My thanks this year

This Thanksgiving I would like to express gratitude to many people, including the architects of several ideas and concepts that affect and benefit us all (whether we appreciate it or not), along with the everyday common man.

The authors of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with it's guarantees of Freedom of Speech and of Religion, are at the top of my list this year, followed very closely by those of the Fourteenth Amendment, with its guarantee of Equal Protection under the Law, which has been a bulwark against the bigotry and intolerance of the close-minded yet powerful. Let us all hope it continues to be interpreted as such.

I am thankful to the great minds behind the Enlightenment, without which the amendments mentioned above would not exist, nor would the country that nurtures them.  I see it as the awakening of the true spirit of modernity, where reason and compassion meld with a sense of wonder and honest, open inquiry.

I am thankful to the countless people who, through their daily, well-intentioned, and kind yet unrecognized actions, make the society in which I live the place that it is.  Even though every day I see in the news evidence of continuing bigotry, hatred, dispassion, stupidity, and narrow-mindedness, I am heartened even more by the revulsion I see and hear expressed against these base sentiments - we as a society are outraged more and more by injustice and unfairness.

Although I don't believe in providence or any supernatural causes, I am nonetheless thankful most of all for the accident of my birth and the circumstances which have allowed me to live the life I have, during these times of great moral and social progress, and in a country where there are enough good people to resist the terrible urges given action in other places, those primitive, pernicious, and simplistic ideological urges which cause them to do horrible things to people just like me, such as throwing them off of high buildings for the crime of living life as they see fit.  While disgusted to the core by that behavior, I am nonetheless thankful that I don't live under such a threat.

I hope you too can find things great and small for which to be thankful!

A Tower of Babble

Maybe I'm being pedantic, but there is something that bothered me when I was listening to an NPR story a short while back, and I heard the following statement from pastor Russell Moore in his opening remarks to the Southern Baptist Convention: "Sure they would. And I'd like to fight and fornicate and smoke weed and go to heaven."

Whether or not you recognize it at first, there is a somewhat nasty hidden implication in that statement. Moore is saying that the main reason he doesn't fight, fornicate, and 'fire one up' {call them the three f's for brevity} is so that he can get into heaven - equivalently, he is wary of the alternative: an eternity of torture in the flames of hell. He is here overtly acknowledging his powerful personal attraction to the three f's, and also that the only thing standing between him and eternal damnation is his perception of the threat of damnation itself. This is a foundation-stone in a major category of Christian apologetics: the [claim of] inherent weakness of man's will to resist behaviors antithetical to his own thriving in the absence of external, over-arching, all-knowing, all-powerful authority. This strikes me as perhaps a little bit true in one very narrow sense, yet the apologists' interpretation is flawed in the extreme. Further discussion is warranted.

Mankind is a social animal; without immersion in society and culture, we would be something else entirely. That we live and can flourish only within the boundaries of a society engenders natural and rather obvious restrictions on our behavior. Such restrictions have of course varied widely over time and across societies - figures of authority, especially in dictatorial or totalitarian regimes, have fewer restrictions on the social niceties they must observe towards those of lower status, for example. However warped or unjust it may be, though, the existence of any society by definition means that its members are in general adhering to what can be thought of as a contract amongst themselves. Individuals (and groups of individuals) can issue 'claims' against others - I can expect you to refrain from taking something of mine unless we have come to agreement on a price; if you take my property, I have a legitimate basis to issue a moral grievance against your behavior. You should reasonably expect that I won't come into your house and change the television channel you are watching, or make long-distance calls on your phone. Elizabeth Anderson puts it in terms of a system of reciprocal claims in which we all play a part; the very act of lodging a claim against another validates, and is in fact a tacit admission. that one is within the system and is 'playing by its rules.' Established societies formally codify many of these behavioral norms into laws through the governments they instantiate.

This is the very nature of morality, the sole province of which is how we interact with and behave towards one another. We are expected to understand the restrictions on our own behaviors just as we expect others to recognize the limitations on theirs with respect to our personal spaces and spheres of influence. No society can last, operate effectively, or even form without some version of this contract.  Individuals who break the contract's terms have always been punished or ostracized.

By this token, the only authority that we all must recognize as proscribing acceptable interpersonal standards of behavior is that which we have over, and amongst, ourselves. There is no need of any supernatural authority, if one assumes that there are material consequences for misbehaving or breaking the contract's terms; and, every group, society, and state has indeed imposed such consequences. While it is true that many, perhaps even most, of these states have in some measure imposed unjust or unfair restrictions and punishments on their subjects, it is just as important to note that we can and do recognize and call out unjust behavior on the part of both individuals and states. We are sensitive to breaches in the social contract by virtue of the very nature of our beings. Occam's razor eliminates any need for an all-seeing supernatural entity. The suggestion that one cannot be morally complete without a deity is either a failure of rational thought or a grave misunderstanding of morality's true essence.

Morality, however, is a subset of the larger category of ethics; perhaps folks who think as Moore does are simply misstating their intent, and really mean to say that we cannot be ethical without the authority of a god. Yet there are countless examples of individuals and groups practicing the highest forms of ethical behavior without any appeal to guidance from the supernatural - Albert Einstein, Doctors Without Borders, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, The International Red Cross, Oxfam, Robert Ingersoll, Asa Philip Randolph, and the list could go on and on. Clearly it is quite possible to live an ethically admirable life sans deity.

