Thursday, September 13, 2012

New Story in Small Axe!

Feel free to check out a short story I got published in Small Axe, sx salon issue 10. It's one of my more experimental pieces, which is partly why I like it; beyond that, it's a story I had a lot of fun writing, since it can be interesting to see what you can achieve in terms of pacing, atmosphere, and more by letting a story work in free form, organically--letting punctuation appear where and when it needs to, and letting it disappear where and when it needs to.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Objective Morality Debate

The debate over whether or not objective moral values exist—i.e., over whether it is absolutely right or wrong (for humans, at least) to do certain things, instead of this rightness or wrongness being somewhat or completely subjective/relative—has been going on for so long that one has to begin wondering about the persons involved on either side. It should not be so hard, after all, to determine whether or not these values at least likely exist; at very least, over two millennia of debating over these values ought to have got us somewhere more productive. Clearly, however, it is not clear whether or not these values exist, if these debates are still going so strong. And it would appear that we are left with some rather disquieting options: firstly, that these values do not exist, but that some of us would very much like them to, and this cognitive dissonance leads us at times to conclusions further-fetched than any dog’s Frisbee; or, secondly, that these values do exist, and some of us simply do not want to admit it, since admitting it would put some of us in an awkward position of ascertaining why these values exist and whether or not they truly are the non-independent product of evolution.
            I do not like either of these positions, and so I propose a third way.
            I do not know if objective moral values exist, firstly, but—so as to not be in a simple agnostic position—I propose that they probably do not. This is not a claim of said values absolutely not existing, nor is it evidence that I believe they do; it is simply an honest conclusion based on not being able to know that they absolutely do and informed additionally by many observations: the presence of many individuals throughout history who have not shown clear familiarity with these supposed values (primarily those who show some kind of disorder or psychopathy, such as serial killers); the existence of practices throughout history by large societies that appear to directly violate these values (the extraordinary daily mass-murder carried out by the Aztecs of thousands of people so as to make the sun rise each day; the slave trades that have existed throughout history, including the transatlantic trade, the so-called Islamic or Turkish trade, the systems of the Romans and certain Africans prior to the beginning of the transatlantic trade, etc.); and the fact that the idea that we primates on our little planet amidst the vastness of the universe would be given objective moral values (a claim that seems utterly out of proportion with the size of the universe—even just with our planet, considering we can only reside on a fraction of it. We are duped, constantly, into thinking ourselves the biggest and baddest things on the planet, if not in all the cosmos, when we owe our existence to, among much else, microbes whose population inside and on one human alone [trillions, literally] alone far outnumbers the population of humans worldwide. And what of Michael Ruse's scenario in "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda," in which we find that it is possible that aliens on another world may be so different from us that "rape" may not be wrong to them--i.e., that our moral values are inherently grounded in our biology and thus that moral values become modified in the minds of differently designed intelligent creatures?).
Ruse, when not pondering alien rape.
If these values likely do not exist, there must be some non-objective reason(s), then, why our species has not died out already (indeed, why it has ballooned perhaps beyond a point clearly sustainable by the Earth, unless we learn to tap the planet’s less obvious resources). I think there are such reasons. It does not seem a leap to me to claim that it is possible to see that certain acts, such as not killing certain persons, as “good” and “useful” but without actually calling them “moral.” What I mean here by these terms is that an act can be beneficial to me and to someone else, by extension to a group associated with me and a group associated with the other person, and by our ability to understand this mutual interest and the pleasure perhaps afforded each of us by doing it, we can come to see that this situation is “good” and “useful” for us. But this is so simple a notion that it is easy to see how it can apply to a range of acts and practices.
            Basically: if there are probably no objective values, it is still possible, given the common humanity of humans across the world (i.e., the possession of human attributes), to see how we can come together to create systems of how one should act in a variety of situations so as to not cause unnecessary suffering or so as to promote well-being because those two things can often be beneficial to both individuals and groups associated with individuals. At the same time, the fact that these systems sometimes appear rather differently in different societies suggests that morality is not likely objective, but, rather, that these basic practices involving self- and mutual interest can evolve, via the construction of more complex civilizations (that may contain members of groups radically different from our own), into systems of morality such as we see in many legal systems today. (Or, there are many peaks on the moral landscape, à la Sam Harris, who I think is mostly correct in his book of the same name.)
