is notoriously misleading when it comes to eye-witness testimony, identifying a person we’ve never seen before, and other things courts of law rely on all too often, but that’s not the main point here.

In Immanuel Kant’s killing off of knowledge in the last days of Modern Philosophy being a living endeavor, he proposed imagination as a substitute for knowledge. Not pure imagination, of course, since that would be absurd to even a brilliant man, but imagination which is then checked against experience (where practical). If experience confirms it, then we continue to count our imagination as “knowledge”, if not, we must try to imagine something else which does conform to our experience. For a fuller explanation, check out Kant’s Version of Knowledge.

For many people this idea of “knowledge” has replaced actual knowledge, and interacting with the world becomes an almost solipsistic exercise in playing with the phantasms conjured up by our imaginations. Even where it hasn’t, it is a common practice to understand something by trying to imagine it from incomplete knowledge, very frequently supplying the gaps with pieces of ourselves. That a great many people assume that everyone else is just like them only makes this more misleading whenever it is applied to people or things which are not just like them.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, it is exceedingly easy to fool ourselves into thinking that by looking things as we imagine them, we are actually looking at the world. Not only do we go astray but we don’t even realize our own ignorance. Having applied ourselves with great effort to learn about things which exist nowhere else but our imaginations, we feel like we’ve tried. Worse, it is painful to realize all that effort was wasted, making admitting our mistake to ourselves very difficult indeed.

It is possible to be lazy and ignorant, by not trying. But it is also possible to be very industrious and still ignorant, by looking in the wrong place.

Postscript

There is a saying that Modern Philosophy was born with Descartes, died with Kant, and has roamed the halls of academia ever since like a zombie: eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

Choosing to Believe

I recently saw the question posed whether it is possible to choose what one believes. The answer is obviously not. Having said that, it clearly is possible.

Before I get into either answer, I want to briefly define what I will mean by the word reality. It is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

It is clear, then, that it is not possible to choose what one believes because belief is, simply, what reality appears to be. Beliefs are, in this sense, passive, like sight or hearing. We cannot choose what we see—we look and there it is.

But even in saying that, we can begin to see why it is possible to choose our beliefs: You can choose where you look.

If you hear a belief proposed which depends for intelligibility on knowledge which you don’t at present have, the belief will necessarily not be believable. You might have no reason  to disbelieve it, or you might take it on the authority of whoever told you as likely to be true (whatever it means), but you will not actually believe it. To give a concrete example, suppose someone is telling you something about relativity, and says that some property is true of the Lagrangian near massive bodies. If you have no idea what the Lagrangian is, you can trust that he isn’t wrong, but you can’t believe what he’s saying because you don’t know what it means. For you to believe it, it must seem to you an accurate description of reality. Until you understand it, to you it is not in fact a description of anything at all. Now, it is quite possible to, by choice, refuse to ever learn any of the base knowledge necessary for the belief to be believable. If you did this, you would be choosing not to believe the belief.

A practical case I deal with all the time is that young children will not listen to any evidence about the toy store being closed because they are unwilling to believe the necessary corollary to it: that they cannot go to the toy store right now. Toy stores can’t close, and I’m a monster for not taking them there, now. It is true that they don’t believe the toy store is in fact closed, but in shutting themselves off from all evidence because they can’t deal with the consequences, they are clearly choosing to believe that the toy store is in fact open. (To be clear, I picked this example because it should be familiar to everyone and is ready to hand, I am not trying to subtly call all atheists children, nor anything like that. I do my best to restrict rhetoric to posts in the rhetoric category and with a warning up top about how to read them. I believe in active aggression, not passive aggression.)

In a similar way, it is also possible to choose to believe something: in the spirit of inquiry, one could seek out all of the knowledge necessary for a belief. Properly, one would be attempting to believe it.  There is an asymmetry here, because the best one can do is try to believe something whereas ignorance can be guaranteed. It is always possible that, having all the necessary groundwork for a proposed belief to be believable—in other words, fully understanding the idea—it still does not seem to be an accurate description of the world. This is always going to be true of false beliefs, like the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on the world trade center being an inside job or the one-gene-one-protein theory which was recently chucked into the dustbin of biology. It may even be the case of true beliefs  where we don’t understand them well enough, like people who rejected the Monty Hall problem despite knowing a lot about probability and thinking they fully understood the problem specification.

But it is very important to note that what constitutes attempting to believe a belief is not purely an act of will. It is the will directing the intellect where to look. That is as far as the will can go; the intellect will see what it sees, just as will can literally make your eyes look at something but your eyes then see what they see, and not what you wished to see. It is a question of the will overcoming laziness or fear and putting in the work of learning, not a matter of the will overcoming the intellect and creating something in it. Human will is a powerful thing, but it cannot do the impossible, and it is not possible to create impressions upon the intellect through sheer will. The intellect is always fertilised by the reality it perceives. Will can no more create a belief in the intellect than a man can impregnate the color blue.

Update: My friend Eve Keneinan pointed out that I didn’t address the complication that we can choose to look at our imagination rather than at reality or nothing at all. I’ve fixed that in its own blog post.