I have argued elsewhere ("Towards an Understanding of Moral Underpinnings," Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, 2014) that directing one's life in fear of punishment or hope of reward cannot in fact be moral whatsoever, and also that a being who would incentivize us in such a way is either evil or completely dispassionate.

In psychological studies examining the role of authority, it becomes obvious that the perception of authority, even if it is only subconscious, is what really matters. An unmanned coffee station's donation jar will garner larger amounts when a picture with eyes, or even the suggestion of something watchful, is hung overhead versus a picture of, say, flowers. Thus, even if authority is a human requisite, the nature of such authority is not the key ingredient, nor is the actual existence of the perceived authority itself. It should therefore be obvious that even if there is a need for a perception of authority, such a need is in no way a proof for the existence of any actual authority.

Another mainstay of Christian apologists, and the usual fallback when statements such as Moore's fail, is the claim that even though we can do many good works in this life, they will not be sufficient to purchase escape from eternal damnation. This is the Pauline idea of Justification by Faith, which stands in contrast to the idea of Justification by Works as put forth in James (although the author of James follows this with talk of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, a disgusting and cowardly deed if ever there was one). This difference is a key element in the schism between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox/Lutherans. It seems to turn on which parts of the bible one takes more or less literally, and which parts one interprets as metaphor. Since I'm not in any sense a biblical scholar, I will just say that this discrepancy is far from settled in the world of theology. True experts in the bible argue at length on each side of this dispute, so the only thing we can say for certain is that within the texts one finds vagueness, conflict, and ambiguity. So, what Moore is really saying, if he's taking the fallback position, is that the above concept of morality (based on societal interrelationships) is essentially meaningless if it is decoupled from the concept of deity. Based on this hypothesis, I can live as ethical a life as Jesus himself, yet if I deny or even question either his existence or his divinity, I will suffer an eternity of unimaginable torture: this life that I am living now is nothing more than a proving-ground for my real, eternal, after-life, and my faith or lack thereof during this life is the sole litmus test.

I feel compelled to state in the plainest of terms that, on its face, this is an absolutely asinine proposition: the omniscient and omnibenevolent creator of the universe, who provides within that universe no verifiable or even credible evidence for his own existence, and who allows for so many arguments from logic and science to refute the possibility of his very being, will nonetheless keep you alive for all eternity just so that he can torture you for the grave crime of non-belief in him, or for the equally serious offense of refusing to bow down before his absolute authority (and we note that such authority always manifests itself through very real and tangible earthly taskmasters). Yet, without a doubt, this is exactly the position taken by a significant portion, perhaps even a majority, of the faithful.

It is quite a stretch to so casually and with such finality dismiss the ethical lives and actions of those mentioned above, as if their contributions mean nothing to humanity, and furthermore to subject them to everlasting agony. Assuming for a moment that a god does exist, would one that perpetrates something like this be worthy of our adoration, or even our respect? Does imparting such a fate to individuals who have done so much good in this world seem like something that would (or even could) be done by a god who loves us and who is just, merciful, and kind? If your answer is yes then I submit that you and your god have a very alien understanding of the concepts justice, mercy, and kindness.

Of course, standing behind all this is the idea of faith.  One hears this word a lot in religious circles, and even in not-so-religious circles; what one does not hear is a firm definition of the word.  In "Dynamics of Faith," Paul Tillich talked about faith as the state of ultimate concern, which I think comes about as close as anything to nailing down its true nature.  Faith, in the practical sense, is believing a proposition in the absence of affirmative, or in the face of contradictory, evidence. I think it is important to note that people who believe such propositions also fervently want to believe in them, and this is where Tillich's definition rings true.  I submit that faith includes this ardent, urgent desire to believe a proposition coupled with, or perhaps driven by, a fear that the proposition in question might not be true.  When one doubts a proposition whose content or consequences hold deep meaning, and eventually convinces oneself of the truth of that proposition, one feels an immense flood of relief; such feelings of relief can be emotionally overpowering responses, and in that sense they couple a strong emotive reaction with one side of the true/false status of a logical proposition.  This explains the tenacity with which many cling to their faith-claims - when strong emotions are attached to anything, it is in human nature to resist giving that up - we just don't want to rescind that good feeling.  I have written about this phenomenon in another blog post, A Critique On The Values And Effects Of The Family Of Religions.  However, the intensity of desire one has for a proposition to be (or remain) true neither affects nor is reflective of the probability that it actually is true.  This whole situation brings to mind the stage production of Peter Pan, where the audience is implored to clap for Tinker Bell or she will die.

The benefits of possessing faith are more specific yet equally lacking in veracity.  One of the most ubiquitous expositions of faith is prayer.  Controlled studies have shown, however, that prayer has either no effect whatsoever or a slightly negative effect on the outcome of specific situations - see, for example, this article.  Just as spurious is the 'evidence' proffered for life after death; in no case has any claim been verified, and many such claims have been debunked or rescinded.

In the sense of Paul's doctrine, it seems that one must have "faith" regarding both the nature and the fruits of faith itself: no evidence or reason is advanced for a faith-claim, and no proof is offered that adherents reap its benefits.  This leaves us with a closed loop of self-sustaining nonsense. Or, to borrow a term from the field of optics, we have discovered a circle of confusion; in this case the sharpest definable point is a rather large fuzzy spot that cannot be fixed on either logic or evidence.