In such civilizations, it is clear that random murder may simply cause problems for said society, such as creating a bad perception in the eyes of other civilizations that might trade with or otherwise help them, as well as potentially creating situations of minor or significant chaos within the civilization in which said random murder occurred. In other words, order and the veneer of respect, even when the interests I mentioned earlier may be in conflict between individuals, become more necessary in a more complex civilization so that it will not fall apart—and it is critical to note that not all members of said society will want to comply with the law not to kill, but may nonetheless do so out of fear or the apparent necessity to keep order. Here, then, we have the appearance of moral values in elaborate legal systems, and yet the values themselves may not concretely exist but merely be beneficial and useful was of acting.
Isaac and Abraham--sacrifice? Murder?
 It is clear that this primitive benefits-based system does not work objectively. While killing, generally speaking, can be shown relatively easily to be a dangerous act, particularly for small populations, it is nonetheless clear that ritual murder has been going on from the infancy of our species to today. Now, there is a possible distinction to be made between “murder” and “ritual killing,” since, in at least some cases, the persons to be ritually killed have 1) agreed to die and 2) may not even be looked upon as possessing the same degree of intrinsic human worth as those performing the ritual.
The idea (to make a bit of a hop) that values come from a god who simply is good (the way to get around the Euthyphro dilemma) is problematic. For one, it is hard to imagine that jealousy and genocide are “good” except in the minds of the sick or deluded, and yet the god of the bible—if we assume this is the being in question—is explicitly jealous and, on occasional, genocidal. That this god would regret making human beings and wipe them out (as well as the majority of land-based animals, Noah’s story regardless) with a flood is extraordinary, and yet it is this god, this god equivalent to “good,” who we are to believe is the source of our moral values? Please.
Furthermore, the idea that this deity is good really shows how desperate some philosophers and theologians can be. We have yet to objectively prove that this deity—any deity—exists, and yet we are ready to dress this deity with the most extraordinary attributes: omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omniscience. Now, clearly the “goodness” of god that precedes the existence of moral values is a nod towards his omnibenevolence. But god does not have to be any of these omni- attributes to create the universe, if you believe a god did. It is not necessary to even give god these attributes, and omnibenevolence, even if we focus on Earth (and there is no reason to), is either a lie or a ridiculous wishy-washy joke that only academics who have no sense of life (no sense that, for instance, when you talk of murder, you are speaking of actual people being murdered) can attempt to simply brush aside the horrors on this planet and claim omnibenevolent qualities in god. But say god is given these qualities. How do they even coherently work together? It is clear that these three, combined with the clear existence of pain and suffering on our planet, do not work together, unless god is also omni-retarded—but that, surely, is not a greatness-making property. There is a good reason Marcion believed the god of the Old Testament a different being from that of the New. And the god of neither demonstrates the omni-properties.
            One response, of course, is to say that we silly humans misunderstand omni-properties. By taking them to illogical extremes (like saying that omnipotence must mean the ability to not be omnipotent), we turn them into something other than what they are. The first problem here is that no one has witnessed or experienced these omni-qualities, so to claim that they cannot be illogical is a bit much. When someone says they are not logically coherent, this is because there appears to be a genuine issue of logic within their properties, particularly when all three omni-properties coexist in one being. Until we can examine such a being, it is rather audacious to claim that these properties even exist and that they further must be logically coherent even if they could exist.
It is still more troubling to see such claims when they coexist with the claim that god cannot be fully known or understood—and yet here we are trying to impose concrete properties upon a being we do not even know exists. The only properties that I do not at present contest in such a being, if it exists, are spacelessness and timelessness—not because I think they would describe a god but because they are not problematic in the same way if they do. (Though, seriously, what on Earth is a "spaceless" thing? This is quite literally impossible to imagine--nonsense in the Wittgensteinian sense and in other, more unkind, senses. Is God smaller than the smallest thing imaginable? If so--how pathetic. And I still don't understand what the devil the description is supposed to mean. "Timeless," similarly, if it is distinct from "eternal," does not make sense. Theologians and philosophers throw these words around, despite their not clearly meaning anything and thereby deceiving audiences with fancy-sounding empty words.) The most pressing property, connected most directly to omniscience, is the claim that god is or has a mind, despite not being composed of matter and thus not having a brain (which produces the mind, as far as we can tell) in any form that we on Earth are presently familiar with.
            At least some deists have the honesty to posit a god and leave it at that, not speculating on whether this god is good or evil or even anything like the god of theists. Not that that solves anything, per se, not least of all that trickiest of questions of how or what or where (we can continue) said deity is—but it’s better than the arrogant pretty-damn-near certainty of certain philosophers. 
Craig is trying wayyy too hard.
 I’m looking at you, Lane Craig. I respect a lot of your work, good sir, but--yeesh.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why It's Bad If Caribbean People Don't Accept Evolution

(I sent this out to a few Caribbean newspapers as an opinion piece, but none, unfortunately, accepted it, so here it is. It's addressed, as may be evident, to an audience that presumably does not know much about evolution or the various other items mentioned below.)

UPDATE: You can find the piece on that other CNN, Caribbean News Network, now; I'm still waiting to hear from the others.
“If I could give a prize to anyone for the single greatest idea,” American philosopher Daniel Dennett said in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, his study of the significance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and human evolution, “I would give it to Darwin.” These are not idle words. While the idea of organisms undergoing gradual changes over thousands or millions of years was not entirely new—the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck had championed it decades before Darwin, and shadows of the idea can be seen even in the work of the ancient Roman poet Lucretius and in the ninth-century Islamic writer Al-Jahith’s Book of Animals—Darwin went further than anyone before him by showing the mechanism by which evolution could occur: natural selection. He showed that organisms adapt to their environments gradually and that all life on Earth—including humans—shares a common ancestor. Think of it like a tree. All life shares a common root, despite having branched off in many directions, and many branches themselves have branches, and while some branches are still functioning, many others have died off. Although evolutionary biology has evolved—as it were— a lot since Darwin’s day, particularly with the development of genetics, Darwin himself remains one of the most important and controversial figures in western history.
            But evolution appears to remain little-understood or accepted by the general public in many islands in the Caribbean. Bring up the idea of evolution to the average person on the street, and it is quite possible you will receive either a blank stare or hear the idea condemned as anti-religious nonsense. Some—and I have seen this a number of times before—will even tell you the idea of evolution is nothing less than a worldwide conspiracy perpetrated by satanic scientists (the same people who will likely believe, without any clear evidence, that the world is run by a secret organization like the Illuminati or that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax). Some will even say the whole idea is too silly to be believed, as though the overwhelming number of biologists who support the theory are less conspiratorial than simply foolish.
“If we came from monkeys,” they might say, “why it still have monkeys?” (Of course, this objection is based on a misunderstanding; we are primates ourselves, but we share an ancestor with other monkeys, rather than them simply turning into humans. Think of the tree branch image—we go back to the same tree limb, but chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and homo sapiens—we humans—have branched off in different directions.)
            Accepting that all the evidence we currently have supports the theory of evolution (and I must clarify here that the word “theory” here does not mean “unproved”; gravity and electromagnetism are also “theories”) is important. It is one step towards becoming more scientifically literate in a world in which scientific literacy is ever more important, almost regardless of what field you may be engaged in. It will show that we in the Caribbean are not closed-minded or anti-science. To reject an idea as important and well-accounted-for as evolution is to suggest that you do not trust scientific discoveries and that you are not willing to critically examine the world around you, as well as the history of ideas. Modern-day biology and medicine are often inseparable from evolutionary theory.
            Now, even people who study the idea and come to almost accept it may still stop short because they think it conflicts with their religious beliefs. To accept evolution, after all, is to accept that humans were not specially created, but rather simply one product of a long line of blind natural processes. But many religious people have made peace with this. Some have even refashioned evolution to be “guided” by God rather than altogether natural and blind, such that God intervened at a critical point in the process—just as God might have, they say, set off the Big Bang (an idea unrelated to evolution). Still others put God as the spark that set evolution going—since evolutionary theory is only about the process of organisms changing, not an explanation of how life itself first appeared from non-life. (That process is known as abiogenesis.) Whatever the case, the fact is that many well-educated people of faith do not see evolution as their enemy—and they should not, since it is well-supported by scientific evidence.
            In the Caribbean, very often, we don’t really stop and think about things like this. Or we may start and then stop once we get into tricky territory. At other times, some of us are simply so focused on other things that we do not give adequate—if any—time to critically examining the world around us. Instead, we just accept simple answers we may have heard as children. This isn’t the way a strong society of well-equipped individuals should operate. We should have the courage to boldly question every idea we hold—including, of course, evolution itself. We must not be afraid to ask questions, to probe into dark tunnels—and, more importantly, to find answers we may not like on the other end.
            This may seem like a minor issue to some of you. But I do not think it necessarily is. Being scientifically literate (as well as literate in many other ways) is important—and I mean on an individual, as well as a national, level. Those of us who have not considered the issue before, I encourage you to go out and look it up—and, while you’re at it, to examine every other idea you hold dear, be that idea big or small. What justifies your beliefs? Why do you think the way you do? Are you thinking rationally? Can you really explain how something works that you believe in? To reject an idea, you must at very least first understand it.
            Therefore, check out the wealth of information on evolution out there: Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, Michael Ruse’s The Philosophy of Human Evolution, Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, and many, many more, from websites to videos. Search, question.
You may find universes in grains of sand, to paraphrase William Blake.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Essay Published in The New Humanism