We see therefore that the concept of faith is ill-defined; what is strange is that with any other concept this would be seen as a point of weakness, yet the vary nature of faith's ambiguity, along with its regular usage, makes this the strongest position possible.  A.C. Grayling, in "The God Argument," puts it thus:  "...contesting religion is like engaging in a boxing match with jelly: it is a shifting, unclear, amorphous target, which every blow displaces to a new shape."  Faith, too, is shifting, unclear, and amorphous.

That such an ill-defined concept can carry such weight in our common perception of virtuosity is an embarrassment to both reason and virtue.  For humans to organize their lives around something that they don't really understand, and cannot in fact explain, is the opposite of virtue: it is foolishness in the extreme.  What remains when reason is abandoned is raw emotion; faith and the passions are the chief conspirators guiding the actions of people of faith, and we are all familiar with the horrendous crimes and tragic mistakes that have been made when passions dictate our actions.  To be sure, strong feelings can also make us act in purely altruistic and kind ways as well, but this is exactly the point: we are all constantly buffeted by our passions, but when we let go the tiller of reason, our direction is all but random.  History and current events may show that cruelty and kindness are, at best, equally likely when this is the case; however, Steven Pinker makes a compelling case in The Better Angels of our Nature that human nature itself (in terms both biological and cognitive) tilts us towards violence in the absence of what Peter Singer termed the "escalator of reason."

Virtually all modern theories of human behavior are deterministic, and they claim that our actions are determined outside the scope of what we perceive of as our own will - by unconscious processes, by purely chemical or physical laws, etc.  None of them, however, asserts that it is useful or even ethical when we fail to hold individuals responsible for the actions they take or the words they speak.  Whether or not one subscribes to the idea that we are possessed of a separate "self" with the ability and independent will to define and direct a life, it is indisputable that one's actions affect others in ways that are apprehensible to a thinking, rational, empathetic being.  A thinking, rational being with insight into what affects the feelings and experiences of others is obligated, under the implied terms of the social network in which he or she exists and operates, to contemplate and consider the consequences of any actions in light of this; it meshes naturally with the idea of our system of reciprocal claim-making discussed above.  If one fails to do this, and thereby causes harm to come to another, one is obligated to make reparations or correct the harm; or, at the least, to offer apology and seek forgiveness. This set of reciprocal obligations that we all share is at the heart of human interaction - it is what in fact defines and gives substance to our concept of morality.

The edicts of the Abrahamic religions stand in stark contrast with this; they all tell us that we must allow for their god to forgive any acts that are considered wrong, and that such acts can only be forgiven by him.  Some might retort with the fact that the Catholic church, in the modernized version of its doctrine of confession, allows that confession is as much about making amends with the community as with deity, but they still insist that attendance at confession is mandatory, and that missing it is a mortal sin.  One might also ponder what exactly caused the shift in doctrine, since none of the foundational texts behind official church dogma has changed or been amended.  To say the least, this idea trivializes any concerns that we humans have for one another, not least because it tethers our empathy to a concept that has been as divisive, and destructive, as any other force in human history; just consider, for example, the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion (such as the Thirty Years War), the Holocaust, and the Balkan Crisis of the 90's.

Under the auspices of the Abrahamic system, our best means of assuring peace among ourselves is null and void, rendered meaningless unless it exists within the context of divine will.  At the very least, this precludes any ability for true understanding and agreement between those of divergent faith traditions.  There will always be tension, for each faith contains within itself an imperative to be the dominant, salvational model for all of humanity.  They all proselytize and evangelize to this end, through means both subtle and direct, persuasive and coercive, peaceful and violent.

To state the matter bluntly, the Christian tradition teaches that we receive absolution for all the bad things we do (and many that we haven't or couldn't!) solely through the scapegoat of Jesus via his trials upon the cross.   This of course begs the question as to whether its adherents can be taken seriously in any kind of moral sense whatsoever, for the very weave of our social fabric is comprised of the interactions we share, which, as was stated above, exactly and completely defines morality: how we treat each other matters because it is in the very nature of our being that it matters. If I mistreat a fellow human, perhaps by inflicting mental or physical torture, my obligation to that human remains whether or not someone else claims to have forgiven me.  Only that person, and no other, has the right to forgive me, and in return I certainly have no right to ask another to intercede.  I alone am responsible for the actions I commit and utterances I make - how could anyone wish it were otherwise?  In fact, for another to intercede would sever the human bond I share with that other, and therefore diminish or make totally meaningless any reparations I might wish to make.  Even if we grant that, as some interpreters of Christianity claim, reparations on my part do actually matter, they only carry weight because of the spiritual obligation underlying all human interactions.  This is actually a very clever idea, whereby the insertion of a completely superfluous component into what would otherwise be a perfectly functional system makes that component instead appear crucial.  The shortest distance between two points is simply a straight line, but not in Christian morality - in their version, all connecting lines must first go through the infinite, forming a ridiculous, lopsided, and completely unnecessary triangle.

Since the entire reason for and focus of this earthly life is to prepare for that claimed to follow its end, what compelling reason can seriously be proffered for seeking harmony in the here and now?

These four key ideas, that a god is necessary for morality, that we live under the threat of eternal damnation, that faith is a well-defined concept carrying the full the weight of virtue, and that a scapegoat is necessary or even sufficient, form the foundation of the three Abrahamic religions, and several are shared in various forms by nearly all other religions.  I would hope that the above discussions make it clear that upon such a base can only exist an unstable edifice, a ramshackle building that is unlivable, suitable only to be vacated, condemned, and demolished. The structure of a morality based on religion and religious edicts is nothing but a Tower of Babble, which will ultimately end, fittingly, in a jumble of debris.  Let us hope that the human race is not buried beneath its ruins.

Oppressed or Just Offended?

The recent decision in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., seems to have emboldened the politico-religious crusaders.  We are seeing a number of states passing or considering "Religious Freedom" bills (including my own state, North Carolina).  These laws are little more than thinly-disguised attacks against the expansion of gay rights (or against the ACA); unfortunately, those pushing forth such laws are too cowardly to admit this in the light of day.  My contention here, though, is that these laws are actually ridiculous on their face regardless of the motivation behind them, but the reasons for this have yet to be addressed by any media outlet.

No one making such claims has ever explained exactly which religious belief is being violated, other than by a nonspecific, nebulous inference.  Never have we heard reference to even a single particular religious edict or law that is being trespassed upon, nor are we likely to.  No details are offered other than a vague appeal to what is seen as an impenetrable, untouchable, and virtually “un-discussable” shield.  This seems to be a popular reaction when the act or idea in question touches on an overtly-stated constitutional guarantee – it is beyond reproach, cannot even be talked about as if any aspect of it were in question. We know that this is not the case, though. Well-known restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press exist (think of the actions of the FISA court or the famous Holmes opinion from 1919), and there are of course exceptions granted to the prohibition against searches and seizures (“Operation Eagle” and other police checkpoints, property seizures in the war on drugs) as well as on the possession of firearms. This goes to the essence of our system of governance and to the way in which we are both privileged and obligated to assess interpretations of our laws – we can and must have a reasonable discussion (that is to say, a discussion based in reason, not one that is merely amicable) regarding the application of the system to ourselves and our lives, especially when we notice conflicts or when tension is apparent.

 A crucial feature of this system is thus implied: in order to have an intelligent discussion, we must first agree on the definitions of the terms used in that discussion. Sometimes that which is under dispute is a definition itself, which merely pushes back the required agreed-upon definitions to concepts surrounding the issue. Only when this groundwork is complete can the point of contention be clearly understood, argued, and resolved, if resolution is in fact possible. This is what I see as the first major problem of those advocating the granting of such exemptions to individuals and companies claiming religious objection: their terms have never been fully defined. We all must understand and agree what is meant by terms such as religion, belief, religious objection, religious conviction, and religious rights; however, widely accepted and fixed definitions for these and similar ideas are scarce or nonexistent - they are malleable concepts whose plasticity can be, and often is, exploited. Until their definitions are hardened any other actions are fruitless. I am convinced that simply agreeing on what these terms mean will carry us most of the way towards resolution, but I also have a strong suspicion that there are those who will resist any efforts to firmly pin down these concepts, and that their resistance will increase the further down that road we progress. This is due to what I think will be the increasingly apparent flaws in their arguments. This applies in general whenever the pressures of reason are brought to bear on those defending their positions solely using religious grounds: opposition becomes ever more shrill, strident, obstinate, and unreasonable.  Such types will always cower behind a shield of obfuscation.

Sadly, the odds are well in favor of such discussions never taking place. After all, we have come this far as a nation utilizing vague or half-formed notions of these things, why should we start now? A frank treatment of these subjects in this way would most likely be very uncomfortable; should this prevent us from tackling it head-on? It is firmly in my mind that we are so obligated, if for no other reason than that these very concepts are important to the rights of so many. It is high time that we exert our collective will to force this discussion into the open. The only reasons that can be mustered in opposition to the occurrence of such an open dialog are rooted in diffidence or cowardice.

Assuming that a dispute still exists once the hard work of defining our terms is complete (which is very optimistic indeed on several counts), the next obvious step would be to understand exactly how the situation in-question impedes the plaintiffs from practicing their religion. This would involve several things: a clear citing of the exact proscription of which the plaintiffs are claiming they are forced to be in violation, a demonstration that such claim is in fact a legitimate religious proscription, an explanation of how offering the product or service conflicts with that proscription, and a citation of where, when, and how the situation prevents the plaintiffs themselves from adhering to that proscription.

I think a common misconception here, and the reason for much of the plaintiffs support, is that because providing goods or services to those in question is objectionable to the religious beliefs of some, this translates to an infringement on religious liberty, which is not the case.  If the claim is that the inability to deny selling a good or service to a select group, which is otherwise available for purchase by anyone, is the same as being forced to perform or endorse the act objected to, then we are left wondering why it has taken them so long to complain.  Taxes collected from business profits are used for all sorts of tasks and items that run counter to religious sensibilities:  aid to countries with Sharia as law, extraordinary renditions, weapons of mass destruction, etc.  It seems a bit late in the game to be claiming religious grounds for decrying any particular action as impeding religious thought or action – one is tempted to suspect that it might just be a combination of politics and convenient timing rather than a noble stance on principle.

Of course, the necessary forms of analysis involve plenty of effort for all involved. The good news is that if we take this approach we would be well served in having laid the groundwork for resolution of many similar disputes. The risk, mostly for the plaintiffs seeking a waiver for their discrimination, I suspect, is that their claims, and many others like them, will be revealed as nonsensical and frivolous.