I recently got a creative nonfiction piece of mine published in The New Humanism, a great online magazine created by the Humanist Chaplaincy group at Harvard. The essay is about a year or so old, and the only thing I might say about its content is that I have recently become a bit bolder in speaking to others about what I (do not) believe and that I do not really think of myself as a deist often anymore (as the essay briefly implies). Once in a while, I do, since I like many aspects of deism, but I do not think of myself, generally speaking, as one, since there is no evidence for it. But anyhow, feel free to check it out below, as well as the other fascinating articles in The New Humanism:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bleh: Reading as Mechanical Operation

  In The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle’s second long story to employ the duo of the romantic Watson and the methodical Holmes, Watson famously calls the detective a “calculating-machine.” The claim is not extreme. Holmes—he who would later be swirled in the nebulous vortex of collective memory into a man wearing a deerstalker hat at all opportunities and saying such charming things as “Elementary, my dear Watson”—indeed was the supreme embodiment of rationality, of attempted objectivity, in Victorian fiction. He was not entirely a machine, of course; he had his quirks and preferences, like his love of the violin and an early, near-Newtonian fascination with dangerous drugs, including cocaine. But he was rigid in many ways. He read nothing but what he deemed would be useful; extraordinarily, Watson informs us in A Study in Scarlet that Holmes did not know the Earth goes around the sun—and did not care to know, either.
            “‘You see,’” Holmes explains to his partner, ‘I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.’” No useless knowledge need apply. And coming from a man so easily identified—quirks despite—with a machine, it is clear that Watson is the old romantic. Or perhaps Doyle is; it was Watson’s creator, after all, who so ardently wished that psychic phenomena could be demonstrated by science that he opened up a Psychic Museum and Psychic Bookshop and funded a Psychic Press after World War I, the same Doyle who clung long to the hope that the Cottingley girls had taken genuine photos of themselves with fairies. (They hadn’t.) He wanted this to be science, of course, and did not accept every “psychic” photograph brought to him; but his clinging to them is more symptomatic of his desires rather than his objective acceptance of evidence, and, in the case of a photo of Lord Combermere, he derided “the extreme lengths to which our opponents will go in their frantic search for a materialist explanation.”
            Nowadays, I’ve begun to feel like I’m an old romantic in a somewhat different way—though, at twenty-four, I hope I’ve a long way to go before I shuffle off the stage. Not about psychic phenomena or fairies, thank goodness—though those could certainly come in handy, I’d imagine. No, my present disappointment is because it seems that the romance in reading books—the feeling of some deep connection with a text, such that you just want to continue reading it long after you should have turned off the lights or such that you are briefly surprised to see the world around you again once you look up from the pages or screen, that thing in a text that makes you continue coming back to it over months and years, though you’ve read it cover to cover—yes, that feeling seems to be vanishing for so many people I encounter who claim to still read nowadays. Reading is no longer, for those persons, an act of pushing away the world around them to sink into the world of a text. Instead, it is simply a form of knowledge acquisition, on the same plane as using any other medium: watching videos, playing videogames. And since texts rarely grasp the viewer as fast as something you can sit back and watch, the act of reading comes up short.