If any of their claims makes it to the final point of such an analysis, and I don't for a minute believe they should, then the allowance in the first amendment against prohibiting the free exercise of religion would apply – but, here the important point is to remember that it applies equally to all of us. Your right to practice, or in this case, enforce, your religion ends when it affects my ability to practice according to my own reason and conscience, and vice versa.  Now, if anyone can show that the religion of the plaintiffs in question commands them to discriminate against others, I would be much surprised (and alarmed), and so should you.  In such a case the religious edict would be legally questionable.  If an entity is offering a product or service for sale to the general public, in no case would ensuring that such an entity cannot discriminate against selling to a particular subset of that public be the same as forcing that same entity to perform the acts to which the it has an objection.  This would be the only way that a prohibition on refusal of services could be construed as being in conflict with one's religious proscriptions.

That such discussions never take place leads me to think that society sees the claim of religious offense as akin to pleading the fifth amendment on the witness stand - no further explanation may be demanded or is to even be expected on offer.  However, the analogy may be more appropriate than it appears, for frank and open discussion on this topic can only serve to weaken their position.  Taking the 5th is the strongest hand they can play.

I would ask you all to please play a vigorous part in bringing these aspects to the forefront of our media's attention, or at the very least to your neighbor's. If we fail to address the root of these issues now, we will have to fight these same otherwise useless battles again and again.

Taking up a thread from my Facebook Post, "God's Plan, first installment..."

Facebook is a great place to have an exchange of ideas, but not so much when the exchange evolves into a more protracted discussion.  This, my first real post on my new blog, takes up a discussion that came about when I posted a cartoon on Facebook with the caption noted in the title above.  I won't put any specific names here out of respect for privacy, but I sometimes have long discussions with this person, and we both realized that Facebook comments do not provide a very good forum for a serious and detailed dialogue.  Which, I'd like to point out, is what is missing in most of the world – has been missing, in fact, for nearly all of human history: open dialogue about the nature of our beliefs; I myself am truly grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a discussion.  My friend prepared what I characterized as an eisegesis, going line-by-line through my previous comment.  Instead of counter-exegesing this person's points individually, I'm going to respond to what I think are a couple of general points of disagreement.  If we had a better forum, like a book, I would still present the claims below, but would also include detailed responses to the points raised line-by-line.  The first general point of digression or misunderstanding between us I think is on the nature of belief itself and how that relates to what we think of as evidence.

The reason beliefs are important to me (and should be to absolutely everybody) is that when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, all of our actions are driven by our beliefs.  I keep my car on the right side of the road because I believe that oncoming traffic will do the same; I just gulped down a glass of milk because I believe that it has been pasteurized and that the date on the jug is accurate; I work to create software and hardware to test cellular phone components using a test platform that I believe is reliable and repeatable because I believe I will receive a paycheck that won't bounce; I don't jump from very high places because I believe that the speed at which I hit the ground will increase as a function of the distance I fall; I try to act kindly and with justice towards my fellow humans and other living creatures because I believe this is what makes the world a better place for all of us; you get the idea.  There are also many things that I do not believe: the moon is made of cheese; the earth is less than 10,000 years old; animals can safely consume anti-freeze; putting a loaded gun into the hands of an irresponsible person is a good idea; you get the idea here also.  All of these beliefs, along with the non-beliefs, guide my behavior in ways both general and specific; I think that all of our behaviors, and in fact all of what we might call knowledge, can be looked at this way: the facts we present to ourselves (and use when we reason) are based on beliefs we hold – we believe that what we hold as facts represent the true state of the world.  Now, when I survey my beliefs I see that the ones about which I am most confident, the ones upon which I am (or should be – see Shermer’s discussion of the effect of reward-level on perceived risk in The Believing Brain) generally willing to stake the most important facets of my life, are the ones for which I have the greatest amount or the strongest evidence; those having very high standing are those for which the evidence is corroborated and agreed upon, especially by those who may have disagreed with the initial premise or who suspected bad evidence or evidence that had been tampered with and who have therefore approached evidential affirmation with skepticism.  Evidence vetted many times over by different actors all employing skeptical inquiry in varied ways has perhaps the greatest standing of all classes of evidence.  Now if you think about it for a minute, evidence amounts to just another layer of belief, really, but it's a layer that of course depends on beliefs that have themselves been previously vetted.  So you can see that the strength of a belief necessarily depends on all the beliefs (or assumptions I guess might be another word) that the belief itself presupposes.  The fact that human beliefs form the foundations of human behavior is not obvious but is critical; that beliefs play such an important role in human knowledge itself is just as critical.  Both of these facts point to the importance of understanding the nature of our beliefs, and also to the importance of approaching such understanding with a skeptical eye.

Now, I don't think there is a being in existence who could justify each and every held belief down to the very root.  We can of course also be mistaken about the ground or assumptions behind any particular belief.  However, just because perfect knowledge and complete awareness is impossible in practice does not mean that the general principle doesn't apply.  When we have tension between us due to differing beliefs, our only recourse is to examine the presupposed assumptions and evaluate them with respect to the things upon which we can all agree; if we cannot agree on the immediate presuppositions, we must peel back to the next layer of presupposition, and continue this until we find common ground; only then can we gradually work our way back up the chain, examining and resolving our points of difference with respect to the things we agree (or come to agree) are foundational.

 Now, you clearly have any number of beliefs that I don't share; the obverse is certainly just as true.  One of the beliefs you hold that I do not is that god exists; another belief that I also do not share is that god influences your life.  However, the belief that god influences your life clearly presupposes the idea that god exists; so, the belief that god influences your life is actually three beliefs:  1) god exists, 2) something outside of your knowledge or control influences your life, and 3) that influential something is in fact god.  That god could still exist but not actually be the thing influencing your life or thinking in any given situation is still a distinct possibility.  Another possibility is that there are multiple gods and that several of them are colluding to influence you, or that a god other than the one you assume is influencing your life.  I think it obvious that we can both agree that there are things that neither of us completely understands that have influenced your decisions on many occasions; where we disagree is on the cause or nature of such influence.  If you concur, then we have found our first commonly foundational belief: something is influencing your thoughts and/or behavior.  I also hold this belief with respect to myself – I am certain that there are things outside the scope of my direct knowledge or control that influence me personally.  The next step is to look for evidence that supports each of our contrasting claims: you claim that the (or at least, an) influence is god while I claim that the influence is most likely a product of the unconscious processes that under-gird one's awareness.  It is true that the evidence for either claim is in a sense subjective – at some level investigation of the phenomena surrounding consciousness will always rely on the testimony of the subject.  That does not, however, indicate that all such evidence is equal – contrasting testimonials do not by definition cancel each other out perfectly.  I'm sure you have heard that there are experimental methods in psychology, psychiatry, and neurology which are designed to eliminate bias; some use misdirection, for example, so that any bias possessed by the subjects may only be interjected in a manner that is inconsequential to the study's true aims.  Neurologists perform real-time scans during experimental questioning to study activity in areas of the brain that have been previously established to correlate with, for example, willful deception.  These techniques are of course not perfect but they are peer-reviewed and replicated.  Taken together they constitute strong evidence for a number of fascinating and revealing attributes of our personalities: our brains are active in the subconscious decision-making regions for anywhere from fractions of a second to tens of seconds before we ourselves become consciously aware of a decision; our personalities can be altered in specific, predictable, and repeatable ways by either damage to or intentional stimulation of particular areas of our brain.  It has repeatedly been shown that persons can be induced to feel all of the reported occurrences that have traditionally been ascribed to supernatural influence, including out-of-body experiences; the sense of a separate, and oftentimes loving presence nearby; auditory and visual intrusions; continuity of oneself with nature or a feeling of oneness with things external to one's physical body; feelings of bliss or peace; sensations of being touched; feelings of terror; the sensation of another's presence within one's own body or mind.  We know from other studies that our brains are largely driven by their pattern-recognition engines, and that those regions of the brain responsible for recognizing patterns can be exhibit hyperactivity (or the opposite) which profoundly affects our perceptions and behaviors.  There are also many studies that look at belief-bias (what Shermer calls Belief-Dependent realism) which also affects our perceptions and our interpretations.  I see these empirical results as evidence of a very strong type – corroborated, replicated, and often approached with skepticism (or at least employing double-blind or other methodology that suitably shields the results from any bias the investigator may have). 

On the opposing side there is compelling and what I'm sure is heartfelt personal testimony.  I have no doubt that those who put forth such testimony are convinced of the reality of their experiences; I also have no doubt that they have indeed experienced something strange or mysterious and that such occurrences are well worth our serious attention.  As I pointed out above, though, such statements invariably entail more than one belief, and I can certainly agree with some of those beliefs while disagreeing with others.  Those beliefs on which all of us can (must, really) agree are directly supported by strong forms of evidence or by causal or logical links to foundational presuppositions; those about which we disagree are in such a state either because they are not supported by the evidence, or because we cannot agree on any logical/causal connection between them and our agreed-upon foundations.  If we are truly at an unbridgeable impasse on a given point then we must acknowledge that the thing about which we disagree cannot be claimed by us to be objective – it isn't knowledge in any meaningful sense.  Before we resort to this, however, we are obliged to go through the exercise of examining presuppositions, if we are indeed serious about resolving our differences.  This is the magic of the scientific method – any and every claim or connection of this sort is always open to question; when something is discovered that calls into question a previously assumed claim, that previous assumption is again subjected to scrutiny and possible revision based on new evidence.  I know I've stated before that I am not (nor is virtually any other atheist) wedded to the absolutist claim that there is no possibility whatsoever of a god existing; it's just that there is absolutely no evidence, in any but the very weakest sense, that this is true.  You cited a number of things such as testimonials of life-after-death experiences and the like, but those types of claims are problematic for a several reasons: they themselves actually entail multiple beliefs that are co-dependant and whose presuppositions are almost never brought to light; they always turn out to be suspect in some way or another when they are investigated closely (i.e. there are zero or perhaps one witnesses); they are never able to be replicated under anything close to controlled conditions; they tend to exhibit strong cultural biases. 

However, even if a particular individual (or even more than one) objects to a claim, we are not thereby automatically obligated to abandon that claim's status as objective; we are obligated instead to ascertain if the claim is acknowledged by many (or any) others to be valid, and whether it is supported by evidence or logical/causal connection. If evidence contrary to an assumed position is presented, we are obligated to treat it as we do all other evidence: with skepticism. We should also not be fooled by what may initially seem like a large amount of evidence: the volume of evidence is never so important as its quality. As Stenger has noted, the plural of anecdote is not data.