            I recently came across a man in his twenties—let us call him Nod—on Facebook who posted something about this on a friend’s page. She had posted an image of John Waters in a grand library; Waters was saying, “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” Frabjous advice. Nod, however, was less than impressed. “I mostly read news, but hate reading fiction,” he wrote in a comment. “To be honest: Its just a very inefficient use my time. I can watch the movie, save 20+ hours, and use that time doing something else creative.” In his grand finale, he went further: “To top it off, I can usually out-write 99% of bookworms. At the end of the day, I just think reading isn't as important as people make it out to be (or for that matter, as significant as it used to be 100 years ago).” Quite aside from the somewhat distressing notion that a person unable to distinguish between “it’s” and “its”—apostrophes are not his strong suit, as you’ll see below—believes he can “out-write” anyone beyond a high-school child, note that he has described reading in terms of its perceived efficiency. This is a busy guy, apparently. Note, too, that he has equated watching the movie version of a book to reading it, as though the mediums are different only in terms of the efficiency of their ability to convey information. Nonetheless, he has a point at the end: reading, today more than ever, is certainly far from the only way to obtain useful information.
            Nod was not finished, however. Seeming somewhat indignant at the fact that the photo of Waters had received many “likes” and his own comments had not, he made the—obvious—link to the photo-likers linking reading and sex, and then finished off with a rant:
most of my informative stuff isnt even from books. I can watch 30 min of techtv, and then pop on a random documentary each day on netflix and at the end of the year feel 100 times more intelligent/cultured than people who own tons of books. I understand that reading is an option for a medium of both information and art, but the point that I am trying to make is that in the olden days reading was the only option, and more recently with technology there are other options where people can choose to ignore reading and still not be an idiot.
Another apostrophe error, lack of capitalization—but this is Facebook—but he can out-write 99% of bookworms (across the globe? The known universe? By the vodka-stained mustache of Rimsky-Korsakov [as the composer was described in an American review of Scheherazade], this is distressing). Nonetheless, here we go again: reading is “an option” for Nod, a medium to be compared, in terms of how intelligent it can make you and how quickly it can do so, to watching videos. There is more than a hint of anal disappointment in old Nod, as though he has not fulfilled the final part of Waters’ message enough, his eyes glued instead to the glistening blue breasts of a Na’vi girl—but let us leave aside speculation. It is clear that Nod views texts merely as a form of providing information—hence his contempt for uninformative fiction—and, ergo, the text has no chance, really, of competing with videos. Why waste time reading, when you can learn the same thing by watching something?
            If one is indeed reading merely for information, it is certainly possible that Nod has a point as far as efficient use of one’s time goes. And yet, even then, the mediums are not always really comparable. To read “informational” texts like Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, the essays of Christopher Hitchens, David Sedaris, Stephen Jay Gould, Oscar Wilde—you can’t simply transpose these, or many others, onto a screen and come out with the same thing. Mediums are not interchangeable. It is certainly the case that in the century I began this essay with, you can find a great deal of texts claiming that the mediums were, in fact, profoundly linked, if not the same—Henry James, in his famous essay of 1884, “The Art of Fiction,” posited that “the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete,” and Oscar Wilde, more broadly, wrote in 1885 in a response to James Abbot McNeil Whistler’s “Ten O’clock” lecture that “there are not many arts, but one art only—poem, picture, and Parthenon, sonnet and statue—all are in their essence the same, and he who knows one knows all”—but these statements are obviously not literal truths. In nonfiction and news—Nod’s territory—there is still that grand possibility of romance, of seeing the author of a text before you as you read his or her words, of having the text evoke, for you, your own mental images, rather than being given them by the screen. For people like Nod—and he is by no means a lone example—this sense of romance simply seems not to exist, and books, therefore, need hardly exist themselves. Our greatest achievement, for a man like Nod, is our becoming more and more like machines, so that we can do everything we need as smoothly and simply and calculatedly as possible. Not that this is bad, per se—but it is a false, and deeply sad, view to apply to reading, to books, to fiction.
Is it “better” to watch a video of a text? Why compare them? Why are we so anal as a society that we feel the need to waste that time we wish so dearly to preserve through efficient living by making ludicrous comparisons? Gustav Doré beautifully and lovingly illustrated Dante, Poe, Ariosto, Shakespeare, and many other writers’ works. Is it better to look at his illustrations than to read the poems? Rubens painted Greek myths. Is it better to look at the paintings than read the myths? Rick Steves has documentaries about travel in Europe; is it better to watch them than to travel?
These are transcendently foolish questions, and yet they are the kind of questions I see people ask too often.
We have become too self-aware, it seems, too obsessed with gazing at our navels. So often, I see people (in the classes I teach, on YouTube, in cafes, etc) watching video clips or gazing at images or some such activity with utterly dispassionate gazes and still bodies; and when they are done, they respond verbosely, repeating phrases often and reflecting on how they feel about the act of looking. They will often complain about how much time activities like reading waste, and yet they will spend grand amounts of time studying phenomena that could easily be argued are also a waste of time, if time is so utterly precious—articles calculating the mathematical trajectory of the launch of birds in Angry Birds, for instance. These people seem, often, to have some great desire of being legitimized as critics, perhaps partly because it is so hard to stand out from the crowd nowadays. And yet, these persons appear, at least, to refrain from letting themselves be swept up into the experience of a thing; they instead are constantly aware (again, so they appear, at least) of the fact that they are engaged in the act of doing something.
And this, of course, is why reading is so unappealing to people like Nod, aside from its poorer efficiency. The act of reading asks that one unclench one’s buttocks (to your comfort level) and enter the world of a text, that one feel the pulse of the words, that one lose oneself in a text as though it were music. “All art,” Walter Pater famously wrote in an essay on Giorgione, “aspires to the condition of music.” But if you are constantly aware that you are reading lines of ink on a page or pixels on a screen, you cannot do this, and you will end up reading even less efficiently, since you’re wasting time thinking about the act.
You can be smart without being a reader. Nod got that right. And reading is no gateway to assured intelligence. Ray Comfort and Snooki, after all, have books for sale (ghostwritten though Snooki’s was). But to act as though this is a point worth debating is symptomatic of an almost psychotic sensibility, inherited in part from postmodernism, in which people view all topics and arguments as equally worth a response; moreover, it is, if one goes as far in one’s critique of reading as Nod does, symptomatic of a loss of romance, or of being too attached to the contemplation of one’s navel—the latter meaning, in this context, to create a barrier between a work of art and one’s experience of it.
Finding romance in a book does not mean that one is mystically or kookily inclined. I’m a skeptic of high order, after all. I believe in the Romantics’ (capitalized, now) sudden bursts of inspiration; and yet I believe this kind of “inspiration” is simply a neurological state, replicable under laboratory conditions, the product of no god, angel, or muse (though I love imagining my brain state as a lovely girl in Grecian garb descended from the clouds and stars). And as much as I believe that life can be marvelous, as Alejo Carpentier and Viktor Shklovsky famously claimed in their own ways, I nonetheless do not let myself be carried away into mistaking dreams and desires for facts. I am often a pessimist—not quite a Schopenhauer, but not terribly far from it. But this does not prevent me from being an old romantic at twenty-four, skeptical of omphaloskepsis.
Don’t become calculating-machines when you read, if you read, please. Don’t lose the love. Let yourself wander into a text, once you’ve secured a chunk of free time; don’t allow the wonder to wander away. You might not see it again.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What "Everything Is Permitted" Permits