In addition to the lack of supporting evidence and paucity of logical connections to foundational concepts, I would have to add that there are also many very good reasons why it makes absolutely no sense for it to be true that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity who intervenes in human affairs.  There is also plenty of evidence that the kind of thinking that goes along with such beliefs has deleterious effects on society and human progress in general.  While I can already feel the heat of your objection rising in response to that last sentence, I fully acknowledge that there are plenty of other modes of thinking are just as (and perhaps more) damaging to humanity.  If you also agree with that statement, then we should be on the same page with regard to shining a spotlight on such modes of thinking.  One of the differences between us is that I feel that I should not only follow where the evidence leads, but I should also verify with at least some degree of skepticism that what I am calling evidence is the real thing.  And this is where we part ways on the testimony of your personal experiences.  As I said above, I don’t doubt for a minute that you have had transformative and transcendent experiences.  I do doubt, however, that those experiences in any way prove the existence of anything supernatural.  The ‘evidence’ as I see it is that you have had such experiences; what that evidence is evidence for is up for grabs.  If you want to posit that the evidence points to the existence of something, then you are of course free to do that.  I have of course also had peculiar things happen that seem to stretch the limits of coincidence, although not in the numbers that you seem to have had them happen, but for my part I have an obligation to investigate further – I feel the need, and an equally strong desire, to keep peeling back layers of understanding until I reach some kind of bedrock, or the limits of understanding.  I feel that this obligation is never more true than when the thing in question is something around which one is potentially going to organize one’s life.  The greater the impact on one’s life-direction, the more important it is to seek a deeper understanding.  This doesn’t mean that I would (or could) coerce someone into my way of thinking or reasoning, but thankfully I live in an Age that has inherited the benefits of the Enlightenment and in a country which has sanctified freedom of thought, so I can think as I do and speak my mind as I would.  

The other major topic on which we diverge is inspiration. It always seems assumed that someone like myself, who places great stock in reason and science, can have no basis for inspiration other than what is tangible and in immediate view.  I see the key ingredient of inspiration as being imagination, and I guess I just assumed it was obvious that nothing I have said or written disabuses anyone of imagination's power and reach. There is no need to believe (in the strong sense that equates belief with fact) anything that is not supported sufficiently by evidence and reason in order to imagine virtually any possibility, even the most fantastic.  Nor does it follow that the level of one’s intellectual discipline must be inversely proportional to one’s imagination.  Nor does it mean that such persons cannot be excited to the point of action by some of those possibilities.  Now if the essence of inspiration isn’t imagination plus excitement, I don’t know what you are talking about.  If it were not for the imagination and enthusiasm of people like Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and Feynman, science would not have come very far at all. In fact, to turn this around, their inspiration would have amounted to nothing at all were it not for their intellectual rigor. And I'm sure they imagined things that they later discovered were unattainable or even ridiculous – the key would be that they first imagined what might be true then discovered if those things were in fact true – they didn't just believe things to be true. Granted, the particulars of their discoveries were different from the particulars of, for example, personal experiences, but those differences do not negate the underlying principle.  Inspiration drove their inquiries but was far from the whole substance of those inquiries.

Now, I understand that the source of our inspiration isn’t always obvious – you are sitting there, drinking coffee, and a wonderful and intriguing thought pops into your head.  Where did that thought come from?  It could have come from a god; it could have been that the previous cup of coffee’s caffeine started kicking in and caused some idle neurons to fire inside your head; maybe it was an idea or a thought you had previously but have totally forgotten about (I know that I have had thoughts that I’ve forgotten…); in the same vein, perhaps you unconsciously noticed something two days ago that stimulated unconscious processes in your brain resulting in your wonderful thought.  There are many possible explanations, but what’s important to note is that from whence it comes is a matter that can itself be investigated.  What is really a mystery (and a source of inspiration) to me is, why doesn’t everyone want to know the answers to these questions too?  How can anyone be happy just with the simplest possible explanation that withers under even a casual investigation?

Aversion to Controversy

In a previous post (located here) I wrote about the technique of avoidance employed by religious institutions, and postulated that such avoidance can be thought of in terms familiar to those interested in the science of evolution, albeit with the transmission medium consisting of memes instead of genes.  Although I was speaking in general terms, with a note that there were some such conversations in which I had personally participated, I feel I should expand upon this a little more, and include a few more specifics.

I said at the outset of creating this blog, and still have in my very first post, that I am interested in provoking conversation.  I have found that it often takes a blatant poke in the eye to get some folks to actually engage with passion and commitment.  In fact, the creation of this blog originally stemmed from what I'd thought was an interesting series of exchanges that started with what some might characterize as an offensive cartoon - the cartoon indeed contained the words, "shitting my pants," but that's not a characteristic of the cartoon that most folks would have found the most offensive.  One of my earliest blog posts was my effort at continuing that conversation. The thrust of the cartoon was essentially to point out the problem of theodicy, or the theological problem of the existence of evil.  Now, I could have easily written a paragraph pointing out the philosophical difficulties posed by theodicy, but that would hardly have garnered any reaction at all (and wouldn't have been nearly as much fun!):  today's bumper-sticker and sound-bite attention-spans wouldn't have given it a second's thought - most folks probably wouldn't have bothered to read a whole paragraph; that's just too much work {insert nasal whine}.  The reaction to that cartoon by a several people indicated that the subject itself was important, but it took a provocative cartoon for anyone to think seriously about it for more than a few seconds, and to actually react.