A contemplative Dostoevsky
It's well-known nowadays that Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov that if there is no god, everything is permitted--i.e., there are no absolute moral laws. Many people who have never read and perhaps never will read the Russian novelist (who himself struggled between strong belief and agnosticism, not unlike Herman Melville, though Dostoevsky most likely died a faithful Christian) quote this idea, and, indeed, the notion that "without god, everything is permitted" has become a standard argument against unbelief by theists. After all, if one has no dogma or set of divine laws to follow, how can anyone justifiably prevent anyone from doing anything--murder, rape, physical abuse? I will address this below, but my main point here is really to look at what use of the moral argument reveals about many theists.

You see, when theists resort to asking what moral values unbelief has to offer, it often means those theists have very nearly lost their faith, have virtually accepted that atheism is probably more "correct" than theism.

Extraordinarily, the latter part of that last sentence in fact came almost verbatim out of the mouth of infamous theist Dr. William Lane Craig in a 2011 debate with Sam Harris on morality, when Craig, in his opening statement, said "Maybe Dr. Harris is right. That atheism is true." Craig's point was that it does not matter whether or not a god exists; all that matters is whether or not objective moral values--absolute moral values--can come out of a world without a god, without holy texts telling us what to do.

Here's the thing, though. The moment someone leaves aside arguments for whether or not a deity exists and begins asking how someone can live morally as an atheist, you should begin to look at them with suspicion. The moral argument is important, to be sure, since a world without any morals would not be a pleasant world to live in. But it is an "extra" argument. If there is a god, we must live under its moral code; if there is not, we do not have to. The moral argument cannot say whether or not a deity exists. After all, we can--and do--easily follow the ethics of many thinkers from many cultures and time periods without subscribing to their other views. More broadly, we can accept some of the things people put out into the world without accepting everything they put out. Many people in the world today love Wagner's operas; it would be foolish to assume that all or many of them are unfaithful to their spouses and/or despise Jews. In the same way, we can accept certain ethical ideas from, say, the bible without accepting anything else from it.

Confucius say, Follow this blog.
Moreover, though, there isn't even any need to accept many ethical ideas from the bible, since many of its core tenets existed long before it did. And perhaps the most universal moral truth--The Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you--was uttered by Confucius long before Jesus supposedly walked the earth.

So, when a theist begins resorting to the question of how one can live a morally fulfilling life as an atheist, there is a good chance they either have no arguments for their supernatural claims or even that they are already more or less unbelievers or agnostics themselves. After all, if your foundation rests on whether or not the system is good, you are allowing for the possibility that the system in question--a religion--is replaceable by something else and thus allowing for the possibility that it can be discounted if something more ethically fulfilling comes along.

But the other side of the moral argument about whether or not everything is permitted is much more disturbing for theists than they often imagine. If you argue that there are no absolute moral laws in a godless world, you are conveniently ignoring an absolutely significant fact about the god of the bible (a fact that can also apply to any omnipotent deity). The god of the bible has absolute control over us, we are told, and anything he wants, he must get. If he wishes to revise his ten commandments, you better believe they will be revised. If he tells you to sacrifice your son to prove your faith--as he reportedly told Abraham to do to his own son, Isaac--you must do it. If he tells you to commit genocide--as he repeatedly not only tells people in the bible to do but actually assists in doing--you must do it. And if he decides to murder you through an almost unavoidable flood--the ultimate genocide, ecocide--you must give up yourself for dead.

If you haven't realized it by now, here's the disturbing thing: following this god leads to almost the same thing Dostoevsky feared--that there could be a world in which any and every action, including murder, can be morally justified. This world? The bible's.

The only thing is that Dostoevsky's dictum needs to be rephrased. In a biblical world, it's not that everything is permitted; it's that "with god, everything can be permitted' or "with god, everything can be commanded." Anything can become moral at any moment, if this absolute dictator of truth wills it to be as such. This is unquestionably the least moral of systems.

But atheists do evil things, are dictators themselves, a theist might reply. Look at Stalin. Look at North Korea. Look at the Cristero War in Mexico. State atheism is responsible for some of history's greatest moral crimes. We cannot live under such a system.

But this does not, firstly, say anything about the supernatural claims of religion. The mere fact that the world is not happy and perfect, an endless cascade of milk and honey far beyond the dreams of Winnie the Pooh--what does this unpleasantness have to do with whether or not religion is correct? It doesn't. Life is not perfect. It never has been, and it probably never will be. We are too small, too insignificant on a cosmic, even an earthly, scale. 99% of life is extinct. We will go extinct one day, too, even if we figure out how to escape the planet we are slowly destroying.

Secondly, the above statement about state atheism is true in the sense that it has been responsible for great crimes, but this is primarily because those who enforced it were mad dictators who essentially formed religion-like cults of personality around themselves (Stalin, for instance, was more or less worshipped as a god), dictators who attempted to force communism upon their countries. It is their forced communism, more than their atheism, that is generally responsible for their death tolls. And, moreover, anti-theism, anti-religion--the things the worst of these dictators practiced--is not the same as atheism. One need not persecute the religious, even if the head of state is an unbeliever. This is why the most successful governments are secular, allowing no special privileges for believers or unbelievers. Forcing any belief upon a people, be it a religion, agnosticism, or atheism, is wrong.

So, when you find yourself in a debate about religion next time and you end up talking about morals instead of whether or not there is evidence for the religion's supernatural claims, there is a good chance you've come closer to winning the debate than you might have thought. It's true that we have to create our own systems of ethics, since we do not have a dictator from above telling us what to do; but this allows us to create systems based on centuries of great thought, and, really and truly, how different would many legal systems be, if you remove religious dictums from them?

Robot Devil from Futurama
If there is a god we must follow or risk eternal damnation, anything can be commanded by that god. That certainly doesn't sound too moral to me.

Especially if you have to listen to the Robot Devil from Futurama fiddling away for eternity. Then again, he's a demon on that instrument, a robot Paganini, so eternal damnation might not be so bad, after all....

Saturday, October 22, 2011


On October 21st, 2011--just yesterday, in fact--the world silently ended. Or, at least, so Harold Camping predicted prior to the great big nada that actually occurred. That his initial prediction of May 21st was a similar failure--a failure that attracted significant media attention--is perhaps why his latest prediction has been almost universally ignored. It may also be because this is not Camping's second prediction, but his twelth--since 1978.

Zounds, in the sempiternal word of Spaceman Spiff.

Predicting the end of the world is nothing new for Christians. Indeed, the earliest Christian writers seemed to be of the opinion that the world was going to end in their lifetimes--which would date such apocalyptic predictions as early as the first century A.D. That two thousand years have since passed without any signs of cosmic cataclysm has not significantly deterred would-be prophets from claiming that the end is near, however; the most famous of these is perhaps the unfortunate William Miller (1782 - 1849), who announced with grave confidence that the world would end in a period between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844--though this latter date was later revised to October 22nd by Samuel S. Snow. His followers became known as Millerites. Initially a little-known movement, Millerism quickly rose to public prominence in the 1840s, and thousands of people began preparing for the end--some of them by getting rid of all their earthly possessions.

It was more than a little disappointing for Miller and his followers, then, when nothing happened on October 22nd.

People waited until the sky became black and the gas-lamps flared on. The world seemed hushed, except for the indignant children who were pointing their fingers at the astonished Millerites. Indeed, kids and adults alike would ridicule them in the days to follow, laughing at their sickly expressions and the sudden poverty of those who had given away their possessions. Laughing was the best of public response. Less fortunate Millerites were tarred and feathered, physically assaulted, and threatened. Millerite churches were burnt to the ground. Some revised the date to the next year, 1845; others locked themselves into their studies to figure out what had gone wrong. William Miller himself fell into a deep depression, but he nonetheless clung, right up to his death in 1849, to his belief that Jesus would return in the years to come.

On the other hand, some believed the world had ended on October 22nd. It was just such a silent, surreptitious end that no one noticed.

Harold Camping
This was the view put forth by Camping himself shortly after May 21st. He claimed that the world had in fact "spiritually" ended on May 21st and that the true ending would occur by October 21st. The "true believers will quietly receive the new heaven and the new earth," he said. "I really am beginning to think as I restudied these matters that there’s going to be no big display of any kind." The world would "probably" be done for in the months to come.

The word "probably" is significant, since it gives him the chance to weasel out of his latest failure. But it does not give his supporters--a group that may have been as much as 200 million strong--that same chance. After all, there were people who, as with Miller's followers, gave away their earthly possessions. Camping himself received considerable donation money, and he said he would not return it after May 21st's fiasco. 'We’re not at the end," he, in fact, said with some indignation. "Why would we return it?" The same, of course, applies to what his poor--quite literally--followers gave away.

It may not be Camping's responsibility, of course, since those who gave away their possessions usually did not give them to Camping himself. The fanatics who acted so rashly must be held accountable. But it is unquestionable that Camping himself should face legal warfare for his pernicious influence on these fanatics. Ignorant though they may have been, they would not have acted so ignorant had it not been for Camping--or whatever other fanatic would have come around in his place. As absurd and baseless as it may seem, I think Camping should be held partly accountable for his followers' foolishness--just as the Vatican must be held accountable for the results of their inane stance on condom use in Africa.

Nonetheless, what disappoints me the most in these situations is that I do not see people reexamining what "world" means. It's one thing to say "the world is going to end"; but what does that even mean? The Earth will "end?" End how? What about the solar system? The Milky Way? Our local cluster? The rest of the universe, of which we are a near-negligible part? If you're going to predict the end of it all, at least have a specific referent in mind. What does "world" mean in this context? Only a fraction of our planet is even inhabitable by humans, anyway; will all the creatures of the oceans and deserts and tundras have to suffer, too? Why would an infinitesimal planet like ours be worthy of any kind of "ending," anyway? And what the devil does "end" mean?

But I am perhaps ascribing too much critical thought to such doomsday prophets. After all, if you think ancient texts hold the key to all of our astonishingly complex universe--a universe almost entirely unknown at the time such texts were composed--then I shouldn't be surprised if you don't look too deeply into the definitions of words.

Rapturous October 22nd!