Nonetheless, it was inevitable that the conversation would end, but it ended a bit prematurely as there was to be no reply to that last post.

What I encountered was a point beyond which there existed virtually zero interest in pursuing the matter to a point of resolution.  I am left wondering why this is the case - if a topic has any importance to someone, what's the point of not finishing out one's arguments?   I guess that it's just so much easier to surreptitiously un-friend and ignore someone than to complete a thoughtful exchange or to even think about things that might be unpleasant or disagreeable.  Of course there are those that will claim hubris on my part, but I submit that this is just another case of self-preservation (of one's tenuous claims) by avoidance.  Exchanges between myself and this person were spirited but always respectful, so the abrupt end took me kind of by surprise, especially since this person is an author with a decided penchant for lengthy passages of florid and very descriptive language whom I thought would take advantage of the opportunity to expound on her beliefs.  I chalk it up as a learning experience, but I don't feel what I've learned is anything like the lesson that may have been intended.

Not quite so surprising was a previous case that has similarities.  This involved a person whose political leanings are opposite mine and which occurred during the political campaigns of the 2012 election.  I would not infrequently post links and comments about what I perceived to be inconsistencies and outright falsehoods coming from the other side (I still enjoy doing this), and I would also occasionally comment on posts that I saw as outrageous or ridiculous.  Some of my comments and posts were fairly acerbic and sarcastic in tone, but never more so than I perceived those coming from the other side to be, and these devices were always used in the service of illuminating a valid point.  Other folks, including the person in question here, would do the same for (or to) me.  Surely, this is both in the nature of, and the very strength behind, a public forum.  As part of this, which I thought of as rather a lot of fun, I would keep tabs on these posts and was always interested when someone replied or had something to say.  One day, all of these links simply disappeared from the list of recent activity that a particular social media site maintains under my profile.  I was a little mystified; I then noticed that this particular individual was no longer in my "friends" list - I assumed she had had enough of social media and deleted her profile, since there was no record to be found when I searched the name.  However, what I found was that she was still active on this particular site, but had simultaneously un-friended and blocked me.  I was struck by the hypocrisy of this person, as she had once sententiously proclaimed in a public post (which I remember very well) that she had never un-friended someone of the opposite political bent, while she herself had been un-friended more than once by those in the other camp because of their distaste for her political views.  While I've tried to word things a little more politely up to this point, I can't help but call this out for what it really is: chickenshit, reactionary, and cowardly.  Once again, I leave it up to the reader to judge the level of hubris when I claim that this was done primarily to avoid engagement once the tide had turned against her (which it clearly had, since the political side I favored won the presidential election by a substantial margin).

I'm sure that nearly every reader has at least one similar story: expressing passion or excitement about a topic leads to others disengaging completely.  What is it that makes people pull away from interacting with one another?  I think there are several candidates.

The reason might simply be that I come across as an asshole, and that I've misperceived the frequency with which others encounter the same phenomenon.  While I certainly hope, and definitely believe, that this is not the case, it is a possibility.  I console myself with the fact that in no case of which I am aware do I fit the strict definition of such as laid out in Aaron James' fine book, Assholes: A Theory.

Many folks let themselves be driven to a large extent by what amounts to a very poor guide for self-regulation: an obsession with what they imagine are others' perceptions of them.   I have found that in some people this is nearly the entirety of what constitutes their self-image.  This, taken to the extreme, can be the root of narcissism if all one cares about is that others have a constant positive image of oneself - I have to look good in the eyes of everybody!

If such a person (A) interacts with another (B), and B's behavior obviates the fact that B will never have a completely positive image (or will have a decidedly negative one) of A, then A will usually make decisive, immediate, and sometimes histrionic efforts to affect separation from B, and also to negate any association of him- or herself with B in the minds of C, D, E, etc.  This is like cutting away tainted flesh when tending to an infected wound.

Another reason I imagine folks tend to pull away is that they may have an innate, and probably unacknowledged, fear of reaching the limits of their ability to defend a particular position, especially when that position holds meaning that goes beyond rationality or when there is strong emotional attachment either to that position itself or to its consequences.  When we are emotionally attached to an idea we tend to cling tenaciously and vigorously defend that idea much more so than when our attachment is derived solely from reason; this can be a good thing if the idea is worth defending, but of course the only way to be sure of this is by means of rational consideration.  It may be true that sometimes (perhaps often for select individuals) one has an initial attraction to a particular idea that is reflexively emotional and that later on, when one has a chance to apply reason, one discovers that the idea is in fact worthy of respect.  Even if this is true, it clearly does not exonerate the neglect of reason; it just means that instinctual or subconscious reasoning can be accurate but must at some point still be verified by overt, conscious effort.  I trust my gut instinct only up to a point.

When folks exert themselves to defend a position that has no firm basis in reason, their exertions are of course just as ramshackle as the original idea itself.  A valid complaint lodged by Sam Harris against many of his critics is that they never engage his arguments directly, but instead use sideways attacks against a farrago thrown together using a variety of Harris' ideas and out-of-context statements.  It's not always clear whether these thinly veiled straw-men are construed intentionally or are merely the result of poor debating skills, but I think the technique is more common that we might realize.

Whatever the particular reasons behind the two aforementioned folks "un-friending" me on social media, we could as a species certainly do a far better job of communicating and validating the reasons behind our actions.  Without a doubt we would be much better off for the effort - lets us hope that we realize this sometime soon!